About a three hours’ drive south of Seoul in Korea’s bucolic countryside is Namwon (남원), a small city with fewer than 85,000 inhabitants. It’s located deep in the heart of Korea’s breadbasket, Jeollabukdo, and the main industry here is farming. Rice paddies, twisting grape vines, and persimmon trees can be found throughout the periphery of the city, which reposes in a valley surrounded by rolling mountains, adjacent to the cherry tree-lined Yocheon River.
Namwon has one of the oldest average ages of inhabitants in Korea. Many young people leave the city to attend university or seek employment, leaving the elderly behind to keep the city alive. The result is a slow pulse which hasn’t (and probably won’t) caught up with the rest of fast-paced Korea. The downtown is composed of a handful of small, very traditional Korean bars (think soju and dried squid), a few restaurants serving up drunk food (fried chicken and barbecue are enormously popular), and a karaoke room or two.
Namwon wasn’t always this way. During the Silla period (57 BCE – 935 CE), it was the capital of its province. A half century after the Silla kingdom had crumbled only to give rise to the Goryeo (which lasted until 1392 and is where the name Korea comes from) and subsequent – and probably most famous – Jeoseon period (1392–1897), Namwon proved its greatness yet again. In 1597 during the Imjin War, Namwon was laid siege to by Japanese invaders. Even though they faced overwhelming odds (fifty thousand Japanese soldiers against a mere four thousand defenders), the joint Korean and Chinese forces stood their ground, inside Namwon’s now ruinous city walls. However, they were betrayed by one of the Chinese generals, Yang Yuan, who negotiated with the Japanese that he would leave a place undefended if they would allow for the safe retreat of him and his troops. The Japanese acquiesced, and with this treacherous information, slaughtered all but one of Namwon’s valiant defenders.
Today, the only signs of this bloodshed that remains are a few segments of the old city wall, and the Manin Cemetery of the Righteous Fighter, where the bones of those who died rest and are commemorated by a small museum.
However, few people come to Namwon for its medieval history. What many come for is the sheer beauty of its location.
Namwon lies on the border of Jirisan National Park, Korea’s oldest and largest national park. Jirisan (지리산), or Jiri Mountain (peninsular South Korea’s tallest mountain) is only a short drive away, with plenty of hikes in between. Baraebang (바래봉), another mountain in the aforementioned park, is particularly beautiful during the springtime, when a superbloom of azaleas dyes the entire mountainside a delicate shade of lavender.
With such a stage set, it seems hardly surprising that South Korea’s most famous love story, Chunhyangjeon (춘향전), popularly referred to as the Romeo and Juliet of Korea, comes from Namwon. The garden where much of the story takes place – Gwanghallu (광한루) – was built during the sixteenth century and is a major tourist attraction for those who come to Namwon.
The story of Chunhyang is as follows.
One day, a the beautiful young daughter of a gisaeng (an entertainer, similar to a geisha) was swinging when she was spotted by the noble Yi Mongryong, son of the magistrate of Namwon. Struck by her beauty, Mongryong asked Chunghyang’s mother, Wolmae, for her daughter’s hand in marriage. Wolmae consented, and the two lovers were wed.
Shortly after this, the already star-crossed lovers (Korea was highly hierarchal at the time Chunhyangjeon was written, making the marriage extremely controversial) received another blow. Mongryong’s father was promoted to far-away Seoul, and required his son to journey there with him, as Mongryong himself had to pass his civil service exams. Weeping, Chunhyang promised her husband that she would wait and remain faithful to only him.
However, others besides Yi Mongryong had noticed how alluring the now-alone Chunhyang was. The new magistrate of Namwon, Byeon Hak-do, was a licentious man. He demanded that Chunhyang become his mistress, and when she refused, had her tortured and thrown into prison, vowing to have her executed on his birthday.
Fortunately before Chunhyang’s untimely execution, Mongryong passed his exams returned to Namwon to retrieve his bride. Hearing of the events which had transpired since he had left the city, he disguised himself as a homeless man and presented himself to Chunghyang. When she yet again proved her faithfulness, Mongryong revealed himself. The lovers happily reunited, and Hak-do was ousted from his seat of power.
Each year, thousands pour into Namwon for its most popular festival, which unsurprisingly, commemorates their best-loved heroine, Chunhyang. What makes most truly fall in love with Namwon however, isn’t the romance of the story.
It’s the food.
Namwon has, to put it bluntly, some of the best damn Korean food on this good green Earth. It’s best known for cheuotang (추어탕), or mudfish soup, a thick, healthy soup made with fermented soybean paste (된장), chili pepper paste (고추장), grated ginger, various vegetables, and, of course, mudfish.
The banchan (Korean side dishes) in Namwon- and in the larger region where Namwon is located, Jeollabukdo – are plentiful, with many restaurants serving up at least a dozen tiny plates alongside your main course. Along with its excellent cuisine, Namwon’s also famous for its magkeoli (rice wine) which is among some of the best in Korea.
Even though often overlooked even by its fellow Koreans, Namwon has a lot to offer those who would visit. Go to a Namwon, and sit shoulder to shoulder with the locals over a cup of magkeoli paired with a fine Korean feast, and your experience will be nothing less and nothing more than a simple, countryside magic.
Getting there from Seoul:
By bus: Express Bus Terminal (subway line 3) take the bus to Namwon. It departs roughly every hour.
By train: take the KTX from Yongsan Station (subway line 1). You can book a ticket here.
All photos are mine.