Archive for October, 2012

Gimje is a city of about 100,000 people in North Jeolla province. It sits between the regional capital, Jeonju, and the West Sea port town of Gunsan. It’s also on the north-south Honam railway line between Seoul and Mokpo. Despite its size and important location it feels more like a country town than a city. Gimje is unusual in Korea because it’s so far from any mountains, they say it’s the only landlocked place with a horizon. This unique selling point gives Gimje one of the more unusual festival names in a country of festivals and unusual festival names – the ‘Horizon Festival’ or ‘지평선 축제’.

Gimje and the surrounding Honam Plain has been an important centre for rice cultivation for millennia  It was a supply centre for the Baekje dynasty which occupied the South West of Korea before being overrun by the Silla dynasty and their Tang allies from China. The ancient cultivation of rice has bequeathed Gimje with its most famous cultural asset, Byeokgolje (벽골제). This is a huge dyke which controlled the water supply to the rice plantations. It was built in the 4th century AD and is credited with being the first reservoir in Korea; Gimje is considered to be the birthplace of rice cultivation. The dyke is guarded by two immense bamboo dragons which are worth a look even without the festival occurring.

Byeokgolje is now the location of the annual festival in October. It boasts many new amenities which serve as an agricultural museum for the rest of the year. The area is quite large and has some traditional houses, an observation deck, museum, and numerous gardens. The highlight for me is the dragons which sit against the dyke and the famed horizon.  The festival celebrates the rich diversity of agricultural produce from this region which is also more interesting than it sounds. There are many more events than farmers buying equipment or looking at rice grain. The festival hosts the Asian Tug of War Championship, kite flying, song contests, locust catching, and numerous other leisure pursuits. There are many local people and families from all over Korea. In a country which looks and moves into the future at a frightening speed, I find it reassuring that one of the biggest festivals in Korea celebrates such traditional and basic things as rice and a horizon. The harvest and cultivation of rice is still essential to Korea, as it is to many Asian countries.

The Horizon Festival is very well attended so the city puts on free shuttle buses from the bus terminal, train station, and the city hall. This is essential because the location of the ‘horizon’ is some distance from the centre of the city. If you do attend on a weekend I recommend getting there early to avoid the hordes or day-trippers. There were very few foreigners, or ‘international tourists’, as I like to be called. This meant that I was treated pretty well by the volunteers and the general public. Most people seemed keen to make sure I got the right bus, even though I got the wrong bus (by choice). After being in a queue for 25 minutes I was happy just to be moving. Compared to Seoul the crowds were far more provincial and rustic, I saw a couple of old men having a fight and there were more than a few people looking dishevelled from Makkoli and Dongdongju consumption (rice beers).

Autumn is a beautiful season in Korea so it’s a great time to have a festival. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed myself and would recommend this festival to anyone. If you want to visit Gimje outside of festival time then the two must see places around the city are Geumsansa Temple and the Byeokgolje dyke area mentioned above.

There are direct buses from Seoul and you can also take the KTX train from Yongsan 2h05 W32,200. If you are travelling from Jeonju it’s a 30min journey on an intercity bus W2,800.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.