Onyang the true Aquincum

My original plans for this weekend changed and I was invited to visit Cheonan to sample the local food, meet some new people and extend my portfolio of thermal spas. Asan, which apparently now embraces Onyang, is located some 19 km from Cheonan in Southern Chungcheong Province; it is famous for its eminent thermal hot springs. The city is one of the most fashionable destinations for tourists and spa connoisseurs visiting Korea.  Three major mineral-water hot springs allure visitors: Onyang, Asan Resort, and Dogo. A calming trip to the spas can be pooled (pardon the pun) with a tour around the city’s cultural attractions: the 500-year-old Oeam Folk Village, which is a well-known location for filming movies and TV series; the Hyeonchungsa Shrine for the revered General Sun-shin Lee (which has a new visitor centre) and the Generals tomb (which sits in a landscaped bowl). The tomb is situated near to the Asan Spa Resort Area and is a serene place for those seeking a perfect picnic spot.

Onyang is acknowledged as having the oldest hot springs in Korea. First discovered 1,300 years ago, the hot springs have been functional for over 600 years. Historical records show King Sejong and royal family members going to Onyang during the Joseon period to alleviate sickness. The temperature of the water is around 58 degrees Celsius; it’s alkaline and has a high concentration of radium, helpful for treating arthritis, skin problems, liver disease and high blood pressure. There is a legend, discovered by the renowned Korean scholar Frank! The Chinese characters for the word “Onyang” denote warmth. Two thousand years ago, the place-name was Tangjeong, meaning the “boiling spring.” Legend has it that a disabled woman had a son who was not married, she believed because of her disabled leg, so she prayed to the Buddha that her son should find a wife.  Some days later she had a dream and in that dream the Buddha told her to follow a crane and the answer to her prayers would be found.   Then she saw a limping crane bathing its leg in a “boiling spring”, later she saw the crane was not limping and so she herself threw her lame leg into the said spring. A miracle happened her leg was cured and furthermore her son met a girl and married into a prosperous family, her dreams had been answered.

The remains of the complex developed by the King Sejong are no more, once again the Japanese colonial occupation from 1910 to 1945 saw widespread cultural destruction. Don’t we just love the Japanese? Every new GET should visit the Independence Hall of Korea to appreciate the true magnitude of what they did.

The Onyang Grand Hotel hot spring (300-28 Onchon-dong, Asan, South Korea) is the oldest established public Spa in Ansan City and costs the princely sum of £3.60 for the day. On the Saturday it was busy without being overcrowded and after my stupidity in playing soccer with the school kids on Friday, a welcome retreat. One thing did stand out, how much better behaved the kids were than in Chungbuk province and they were more inclined to try out their Englishy on me. The spa still had its legion of narcissistic men pruning every ridge, cavity, crease and follicle of their less than pristine bodies. As I stated before pruning comes naturally to Koreans, but sometimes this normal grooming urge crosses the line into obsessive behaviour. Quite simply we all know you cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear and more realistically you cannot polish a turd! There were also a number of sumo sized individuals who when entering the pools seemed self-aware enough not to inflict low-level Tsunami’s on the other bathers. The spa has a small outdoor hot spring with a warm massage “waterfall” to pummel the knots from your “frozen shoulders”.

From the spa we were meeting Franks plastic surgeon mate for lunch, 12.30 pm Korean time morphed into 13.15 pm English time. Just before leaving his surgery we discovered why, a pensioner emerged after 3 hour eye surgery, it was eyelids and bags stuff and apparently even kids have it done here. Eyelid surgery (also called an eye lift or blepharoplasty), reduces bagginess from lower eyelids and removes excess skin from the upper eyelids.  This surgery is usually done for cosmetic reasons but it’s also an effective way to improve sight in older people whose sagging upper eyelids get in the way of their vision.  An eye lift will not eliminate dark circles under the eyes, crow’s-feet, or other facial wrinkles. It is often done along with other procedures such as laser resurfacing, filler injections, or forehead lifts. My preferred solution would involve prevention and not the surgical cure, which means regular sleep at a sensible bed time than a life of soju and midnight shopping!

After an excellent lunch we headed out-of-town, the destination a secret except for the “brown” signs.

Oeam-ri Folk Village (a living museum) is located 8km south from Onyang of Asan beneath the Seolhwa Mountains. The village is occupied by the families of its founder Ye-an Lee who settled there about 500 years ago. There are 86 Giwa (tiled) and Chogajip (straw clad) houses with narrow stone-walled alleyways between them. There are many tree varieties in the yards of the houses, these include persimmon, apricot, chestnut, and gingko trees. The Lee Family of Yean, a noble family, settled here during the reign of King Myeongjong (1534-1567) in the mid Chosun Dynasty. Gan Lee, a 6th generation descendent of Yeon Lee, named himself ‘Oeam’ after the highest Seolhwa peak and he also named the village ‘Oeam.’

There are some 4km of winding walled roads to discover in the village which sits in a valley in the shadow of the old Seolhwa volcano. The most famous houses in the Oeam-ri Folk Village are the ‘Yeongam Gunsu’ House and ‘Ichampan’ House. The Yeongam Gunsu House has a beautiful garden with mature trees complementing a pond and ancient stones. Its entrance has a sign that is said to be written by Chusa Kim Jeong-Hee. Chusa Kim Jeong Hee (1786-1856) was a scholar and painter and his books and paintings are very famous in korea. Ichampan’s House is designated as an important cultural artefact; people who live here have made a folk wine called Yeonyeopju for generations. This wine has also been designated as an Intangible Cultural Asset (UNESCO speak). It was a wine offered to the King every spring and is made with Nuruk (glutinous rice) and Yeongeun, mixed with fermented deciduous leaves.

Chestnut tree totem guardians are located at the village entrance, the visitor then passes Banseok Bridge, a pavilion and a watermill are situated to the left. On our visit it was extremely crowded as a festival was taking place celebrating the rice harvest; at this time they also create the rice straw roof apex for the Chogajip. We wandered to the left up a slight incline and came across a “funeral”, the wailing was pretty authentic, the banshee like cries pearcing the atmosphere.  Beyond this preparations were taking place for a staged “wedding”, there were displays of basket weaving and Kimchi preparation. Chimneys spewed out fumes from the underground heating system, there was a beautiful solid but unpainted pagoda set by a pool and families picnicked in an area with totems, carved Buddha monuments and ornamental grasses as the backdrop.

Walking up the hill the landscape opened up to reveal expansive rice fields with a backdrop of mountains, we stopped to take in the panorama’s and reflect on how much more “real” this folk village was than the one in Suwon. This one has full-time inhabitants and is a real village and the other, whilst fascinating, is a rich mosaic of “post it’s from around the region; many of the buildings had been moved there. We saw a couple of male pensioners with blue-black Quink affiliated hair holding hands as they glided along. Remember this is merely a display of friendship and not an exhibition of impending passion. Further along to the left we entered a courtyard and took the opportunity to sample the local green tea from traditional Korean porcelain, served by local residents dressed in traditional Hanbok. Leaving the courtyard we saw kids being taught origami to make paper sailboats, which were tested for sea worthiness in the adjacent stream.

We then noticed a Chogajip where natural dyeing was taking place using Redroot Gromwell or Gardenia, the husband of the proprietor kept his distance until he smelt raw cash. On sniffing the intangible aroma he of course collected the cash from his wife and retreated to the shadows, presumably to count the fruits of his labour.  Adjacent to this someone was teaching kids how to play traditional Korean string instruments and persimmon were displayed drying along the Giwa. Persimmons are rich in potassium, magnesium, and vitamin A.  Persimmon, transliteration “gam”, is a Buddhist symbol of transformation. Before the persimmon is ripe, it’s green and very bitter. But, it changes its colour to a vibrant orange and is very sweet when ripe.  Fuyu persimmon, “dan gam”; is “sweet persimmon”. Dan gam has a light-colored orange flesh, and is round with a flat bottom, it has a crunchy pumpkin-like flavour. You can eat them when they are almost ripe, with or without its skin. Dried persimmons, “gotgam”, are used to make a popular dessert punch called “sujeong-gwa” which has a spicy ginger, cinnamon flavor; it’s revered as an acid-reflux and nausea reducer. There is a folk tale about dried gam which I found on Shin Kim’s blog.

The Korean folk tale about dried persimmons goes something like this.  Once upon a time, a mother was trying to calm her crying baby.  She said, “if you don’t stop crying, a tiger will take you away.”  The baby, now more scared at the thought of a tiger, cried louder.  The mom was frustrated and didn’t know how to stop this mad crying from her son, so she gave in and said, “ok, if you stop crying, I’ll give you a gotgam (곶감; dried persimmon).”  The baby, thinking of a sweet, soft gotgam, finally stopped crying.

All this time, a tiger was eavesdropping from outside.  When gotgam finally stopped the baby’s crying, the tiger said to himself, “this gotgam thing, whatever it is, must be something really scary, even scarier than me!”  So the tiger ran away before the scary gotgam made its entrance.

Further along another Giwa was devoted to alcohol manufacture and consumption and of course even early afternoon it was full of Korean GET’s imbibing the dangerous local Makgeolli brew. Some guy named Jo Hyojin, aka Dr. Makgeolli, and his team at Muldwinda (bar) and Susubori Academy (Seoul) are famous for promoting its consumption and were hosting a “brew yer own Makgeolli” day for the “soaked” foreign contingent disguised as educators.

We passed along a kid’s playground before reaching a feeding mall with rotund ladies frying Korean pancakes and others creating a maelström of noise simply washing up. Beyond here was the field of scarecrows and two elderly gents showing us how they once used to remove the rice from the stems after harvest. Where the fields are large enough to make it worth their while, farmers now use mechanical harvesters to bring in their crops. There are two words for rice in Korean, when raw it is called “ssal”, when cooked it is called “bap” hence Bimbimbap (mixed rice). Bibimbap is served as a bowl of warm white rice topped with namul (sautéed and seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (chili pepper paste). A raw or fried egg and sliced meat (usually beef) are common additions. The ingredients are stirred together thoroughly just before eating. It can be served either cold or hot.

Traditional Korean farm villages are dying as young people abscond in droves for the economic opportunities and adventures to be found in the cities. Everyone we saw (other than women) in this village was middle-aged and older. I am told this is the case throughout Korea. The youngest ones remaining are a little more senior than myself, in their late fifties. A problem that arises from this urban migration is the lack of people available to work the farms. Harvesting rice is labour intensive. Generally speaking the rice harvest volume is falling due to the reduction of rice fields and erratic weather but some experts feel that this drop in production may also help stabilise rice prices in the country. Apparently South Korea has an oversupply of rice from excess production and a decline in consumption as the nation’s dietary patterns gradually change with the influx of Westernised food. The government is intervening to curb production by allocating rice paddies for the growing of other crops.

Moving towards the village exit one was struck by the contrast in attire between younger and older visitors, of course there was the usual bevy of ninja’s unsuitably clad in black with visors, goggles and two walking sticks. Others with mountain gear of assorted colours, again unsuitably clad for a stroll around a village. In contrast there was also a small army of women wearing full make-up and nowt much else, mini-skirted femme fatale’s with high heels, Gucci (contraband) handbags and a mirror obsession. In 20 years time some Korean women will be crippled with calluses and bunions. In addition the obsession with vanity was exemplified by an acting police officer pruning himself in the window of a van.

The evening brought faux Thai food; Korean style but very palatable followed by a few beers with Paul and his fiancé in a Biergarten (Faux Germanic chain bars) in one of Cheonan’s “Sin City” or entertainment areas. Later we visited a bohemian style bar in the area opposite Cheonan Terminal where the majority of the female customers communicated incessantly.  Unfortunately for the species we call humanity this was not to each other but to the plastic and glass slates of G*l*xy S whatever’s! One girl’s demeanour seemed sour enough to make Kimchi taste like a jam doughnut.

Sunday saw a trek to another health spa at the Asan Hotel in Asan Resort. This was the biggest spa thus far and though busy was not overcrowded, another £3.60 fee was unbelievably cheap for such fine facilities. This spa even had a lavender pool, as some of you will know lavender is well-known for its antiseptic properties. It also had a cold-water massage area, an ultrasound pool and a great outdoor area of warm and cold pools plus a monumentally powerful waterfall and a sulphur hot tub.

From here we took a ride to Younginsan Natural Forest, which opened in 1998. This was probably the last chance this autumn to see the myriad leaf colours before they fall. As is customary in SK there were many chiefs directing the Indians into car parks at the foot of the mountain. They promote a 20 minute stroll to the top which usually manifests itself as a 2 hr hike/climb, we began, turned back because of spa induced “jelly” legs, drove up in the car, drove back down in the car and saw absolutely nothing. That actually is a lie; we met the same Ninja’s as I had met in Seoraksan, Namsan and every other destination I have visited in Korea.

Returning to Cheonan we had a fantastic late lunch to which I have to pay homage to the former invaders. Shabu shabu is a Japanese hot-pot, but commonly served in Korea. Shabu-shabu means “swish-swish,” referring to the swishing action when you cook a very thin slice of beef in hot water. It is cooked and eaten at the table with a variety of vegetables. A perfect end to another great weekend, with that the 2 hour bus ride back to Chungju and home by 8pm.

4 thoughts on “Onyang the true Aquincum

  1. The way you spent the Chong-Yang day was much more important than what I did. I cooked Chrysanthemum tea for everyone and I stayed at home experimenting in the kitchen. 😀
    It was an interesting story about how the lady found the boiling spring by following a limping crane.

      • I was going to say “interesting” and instead of that word, I typed “important”. I kept doing that lately. I have no idea why.
        Anyway, you are right about cooking as a great way of relaxing! I love buying some exotic and weird ingredients, cooking them with even more exotic spices. My kitchen is definitely the heart of my house. 😀

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