A Real South Korean Hero, Yi Sun Shin is There

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
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Trip End Dec 02, 2012


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Flag of Korea Rep.  , South Chungcheong,
Friday, April 27, 2012

Admiral Yi Sun Shin (이순신) was without a doubt South Korea's #1 national hero, or at least the #1 hero in my part of Korea, so maybe I should have said with just a smidgen of doubt. As you probably don't know, in the 1500s Japan tried to invade Korea. While every other general in Korea's army at the time was hopelessly incompetent, the highly competent Yi Sun Shin wiped the ocean floor with Japan's "navy". This prevented Japan from either successfully resupplying their troops or sending adequate reinforcements. The result was Korea managed to hang on long enough for troops from China to drive the Japanese out completely. The Chinese then proceeded to occupy Korea for themselves.

Yi Sun Shin widely is credited with inventing the turtle ship (although it seems to have been either an extension or revival of a design from previous centuries). The turtle ship featured an enclosed deck that prevented the Japanese from using their primary method of naval combat at the time, which was boarding enemy ships and fighting hand-to-hand. The turtle ships were also more maneuverable than the ships of the Japanese, a fact which Admiral Yi used to devastating advantage.

Although not always appreciated by jealous rulers in power at the time, today Yi Sun Shin is unambiguously a hero. The city of Asan (아산) was home to a shrine dedicated to Yi Sun Shin (the Hyeonchungsa) and a house where he lived after getting married. Each year around April 28th, Asan held a festival to celebrate Yi Sun Shin's birthday. The festivities were centered at a big plaza just outside of the Onyangoncheon (오양온천) train station.

There were a wide variety of events scheduled for the weekend. Some were cultural, some were educational, and some were for entertainment purposes only. First on my to do list was the opening parade. The Korean brochure I had for the weekend listed the parade as starting at Asan city hall, ending at the train station, and lasting from 5:30pm to 7:00pm. Concerned about crowds, and with nothing better to do before the parade started anyway, I made it to Onyangoncheon station by 4:30pm. While there were plenty of people around, it didn't look like I'd have a problem finding a place along the parade route, so I wandered through the city market for a bit. A few women were selling greasy Korean street food they had just had cooked up, and I had a kimchi jeon, which was really bigger than one person should have eaten, for only 2000 won.

I was still wandering through the market around 5:15pm when I started to hear the sound of drums echoing through the market halls from the direction of the parade route. I decided to investigate and found a group of traditional Korean drummers doing their thing. There was also a sizable group of marines and a military band lined-up in what looked like the beginning of a parade. The parade was supposed to start at city hall, and not for a few minutes more at any rate, so I was a little confused, but I went ahead and staked out a spot beside the road.

After playing in place for a few minutes, the drummers, the marines, and a few other groups of local citizens that came after them, turned around and headed back in the direction of city hall. About five minutes later not nearly enough time for them to have made it to city hall and back, just before 5:30, they all came marching down the road again, this time headed for the station. Apparently, the parade had begun.

The parade didn't last long. Not only did it start early, it finished early. Very early. I'd say the total time was maybe twenty minutes. There were a few groups of traditional Korean musicians, three or four groups of school children, a couple of local associations, the marines, a handful of fake (duh) medieval soldiers, and a mock-up turtle ship or two. Taken individually, the groups were fairly cool, but as a whole the parade was underwhelming. As with the Daegu medicine market, I felt like the reality had fallen far short of the hype. It seemed like the coolness of tourist attractions in Korea was inversely proportional to how well they were promoted, or at least to how highly my guidebook rated them. Hopefully tomorrow's much anticipated (by me) reenactment of Joseon military tests will live-up to my expectations...

After the parade, I met-up with a friend who had also been trying to see the parade, but missed it almost entirely due to the disconnect between the printed schedule and the actual running time. We wandered around the area, checking out some of the festival booths selling food as well as those selling medieval Korea-themed merchandise, and then grabbed dinner at the small, but delicious, Korean restaurant where I had eaten my first meal in the country. I ordered doenjang jjigae (not remotely pronounced like it's transliterated), because I didn't know exactly what it was, and I was trying to be adventurous. It turned out to be spicy soup with tofu cubes. Next time I'll stick to my old stand-by: kimchi jigae. So the parade was a little underwhelming, but it was a pleasant night for a stroll and there were some decent acts performing on the main stage as well as fireworks, although we missed latter because we were eating dinner. I'll be back again tomorrow.

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