A walking tour through Gunsan’s living relics of modern Korean history

A walking tour through Gunsan’s living relics of modern Korean history

by Im Bokyeong
Korea Tourism Organization

Getting to Gunsan from Seoul isn’t the most convenient ride, as it normally takes about three hours or more, though many travelers find the town a captivating destination because of its unique historical attractions and relics left behind from modern times. Gunsan stood the test of time in Korea’s dynamic history as the country changed drastically throughout the early and mid-20th century. Therefore, visitors can take in and soak up more of Korea’s past as they explore the intriguing city.

There are multiple ways of getting to Gunsan, which is located in Jeollabuk-do. As stated above, getting there will take roughly three hours by train, express bus (departing from Seoul Express Bus Terminal), or by car (via the Seohaean Expressway). As soon as you enter the city, you immediately feel as if you’re stepping back into the Korea of decades ago. Its old-fashioned buildings and early 20th century atmosphere are unlike that of any other cities throughout the country.

To get to the center of Gunsan’s modern history area, you’ll need to take a 35-minute bus ride from Gunsan Station, a 20-minute bus ride from the bus terminal, or a 20-minute drive via Gunsan IC. Often referred to as “the belt of modern history,” visitors can observe a vast amount of historical artifacts all in one area. The Gwangju government has also been promoting a special stamp tour as well by awarding travelers who successfully complete a series of cultural heritage-related “missions” set up across eight cultural sites designated by the city. Upon completing the missions, visitors receive Gunsan’s famous local specialty, japgok (mixed grains), as a prize.

As a tip for beginners, you may want check the city’s official website as well as call in to the Gunsan Modern History Museum prior to making your stamp tour itinerary. The museum not only has useful information about Gunsan, but also leaflets and tickets are available. There are even integrated tickets offered at marked down prices for major tourist sites like the Gunsan Modern History Museum, the Modern Art Museum, and Jinpo Haeyang Tema Gongwon (Maritime Theme Park).

Gunsan Modern History Museum

The Gunsan Modern History Museum proudly showcases Korea’s maritime history and its role in the past. Gunsan held a significant part in transforming the region as an international trading port as well as a contributor to national economical growth.

Just inside the entrance to the building is a sign with the message, “History becomes our future.” As it says, the museum brings to life the golden times of 1930s’ Gunsan, and recaptures the atmosphere of all the drastic changes that took place in Korea at that time through its relics and artifacts, all with the donors’ names inscribed next to them.

Jangmi Gallery & Entertainment Hall

The word jangmi in Korean means “rose,” however that is not the case here. Jang, the word for “place,” is combined with mi, the word for “rice,” indicating that this is a place for storing rice. But don’t be disappointed, as Jangmi Gallery and its performing venue have a very meaningful story, one that has continued on since Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945.

Art activities in Gunsan during the period were known to flourish despite a number of imposed restrictions. Some great literary works, such as "Takryu" (Muddy Stream) by Chae Mansik, were born here. Performances based on his novel have been held here, and contemporary up-and-coming artists have also used the establishment to perform and share cultural values. In addition, hands-on activities like handkerchief dyeing, candle making, and others, are available to visitors.

Gunsan Modern Art Museum

First established as a bank, the building was changed into a museum displaying modern history and art. The Gunsan Modern Art Museum and its annex, with its memorial hall devoted to An Jung-geun, the activist who played a huge part in Korea’s independence movement, serve as a priceless lesson about Korea’s history. There is also a room with a variety of construction materials on display.

Jinpo Maritime Theme Park

The Jinpo Maritime Theme Park was opened in 2008 to commemorate Jinpodaecheop, the sweeping naval victory of Jinpo led by General Choi Mu-seon against the Japanese in 1380. Erected against a scenic backdrop of the local port and the ocean, the park houses 16 retired military craft from the navy, air force, and army. On display at the park are retired tanks, artillery, combat planes, and warships, including the Wibongham, which was used during the Vietnam War. Visitors can even venture through the inside of these decommissioned warships. The exhibition hall offers activities where civilians can have a hands-on experience of life inside the warship.

Lee Sung Dang Bakery

Just a 15-minute jaunt from the Jinpo Maritime Theme Park is Lee Sung Dang Bakery, the oldest bakery in Korea. It was originally founded as “Ijeumoya” in 1920 by a Japanese expatriate, but when the owner changed hands in 1945 to a man whose family name was Lee, the store came to be called Lee Sung Dang, meaning "Lee’s store" in the local language. Over time, Lee Sung Dang has gained a reputation for making the most delectable pat ppang (bread with red bean paste) and yachae ppang (bread with vegetable filling), of which reportedly no one can resist a second bite.

Gunsan Japanese-style residence of Sinheung-dong (Hirotsu House)

An additional 15 minutes on foot from the Lee Sung Dang Bakery will get you to a Japanese-style house in the area of Sinheung-dong. The building clearly shows the luxurious lives of Japanese landlords and how they exploited industrial benefits during the colonial times. The two-storey house is enclosed by red walls to keep out any intruders, and all rooms were equipped with tatami floors and traditional gardens. The place has been featured in movies like “General's Son” (장군의 아들), “The High Rollers” (타짜), and others.

Gowoodang

And just another 15 minutes to reach the Gowoodang guest house, which was built in the 1930s and given the name Gowoodang after the Jeolla-do dialect gowoodangkke, meaning “beautiful” or “lovely.” Guests here can spend a comfortable night on tatami floors and enjoy facilities like a bar, a coffee shop, and a lounge. Given that the place offers guests a chance to experience Japanese-style accommodation, the place is always full of travelers from all over the world. The buildings have been rebuilt and renovated, but still maintain their traditional charm. As with its popularity, booking in advance is required.

Korea Tourism Organization website

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