Penises. Penises everywhere.
After taking a bus from Andong through Korea’s yellow countryside, we’d arrived at Hahoe Folk Village.
Entry was 3,000 won, cheap for such a famous destination. We passed through the entrance and boarded a shuttle bus. It was me, my friend and fifty Korean geriatrics.
The shuttle stopped and we got off outside Hahoe Folk Village’s boundary.
And that’s where they waited. A field full of penises.
Hahoe Folk Village
Hahoe Folk Village is famous in Korea. Not a mere tourist attraction, it’s home to the descendants of the Ryu clan of Pungsan who’ve lived there for 600 years. The village has a lot of history. The Korean Prime Minister during the Japanese invasion of the 1590s came from Hahoe. This place preserves old architecture, folk practices and the tradition of clan-based villages.
The village’s setting is picturesque. It sits beside the meandering Nakdong River and at Hwasan Mountain’s base. Each home is in the Joseon era style, the dynasty that ruled Korea until 1897. There are tile-roofed residences which were for the aristocrats, and thatch-roofed houses for the servants. Not obvious from the ground, the servants houses are arranged in a circular form around the tile-roofed buildings.
A peaceful feeling accompanied me the moment I entered Hahoe. The locals kept to themselves, and all I saw were a few visitors walking around. Some people say that the village resembles a lotus flower floating, or a boat gliding on the river. I wasn’t so sure.
What I was sure of though, is that the village is stunning. Modernisation has devoured much of Korea’s architectural heritage, but not here. There are no glass and metal structures. The roads are dusty and the gardens vibrant. You can hear the birds chirp and the trees rustle. It’s a long way from Seoul’s madness.
The goddess in the tree
My favourite part of Hahoe was a 600 year-old zelkova tree. Tucked down a narrow lane, the tree is perched on the village’s highest point.
The villagers believe that Samsin lives in the tree, the goddess of pregnancy and child-birth. This is unusual because Samsin is a household deity in the rest of Korea, but here, she’s taken residence in the tree. It’s believed that humans are born with the blessing of Samsin, and their lifespan is determined by the Seven Stars.
On the 15th day of every January by the lunar calendar, the villagers perform a ritual here to pray for the village’s peace. Other shamanistic rites are conducted, like the Mask Dance honouring the village’s communal spirits. I loved this. It was so pagan, and gave the place a new edge. It also hinted at the purpose of those penises.
To get the best view of Hahoe Folk Village, we took the ferry across the river and climbed Buyongdae Cliff.
The walk was charming, past lonely temples and old Confucian schools. At one point, a bright green snake shot across the path. I managed to act cool.
The clifftop was packed with screaming schoolkids, a real asset to any calm setting. But the view was great. The yellow fields, orange houses and grey thatch co-existed on the landscape. Like everywhere in Korea, the distant mountains were obscured by a white haze. Combined with the area’s paganism, it created a mysterious air.
The kids left, and silence descended. I could finally appreciate the view of the village as it has been for the past 600 years. What a remarkable living historical relic.
On our exit from Hahoe Folk Village, we passed the penises again. They were wooden carvings, a type of fertility totem. Hundreds of them stood outside the village in an array of shapes and sizes. In a country as sexually conservative as Korea, I was not expecting a sight like this.
Accompanying the penises were jangseungs. These carvings looked threatening. Jangseungs are placed at village boundaries to frighten away demons and stop them from entering.
I couldn’t help feeling that the giant penises performed this function too.