In Korean, the word bokbunja literally means, “a force so strong that it would knock a urinal over.” The city of Gochang, located in North Jeolla province, is famous for bokbunja, luscious black raspberries, that ripen in the month of June. These black raspberries are used to make juice, candies, and most importantly, bokbunjaju, black raspberry wine. This festival takes place in the town of Gochang each summer to honor the black raspberries, known to give one strength and endurance and also believed to be effective against cancer, prevent aging, and improve eyesight and memory.
Last weekend, I jumped at the opportunity to visit the Bokbunja Festival in Gochang and taste these berries for myself. I was lucky enough to land a sponsored trip with Adventure Korea, an established, budget-priced tour company in South Korea, catered towards expats and foreigners who are interested in seeing Korea beyond the major cities. I was particularly enthusiastic about picking the berries, clamming, and participating in a bare handed fishing contest at the festival while drinking unlimited black raspberry wine samples. I had never tried any of these activities, and I’ll admit, at work I found myself daydreaming about mastering the art of bare handed eel catching.
On the bus to Gochang, our tour guide Katrina relayed the schedule for the weekend as we all introduced ourselves. Seoul’s infrastructure gradually disappeared as we drove towards the countryside for the weekend, replacing scorching pavement with dirt paths through rice paddies. On arrival, our group split into teams of eight, and took turns riding in a wagon hitched to an old farm tractor on our way to the black raspberry bushes. The others played games while they waited.
The black raspberry bushes were prickly, but the minor scrapes were worth the invigorating taste of the berries. We had limited time to pick, and I hurriedly ate three berries for each berry that I plunked in my cup. It reminded me of picking blueberries as a child in my hometown, although this time I had a much smaller cup and my mother was not yelling at me when I ate too many berries.
Afterwards, we relaxed near the river, taking short boat rides and pulling ourselves across on a traditional-style raft. A crew of cameramen and photographers were documenting the day’s events. I befriended one of the cameramen and helped him conduct short interviews with several people by (roughly) translating his questions from Korean to English. I felt like I was part of the crew!
We walked back along a quaint dirt path, and hopped on the bus bound for the Bokbunja Festival. With time to spare before the long-awaited bare handed fishing contest, I wandered around the festival grounds, eating a cup of free watermelon and watching a watermelon bowling competition, while posing for photographs with a clown on stilts. I also tried several bokbunjaju wine samples, some sweet and others bitter. An hour later, I was slightly buzzed, ready for the bare handed eel catching.
The bare handed fishing contest took place in a plastic pool, where a number of eels were set loose to swim around. I first heard about bare handed fishing from my friend Natalie, who participated in a bare handed trout fishing event at the Ice Festival in Hwacheon, Gangwon-do last winter. Luckily, it was a bit warmer at this summer festival and was quite refreshing to splash around in the pool. A couple Korean experts advised us to trap the eels against the sides of the pool and catch them between our bent index and middle fingers. The announcer separated the contestants by age and gender, asking the foreign women to begin. If we were initially thought to be weaker, they obviously underestimated us, because many women in our group caught two or three eels each. I, however, did not catch anything. I did not even touch the eel in the bag when one of the cameramen wanted to film me holding it. I merely ran around the pool, freaking out when the eels swam past my feet. After my brief stint in the pool, I realized that I should resume my role as photographer and writer rather than continue to fail at catching these slippery creatures.
The children had a turn, and they were a lot more successful than I was. More eels were added to the pool for the watermelon helmet racing, possibly the most hilarious and interesting carnival game I’ve ever seen at a festival. Six people wore a helmet consisting of half a watermelon rind secured in place with ribbon. On go, they navigated through a maze of fabric, an inflatable bouncy house and an inflatable slide. At the end, they jumped into the pool and frantically searched for eels. The winners were able to keep the eels they caught. Our group caught six eels, and the staff at our hotel served it alongside our dinner. It was my first time tasting pan-fried eel, and it was delicious, especially in combination with lettuce, ssamjang, and garlic.
That night, we relaxed at a K-pop concert, where we saw performances by North Jeolla province’s aspiring singers and b-boys. My favorite performance was definitely the b-boying, because their strength and technical abilities were quite amazing. Some members of the group even won bottles of bokbunjaju for participating on stage. A few of us became friends with two of the singers in the show and we spent the rest of the night drinkingbokbunjaju, dancing, and singing together in the noraebang.
Luckily, I was able to catch a few hours of sleep before waking at 6 AM and taking advantage of the sauna in the basement of our hotel. Somehow, I woke up with half a swollen lip, and I have NO IDEA how it happened. I remembered brushing my teeth before going to sleep with normal lips, so maybe a bug bit me in my sleep. I awkwardly soaked my bottom lip in the sauna’s cold pool and the swelling lessened quickly. THANK GOODNESS!
After eating a light breakfast, we embarked on a short hike to Seonunsa, a Buddhist temple, and some of us continued hiking farther up the mountain. We walked along gradual rocky paths through the forest, and it was both relaxing and peaceful. We returned to the hotel to pack our bags, and eat bibimbap, North Jeolla province’s specialty, for lunch. My bags were much heavier than when I arrived, weighed down by several bottles ofbokbunjaju, packets of juice and candies.
My bags were about to become much heavier with all the clams I would collect at the Hajeon Mud Activity Village. Each time I pulled a layer of mud off the ground, I found five or six little clams, and sometimes they would surprise me by squirting juice out of their shells. I quickly filled a bucket without getting too muddy, and I brought them home to cook and share with my co-workers. I had never cooked clams before, but I learned that you must soak them for AT LEAST an hour to clean all the mud out. After cleaning the clams, I made duenjang chiggae (soybean paste stew.) Once the shells popped open they were ready to eat.
Overall, this was definitely one of the quirkiest and most interesting trips that I’ve been on in Korea. I was able to experience a side of Korean culture in a province that I’ve rarely visited, while trying some new activities. I’ll definitely go clamming again, and I bought enough black raspberry wine to last for at least a month. Although I failed to catch a fish, I captured hundreds of photos that vividly depict the festivities. I created a short video slideshow with my photos, which can be viewed below. If you remain in Korea next year, I would highly recommend venturing to Gochang to stuff your face with berries and snatch eels bare handed. Grab a watermelon helmet and let the fun begin.