In modern South Korea, on Chuseok there is a mass exodus of Koreans as they return to their hometowns to pay respects to the spirits of their ancestors. Early in the morning (before breakfast) people perform ancestral worship rituals and then later in the day visit the tombs of their immediate ancestors to trim the grass and clean the area around the tomb. They also take some food and drink to offer to their ancestors to show their thanks to their ancestors for blessing their harvest.
In modern (or maybe I should say backward) North Korea things are a little different. I was naive to think that chuseok, something of central importance to a Korean, would be one of the few things the two countries still shared. Sadly, that is not the case. North Koreans are indoctrinated that they should be thankful to their great leader, not their ancestors, for the food on their table. Up until 1988 North Korea did not celebrate chuseok. Korea times reported that north Koreans now highlight Chuseok with a visit to the graves of the founding members of North Korea and relatives of Kim Jong-il. But even this 'honor' is reserved for the upper class in North Korea. Generally chuseok celebrations in North Korea are very low key due to the general lack of food for the 12 million (50%) people living in extreme poverty and government restrictions on travel between districts.
Enough History. Time for some photos.
As I have touched on in previous blog posts, gift giving in Korea is an integral part of life. Chuseok is no different. In western countries you know Christmas is just around the corner when stores start playing Christmas music and hanging decorations. In Korea you know when chuseok is around the corner when stores bring out their over priced gift boxes of food, shampoo, alcohol, well being medicines (ginseng/vitamins/etc), soaps and my favorite.... SPAM. Yes, that's right. You want to show someone you care, buy them a gift box of SPAM.
Early Wednesday morning I traveled to Iksan. When I arrived Jihyeon's mother and aunt were had been up since the crack of dawn busy preparing food. I arrived to find them out on the balcony floor making Sanjeok which is grilled meat (beef, chicken, spam, prawns, fish) and vegetables dredged with flour before cooking.
Next up was Songpyeon which is a half moon shaped rice cake with sweet or semi-sweet fillings such as red bean paste, chestnut paste or sesame seeds and honey. Jihyeon's mum was an expert at it.
You start with a big ball of mushed up rice.
You take a small piece and make it into a cone shape to hold the fillings.
You add the fillings.
and then seal it up.
I decided to try my hand at it.
After much cursing and frustration you have a neat row of songpyeon^^.
The next morning (Thursday) was Chuseok (Thanksgiving day). I woke up to find Jihyeon's mother had been busy preparing the table so they could perform the perform ancestral worship ritual. Food is arranged on the table according to local customs, but generally fruit goes to the south of the table while behind that are vegetables. To the north of the table is rice and soup. The placement of the meat (chicken and fish) various from region to region. Soju or Makgeolli is placed on a tray at the front of the table with an incense stick standing in a small bowl of uncooked rice. You can see in the rice to the north of the table some spoons standing upright and some chopsticks resting on the Sanjeok. This is so the spirit of the their ancestors can come and enjoy the food.
The family members then perform what is known as a "big bow" to honor their ancestors.
After people have bowed you then need to sit around (for about 15 or 20 minutes) to give the spirit of the ancestors time to enjoy the food.
Once the spirits have had time to chow down on the food, it was time to put some soup on the table and move the chopsticks from the Sanjeok to the fish so the ancestors could eat something different.
Jihyeon's father also put some of the rice into the soup.
After another 15 or 20 minutes the table was cleared
and set for breakfast.
After breakfast we drove to the cemetery where Jihyeon's fathers parents are buried.
That is Jihyeon's uncle in the truck.
The cemetery was super busy and police had closed off all the roads making it safe and convenient for flower stalls to set up at the entrance.
The cemetery was quite large. Something I just noticed looking at this picture is all the tomb stones are identical in size and shape.
We walked to the middle of the cemetery where there was a large building that housed the ashes of thousands of people.
And here are Jihyeon's grandparents.
After paying respects to them we drove for another 45 minutes for the cemetery for Jihyeon's mothers parents. It wasn't as big as the first cemetery and was hidden away in the mountain side. We started walking up a narrow dirt road.
That turned into a narrow overgrown dirt track.
The grave was over the other side of this hill. The path got very steep so I offered my hand to Jihyeon's mother to help her up the steep hill (her knees and back are not terribly good) and I got a real surprise. She spoke her first ever English to me. She said loudly and very clearly "Thank you". ^^
On the way we passed some other graves where families were hard at work cutting back the grass and weeds. We finally arrived. Jihyeon's mothers older brother had been here a week earlier and trimmed the grass back so it looked in great condition and very neat. They set about putting some food and soju out in front of the grave.
And then after a few minutes packed the food up and poured the soju over the mound.
From the grave we saw an easier path (a farmers road through some rice fields) back to the main road to where we had parked.
Later that night I went up the the roof of Jihyeon's apartment building in Iksan to try taking a photo of the full moon. The moon was too bright for my poor little camera, but I think the city came out well.
The next day (Friday) we piled into the car again and traveled to the war cemetery where Jihyeon's uncle is buried.
The traffic was terrible. After about 30 minutes we found a car park and started walking up the mountain.
Again we set up some food and poured some soju for her uncle.
The giant yellow thing between the apple and the grapes is a Korean pear. In front of the pear is some dried fish.
We then found a shady spot to have a snack and re-hydrate before getting back in the car for the long trip home.
Overall I thought Chuseok was interesting. It was very different to anything that we have in Australia and I liked the strong emphasis that Koreans put on making a pilgrimage to visit the graves of loved ones once a year. My only disappointment is that we didn't play a Korean card game called go-stop. Oh well. Maybe next year.