Cradle of K-tea

The year is 828. Kim Daeryeom, a royal envoy to the Tang Empire, comes back from China with tea seeds. By a decree of King Heugdeok of Silla, he plants them on the slopes of Hwagae Valley in Jiri Mountains. Nearly twelve centuries pass. Kasper, a tireless yet modest foodie pilgrim, arrives…


Hwagae towship spreads along a river that flows down south from the Jirisan massif and into the much larger Seomjingang – which itself runs further south where it meets the ocean. The six kilometers between the mouth of the valley and Ssangyesa, a temple on the grounds of which tea was first planted, are lined with ancient cherry blossom trees. Crowds of visitors flock here in spring, when they bloom. I’m here in winter and there is hardly a soul.

There were still some stops ahead, but the driver entered the parking lot and turned off the engine – I was the last passenger on board. The bus stop is named after the temple, yet I headed to a different place first. Hadong Tea Museum (하동 야생차 박물관) sits handsomely by the river. I got inside with my eyes and camera ready to capture every object and every information – as I am morbidly used to. Suddenly, a museum worker grabbed my elbow and pulled me to the next building and upstairs.

“You can see the display later,” she seemed to have in mind while not saying anything. We entered an auditorium. Straight away, I found myself sitting on the floor with a group of people. My museum lady was on the stage, wearing a traditional Korean dress and a microphone, explaining untensils and procedures of tea ceremony. Blimey, what a terrific start of the day!

After the presentation, the group asked me to join them on a walk. “Well, I can see the display later,” I thought to myself and off we went. While we strolled along the tea fields on the eastern bank of the stream, I learned that they are Hadong County activists, or “social media supporters”, on an official excursion. Of different ages and backgrounds, among them was Jang Hyunju, a middle-aged female trot singer (trot is a form of Korean pop music). We took a lot of photos and selfies with rows of tea bushes.

Next came a toothsome meal at a restaurant. The marsh clam soup (jaecheop-guk, 재첩국), with molluscs from Seomjin River, was on my „to eat” list so I happily ticked it off. Then – a visit to Ssanggye Museum & Tea Cafe, a small private tea museum (upstairs) which serves as an addition to a fancy cafe and teaware shop (dowstairs). It’s near the Hwagae Market, so next we went there too.

Hwagae Market 화개장터 has some fame as a representative rural market and it is nice to compare it with big city ones if you have visited them in Seoul or Busan. Here, I said goodbye to the activist group. The sun went down. “I will see the museum display and the temple tomorrow,” I smiled to myself and followed the stream back north, looking for a place to pitch my tent.


Next morning, I arrived at the museum before the opening time. It was chilly but there was someone in the shop on the ground floor of the building – a lady let me in and prepared tea for us. A while later, the museum opened and I was readying my camera again. A woman greeted me, this time without hurrying me anywhere: yes, it was the same person that was wearing hanbok and giving the lecture yesterday. Her husband was escorting her. He started to talk. Despite his stoic calmness, I could feel that he was very eager to give ma tour. His English was not perfect but enough for smooth communication. He seemed impressed by my knowledge of Chinese characters and the number of tea-related places I’ve visited in the past. Perhaps up to this point I myself have not realized it, but yes – I’ve done quite a lot of tea pilgrimaging in my life.

The museum puts emphasis on the history of tea in Korea and also profiles tea’s basic types, health effects and worldwide tea traditions. Interactive screens help in understanding how the leaves are processed. Overall, although it does not reach the detail of information of some of its Chinese counterparts, it is a decent museum.

Okay, now to the temple! I was already up to leave, when the couple asked me where did I spend the last night. Which motel, that is. My answer was evasive. Maybe it was that parry, or perhaps the sleeping mat protruding from my backpack, but their eyes widened as they figured out the truth. They looked at each other and… proposed to host me. Wow. The adventure continues.


The gentleman drove me to Mokapmaeul, or Mokap village. The hanja in its name, 木鴨, translate to „wooden duck”. I dropped my luggage and my host showed me around the house. It’s not just a house, actually, it’s also a cultural space. The small, narrow living room is lined with bookshelves and serves as a village library, meeting place and exhibition display. People visit to learn Korean poetry, history, and Chinese characters. Engraved on the sign posted at the entrance to the property are sinograms for „Mokap Study,” „Old Book Museum” and „Literature Museum”.

It’s all his private initiative. Mr. Jo Hae-hum hails from a family of poets. He moved to this village from Busan just a few years ago, due to worsening health and to follow a lifelong dream of growing tea and engaging in grassroot activism. Beside the house is a small workshop, where he processes small batches of leaves into green tea for own use.

Next, we went to Gwan-a Teahouse (관아 수제차) on the other side of the street. The tranquil setting, welcoming decor and friendly owner make this place a haven of peace. Soon, a whole group of Mr. Jo’s friends joined us. He was expecing them! I was a bit worried to be an unwanted tagalong, but they were more than happy with my presence. We discussed traveling, food and art cinema among other things. Mr Kim Hae-chang, a proffesor at the Kyungsung University, invited me to write articles for his web magazine, InjuryTime (it eventually did not happen, but the offer was very kind).

We had tea and dried Daebong persimmons 대봉감 (大峰柿). Agyang, in neighboring valley, is known for this fruit variety. I even had it on my „to eat” list and I happily ticked it off.

Unhurriedly, we got to cars to drive to Guksaam 국사암(國師庵), a hermitage (branch shrine away from the principal monastery compound) located in blissfully serene woods just behind our village. From there we drove to the main temple grounds: a string of cars on a bamboo and pine-lined tiny road.

Ssanggyesa 쌍계사 (雙磎寺) was founded in the 8th century by two monks who went to China, brought the skull of Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, and enshrined it here. My companions were focused on details such as texts on steles and observing them was exciting. I have visited as many temples as there are stars in the sky but not often had I such terrific guides.

I was dissapointed that we did not see the historical site of temple’s first tea planting, but accompanying my new friends was much more important. “I can look for it later on my own” I thought to myself while nervously scoping the woods passing behind the car window. We were almost back down to the river when the cars turned left and parked. So it’s closer to the museum that to the temple! Here it is, several rows of knee-high bushes and steles commemorating the first Camellia sinensis planting. Another dream fulfilled! The spot’s full official name is “First tea farm site of Ssanggyesa Temple”, 쌍계사 차 사배지.

As if it wasn’t enough emotions for one day, we then drove to my host’s favorite local restaurant where we had truly incredible soft tofu (순두부) with a tabletop of scrumptious sides. I will never forget both the steamy claypot filled with beancurd and everyone’s smiling faces. In case you’d like to find it, the restaurants is called 콩사랑차이야기 (it translates to „Bean Love Tea Story”).

In the evening I revisited some spots to take more photos, while my host went to pick up his wife. At home, an engaging conversation awaited, as were gifts: handmade tea and signed volumes of poetry.


Next morning, Mr. Jo brought me to Cafe Luna (카페 루나) for a morning cuppa. Luna is a puppy, and a cute one too. If caffeine puts you on your feet, then cuteness of a pup, here on par with the splendid mountain setting, releases feel-good endorphins that make your morning even awesomerrr.

Then came another walk in the woods, another visit in the tofu restaurant… It could last and last but I eventually had to hit the road. One of Mr. Jo’s friends gave me a lift to Agyang-myeon (악양면; 岳陽面) in the adjacent valley, and then to the main Hadong County town from where I continued by hitchhiking. But that’s a separate story. Below are photos from the Maeam Tea Museum (매암차문화박물관) in Agyang and a from a market in Hadong.

Althought it is probable that tea was grown in Korea earlier in other locations, the importance of Hwagae cannot be overestimated. Significance of some places is upkept by tradition rather than raw historical facts and conjectures. For hundreds of years these teafields were considered superior and were revered as key to the establishment of Korean tea culture. At the end of the day it’s not numbers on the stele that count – it’s the stone the stele is made of.