Enchanted by South Korea, Part 1

This spring Bob and I had the pleasure of beginning our 2010 Asian tea sourcing trip in South Korea. We were keen on sourcing some lovely Korean green tea for our tea enthusiast customers ( we did, and it will be arriving SOON ), visiting with Korean potters, drinking tea and learning about Korea’s unique tea culture.

Happily, we experienced all of this and more. We feasted on delicious, regional foods, both spicy and not so spicy. We encountered warm welcomes and genuine hospitality and were awed by the serene beauty of mountains and valleys that came and went from our sight as we traveled from Seoul to places that took us east then south. All we met who were connected to tea or tea ceramics were gracious and welcoming of our questions and desire to learn about their tea and tea culture. We lusted over beautiful teawares and other ceramics such an ongi potsand vowed to return next year.

In Seoul we had the opportunity to spend time with Brother Anthony of Taize. For those who are not familiar with him, this gentleman has done much to advance knowledge of Korean tea and has written extensively in English about Korean tea production, harvesting, production techniques, etc. When we were writing our book, The Story of Tea ( and found it difficult at that time to locate information in English about Korean tea and tea culture ) we found Brother Anthony.

We  developed a correspondence with him that was helpful to our research and also piqued our interest in visiting Korea. He was exactly as we imagined him to be – with a warm nature and a kind heart. He made it feel as if we were visiting with an old friend whom we had not seen for some years rather than someone we were meeting for the first time. We shared food, visited temples together, and of course, drank and talked ‘tea’.

From Seoul we traveled to Mungyeong for the Mungyeong Traditional Tea Bowl Festival. This is an invitation-only event for potters who specialize in tea bowls to come and sell their wares at the festival.  The invitation is not just for Korean potters but is extended to tea bowl potters worldwide to represent their country at the festival. We met potters from Australia, the Czech Republic, England, France, Iceland, Japan, the Netherlands, and Sweden, and still there were many we did not meet. It was a wonderful show and we saw some fine, distinctive work, but we had come to Korea to see and touch traditional Korean-made tea bowls.

With the help and guidance of Arthur Park and his wife Mary, we had an opportunity to visit with potters who were not exhibiting at the festival.  Arthur and Mary are very interesting folks who have  been leading ceramic and cultural trips to Korea for close to 30 years.  Arthur is Korean and also a tea bowl potter, so his interest in Korea runs deep and true. Arthur and Mary are wonderful embassadors for Korea – spending time with them makes it clear how much they love Korea. It is their mission to introduce others to the Korea that they cherish.

During our few days in Mungyeong we had the chance to meet several famous Korean potters and visit with them in their studios.  These artisans are highly respected for crafting tea bowls, tea cups and tea pots that are traditionally Korean. Each of these potters is a unique personality and their work reflects their outgoing or reflective nature. Despite the differences in their work, all of their pieces all command high prices. Traditional Korean pottery is especially prized by discriminating Japanese collectors and a broad range of  international ceramics collectors, museums and galleries. While pieces such as the ones we saw ( and acquired ! )  are not easily obtainable in the USA, it is Arthur’s hope to introduce these artisans and their work to American tea enthusiasts.

Here are some examples of the pieces we brought home with us and pictures of the artists who made them. We will highlight more Korean potters that we met and their tea wares ( and feature celadon ware, too )  in Part 2 of this post in the near future.

detail of footring

tea cups by Chon Han-bong

tea container by Chon Han-bong

tea cups by Arthur Park and a ddok cha from the Baeknyeon-sa Temple

a distinguished cast of characters

Clockwise from top center:  Sul Young Jin, Oh Soon Teak, Kim Jeong Ok ( National Important Intangible Cultural Property no. 105 in Sagijang The Art of Ceramics), Chon Han-bong ( Intangible Cultural Asset No. 32-B of the Province of Gyeongsangbuk-do )

We are appreciative of the opportunities that Brother Anthony and Arthur and Mary provided us with in Korea. They opened doors and made things happen for us that would have been difficult otherwise.

While this was our 5th tea sourcing trip to Asia, the sad fact is that not many in the tea business in America travel to other countries to learn about tea or tea culture first hand. Reading about tea is one thing; actually visiting remote tea gardens and watching tea being manufactured in the tea factories, or listening to an artisan tea bowl potter explain how his pieces relate to the cultural tea traditions of his or her country is something that we find essential.  This type of travel is difficult and not without pitfalls or problems, but nothing of value, especially knowledge, is ever obtained easily.

Traveling to the sources of  tea production is something that, for us, is essential to selling premium tea and to educating others. Learning about the differences in tea production from country to country and within each region of each country is a vast undertaking that is comprised of details and minutia that apply to one place but  not another. It requires much observing, explanation, and reliable, accurate translation. It is a lifelong process that cannot be fully learned or completely understood in a few trips. One cannot really grasp it from a distance.

And we rely so much on the selfless efforts of friends and colleagues abroad who share with us the common goal of educating tea enthusiasts in the west and spreading tea knowledge.

 To visit Arthur Park’s website, click on this link:

http://teatourkorea.com

To read more about the Mungyeong Traditional Tea Bowl Festival, click here:

http://sabal21.com

To meet Brother Anthony click here:

http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony