Nestled into the hillside on the outskirts of Busan is South Korea’s Gamcheon Culture Village. Famous pastel colored houses and blue roofs now characterize a village that was once a cluster of shabby homes. Occupied by the elderly and poor, many of Gamcheon’s historic residents were North Korean refugees who lost their homes during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Its metamorphosis into a picturesque Santorini-like hillside was actually due to a government-funded initiative in 2009 for local artists to brighten up the previously run-down neighborhood. Today’s Gamcheon, in addition to the colorful buildings, boasts statues and modern sculptures throughout the winding village.
The painted homes and wall art murals of this village in bustling Busan beautifully juxtapose not only the old and the new, but also the small town and the urban metropolis. Upon initially arriving in Korea, I was surprised by how stale and gray the architecture was. I found myself missing color in the streets and on the buildings as I looked up. Seeing the charm and bright colors of this quaint village brought a smile to my face.
Aside from the personality and color, Gamcheon Village embodies urban gardening like I’ve never seen before. With the homes tightly packed into the hillside, there are no yards anywhere and grass is scarce. Space is limited with tight alleys and narrow staircases separating homes.
Despite these geographical challenges, the residents of Gamcheon are deeply committed to growing their own food, as evidenced by the countless container and rooftop gardens that pepper the walkways– pun intended. Staked gochugaru pepper plants by the dozens, speckled lettuce and grape leaves, all Korean staples, can be found in front of or on the rooftop of almost every home. And let’s not forget about the countless onggi that they use for kimchi fermentation that frame the streets as far as the eye can see. Where space is scarce, Gamcheon Village finds a way to grow their own food.
* Onggi earthenware for kimchi fermentation
* Gochugaru pepper plants
Busan is Korea’s busiest port city, and sure, markets are everywhere. But being a historically poor village with a higher elderly population, it’s no wonder that the residents of Gamcheon resorted to growing their own food, and continue doing so today. Seeing all of these gardens transported me back to my childhood and brought to mind wonderful memories of gardening with my Halmoni and Hadabagi in their backyard. I loved seeing that gardening is still a huge part of the Korean culture in Gamcheon.
I hope this little Korean village inspires those of you who are urbanites to try container gardening. Even better, try growing and fermenting your own kimchi! Your gut will thank you for it. Napa cabbage and gochugaru pepper plants don’t take up much space and can easily be grown on a balcony or rooftop. So what are you waiting for?