The historical reminders range from an old school building to a perfectly-preserved Japanese-style garden, as well as a well-preserved museum exhibiting painful and lamentable pictures taken by Japanese soldiers of their atrocities committed during their colonial rule.
At the gravesite of singer Lee Nan-young (1916-1965) which overlooks Mokpo`s scenic Samhakdo islands toward the southern sea, Lee`s melancholy voice comes through an aging speaker. The mood is solemn but strangely tranquil.
Acknowledging the history and embracing the pain that comes with it, Mokpo is now gearing up to take a new direction for a better future.
"Mokpo, which was once one of the largest port cities in Korea during the colonial period, was widely neglected after the Japanese merchants left, which could also explain why the city was later better known as the city of `thugs` who tried to make a living out of what little was left," said Gwak Soon-im, Mokpo City`s designated cultural travel tour guide.
It has been 112 years since the Mokpo Port opened in 1897, and 90 years since the April 8 movement in 1919, when more than 20 patriots were captured by the Japanese for leading a street procession chanting for independence. It sparked countless other independent parades across the nation.
Now this port city is gearing up to energize once again, also shifting their focus to developing a good tourism destination by telling the story of the city`s history and life.
A must-see spot is the Mokpo Modern History Museum, while a boat trip to Oedaldo island is also highly recommended.
Also a point to watch is the tiny railway that cuts through the city, just a few meters away from small stores that line the streets. The railway, built in the 1950s, was once used to deliver cargo to and from Mokpo ports. Small trains still use the railway, and one can be lucky enough to actually see them chug along once every three days.
On the southern tip of Mokpo`s mainland is Samhakdo island. The island was originally three, with "sam" meaning three. But since 1968, with the construction of a sea wall and reclamation work, the islands have lost their original shape and have become one bigger island.
In order to revive the islands, considered one of the significant features of the city, the local government has begun separating them to make three, and the work is slated to be completed by 2011.
On one of the islands is the Lee Nan-young Park, where the grave of the singer sits under the tree dedicated to her.
As a singer of the famous song "Mokpo`s Tears," Lee is considered to represent the hardship and struggle of Mokpo through the modern history, during which most of her songs were crudely scrutinized and screened.
Samhakdo has a myth that goes along with it as well. The name translates into "three islands of cranes." The story has it that three sisters fell in love with the same man, who was a merchant, while they went back and forth to the main land to deliver water. The man, who could not choose one among the three sisters, decided to send each of them to three different islands. While the sisters were traveling in a boat toward the islands, the tradesman grew greedy, and chose to shoot down the boats thinking if he could not get them all, nobody should. As the boats began to sink into the sea, the sisters ascended to heaven in the form of cranes. The remnants of their transformation then became the three small islands.
While the story is quite Oriental in nature, the city is planning a more Westernized project to develop them, by constructing a large yacht marina that can hold up to 500 ships.
The best view of Mokpo, filled with layers of small houses with colorful rooftops, can be seen atop Mount Yudal, located in the west of the city.
The mountain is the end tip of the Noryeong mountain range. Mount Yudal is also called Mount Yeongdal, meaning a spirit that has left this world stops by to rest before going to the world beyond.
From the mountain, one can also enjoy the open view of the archipelago of the ocean in front, and boats that travel through it.
It is also interesting to see the lower parts of the mountain, layered by various buildings from the colonial period, such as the former elementary school for Japanese children and old factories with chimneys.
During this time of the year, the mountain is a host to one of the nation`s largest flower festivals. It becomes a widespread slope of bright yellow forsythia and other spring flowers.
Sitting just below the summit of the mountain is Nojeokbong, a large rock 60 meters high.
It is said that Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598) warned off Japanese aggression by covering the entire rock with straw, which made it appear from afar as if it was a huge mound of rice provision for the army, tricking the enemy into believing that he was leading a larger unit.
Climb a little higher and one meets the millennium citizen`s bell, constructed to celebrate the dawning of the 21st century. The bell was completed in Oct. 1, 2000. Although the production was criticized by many as a superfluous use of budget, Mokpo stuck by the project to "long for the peaceful unification of the two Koreas and a disbandment of regionalism between the East and the West."
Upon reservation, visitors can try ringing the giant bell every weekend and on holidays. Seven teams can experience the program each day costing 5,000 won per team. Reservations can be made on www.skygun.kr (English version not available yet).
Mokpo Modern History Museum
The museum was actually a building owned by the Oriental Development Company, which set up its headquarters in Mokpo that was the hub of business during the Japanese colonial period. It later moved to Tokyo, Japan, in 1917.
At first glance, the museum looks inviting, with the wooden floors and cement walls still holding the scent of earlier times. The first floor showcases the scenes of quite humble and common sightings around Mokpo in the 1920s.
The second floor, however, is quite shocking and mind-boggling, and it is not recommended for those with weak hearts to go up.
On the second floor is an exhibition of some 100 pictures taken by the Japanese - the photos are downright brutal. The pictures are those collected by photograph expert Jeong Seong-gil over three decades.
Not to go into too much detail, the vividly horrific black and white pictures of atrocities may somehow even explain why Korean people have become so impatient and aggressive. It is a true education of history and alarming enough to spur some patriotism. The museum is located in Jungang-dong and can be reached at (061) 270-8728.
Mokpo people call it the island of love as it is frequented by those in love and families. Shaped like a butterfly, the island is some 6 kilometers away from Mokpo`s mainland.
Aside from the natural beaches along the coastline, the small island also houses a large sea water pool, complete with a large slide. There is also a separate pool for children and a campsite for those opting to stay in a tent. The pools and beaches will be opened from July 4 to Aug. 31 for free.
For those who wish to avoid the crowd and prefer tranquility, reserve a room at Hanok minbak (pension) on the southern side of the island during low season - not summer. It has the beautiful architecture of Korea`s traditional houses, and is fully equipped with modern facilities. Right in front of the pension is a beautiful turquoise beach of Oedaldo, often shrouded by mist in the morning, creating a gaspingly serene scenery. A clean wooden boardwalk along the coastline of the island is also near the pension. One can also go fishing on the island.
A ferry that can carry up to 195 people and 14 vehicles travels from Mokpo`s terminal to Oedaldo five times every day from 8:30 a.m. It takes about 50 minutes and information can be reached at (061) 244-0522 or (061) 242-1075.
Near Mount Ipam is Mopko`s so-called culture street, which houses eight spacious museums and cultural centers. The wide and well-maintained street gives off a visibly different vibe than the well worn-out corners of Mokpo. It can even be said that this street may represent the future of the city.
There is the Mokpo Natural History Museum that opened in 2004, offering an interesting and educational nature and culture tour.
The Mokpo Ceramic Livingware Museum that opened in 2006 offers a very "cute" exhibition including a showroom for children. The museum is extremely well kept, complete with English descriptions of each presentation, including the process of how Korea`s everyday kitchen evolved through time. One can also enjoy making and decorating one`s own ceramic wares.
Another place worth stopping over is Mokpo`s fisheries market opposite Mokpo Port in Gwang-dong, selling matured skate, salted fish and other dried and fresh fish products.
For more information on Mokpo, visit www.mokpo.go.kr
By Lee Joo-hee