Icheon is a small city (by Korean standards) of around 200,000 people in Gyeonggi province, just over an hour southeast of Seoul . Its tranquil appearance belies its importance as an artistic engine—it’s been a center for Korea’s renowned ceramics craft for around 500 years, and in the 1950s flocks of artists and potters relocated here to seize on the area’s reputation for abundant raw materials and expertise.
For the visitor, Icheon represents a chance to take in—and even purchase—aspects of a living creative tradition.
Most of the area’s ceramics-making activity is concentrated in the Icheon Ceramics Village, which spans the districts of Saeum-dong, Sindun-myeon, and Sugwang-ri, a short bus or taxi ride from Icheon proper. The village is home to around 80 ceramics production facilities and shops, with an estimated 300 active kilns, many of which are of the traditional wood-burning variety.
It’s possible to walk around for a day or longer poking your head into the various studios and watching potters at work, chatting with ceramics makers, and of course buying some of their wares. The exquisite vases and other objets d’art produced by the village’s top artists—a few of whom are designated national treasures—are very expensive indeed but there are plenty of finely made household and decorative items—tableware, tea sets, mugs, and the like—that are both highly unique and reasonably priced.
Most outlets will be happy to help you pack fragile wares for transit or even arrange shipping to your home. The village really comes alive each spring during the month-long Icheon Ceramics Festival, which features cultural performances and hands-on pottery-making opportunities. Check with the Korea Tourism Organization (www.visitkorea.or.kr ) for exact dates, which vary from year to year.
The region’s heritage is celebrated at the Haegang Ceramics Museum (330-1 Sugwang-ri, Sindun-myeon, tel. 031/634-2266, Tues.-Sun. 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., ₩2,000), which features a number of exceptional Korean ceramic pieces from throughout the ages, including rare examples of celadon and black porcelain.
The quality of Icheon’s rice borders on the legendary; in fact it was once considered the only version of the grain fit to serve to Korean royalty. No surprise then that the town’s representative dish is ssalbap jeongsik, in essence a small banquet with rice as the star attraction. In these meals the rice is cooked in a large stone pot, giving it a glossy appearance and chewy texture, and accompanied by a virtual symphony of tasty and visually pleasing dishes, from soybean paste stew to grilled fish, marinated crab, and various types of kimchi.
Each restaurant has its own take on the ssalbap jeongsik, and it’s practically guaranteed to be a delightful, and surprisingly affordable, experience at any one of them.
Near the ceramics village, Gomijeong (591-6 Sugwang-ri, Sindun-myeon, tel. 031/634-4811, daily 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., ₩10,000-25,000), which seats diners in private rooms in a quaint old-style house, and Icheon Ssalbapjip (591-9 Sugwang 3-ri, Sindun-myeon, tel. 031/634-4183, daily 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., ₩10,000-25,000) come particularly recommended.
Icheon lacks accommodation options, and most visitors find themselves heading back to Seoul in the evening.
Tourist brochures and maps are available at the Icheon visitor information center (tel. 032/644-2020, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.), near Seolbong Lake.
Buses run to Icheon approximately every 30 minutes throughout the day from Seoul ’s Gangnam Express Bus Terminal and hourly from Dong Seoul Terminal. The journey takes around an hour. The ceramics village is a short cab ride from Icheon’s downtown bus terminal—as in most lightly trafficked destinations, it’s a good idea to get the driver’s card or contact details so you can call for a pickup if need be. Local bus 114 also runs between Icheon terminal and the ceramics village, but service can be sporadic.