Category Archives: Korea

KOREA TEMPLE STAY – not for the weak-kneed


Who would have thought life in a Korean buddhist temple would be so tough? I was already exhausted from two hours of heavy exercise and it was only 5.30am. But this was one of the most interesting things I’d ever done, and maybe if I stuck at it a bit longer…No, I think I just got out in time, before I was crippled for life.

When Korea hosted the football World Cup in 2002, someone in tourism had the bright idea of offering visitors a brief religious experience and the Temple Stay program was born. It’s one of the world’s great travel successes, a way for anyone with an interest in religion and culture to get an insight into the buddhist world view. I wasn’t converted, but I found the experience fascinating.

When I arrived at the Woljeongsa temple office, a shaven headed monk was sitting cross-legged on the floor, typing on a laptop. He passed me a registration form, which I noticed included a space for my email address. Ah – 21st century buddhism.

‘Mr Richard, you have arrived in time to do the 108 vows but that means you will miss dinner.’ ‘Oh, naturally I’d like to do the 108 vows,’ I replied. Why should I care about missing dinner? I’d already missed lunch getting here and that wasn’t too bad.

I slipped into a burnt orange judo suit, maybe not quite as bright as those issued to guests of Guantanamo Bay, but similar. I liked it very much – it was comfortable, given the warmth of the day.

Then I joined about a hundred other visitors in the vowing room and, being one of only three westerners in the group, was issued with a piece of paper with an English translation of the vows. They were all very worthy things I’d have no trouble vowing without feeling hypocritical – that I’d respect nature, do my best to be honest, that I’d honour all living things…and so on.

But buddhist vowing isn’t as easy as waking up after a big night and vowing never to drink alcohol again. Buddhist vowing means standing while each vow is chanted, then kneeling, falling forward into a prone position and standing up again. All this repeated 108 times, on an empty stomach.

Nightfall meant bed time. 7.30 seemed a bit early, but reveille was at 3.30am, apparently. I was allocated a room, sharing with the only other westerners staying that night – Sylvie and Frederic, separated from me by a paper screen. I knew their names from their name tags, but officially we weren’t supposed to be talking. One of the vows was about silence.

Waking up at 3.30am wasn’t hard. Not after sleeping on the floor on a thin mat with a little rice-filled bag for a pillow. When the gong rang, I was delighted to have an excuse to get up and face the day.

There isn’t much day at 4am. In the gloom the regular monks were chanting as they walked in a circle around the statue in the middle of the parade ground. We filed into the temple behind them and prayed for another hour – more kneeling, prostration and standing again. And chanting. It has to be said that Buddhism didn’t fare well when the religions were being allocated their music. Christianity got Handel’s Messiah; Buddhism got a sort of drone in no particular key.

‘Is it breakfast now?’ I whispered hopefully to my guide. ‘Very soon,’ was the reply. ‘Right after yoga.’

Yoga. I noticed that our instructor had to be carried in on the back of a monk because her foot was heavily bandaged. She just gave the orders while two ridiculously supple demonstrators showed how it should be done.

We started with stretch exercises I last did thirty-something years ago when in full training hoping to make the Australian Olympic hockey team. I couldn’t do them then and I sure can’t do them now. I really can’t. I did all the vowing and the praying, please let me off the yoga. Please have mercy on me – I’m a lapsed Presbyterian. In our church we didn’t even have to kneel like the Catholics.

I was lurking up the back, trying to hide behind a hundred lithe Koreans. The instructions were in Korean of course – this torture was obviously not intended for people like me. Even faking it hurt like hell. Suddenly the instructor’s voice cut through in English, ‘Mr Richard, you not trying hard enough!’

After breakfast (another hour of painful kneeling) we were invited to take part in a writing exercise. At last – something I was supposed to be reasonably good at. The task was to reflect on our lives so far, and to write a letter to our descendants. I could only think of a couple of wise words. ‘Take good care of your knees. You never know when you’ll need them.’

TRIP NOTES:

Further information on Korean temple stays: See templestay.com

For specific information on the Woljeongsa Temple, see: woljeongsa.org

The writer was a guest of the Korea Tourist Organisation

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BUKCHON, SEOUL, KOREA – traditional hanok stay

I was sure we were lost. It was dark and, faced with a maze of little alleyways away from Seoul’s main roads, the taxi’s GPS had apparently thrown in the towel. But after my driver made a phone call, a bespectacled gentleman appeared out of the gloom, leading a large hairy dog. ‘Ah, Mr Richard! We walk to guesthouse.’

I was wrong about the man leading the dog. The dog was the boss and we had to jog to keep up, my backpack bouncing. In a breathless conversation I learned that my host was Mr Hyoun, and that this was one of his traditional sapsal dogs, Ssari.

Unit, Seoul Guesthouse

Up a short hill and down a laneway we reached Seoul Guesthouse, a hanok, or traditional Korean house. It had heavy wooden doors under a roof of grey clay tiles, leading to a little courtyard with piles of firewood and earthenware jars; I’d stepped into a Kurosawa samurai movie (Japanese of course, but I don’t know a Korean equivalent). Mr Hyoun slipped off his shoes and slid open a wooden lattice screen.

I clambered up over the high lintel. My room was a cubicle with white rice-papered walls and the yellow floor was warm. This was because the ondol, the old Korean underfloor heating system, was doing its job. I was expecting a sleeping mat, but there was a bed with a doona. I loved this place already.

‘Bathroom.’ Mr Hyoun hopped nimbly along the wooden balcony to slide open another door. Modern fittings, tiles, toilet, great! ‘You thirsty? Hungry?’ We sat on the floor of Mr Hyoun’s living room drinking Korean ‘cordial’ and chewing dried octopus slivers.

Ssari the sapsal dog

There are few of these old hanoks left in Seoul now, and many that survive are in Bukchon, this ‘northern village’ just outside the main city centre. Some are now ‘Visitable Korean Traditional Houses’, which means they can charge visitors a small fee to look through them, while several are run as very reasonably priced guesthouses.

Next morning I headed out to explore the streets, following a map and markers set in the footpath. There were plenty of nondescript buildings along the route, but also numerous hanoks converted into galleries selling lacquer-work, pottery, flutes and stone sculptures, and a ‘Museum of Traditional Knots’.

A sign caught my eye -‘Seoul Museum of Chicken Art’. I’m intrigued by weird museums, and wasn’t disappointed by this one. A private collector has put together over 8000 chicken paintings, statues and bric-a-brac, ranging from the beautiful and ancient to the downright kitsch. My guide proudly led me to Australia’s contribution – stamps from the 2005 Year of the Rooster.

There were wooden chicken carvings from traditional funeral biers. Koreans, I was told, see the chook as a symbol of intelligence and courage, faithfully leading the departed towards heaven. A new advertising angle for KFC, perhaps?

Adjoining Bukchon, in the grounds of the Gyeongbukgung Palace I found the National Folk Museum of Korea, and it’s a much more professional affair, beautifully displaying artefacts from Korea’s social history. There were wooden printing blocks, fishing equipment and farming implements. I particularly liked the stone and wooden sculptures outside – totems that were set at village gates. It was also fun to see children trying their hand at old games like bowling hoops and spinning tops.

Spinning tops, Insa-dong

Nearby Insadong Road is famous for its dozens of little restaurants, galleries and craft shops. This being a Saturday, the street was closed to cars, but swarming with people. Priests carrying gongs and bowls were begging from shopkeepers, guards in traditional dress put on a show, young people were electioneering and good-natured street hawkers sold snacks of grilled octopus and chestnuts, not to mention roasted silkworm larvae.

The ‘Beautiful Tea Museum’ was indeed beautiful, a triumph of filtered natural light falling on wooden tables and a dazzling array of fine earthenware tea sets. Less beautiful was the Knife Gallery, a store selling vicious hand-weapons. Want a samurai sword, battleaxe or mace and chain? You’ve come to the right spot. There was an exhibition of swords from films, including Frodo’s Sting and the sword our Russ used as Maximus the Gladiator, opposite a collection of Rambo’s knives. They were for sale, and I certainly never want to meet anyone who’s bought one.

Something out in the street was pulling a crowd. It was my host Mr Hyoun and his dogs. The Sapsal is a rare but famous traditional Korean breed, which was thought to be extinct forty years ago until rediscovered in the wild. They are supposed to ward off evil spirits, and in the street they were attracting the sort of attention I’d expect walking through Hobart leading a pair of Tasmanian tigers.

In the Korean Cuisine Restaurant, I tucked into bean-pasted pork with vegetable leaf wraps – brilliant, very cheap and surrounded by a huge array of kimchi and other accompaniments. But it was the design of the place that most impressed me; modernity cleverly mixed with the traditional, wooden tables in intimate compartments divided by panels of woven basketry and walls of piled clay roof tiles.

During the next few days working in different parts of Seoul I came to realise what a distinctive oasis Bukchon is, in a city where progress verges on an obsession. With a last night to spend before my flight out, I headed straight back there.

Tea Guesthouse

This time I stayed in Tea Guest House. It was a little more upmarket than Seoul Guesthouse, though equally quaint, with padded sleeping mats on the floor. But the toilet had a heated seat. Tradition is all very well, but mod cons are appealing too.

TRIP NOTES:

GETTING THERE: Nearest subway station to Bukchon is Anguk, and KAL limousine buses go there from the airport for 9,000won .

STAYING THERE:
Seoul Guesthouse 35000 won per night for single room, 50,000 won for a double. http://www.seoul110.com . Tea Guesthouse http://www.teaguesthouse.com 50,000 won single, 80,000 won double.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Entry to National Folk Museum of Korea and Knife Gallery is free. Entry to Museum of Chicken Art costs 3000won . Korean Cuisine Restaurant is in Insadong4-gil.

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney

MY OTHER KOREAN STORIES:Temple Stay – not for the weak-kneed.

Gangwon-do – the Great Outdoors Korean-style

OMG! HE JUST KILLED MY DINNER! – Sokcho Fish Market

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Filed under Budget travel, Korea, Travel

GANGWON-DO – the great outdoors, Korea

Everybody can climb this peak, and everybody does.I’ve clambered up a few mountain peaks, but this was the first time I’d had a cheer squad applaud my arrival at the top. And I’d never before conquered a mountain where a gentleman sits under an umbrella by the summit engraving medals for people as momentos of their achievement.

Koreans love the great outdoors and Gangwon-do province, or “heavenly blessed land” as it is described in the tourist brochures, is their adventure playground. But getting back to nature here means anything but being alone in the wilderness; this is a social activity to be shared with your family, friends and work colleagues. Strange Australians are welcome too and, as long as you’re not looking for peace and quiet, it’s great fun.

Inje County, a couple of hours’ drive east of Seoul, is a hot spot of Korean adventure tourism, with a range of simulated near-death experiences on offer year round. People are winched up a crane to Big Bungy, and play Inje Sudden Attack, a live version of a shoot-em-up computer game which I was told is massively popular (I’m not very up with such things, I’m afraid).

I settled for more sedate activities; a bone-jarring ride over rocks and through rivers in an amphibious Canadian army ATV (All Terrain Vehicle), followed by a drenching raft trip in wild rapids. Then to cap it off I climbed the aforementioned mountain.

Naturally I shared my fun with others. Beside the Naerincheon River, home of the 2007 World Whitewater Rafting Championships, rafting guides were preparing excited groups of families, workmates and corporate bonders to ride the rapids for a two-hour, six-kilometre trip downstream.

White water rafting for beginners

I was assigned to a raft with a family of four, and discovered that Mum and the 10-year-old daughter couldn’t swim. This would have disqualifed them from taking to the water in many countries, but apparently the rules aren’t so strict in Korea. We strapped on life-jackets and a young guide with a taut body and even tauter briefs gave us a quick floating lesson. Then we were on our way.

The river was gentle at first, winding between thickly forested hills, then picked up speed as we neared the rocky bits. Following the barked orders I added to my Korean vocabulary, building on ‘Hyundai’, ‘kimchi’ and ‘Samsung’ which, let’s face it, are of little use while shooting rapids. Now I speak fluent raft-paddling Korean; ‘Hana – dul! Hana – dul!’ (One – two! one – two!) and ‘Jeongchi!’ (Stop!). There’s also a handy phrase for ‘paddle backwards as hard as you can, you idiots, we’re going to hit that rock’, but I can’t exactly recall it.

Having survived our first rapids and reached a flatter section of water we swapped high fives and were feeling quite cocky. Until the guide lined us up on one side of the raft (we were used to taking orders now, so we did as we were told), then promptly shoved us overboard.

Much hilarity followed as we splashed him, he splashed us and other guides dunked the pretty girls till they squealed for mercy. When we came to a waterfall we took turns at being ritually held down under the freezing stream. It was all taken in good spirit, and it made me reflect on how laws about safety, insurance and harassment, necessary though they may be, have put a damper on such fun in other parts of the world.

Mt Seoraksan National Park

The next day I went for a walk. Seoraksan National Park can fairly claim to be Korea’s most beautiful natural area, with azaleas blooming in spring and leaves turning red and gold in autumn. I was there in summer – misty and sweaty, with the threat of showers. Nonetheless, the park’s rocky peaks, waterfalls and lakes are a magnet for Koreans, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone on Mt Gwongeumseong.

There was a queue for the cable car to take us half-way up the hill, with an hour and half to wait before our turn. That was no great problem; below the mountains was the lovely Sinheungsa Temple, with the World’s Largest Buddha statue – just a few years old, but nonetheless impressive.

The world's biggest Buddha

Then it was up on the cable car to join the line of ants scrambling up a rocky outcrop known as Gwongeumseong Fortress. My hiking boots gave me a good grip but some were attempting it in flip-flop sandals and even stiletto heels. It wasn’t technical rockclimbing, but it wasn’t so easy either and the last part of the climb was beside a seriously dangerous drop. Nobody seemed concerned. A father was carrying a toddler on his shoulders.

A well muscled climber swathed in ropes and carabiners had positioned himself between the death fall and us wannabe mountaineers and was directing traffic up the safest route. I seemed to be the only foreigner on the mountain that day so those waiting at the top gave me a rousing reception. The clouds completely blotted out any view, but no matter. I know how it was supposed to look – stalls were selling postcards of the mountain complete with snow, azaleas and autumn leaves.

Seoraksan has many kilometres of hiking trails leading to mountain huts and temples, and possibly I could have escaped the crowds by doing a longer walk, but why should I worry about not having the nature to myself? This was a great cultural experience.

The writer was a guest of the Korea Tourism Organisation

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Buses from Seoul to Sokcho near Seoraksan National Park leave every hour, take about 2.5 hours and cost 23,000won (about USD20) one way.
Staying there: Kensington Stars Hotel under Mt Seoraksan (with great views of the mountain) has double rooms from 116,045won. For other accommodation in Gangwon-do province, see visitkorea.or.kr.
Further information: Entry to Seoraksan National Park costs 3200won. Cable car up Mt Gwongeumseong costs 8500won. For a summary of adventure activities and guiding companies, see injejump.co.kr ( unfortunately in Korean only, but with good pictures) or english.visitkorea.or.kr.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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OMG! HE JUST KILLED MY DINNER! – Sokcho fishmarket, South Korea

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Thanks to a pink aluminium baseball bat, I’ll remember this dinner as long as I live. The cuisine is fine, the service attentive, the setting highly unusual, but the baseball bat is the standout image.

Sokcho, on South Korea’s east coast, is not a visually attractive town. Once a simple fishing village, it has become a holiday resort, with a regular population of perhaps 200,000 and a hotchpotch of nondescript concrete apartment blocks catering for the tourists who flock across from Seoul, attracted by its beach and nearby national park.

The waterfront, like so many in the world, is cursed with a busy road and gaudy signs in front of ugly buildings. Any view to the sea is blocked by rows of identical beach umbrellas. I don’t mind; I didn’t come here to bask in the sun or shoot the waves anyway.

 

‘Let’s not waste much time seeing the harbour,’ says my local guide Sonia, ‘Korean harbours are all the same.’ I’ll take her word for that; Sokcho Harbour is just a couple of L-shaped concrete jetties enclosing a cluster of not particularly picturesque boats.

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Sonia has brought me here for the fish market, and that is seriously interesting. Small fish and squid hang drying on racks, stalls sell steaming snacks cooked before our eyes and rows of tanks hold enough weird writhing sea creatures to stock the Sydney Aquarium.

 

There are fish and crustaceans of every colour, shape and size. My favourites are the flatfish, the asymmetrical sort where one eye is peering round the edge to see what’s happening up on the surface. Then there are puffy orange things like bloated octopus tentacles, but with hairy roots. And there are pinkish slugs that look like, well there’s no other way to describe them; they look rather like penises.

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Sonia has a translation dictionary in her mobile phone. Of course she does; Koreans love their electronic gadgets. A couple of buttons pressed and the puffy orange things are identified as animal, not vegetable. ‘Sea squirts,’ she says, leaving me not much the wiser. Her dictionary doesn’t know an English word for the pink slugs, but I expect if they really were penises it would have said so.
A hawker dips her hand into a tank of squirming squid and pulls one out, laying it on the bench in front of her. It’s about a foot long and obviously very much alive. With a razor sharp knife she deftly guts it, skins it, chops it into little blocks, lays it in a polystyrene tray, covers it in cling wrap and hands it to her customer – still wriggling. The whole process has taken less than twenty seconds. It’s hard to actually declare the squid dead yet and I’m still squirming a little myself.

We find a restaurant with a table and chairs. That may sound odd, but most diners in this part of the world sit cross-legged on mats, and my creaky knees have already had enough of that sort of thing on this trip.

There’s a bit of negotiation with the tough-looking man at the restaurant door, who carries that pink aluminium baseball bat. Is this perhaps this is a known rough joint, where rowdies need to be evicted? We’re allowed in. They have just two tables with chairs, but they’re up on the outside balcony. We take off our shoes and shuffle past yoga experts dining on the floor. From the balcony we have a perfect vantage point for watching a wonderful street show in the market below.
The waitress gives our table a quick wipe and brings a sheet of clear plastic, which she wraps across its surface, bunching it untidily around the umbrella pole in the middle. This is clearly not going to be five star dining but I sense it is going to be a very unusual experience.

I say I’ll eat anything, even trying sea squirts and penises. A collection of interesting side dishes appears and Sonia orders ”mo-deum hwae”, a Korean version of sashimi (raw fish).

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There’s a commotion below us. A large flapping fish is tossed onto the street, the tough guy steps forward with that pink baseball bat and clubs it to death. Two minutes later a platter of raw fish slices appears at our table. Yes, any fish I’ve ever eaten has been killed somehow, somewhere, but the murder usually takes place discreetly out of sight. I’m glad I didn’t ask for veal.

We dip the strips of fish into bowls of sauce – chilli and wasabi – then wrap them in scraps of lettuce and pop them in our mouths. It’s not moving any more, but it certainly is fresh. And delicious. To follow there’s a fabulous soup made of the head and tail of our fish.

The show in the street below continues. A lady pushing a handcart laden with peaches is blocking the path of a truck with a water tank on top. The truck is delivering live fish to the stalls. People chatter, laugh and haggle. Wet money is exchanged.

 

The sun sets and over by the harbour squealing fireworks shoot into the sky and explode in clouds of stars. Letting off fireworks is something you do on a beach holiday here, I’m told.

 

The bill comes and Sonia apologises. ‘It’s so much more expensive to eat by the waterfront.’ But the damage is less than $20 a head; I’ve paid so much more elsewhere to eat very ordinary food and without the fabulous dinner show. And wait, there’s more…a full moon rises, gorgeous and yellow, out of the sea.

 

‘Would you like the last penis, Richard?’

‘Er, I couldn’t eat another thing, but thanks anyway. It’s been a great evening.’

 

The writer was the guest of Korea Tourism Organisation

 

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Buses from Seoul to Sokcho leave every hour, take about 2.5 hours and cost 23,000won (about US$20) one way.
Staying there: Kensington Stars Hotel near Sukcho has double rooms from 116,045won.  For other accommodation in Gangwon-do province, see visitkorea.or.kr.


Further information: See english.visitkorea.or.kr.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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