Come travel and explore this lovely country ( South Korea) with Viv and Rod on our latest trips
Avid traveler, travel writer and photographer. In an earlier life I was a psychologist, but now am an ESL teacher. Very interested in multiculturalism, and how travel can expand one's horizons, understanding and tolerance.
Local Markets in Korea: Suwon, not too far from Seoul (depending on traffic!) and Inheon market, close to Seoul National University.
Traveling to another part of one’s own country or to another country is a wonderful way to learn about the place, the people, the culture, the history and the cuisine—all the things that go to make up what’s special, unique or different about it, what defines its character.
One of our favorite activities anywhere (even at home) is to visit the local market. They may be daily or weekly, indoors or outdoors, but are always brimming with activity. It’s a lot of fun to wander around and see what kinds of fresh produce the market has, what kinds of breads, cheeses, meats, fish, and flowers. Often there will be stalls with local cooked foods too, to try. Depending on the country, we may find all kinds of olives and olive oils, or different herbs and spices. It’s always a flavorful, colorful, cheerful event.
At Suwon market and at Inheon Market, close to Seoul National University, I was fascinated most of all with all the really different items that seem very “exotic” to westerners, foods that we don’t typically find in the USA or at most European markets, like silkworms.
Some things I don’t recognize at all and can’t even guess what they are. Others I’m pretty sure that I’m not brave enough to try! For example, the red-hot spicy foods, cooked silkworms for sale, all kinds of seaweed and various roots, fungi and herbs for Oriental-style medicine and health. Many counties in the east prize traditional medicine—it’s been around for hundreds of years, so who am I to say it doesn’t work?
Here are just a few photos we took of those different culinary and herbal delights, a big part of Korean culture I believe.
On our recent visit to Korea we really enjoyed finding out more about one of the country’s famous early kings. Why spotlight this king? He is considered to be one of the greatest Korean kings and is especially remembered for the development of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. This is also the king who is on the face of the W10,000 bank note.
In October 2009 a new statue of Sejong the Great was unveiled in Gwanghwamun Plaza, in downtown Seoul, on the occasion of the 563rd anniversary of the invention of the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, in 1446. The statue is close to the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the key Joseon Kingdom era military commander, another well-loved historical figure.
(Note that the exact date of the completion of the alphabet is not clear as some say it was 1443, others 1446).
There is also a National Hangeul Museum, which I’ll cover later.
One weekend, we wandered around Gwanghwamun Plaza (near the famous palace complex), which had a special book festival on that weekend (see previous post). Below the statue of King Sejong is a very informative museum/exhibition hall on the life and times of this great king and of Admiral Yi Sun-shin and it was fun to learn more about them both (I’ll cover Admiral Yi in a later post).
King Sejong the Great is one of only two Korean kings to be called Great, and is regarded as one of the finest rulers in Korean history. King Sejong was born in 1397, and ascended the throne in 1418 at the age of 21. He was the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty (1397-1910). He died in 1450 at the age of 54 after ruling for 32 years. He ought not to have been king, as he had two older brothers. However, they were wise and realized their younger brother was the best future ruler for their country. So, they both pretended to be incompetent, and were deemed unfit to rule. The mandate to rule fell to the third brother, Sejong.
Without doubt, King Sejong was a remarkable man: a Confucian scholar, philologist, musician, poet, and a skilled swordsman. He believed a person needed to combine physical training with education and spiritual practices to become a whole person. He promoted research in the cultural, economic, and political heritage of Korea, and he sponsored many new developments in the areas of science, philosophy, music, and linguistics. To encourage young scholars to study, he established grants and other government support.
King Sejong believed that the basis of good government was a ruler with wide-ranging
knowledge, virtue, and the ability to recognize and use talented men for government service. As an administrator, King Sejong introduced many progressive ideas and reforms to improve the life of the common people. For example, in times of drought and flood, he established relief programs and opened centers to provide food and shelter. For farmers with poor harvests, he reinstated a loan system from the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) that loaned surplus grains to them from government stores, for repayment in kind with nominal interest.
Very early in his reign, in 1420, King Sejong established the Chipyon-chon (Hall of Worthies), a royal research institute. He had the best scholars and writers of the time compile many valuable works on history, geography, astronomy, mathematics, military science, agriculture, and pharmacology, which included encyclopedias on Chinese medicine and Korean medicine (hanyak).
In addition, over the years King Sejong commissioned a large number of literary works, as he saw books as a way of spreading education among his people. One of the first works he commissioned was a history of the Goryeo Kingdom. Others included a handbook on improved farming methods to increase production, a revised and enlarged collection of model filial deeds, and an illustrated book of the duties and responsibilities in human relationships. A collection of King Sejong’s own poems praising Buddha, entitled Worin Chon-gangjigok, was also published.
Realizing that literacy was key to a powerful nation, he gathered a group of scholars to
develop a phonetic writing system that would correctly represent the sounds of spoken Korean and that could be easily learned by all people. The result was the creation of the Korean Hangeul alphabet, and this scientific alphabet is his best-known achievement. The system was completed in 1443 (or 1446). This alphabet allowed the general population to become more literate, as before this they were unable to master the classical Chinese language and script that was the official written language of Korea at the time. In addition, Chinese is very different to Korean in its vocal patterns and sentence formation and so could not represent Korean sounds and structure adequately.
Like Hungarian, Turkish, Mongolian, and Finnish, Korean is classified with the Ural-Altaic language group. The Hangeul system is a simple alphabet, with 24 characters (10 vowels and 14 consonants), that is apparently easy to learn, and the shape of the characters actually instructed readers where to place their tongues, thus making it easier for uneducated people to grasp.
Initially, many scholars and government officials opposed the use of Hangeul. Despite this, King Sejong ordered popular poems, religious verses, and well-known proverbs to be translated into Hangeul to encourage its use. Hangeul was therefore also a political as well as a linguistic achievement.
King Sejong’s rule is remembered as an age of peace and prosperity. Besides the creation
of the alphabet, his masterful way of dealing with invading Japanese pirate ships made him beloved by the Korean people. King Sejong contributed to Korean civilization and society in a number of other ways, through his great understanding of then-current technology. He made improvements in the movable metal type that had been invented in Korea around 1234. He started the development of musical notation for Korean and Chinese music, helped improve designs for various musical instruments, and encouraged the composition of orchestral music.
King Sejong also sponsored many scientific inventions, including the rain gauge, the sundial, a water clock, celestial globes, astronomical maps, and the orrery, a mechanical representation of the solar system.
Indeed, a king to be proud of. Some of these inventions are in the museum and I have photos of some of them.
The Sundial(angbu ilgu) invented in 1434. The 12 hours on the plate were also expressed as 12 animals, so illiterate citizens could tell the time (see below).
Celestial globe, 1437
Singijeon is a rocket-propelled arrow, 1448, and is considered the world’s first multi-launch rocket.
Old book: called Hunmin Jeongeum, presumed published in 1446. Encouraged by King Sejong after creating Hangeul, it gives explanations and examples of correct sounds to instruct the people.
The book festival was at the north end of the long square closest to the Gwanghwamun Gate leading into the huge Gyeongbokgung Palace complex. This is one of the most important squares in Seoul, so is a fitting venue for something like this. What a wonderful idea, to encourage people to read and to love books, especially in these days when so much is done on computers or tablets, and many young people always have their eyes on some screen or other.
As I wrote earlier, “Kids were reading in an open tent; people could borrow books from a small library; various artists were decorating or illustrating large “books”; huge mock-ups of famous titles, a book ‘tower’ and a large blue elephant illustrated the theme. A young lady invited passers-by to write on a large board called the Visitors Book, so I added to the messages—some about books and reading, many about Seoul and experiences in Seoul.”
It was fun to see so many people of all ages really interested and engaged in this book festival, especially seeing that Korea is well known as being one of the top tech countries in the world.
Fun Factoid: I found the results of a survey published in the Korea Herald just before the 2016 World Book Day (see all results here http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170421000234 ), which found that the average salaryman in Korea reads 2.3 books a month and spends about 29,000 won ($25) a month on books. The most popular topics were economics and business management, followed by humanities, history, religion and arts.
UNESCO organizes the World Book Day and Copyright Day, with pop-up book fairs all around the world. It’s a way to celebrate all things related to books and reading, and to highlight the importance of books in all societies. In 2016 some of the countries/cities involved were Australia, Tokyo, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Paris, Amsterdam, Sweden, Chicago, Seattle. In Korea, Pusan and Daegu also hosted pop-up fairs. In 2018, it’s expected that the day will be marked in over 100 countries.
World Book Day is always celebrated on April 23rd to promote reading, publishing and copyright. It was officially celebrated for the first time on April 23, 1995. April 23rd was chosen because on this day in 1616 Miguel de Cervantes died, as did William Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.
Getting around Seoul, an enormous city, is reasonably easy, due to the great public transport system, especially the Subway System.
The Seoul Subway System is excellent, with 9 main lines and 9 other lines. There’s English-language signage in the trains and in the stations, so foreigners can fairly easily figure it out. In addition, each line has a number and a color so it’s quite easy to follow directions and transfers. Every station has a name and a number and it’s possible to follow your route on the English-language subway map.
To get around it’s best to buy a T-money card, or City Pass card, which you can use on buses, the subway and taxis.
They are available at most convenience stores and at all subway stations. You have to buy the card for 3,000 won and then load it with any amount you want, and re-load later. We bought ours at the subway station near Seoul National University and reloaded them there too. The first time, our Korean hosts showed us how to use the rather bewildering ticket machines but after that we could cope on our own, as most instructions are also in English. Prices start at 1,150 won per journey and rarely go above 2,000 won, even though many of the trips we took were very long and often required multiple transfers.
Once you’ve figured out where you want to go, you enter through the turnstile and tap your T-money card. At the end of the journey you tap out again and the correct amount is deducted from the total on your card.
Most subway carriages don’t have rows of seats, as we are accustomed to in the west. Rather, there are long benches on either side of the carriage and a big open space in the center, to accommodate more people. And, the trains sure do get very crowed! Trains are spotless; some have stainless steel seats along the sides, which I imagine is easier to clean.
All stations have good public toilets and many have shopping centers too.
These are some of my notes and thoughts after our fist visit to Korea. I never did get to putting them on the blog, but will do so now, as the sentiments have not changed after our subsequent visits.
South Korea is a small country that would fit into Illinois. And yet, it’s a land of great contrasts, an extraordinary mix that goes into making the country what it is. The provinces outside of Seoul are very varied: with rivers and rice paddies; shrines and mountain scenery; timeless temples; mushrooming modern apartment cities; neon and bamboo; a blend of old and new, modern and traditional.
It has a long convoluted coastline with many islands on three sides; coastal plains devoted largely to agriculture (rice, barley, ginseng, multiple vegetables in tunnels, huge cattle barns); and mountains, lots of mountains—about 70% of the country is mountainous. That doesn’t leave much land for human habitation, so high-rise cities pop up in open spaces. You’ll emerge from a tunnel on the highway and suddenly in front of you there’ll be a forest of tall apartment buildings. Many are relatively new cities, we’re told, and many are satellite cities for other mega cities, like Seoul or Busan.
It’s a mix of old and ultra-modern—small shops with curving tiles roofs just down the street from tall curving steel creations, likely the HQ of one of the mega companies that tend to have a monopoly here. Wonderful palace complexes, built hundreds of years ago, open up behind their walls right in the center of the city, and you’ll likely find old stone pagodas preserved in a more modern park. You can find colorfully decorated temples both high in remote mountain areas and right in the middle of a bustling town or city, perhaps opposite a huge new conference center.
The public transport system in the large cities is great, and well-used, and yet the traffic jams can be horrendous, as Koreans also love their cars. Koreans are very polite people generally, but this often disappears on the roads, with pushy, impatient drivers. The highway system around the country is amazing, engineered over valleys, and through and around mountains. On some of the highways heading south there are so many tunnels that we lost count and we also marveled at how long many of them are. The Highway Service Areas can be enormous, like shopping complexes in their own right with huge varied food courts.
The country is very aware of the green movement, trying to save energy, and to recycle etc. and yet the cities are awash in a sea of brightly colored, flashing neon at night.
Koreans are very patriotic and very proud of their long, complicated history, with strong influences from China and Japan. Some of the people who hosted us were able to tell stories of previous dynasties and kings, even giving dates of various battles. They tell us proudly about King Sejeong, who developed Hangul, the system for writing the Korean language, which freed them from using Chinese characters; and about Admiral Yi, who helped fend off Japanese invaders hundreds of years ago.
And yet, many (most) Koreans still also have a Chinese character as part of their name—the character gives a meaning. These days, Korea has embraced the concept of learning English as a necessity in our global world, and almost all schools teach English to kids from an early age. There are also private English academies and schools and I saw signs, even in relatively small towns. Younger people are usually quite keen to practice their English but older folk are more reserved and hesitant. Many signs and directions are in English as well as Korean, especially in the cities, so it’s possible as a foreigner to get around on one’s own—notably in the Seoul subway system.
Even though English is widely taught, for us as a foreigner the Korean language can be a problem, especially outside of the Seoul metropolitan area. We picked up a few words orally but the written language remains a mystery—it looks like no other western language we’ve either learned or had contact with. It looks pretty and I’m told it’s relatively easy to learn as it was scientifically developed. But sadly, so far, I haven’t found time to try and learn it.
Korea has a long history of drinking green tea, and yet recently has embraced coffee in a big way, and you’ll find a coffee shop or two on virtually every block. But strangely, coffee is not usually available in restaurants.
Modern fashion is a thriving industry and most Koreans are very elegantly dressed, especially for work. And yet, for special occasions they favor the traditional clothes: we see women dressed in hanboks to visit the temple, or to dance an old traditional dance, and most of the palaces have changing of the guards ceremonies, with the guards all in the old-style costume.
We loved learning about this country and its culture. The following is just a few of the other things that we noted, in no particular order.
Metal chopsticks and a metal spoon are the standard cutlery. More hygienic I believe, but actually harder for us to use than wooden ones!
Beds, or rather roll-up mattresses, are often on the floor. Most westerners are not familiar with sleeping on the floor any more (not unless camping perhaps, when that’s often associated with discomfort!). In fact, in many Korean houses and many restaurants, people sit on the floor too, so long-legged folk like my husband can have problems. Shoes are always taken off in Korean houses and special restaurants, probably because the tradition is to sit, eat and sleep on the floor.
There is excellent public toilet accessibility everywhere, generally. Look for the red (female) and blue (male) signs. For women, also look for the sign for a sitting toilet, not the traditional squatting type (the sign is usually marked on the door of each stall). In some hotels and many homes they have the fancy toilets with all kinds of buttons. Even if they have symbols or an English word I still haven’t really figured them out! And if in Korean, it’s rather daunting as who knows what that button means! A few times I even had trouble finding the flush.
Water is offered almost everywhere, either in jugs on the table or in a large dispenser
that patrons can use. In some public places, like museums, we discovered a very interesting water system: a large water dispenser with small paper cups in a cone shape. We saw very few drinking fountains anywhere as we know them.
There are many convenience stores everywhere—-and they sure are convenient. Many are 24/7.
We noticed lots of noise, people, traffic and neon lights. I can now better understand why some of my Asian students tell me that they sometimes feel lonely here in Champaign-Urbana! They are so used to having crowds of people around them in their lives.
Lots of tourist/historic places have a sign saying “Photo Point”, for the best spot for a picture.
We hope that we can return soon, to learn more about this fascinating country.
The temple complex is busy, teeming with people, noise and chatting, but green with lovely lotus leaves and colorful with flowers, and still somehow peaceful too, so one gets the feeling of a special place. It felt like a bright and cheerful place to us, and people were very relaxed about being there, bowing, chatting, chanting. We saw a couple of monks, with cell phones and taking photos of the lotus flowers—modern technology is everywhere!
We’ve been here twice, once on our own when we just wandered around, and once with a Korean friend and her young daughter. I’d love to go again and spend a bit more time, just sitting and absorbing the atmosphere.
Unlike most Buddhist temples in Korea that are nestled in the mountains, Jogyesa is located in the city center, not too far from Insadong or the Gyeongbokgung Palace complex. It is one of Korea’s most famous temples, Seoul’s most prominent temple and the headquarters of the Jogye order, Korea’s primary Buddhist sect.
The temple compound is surrounded by modern buildings, some fairly high-rise, and traffic noise is never far away. There is no garden per se as the surrounds of the Great Hall are concrete. But, they have managed to create the feeling of a garden with a couple of big trees; multiple flower pots, mainly with lotus plants, grouped together creating a sea of green; a number of small bricked ponds with lotus plants; and many smaller flower pots. When we were there the lotus plants were flowering profusely, and the flowers were gorgeous.
In the grounds of this temple compound is Daeungjeon, the largest Buddhist shrine in Seoul. It was built in 1938 but the design followed the late-Joseon-dynasty style. The main hall is a fantastic example of the country’s colorful and immaculately patterned temple decorations. Typical Buddhist banners are strung outside, creating a kind of canopy-roof. When we were there, lots were decorated with colorful fish, large and small, plus a shoal of tiny white fish. The grounds also have a stone pagoda, and other stone sculptures, including some lions and elephants on the verandah surrounding the main hall. Our friend’s daughter climbed on one of these and no-one was worried or upset at all!
Murals of scenes from Buddha’s life, and the carved floral lattice-work doors are two of the attractive features. Inside are three giant Buddha statues. On the left is Amitabha, Buddha of the Western Paradise; in the center is the historical Buddha who lived in India and achieved enlightenment; on the right is the Bhaisaiya or Medicine Buddha with a bowl in his hand. There’s a small 15th century Buddha in a glass case that was the main Buddha statue before it was replaced by the larger ones in 2006. On the right-hand side is a guardian altar with lots of fierce-looking guardians in the painting behind; on the left is the altar used for memorial services (white is the funeral color).
Believers who enter the temple bow three times, touching their forehead to the ground—once for the Buddha, once for the dharma (teacher) and once for the sangha (monks), 20 of whom serve in this temple. Outside there are candles (like Buddha, they light up the world, dispelling darkness and ignorance) and incense sticks (the smoke sends wishes up to heaven). We are not Buddhist, so we just looked at what we could from the outside—which is quite a lot, as the big doors are open.
Behind the main shrine is the modern Amitabha Buddha Hall, where funeral services are held. The statues are the 10 judges who pass judgement, 49 days after someone’s death, to decide if they go to heaven or hell. The belfry houses a drum to summon earthbound animals, a wooden fish-shaped gong to call aquatic beings, a metal cloud-shaped gong to call birds, and a large bronze bell to summon underground creatures. They are banged 28 times at 4am and 33 times at 6pm.
The new Central Buddhist Museum has three galleries of antique woodblocks, symbol-filled paintings and other Buddhist artefacts. In one corner is a tearoom, and in another corner the Information Center for Foreigners, open 1am-5pm and staffed by English-speaking Buddhist guides. You can try making lanterns and prayer beads, doing woodblock printing, painting, and drinking green tea. It’s free but donations are welcome. You can also ask about having a meditation lesson and a four-bowl Buddhist monk meal. We didn’t actually have time to go in there, so we never did any of this.
On Buddha’s birthday, the Lotus Lantern festival is held in the Jongno and Insadong areas and the temple is the starting point of the parade.
Jogyesa offers temple life and temple stay programs to foreigners, but we don’t know anyone who has done that, so am not sure how it would work out.
The best way to get here is on Metro Line 3, Anguk station or Gyeongbokgung station, and walk 10-15 minutes.
Cherry blossoms are beloved around the world, but especially in Japan, China and Korea, where they have special meaning and significance, besides being beautiful and attracting visitors.
Cherry trees seem like clouds as they bloom en masse, and look like a canopy of soft color when one walks under them. Soft and velvety petals cascade from the swaying trees, drifting down slowly, like the first soft snow flakes of winter.
The significance of the cherry blossom tree in Japanese culture goes back hundreds of years. For the Japanese, the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It’s a reminder that life is beautiful but that it is also tragically short. When the cherry blossom trees bloom for a short time each year, they are a visual reminder of how precious and how precarious life is. So, when Japanese people come together to view the cherry blossom trees and marvel at their beauty, they aren’t just thinking about the flowers themselves, but also about the larger meaning and deep cultural tradition of the cherry blossom tree. I will write more about cherry blossoms in Japan and post pictures at a later date.
The cherry blossom is the most prominent spring blossom in Korea, but is not as central to the culture as it is in Japan. However, the Korean people do also love to view the cherry blossoms and there are a number of cherry blossom festivals. In fact, in Korea sakura, used as a loanword, is the most common way to refer to the flower (the Korean word is beot-kkot), and the activity of blossom viewing also uses the loanword hanami (the Korean word is kkot-gugyeong).
Above and here are a few fun photos of cherry blossom petals, and other petals, that have driftedinto a small stream on the campus of Seoul National University. They look beautiful, but are also a reminder of the fragility and short life of these wonderful spring flowers.
Part 1: On the campus of Seoul National University
Spring in Seoul (and no doubt other parts of South Korea) is a delightful time, especially for lovers of flowers and nature. It’s an explosion of colors, a riot of gorgeous blossoms of many kinds. We love spring in our town in Illinois, but somehow the flowering trees and the blooming shrubs in Seoul seemed to stand out more—perhaps because it’s a huge urban area, with so much concrete and many closely-clustered apartment blocks; while our town is less densely-populated and has many tree-lined avenues, so the contrast in spring in Seoul is much more obvious.
We were living on the campus of Seoul National University, south of the Han River. The campus was really gorgeous in April. Really noticeable were many cherry trees—white or very make pink— all across campus, and even more in the valley below—so many that looking down on them was like seeing a white cloud of blossoms below.
On campus and all across the city we also marveled at the bright azalea bushes, sometimes grouped in a single color but sometimes bushes of multiple colors all mixed together into a colorful whole.
Add yellow forsythia bushes, huge peonies, mixed flower beds and we get a floral paradise.
Here are just a few photos from our spring in Seoul—we took so many it was hard to choose! But, they give an idea of the gorgeous blooms and why we were so excited.
This first selection is on the campus of Seoul National University and many shots are of the prolific cherry trees.