Notes On South Korea

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Guards leave Deoksugung Palace, Seoul
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Traditional drum in Gyeongbokgung Palace

What is South Korea? How to capture its essence?

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.

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Traditional and modern, Bongeunsa Temple, Seoul
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The Old and New City Halls, Seoul

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.

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An ultra-modern building in Gangnam
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New and old close to the National Folk Museum, Seoul
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Tiled roofs in Bukchon Hanok Village

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.

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Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

 

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Statue of Admiral Yi in Gwanghwamun Square
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Traditional dancers on Gwanghwamun Square

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.

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Old and New City Halls, Seoul
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Old and new near Gyeongbokgung Palace
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Jongno Tower from Tapgol Park

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.

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The Handbag Museum in Sinsa-dong

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.

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Old stone pagodas in Yongsan Park at the National Museum of Korea
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Part of Deoksugung Palace

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

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Traditional dance at N. Seoul Tower on Namsan Mt

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.

 

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Jogyesa Temple, Seoul

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Great Hall

monksJogyesa Temple

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.

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lotusUnlike 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.

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hallbannersIn 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!

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3BuddhasMurals 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).

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forkidsBelievers 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.

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A temple guardian

pagodaBehind 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.

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Viv and Rod with Sophia
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The hooked cross, a sacred symbol for Buddhism and other Asian religions, means good fortune or well-being (later taken by the Nazis and called a swastika)

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.

 

Traditional Costume Experience

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At Unhyeong Palace, Seoul
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A selfie at Unhyeong

At a number of famous sights in Korea we were amazed to see so many young women wearing traditional Korean dresses (hanbok) and even some young men wearing traditional garb. At first we wondered if it were some special occasion, but soon found out that they were wearing rental clothes. Many are young Koreans but far more are tourists, mainly from China. Apparently it’s very popular and cool to have one’s photo taken at an old or traditional sight/site wearing traditional Korean clothes—to kind of fit into the scene and make it feel more authentic.

The rental stands are usually near the Information Center, or where one can rent out audio guides.

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Unhyeong
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Unhyeong

Here is a small selection of pictures to show how popular this tourist pastime is.

The first set is from Unhyeong Royal Residence in Seoul (see previous post about the palace). At Unhyeong the costumes can be rented from 10am-6pm April-Oct, and 10am-5pm November-March. The cost is only 3,300 won (just over US$3). I’m told that you have to leave your ID as a guarantee.

 

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Unhyeong
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Jeonju Hanok Village

The second set is from Jeonju Hanok Village in Jeonju, SW Korea, a very popular destination. The historical area of the city has many outstanding hanok (traditional architecture) buildings, many places to buy and learn traditional crafts, such as making paper or folding fans, an old palace and many shrines.

 

 

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Jeonju
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Jeonju
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Jeonju

Chicken Stew, Korean-style

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Typical night street in the area

signChicken Dinner near Seoul National University

On one of our last evenings in Seoul, Inhyuk, Rod’s post-doc, took Rod and I out for dinner at a casual local restaurant near SNU that he used to frequent as a student. He had fond memories and wanted us to experience this way of cooking and serving chicken, and it didn’t disappoint.

We caught a taxi, which is a very common thing to do in Korea: taxis are cheap and ubiquitous; it cuts out trying to drive in a traffic jam; Korea is very strict on “drink and drive” rules.

The cooking method (and therefore the dish) is called Jiim daack (jiim=stew, daack=chicken), therefore stewed chicken. While the stew is being prepared, the server brings small dishes of picked vegetables. There are also dishes with sticky rice, and others with various nuts/seeds.

Inhyuk showed us what has to be done—he put them all together in a bigger bowl and kneaded them into balls. Really tasty.

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Inhyuk mixes the rice and seeds…
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…into balls like this

chickenThe chicken came next—big pieces of chicken cooked with vegetables in a rich broth. We all shared the big bowl using our chopsticks—another common practice in Korea.

Besides water, Inhyuk ordered two small bottles of very traditional alcohol, somewhat akin to Japanese sake. The first was called chong ha, or fermented rice wine. The second was jook tong ju, a kind of bamboo alcohol that was surprisingly pleasant (jook=bamboo; tong=package; ju=alcohol).

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vrIt was a lovely evening and we feel very happy and honored to have experienced a small part of local Korea that tourists will probably never see.

Thank you Inhyuk!

Totem Poles in Korea

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Jangseung and Sotdae at National Folk Museum
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Jangseung at Nagan Eupseong Folk Village

2birds2Jangseung and Sotdae

Extraordinary, striking

A really fascinating part of Korean folk art is totem poles, known as jangseung and Sotdae. We first saw some at the National Folk Museum in Seoul a number of years ago, then at the Nagan Eupseong Folk Village near Suncheon last August. There, we saw rows of jangseung at the edge of the village and single jangseung at the entrance to most of the houses within the village. This April we visited the National Folk Museum in Seoul again and sought out the jangseung. They are so striking and unusual that I wanted to find out more.

A Jangseung is usually made of wood, but sometimes can be made of stone. At the National Folk Museum, we saw many examples of stone totems in the grounds, next to the wooden ones.

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Stone ones at the museum
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Inside the museum
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Guarding a house in the village

Although nowadays the Jangseung are mostly found at folk villages or in museums, they were traditionally placed at the edges of most villages in Korea. They had multiple functions: to greet visitors, to mark the village boundaries and frighten away demons or evil spirits that caused famines, natural disasters, epidemics or other diseases. They were also worshipped as village protective gods and villagers prayed for the health of their families, for a baby, or for a good spouse, and for good abundant crops. They believed the jangseung had their ears open to the wishes and hopes of villagers. Each year villagers would hold jangseung rituals, placing offerings of rice cakes and fruit at the foot of their honored guardian.

Jangseung often appear in male and female pairs, with their names written on their bodies, and are distinguished by their head apparel; the male hat is more elaborate, and is probably a soldier’s or government official’s hat. Quite often, the inscriptions refer to ‘generals,’ major generals’ or male and female generals.

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Jangseung frquently elicit an emotional reaction. The first impression of a jangseung is that it is both scary and humorous, a dichotomy that seems o have grown out of the artists’ attempts to po2tonguertray folk gods in a more familiar and accessible manner within people’s everyday lives.

Some are painted, but many are not. Usually, there is an intentional altering of human facial features, such as coarsely-shaped bulging eyes, a fist-like nose, andprotruding canines and front teeth. Through such distortion and exaggeration, the talented jangseung craftsmen depicted a guardian god image, reminiscent of a monster or god from the underworld, while at the same time offering a kind of portrait of the common people in a friendly yet satirical way. So, we might see sagging and benevolent faces of a grandfather- and grandmother-like jangseung; or a toothless, wrinkled smile of a grandmother jangseung and the long braided whiskers of a grandfather jangseung; a character with huge ears, or a gaping mouth, or a scowling mouth.

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totemhousePart of a jangseung’s allure lies in the relationship between the form of the wood and the way in which the artist has used that to carve something that fits perfectly. Look at any of them, and you’ll see that the face fits the form of the wood. Frequently, next to a jangseung you can find a sotdae, which is another kind of guardian pole with a carved bird attached to the top. Sotdae are still commonly seen in rural villages, even today, and have similar functions as the jangseung.

 

 

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Sotdae

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2stonefaceIn the southern areas of Jeolla and Gyeongsang, jangseung are also called beopsu or beoksu, meaning a male shaman.

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Love Locks in Seoul—LOTS of Love Locks

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Looking up to N. Seoul Tower
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Some of the “trees” on the lower plaza

2firsttreesLove Locks on Namsan, Seoul

Namsan is a 860-foot-high peak in the center of Seoul, that once marked the city’s southern edge. Nowadays it’s home to a number of sights: the iconic N. Seoul Tower on the summit; numerous hiking trails; and some wooden hanok (traditional style) buildings on the slopes.

Besides walking up, you can take the Namsan Cable Car. The lower terminus is quite a way above street level from Myeongdong subway station, but it’s worth the hike up.

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Lower plaza

 

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Bridge leading off lower plaza

2bridgecloseThe N. Seoul Tower is one of Seoul’s best-known landmarks. It stands like a gigantic needle on top of Namsan’s summit. The observation deck gives wonderful views of the city, and there are many places to eat and be entertained, both up the Tower and below.

But, almost the most amazing sight is Seoul’s version of Love Locks.

The top of Namsan has countless “trees” covered with padlocks, which symbolize eternal love. Couples buy a lock, write a message on it and then attach the lock to one of the “trees” and throw away the keys. Many colorful locks are also on railings and lanterns. The spot is extremely popular with visitors and locals alike.

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A small section of the top plaza
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Some of the “trees” near the Tower base

2VtreeWe’d heard about these Love Locks and I was very interested, as I’ve written about Love Locks in Paris, Prague and Ljubljana. See the Paris article here: https://vivsfrenchadventures.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/city-of-paris-doesnt-love-the-love-locks/

But, none of those previous Love Lock experiences could prepare us for the spectacle on Namsan in Seoul!

Words like “over-the-top”, “over-done”, “excessive” pop into my mind. There are two

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A fence with locks and view down to Seoul

places on Namsan that have these Love Locks. The first is close to the cable car top station. Here, is a plaza with “trees” and many locks on railings. Further up, at the base of the N. Seoul Tower, are many “trees”, plus another plaza, the fences of which are so plastered with locks that it’s almost unimaginable. There’s also a metal heart-shaped sculpture, decorated with metal “LOVE” words; a heart-shaped chair to pose on; and a large plaque explaining about the Love Locks in English and Korean.

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A lock seller on Namsan

There are just SO many locks that I want to post a lot of pictures to try and capture this, so please scroll through.

But, it’s all still a lot of fun, and the authorities in the city have obviously tried to prepare for this, so there’s no crisis (not yet anyway) as there was in Paris, when part of the Pont des Arts railing collapsed under the weight of the locks.2onlantern

 

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Some people even leave smart phone covers

 

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Stories in Tiles and Pictures

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Cheonggyecheon Stream and tile painting in Seoul
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Cheonggyecheon tile detail

Story Telling through pictures is as old as recorded history—whether ancient peoples carved out images on cave walls, or painted pictures on cave walls, or drew on papyrus or fabric, or made elaborate pictorial stories with stained glass in gorgeous Gothic cathedrals, or with lovely tile pictures in countries touched by the Moors.

They say that “a picture is worth 1,000 words” and that can often be so true. Today, most peoples of the world have a written language and can convey thoughts and ideas via the written word, be it printed or on a computer. But, still many times it’s easier, quicker and more effective, or has more of an emotional impact, to describe something with a picture, or many pictures.

With this concept in mind, I’ve chosen four examples of pictures telling stories that I’ve come across in Seoul.

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Viv M by part of the tile painting

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“King Jeongjo’s Procession to the Royal Tombs”

The first is a 192-meter wall running along part of the Cheonggyecheon Stream. Cheonggyecheon is an urban stream nearly 11 km long running through Seoul that once served as a sewerage channel during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Cheonggyecheon was cemented over during the Stream Coverage Project after the Korean War and remained so until being renovated into its present ecological park form in 2005.

It has a pretty promenade along both sides, with trees, small bushes and rushes; stepping stones to cross the stream; fish in the clear water; numerous bridges for traffic, the underpasses brightly painted; and a number of art works.

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One of these is the tile painting, or Banchado, of King Jeongjo.

It is apparently the largest tile wall painting in the world. It depicts King Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty, leading a royal procession to visit the tomb of his father at Hwaseong (Suwon) in 1785, escorted by his mother Hyegyeonggung Hong. The original painting (or Banchado), created by famous artists in the Joseon era, is 63 pages long in total. An enormous painting!

Many books and articles call this tile painting a Banchado, based on the old Korean word. A Banchado in the middle-to late-18th century Joseon Dynasty in Korea was an illustration or collection of illustrations for Uigwe, which are books or manuals documenting royal rituals of Joseon Dynasty.

The Banchado of King Jeongjo recreates the work on a magnificent scale in this tile

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painting. It is made up of 5,120 individual ceramic tiles, each one 30cm square and 2.4cm thick. As we strolled slowly past the wall tiles, we marveled at how detailed and intricate the tile painting is, and how the artists have constructed it to all fit together perfectly. I stopped and read the information boards (in both Korean and English), giving facts and figures about the procession. It’s immediately very obvious that trying to describe this procession in words would be tedious and not very interesting, whereas this huge painting caches your eye and imagination.

Korea’s Shinhan Bank donated “King Jeongjo’s Procession to the Royal Tombs” to the city, April 2005.

The other three examples are on a much smaller scale but are very warm and human. They are projects done by many local people, who interpret the subject in their own way, all the pictures or tile paintings adding up to a new whole.

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Seoul Past and Present
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Lovely sketches of Past and Present

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Seoul Past and Present

At Unhyeongung Palace, near Insadong, was a small exhibition in a room near the entrance, called Sketches of the Past and Present, done by members of the public. As the information board describes it, “In Seoul, the modern and the traditional exist in harmony. The quiet and lonesome temple sits under the tall building. As we sketch the streets, alleyways and roads that connect the graceful ancient palace with sleek skyscraper, we can see the complete spirit of Seoul. This is the inspiration that we would like to share with those who visit this exhibition.” A lovely idea and some really nice drawings/paintings on paper.

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Tile wall in Anguk Station
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Thoughts of Insa-dong, Anguk Station
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Thoughts of Insa-dong

Thoughts of Insa-dong

The next one is a wall of tiles, 10m by 2.8m, as you approach exit 6 at Anguk Station on Line 3. The square tiles (maybe 30 cm square) all fit together and make a running narrative about Insa-dong. As the board says, “This is a collection of story wall paintings made by citizens in addition to 168 artists. Each of them, handwritten or hand-painted contains yearning and admiration for Insa-dong. It is so meaningful in that celebrities, authorities and fresh artists created fresh narrative apces through the great story wall including respective flows of memory, according to ages, periods and occupational fields.”

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Some of the tile pictures are clear and obvious, some a bit obscure (to me anyway), some with very modern themes. All very interesting.

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Tile wall with thoughts about Hangeul

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Thoughts about Hangeul

The final one is a tile wall behind the central information desk between the King Sejong and Admiral Yi Exhibition Halls underneath Gwanghwamun Square. It too was done by local citizens and is their differing interpretations of and feelings about Hangeul, the Korean alphabet created by King Sejong. These are much smaller tiles, so from afar the wall looks like an abstract colored mosaic. Look more closely though and you see that each tile has a drawing and some text. This is a great idea, as the Korean people are justifiably proud of their special language.

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Catch A Falling Star…

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Gate leading to path uphill to General Kang’s Shrine

General Kang, An Ancient Local Hero  

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Korea has a very long documented history

Catch a Falling Star

And put it on your pocket.

Save it for a rainy day.”

“Catch a Falling Star” was written by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss and made famous by Perry Como in 1957.

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Equestrian statue of General Kang

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Nakseongdae, the neighborhood just outside the campus of Seoul National University, certainly must have caught a falling star. This is the birth place of the famous Goryeo-era General and scholar, Kang Gamchan (948-1031). It is said that when Kang Gamchan was born, a star fell from heaven and landed where he was born, so this place was named “site of the falling star” (Nakseongdae).

The people of Goryeo erected a 3-story stone pagoda at the house of his birth to praise him for his great deeds—he supposedly defeated 100,000 Chinese invaders with only a small army in the Third Goryeo-Khitan War.

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Damaged portions of this pagoda were restored by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 1964, and designated a Seoul Tangible Cultural Property in 1972. Two years later a shrine was constructed for him and the pagoda, which was originally close by, was moved here.

The park is in the Gwanak-gu district of Seoul, just outside the gates of SNU. It’s a lovely park, with large open spaces well used by the local people. A huge equestrian statue of General Kang dominates a large central square, which kids use to ride bicycles or skateboards. Another square connected to this has a small café on the side and many free exercise equipments around the edge, very well used, especially by older folk. It’s a place to meet, chat, have a picnic, watch kids learn to ride bikes etc.

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It was fun to just wander around on the recent Election Day in Korea (and therefore a public holiday) and absorb some of the excited vibes, soak up some sunshine and enjoy the last of the beautiful cherry blossoms on the trees lining the squares and the wide path up the hill to General Kang’s shrine.

 

 

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One of Korea’s Best Folk Villages

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The main entrance gate
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Traditional houses on a dirt alley

Nagan Eupseong Folk Village

Rich in History and Well-Preserved

This was the second stop on the JRS day tour out of Suncheon.

It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011 and I can easily see why, as it’s one of Korea’s best preserved fortress towns and traditional folk villages. We’ve always been interested in folk traditions in any country, so we were delighted to visit here and learn more about Korean old customs.

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A fortress-like stone wall surrounds the village
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One of the lovely gates

Very brief history: In 940 a small village on the site changed its name to Nagan-gun under the Goryeo Dynasty. It began to flourish in the later 1300s under the Joseon (Chosun) Dynasty. Then, in 1397 Kim Bin-gil raised an army against Japanese intruders, built an earthen fortress wall here and defeated the enemy. However, during King Sejong’s reign (perhaps Korea’s most important king) from 1418-1450, the wall was rebuilt with stone, and the village within it further developed, remaining virtually intact and unchanged for hundreds of years.

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View across village from a gate
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Rice paddies on the other side of the gate

It is very much a tourist attraction now, with 1.3 million visitors recorded in 2013. But, the beauty is that it is also still a working, living village and not just a showpiece, where all the workers go home to someplace else at night. It’s unique for its setting, completely enclosed by stone fortress walls with three main gates, built to protect the inhabitants from marauding Japanese pirates. The gates were built in a grand style with painted curving tile roofs and beautiful decorated eaves. If you climb up on the wall from one of the gates, you get a good view out over the village, and across to rice paddies outside.

The village is crammed with narrow alleyways, leading to vegetable plots, penned animals, a lotus pond, many fruit trees, and adobe and stone thatched homes, and a few larger buildings with slate roofs.

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Sesame plot
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Sesame drying outside a house
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Kimchi pots, someone sleeping on the step—you could almost image you were in the 18th century

We thought a visit here was a wonderful way of getting a glimpse of what rural life was like hundreds of years ago, and continuing today in some places. It’s fascinating to wander along the narrow dusty lanes with mud and thatch houses, trying to imagine what living here would be like. Our time was rushed, but what we saw was very interesting: village life and how they are maintaining some traditions. There are of course modern touches now—like electricity and cars and motorbikes—but still it’s a different way of life; small houses in a small community—maybe around 100 households now, with 280 people living in the area. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see old houses, with shiny new cars parked in the dusty yards. Each house has an enclosed yard, and we see fruit trees, small patches of vegetables, sesame drying on straw mats or a tarpaulin, a dog or a baby sleeping in the shade. We’re told that each house has 3 rooms in a line, an outhouse, a shed (for equipment or cows) and a toilet.

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One house showcasing what can be made with rice straw
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Preparing the rice straw
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Totems at village entrance

Outside the entrances to the village are special totem poles carved from wooden logs—they are often grouped in twos or fours and are kind of like guardians of the village. Each pole has a funny or scary face carved on it. Inside, all the houses have a street number, many etched on a wooden totem pole. Probably the guardian of that house.

Inside, a couple of the larger buildings have curved tile roofs; they were/are the official buildings, like the prison (fun to visit and watch a re-enactment of a prison beating), the governor’s house, the administrative office and the village school. The other houses have thatched roofs and it was interesting to see that many of them have pumpkins growing on the roofs.

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Note the pumpkins growing on the roof
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Many pumpkins are carefully nested on the roof

Many houses are still inhabited, some are guesthouses now, a few are small shops or cafes, and some are demo places for traditional folk arts and crafts (for example, items made of rice straw, pottery, a wishing rope, calligraphy, and traditional Korean musical instruments). We were interested in the rice crafts, and what you can do with rice straw.

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General Lim Gyeong-Up Pavilion

The scientists in our party also noted the large stacks of rice straw, many covered in black plastic. The straw is ammoniated, which is a way to improve digestibility.

The oldest and biggest tree in the village is a giant Ginkgo bilobe, which some believe is as old as from 1397. On our way out we also noted the Monument and Pavilion of General Lim Gyeong-Up. He was governor of Nagan in the 1620s and was much respected for good works. It was erected in 1628 when the General left Nagan. Sacrificial rites are given to him on Full Moon’s Day every year.

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Most houses have an identifying (and guardian) totem
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Re-enactment in the jail yard

It’s a really interesting place but we had limited time, plus it was so hot and humid it was actually not very pleasant. Generally, one wouldn’t choose to come here in the hot summer. We missed a lot so it would be fun to return one day, in cooler weather and spend more time.

Open daily, with hours varying depending on season. Adults 4,000 won (US$3.30), middle and high school students 2,500 won (US$2), and elementary school children 1,500 won (US$1.25).

Giant Golden Buddha in Suwon

Buddha in the Landscape

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Setting for the Suwon Buddha
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A small temple is in the base of the huge Suwon Buddha

Strikingly Beautiful Giant Golden Buddha in Suwon

It’s estimated that these days Buddhists account for about 23% of the population in Korea, way less than many years ago. For a brief history of Buddhism in Korea see here:

http://www.korea4expats.com/article-Korean-buddhism.html

Although large statues of Buddha are no different in meaning from other smaller representations of the Enlightened One, there are certain distinctions. Buddha images in the open are usually striking simply for their size. But, the location is also an important factor. In addition to a prominent and usually elevated site, as respect for the Buddha demands, the natural beauty of a setting and the sense of calm and serenity coming from physical isolation are often part of the overall design and function of the statue.

Buddha images are made from all kinds of material—bronze, stone, wood, crystal, brick or stucco, or cast in gold, silver or other metal. But the most common for most large Buddha statues in the landscape these days is reinforced concrete.

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Suwon Buddha

Buddha images can be found in many countries, notably Thailand, Burma, China, Korea and Japan. But, they all need to be the same in certain ways and have certain characteristics, the three essential ones being kindness, tranquility and enlightenment. People should also note the hands: palms turned upright signify charity, and palms forward mean reasoning.

New outdoor Buddhas continue to be built, especially in Thailand. Many art historians believe that this is an ancient tradition and that many of the huge statues now in temples in these countries were originally in the open.

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Small temple below the Buddha statue
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Lanterns in small courtyard approaching the temple below the Buddha

We didn’t see many huge outdoor Buddhas in Korea on our last visit, but we did note one very beautiful one in Suwon, on the mountainside next to Hwaseong Fortress, overlooking the city.

This giant golden Buddha stands about 2 storeys tall. Its right hand forms the Jnana Mudra (meaning teaching), and its left hand forms the Vitarka Mudra (meaning intellectual argument/discussion). You approach the statue from the bottom, through a small quiet shaded courtyard bedecked with prayer flags and pretty paper lanterns, and get to a small temple in the base of the statue.

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Beautiful lanterns

Very impressive. Even if you’re not religious, you do get a sense of the special serenity here.