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.
All around Korea, we saw rocks, both large and small, obviously strategically placed in public gardens, small garden borders, and at entranceways. We asked about these, and it turns out that stones are a big part of Korean culture and history.
The Korean name for these shaped rocks is Suseok, also called viewing stones. Such stones are similar to Chinese scholars’ rocks and Japanese suiseki.
Suseok began as votive art over 3000 years ago, and began to be seen as worthy of scholars around a thousand years ago. Early on, important sites in the landscape were marked with shaped stones, similar to distance markers on post roads. Burial sites were also permanently marked by a large tumulus or mound, often surrounded by anthropomorphic-shaped stones, similar to those of Inuit memory markers.
This art form is usually on three scales: large installations of monumental shaped stones as ornamental gates or traditional entranceways; medium-sized shaped stones for landscape decoration within Korean gardens; and the smaller shaped stones for scholar’s tables, which was very important.
Suseok can be any color and a wide variety of sizes and shapes. In prehistoric times, Koreans worshipped nature, the sun, stars, water, rocks, stones, and trees. They especially believed that rocks had more power than water and other things in nature. So, the arrangement of rocks is considered one of the “essential” elements in designing a traditional Korean garden. Korean gardens are natural, informal, simple and unforced, aiming to blend with the natural world. Korean garden culture can be traced back more than 2,000 years. In recent years, 300 documents have been found, written during the Koryo (918-1392) and Choson (1392-1910) dynasties, that contain detailed records about traditional Korean gardens, many of which survive and can be visited today.
Koreans have recently rediscovered their stone garden tradition and there’s been a
revival of interest in rock arrangements in gardens.
We can also find smaller ceramic versions of scholar’s rocks cast in celadon, used as brush-holders; and water droppers for scholar’s calligraphy, especially in the shape of small mountains.
Enjoy these photos of examples we found on our last trip to Seoul.
Mongchontoseong Fortress, in Olympic Park in Seoul
In the area of Songpa, south of the Han River in Seoul, are remains of the Baekje Kingdom, notably two earth-wall fortresses and many relics from excavations there.
Mongchontoseong Fortress is inside the Olympic Park, a very large green park with wilderness areas, lakes and other interesting features, the main one being the Fortress.
Take the subway to the station of the same name on Line 8 and follow signs to World Peace Gate. Once inside the park there are big boards with maps and information to guide you round.
The Korean people have lived through a history of division and then unity, followed by more division and then unity. In the past, the peninsula was divided into smaller states and then was re-united by whoever was in power.
As a very brief summary, the major kingdoms of the past were the Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla, which were then united into the United Silla Kingdom. This was later followed by the Goryeo Dynasty, and then the Joseon Dynasty. The Joseon Dynasty lasted around 500 years and was the last unified kingdom before the Japanese invasion in the early 1900s.
We wandered around the park and along the fortress walls, reading the information boards, and later went into the new Seoul Baekje Museum. As we did this we began to get an idea, a picture in our minds, of what this ancient place was.
In the Three Kingdom Period on the Korean peninsula, the Baekje Kingdom was centered around this area of the peninsula, along the Hanggang River, as it was called then. Its main city/town was known as Hangseong. Archaeological excavations and research from Samguksagi (the Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms) are proving that Baekje had two capital earthen fortresses (sometimes called castles). The first, Pungnaptoseoung to the north, was built in the early Baekje Kingdom before the 3rd century, and was an important center of marine transportation. The second, Mongchontoseong a little south of the first one, is thought to have been built under the reign of King Geunchogo after the 4th century and served as a high fortress overlooking the entire area in case of a war. It was built at the end of a natural slope extending from Namhansan Mountain, and the natural landscape of the Hanggang River was used as part of the wall. So, it was here that Baekje was able to lay its foundation as a powerful kingdom.
We didn’t actually go to the Pungnaptpseong Fortress, but learned that this was where 30,000 troops of Goguryeo (one of the other Kingdoms) under King Jangsu attacked Hanseong, Baekje in 475. It is said that the castle surrendered after the 7-day attack and that Baekje King Gaero (reigned 455-475), who was in the southern section of the castle, tried to escape to the west, but was killed.
But, we spent quite a while rambling around what’s left of the Mongchontoseong Earthen Fortress. The place attracts many visitors, as it is a significant historical site and is pretty with fields of canola flowers, barley and grass. There are many walking paths, and we saw numerous working Koreans taking advantage of this space to walk during their lunch break.
As you walk along the top of the now-grass-covered earth walls you get a good view out over the park and to modern Seoul and huge groups of apartment buildings. In this park, too, we saw a number of squirrels and pheasants, and heard many other birds.
The fortress/castle is a 2.3 km-long earth fortress wall (about 1.4 miles), in a roughly circular shape, the walls ranging between 6-40 m (about 20-131 feet) high. The area inside the castle walls is 216,000 square meters (about 54 acres). Songnaecheon Stream flows along the walls and serves as a moat. A pretty bridge crosses at one point. This is the Gommal Bridge (Gommal-Dari). “Gommal” means a bridge found in a dream village. “Gommal”, derived from the archaic “Ggummaul”, is an old Korean word for “Mongchon”. The information board explains that “this classical and beautiful Korean word was given to this bridge in March 1986.”
Laid outside the castle wall are wooden barricades. Houses and other buildings have been
found here, along with storage pits and a pond. Thousands of pieces of earthenware, Chinese-made porcelain, bone, armor, and such, have all been unearthed here.
At one spot in the center of the fortress enclosure you find an ancient site of dug-out huts and some old tombs remaining, with stone chambers and soil mounds typical of the early Baekje period (200-475 AD). They are closed off, so you cannot actually get into them, but you can see where and how they were situated. Also found in the area was a hearth proving pre-historic habitation, as well as stone tables, fragments of stone swords and Baekje earthenware. These discoveries led researchers to believe that this area was a base for Baekje culture for a long period.
The small Mongchon Museum of History on the north side has historical relics discovered during the excavation of Mongchontoseong Fortress and Pungnaptoseong Fortress. Notable are some precious golden relics of the Baekje kings, a seven-pronged sword called Chiljido (that testifies to the outstanding iron-smelting skills of the time), and many pots. The history of human settlement here goes way back. The museum is free and open daily, except Monday.
There is much more to see in the Seoul Baekje Museum, also in the Olympic Park. More on that later.
Seoul National University celebrates 70 years this year
Motto is “Truth is My Light”.
The university was founded in August 1946 when 10 institutions of higher education around the Seoul area were merged. So, it is 70 years old this year.
Seoul National University (SNU) is considered to be “the best” in Korea and is much sought after by students and parents, even though entrance is very competitive. It’s a national research university and has 3 campuses, the main one at Gwanak, which was constructed in February 1975. It has 16 colleges, one graduate school and 9 professional schools, with a total of 17,000 undergraduate and 11,000 graduate students.
It has a memorandum of understanding with over 700 academic institutions in 40 countries and with the World Bank, notably in Business and Management, Law, Political Science, Life Sciences and Engineering. The medical, nursing and dental schools are at the Yongon campus, and the Science and Technology campus is at Suwon.
We are staying on the main Gwanak campus, in the south of Seoul. It’s roughly a Y shape on its side with the smaller north arm divided from the larger south arm (with the main gate) by a mountain. We are staying at the Hoam Faculty Guest House, right at the end of the small north arm, where other faculty housing and many dorms also are. To get to the main part of campus it’s a long trek uphill to the split in the Y, and then down. As I mentioned in the earlier post, we are here for the International Rumen Microbiology Workshop, run by Rod (look closely at the banner and you will see Professor R. Mackie) and organized by Dr. Baik and SNU.
It’s a sprawling campus, built up and down hilly slopes and the almost-valley between them. There are steep roads and paths and many staircases linking various buildings and different parts of campus. The setting is very pretty with lots of trees and green spaces, a small stream and waterfall flowing into a pond, and views of mountains in all directions. It’s especially lovely in spring with hundreds of (many white) cherry trees, making lacy splashes against the green of pine trees. There are also many azaleas and long banks or hedges of huge bright yellow forsythia bushes. We feel very fortunate to be here in the spring and to experience the cherry blossoms at their peak.
Some of the older buildings from just after WW2 are showing signs of deterioration sadly—chipped paint/concrete, broken paving stones, sunken paths etc. One day, when I was sitting at a café on campus, a uniformed man came by taking photos of crumbling steps on a long outdoor stairway.
But, like any big campus, it feels lively and dynamic when school is in session. Students stride around in the (seemingly) universal student garb of jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies of jackets, sneakers and backpacks. Some of the girls wear shorts or skirts over tights but, when I sat and watched the student world pass by, that female elegance often associated with Korean young women was noticeably absent—at least in the day time.
A number of cafes and cafeterias are dotted around campus, all very reasonably priced. At one, I saw 2 set-meals for 4,000 won each (less than US$4!). Very affordable for a student.
If you’ve never experienced an actual bamboo forest before (as we had not), this is well worth a visit. We’ve seen some bamboo growing before, but never so much in one place! Chang wanted us to see this, and we’re very glad that he did.
Damyang is in Jeollanam-do (South Jeolla Province), one of Korea’s least developed and greenest provinces. They are known for pesticide-free and organic farming, and fish farming has also taken off in a big way. There are not many areas in Korea where bamboo grows, but South Jeolla’s climate is the most suitable on the Korean peninsula.
Damyang, 13 miles north of Gwangju, is famous because of its Bamboo Park (Juknok Won), which is the center of bamboo cultivation and craftsmanship.
For many people, the first thing they think of when hearing the word ‘bamboo’ is likely pandas! This Bamboo Park certainly has pandas but not the playful and cuddly kind, although children might not agree. There are a few rather kitschy fiberglass panda bears just beyond the entrance, which are usually surrounded by tourists waiting to take their picture, but otherwise, the bamboo forest is just that: a forest of bamboo… a lot of bamboo. You’d almost expect to see an actual panda there, but of course you don’t.
Besides the bamboo, there are, however, an old Confucian school (Damyang Hyanggyo), a small stream and man-made Jukrim waterfall, an art gallery/gift shop, an ecological bamboo exhibition hall, and a pavilion and Korean traditional structures and bamboo gazebos on the grounds of the forest.
Seonginsan Mountain behind the Confucian school was transformed into Juknokwon Bamboo Garden. It was established in May 2003 and is around 16,000 square meters in size (a little over 19,000 square yards).
Damyang’s Bamboo Park (Juknokwon) is also known as the Juknokwon Bamboo Garden and Juknokwon Bamboo Forest. Sometimes, it’s also billed as a Bamboo Theme Park. It is a little difficult to classify what this attraction really is. Is it a garden or a park or a forest? Well it seems to fit all descriptions, as there’s a forest of bamboo, but also benches, pavilions and a cafe can be found throughout the park if you want to stop and rest or just enjoy the bamboo scenery. It’s also considered to be a place of “green therapy” regardless of season. People believe that walking there relieves stress and encourages clean, deep breathing.
It can get busy, but the garden area is large enough to absorb plenty of visitors. As with all places in South Korea, the best time to visit is in the morning, before the crowds arrive. This is especially true on weekends, so one should try to get there early.
The paths spread in multiple directions within the grounds and each of the 8 loops has a different name. We encountered the Trail of Luck, and the Trail of Philosophers, which had a statue of a famous philosopher at one end. Other trail names we saw were the Trail of Eternal Love, Trail of the Byway of Memory, and Trail of Thoughts (each of them has a plaque with rather fanciful descriptions!). It was fun just to wander for a couple of hours, taking many photos. It was surprisingly cool in the shade of the forest, a nice break from the heat and humidity of Korean summers. It’s suggested that visitors need at least 2 hours.
We were fascinated to see the bamboo trees in different stages of growth in the park. Bamboo is technically categorized somewhere between grasses and trees. Since their use is similar to tree trunks, it has been referred to as ‘trees’ by the Korean Forest Service. From the amazingly tall bamboo, to its fine roots, to the vines that latch on the bamboo’s stem joints, the bamboo park gave us plenty of things to photograph and learn about.
There are many information boards and we learned lots of interesting factoids, such as: there are 2 main varieties of bamboo, 90 different genera, and 1500 different species globally; that Korea has 13 different species; and that this garden has 26% of all bamboo in Korea. Here in the Bamboo Park it’s mostly thick-stemmed bamboo and black bamboo, with a little borealis amkino too.
New bamboo growth appears bright green. The shoots emerge with a protective sheath; once the bamboo has grown a bit, the sheath falls off showing the vibrant green of fresh growth.
Since the park is so picturesque, a couple of popular Korean shows and movies were filmed there, and there are boards explaining that.
From mid-September to end of October 2015 the park was going to host the World Bamboo Fair. I wonder how that went? When we were there, workers were busy constructing more pavilions ready for the Fair.
Outside the park are many bamboo shops. They say that bamboo has 101 uses and these certainly prove that. It is traditionally used in construction, as pulp material, for interiors, and for gardening. But, there’s also an amazing array of bamboo products—furniture, woven baskets, fabric (which is surprisingly soft and supple), household goods, even bamboo jewelry and a bamboo teapot.
Bamboo markets are also held every 5 days apparently.
We decided we had to sample bamboo leaf icecream (delicious), and a bamboo leaf donut with bamboo sugar (nice but not as distinctive as the icecream). But, we didn’t buy anything made from bamboo, although we were tempted.
Suncheon Bay Wetlands Reserve (aka Sucheonman Bay Ecological Park)
Suncheon Bay in SW Korea is billed as one of the most beautiful coastal wetlands in Korea where visitors can enjoy the natural coastline and the diversity of ecosystem and wildlife habitats. The pamphlet tells us that it is one of the five largest coastal wetlands in the world.
The reserve is gaining international recognition as a natural eco-system and protected wetland area on the Korean peninsula. In 2003 the Korean Marine Fisheries Department declared the Bay a wetland preservation area, and in 2013 it was selected as an eco-tourist site of Korea.
So what exactly is this Bay Wetlands Reserve?
The JRS Conference at Sunchon National University organized a day trip for the attendees, and this was our first stop, as it’s not far out of Suncheon City. It’s a lovely place at the top end of the Bay and the local people are justifiably proud of it and of what they have achieved.
The main activity was a long, but easy, walk along a boardwalk over some of the wetlands and reeds, which gave us a good overview. I’d say you need a minimum of 45 minutes, longer if you want to stop and read the boards, relax on a bench to enjoy the scenery, take photos etc. It gets quite crowded on the boardwalks, but it’s okay, as people keep moving along. There are pretty good information boards—many in English and Korean so we can have an idea of what’s what.
Suncheon Bay is an intact coastal wetland that has a wide range of geographical features, such as a river mouth, reed fields, salt marshes, mud flats and islands. The bay is also adjacent to rice paddies, salt farms, seaside villages, fish farms (sites of old salt farms), rolling hills and mountains. So, it really is very diverse and very pretty.
The brackish water zones, marshes, fields of reeds and mud flats attract many different kinds of birds, a special feature here. We all took note of the pictures of the hooded cranes that apparently over-winter here. However, at that time of year (August) we didn’t see many birds at all.
The mudflats attract mudskippers, many types of crabs, and even small octopuses where the tide rolls in twice a day. The shallow tideland at the river mouth has reasonable salt content, many organisms, and a healthy water quality, which make it a spawning ground for fish, crab, shellfish. We did see many crabs and little jumping fish.
Salt plants are a feature, notably reeds (which are known for water purification). The boardwalk allows people to look out over the 5.4 km-wide (3.3 miles) reed fields (apparently 570 acres). At different times of the year the changing colors are spectacular, we’re told. Even when we were there it was lovely to see all those reeds swaying in the wind, making whispering sounds.
Besides the boardwalk, there are possible boat rides on the tidal channels and a monorail to the flower gardens (we didn’t bother to do this as it wasn’t the flower season). Might be nice to do that in cooler weather. There’s also an Exhibit Hall, a Planetarium, and an Observatory, which we didn’t have time to visit, so it appears they are making a big effort to impart information.
Good facilities—toilets, cafes, and a handicraft hall (where we bought 2 small cloths, dyed naturally, and supposedly with antibiotic and anti-allergy properties).
The downside: It was very hot, and not the season for migrating birds. So carry plenty of water and definitely bring a hat.
It’s open daily 8am-sunset. Regular adult ticket costs 7,000 won (about US$ 5.75)
Later we drove to the other end of the Bay near the sea for an overview of the bay—pretty impressive.
In many parts of the world villages have collective expressions of spirit belief, as in the reverence paid to a particularly large old tree that has shaded generations of ancestors. It’s believed that there’s a special spirit, or sometimes a God, of the tree and that this spirit will protect the village and villagers under certain conditions.
Here I want to focus on the wonderful old Zelkova trees that we often find at temples or palaces in Korea. These amazing trees stand as a welcome near the entrance to temples, usually in the temple or palace gardens. These are Zelkova serrata (Japanese zelkova, Japanese elm, or Keyaki), a type of tree that’s native to Japan, Korea, eastern China, and Taiwan.
Besides being beautiful old trees, they are lovingly looked after by generations and often propped up if necessary.
The first one we found was at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace in Suwon, an old city about 48 km south of Seoul. This zelkova on the edge of the entrance courtyard to the palace is more than 600 years old and is very sacred. It has grown here and protected Suwon city since before the construction of the Hwaseong Fortress and Hwaseong Haenggung Palace.
It was believed that there was a God of the tree, which would punish anyone who broke one of its leaves or branches. There is a legend that if you make a wish to the tree the wish will come true. A plaque near the tree suggests: “Make a wish for your family or friends to the tree, which still holds the spirit of King Jeongjo. Write your wish on the paper and tie it to a straw rope around the tree.” Many people do this and there are lots of white papers tied to the rope. We asked our Korean friends about this, and they laughed and said, “maybe we believe in that. But it’s a good thing to try.”
The next tree was at the Naganeupseong Folk Village, which we visited on a day trip organized by the conference held at Sunchon National University, in Suncheon not far away. It’s a really interesting Folk Village (which I’ll cover in more detail later), established during the Chosun Dynasty and at least 600 years old. It’s thought that the tree is a similar age. This tree didn’t have ropes with notes tied to it, but close by was a special small hanok house with a table outside. There, visitors could get a strip of yellow paper, write a wish on it and then tie it to a piece of twine strung out like a clothes line. I did that (but the wish is a secret!)
The final zelkovas that we found on this trip were at Naesosa Temple (I’ll write about that in more detail later). It’s an ancient Buddhist Temple, built around 633 AD, on the Byeonsan peninsula (the same peninsula with the salt fields and cliffs I wrote about). Trees are all around, as the temple complex is surrounded by the fir forests of the Buan-Gun National Park. But, the huge zelkovas are different. They are very big, and very much a part of the temple proceedings—bedecked with strings of colorful banners and thick straw ropes in different shapes. So nice to see.
So, it’s very interesting to travel in some Asian countries, especially Japan, Korea and China, where trees are actually revered, and people go to great lengths to keep old trees alive.
People there of yesteryear believed that trees had spirits or were gods even, and some of those beliefs still linger today. Many of these special old trees have legends and stories attached to them, and all kinds of symbolism, so the tree becomes more than “just a tree”.
I’m hoping that on our next visit to Korea we may find examples of more old trees, but for now here are two lovely specimens.
First, we checked an old ginkgo tree in Jeongju hanok town (or Jeongju traditional style home town, sometimes written Chonju) on Ginkgo Tree Ave. This 16m-high tree (about 51 feet) was classified a Natural Monument in 1982, and is thought to be almost 600 years old. A carved stone plaque tells us: It is free from bugs, and was planted in the hope that young scholars would similarly advance in government posts free from the taint of injustice. It was planted in the courtyard of a high-ranking official involved in the founding of the Chosan (Jeosan) Dynasty after he returned to his home town to establish a school for young scholars. This tree is a living witness to the Chosan Dynasty’s 500 years of rising and falling fortunes. It also symbolizes Chonju’s position as a center of Confucianism in Cholla Province.
It’s said that the people of Chonju love Ginkgo Tree Ave as being full of warmth and historical sites. We thought the avenue was charming, and loved the idea that the tree is being so well protected.
Later, in Seoul we visited the famous Chandeokgung Palace, where our min purpose was to visit the Secret Garden (see later). At the end of that garden tour the guide stopped and told us about this old Chinese juniper tree in a small garden near some of the government buildings of the palace complex. At around 750 years it’s one of oldest trees in Korea. It’s 5.6 m high (about 18 feet) and 5.9 m in circumference (about 19 feet) at the widest part of its trunk, so is pretty big, although some of its sprawling branches are now propped up.
A plaque tells us that juniper wood is very aromatic and is used to make incense for rituals.
This aromatic tree was planted here to provide incense for ancestral rituals at Seonwonjeon Shrine to the east, where portraits of former kings were enshrined. This tree is depicted in Donnwoldo (Painting of East Palace), which was done around 1830 and provides a panoramic view for Chandeokgung.