Jogyesa Temple, Seoul

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.



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.



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!



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).



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.


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.

Viv and Rod with Sophia
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.



Tapgol Park in Seoul



Entrance to Tapgol Park
Sidewalk outside the park entrance leads to busy modern buildings

Tapgol Park

This small walled park of about 5 acres, on the edge of Insadong (probably Seoul’s most popular tourist district), is a useful place to sit and relax if you’re in the area for shopping, or visiting Jogyesa Temple or Unhyeongung Palalce. It’s also very popular with retired folk, especially men, who seem to gather there to chat and perhaps play a board game while listening to music on their radios. We’ve been into this park numerous times and it’s fun to sit and people watch. In spring, the leafy greenness is made even more beautiful with beds of bright flowering azaleas.

Besides being a tranquil pretty green oasis in the midst of busy Seoul, Tapgol also has a fair bit of history attached to it, some very old and some relatively recent and certainly not peaceful.

Old and new—Tapgol Park looking to Jongno Tower
The protected Pagoda

Opened in 1897, Tapgol Park was Seoul’s first western-style park, designed by King Gojong’s financial advisor, an Irishman called John McLeavy Brown.

At first it was known as Pagoda Park or Tapdong Park, named after a 15th-century relic—a 1467 stone pagoda from the Wongaksa Buddhist Temple once located here. Tap in Korean means pagoda. The Temple was destroyed in 1504 on the orders of a Confucian king. The 10-tier, 12-meter-high pagoda is a treasure of Buddhist art, but it’s a little hard to see the wonderful carvings through the glass cage around it (but definitely better to preserve it).


Pagoda detail


Pavilion in the park—where the Resistance Movement started

Another monument in the park is the tortoise stele Monument of Wongaksa (see above) built in 1471 to commemorate the founding of Wongaksa Temple in 1465. On the front and back are calligraphy and inscriptions recording the story. The turtle-shaped base is granite and the body is marble. Two intricately carved intertwined dragons, rising toward the sky holding a Buddhist gem, top the monument.

The park is also a symbol of Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule. Historical note: Korea became a Japanese Protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910. Korea was liberated in 1945 after the surrender of the Japanese forces to the Allies. Korea never took well to Japanese colonial rule and by all accounts Japan tried hard to suppress all that was typically Korean. Hence the resistance.

This pagoda is part of Korean history
Statue of Son Byeong-hui
Murals telling the Resistance story

On March 1, 1919, Euiam Son Byeong-hui (leader of Donghak church, and educator) and 32 others signed and read aloud a Declaration of Independence under the 8-sided Palgakjeong Pavilion (see above). This was the first public display of resistance to the Japanese and sparked the March 1st Movement. They were all arrested and sent to the infamous Seodaemum Prison (which we visited on our last trip. More on that later). Many people throughout Korea protested against this, but the samil (March 1) movement was ruthlessly suppressed and hundreds of independence fighters were killed and thousands arrested in the park. Ten bronze bas-relief murals in stone frames around one edge of the park depict the heroic, but unsuccessful, struggle. They are well done and very evocative of what happened then. I took photos of most of the panels, so you can tell they made a big impression.


These murals tell a very graphic story
Heroic people indeed


(See more murals at end)
Memorial at edge of entrance plaza

Every March 1st, a memorial service is held here. You can read an English copy of the Declaration on the Memorial Plaque near the entrance to the park. Just inside the entrance is a large paved plaza, with the Memorial on the right. It has the Declaration and statues of two of the heroes. Just to the side is a bronze statue of Son Byeong-hui.

Park is open daily 6am-8pm and is free. Vendors outside sell souvenirs, flags, and snacks. There are clean public restrooms in the park.

Subway: Lines 1,3, or 5 to Jongno 3-ga Station and take exit 1.


Reading the Declaration of Independence


Totem Poles in Korea

Jangseung and Sotdae at National Folk Museum
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.

Stone ones at the museum
Inside the museum
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.



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.



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.





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



Statues at Seoul City Hall

Seoul’s new City Hall
A red creature outside the entrance
Many cute creatures in the lobby

Guaranteed to bring a smile to one’s face

In Korea we found many types of statues and sculptures all over the city. Some are very old and venerable and some are cute modern pieces—actually we found that Koreans generally like “cute” things, whether art or kids toys or clothes, or backpacks etc.

These ones, a red creature just outside the new City Hall and a group in the lobby, certainly qualify as “cute”, but when I read the plaque, we found that there is also a deeper message behind the cuteness.

Rod in the lobby

2pandaThe group inside is called “Hope for Those Who Have Lost Hope”, by Noh, June 2011-2013, automotive paint coloring on plastic.

It’s a group of animals and the plaque explains: “Cat “Clo”, otter “Sudaru”, penguin “Ping” and monkey “Kiki”….Are they animals that look like human beings or humans who look like animals? We can become one by having cute animal faces and human bodies, can’t we? These happy young animals visit City Hall. By seeing them, visitors can have a chance to think again about the abandoned pets that wander the streets of Seoul.”

We couldn’t find out what the outside red animal was—looks like a deer, a llama, or giraffe maybe? Very sweet anyway. 2Viv




Gwanghwamun Square on a Saturday

Gyeongbokgung Main Gate
Start of the square, looking back at Main Gate and pagoda
Top of square and World Book Day

A Happening Place: Gwanghwamun Square on a Saturday

***Please note: This has a lot of pictures—very nice ones, I think!

This 555-meter-long and 34-meter-wide square is in front of Gwanghwamun, the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, and one of Seoul’s main landmarks. Behind the palace compound is the Bukhansan Mountain to the north. Statues of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (who repelled the Japanese invasions of the 1590s) and King Sejong (who created the Korean alphabet), the historical figures most respected by Koreans, are on the square.

Walking south, the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History is on your left, then the Embassy of the USA and embassies of Austria, Australia and Finland. On the right, the main feature is the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.

World Book Day

This square is often a rallying point for different demonstrations and protests, so you’ll always see a large police presence—also because of the embassies along here. It’s a perfect place for shows and expos as well, as so many people pass by here.

We spent many hours wandering around here last Saturday and were fascinated to get a sample of the kinds of events that take place here. In spite of the poor air quality (the yellow dust was rated at an emergency level) there were still many activities happening on the square.



First, at the north end, we found an exhibition for World Book Day 2016. What a fun and important thing, to encourage reading. 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, so I added to the messages—some about books and reading, many about Seoul and experiences in Seoul.



Next we saw a lovely 3-storied pagoda with lions as corner pillars and fanciful creatures at the base. It’s not marked in our guidebooks, so we wondered if it was new. It looks real enough. But, turns out it’s a paper pagoda lantern, copied from Hwaeum-sa Temple’s stone pagoda (National Treasure no 35), made on a wire frame and filled in with Korean traditional papers. It took about 4 months to manufacture the lantern using traditional methods of Korean lantern-making. It emphasizes a traditional image and colors of an ancient relic, rather than splendid colors. The 4 lions playing the role of pillar symbolize the lion’s courage in protecting Buddhist doctrines. At each of the 4 edges of the lantern are fairies playing music as an offering to Buddha. It will be here and lit up from April 20-May 15, 2016, as part of the general festivities for Buddha’s Birthday this year—on May 14, and a pubic holiday in Korea. It’s an amazing structure and we never guessed at first that it wasn’t solid!

Rod M and Viv M by King Sejong

A little beyond that is the statue of King Sejong, and we discovered that below that is an underground Exhibition Hall, half devoted to King Sejong, his life and accomplishments, and the other half to Admiral Yi. We explored both of them and they are well worth an hour or so. There’s a small café down there too.





Next we came across a lot of white tent-stalls, and discovered they are part of an Integrative Medicine and Healthy Lifestyle Fair, which was on for the Friday and Saturday. It was fun to breeze through that, looking at some of the goods and ideas on offer (what we could understand anyway!).



Markt tents, looking towards gate and mountain



The statue of Admiral Yi towers above the wide metro entrance ramp to Gwanghwamun Station, Line 5. That morning as we walked towards the statue we were very lucky to happen on some traditional Korean dancing near the metro entrance. A group of women dressed in white hanboks with either green or orange trimmings were performing a Ganggang Suwollae. This is a traditional round dance, performed at the time of a full moon, and is to bring hope for a good agricultural year. Three leaders sang as the only form of musical accompaniment and also guided some of the dancers. It was wonderful to watch the group circling, dividing into lines, flowing into an “S” shape, or forming a human arch.


Note the beautiful reflections in the marble wall!



Statue of Admiral Yi

At the southern tip, just beyond the statue of Admiral Yi on a tall pedestal with fountain jets at its base, is the tented Gwanghwamun Family Memorial Altar to commemorate the Sewol Ferry Disaster on April 16, 2014. Tragically, 304 people died, most of them school children on a field trip. Sadly, 9 have yet to be found. This Memorial has been here a while, and many people come to pay respects or add a yellow ribbon.

Who would have thought that in such a


relatively short distance we could experience so many different things and learn so much abut Korea!







Catch A Falling Star…

Gate leading to path uphill to General Kang’s Shrine

General Kang, An Ancient Local Hero  


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.

Equestrian statue of General Kang


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.



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.



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.