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.
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.
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.