Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Summer Vacation Part 4: Haein-sa

Sorry it's taken so long for me to update - for nearly a week now I've been in a constant state of packing, organizing, cleaning, and moving. This in an attempt to have my last week in Korea (for a year) be a relaxing one and free of worry. More on that later.

In the meantime, Haeinsa...

I had my sights set on seeing this temple back in my Suwon days. I'm not a Buddhist, but I'm curious about the history and the teachings and I happen to be living in a part of the world where millenia-old relics are available to view, or walk-through and I'm going to darn well take advantage.

First let me say that getting there was a challenge. We basically planned to move from Namwon to Haein-sa with necessary bus transfers at Geocheong and Hapcheong where I was told there were frequent buses up to the temple. Not true, it turns out, so rather than wait half a day, we ended-up taking a direct bus to Haein-sa from Geocheong. For anyone planning to visit the temple in the future, go from the express bus terminal in Daegu. Just trust me.

Haein-sa is located in the mountains of Gayasan National Park - a tiny little national Park just an hour West of Daegu. The temple itself is fairly unremarkable in terms of its appearance (though there are some lovely mountain views), but what makes it one of Korea's three "jewel temples" is that fact that it holds the Koreana Tripitaka - the 80,000+ wooden printing blocks completed in the mid 1300s that canonized the entire Buddhist writings then in use.

The blocks were carve in Chinese of course and carved in reverse as to allow for proper transfer during the ink-printing process. That's a lot of whittling time. By gum!

The blocks (an obvious national treasure) are currently stored in another national treasure: the Janggyeong-gak, a square arrangements of wooden buildings consisting of shelving that begins about a meter off of the floor and the floor is made of sand containing powders to keep-away insects and to maintain a proper level of moisture in the building.

The wood itself looks like it did the day it was carved. The trees were cut, soeaked in sea water for three years, then in fresh water for three years, then dried for three years before carving began. The result is the world's largest and most complete and error-free canon of the East Asian Buddhist text. Buddhists from across the world make pilgrimmage here.

Of course the blocks mean little to me aside from their historical worth, but it's hard not to be impressed by them all. What adds to the aura of the bulding are the fact that they can't be entered - only peered-through. The wooden slatted windows help to allow for air-flow and as tempting as they are to stick your camera lens through, you're own eyes and memory will have to suffice as no cameras are allowed in use withing the courtyard of the Janggyeong-gak. This, I understand, as without the ban there would be a never-ending swarm of people like me blocking the windows with cameras. Rain started falling through and I managed to sneak away from the guards long enough to take a couple of photos of the buildings themselves. Nothing like having a Canon G11 at your displosal - it's small size and swivel screen allow for some pretty stealthy stuff. Security in high here though - as it should be. Lest we forget the Namdaemun gate arson of a few years past. You don't have to be a Buddhist to feel at least a sense of awe at the history and artistry maintained at Haein-sa.

Gayasan National park is well worth thr trip for anyone heading south and though are day was mercifully cool, it would even be better in the fall. The temple admission is a minimal charge and there are restuarants and cafes along the path not too far away, and tastefully done.

And that was how we capped-off the trip - a cool and calming trip to the "Temple of Reflection on Smooth Sea". A pleasant and scenic bus ride to Daegu, a boarding on the KTX, and a trip home to Seoul. 5 Nights, 6 Days. Gang ho-dong, eat your heart out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Summer Vacation Part 3: Namwon

It should first be said that I choose to return to Namwon, and convinced the rabbit to do so out of pure nostalgia. Namwon was one of the many stops on our school field trip itinerary two years ago with the grade 3 students, it is a city that serves as the backdrop for Korea's most famous love story, Chunhyangjeon, and it was the place where the rabbit and I, as cheesy as it sounds, started our own little love story.

Namwon is a small town with a slightly smaller population than Buyeo's, though I would venture a guess that they get a little more traffic than does the former Baekje capital.

As a result of the Chunhyang story, Namwon seems to have happily adopted the role of "Theme City of Love" which is actually the city's official slogan, like "Happy Suwon" and "Seoul: Soul of Asia". Namwon's official logo is a stylized heart, whereas Buyeo's is a mascot with a head made of the famous incense burner, and Jeonju's is a couple of mascots with hanji fans for hair... you get the idea.

Anyway, the high point for most visitors to Namwon is Gwanghalluwon, a traditional garden that is probably the most historically lovely one in the country - take that, Biwon! It's a smallish area that can be pretty fully explored in less than an hour, but on a nice day, it's a great place to take one's time, sit in one of the many pavilions, and just relax.

For those who want to further explore the Chunhyang tale, however, Gwanghalluwon is also the place. Using some of the photos I took in Namwon, let me relate the much abbreviated story of Chunhyang here, accompanied by some helpful photos which add their own colour to the tale...

"Mong-ryong, a son a of a Namwon nobleman, goes out to Gwanghalluon one night to take a break from constant study. While hanging-out in the garden's main pavilion with his servant, Bang-ja, he sees a hot girl on a swing. This is Chun-hyang, the daughter of a local entertainer.

Mong-ryong decides that he needs to meet this beautiful girl, so Bang-ja arranges a meeting that night at the girl's mother's house. Apparently, that's enough to convince all three parties that the two yoots should marry that very night, but in secret only, as it simply wouldn't do to have the son of a lord marry such a lowly, however lovely, girl. Mong-rong takes his nightly prize over the next few months while the pale and nightmarish mom watches.

Sadly, Mong-ryong's father is relocated to Seoul, and Mong-ryong must accompany him to the capital in order to complete his high level exams. Chunhyang begs him not to go, and apparently narrowly avoids getting run over by his horse.

With Mong-ryong's father away, the new magistrate in Namwon begins to act-out - ignoring his duties to the citizens of the area, Namwon begins to fall apart while the magistrate sets his sights on bedding every possible young girl in town. He finally seeks-out Chunhyang, and when she refuses, citing her loyalty to her absent husband, he beats her and imprisons her.

Mon-ryong, having graduated from his exams with flying colours, decides to become a secret royal inspector. He returns to Namwon in disguise as a beggar and stealthily interviews the locals from whom he learns that not only has Namwon gone to shit, but his lady love has been sexually assaulted and imprisoned.

A few days later, the magistrate plans to celebrate his birthday by executing Chunhyang in the palace courtyard... but wait! Still disguised, Mong-ryong appears with his royal guards and reads aloud a newly written poem which reveals all of the wrongs the magistrate has done to the city. Mong-ryong denounces the magistrate, and then, just to make sure that his now-bleeding and broken secret wife is still faithful, asks her with his disguised voice from behind a fan if she will sleep with him. Fat chance of that - if this girl can have both of her legs flogged and still say no to royalty, what hope does this new guy have?

When Chunhyang again replies that she will remain loyal to her husband, despite the fact that apparently all royal visitors to her town want to have sex with her, Mong-ryong reveals himself, expresses admiration for Chunhyang's loyalty, and she remarkably doesn't punch him in the face.

They live happily ever after."

So, that, minus a few details, is the story. Namwon hosts a "Chunhyang Festival" every year, celebrating the girl's faithfulness to her husband and highlighting the town's own unique history and culture. A "Miss Chunhyang" contest is also held each year.

I don't so much mind the story. In the context of the Korean canon of "dutiful sons" and women who remain inexplicably faithful to absent and abusive husbands, it's a relatively mild affair, and told well, even has its charms.

A few film versions of the story exist, but the one the rabbit and I checked-out in a DVD bang the night before leaving Jeonju was a 2010 film by the name of Bang-ja Jeon...

Remember this dopey-looking summumabitch?

No - not me... Bang-ja! He's Mong-ryong's loyal servant who arranged the lover's meeting in the first place. The new film reveals a new spin on the traditional tale, in that Bang-ja, not Mong-ryong, get's into Chunghyang's bed chamber first, and that theirs is the love worth remembering, even if it wasn't worthy of surviving as a nationally treasured folktale - something the film suggests was manufactured out of greed.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most film versions of the Chunhyang story are likely as banal and unsurprising as the wikipedia entry of the folktale. I don't want to give away too many surprises, but should you decide to satisfy your Chunhyang curiosities and watch what is now considered a blasphemous version of the famous story, you will at the very least be entertained (and perhaps periodically infuriated) by Bang-ja's Story (방자전).

The people of Namwon protested the film's release last year as, in many senses, the new story craps all over the town's main reason for being. A warning though for those with sensitive constitutions, there is a lot of sexy time in this film. Bang-ja tries a whole bunch of new stuff with Chunhyang, and it turns out he's a pretty strong guy.

It also turns out that most every version of the Chunhyang tale on film will come with it own depictions of explicit Mong-ryong / Chunhyang trysting. The photo below was taken of an otherwise tame movie that was playing in a Chunhyang history hall in a corner of Gwanghalluwon - this near the kiddy swings and arrow-tossing games. The still photo didn't accurately capture the thrusting motion.

Still, I think the new version of the story has enough surprises and depth to merit a watch. Go for it.

All in all, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Namwon as a brief stop-over or overnight visit. Gwanghalluwon is a must-see, though you would be fine skipping the "Chunhyang Theme Park" which is a collection of 3D models and houses representative of the story and time, though you can avoid the 6,000 won entrance fee after 6 PM. If you happen to be in the area in May, certainly seek-out the Chunhyang festival. I would imagine there would be some real points of interest then.

But where did we stay in Namwon, the Theme City of Love? As much as I wanted to go for a love motel, we went for a quaint little inn just outside of the city. It was comfortable, but there were no mugs - only drinking glasses in which to have our morning coffee, so I protected our hands from the heat with my socks. Don't worry, they were clean.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Summer Vacation Part 2: Jeonju

This one's going to be a bit shorter as we didn't do anywhere near as much running around in Jeonju as we did in Buyeo.

For the most part, we really only had the one destination: The Jeonju Hanok Village. Jeonju is the capital city of North Jeolla Province and it's mostly famous for its bibimbap. As a side note, it appears that virtually every Korean city needs to be "famous" for some kind of food, even though most varieties of cuisine are served all across the peninsula. You'll see bibimbap restaurants in Seoul advertising that they serve "Jeonju Bibimbap" on the premises. But the Jeonju people might be able to tell the difference, like true Quebecois could tell you the difference between real maple syrup and Aunt Jemima.

Anyway, back to Jeonju. The city is significantly smaller than Suwon (Jeonju's population is just under 650,000 while Suwon's is just over a million) and it expectedly has a much slower feel than Seoul. For the tourist with a couple of evenings to kill, Jeonju is a great little discovery, and like I said - most cultural points of interest are centered around the Hanok Village.

So, what is the Hanok Village? Well, it's a touristy spot in the south of the town which begins right beside the city's only surviving gate and extends toward a smallish mountain in the East of the city. The best way to describe the place would be to relate how it began, as related to me by the rabbit. Apparently during the early 20th century occupation by the Japanese, the Jeonju citizens decided to band together and create a place that would celebrate, cultivate, and maintain the Jeonju flavour of Korean culture in the face of oppression.

What exists now is about 700 some-odd hanok-style houses (not all of them original buildings) that serve as cafes, guest houses, and galleries. For Seoulites, think of it as a larger Samcheong-dong/Insadong cross. It's all very maintained, and manicured for the tourist dollar, but I'm not complaining as I knew at least in part that it was what we were getting into. That being said, there is also enough authenticity lurking behind certain doors, and down certain alleyways, if one cares enough to look for it. There is, in the Hanok Village, only one Paris Baguette, and one Family Mart, and we are hopeful it stays that way.

The Hanok Village makes a perfect destination for first-time visitors to the city, and you can see and do most of what you would want to in two or three days. It was easy to spend a couple of afternoons and evenings wandering the cafes, checking out the galleries, and enjoying a couple of bowls of authentic Jeonju bibimbap - one of which was consumed at Jeonju's most famous and ridiculously busy bibimbap restaurant, which the rabbit was good enough to locate through bibimbap sonar - a bit North of the Hanok Village toward Jeonju's own "Myeong-dong" style area of shops, which the map labels as "Street that is Desired to Walk".

We also made a point of enjoying a paper-crafting class. Jeonju is also famous for it's fans constructed from handmade paper ("hanji"). We missed booking a time with an actual paper-making studio, which would have been messy fun, but we did manage to slip down an alley to Ji-dam, a hanji crafting house, where we were able to craft-up some small gifts for folks back home.

It's hard to compare Jeonju to Buyeo, other than to say that we were in both places for vastly different reasons and conducted ourselves as such. If you're looking for a relaxing weekend away - somewhere outside of Seoul that offers some slower-paced strolling, eating, and crafting, you could do a lot worse than Jeonju. In fact, we are considering another trip back in the fall when we won't need to put those Korean fans through such a workout.

As for accomodations, we considered staying in a Hanok guesthouse, but it was high season and staying in one would have cost us a fair bit, so we opted for a nearby jimjil-bang which I will comment on later. For now, I will say that the Spa L Aqua (which shares a name with one of the more high class onsen in Tokyo) was a great bang for the buck. It was like a spa wonderland, but later...

And before I forget, on our way from Buyeo to Jeonju, we stopped-over at Nonsan - a bus transfer town within a short taxi ride from Gwonchok-sa - a smallish mountain temple that is relatively unremarkable save for its giant-headed statue of the Unjin Mireuk Buddha - the Buddha of the future of the Goryeo Dynasty. It happens to be Korea's largest free-standing stone Buddha and it's carved from one solid piece of rock. It also happens to be fairly entertaining to look at. Just try not to smile when you gaze upon his gargantuan melon.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Summer Vacation Part 1: Buyeo

Hello, folks - It's been a week since I've posted as I've been out of town on the aforementioned "5 night, 6 days" journey through South Korea with my rabbit. All-in-all, a wonder-filled time. We packed a lot into our days and our trip was largely colored by three factors: 1) We have no car, so our journey was one planned entirely on buses and trains, 2) At this time of year, most vacationing Korean families are hitting the coast for some beach action, so the areas on our itinerary were mercifully devoid of large crowds, and 3) there was a fair amount of rain continuing throughout the peninsula so temperatures were not unbearable for two folks lugging their backpacks about.

Anyway, we saw and did a lot, and I would like to tell you about some of it...

Rather than be a turd burglar and turn to Wikipedia to tell you a bunch of historical facts, I'll just relate what I can recall from memory. It's sometimes overwhelming to recognize how much documented human history exists in such a tiny place as Korea. I'm from Canada where our old stuff simply gets knocked-down for high rises. Here, they build around it.

Buyeo was the latest capital of the Baekjae Kingdom which ruled over the various parts of the peninsula and greatly influenced parts of China and (most notably) Japan before getting run-over buy the neighbouring Silla Kingdom which allied itself with the Tang dynasty from China. Just for the sake of numbers, the Baekje Kingdom was in existence roughly from 18 BC until 660 AD when it fell to the Silla/Tang invasion. Buyeo (then known as Sabi) was the last capital of the Kingdom, and therefore the site of many found relics which have since become national treasures of the entire South Korean Nation. According to all credible sources, The Baekje Kingdom was pretty much the bee's knees when it came to advances in metal works, stone masonry, pottery, and architecture. They brought Buddhism to the peninsula from China, exported it to Japan, and taught the Japanese how to build a bad-ass pagoda. And that is today's history lesson with Teacher Dave.

But back to Buyeo...

As a visitor to the smallish town (under 100,000), there are not a ton of activities to engage in that don't involve immersing oneself in history. I am completely okay with that. Most of Korea still feels new and undiscovered to me, and I find must of this stuff fascinating, so I didn't at all mind museum-hopping and staring at old pagodas in the rain. Buyeo is the perfect place to witness a small town building itself entirely upon a relatively newly uncovered history. Some of it is inspiring, a little bit of it was frustrating, and all of it was fascinating.

A few highlights:

The Jeongrimsaji Temple - (probably built in the middle of the 6th century isn't really a temple at all anymore, though there are (I think unfortunately) plans afoot to rebuild the majority of the original temple structure. What does remain on the site, which is situated roughly in the middle of town) is a 5-story stone pagoda (National Treasure #9) and a simple (and relatively newly-built) lecture hall which houses what is surely the world's cutest stone Buddha statue. I saw pictures of the statue standing without its current wooden protection back in the early 1930s and it makes you just want to go give it a hug.

A small lotus pond rimmed with stone also remains, and there are obvious markers that define the original placement of the rest of the temple structure, but for the most part, Jeongrimsaji is pretty much a stone pagoda and and odd Buddha statue in the middle of a field. I really like it that way. To me it was more awe-inspiring to imagine what was once there as opposed to having today's artisans rebuild what once was. Anyway, should I visit Buyeo in the not too distant future, I believe there will be a newly constructed temple around Mr. pagoda and Mr. Buddha then.

For those that are curious, a ticket to a quality museum dedicated mainly to the temple and the Buddhist history of the Kingdom can be yours as part of the 1,500 won admission price to the temple site. There was a great deal uncovered at this temple site in recent years that has given the people of this area a much better perspective of the cultural contributions made by the Baekje people. Jeongrimsaji was my first Buyeo point of interest and I must say that I have a fondness for those two works of stone. This is a great starting point for your Buyeo itinerary as it gives you a decent perspective of what was once here.

Buyeo National Museum - like Seoul's National Museum of Korea, only about a 10th the size. This new location opened in 1993 and is an impressive space with outdoor and indoor displays in the tradition and style of its larger Seoul cousin. Again, cost is minimal and one can rent a helpful MP3 player in English which is motion activated by the displays (a handy little feature) for only 3,000 won. This is a museum focused solely on artifacts of the Baekje age, as opposed to those museums with dioramas and interactive doo-dads for the kiddies. It was a rainy day, and this was really the perfect place to spend a few dry hours once we located the lockers and put our goodies away.

Aside from the expected stone knives and pottery shards that are a fixture of such places, the Buyeo National Museum had two items which seem to stand-out as favourites among visitors:

1) The Baekje Guilt-Bronze Incense Burner (National Treasure #287) which was unearthed in 1993 and has since become the De facto symbol of the Bakje Kingdom and the city of Buyeo, itself (There is a large statue of the burner in the middle of the round-about when you enter Bueyo from the East). It's an impressive and widely celebrated piece of work that would be instantly recognizable to anyone who's lived in Korea for a decent length of time. Of course, there is an ongoing and unsurprising pissing contest regarding the burner and its historical significance in relation to similar burners found in China. I'll leave the pissing to those with their dick in their hand and simply say that as a museum piece, it's impressive, and as a cultural relic, it's telling. It's the museum's centre-piece and worth a visit.

2) Hoja (Tiger-shaped Chamber Pot) - as the guidebook will tell you: "Although hoja means "a tiger-shaped vessel", this particular object seems to have served as a male chamber pot. The humourous facial expression above the hole draws our attention." I have to admit, at first I saw this as a cute little juice jug. Oh, well. I now see it as the perfect illustration of a certain portion of the Korean male psyche - both in the wishful thinking that went into the size of the hole, and in the fact that using the thing means to symbolically piss in a tiger's mouth. South Korea still imports tiger bone from Indonesia and sells it to gullible folk who believe it will cure their arthritis. It also imports tiger penis to sell to idiot folk who make a soup out of it and believe it will "put a tiger in their tank" when it comes time for a little love-making. So, I wonder why these tiger chamber pots aren't for sale in the neighbourhood Home Plus.

Gungnamji Pond
- A very simple little pavilion in the middle of an ancient man-made lake was a relaxing retreat for Baekje Royalty and is now surrounded by lotus leaf ponds and remains a relaxing spot for tourists. This was our last stop on our first full day and all of this is within easy walking distance from the centre of town. I don't have too much to say about this place except that it was beautiful and simple and that I've never seen that many lotus flowers together in one place. I could have spent an afternoon watching the giant leaves collect roaming beads of water before sending them splashing back into the pond or onto a leaf below.

It was also cool to see the pond highlighted in the evening's MBC K-Drama on TV back at our hotel. Gae-baek is the celebrated Baekje General who did his best to defend his kingdom at often seemingly insurmountable odds. He even went so far as to kill his own wife and children by his own sword so as to not have to worry about them being taken by invading armies and to not have anything to take away his concentration on war. So, there's that. But it was kind of fun to have visited the unadorned set of a TV show the same day that it airs. It was also fun to note that all Baekje warriors from the drama had flowing K-pop style black (and sometimes brown) locks which shimmered in the moonlight.

Baekje Cultural Land
- This was our first morning visit on our second full day in Buyeo, and it happened to be right across the street from our hotel. Admittedly, this place needs a new name, but I was impressed by the sheer scope and contributions of all levels of government to get the thing built. Basically, this is a massive (and still-growing) themed cultural centre which is essentially a rebuild of the ancient Baekje capital and an example of a surrounding village. Just referring to the pamphlet I have in front of me, I can tell you that the park has cost a total of 690.4 billion won (approximately 636 million US dollars) and looks to be completed in 2013 or so after having broken ground in 1994. That, my friends, is a hell of a cultural investment.

The park is centered around a full-scale recreation of the ancient Baekje fortress at Sabi (now Buyeo) at a location North of the river, where the original had been in the center of town south of the mountain and south of the river bend. The place is huge, and we were lucky enough to be practically the only ones there for the first 30 minutes or so of our visit. We used the freedom to take some decent pictures and the be cheese balls dressing up in the costumes a wardrobe assistant had on hand. The place is also the main filming area for MBC's Gaebaek drama, though they weren't filming that day.

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the park is the 5-story (38 meter) stone pagoda at the recreated Neungsa Temple. This is the place where the incense burner was discovered and this newly located recreation serves as an architecturally accurate depiction of the original temple which was (again) located south of the river in its time. The pagoda now exists as the only large-scale wooden pagoda in Korea. I remember being saddened during my visit to the Gyeong-ju National Museum when I saw a scale model of the 9 story pagoda that once existed in Geyongju at Hwangnyong-sa Temple before it was sacked by a Mongol army in the 13th century. With all of the originally architectural beauty that still exists untouched in Japan (specifically Kyoto) and was largely exported by Baekje architects, it's a tragedy that no original wooden pagoda structures exist in Korea. Apparently there is now talk of rebuilding the structure as they have done in Buyeo.

The amount of work by skilled artisans and historians that went into the construction of this place is simply astounding and a lot of it can be better appreciated with a walk through the Baekje Historical Museum which is also located within the grounds and offers a very impressive collection of hands-on displays and examples of how the original palaces and temples were built and how they have been recreated using a combination of ancient and modern techniques. I thought we might have been museumed-out after our first day, but this really helped to give a proper perspective of the scale of this venture.

Despite the initial potential cheese factor, I left Baekje Cultural Land with an overwhelming feeling of awe for the level of pride and care this region's people have for their history. It may have taken the addition of the Lotte Company building a hotel/condo/golf course across the street to get the thing properly financed, but it seems to me that the compromise was worth it. Lotte now owns the only legitimate resort hotel and condominium in Buyeo, and that should go a long way towards keeping the money flowing - in addition to the throngs of school tours that will keep the turnstiles spinning throughout the year. The park is well-worth the 9,000 won admission. If you go to Buyeo, hop a bus or taxi north of the river and check it out.

Busosanseong Fortress - This now exists as a hillside park (I'm reluctant to call Busosan a mountain) with a few very interesting historical sites - the most memorable for most being Nakwa-am ("Falling Flower Rock"). I admittedly first read about this place in my school's summer reading novel, where the main character participates in a pivotal plot moment at a cliff over-looking the Baekma River.

During the last moment of the Baekje Kingdom, after the king had moved his court up to the hillside fortress to escape the invading Silla and Tang armies, the legend goes that 3000 court maidens threw themselves off of the rocky precipice and killed themselves on the rocks, sand, and water below, rather than fall into enemy hands. The falling billowing dresses appeared as flowers falling from the sky. The souls of the women are mourned in water-side ceremonies each year and the legend grows. There are sign markers and a wooden pavilion at the top of the cliff to commemorate the women.

A little further down the path toward a boat launch you can find Goran-sa, a small river-side temple which includes this partially hidden painting on its outside back wall depicting the maidens going through with their hopeless task.

The cynic in me wants to point out that the number is greatly exaggerated, and that the reigning king at the time was a bit of an ass, so it's likely that the women were at least "encouraged" to end their lives - perhaps even at the King's own request. Regardless, it's a powerful place that's certainly worthy of a visit. We made our way back to the park entrance via river boat from where we could see a largely green-covered cliff face that is reportedly red in the fall. You can come-up with your own reasons as to why this would be.

And so that was our trip to Buyeo - we did a lot. I could write about the places we stayed, but for now I'll sign-off by saying that the rabbit treated us to one night in the Lotte Resort Condominium on our second night in Buyeo and it was, as expected, very high-end. Our jimjil-bang (Korean sauna) on the first night was not - but I'll save my jimjil-bang comments for another post.

Shortly after our boat ride, it was off to Jeonju, which I'll get to blogging about tomorrow...

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sad Movies

I've seen some sad movies of late - here are three that I watched within the past week...

Sad Movie (2005) - You'd think the title would prepare you, but it doesn't. This one was chosen by me because of the relative success of the previous multiple storyline Korean dramas we had rented. I can be a sucker for an earnest-as-hell Korean weepy - at least they are engaging. This one though is out of control. Four stories: 1) A fireman is close to proposing to his girlfriend, but she's reluctant to marry as she fears losing him in a fire. 2) A perennial loser can't get his girlfriend back until lightning strikes and he develops his own paid service: delivering personal break-up notices for people too shy or emotional to break-up themselves. 3) A deaf girl with burn scars on her face plays a costumed mascot at Everland amusement park and falls for a sketch artist in the park, while he falls for the mystery of what the girl behind the mask looks like. 4) A withdrawn young boy discovers his mom's true love for him when he finds and reads her diary.

Charming as much of this is - especially the Everland stuff (surprise, surprise), it all goes up in flames - if you think I'm spoiling endings here, I'm not. Just imagine the worst case scenario for each story and you'll be correct: 1) The fireman dies in a warehouse inferno but not before leaving a weepy goodbye video that was somehow miraculously recovered from the smoldering wreckage. 2) The man is a sudden success at his new break-up business, until he one day gets a message from his old girlfriend asking him to essentially break-up with himself for her because she's found a new love. 3) The woman with the burn finally takes off her mask for the artist to draw the "real her" as opposed to the imagined beautiful and flawless girls he had been drawing, only to discover that he can't bring himself to even look properly at the girl, let alone accept that she has facial scars - he can't even draw them. 4) The kid's mom dies of cancer and he wails for his loss.

This is so ridiculously over the top. It's called Sad Movie for a reason.

Late Blossom (2010) - This one came out in late 2010, just in time for Christmas. Apparently, the source material is a serial cartoon, followed by a live theatre version, followed by this film version that did quite well in the theatres. This is the story of 4 elderly people living in a hillside neighbourhood. One couple, whose children have all married and moved away is struggling to make ends-meet: he, as a parking lot attendant on the hill, and his wife slowly decaying from Alzheimer's Disease back at the house where she is locked-in daily for fear of her escaping and hurting herself. The other couple is formed by the world's most surly scooter delivery man/grandfather who berates a poor scrap paper collecting woman one winter's night in the street. Watching this foursome play off of each other is in turns heart-warming, silly, and ultimately depressing as hell. You thought Sad Movie was sad? Late Blossom makes sharp turns from a tale of love in the twilight years to one of absolutely zero hope of happiness for the elderly whose families have abandoned them or failed to understand their wants and needs. Even when two characters find happiness and admit it, they won't allow themselves to enjoy what they've found. I'm giving this a light recommendation for curiosity sake, but if you're a Korean who is considering moving away from your parents, don't watch this with them, or your days will be riddled with guilt from here to eternity.

The Illusionist (2010) - this one is a French animated tale from the director of The Triplets of Belleville - the one that should have won the Oscar in 2003. In brief, this is a largely wordless story (though there is some French, English, and Gaelic included) of a past his prime French Stage Magician in 1959, whose only constants in his life appear to be his feisty white rabbit and a couple of worn suitcases. He moves from job to job, ending-up in Edinburgh, accompanied by a young girl from a Scottish Isle who is looking for some real magic in her life. This is sad, to be sure, but it's the kind of hand-drawn animation that is so full of life - every frame just stuffed with something deeper than we're used to seeing from such films. There are happenings here though which will break your heart - never has a "Dear Jane" letter elicited such undeniable pathos. This film takes its time establishing its wistful reality, and you'll feel richer for having paid attention.

I'm going on vacation!

I'll have a lot more to write about when I return, but for now, here's where the rabbit and I will be headed, starting this evening...

1) Buyeo - historically rich city in the South West, and former capital city of the Baekje Kingdom.

2) Jeonju - Capital of North Jeolla Province and renowned for its delicious "Jeonju Bibimbap" and well-maintained hanok village.

3) Namwon - Korea's "City of Love", based at the foot of Jirisan and the setting for Korea's famous fictional romance, Chunhyang.

4) Haeinsa - This is the temple that houses thousands of ancient wooden blocks, upon which are carved the world's most complete collection of original Buddhist texts. Very cool - read all about it.

We will be gone for 5 nights and 5 days - returning on Saturday evening on a KTX train from Daegu to Seoul. Looking forward to some time away and some adventures with my girl. I'll be sure to write all about it upon my return.

Walking the Seoul Fortress

This is something that my friend Maria and I have been trying to do for a while, but weather and our schedules had not cooperated until yesterday. We were very lucky with the weather.

I won't write a great deal about the history of the Seoul Fortress Wall here, except to note that it is effing big, and effing old - but not Great Wall big or Great Wall old. The Seoul Fortress Wall was initially constructed in 1396 in an attempt to safeguard the city residents and protect various shrines and temples that had been built in the city. To put things in perspective in Korea terms though, the walls of the Suwon Fortress reach a total length of 5.74 kilometers with it's one true climb being that up Paldalsan to the bell tower (143 meters). By comparison, as far as city fortresses go, Seoul's is massive - just under 19 kilometers in length with 3 notable elevations: Ingwangsan (338 Meters), Bugaksan (342 meters), Naksan (125 meters), and Namsan (262 meters). In early August with temperatures in the low 30s and 70% humidity for the majority of the day, it could have been worse, but it was tough going at times.

Just to admit it right off the bat, we didn't complete the full fortress walk, but stopped short by about 5 kilometers, leaving the Namsan portion of the wall for another day.

What I really love about this hike is the variety of scenery one can take-in in a day.

Maria and I began early in the am (7:00) at the old south gate (Namdaemun) which is still under repair from arson damage suffered in 2008. There are observation points where one can view the progress of the construction, which will still take some time as the powers that be are insistent on using specific materials and processes accurate to the time of the gate's original construction. I applaud their efforts.

From there, large sections of the wall are entirely missing or simply "suggested" by markings on the sidewalk, or signage through parks. With the expansion of the city in modern times, entire sections of the fortress were blown-out to make way for traffic thoroughfares and above-ground mass transit lines. It was a fun little adventure however to use our various guidebooks and maps to follow the old line as best we could. The city's missing West gate (Seodaemun) is now represented by a stylized wooden wall topped with green glass and a plaque explaining the significance of the landmark. From there - it was the beginning of the NW ascent of the mountains that surround the top end of the capital.

I won't bore you with a step-by step description of our hike, but what began at 7:00 PM wrapped-up for us around 10 hours later after a great deal of climbing, exploring, and sweating - I'm pretty sure that I went through approximately 6 liters of water during the hike and I only visited the casa de pepe once. The Davey needed constant replenishment.

If you've lived in Seoul for any length of time and haven't done this hike yet - do. You'll see sides of the city (mountain forests, historic neighbourhoods, and military installations) that you never knew existed. It was a treat to be surrounded by greenery - flora and fauna while the concrete spread-out beneath us for kilometers in the distance on all sides.

One particularly interesting portion of the hike is the section behind the "Blue House" (Cheongwa-dae), the residence of South Korea's president which sits at the southern foot of Bugaksan. Maria and I met-up with Andy at the NW gate to begin this climb. For this section, foreigners need to provide their passport or Alien Registration Card to obtain an ID tag to be worn for the 2.2 kilometer journey up the mountain and down on the NE side near Hyehwa. The main reason for this is that Bugaksan was the location for a failed presidential assassination attempt by North Korean soldiers in January of 1968.

This was pretty nasty stuff, and the fact that 31 North Korean soldiers were able to make their way to a point only 800 meters from the President before being driven-back by police forces caused the country to go into a new era of high alert - creating a reserve army and closing Bugak Mountain to non-military personnel until 2006. All along this portion of the Fortress Wall, one can look over to the North side to see double fences that appear to be both electrified and covered in razor wire (and likely armed with mines between them).

There are also military posts nearly every 100 meters. A lone tree stands not far from the path, marked with bullet holes from where a shoot-out occurred between the Northern Commandos and the South Korean defensive forces. It's some pretty weird stuff. That being said, the portion of the mountain which was only 5 years ago off limits to most everyone, was yesterday crawling with families.

We broke for a much needed lunch and rest in an air-conditioned hanok house just outside of Waryong Park before continuing south to Hyehwa, up Naksan, and down into Dongdaemun where we cooled our feet in the Cheonggycheon. We finished our day walking through the partially completed Dongdaemun History and Culture Park on the former site of the Dongdaemun Stadiums and then we trained it West to Andy's place for dinner. We could have made it up Namsan, but we were content to leave our day as a happy memory, rather than one that ended on one more hot and humid ascent. We might have been bitter and hateful people after that climb. I actually headed to UNIQLO to get some new boxers, a $5 T-shirt, and then stopped at a market by Andy's house to buy a hard scrubbing cloth for a quick shower before dinner. There were layers of filth, my friends - layers.

For those considering doing the hike, I would caution you against doing it in the summer. Wait until fall, unless you feel like losing your entire body weight in sweat. But, if you go, look for your "stamp tour" map available at any of the 4 stamp points: Namdaemun (the burned gate), Seodaemun (the missing gate), Sukjeongmun (The North Gate at Bugaksan), or at Dongdaemun (the East gate) - usually at a guard house found near the gate. If you get all four stamps, you can exchange the completed map for a commemorative button. I'm guessing that rarely in the world's history has a trio of adults ever been as excited about earning a button.

Alas, ours will have to wait as we neglected to get stamps at our first two locations. This will be tops on our priority list for next week when we complete the Namsan climb.