Gyeongju: Where History Runs Deep

Gyeongju, South Korea

Artwork functioning as guardians for Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, South Korea. Artist-created guardians are sometimes paintings, sometimes very colorful statues.

This is the final installment of Nadine Godwin’s series on South Korea. Check out her other articles: Korea: A Temple Sleepover, Seoul: Traditional Architecture, Seoul: With Designs on the Future, and Seoul: Palace Hopping.

GYEONGJU, South Korea — In the eighth century, Gyeongju had a population of one million; today that number hovers around 250,000, or only one quarter as many.

But the city does have a rich collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites because it was Korea’s capital during the thousand-year rein of the Silla Dynasty. Gyeongju’s importance ended with the dynasty in the 10th century.

My recent press trip, sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization, included a very short visit to this former capital. I had been here previously, in the 1980s, when the name was spelled Kyong-Ju. Our guide said Korea has been standardizing spellings of place names, hence, the new iteration for the old capital.

During our fly-by sojourn, we squeezed in an unplanned visit to the royal tombs, which I had seen in the 1980s. The specific destination is called the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, part of a UNESCO site. It encompasses 23 royal tomb mounds, out of 155 such tumuli in the city’s downtown.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Grass-covered burial mounds seen in the Daereungwon Tomb Complex in Gyeongju, a former capital of Korea. There are 155 such mounds in the city’s downtown.

The enclosed complex is essentially a pleasant park with paths that take visitors past many of the manmade grass-covered bumps. These tombs are estimated to date from the early fourth century through the sixth century, during Silla days.

We found our way to the best known of them, Cheonmachong Tomb, which displays some of the artifacts found there including an outstanding gold royal crown. Also, one display shows how the tomb was constructed, i.e., with stones and dirt surrounding a wooden room in which the royal body was buried with various treasures.

A sign said no photos were allowed, so I did not take a shot of that golden crown. Our guide said later that we could have taken pictures anyway.

I was glad to revisit the tombs but was not so enchanted by our next UNESCO site — the hillside Seokguram Grotto, site of an eighth century Buddha. It is a manmade granite cave on Mount Tohamsan.

This location meant we had a dramatic mountain drive getting to the destination — and quite a few steep steps to climb upon arrival.

Maybe Seokguram would have made me happier if the site had not been tied up in restoration and protective maintenance work. I do understand such work is necessary.

Pages: 1 2

Korea: A Temple Sleepover

The twin Buddhas for which Daebiro Hall at Haeinsa is famous. These are described as the world’s oldest wooden Buddhas (covered in gold, obviously).

The twin Buddhas for which Daebiro Hall at Haeinsa is famous. These are described as the world’s oldest wooden Buddhas (covered in gold, obviously).

HAPCHEON COUNTY, South Korea — Haeinsa is a Buddhist temple in the mountains of Hapcheon County south of Seoul. Dating from the ninth century, it is one of 16 Korean Buddhist temples where tourists can stay overnight for one or a few nights and experience aspects of a monk’s life.

Haeinsa is different from all others, however, because it houses the Tripitaka Koreana, the world’s most complete collection of Buddhist writings, carved on 81,258 wooden blocks nearly 800 years ago.

Fabulous characters painted on the ceiling inside the main hall of worship at Haeinsa Buddhist temple.

Fabulous characters painted on the ceiling inside the main hall of worship at Haeinsa Buddhist temple.

I sampled the temple life for one night and glimpsed some of the Tripitaka wooden blocks while on a press trip hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization with support from the Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism.

To reach Haeinsa, we traveled by coach about five hours from Seoul, mostly on expressways, taking breaks twice at large, modern rest stops with some amusing features.

For one thing, each had a machine that for a dollar or two would read your fortune if you put your hand inside the designated opening.

RoadsideVending3a

In one bathroom, there was a device called the etiquette bell: Push a button and you

Toilet for tots, seen at a highway rest stop in Korea.

Toilet for tots, seen at a highway rest stop in Korea.

get the sound of flushing to drown out other sounds. Further, one ladies room set aside a space for primping that smacked of a bordello. And the stall for tiny tots looked like a play area.

 Sleeping over

Now, about the temple stay — this was an enlightening experience, but it isn’t for everyone. It helps to have an interest in Buddhism and in the promise of meditation. Otherwise, the experience may be something of a grind.

On the afternoon of our arrival, our Haeinsa host, a monk called Do Moo Zee (meaning Just Don’t Know) gave us instructions on temple manners, meditation and prostration routines.

Do Moo Zee leads the way through one of several gates at Haeinsa.

Do Moo Zee leads the way through one of several gates at Haeinsa.

Manners meant bowing in certain circumstances and no talking during meals in the common dining room. It often meant no indoor photos.

As for meditation, we were told we would be whacked with a bamboo stick (it looked like a yardstick) if we fell asleep during meditations. Do Moo Zee demonstrated on one guest who said it felt like the whack one may get during massages. We were urged to smile slightly during meditation, as this is not meant to be a grim business; it’s meant to be the route to enlightenment.

Prostration, starting from a standing position, involved going to a kneeling stance and then prostration, then standing up again, multiple times. I figure we did about 90 of those by the end of our visit the next morning. We attended evening and morning services.

That morning service occurred at 3:30, which meant a wake-up knock on the door at 3 a.m. after sleeping on thin mats on the floor (blessedly heated from below).

My bet is this was a cut above monks’ housing arrangements, but our food was the same and somewhere between tasteless and inedible. To our great amusement, we found a notice posted in our shared sleeping rooms saying comments on the food were “highly discouraged.”

Navigating this temple, which sits on a mountain, also involved a lot of steps, but this is not true of all temples where overnight guests are welcomed.

These points may make a temple stay sound unattractive, but these are things one should know before committing to the experience.

The brightly painted Daebiro Hall on the grounds at Haeinsa.

The brightly painted Daebiro Hall on the grounds at Haeinsa.

On the other hand, our very short visit included serious time for meditation plus group conversations with Do Moo Zee, where we could ask about Buddhism in Korea, temple life — and even his personal life. For those who stay more than one night, only the first day involves the described rigors; after that, guests decide how rigorous to be.

A Haeinsa monk, using a very large hanging drum, calls fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

A Haeinsa monk, using a very large hanging drum, calls fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

There were amusing surprises. Haeinsa monks use a huge drum to call others to services. One monk, wielding a very

A Haeinsa monk films another who uses a drum to call fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

A Haeinsa monk films another who uses a drum to call fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

with-it tablet, filmed the drumming session that our group witnessed. This was for training purposes, we were told. Pounding that drum wasn’t easy and required five monks working in rotation.

Pages: 1 2

Seoul: Traditional Architecture

Seoul architecture

Traditional architecture seen in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

SEOUL, South Korea — The Korean word hanok refers to a traditional Korean house. I had occasion to see the houses during a recent press trip to Seoul and other Korean sites, sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization.

The Bukchon Hanok Village is a Seoul neighborhood known for these houses. Tourists are drawn to the area to see the houses and for Bukchon’s galleries and artsy workshops devoted to traditional arts.

We had a guide for our stroll — a stroll that was more like a forced march (that is what learning trips for the press are like) up and down hills on narrow streets to look into shops and view picturesque streets.

This replica of a 1910 home shows how effectively wood was used to create a structure both sturdy and attractive.

This replica of a 1910 home shows how effectively wood was used to create a structure both sturdy and attractive.

This visit started at a large house that is used to show tourists what a typical hanok looks like. According to our Bukchon host, this area was redeveloped in the early 20th century with houses that were built using old construction methods. So, locals consider this area new although it has the look of something that could be older.

Hanoks feature small rooms that face courtyards covered with sand, not grass. Our hostess said grass is associated with the dead, whereas the sand assists with water drainage and reflects light, bringing the light into the homes, which have deep eaves to block direct sun in summer.

A courtyard in the model house that tourists visit in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village. The raised floor leaves room for under-floor heating.

A courtyard in the model house that tourists visit in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village. The raised floor leaves room for under-floor heating.

Floors inside these homes are constructed to accommodate fires underneath for heat.

Our hostess said the style of these houses came from China “long ago,” but the concept of under-floor heating is Korean. Even today, she said, apartment buildings have under-floor heating.

We dropped by one Bukchon gallery/workshop with paintings, plus other artsy objects (braziers of steel but inlaid with silver, for example) and briefly watched a potter at his work. In another shop, we were offered tastes of rice wine that, I gather, was made based on traditional ways.

A potter demonstrating his skills at a workshop in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

A potter demonstrating his skills at a workshop in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

At the area’s Folk Painting Workshop, we tried our hand at painting small lotuses or peonies on coasters. Fortunately, we were coloring in established lines, but with paint and brushes.

A rice wine tasting site in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

A rice wine tasting site in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

This was the finale to our too-short visit to this nice-looking area. The Bukchon Hanok Village is worth considerably more time.

We had a free afternoon in Seoul, which I used for a solo visit to another collection of hanoks. This required conquering — after a fashion — the subway system. I only had to travel a couple of stops on one line.

The two stations I saw were huge with numerous exits and with charts identifying the street or attraction that each exit led to — and the information appeared in English as well as Korean.

Thank goodness for that system! It let me exit the underground maze at the right place and, thus, avoid being totally lost once I was on the street.

Instructions for buying tickets are available in English and there is a surcharge (about 50 cents) for buying single paper tickets. One can pay about $2.50 for a refillable plastic card and avoid the surcharge after that. This reminded me of a similar concept in the Washington, D.C., metro.

Anyway, for my two rides, the plastic card did not make economic sense.

I asked for help a couple of times while underground, and the young women I approached were able to divine my needs and respond sufficiently well.

All of this delivered me rather quickly to the Namsangol Hanok Village, a fabrication in the city center created in the 1990s by moving historic (and usually 19th century) buildings from other points in Korea; also, one house is a replica. There is no entry fee to see the village, which is essentially a park, a quiet spot in the heart of a city of 11 million.

Seoul architecture

View of an 1890s-era house in Seoul’s Namsangol Hanok Village. The raised floor leaves room for under-floor heating.

The village installations are walled compounds, which had belonged to reasonably well-to-do people, with courtyards surrounded by small sitting, reading and sleeping rooms, plus there were kitchens, some shrines and secondary buildings.

This display at Namsangol Hanok Village illustrates a traditional way of cooking.

This display at Namsangol Hanok Village illustrates a traditional way of cooking.

I walked through the grounds of Namsangol’s five compounds but visitors are told to stay

out of the rooms and hence off the wooden floors.

However, in the fifth house I viewed, it appeared several visitors had rented traditional costumes in order to be photographed in them, and this was occurring mostly inside the house.

Women in rented traditional Korean dresses enhance the look of traditional homes in the Namsangol Hanok Village.

Women in rented traditional Korean dresses enhance the look of traditional homes in the Namsangol Hanok Village.

Visitors can try their hand at a traditional game, tossing arrows into a narrow-necked jar.

Visitors to Namsangol Hanok Village test their skills at an old Korean game that involves tossing arrows into a narrow-necked jar.

Visitors to Namsangol Hanok Village test their skills at an old Korean game that involves tossing arrows into a narrow-necked jar.

Also, Namsangol promotes its demonstrations of craft making although I didn’t

A pond on the grounds of the Namsangol Hanok Village.

A pond on the grounds of the Namsangol Hanok Village.

see examples of this; handmade traditional goods are sold here, too.

Namsangol was very popular when I visited, but as far as I could tell, it’s not a top spot for foreigners; most visitors seemed to be Korean.

 

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Seoul: With Designs on the Future

Seoul, South Korea

Figures, made of traditional Korean paper, floating on Seoul’s Cheonggye Stream. Effectively oversized lanterns, they were meant to be lighted at night. These floats were part of a temporary special exhibit.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series of articles on South Korea by Nadine Godwin. Read her first one, Seoul: Palace Hopping.

SEOUL, South Korea — I went to Korea a few times in the 1980s; I was mostly in Seoul and mostly there for business. Then, I returned with a press group in 2014, hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization.

In the ‘80s, the South Korean capital was already a big city with its share of high-rises of the commonplace sort. By my latest visit, its population was 11 million, and those nondescript (or ugly) high-rises had been joined by a number of striking skyscrapers that are actually attractive or bespeak an interest in creative architecture — or both.

Modern high-rise seen from the below-street-level Cheonggye Stream in Seoul.

Modern high-rise seen from the below-street-level Cheonggye Stream in Seoul.

Other recent projects — epitomized by the attractions described below —beautify the city, highlight the country’s past and embrace the future.

• The Cheonggye Stream is a 3.6-mile-long park that lines an old canal. Korea’s Joseon kings (1392 to 1910) created the canal for drainage into the Han River.

Seoul, South Korea

View of the Cheonggye Stream below-street-level park in central Seoul.

After the Korean War, the city covered the stream with a highway, then removed the road early in this century to create the below-street-level park, debuting in 2005.

Pages: 1 2