This is the journal of my 2009 visit to Korea and Japan.
My earlier Africa Journals are here
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Tuesday, April 21, 2009 : Busan, Korea
We see off our hosts in the morning. We give a brief account of our Japanese adventures and they're surprised we hated Japanese Yakatori. Their one experience of yakatori restaurant in Japan was among their best meals ever. Their meal did not include pig fat or any other such crazy stuff. I guess they had a better guide than us. As they leave to work, I wonder aloud what country I'll meet them in next and he says maybe Chile. He's always been especially interested by that country, and so have I.
We spend some time catching up on email, and I'm able to upload updates to this journal. Stupid Japan and its stupid overpriced hotels that don't even have Internet. It's nice to be back in a civilized country. It's another sunny day and Busan is sparkling this morning after its scrubbing last night. The wind and rain were intense.
I admire new areas of Busan on our way out of town - it's very big. I love that they have forested mountains all over the place and they leave them in pristine condition. We take a detour to some sort of ancient military fortification in one of the mountains. We drive partway up a mountainside and park and walk a ways up the steep path. It goes from dense urban area to perfectly natural forest with nothing between. This looks to be a city at peace with its environment.
We get onto Highway #1 which is the big road to Seoul. Looking at the analogue map (which we have, in addition to the GPS) I learn that this highway actually continues on to Pyongyang in North Korea. Somebody was an optimist. The North Korean portion was built by South Korea during times that were a little more tranquil than these. Some day, this is all supposed to become a part of a single trans-Asia highway connecting the port of Busan directly with Turkey, crossing China and India, among other countries.
Korea's major highways are ultra-modern, of course. The rest areas are also fairly elaborate. Even the gas stations. Inside, the dining area is nicer than one might expect, with outstanding meals available for just 5000 Won (USD$3.50). You just go in and catch the attention of that nice lady in back behind the green counter and point to one of those big photos and she takes care of you. One rest area even featured an aquarium - something nice and far beyond what's necessary. Signs all over Korea are -typically- bilingual, but at one rest area the coffee shop display was all in Korean, which I found very distressing.
At a highway rest area we have bibimbap for lunch. So nice to get back to my favorite comfort food. It's just as good at this rest stop as anywhere else, and just as cheap. I love this country. On the way out I buy a bag of something called walnut cakes from a nice lady who makes them fresh right there in her booth facing the parking lot. They really are cakes the shape of slightly oversize walnuts, with a walnut filling. Really good.
Next stop is a Buddhist temple not far off the highway. I take some pictures of the grounds and we have to replace our shoes with slippers to enter the museum where they display lots of paintings of the Buddha. Other visitors here bow every time they enter one of these Buddha rooms. It's really nice here and someplace they've got a relic that belonged to the actual Buddha himself and they've got a flame that has burned continuously for 1300 years but, even so, I am bored by Buddhism.
Bumun Lake Resort in Gyeongju, Korea : April 21, 2009
We arrive at a resort near Gyeongju where we're staying two nights and there are more marvelous historical things to be seen in this area. From our hotel window across the lake we can see a big water park. It's nice and peaceful here and the Korean hillsides are beautiful.
Gyeongju, Korea : April 22, 2009
Our first stop is the Bulgoksa Temple, completed in 774AD. Much like most of the interesting places in Korea, the Japanese burnt it to the ground (in this case, 1593). It was completely and accurately rebuilt in 1969-73. The site has been designated by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site.
Next, we drive way up high to the Seokguram Grotto, another of Korea's UNESCO sites, on top of a mountain. The forests here are so beautiful.
Korea's King Munmu was buried out there among those rocks. He promised to return as a sea dragon and defend against the Japanese.
Then we drive down to the ocean shore for a look at the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu from 681AD. He had himself buried in an undersea mausoleum saying he would turn himself into a sea dragon so that he could go on protecting Korea from invaders. (Note that we are on the side of the Korean peninsula which faces only Japan.) You can't actually see anything but some rocks a little ways out beyond the beach but it's still pretty cool.
There are lots of Korean schoolchildren here today and we are minor celebrities. We are greeted many times and asked where we're from. They are delighted when we respond. One group of schoolgirls asks if they may photograph us, and then we photograph them in turn. Young English students here are so much fun. If you visit here, don't pass up the opportunity of chatting with them, and making their day.
We drive around some more, just looking at the seaside villages and stop at a pair of twin pagodas. These are connected with the king-seadragon, click on the plaque at right to read about it.
We are mobbed here by an especially friendly crowd of schoolchildren. Except we see one boy thowing a rock at a pagoda and admonish him. He looks genuinely ashamed and, by way of apology, he actually bows. Wow.
It's Rob's birthday today and, back near the hotel, I buy him a bottle of wine at a tiny, tiny little store near the hotel. They accept my debit card. "No problem." Korea is so unlike Japan. So much better. Dinner is at an Italian cuisine restaurant which looks just like it was designed by Fred Flintstone. It's very cool. Rob gets free ice cream for desert because it's his birthday. By the Korean method of counting one's age, he's one year older. Newborns begins life at age 1, not age zero. I never knew that before! (It's nonsensical but, still, interesting.)
Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea : April 23, 2009
First stop of the day, we drive to the nearby Anapji Pond. The king's palace was here back in the 7th century AD. It's a very important historical site and, in case we were uncertain if that really were the case, we are reassured by the fact that there are hundreds of buses here. School kids, mostly. We'll be rock stars before an especially large audience today.
Some buildings are scattered around the pond, and they've done a lot of excavation here to bring up ancient artifacts. It's a beautiful place. The children move in flocks and, they are delighted when we say anything to them. It's more than a little spooky when one girl of about 10 begins following us, and her friend follows her. We have to rudely ignore them and, pretty soon, they go away. Rock stardom has its downside.
Daegu, Korea : Thursday, April 23, 2009
We're on our way to another part of the country and we make a stop in Daegu. It's another city built very tall. Lots of high rise apartment buildings. There's a big military base here so we're not celebrities anymore. We wander the market area for a little while and take some photos, including of assorted living sea creatures for sale as food.
Then we drive on to the Haeinsa Buddhist Temple that is, like so many others, built way up high on a mountainside. It was established here in the year 802AD. Driving alongside the river through the forest, it's so beautiful. And even this remote back road is just excellent. Apparently, there are no roads and bridges in this country in anything less than perfect condition.
From the parking lot, there's another one kilometer to walk. Most of it uphill. When we arrive, we see some people getting out of a cab near the front entrance. LOL. Perhaps we ought to have considered abusing the diplomatic license plates and parking up here? But then we would have missed the walk through the forest alongside the stream.
It's a grand entrance and along the way we pass a tree that was planted here when this temple was new - over 1200 years ago. The tree died in 1945 and now it's just a stump, but still it's interesting. At the gate is a big poster promoting "templestay." You can stay here and bow and pray with the monks. You get up at 3AM and, somehow, this will leave you feeling "more fully awake."
The Pond of Reflection. A Korean queen had some sort of magical experience here. The large version makes for a good (very green) desktop image.
Inside, it looks much like the other temples and I'm getting bored by Buddhism again but then a lady monk with perfect English comes and chats us up. She explains about the significance of the smallish building we're looking at. It's Buddha with six lesser figures to each side. She expains that they represent the different months and when you die then you meet one of these guys, depending upon your birth month. All according to the Lunar Calendar, of course.
Then she goes on from there to explain a whole lot more about Buddhism and I drift away. Rob likes it though. She leaves, eventually, but then rejoins us when we're looking at the big Buddha in another structure. She says it's customary to bow to the statue three times and she hurries to fetch us all some pads for our knees. Her English really is very good and she says that when in Rome one ought to do as the Romans do. I'm not sure if she's using the customary English axiom or if she is specifically referencing Roman Catholicism. In any case, this time I don't drift. I'm out of there in a hurry. Rob is more open-minded and she is so pleased by his bows.
This property is on at least four levels and at the highest level is the most interesting thing here. It's a warehouse for a book, the Tripitaka Koreana, and it's thoroughly amazing. Well worth the long hike. There are 81,000 wood carvings and each of them can be used to print a single page of a book about the teachings of Buddha. It's not moveable type so Guttenberg can rest easy but it far predates him, having been created in about the year 1087.
The entire vast book is comprised of 52 million Chinese characters. A lot of work. We can look in and see long rows of shelves where each woodblock has been carefully labeled and stacked. And we get to see samples of both the wood blocks and the printed pages close up.
These 81,000 blocks have been designated by UNESCO as another world heritage site and I think that's what accounts for the special security cameras in evidence on the entire perimeter.
On the way out, our monk catches sight of us yet again. We were about to leave but she draws our attention to a place where there are some tiny pearls on display and a big magnifying glass in front. She explains that these were remnants when the Buddha's body was cremated. All holy people leave these pearls when they're cremated. It's a miracle. Buddhists leave pearls. And Muslims get 72 virgins. And Christians get raptured up out of the ground. This monk is annoying me. I should preach to her the gospel of the one true faith, that of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just for kicks.
This real nice gate is at the entrance to the Haeinsa Temple area. Click the poster to read their pitch for Templestay - "Individual acting is not recommended." Pretty white statue in the forest, by the stream. Below are photos of Buddhas and some typical monks. The bottom right Buddha has six fellows to each side of him, and each one represents a birth month.
We stop for gas on the way back down the mountain and we notice that across the other side of the stream are some Chinese characters carved into the rock. They could be 1000 years old, for all we know.
Here is a pretty good a place to mention about the Korean writing. One may wonder why the gigantic book and this graffiti were written with Chinese characters and not Korean. Well, it's an interesting story. A Korean king in the middle 1500's noticed that most of his people were illiterate - because up to then they used the Chinese for writing, and there are thousands of Chinese characters and people found better things to do with their time than to memorize them all. So he ordered some smart fellows to figure out a sensible (phonetic) written language. They produced an extremely logical written system of just 24 characters, called Hangul.
So, everything that's very old here is written using the Chinese. And one often see's things written in the Western alphabet, particularly the names of places and of foods. "Korean" refers to the spoken language only. Technically speaking, there is no such thing as "written in Korean" as the language can be written in any of three alphabets. So, one speaks Korean and, generally, writes Hangul. Technically.
Jinju, Korea : Thursday, April 23, 2009
Our next stop is in Jinju and we arrive there at dusk. We come in from the wrong side of town and it doesn't look like much but when we reach the riverfront where our hotel is located, it's just beautiful.
From the room, we have a view of the performing arts center and of a long stretch of river.
Our hotel is called the Dong Bang Hotel. A funny name, but a very good hotel. I notice it has no 4th floor. How silly. Everybody knows it's only the 13th floor that has to be skipped.
Jinju, Korea : Friday, April 24
It's sort of gloomy weather today and, while we're figuring out what to do today, we learn from CNN that Japan has again pissed off its neighbors because the prime minister has done something to honor Japan's war dead - including a number of "Class A war criminals." The Japanese seem to care only about Japanese war dead and nothing for the tens of millions of citizens of neighboring countries they have murdered.
We've decided to go visit the nearby Jinjuseong Fortress which was built to hold back Japanese invaders in about the year 1500. We go down to the car and begin getting ourselves onto the main thoroughfare while waiting for the GPS to 'acquire satellites.' When that happens, we are a bit surprised to find the distance to our objective is a mere 1km. It's right down the street!
View from about the point where Korean patriot Nongae sacrificed her life to pull the murderous Japanese general to his death on the rock far below.
We park outside the castle walls and pay 70 cents each to enter. It's like an especially beautiful park inside. With 500+ year old walls. Among the first sites we come to is a shrine dedicated to a local female entertainer, a Kisaeng, a sort of Korean geisha, named Nongae.
Nongae used her feminine wiles to get close to the Japanese general who had conquered the city and then pulled him over the cliff killing them both on a certain rock, now called the Rock of Righteousness. She is QUITE the local heroine.
Besides the shrine, there are other local references to her. I think she's the favorite hero of this region. The general and his Japanese army had killed over 70,000 soldiers and volunteer militiamen to gain control of this castle. He didn't live very long to to enjoy his success.
There is some more to the story, including how Nongae wore rings on each hand that were able to be locked together, sealing the general's fate. I recommend Nongae's story with more details.
It's been threatening to rain all day but still it's dry, so we stop for 25-cent coffee from a vending machine but have some trouble working out what are the options. We ask for help from a couple of schoolgirls and, before long, we have about a dozen schoolgirls gathered round us.
Korean boys, I've noticed, are more apt to initiate a conversation. However, once you get the girls started, they're much more enthusiastic to pursue conversation in English. The coffee is surprisingly good.
There is yet another Buddhist temple but I don't bother going inside, even though it looks very beautiful, like all of them. The temple symbol, so much like the NAZI symbol, is more prominent here than usual.
The far end of the castle grounds is also the high ground of castle and there is a plaque explaining that this is where the defending general kept an eye on things.
There are some examples of artillery used by the Korean defenders, they look to me more sophisticated than one would expect from the time. These guns could send a shell well over 1 kilometer.
Next up is the national museum. This one is mostly dedicated to the Japanese invasion of the year 1592. It's a very nice museum. On the way out, we pick up a couple things at the gift shop and, somehow, we end up getting mobbed by another crowd of schoolchildren. They really are so charming.
The adult Koreans seldom pay us any attention but it seems different here. This castle is, I gather, very important in Korean history and there have been several times in here when adults seemed to nod their respect and appreciation of us for visiting here. And one man looked to me like he was trying hard to remember some words in English before explaining about a certain monument, that it's written in the old Chinese characters which predate Korea's modern written language. The moment I acknowledged I understood him, he hurried away. Nothing like that ever happened before.
On the way out, we figure out the route down to the riverbank where the famous rock is located, and visit there. The rock where the Nungae drowned the unwelcome Japanese general.
We drive around for a bit and end up at a man-made lake and the Asia Lakeside Hotel. We go in for another coffee and it is just so very elegant.
Rob is curious and checks the hotel room rates. Only 120,000 Won for a double. About $90. What a bargain. For the same price you can get an Ondol room. The clerk tells us that means the kind with no bed and you sleep on a mat on the floor. I ask her if that's the way she sleeps at home and she chuckles in a way that tells me she thinks that would be ridiculous.
It's getting late in the day but we decide to set the GPS to guide us to some sort of traditional village 45 minutes away. Our route takes us along a very, very tiny winding steep mountain road. At the top of the mountain road, we go down again and it's been way longer than 45 minutes. At the bottom of the down-side we turn onto a much superior road. It's clear that the GPS did not evaluate that remote road very accurately. It's not without its flaws. We live and learn.
There are so many little Bhuddist cemeteries along the highway. These are always located against hillsides (on land ill-suited for farming) and include one or more grassy mounds. The grass generally is cut low. Often there are two white stone posts and some red flowering bushes. They're very pretty. They can also be seen from the big freeways but on these back roads there are even more of them.
Passing lots of farms, I'm also struck by how very much they use plastic to create makeshift greenhouses. I guess it's to extend the otherwise brief growing season.
We never do actually get around to finding this old-style village but it's been a beautiful and very enjoyable drive. I take a lot of photos which I hope will turn out as well as I expect. It's still not raining but it's cloudy and foggy and I think I have the makings of some exceptional photos.
We are on our way back to Jinju just as we lose the light and it begins raining fairly heavily. Just because it's dark and raining, however, does not seem to make for any compelling reason for many drivers to turn on their headlights. Even motorcyclists. ...I am so reminded of Cameroon. Still, it's such a beautiful country. I love being here.
The first photo is of the obscure mountain road that we accidentally got onto outside of Jinju. The scenery was very well worth the extra bother that our peculiar route caused us. If you look closely at the center photo below, there's a house that looks like it's barely hanging on to the top of that cliff. All the photos in this set would make suitable desktop images, and if you click any of these then you'll find that the 'big' versions are even bigger than usual.
Saturday, April 25, 2009 : Jinju, Korea
We are packing up, getting ready to drive back to Seoul today. But we'll make lots of detours and stops along the way, I expect. A visit to the National Museum is set for tomorrow. Then I hope to get a lot of my latest photos into here before I leave to the USA on Tuesday.
Sunday, April 26, 2009 : Seoul, Korea
We arrived back in Seoul late last night. We stopped in a couple more new Korean cities along the way. Rob is very pleased that his first solo adventure in this country went so smoothly. Previously, he'd only traveled by train to Busan and back and had not seen anything else of Korea, except near to Seoul. We have proved that it is indeed possible to travel extensively in Korea without knowing a word of the local lingo.
The English version of the Korea GPS works well. We never saw the smallest pothole even on the back roads. There may possibly be some connection with the fact that every time we saw a road crew working... they really were all working and not just standing around.
I was disappointed to see small amounts of litter a few times. But there is far less than in the USA. I hate litter. We even saw teenage boys making half-hearted efforts to look like thugs who, nonetheless, were scrupulous about putting each of their cigarette butts in the trash.
This morning, we'll have breakfast at the Navy Club here on the base and then spend the day at the Korea National Museum. They say it's the largest museum in the world under one roof. It's practically across the street from Rob's house, at least as the crow flies.
Korea has been inhabited for a very long time and the museum has artifacts going back thousands of years. And including more recent stuff, too, of course. I think I got a glimpse of the dark side of Koreans' drive to succeed. I saw a little girl of about 9 looking at exhibits and actually taking notes (on this sunny Sunday afternoon in Spring) under the careful supervision of her father. It was distressing. I think that's how so many teenagers end up throwing themselves in front of subway trains here if they don't get accepted into the right university.
We're going to the Lotus Lantern Festival tonight. It's a parade, I think it's connected with Bhuddas birthday which is next week - he's turning 2553 - and it looks like fun. Maybe I'll find reason to be less bored by Bhuddism? We park at the edge of the base and walk outside and hail a cab - it costs about $4 to get to the parade route. Legal parking being impossible in Seoul, this is a very sensible choice on our part, I think.
It's near dusk and, just as the parade gets underway, we pick a spot that's illuminated for the TV cameras by a big spotlight, so I hope my own photos will turn out to be well lighted, too. I notice the proportion of white people in the crowd is much higher than normal. This is a terrific parade. We've got extravagant floats along with others where I'm embarrassed for them. We've got dancers who pause to perform elaborate performaces and then run to catch up while other groups are just walking and have not even bothered to color-coordinate their clothes. But it's all good.
Most every group's presentation involves some sort of lotus flower shaped lantern, and mostly those are lighted from inside by a candle. And there are lots and lots of monks. Hundreds. After a while, it becomes apparent to me that the reason the crowd of observers is more white than usual is because so many of Seoul's citizens are participants in the parade! It seems like about 100,000 of them have paraded past.
Several paraders pause to ask us where we're from and they are pleased when we say America. A monk is especially approving of our answer. "America very good country!" Another insists that we join the chant of his group, and coaches us until we get it just right. HWA GAE SAW!!! We have no idea what we're saying but everybody nearby is very pleased.
The best floats are the dragons which emit steam, and we hope they'll come by again. What we get, near the end, are new and improved dragons that emit actual bursts of flame! There's also a chicken that emits flame, but that one doesn't seem to make any sense. The symbolic significance of tiny helicopter float is likewise baffling.
The Lantern Festival was so dazzling that I could not but take lots of photos. The women were mostly wearing traditional Korean dresses. Some danced, some just walked carrying lanterns. In keeping with the theme, and out of consideration for it being dark, the floats were all lighted from within. Groups representing Nepal and Sri Lanka showed up. I guess it's not exactly a fire-breathing chicken. I don't know what it is but it was very entertaining.
A TV crew interviews an American woman standing near me. They ask her where she's from and how she likes the parade. They also ask her what she knows about Korean Buddhism. I laugh out loud when I realize they're from BTN. The Bhuddist Television Network. I think that's hilarious.
It rains, but only just barely. Buddha has used his influence to keep the weather at bay.
The cab ride home is so alarming that it's practically on the scale of Cameroon. Our driver is some kind of maniac.
Seoul : Monday, April 27, 2009
I spend the morning beginning to pack and go to lunch with one of Rob's staff, at my favorite Korean restaurant, the place I had my first lunch here way long time ago... She teaches me a few more Korean restaurant phrases, because I'm sure to be going to Korean restaurants more than usual in future. She is Catholic and has little patience for Buddhism but she does know what we were chanting last night. It's just the name of a large temple. I had no idea Buddhists had team spirit.
My flight leaves Seoul at 2pm Tuesday and arrives in San Francisco several hours earlier than when I left. More magic.
Above Japan : April 28, 2008
We're an hour and 15 minutes out of Seoul. The snowy Japanese mountains are real pretty and if that baby at the opposite window on my row doesn't quit crying soon then I may start crying myself.
I'm really going to miss Korea. It's the best of 16 countries that I have visited. I hope to come back within a year!
Well, 16 includes North Korea which I barely set foot into. I was admiring, yet again, the Seoul skyline on the way out of town and how surreal it is that we could see into North Korea right from the super-highway to the airport. Rob says he can't find any Koreans who care anything about the North and it seems to him that most South Koreans would find it ideal if North Korea just let itself be absorbed into China. I find that hard to believe but neither can I say with any confidence that it's wrong.
We laugh about the ludicrous goal the North Koreans have of one day taking over the South. They could bomb it. Maybe even nuke it. Certainly they could extort some money, food, or oil from it. But they sure could never take charge of such a sophisticated economy.
San Francisco : April 28, 2009
The baby cried for about 3 hours. Everybody was very annoyed. Turns out, it's a newborn girl being adopted in the USA. Which calls to mind another interesting item that I neglected to mention earlier. This past year was the first in which adoptions by Koreans surpassed the number of adoptions to foreigners. Koreans have a long-held aversion to bringing into their family anybody who is not their own descendant. The relatively more modern Koreans are losing that attitude.
Some Koreans sort of compromise... Lots of the adoptive mothers wear fake pregancy pads and then take "maternity leave" from work right before the adoption. It's an interesting detail and I should have mentioned it sooner.
Anyway, I did't get much sleep on the plane but we did arrive a little early on account of a 200mph tailwind. We hit at least 728mph (that's unusually fast, isn't it?) I got through Customs okay. Why do I always pick the slow line?
Now I'm looking forward to my customary coming-home-to-America meal of nachos!
*16 countries: USA, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, U.K., France, Haiti, Dominican Republic, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, Japan, South Korea, North Korea. (Less if you don't count the USA. More if you count Scotland seperately.)
Here is a really Great Travel Video!!
Note that the landmark in Seoul, Korea where he's dancing was burned down by an insane person a few days after this video. The Koreans are rebuilding it.