Nagan Folk Village (낙안읍성민속마을)

As part of a goodbye with two of Tamara’s co-teachers we took our last little excursion out of Gwangju. This is not the first trip we have taken with Kyungar and it is always to somewhere cool. Sadly, we were not able to spend the entire day but in the afternoon and early evening she took us to Nagun Folk Village. This has been on the edge of our to-see list, but we had resigned ourselves to it being one of the things we would just not get to do. Lucky us!

There is a way to get there by bus, but it is a little bit complicated with at least one transfer to a local bus. Instead, Kyungar drove us, so we can’t comment too much on how to get there. Around the folk village there is a small modern village with restaurants that are ‘famous’ for cockles. We arrived just in time to settle in for a cockle lunch. We had steamed cockles, cockle bibimbap, cockle jeon, and cockles with a variety of spices. It was all delicious!

We are going to miss these full Korean meals with a million different side dishes.

We are going to miss these full Korean meals with a million different side dishes – and we’ll miss our co-teachers even more.

We headed into the village (entry fee 4,000 each) and climbed up onto the wall. It was pouring rain so we did not take our usual raft of pictures, but the place was really pretty set against the misty hills. It’s a thatch roof village surrounded by a reconstructed wall. The best part is that people still live there!

Here you can see the mix of traditional and modern. It was a little strange to be wandering along a little lane and have to get out of the way for the occasional car.

Here you can see the mix of traditional and modern. It was a little strange to be wandering along a little lane and have to get out of the way for the occasional car.

The wall is a nice walk and gives an opportunity to look out over the village and get a sense of the whole thing. Down in the village there are several minbak and a bunch of cultural participation opportunities.  We wandered through and stopped at one of the courtyards that had a couple making rice cake using an old fashioned mortar and pestle to squish up the cooked rice. We tried it while it was still hot and it is a whole lot better than when it is cold.

There is also a reconstructed prison complete with life size models scattered throughout and some of the older restraints. According to one of the information signs, Nagun had comparably little crime because it had a very wise governor who ensured that the people were happy and well cared for. Based on the scene laid out by the models, it seems more likely that nobody wanted to end up in that jail!

There is also a pottery making area (we did not try it), souvenir shops, and a few other little participatory things that we opted not to do as it was raining pretty hard and we still had a long drive back. The village was even more interesting than we had originally thought it would be and was a great way to say goodbye to GaHyun and Kyungar, who has been so kind and welcoming ever since we got here.

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Soswaewon: Gardens and Goodbyes

On Wednesday we said another series of goodbyes, one of them to Blake’s co-teacher Yuri, who has become a good friend over the last two years. She is the one who took us to her grandparents’ home in Jangseong to show us the kimchi making process. Because it was the first day of the 설날 (Seolnal) holiday a lot of things were not open, but we found a restaurant in backgate and then headed out to Damyang to look at a traditional tea house. Unsurprisingly, it was closed, but we decided to stop by 소쇄원 (Soswaewon) garden near the Damyang eco park.

This garden was originally built about 500 years ago and has been renovated several times since. It was designed partially to provide Confucian scholars and poets with a peaceful place to write their works. Although it is relatively small, it is still a pretty setting, despite the barren trees. It looks as though it would be incredibly lush in the spring and summer. Bamboo does not shed it’s leaves in the winter so we got to listen to the wind rustling through them. Peaceful indeed.

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We took the back way through Mudeung park on the way into Gwangju and stopped at one of the city lookouts for a quick look. Despite our multiple trips up Mudeung we had never seen it before. Apparently it is a popular date location for new couples. That must be a summer thing as the freezing wind drove us back to the car pretty quickly.

After a coffee near the base of Mudeung it was time to say goodbye. This has been one of the more difficult things about the last several weeks. It’s one goodbye after another. We can honestly say that the thing we will miss most about Korea is the incredible group of friends we have made here.

Temple-stay and Tea with a Monk

Two weekends ago, Melanie and I made a bit of a last-minute decision to step a little outside our comfort zones and seek out another adventure on our to-do-in-Korea lists: a temple-stay! Our destination of choice: Mihwangsa, a temple located in Haenam county, Jeollanam-do.

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After some confusion the previous day in terms of getting accurate bus information about the quickest/ most convenient route there, Mel and I left USquare on an 11:50 bus to Haenam, followed by about about a 40 minute village bus ride, leaving Haenam at 2:05PM out to Mihwangsa (Mihwang temple) entrance. While in Haenam, we had some extra time, so we grabbed bibimbap at a little restaurant across the street. As a side note, Mel pointed out that bibimbap really is a very different meal in the winter, as it contains more easily acquired and stored sea-vegetables and fewer fresh ones.

As instructed, we arrived at Mihwangsa around 4PM, and promptly found the clearly labeled temple-stay office. We were greeted warmly by our lovely host, Jajae, who gave us some delicious pure apple juice to drink. We chatted about the temple and temple-stay, and paid our ₩50,000 fee. She then gave us our sheets and temple-stay clothes, and showed us our room, after which we were free to wander until our orientation started at 5PM.

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This was our little room, complete with ondol flooring, a tea-table on the left, a bathroom on the right, and all necessary bedding (as you can see, there was no bed, but the floor mats (not pictured) were thick and more than sufficient).

Our temple-stay clothes were super comfortable: a pair of quilted grey pants, which buttoned at the ankles, and a quilted vest. We wore them over our own clothing (I had jeans on, but if you’re going in the winter, a pair of comfy long underwear or thick fuzzy-lined leggings might be more a more practical bottom layer). Mel wore a hoodie under her vest, and I regretted not bringing one. I was, however, free to wear my winter jacket overtop of the temple-stay clothing.

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Dressed and ready for our temple-stay adventure!

The temple-stay orientation was very informative, and gave us the confidence we needed not to make (too many) social mistakes during our stay. We learned about the temple itself, had a tour of its various buildings (including one which is relevant to Korean traditional beliefs, but not to Buddhism), and visited the main hall to learn about temple etiquette, how to do proper bows, and were given run-down of the activities in which we would participate.

A Little History

Founded during the reign of Shilla King Kyoung Deok, Mihwangsa has a particularly intriguing history. It is said that one day, villagers saw a stone boat approaching the village off the coast of Sajapo. The villagers were curious and tried to approach the boat, but it would move away each time they neared it; however if they backed off and stood still, it would come closer. This process repeated itself for several days.

Eventually, after the great master Euijo Hwasang and some other monks and residents purified themselves and offered prayers, the boat anchored itself. However, once aboard the ship, they could find no people: just a variety of statues, a gold box, a black rock, the Lotus Sutra, and a Buddhist wall painting. When they opened the gold box, the black rock broke open to reveal a tiny black cow, which grew into a huge cow.

That night, the great master had a dream about a man in golden robes, who said that he was the king of India. The king said that the shape of the mountains in the area made it suitable for a shrine to ten thousand Buddhas, and he instructed the great master to load the sutras and statues onto the back of the cow to trek across the mountains. The king told the great master to build a temple where the cow laid down. Master Euijo did as instructed. The cow fell down once while crossing the Dharma Mountain, but got back up again. After crossing the mountains, the cow fell down again, and did not get back up. Tonggyosa was erected at the place where the cow first fell down, and Mihwangsa where it fell down the second time.

The name of the temple is also significant, as “Mi” means beautiful, which is one way to describe the apparently pleasing and somehow musical bellow of the cow after it fell. “Hwang” means yellow or gold, and represents the golden robes of the man in Master Euijo’s dream.

Temple Etiquette and Meditation

Jajae explained to us that by putting our right and left hands together (prayer-hands style) in front of our chests (representing the coming together of the Buddha’s mind and our mind) and doing a half bow, we could express hello, goodbye, thank-you, no-thank you and more. As time at the temple is generally used for meditation and self-reflection, silence is encouraged. This bow affords everyone a means of wordless communication. Instead of the way we would normally bow out in the community, we were instructed to greet everyone at the temple (but particularly the monks) in this fashion.

Chasu was described as the respectful posture to assume when walking around the temple grounds. This involves folding your right hand over your left at the centre of your stomach. It is meant to show a humble and respectful mind.

We also learned that we should only enter the main hall through the side doors, as the front one is reserved for monks.

Upon entering the main hall, one should complete three full bows facing the Buddha. This process is more complicated than the one described above, and involves the following (forgive me if it’s overly paraphrased):

1. Put your palms together at the centre of your chest, fingers toward the ceiling, thumbs tucked in, elbows fairly loose.

2. Bend forward, and put your hands down on the mat in front of you, kneel down, and touch your forehead to the mat.

3. Raise your hands, palms facing up, to ear level, and lower again.

4. Lift your head, then knees, then hands, and carefully stand up.

5. Repeat two more times.

Our host explained that contrary to popular belief, this bowing is not an act of worshiping the Buddha statues: it is simply a sign of respect, for the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings of Buddha), and the Sangha (community).

Jajae then led us through some guided breathing meditation. Ahhh, guided breathing… As I learned during university, for some reason, my body takes guided breathing as a signal to go into panic attack mode. Why? I still don’t know. Thankfully, this time around, I was able to cautiously keep up without actually having a panic attack, which I will count as progress.

During meditation time, it was suggested to us that we take one breath for each sounding of the bell, and that we count our breaths from one to ten, and then 9, 8, 7… back down to one again, repeating the process for the duration of the session. The purpose of this is to still your mind and try to stay in the present: no thinking about the past or future or any specific thoughts except for counting your breath. Sounds easy? Not for me! However, Jajae used a great metaphor for its importance, which I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing (I hope I don’t botch it). You see, almost every minute of every day, we find ourselves thinking hundreds upon hundreds of thoughts, bouncing between past and future, and sometimes the present, but rarely allowing our minds to stand still. However, in order to experience growth and to reach enlightenment, we need to be able to reflect on our inner selves. She asked us to picture standing on the shore of the ocean, with big waves, and whether or not we could see our reflections. She compared the waves to our thoughts, and asked, in contrast, if we could see our reflections in a still pond. Some food for thought.

Dinner

At 6:00PM, after bowing upon entering the dining hall, we served ourselves a delicious vegetarian dinner from the various pots and dishes at the side of the room. Our friend Lianne had been to a temple-stay at Mihwangsa before, and raved about the food. She was right. As an interesting aside, we learned that meals at the temple do not contain garlic or spring onions. Can you guess why? These strong vegetables are said to be aphrodisiacs, increasing sexual energy which could be detrimental to meditation and monks’ vows of celibacy.

Evening Activities

Following dinner and a little down-time, we joined in Yebul (evening chanting) in the main hall at 7PM. I had the melodic chanting stuck in my head for days.

After Yebul, we followed four monks in a sort of silent procession several times around a sandy courtyard near the main hall, lit by a single lamp which cast an orange glow over everyone.

We were then invited to Dado (tea with a monk and other participants) at 7:30.

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After tea, we headed back to our room. Before settling in for some reading, Mel braved the tea set and did an impressive job of imitating the tea-preparation demonstrated earlier in the evening by the monk. According to the schedule, we were to have our lights out by 10PM and to maintain “noble silence” until breakfast.

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Delicious (not to mention slightly complicated) green tea!

Rise and Shine

The next morning, we were awakened at 4AM by Moktak, which is a wooden percussion instrument, to be called to Yebul (morning chanting) and Jhawsun (sitting meditation). We needed to be in the main hall by 4:20AM,  and were instructed to arrive before the final sounding of a bell.

At 6:30AM, we enjoyed an amazing vegetarian breakfast comprised of the following: Lotus root with ginger, cooked young pumpkin with some mild pepper paste sauce, raddish kimchi, rice, dried seaweed, lettuce and tomato salad with yummy dressing, tofu and mushroom soup, and roll cake with coconut cream filling. This was, by far, the best breakfast I’ve eaten in Korea.

After breakfast, we participated in Oolyeok, which is working meditation at 7:30AM for an hour or so. Our task was to help the monks, our host, and some other participants stuff postcards in plastic envelopes, seal them, and then affix a label. We think they were for an upcoming festival. It was actually kind of fun!

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At 8:30AM individual practice time started, during which we were free to engage in sitting or walking meditation, mountain hiking, or reading. Before we left, though, we were invited to join the another monk, this time the head monk, for tea. We had a chance to ask a few questions (largely through interpretation) and to watch him carefully consider his answers before he offered them.

After tea, we opted for a short walk/ hike in the mountains behind the temple. The weather was not ideal, but it was nice to be out in the peace and quiet of the Korean wilderness. While you can just barely see the temple in the picture below, it was completely obscured by falling snowflakes not five minutes later, as we turned to descend to the temple.

Because it was B&T’s mentee’s birthday, we needed to leave before lunch, which started at 11:30 and which would have been followed by additional individual practice time. Jajae was very kind in offering to drive us to Haenam to catch our bus home.

While it was a short retreat, Mel and I both agreed that the temple-stay experience was both worthwhile and a great way to escape the city and the post-Korea planning and packing frenzy we find ourselves in these days.

The Last Korean Hike: Chuwolsan in Winter

As we wind down our time in Korea we are starting to tick off rather a lot of ‘lasts’. The last hike was up a smaller mountain in Damyang that Tamara and I did nearly 18 months ago as one of our earlier hikes. Ben and I had a free afternoon and figured that a quick trip to Damyang for one last ascent was in order.

We did a slightly different route than Tamara and I, going up around the base of the cliffs and down the front past Boriam temple. It was a chilly day but a great hike.

We saw only one or two other groups of hikers and had the place pretty well to ourselves, which is a real rarity in Korea. Sadly, heavy cloud and haze meant that most of the views were obscured, but it was still a great way to finish off hiking in this country.

That is something I will miss. The hikes, the ease of access, and the great views.

The Last Province: Chungcheongbukdo

As our time in Korea grows short we are trying to see all the things on our bucket list before our departure. One of those things was to visit Chungcheongbuk-do: the only landlocked province in Korea and the only one in which we had not yet spent any time. Because of how our school schedules overlapped, we had only a few days of holidays together this winter and so we chose to head north for three days near the end of January. Luckily for us, Pat and Mel were also off and looking for a little exploration.

We got a bit of a late start Sunday morning and, having decided to head to Danyang (not to be confused with Damyang just outside of Gwangju), we knew that we had several hours of travel ahead of us. Danyang is a resort town near the man-made Chungjuho lake that takes up a large ox-bow in the Namhanggang river. After about six hours of travel we arrived just before dinner and grabbed a motel near the bus terminal. In a similar situation to what the four of us had on Gageodo, this was a single room where we spread out floor mats, but the price was right. Danyang is almost certainly set against a backdrop of some beautiful mountains … but we basically never saw them. Fog was our constant companion throughout the trip.

The first order of business was to hunt down some dinner, a task which proved slightly harder than anticipated as many places were closed either for the off-season or because it was Sunday. We did find a place where we could get some pork wraps, mandu (Korean dumplings), and naengmyeon (cold noodles with a few veggies, some sauce and a hard-boiled egg).

Dinner for the famished travelers.

Dinner for the famished travelers.

After dinner we headed out to explore with what little daylight was left for us. The town is divided roughly in two by a ridge near the centre of the ox-bow. However, there is a pretty little boardwalk path along the river that connects the two and we wandered along this. In the summer there is a rose archway, but in the winter there was just fog and the nearby river. As it got dark pretty early, we grabbed some breakfast and snack materials and headed back to the room for a few rounds of cards, Catchphrase, and Scrabble before bed.

The next morning dawned (or rather failed to dawn) with fog as dense as pea soup, which contributed to us getting a bit of a late start. While everyone else caught another half-hour or so of shut eye, Tamara hit up the nearby sauna/ public bath for a soak before breakfast (clean and simple facilities for ₩6,000; there was a jjimjilbang too, which appeared to be a viable sleeping option, but probably for an additional fee). Although we had made no solid plans for the day, we had discussed heading to Sobaeksan and hiking one of the lower peaks, but the fog pretty well killed that idea. It’s less fun hiking when the view is non-existent. Instead we opted to head for Gosu Cave, which is just across the river from Danyang. On the way, we stopped at a tourist information booth and were promptly adopted by a Korean man who introduced himself as William and offered to come along with us on our trip to the cave as he was heading there anyway. He was a very interesting travel companion, fresh out of the military and on a bit of a country tour before settling back in to school.

A lunch shot showing Will, our happy, energetic travelling companion.

A lunch shot showing Will, our happy, energetic travelling companion.

The cave itself was amazing, although it is likely that it would be far more crowded and thus less appealing in high season. Gosu cave is a little over 1,700 metres long and 150,000 years old. Although tourists are not allowed in all sections of the cave, there are catwalks running throughout leading to the different levels. At various points throughout the cave there are manned safety checkpoints and labelled rock formations. We were able to take our time going through and it probably took about an hour.

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We followed this up with a quick lunch and then walked back into town (where William headed off to go paragliding) to discuss our next move. If anything, the fog was getting denser rather than lifting as we had hoped. Ultimately, we decided to catch a taxi to Sobaeksan for a walk on some of the lower slopes. After a short ride to the Darian area we checked out the waterfall, which was frozen, then headed up the access road to the ranger station. What we did not know was that Sobaeksan requires all hikers to start up the trails before 1 or 2:00 depending on the time of year. We were late.

Darian Falls frozen up for the winter

Darian Falls frozen up for the winter.

In some ways it was fortuitous, as the fog turned into a misty rain on our way back down. There was also a second, smaller cave just inside the Sobaeksan boundary called Cheondongdong-gul. It is a little harder to spot but worth the effort. Tighter spaces were the name of the game in Cheondongdong-gul, but nothing too bad. It’s difficult to say it was necessarily better than Gosu cave, but there were even less people there and the cave had a lot of unique features.

When we re-emerged from the cave to discover that the rain had only increased, we decided to head back to town and settle in to a cafe to read for a bit and wait. Pat and Mel, on the other hand opted to walk along the river and up a stream in search of a few birds to add to their lists. We found a cafe on the fourth floor above the aquarium that would likely have a gorgeous view if you could see past the riverbank.

Dinner was a quick bite of pizza, and then Tamara and Mel headed off to the sauna while Patrick and Blake sorted out the plan for the next day. Because we had to be back in Gwangju Tuesday night, we planned to leave early for a hike in Woraksan before continuing on to Chungju to catch the Gwangju bus.

Needless to say 5:45 came way to early, but we succeeded in getting everything packed and catching the correct city bus. By the time we arrived at the ferry terminal the sun was starting to come up and we headed for the trail to Jebibong, the nearest peak, knowing that we had to catch the 11:25 bus to Chungju or really complicate our return journey. We never made the summit, but the first kilometer and a half of the trail were really spectacular. The trail climbs quickly to a rocky succession of spurs connected by a relatively narrow ridge. It was once again pretty foggy so the scenes were somewhat limited, but still amazing.

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In the end,  after a bite of pajeon in a restaurant across the highway, we managed to flag down the appropriate bus and even caught a transfer to Gwangju with only five minutes to spare. So for us, Chungbuk-do is a hazy place with some spectacular caves and the potential for some really gorgeous hiking on a clear day. And with that, we tick off the last of Korea’s provinces from our ‘must see’ list.

Logistics

Getting to Danyang from Gwangju is not all that easy. There are several options including transfers in Dajeon, Daegu, and Seoul, but we chose to go straight to Chungju and transfer there. There are not many buses to Chungju form Gwangju, but we caught one at 10:30am and the ride was 3.5 hours and just over ₩20,000. The bus from Chungju to Danyang was another 1.5 hours and ₩8,500. There is also a train station on the edge of Danyang that appears to have relatively regular trains running to it.

Danyang itself has lots of places to stay and they were largely empty in low season. We can’t speak for high season. It does appear that some businesses close during the winter.

Getting around Danyang was not that tough. There are a lot of city buses complete with a map and schedule at the main bus terminal. They do not run that frequently, but the routes are easy enough to figure out. Gosu cave is just a short walk across the main bridge and Sobaeksan is only a short taxi or bus ride away. Entrance fees for Gosu and Cheondongdong-gul caves are ₩5,000 per person.

When stopping at any of the Woraksan access points along the lake, it is possible to flag the buses heading for Chungju, but you do have to be standing at the bus stop and actually flag them or they will not stop.