Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Day in Gyongju

Customers' shoes lined up outside their private dining rooms in a Gyongju restaurant--a common site in Korea. This particular restaurant was unique, however, in that instead of each of the many dishes being brought in separately by one or two servers, an entire laid-out table was carried in at once and placed before us!

Gyongju is about a half-hour's drive south of Pohang and is the historic capital of the Silla Kingdom, which ruled from 57 BC to 935 AD. One area contains large royal burial mounds, king-size versions of the ones on top of my hill, which, from one angle, echo the mountains in the background.

Royal burial mounds that echo the mountains surrounding Gyongju

Another relic of the kingdom is a palace retreat called Imhaejon, complete with colorful pavillions, a man-made pond and paths that wind through the forest. I learned from my Korean-speaking colleague that an informational piece stated that Imhaejon was built as a place to entertain visiting dignitaries, but was actually used more frequently as a royal playground, where gentlemen invited young lovelies to frolic in the woods. (The English version left out this tidbit!) Imhaejon, which I dubbed the Silla Playboy Club, sounds more like something a French king would dream up, but I don't recall seeing any hideaways among the manicured lawns of Versailles.
A pavillion at the 7th-century royal getaway, Imhaejon

Brightly painted eaves on one of the pavillions

Gyongju is also home to the National Museum, a treasury of relics from the Silla Kingdom and artifacts dating back to the bronze age. My guidebook tells me that the "human" history of the Korean peninsula goes back much further: neanderthals may have lived on the Korean peninsula for about a half million years. Korea seems like the perfect place for cave men--lots of mountains (70% of the country is covered with them) with lots of caves. I look up at the sky at night here and imagine those ancient humanoids looking up at almost the same thing. For some reason, I see them talking at the sky at the sky talking back.

Gold slippers, remnants from the Silla Kingdom, at the National Museum.

The giant "Divine Bell of Great King Songdok" hangs outside the museum.

This distinctly Korean image, the Bhaisajyaguro Buddha, represents the healing aspect of the Buddha by portraying him with a medicine bowl in his left hand. The inscription on the base of the statue (dating from the late 8th/early 9th century) states that he heals sickness, even the "disease of ignorance."

This Buddha, part of a trio, was originally placed in a carved-out opening on a mountain just south of the city.

Built in the 7th century, Cheomseongdae, or the Star Observation Tower, has become the symbol of the city of Gyongju. It's the oldest observatory in East Asia, with an opening on the top that is believed to be aligned with particular stars. Every piece of the stone structure has a symbolic meaning, such as the 12 large stones making up the base that represent the 12 months/zodiac signs.

Park attendants

Kite flying in a Gyongju park


"Please don't eat me, Mr. Roy!"

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Out and About the Region

A rocky spring flowing down Naeyeon-san mountain

My first week of teaching was richly rewarded with a trip to a mountain near Pohang called Naeyeon-san and the Bogyeong-sa temple that sits in its shadow. Several students joined me and the three other English instructors on a 1.5-kilometer hike up to the first of many waterfalls that grace the upper reaches of the mountain. Most of the Korean hikers we met on the trail were in their 40s, 50s and older, and we passed two parties who were picnicing between the boulders on the stream bank. The delicate stands of trees dotting adjacent mountains in the distance reminded me of the mountain landscapes portrayed in some of the Asian art I've seen over the years. I had always assumed that the spacious elegance of those landscapes was simply a stylistic characteristic of artists in this part of the world, but seeing the mountains first hand revealed that those portrayals are highly realistic! What an illumination. It reminds me of the shift in my perception when I learned that Monet's increasingly blurry paintings were likely the product of his cataract-infested vision rather than his expanded take on impressionism.

Picnic among the boulders on Naeyeon-san.

Many hikers made the trek to at least the first waterfall, and the vast majority appeared to be over age 40. Some of them came prepared for the eye-blearing gusts of wind by sporting dark green visors over their faces. I saw many vigorous, 50-something couples and small groups strolling up the mountain, all in great shape and dressed in attractive sportswear. For them, a Saturday outing involved breaking a sweat. Younger members of their families were nowhere to be found, and my students told me that young people aren't into hiking. It's a pity, because Naeyeon-san is one of the most serene and awe-inspiring places I've ever been. It's hard to imagine a more romantic spot.

Wind rushing around the slopes makes its mark on the water.

The Buddhist temple Bogyeong-sa has been active since the 11th century. I committed my first Korean faux pas taking this picture:

Someone later told me that you shouldn't take a photo of the inside of a temple (nor should you enter through the front, only the side), but I'll continue to play the dumb American and post it because I want to share it. People have been honoring the Buddha mind here for one thousand years: look.

One of four temple guardians

Four guardians glare down at you as you enter the temple grounds. They're huge, fiery red and imposing, ready to destroy any devil or other enemy that tries to come through. As a westerner, I perceived them as threshhold guardians, the people or situations that come our way on an early stage of the Hero's Journey, or monomyth, as Joseph Campbell explains it. Once you establish a goal, there is always someone or something to test your commitment--a college entrance exam, an audition or the miles of paperwork required for applying for your first mortgage.

To me, the four giants seemed to be asking if I was ready to leave my all-important life behind and contemplate whatever lies beyond. I know there are volumes of much more sophisticated explanations about the role of these figures, but my psyche is wired for the monomyth. Or maybe they represent the guardians of my purest state, always working overtime to protect it from my ignorance.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Writer's Journey to Pohang

On January 31 I arrived in Pohang, South Korea, to teach at an intensive English language "camp" at Sunlin University. On day two, I took a look around.

Fresh catch at the Jukdo Market

The partly open-air Jukdo Market near the center of the city goes on and on. My American-in-residence colleagues, one of whom speaks fluent Korean after teaching here for three years, started me off by stopping at an outdoor vendor who was frying up a sweet. The flat, cinnamon-filled, lefsa-like pastry came hot off the grill. Its scent was soon overtaken by that of fish as we turned the corner into the main hall. The clean fishy smell came from countless varieties that, at four in the afternoon, looked like they had just been caught. Maybe the catches keep coming in throughout the day, but I doubt it. A few tables at the edges of one wing were already cleared out. No one in our group knew how the women--nearly all the vendors were women--kept their items so fresh in the open air hour after hour.

Chestnuts by the box and bucketful

Everything at the market looked fresh, but not necessarily appetizing. Several days later, I'm still haunted by how close I came to chomping down on some dried silkworm larvae. They looked like striped, oval nuts, but thankfully I asked my bilingual friend what they were before having a taste. Later that night I was introduced to typical Korean bar food, a bowl of crunchy dried anchovies, which I also passed on.

Buyer beware! Nutty looking silkworm larvae

Don't get me wrong, Korean food is good. Hot, but good. Really hot. Even our sizzling breakfast bowls contain red broth oozing with hot pepper. The generous dollop of caviar on top of the rice helps.

Seeing red: one vendor's pepper-infused dishes

I couldn't begin to pronounce the names of the foods I saw at the market, even after my colleague repeated them to me several times, and after three days of teaching I'm disappointed in myself for not being able to pronounce my students' names very well. I thought I had a knack at this, but Korean is a few wide steps removed from the romantic and scandinavian languages. I've vowed to work on it because I want to show as much respect for Korean as my students do for English. They approach the language as a crucial step in making any type of success in the world, and I'm convinced many of them will achieve great things. A few of them floor me with their unabashed self-confidence. In one lesson I asked them to tell me, in a complete English sentence, whom they consider their hero. "I am my hero!" blurted out one young man without a second thought. If only I had believed in myself to that extent when I was twenty . . . Each of these students is eager, sharp and extremely polite, and I am grateful to make this brief intersection in their lives.

An impossibly perfect array of men's shirts at the upscale Lotte department store

Politeness is big in Pohang, as I imagine it is everywhere else in the country. The "parking lady" at the entrance of the underground ramp at the Lotte department store came to our car window and apologetically yet cheerfully explained that we would be able to drive through as soon as the next car left. She wore a bright pink wool coat and, as soon as a car sped out of the exit side, gestured us in with white gloves and a smile. Down in the bowels of the parking area, uniformed male attendants--also gloved--herded us to the appropriate level with quick, sweeping gestures that looked like some kind of urban underground performance art.
Harbor view from the Lotte rooftop

Winter pine-needle carpet on the path up the hill

Late one afternoon I took my first walk up the forest-covered hill next to campus. The old lane that winds upward is covered in rusty colored pine needles and at that time of day everything seemed equally soft--the light, the chilled breeze, the drone of the distant road. The path ended in a clearing at the very top of the hill. When I walked into the open area I was awestruck to find a series of burial mounds that swelled up from the ground like giant knuckles. Lying flat on a short pedestal in front of each was a polished granite slab with Korean characters carved into the front edge. I wondered how long it took the grass to cover the iron-red soil on each fresh mound and what sort of flowers first touched the cold stone.

A walk to the top of the hill on a cloudy day led to a burial ground

On the trip back down, I noticed small chunks of the same steel-colored granite and imagined them falling off the sides of a cart that someone lugged up the path. I love this hill.

Stay tuned--more coming soon . . .

The Buddhist Television Network (BTN) on cable TV