Sunday, May 24, 2009

Youngyeon Temple

The first morning we woke up at Mrs. Kim's house, I was out walking around with my camera and snapped this picture about thirty yards from her front door. It's so handy having the English translation right there for you. I still don't know why so many signs and other things in Korea have the English translation. Maybe it's because English is becoming the De facto second language of the world. Still, it's awfully accommodating of them to include the English.

Anyhow, I got to thinking that four kilometers is only about two and a half miles. I could do that in less than an hour, easy. I'm a fast walker, a strong hiker. So, I figured I'd hike up to this Buddhist Temple on my own one morning, get a few pictures, and be back almost before Ok Hwa knew I was gone.

Friday, April 10 looked like a good day for it. I showed her the sign, and told her what I wanted to do, and she surprised me by wanting to come along. She's been joining me on more of my hikes lately, and I encourage it, so I was happy to have her join me. We love any excuse for a good photo expedition, so, off we went.

It ended up taking us about two hours to hike up there, but, only because we were stopping to look at things, and take a lot of pictures. The road up the valley is a relatively easy walk until you get past the main, level agricultural area. From there the way gets a bit steeper, a lot less populated, and a lot more interesting. The mountains come in much closer, and the road rises up above the level of the river. The river becomes less visible as the trees crowd in closer. We passed a few small grave sites, and a couple small dirt roads leading off into the trees.
About a mile up, we came across a small cluster of homes and farm fields off to the left between the road and the river, and one very nice contemporary house being built across the road on the right. At this point we were about half way from Mrs. Kim's house to the man made lake up at the head of the valley.

We continued our hike up towards the lake, stopping frequently to take pictures. We walked down to the river on a dirt road leading to a camping and recreation area, the Youngyeondong Recreation Area, according to my map. There was nothing doing down there, I guess because it was a bit early in the season. We had the place to ourselves.

We continued on up to the lake, and as we neared the lake, a couple of taxis passed us. We thought they were carrying people up to what we thought was some resort, or recreational facilities by the lake. We could see some buildings across the lake, but when we finally got over there, they turned out to be the administrative offices, and maintenance facilities for the lake and aqueduct system in the valley below. There was nothing else about here by the lake except a small farm, some monuments, and a beautiful, old shrine building. Oh, well, onward up to the temple.

From the lake, the road got a lot steeper, and very curvy, following a small tributary up into a side valley. Ok Hwa almost bailed out on me, due to the steep climb. I held my tongue and slowed down. She held her tongue and soldiered on, and after a couple rest stops we finally made it up to the temple. About half way up this steep section, a rather large flatbed truck passed us carrying a load of building supplies.

When we got to the parking area just below the temple, we found the two taxis that had passed us earlier. She left a note on one of their windows to the effect that we would like to get a ride back down the valley. We never did come across the taxi drivers, or their passengers. Don't know why, either, because the temple was a pretty small affair.

I counted six buildings in all, two of which appeared to be living quarters for the monks, plus a storage and garage shed. The main complex of buildings was about twenty feet up above the parking area, on a leveled off piece of ground supported by retaining walls. We walked up a flight of steps and arrived at the courtyard, formed by three buildings, one each to the right and left, and one directly ahead in the back, raised up on another leveled off section supported by a retaining wall.

Right in the middle of the courtyard sat the flatbed truck, offloading supplies. There was a maintenance, or remodeling project underway, with various building supplies stacked here and there. The monks also seemed to be setting up some decorations for what surely was to be the celebration of Buddha's birthday later in the month. I know this because the last time we were in Korea was during this time in late April, and there were major celebrations for this event everywhere we went.

Anyhow, we were now in picture taking mode, as this place was quite picturesque. I went up to the building directly ahead, up a flight of stairs. The view of the complex was better from up there, plus, the building there was the main temple, with the golden Buddha inside. I went in, and to show respect, went to the prayer mat and bowed my head to the floor, said my thanks, and asked for permission to take pictures. I got a few good shots inside, then went outside to get some more.

The flatbed truck had finished up in the courtyard below, and had moved up to the level I was at, and was unloading some more supplies over by a beautiful pagoda housing a very large bell. We wandered around the place for about twenty more minutes, taking pictures. There were very few people about, and they were busy with their work, and paid us no mind.

When we started back down the road home, we paused by the taxis for awhile, hoping the drivers would show up, but none ever came. So, on we went, knowing that at least the way home was downhill.

About half way down the steep section between the temple and the lake, the flatbed truck came along, heading back down after finishing his delivery. We flagged him down, and he was happy to give us a lift back down to the valley. It was nice riding up in that big tall truck of his, back down the mountain road. The view from up there was better. It took us about ten minutes to make the trip back, and he let us off right in front of Mrs. Kim's house. He asked Ok Hwa how we came to be here, and she told him that her mother lived here. He seemed to know her, and when we told Mrs. Kim about the ride, she said that the driver was the son of one of her neighbors. Small world there in Sacheon Valley!

Here are the pictures I made on this outing:
The official website of the Republic of Korea:

Monday, May 11, 2009

Adventures In (Mis) Communication

We had planned on saying our good-byes to Mrs. Kim and her husband on Saturday, April 11, and traveling back to Incheon to spend the last days of our trip with Ok Hwa's little brother and his wife. So, that's what we did. We hated to leave them, but, we also very much wanted to visit with "Mike & Julie", as I called them.
We took the express bus back to Seoul, and the Metro out to Jemulpo Station in Incheon. At the station we caught a taxi, and asked him to take us to a good hotel. On the way to the hotel we went by what she thought was littler brother's new apartment. We knocked on the door, but, no one was home. We figured he was still at work, and she was out with her church group. So, on to the hotel we went.
The driver first took us by one hotel that I liked the look of, but, we eventually ended up at a different one, probably because he thought it was cheaper, or, maybe he was just tired of dealing with us. Anyway, the hotel we ended up at was obviously a "Love Hotel". There were pictures of scantily clad ladies on the walls, beaded curtains, plants everywhere, and very much ornate clutter. When we got to the room, the bed was round, another sure sign of a love hotel. Oh, well, a place to park our stuff and relax.
After we got settled into our room, we went out for a walk back over to Mike & Julie's apartment, to see if they had gotten home yet. It had gotten dark by now, and many of the sidewalk vendors had taken in their wares, but there were still plenty of people about, as it was early on a Saturday evening. I shot this video on our walk up to their apartment:
They still were not home, and we were beginning to get concerned, but, we figured that they were out with their church group, and would be home later. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a nice little restaurant for dinner. Back in the hotel we got cleaned up and I figured we were in for the evening. I was having a drink and watching a movie on my computer when she said she'd like to go check on them once more. I didn't want to go back out, and she did, so she decided to go on her own.
She went, and came back in thirty or forty minutes, very upset. At Mike & Julie's supposed apartment, someone finally answered the knock , but it was not Mike, or Julie. There was a different guy living in the apartment now, and he did not know where they had moved to. He even still had the unopened letter that Ok Hwa had sent to her brother about a month before, telling him of our impending arrival. Well, this was an unfortunate turn of events. I was wondering if Mrs. Kim knew where they had moved to, but I couldn't call her to find out, neither could Ok Hwa. We spent an uneasy night at the hotel.
Next morning we were determined to track them down, but we first wanted to change hotels. We walked a few blocks over to that other nice looking hotel we'd seen the day before. They still hadn't cleaned all the rooms from the night before, so we could not get checked in yet, but they let us stash our bags there for a few hours.
Our plan was to take the Metro into downtown Seoul, and find Mike & Julie at their church. It was Easter Sunday morning, but neither of us knew it at the time. Their church group of deaf folks usually went out to the Han River Park after service, and we thought we'd be able to catch up with them there. When we got to the area where their church was supposed to be Ok Hwa could not remember where it was. We were walking along the boulevard that runs by Han River Park, and could look over the railing and see that the park was undergoing a renovation, and no one was playing in the park that day. We stumbled on the huge Catholic Church in downtown Seoul, just as Easter Sunday service was letting out. The whole area was packed with people. We decided to rest and eat lunch at the food court at the Korea Tower building.
While we were eating, Ok Hwa got a guy next to us to telephone Mrs. Kim, to try to get some information on Mike & Julie. Mrs. Kim is probably very used to getting calls from strangers relaying messages from Ok Hwa and her two deaf brothers. Anyway, the guy tells us that Mrs. Kim said that Mike & Julie are at her house in Gangneung! Wow, we just left there yesterday to come over here to visit them, and, now we find out that they've done the same thing. Amazing!
Well, we now have to go back over to Gangneung as soon as possible. We were just a short Metro ride away from the Express Bus Terminal, but, our bags were back at that hotel in Incheon. That meant an hour's ride back out to Incheon to retrieve our luggage, and an hour's ride back to Seoul's Express Bus Terminal, and about three hours travel time back to Mrs. Kim's house. What a mix-up! Oh, well, that's exactly what we had to do, and we did it.
I was so frustrated about the whole affair, that I didn't feel like taking any pictures the whole day, except one. The picture above is the only picture I took the whole ill-fated trip back to Seoul. It shows a guy selling cotton candy off the back of his Daelim motorcycle to all the Easter Sunday strollers by the Han River Park. You can see the park in the background, torn up for renovation, with just a few people walking along the fenced off pathways.
The kicker of this whole mix-up is that, when we finally made it back to Mrs. Kim's place, Mike & Julie were not there! Mrs. Kim told us that she has not seen them in three years, and does not know where they are! Why didn't she tell us that before? Why haven't Mike & Julie been to see Mrs. Kim? Too many questions, and not enough answers.
Mrs. Kim was very upset, and crying a lot. She was obviously at a loss, and was counting on us to track down her son for her. After all, she is eighty-one years old, and traveling back and forth to Seoul is probably out of the question for her at this point. She depends on her three sons to come visit her, and it looks like they are all letting her down. She said that the middle son comes over once a year, at summer vacation, and the oldest son is so unpredictable that, who knows when, or where he'll show up. What a crying shame. Really. Well, we can't find them now, but, we all will have to try harder to get in touch, and stay in touch with each other. With the communication barriers between me and this family, there's not much I personally can do. It will have to be up to them. The only thing I can do at this point is to get my wife back to visit her mom as often as possible.
The official website of the Republic of Korea:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Ojukheon Shrine

On Thursday, April 9, we left Mrs. Kim's little valley on the #308 bus for a visit to Ojukheon Shrine. It sits right on Hwy. 7, on the northern outskirts of Gangneung City. There's a bus stop right at the front gate, and we got off there. Ojukheon is the birthplace, and home of Lady Shin Siamdang (1504-51), a scholar, artist, and poet, who also excelled at sewing, and embroidery, and her son Yi Yulgok (1536-84), a renowned philosopher, scholar, and statesman:
Yi Yulgok is pictured on the Korean 5,000 wan note (about $4.50 U.S.). A typical upper-class home of the period, Ojukheon is comprised of many buildings, such as men's quarters, women's quarters, servants quarters, library, kitchen, storage rooms, and so forth. It is in a beautiful natural setting, with a slight hill shielding the grounds from the city, and highway that have sprung up around it over the centuries. We came to Ojukheon on our last visit to Korea, in 2001, and I remember it as one of the highlights of the trip. It was exactly as we remembered it from before, beautiful and serene. There are so many great photo opportunities here, it makes me sad that I can not include all the great photos we took here. This photo is probably my favorite of the whole trip. What beautiful architectural details. The roofs on these buildings are simply amazing, and the interiors are such elegant, uncluttered simplicity. One thing seems very evident about Korean culture, past and present: they keep very tidy, uncluttered homes, and have no furniture to speak of, preferring to live mostly on the floor. They have small shin-high folding tables that they bring out at meal time to eat off of, and thin futons to sleep on, which are folded up and put away in cabinets during the day. Modern Koreans heat their homes with an ingenious floor heating system that I still haven't figured out. Back in Yi Yulgok's day, as I learned from our visit to Ojukheon, the floors were raised up, and an outside, wood burning furnace, with under the floor duct system heated the homes. I still haven't figured out exactly how that works, either. The good folks who run Ojukheon nowadays take extremely good care of the place, especially considering the many thousands of visitors it gets. The grounds include many gardens, walls, pathways, sculptures, and quiet places to sit and contemplate the beautiful surroundings. There is a large exhibit hall which showcases many original artworks, embroidery, writings, and belongings of Lady Shin, and Yi Yulgok. Also, there is the obligatory gift shop, selling many wonderful things Ojukheon. I was able to find a book in English titled "Yulgok's Selection Of Prose & Poetry On Mt. Keumgang Exploration", published by the Yulgok Society. It tells of his exploration, at age nineteen, of "every corner of Mt. Keumgang", a sacred mountain to the Koreans. Unfortunately, Mt. Keumgang sits in what is now North Korea, and was for many years off limits to those in the South. Recently, however, the North has allowed a tour company to bring in a limited number of South Korean tourists, by boat, to the place on the coast nearest to Mt. Keumgang, and then directly to the mountain, without stopping to see anything else along the way. It just goes to show how paranoid those in power in the North really are. They will gladly take the money that the tourist trade generates, but, will not really open up. Hopefully, some day soon, the spirit of the great Confucian scholar, and statesman Yi Yulgok will prevail, and the divided Koreans can come together as the one people that they truly are.
Here is a link to the pictures I took at Ojukheon:
The official website of the Republic of Korea:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

In and Around Gangneung

Gangneung City lies almost directly east of Seoul, Korea, across the peninsula on the east coast. The sea there is called the East Sea by the Koreans, and the Sea Of Japan by the Japanese. The east coast of Korea is rather hard edged, with beautiful sandy beaches backed by pine trees, and mountains that come almost all the way up to the coast. The high spine of the main mountain range of the Korean peninsula closely parallels the east coast, about twenty miles inland, so it's a rather dramatic drop-off from the high mountain pass, down onto the narrow coastal plain, and the city of Gangneung. It's a compact, densely populated medium sized city of about two hundred thirty five thousand people. I found it to be just the right size. Big enough to supply all your needs, but small enough to still be friendly and easy to get around. It's not big enough for a metro rail system, but they have an efficient city bus system, and plentiful, cheep taxis. There is no ring of suburbs. Once you leave the city, you quickly enter a patchwork of agricultural lands, and small farming communities running north and south along the coast. The high mountains to the west prevent much development in that direction, however there are a few small pockets of civilization up there, centered around agriculture, or tourism.
We arrived in town on Tuesday afternoon, April 7, and departed back to Seoul, and Incheon on Saturday. We spent that night in Incheon, and on Sunday afternoon, returned to Gangneung for the remainder of our stay, departing on Wednesday, April 15. So, all together, we spent around eight days in Gangneung. We stayed with my wife's mother, Mrs. Kim, every night we were in Gangneung, except one night, Sunday night when we had just come back from Seoul, and checked into a hotel. Even that night, we still went out to Mrs. Kim's house in the country, and had dinner with her, and her husband. Every day we would wake up and have breakfast with them, then get our cameras, and head out for a day of sight-seeing and picture taking. Most of those days we would make it into downtown Gangneung for one thing or another, usually to the fresh food market to pick up fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats to take back to Mrs. Kim's for dinner. Here is a link to a video I shot at the fresh food market: What a fascinating place. I never saw a U.S. style supermarket the whole time we were there. It seems that most Koreans buy their food in open air markets, tiny shops, and sidewalks near their homes. The bus back to Mrs. Kim's place stopped just outside the fresh food area, so it was very convenient for us to shop there on the way back "home". The bus back out to Mrs. Kim's took about twenty-five minutes to get there, and she lives right by the last stop on that line. The bus turns around there, and heads back into town. Here is a link to a video I shot on one of these rides through downtown Gangneung: Just on the outskirts of town, there is a wood carver's shop, which we would pass by every day on the way in, and out of town. It was so interesting, that one day we stopped there for a closer look. Here is the video: There are so many interesting things to see in, and around Gangneung City. The mountains, and the beaches are just a short ride away. The beach, lake, museums, and cultural village at Gyeongpo, are within the city limits of Gangneung, as well as the great museum/shrine called Ojukheon. More about these places in future posts. There is the large Odaesan National Park just east of Mrs. Kim's house, up in the high mountains. Also, there are many ski resorts it these mountains that run north to south along the coast. With our recent trip still fresh in our minds, we are planning what fun things we can see and do on our next trip to visit Mrs. Kim.
Here are some pictures of Gangneung City:
The official website of the Republic of Korea: