Saturday, January 12, 2008

Yeoju, Part 2: Shilleuksa, Sculpure Garden, and King Sejong's Tomb

Alright. Nana and I have been sitting on these pics for well over a month now, and there's really no good excuse for us not having them up. So here they are, without further ado.


After Queen Min's Tomb, the second stop on our Royal Asiatic Society tour of Yeoju, a small town on the South Han River, was Shilleuksa, Korea's only riverside temple. Shilleuksa packs a bunch of historical oddities into its fairly small grounds, including two freakishly old trees, one of which, a 500-year-old juniper, you can see below.

The first temple building we contemplated during our visit was an odd little shrine to the Buddhist judgment of souls, personified by this cast of colorful characters (yes, the guy on the left has a book on his head--kind of a St. Peter, sans podium):

Those, by the way, are only about a third of the figures in the shrine. For instance, seated next to the aforementioned chap with the very flat head is this cheerful old fellow who holds a record of lovers' infidelities and by all indications gets a real kick out of his work. And at the doors of the shrine, of course, lurk the obligatory temple guardians, one of whom looked a bit like a cross between my grandfather and the Notre Dame leprechaun.

Meanwhile, his compatriot threatened to pounce upon our unsuspecting guide.From this first shrine, we moved on to the parts of the temple with actual historical significance. The building below is Josadong, the oldest building at Shilleuksa (built sometime shortly after 1405), and home to the memorial portraits of three revered fourteenth-century monks (whose cremated remains are interred on the hillside above).

[HISTORY ADVISORY: Do not read the following while operating heavy machinery. Card-carrying dorks excepted, of course.]

The three monks memorialized at Josadong were pretty fascinating people. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

1) Muhak was an advisor to King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty. Muhak's skills as a geomancer likely contributed to King Taejo's decision to move the capital of Joseon to Seoul;

2) Jigong (aka Dhyanabhadr) was an Indian monk who served at Shilleuksa and had his remains moved here after he died in China;

and 3) Naong was a Zen master who popularized chanting as a mediation technique. Naong's remains are interred in the impressive sari-budo immediately below, and he was purportedly responsible for planting the 600-year-old ginkgo tree (not pictured) by the river on the temple grounds.

[/END HISTORY. I mean, /HISTORY LESSON. History isn't over, by any means.]

Two things you notice quickly about Buddhist architecture: The folks have a sense of humor, and these folks have their priorities straight.
These guardians are painted on the doors to the mess hall. Clearly, it was important to make them fearful enough to scare any intruders away from the food. Cool fact: Traditionally, the guardian with the open mouth marks the door that's left unlatched.

Much spookier, in my opinion, is this chimney (conscientiously constructed of broken roof tiles) that really, really looks like some kind of homicidal marshmallow man blankly scanning the horizon for victims.

(Edit by Nana: It's an owl, fool. Which is intentional).

Anyway, back to Shilleuksa's many historical oddities. Below you can see a side view of the main temple building, illustrating the peculiar brickwork on the eaves.Even stranger, this close-up shows a highly-stylized face, the likes of which (according to our guide) doesn't exist anywhere else in Korea. One possible explanation for the face has to do with Shilleuksa's rededication in 1469 as a prayer sanctuary for King Sejong's Tomb (for more info, see below). The figure above faces directly towards the tomb, which is over some hills a few kilometers away.

Oddity two: a very rare brick pagoda . . .. . . overlooking the scenic South Han.

Our next stop was a giant traditional sculpture garden put together by a local artist designated (how cool is this?) as a living cultural treasure by the South Korean government. Unfortunately, I don't have too much information about the artist or his work--this stop was spur-of-the-moment, when we found out that a local museum we were going to visit was closed.

However, there were . . .

PUPPIES!!!! Which totally made our day.

Oh, yes, and lots of cool art. (The artist specializes in woodcarving.)
That is, woodcarving and ginormous drums.


The final stop on our Yeoju tour was King Sejong's tomb, which, as you can see below, is tremendously un-photogenic.
The approach to the tomb, though, was really cool. What you see above actually sits atop another man-made earthen dome at the head of a small, partly-cleared valley dotted with twisted pine trees and surrounded by woods.

Plus, the tomb had a bunch of stone rams mooning the burial mound. Of course, they're actually supposed to be standing guard, but with that wall there, what does it look like to you?
Also, cool view:
The real highlight of King Sejong's Tomb, however, was the museum. As you may have already picked up, King Sejong was the guy who invented (or commissioned, depending on whom you ask) Hangeul, the brilliant Korean writing system, among other very useful but unfortunately rather boring things. The coolest invention of King Sejong's, however, might be the giant set of pitched stone blocks. (Think giant marimba, but upright, and with granite keys and huge hammers instead of mallets.) Totally cool.

So! That wraps up our Yeoju trip--just in time for us to accrue more photos (hopefully) on another Royal Asiatic Society trip in the next couple of weeks.

Korean Hospitality

Consider the following:

Yesterday, 7 AM: Justin and Nana awake to copious snowfall.

8:30 AM: Justin e-mails Dr. Kim, asking for advice for a staff ski trip he (Justin) wants to plan. The snow may or may not be to blame for this sudden urge.

5:30 PM, Dr. Kim: "I've booked a place for Feb 2 and I'm trying to get it again for Feb 16."

5:31 PM, Justin: "Sweet."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Yellow Dust: Update

The dust has abated, for now. But if you're interested, you can check daily dust levels in Seoul here:

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Look on the yellow dust, ye mighty, and despair!

Yes, folks, the dreaded yellow dust has made its first appearance of 2008--several months too soon.

For those of you who haven't heard of yellow dust (aka, Asian dust), it is not, contrary to popular belief, the antidote to Korea's ubiquitous self-whitener, but rather a meteorological phenomenon (with a dash of ecological disaster) that hits East Asia every spring. The dust is a result of seasonal winds sweeping from the Gobi Desert (think Mongolia) over parts of China, Korea, and Japan. Back in the day, yellow dust wasn't such a huge problem: the Gobi Desert itself was much smaller, and China's eastern seaboard was not yet, though it may have aspired to be, a festering stinkpot of industrial pollutants. Thankfully, by the time the dust reaches Seoul, most of the worst pollutants have shaken out (take that, Beijing!). Still, a fine layer of grit has never been and will never be a welcome addition to my lungs.

The good news is that the dust isn't too bad yet: at its worst, I'm told, it's like a sandstorm, but lately we haven't seen anything more than fog tinged with mustardy gray.

On another note, the last 36 hours have been bone-chillingly cold and damp. On the bright side, though, our students have been coming to class on time, as nothing aids student punctuality better than clammy, unheated halls.

PS: I promise a photo of the dust if it gets really bad.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Landing at Inchon is Harder Than It Looks, or How Justin and Nana Got Into a Medium-Speed Korean Highway Bus Chase

I have never been a big fan of General Douglas MacArthur. Too much of a glory hound, too willing to use nukes, and, according to my grandfather, nicknamed Dugout Doug by some of the Pacific WWII vets for ditching his men in the Philippines while getting himself the proverbial hell out of Dodge (or is it "the hell out of the proverbial Dodge?" Unclear). But I do have to concede that, having tried it without school support for the first time, landing at Inchon is much, much harder than it looks, and he deserves all sorts of credit for that one.

The root of yesterday's problem was California, as the roots of problems so often are. Although we flew through Chicago (miraculously, without any trouble at all, landing in Tokyo twelve minutes early), the plane we used for our Tokyo-Seoul connection originated in San Francisco and had been delayed for about three hours. Instead of arriving in Tokyo at five and landing in Korea a little after nine, we ended up arriving in Tokyo at 4:45 and landing in Korea at 12:05. We had to change the customs form because we'd filled the stupid thing out for January 5.

This is not the biggest problem in the world, except for the fact that Korea seems to shut down at night. Even on a Saturday no trains and no buses were running after 11:30. Our cunning plan to take the same shuttle bus we came to the airport on - a $13 ride that drops us off four blocks from the apartment - was suddenly and thoroughly thwarted.

Fortunately, the airline stepped up big-time, organizing three charter buses to run routes to the northern, central, and southern parts of the city respectively. I've never heard of an airline doing this before, and I thought it was quite nice. We live way in the Northeast, but the northern route was going to drop us off a $30 or so cab ride away, and we could deal with that. Not too much worse than our original bus fare, if more complicated.

But please remember that this is Korea, home of the 90% solution. Everything here is so close to perfect, but missing just one key feature (witness the toilets with four bidet functions that don't actually flush toilet paper). So it stands to reason that something really glaringly obvious was going to go wrong.

Let's recap: Three buses. Three routes. Three different parts of town. You already know where this is going.

You got it. In spite of asking three different people (we're big on three) including the actual bus driver, we ended up on the wrong bus, which we only found out as the bus pulled away from the airport and the driver announced that we were on our way to Gimpo Airport and Gangnam. Gangnam literally translates to "south of the river." We live on the north side of town. Not going to work.

Of course we panic. The driver pulls over to figure out what's going on, and our correct bus shoots by us and out the airport gate. Everybody on the bus is Korean, which means that everybody speaks some English, and they all rally to the cause, going up to the driver and translating for us.

And the driver rallies, too. In a literal, Rallycross kind of way, taking off after the red tail lights of the northern bus as it blazes away from us down the Inchon airport causeway. Switching lanes vigorously and speeding with enthusiasm, he gradually draws us closer to that precious north bus. As we get close, he lays on the horn, and all the Koreans on the right side of the bus start waving out the window at the other driver. We careen around a few Korean cars and pass the bus. Our driver pulls over in the striped space next to an exit ramp and the north bus draws up behind us. Victory!

It is nearly 1 AM as we make the luggage transfer. The north bus is out of under-bus room so we have to heave stuff up the stairs into the passenger area. Miraculously, we don't leave anything on the highway shoulder or on the first bus. We make the first two stops on the route. Things are looking good.

And then Justin turns to me and says, "Why are we going south?"

You might be tempted to guess that it's because we got on the wrong bus, again, and the highway chase was for naught. But no. Justin and my travel karma would never stoop to using the same error twice in one night. That would be amateurish. No, the reason the north bus is going south is because the driver is completely lost.

It is 2:15 as Justin goes up to the front of the bus to talk to another passenger who speaks English. He is a German, traveling with his French girlfriend and a Korean colleague. He has just completed a six-month education exchange in choreography. I am not making any of this up.

The Korean, arduously, manages to talk the driver back on track. At this point, Justin and I suddenly realize that our luggage isn't going to fit in one taxi. The Korean guy, whose English is excellent and who really was our saviour, nevertheless balks at asking the driver if he could take us all the way to Nowon. Finally the bus driver pulls over and says that the cab fare to Nowon from that spot is about the same as the cab fare from his final location, and we might as well catch a cab here. We think he is just trying to get rid of us.

It is 3:00 as our hero helps us offload the bags and explain to the cabbies where we're going. Nobody ever recognizes our apartment building, so we go with the subway station nearby. To my terror, Justin and I have to split up, and my cab driver doesn't even seem confident that he can find the subway station. We spend some time fiddling with his GPS device to see if we can find the apartment (fail!) and then fall back on mapping to the station. We have a nice pantomime conversation in which I explain to him the travails of the day and he keeps saying "Yaaah," in a sympathetic tone of voice. Honestly, we met some very nice people.

And finally, at 3:25, we pull up outside Brownstone where Justin has just offloaded the luggage and paid his cabbie. Amusingly enough, the fares add up to less than our bus ticket, but frankly, I would have paid six dollars to shave two hours off the trip. I pay my cabbie (and, to my everlasting mortification, snag his upholstry a bit as I pull the bag out of the car) and then Justin and I commence the amusing process of having two hands to carry four bags each. Fortunately, our suitcases have backpack straps. This is our shout-out to Grandma and Ampa Eck, wedding-gift purveyors par excellance.

3:30, and we're back in the apartment for one last weird surprise: our modem is gone. Nothing else is missing, including the flat-screen monitor and cash we left out on a bookshelf. And yet we have internet running through the wireless router. ???? Our best guess is that the cable company sent somebody to pick up the modem and the building guys let him in. From now on, I'm flipping the deadbolt at night.

The moral of this story: getting two Americans with eight bags through Inchon nearly destroyed me. Getting the US Army ashore? You go, Dugout Doug.

And after last night, I think I'm also a little more sympathetic about the wanting to use nukes thing. San Francisco, watch out.