Friday, May 16, 2008


If anyone has any ideas why the font size on that last post was twice as big as usual, I'm all ears.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Buddha's Birthday, Part One: The Holiday

Monday was Buddha's Birthday, a public holiday here in Korea (as in much of East Asia). Not only did Nana and I get the day off, we also joined a Royal Asiatic Society tour of the local festivities, centered on five local temples we hadn't yet seen. This post will deal with the holiday and its traditions (and images) in general; a second post will provide some details about the temples themselves.

The Holiday

Buddha's Birthday celebrates the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the founding figure of the Buddhist religion. Buddhists believe that Gautama, who was the prince of a small kingdom in northern India around 400 BC, sprung from his mother's side (often interpreted as a kind of Sanskrit c-section, in keeping with ancient Indian beliefs that traditional birth was somehow impure) able to walk and talk immediately upon his birth.

Images of Buddha's birth are common in Buddhist temples here in Korea. Below you can see the prelude to Gautama's conception (by a three-tusked white elephant who visited his mother in a dream), the birth itself (with Gautama emerging from his mother's sleeve), and Buddha's first steps and first words shortly thereafter (he points to the earth and the sky and says he has been sent to save all who dwell there).

The Lotus Lantern
In Korea, Buddha's Birthday is commonly referred to as the Festival of the Lotus Lantern, a nod to the most visible symbol of the holiday here.

The lotus lamp has its roots in the belief that, when Buddha took his first steps, a lotus flower sprouted at his feet. During the run-up to Buddha's Birthday, Buddhists adorn their temples with hundreds of these lanterns, which are also trailed off through the main gate and down the surrounding streets.

The Lotus Lanterns come in many shapes and colors. The simplest and most common are bright paper deals with an image of the baby Buddha screened on the side. (Notice the baby Buddha dance--one finger to the ground, one to the sky.)

Others are a little more subtle, such as these black-and-white lamps with simple hangeul script.
A third class is very stylized, in polygon form.
And a final class strives for realism with its plastic blossom shape.
Of course, no matter what kind of Lotus Lantern, the true effect can only be seen at night.

A final note: the papers you see hanging from the lanterns are prayers or dedications written by the folks who purchased the lamps.

Bathing the Baby Buddha

One cute little tradition surrounding Buddha's Birthday is the act of bathing the baby Buddha (or a statue of him, at least) by pouring a simple dipper of water over his head.

All visitors, regardless of religion, are invited to give the baby Buddha a dousing--and since the visitors seem to come in droves on these days, you can imagine the little guy gets pretty darn clean.

Traditional Performances

During our day out, Nana and I also had the chance to witness two traditional Buddha's Birthday performances. Here are a few shots of one of the shows (involving a chorus, dancers, a ritual offering of gifts, and a Buddhist nun rocking the point-and-shoot camera).

A second performance included a much more elaborate (and more traditional) band.

The History of Buddha's Birthday in Korea

Given all the traditions piled up around the day, you might think that Buddha's Birthday has a long history as a Korean national holiday. However, Buddhism as a whole fell hugely out of favor during the Joseon Dynasty period after, according to the neo-Confucian philosophers of the time, clerical excesses corrupted the previous regime. In fact, when the capital was moved to Seoul, the king decreed that no monks would be allowed to pass the city gates, and even today, all the historical temples of Seoul are well outside the limits of the old city walls. Only in the last 75-odd years has Buddhism seen a revival in Korea, and only in the past decade or so has Buddha's Birthday become a major event on the Korean calendar.

Next time: Bomunsa, Gaeunsa, Bongwonsa--stay tuned!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Japan Part Two: The Sights

Well, the leaves are greening, the birds are singing, the dog is in heat (seriously) . . . so to be honest, writing a blog post about a rainy week in Japan is just about the furthest thing from my mind now. But, since I never like to break a promise, I'm going to try to knock the rest of this Japan stuff out in one gargantuan post.

Here goes.


On our first day in Japan, we spent the afternoon in Odaiba, a large artificial island in Tokyo Bay that has recently developed into a shopping and entertainment hub. My first thought on looking out over the Rainbow Bridge (after, of course, the sudden desire to play Mario Kart) was that the scene looked eerily familiar. Apparently, someone else thought so, too, and erected a mini-sized Statue of Liberty on the bayside waterfront.
In fact, if you run a Google image search for "Odaiba," this is the first image you see. Weird.
(Credit to

Our main attraction in Odaiba was the Decks Tokyo Mall, which featured two entire floors called "Little Hong Kong," reconstructed to mimic the newly-rebuilt entertainment districts of Tokyo as they looked in the 1950s-1960s.
These dim halls, crammed with poorly maintained, vaguely Japanified 1950s kitsch (including, I must add, some really cool old carnival games), mostly came across as eerie.
This poor little guy has seen better days. Of course, the shrieks from the "Daiba Mysterious School" (below) only added to the atmosphere.
After the Decks, we visited the Fuji TV building, home of some of the most popular TV programs in East Asia. I was completely lost for the entire exhibit--everything was in Japanese, and I had neither seen nor heard of any of these shows in my life--but the building was super-cool.

Absolute pain to work in, I imagine (yes, most of the "floors" consist of single offices separated by twenty-plus yards of open air), but pretty.

Tokyo Disneyland

Because Tokyo Disneyland was almost 100% exactly like the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, I'm not going to spend much time on it here. However, I will note that certain attractions were half-translated, which made for a very strange effect. Take The Country Bears, for example. Most of the dialogue was in Japanese, as were most of the songs . . . except for when Big Al starts howlin' about "blood on the saddle, blood on the ground, a great big puddle of blood all around." Imagine sitting through ten minutes of Japanese bluegrass, then snapping out of your daze to hear that. Nightmares.

But the good news is that the Haunted Mansion in Japanese is still really cool.

Tokyo Sea Life Park

Our first stop on the day after Tokyo Disneyland was the Tokyo Sea Life Park, a living natural history exhibit dedicated to the wildlife of Tokyo Bay with a small but eclectic aquarium housing sea life from around the world.

Architecturally, the aquarium was pretty cool. You entered from the roof, which was covered by a large, shallow pool. The "sails" you see below are actually the tops of picnic tents out by the reed marshes at ground level. Pretty cool effect. Of course, the weather helped!
Inside the aquarium, there was a lot to see, besides the typical sharks.

These seahorses may have stolen the show--yes, those are seahorses, not clumps of seaweed. Pretty cool, eh?
The main event, though, was the huge, unadorned tank of tuna. The Japanese are pretty proud of their tuna--it's something of a national dish--and I have to admit, my first thought upon seeing these bad boys, after noticing that they're REALLY fast, was a hankering for sushi. Yum.
Meiji Shrine

After the aquarium, the tour pressed on to Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, a major downtown shopping district where we also took some free time. Meiji Shrine, where Emperor Meiji and his wife are interred, has become one of the central sites of Shintoism, even though the shrine only dates to the 1920s (and the current version of the building was rebuilt after WWII).

For Westernes, Emperor Meiji is probably best known as the creepy kid in white from the movie The Last Samurai. For Japanese, Emperor Meiji is alternately seen as the benevolent force who modernized Japan and abolished the Tokugawa Shogunate in a revolution known as the Meiji Restoration, or as the fellow who slaughtered the noble samurai class of warrior-poets and set the stage for the rise of Japan's military-industrial complex . . . and we all know how that story turned out. (The truth, of course, is somewhere in between: most regular people saw everyday life get better as a result of the Meiji Restoration, but there is a direct link between the philosophies and policies of the Meiji Restoration and the military cabal that started WWII in Asia.)
Anyway. These are inscribed and decorated sake barrels, sent as tokens of goodwill to honor Emperor Meiji. (Across the way, you can also see casks of wine sent as gifts of state.)

The shrine itself was a really cool complex. Not only did we get a glimpse of a Shinto wedding (Note: I'd be somber, too, given the stereotypical state of matrimonial romance in Japan), we also got a strong sense of how greatly Japanese architecture differs from Korean.
First of all, traditional Japanese buildings seem to either be unpainted wood, or (as was the case with the Buddhist temple in Asakusa, see below) painted a simple red.
The unpainted wood is specifically associated with the imperial family; most torii gates, unlike the one seen above, are red. Contrast this with the typical Korean shrine or temple, intricately painted in green, red, blue, and gold.

Some larger design elements are different, too. Note the high "saddle" roof on the main shrine building. In Korea, most high buildings like this have double-tiered eaves. The Japanese design actually looks a lot like a helmet, whereas the Korean design looks like you lopped off the top of a pagoda. Neat.

The shrine also included some interesting cultural features. Seen below is a trough of clean spring water which all visitors must use to wash their hands and mouths before entering the shrine. (No, you don't spit back into the same pool you draw the water from.)
And here we have wooden prayer tablets ringing a sacred tree in the middle of the shrine's main yard. Note the very austere, simple aesthetic. This seems to be a characteristic of Shinto; we'll see a much more elaborate Buddhist temple later on.
The Tokyo-Edo Museum

No pictures from this stop, but it's certainly worth noting. The Tokyo-Edo Museum, located in Asakusa, where we spent the last couple days of the trip, details the history of Tokyo (as the city was called after the Meiji Restoration) and Edo (Tokyo's name under the Shogunate). The museum, which includes ample signage in English, features massive scale models of historical Tokyo streets which allow visitors to visualize in one grand sweep Tokyo's transition from a giant medieval garrison town to a modern 19th-century metropolis. If you're ever in the neighborhood, it's well worth an afternoon.

Tokyo Government Observatory

The impressive Tokyo City Government buildings feature the best views in town from either of its two top-floor observatories. There's no better place to get a sense of Tokyo's scale. Below, you see a shot of the city stretching away to the foothills of Mt. Fuji, obscured by clouds.
Note, however, the surprisingly low population density as soon as you get outside the immediate city center. Tall buildings like those below actually stand out against the sea of three-to-ten-story structures that make up most of the city. I suppose I was expecting something more like Manhattan, and while there are bits of Tokyo with a similar feel, most of Tokyo looks a little more like Brooklyn or Queens. But clean.


We ended our trip in the neighborhood of Asakusa, which has an older feel to it than most of Tokyo, seeing as much of the city was leveled during the war. Asakusa is home to a bustling market district and to Tokyo's oldest temple, Senso-ji, which dates to 645 AD, though the current buildings are much newer. Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple, sits adjacent to a Shinto shrine, and the fact that one of Tokyo's major Shinto festivals centers on Senso-ji indicates the coexistence of the two religions in Japan.

The main temple building below is still relatively simple compared to other examples of East Asian Buddhist architecture, though it does incorporate some features common in China and Korea, such as the tiered roof and the red ornamental details. The smoke you see is from visitors burning prayer scrolls dipped in incense.Below, you see a wooden pagoda of a style common in Buddhist temples in Japan and China, but not in Korea, where pagodas tend to take the form of small statues, generally made of stone.
Asakusa was also a cool place to walk around at night. Here's a shot of one of the streets just as the market district was closing. Below that, you can see Asakusa's famous market gate with it's enormous red lantern. Quite a sight at night.

Well, that's about it for the Japan trip. I wish I had more insights and photos and such, but I spent so much of my time wrangling 8th graders, I missed some shots here and there. Overall, the trip was a good experience, and I certainly enjoyed Japan--quiet, orderly, pretty, tasty food. I never thought I would have liked Tokyo--I'm generally big-city phobic (and yet I've spent the last two years in D.C. and Seoul . . . ?), but Tokyo has a nice feel, with plenty of sleepier neighborhoods to escape to if the hustle and bustle gets to be too much.