Thursday, June 28, 2012

Tricks for Kicks

 This post may resemble more of a "photo essay," rather than one of my more traditional posts. Although, I'm not entirely sure what a "traditional" post of mine might constitute, but I thought I'd give you a kindly heads up anyhow. I assume this particular blog will take a unique form because today I'll be writing about the Trick Eye Museum located in Seoul's spunky Hongdae area (near exit 9 at Hongik University Station, Line 2, for interested parties). I should mention that almost all my blogs exceed the length that I anticipate, so perhaps I'll manage to sneak quite a bit of text on here after all. I never really know what to expect of myself. Life's better that way.

Before I attach a barrage of pictures from the Trick Eye Museum to my blog, let me first tell you about another wonderful phenomenon in the Hongdae area that we visited first. I'm referring to the Hongdae Free Market, which runs from 1pm until 6pm every Saturday (March to November). This artistic initiative sprouted when the World Cup rolled through Korea in 2002, and it was largely an effort to showcase some local talent. There's some fairly priceless speculation that it was actually meant to be called the "Hongdae Flea Market," but the difficulty that Koreans have pronouncing "R" and "L" led to its current name. I can so easily imagine this scenario after being an English teacher here for about ten months. Oh so easily.

The market itself is situated in the "playground" of Hongdae where I've spent many wild nights. It was refreshing to be in Hongdae in the daytime actually, without the glaring neon lights and drunken mayhem. The Hongdae Free Market was an intriguing and dynamic display of local artists who all had a unique product to bring to the table/put on a table. I ended up purchasing a used copy of  Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (for about four dollars), a bizarre clock that will look great adorning my walls at home, and a nifty little leather bracelet. The vibes were excellent there, and this certainly wasn't hurt by the fact that there was live music playing in the background. It was a great way to spend an afternoon, as if all weekend afternoons weren't already great enough.

After getting our fix of youthful artistic vitality we began the short ten minute walk to the Trick Eye Museum. There were innumerable photo opportunities there, which will become even more evident to you in a moment when you scroll down. There's not really much room for narration, so I think I'll just let the pictures speak more or less for themselves. It would probably come off as quite unnecessary if I narrated the experience - ie. "We turned left and took a photo, which was followed with a quick left and another photo!" I hope you enjoy browsing some of these photos as much as Bri and I enjoyed taking them. That seems unlikely, but here's to hoping!

Let's start the photo parade with glimpses of Bri and I causing mischief together. I tell ya, we're a match made in heaven. I believe it was the infallible Dr. Seuss who said, “We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.”

Bri and I then tried to understand each others perspectives a little better. For a moment there, she was much taller than me. Korea does strange things to your body.

Well, I've run out of witty things to say, so here are the rest of the fantastic photographs. If you don't get a smile out of these, then your heart is made of ice. Looks like I had one more witty comment left in me after all.

It's small, random adventures like these that I'll miss most when I leave Korea, but for now I'm aiming to make my last two months count. Well, I'd better sign off for the night seeing as it's getting nice and late. As the famous English poet, John Gay, said, "We only part to meet again." Thus, I'll see you again soon.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hiking in Korea: Going to the Greenery

Another week has slipped through my hands and another Sunday beckons me to write a blog post. You will perhaps all be relieved to know that I won't be writing yet another blog on Kyoto, which seemingly demanded all of my attention over the past few weeks. Instead, I'll be writing about a particular Wednesday a few weeks back in which I geared up in sporting attire to challenge another of the endless hiking options available in Korea. Koreans take hiking seriously, and there is a truly ubiquitous presence of it across all facets of society. Sporting goods stores are stocked to the brim with colourful hiking clothing and shoes, the subways are packed on any given weekend with Koreans wearing the aforementioned hiking gear, and the trails themselves can often be crowded (a thought entirely foreign to me being from Canada). In Canada, hiking is an opportunity for escape and solitude, whereas in Korea it tends to be communal activity that the whole country relishes in...often at the same time on the same mountain. I can still distinctly recall hiking Taebaeksan and crossing paths with thousands of Koreans along the way. There was literally a standstill lineup on our way going down the mountain. Thus, we decided to head to a more secluded destination in Chiaksan National Park. Chiaksan isn't as well known as Taebaeksan, but it possesses a majesty of its own, as the dense trees of the mountain blanket it with startling, robust greenery.

Chiaksan in Chiaksan National Park
We awoke on our holiday, afforded to us by Memorial Day, to embark on a trek to a mountain littered with Buddhist influence. The first step for Bri and I to was meet our friend Luke at Jukjeon station, followed successively by a subway ride to Express Bus Terminal to hop on a bus that would take us to Wonju. We met Luke while hiking Taebaeksan, and he proposed the idea of hiking Chiaksan based on a friend's recommendation. I expected to be confronted with a relatively easy hiking course, but was pleasantly surprised by both the challenge and views afforded by Chiaksan. It's funny to think that if I had a Wednesday off while living in Toronto, I'd probably go out for lunch with some friends or play a little golf. However, in Korea I'm willing to take a bus for several hours with the luring proposal of a new experience. That thirst for new experience is something I'm going to desperately try to hold onto when I return home, as I seeped back into routine a little too easily following my exchange in Norway. Once we arrived in Wonju, we embarked on a 30 minute public bus ride from the terminal and arrived at the foot of the mountain strewn with Korean venders and restaurants. The unmistakable smell of kimchi and the ever popular hiking dish, Pajeon, were in the air. I bought a bandana with a map of Chiaksan on it, more for practical purposes than anything, and we began our hike. The bandana certainly came in handy for my sweaty North American self on the journey that exceeded 10 kilometres by quite a margin.

About half a kilometre into the hike we came across the first indication of Buddhist influence. It wasn't particularly subtle either, as Guryeongsa Temple is clearly marked on the respective signage of the mountain.

It was relaxing to hear the chanting of Buddhist monks as we strolled by the entrance gate (pictured above) of Guryeongsa. We opted not to explore the complex further, as the forest seemed to hold more seductive prospects. Moreover, to be perfectly frank, there is an undeniable similarity between almost all Korean temples that I've witnessed. Some may say that it lends them all a certain continuity, but I'm more inclined to say that a little more differentiation would really be beneficial (at least purely from a tourist perspective). Nonetheless, it goes without saying that these temples are by no means boring to look at and explore, Guryeongsa likely being no exception.


The Myth of Chiaksan 

Chiaksan derives its name from myth and legend, which is not altogether surprising in Korea. As an ardent fan of tall-tales and folklore, I happen to truly appreciate this aspect of Korea, and Asian culture in general. Initially the mountain was known as Jeogaksan, but the supposed fateful trip of one man was to change that. Apparently many, many years ago, a man was hiking Jeogaksan when he came across a snake with a nearly dead pheasant it its grasp. Feeling sorry for the poor pheasant, the man pierced the snake with an arrow, and ultimately killed it.

The man began to look for lodgings for the evening as the sun was setting, and happened upon a woman who graciously welcomed him into her home. In an entirely believable turn of events, the woman actually transformed into a snake as the man was sleeping, and ultimately revealed herself as the unlucky widow of the snake he had killed earlier. This fuming snake-woman coiled around the man and swore that he would die unless the bell at Songwansa (a nearby mountain temple) rang out three times before morning. In an unlikely, yet timely, turn of events, the bell was mysteriously heard three times throughout the night. The bewildered man, now freed from the snake-woman, went to Songwansa the following morning only to the find the pheasant dead beside the bell. In an act of self sacrifice, it had rang its head against the bell and given up its life. Thus, Jeogaksan become Chiaksan which literally means "Pheasant Peak Mountain."


The Trek 

After leaving Guryeongsa, it was an incredible relief to note the relative emptiness of the trails. I was surprised by the nature that surrounded me, particularly by the clarity of the water. About a kilometre into the hike, we stumbled upon a clear pond with a heavenly greenish hue, which practically invited us to take a sip.

The weather wasn't excruciatingly hot, but I still managed to end up shirtless, much to the chagrin of some conservative Korean hikers along the way. Honestly, I feel as if conservative Korean individuals have a lot that they sneer at, so long ago, I started returning their seething stares with jovial smiles. Higher and higher we went, embracing the lack of concrete and resurgence of something I'd forgotten about - personal space. We stopped momentarily for some digestive cookies and oranges (the hiking snack of champions) and took in the sounds and smells of the mountain. I also noted a peculiar Korean knick-knack which was glued to a small rock beside our resting point. It looks to me to be a sort of monastic figure, as the bamboo and little wooden hollow bell are in his hands.

On and on we went, heading for the peak which stands at around 1300 metres (4265 Feet). It was definitely one of the steeper mountain I've climbed, underscored by the over 1000 steps (both man-made and natural) on the way to the summit. Needless to say, I was sore for several days after the excursion. The views continued to impress.

As with most mountains, the impressiveness of the view was consistent with our particular elevation. However, Chiaksan managed to offer unique, worthwhile views from about the halfway point until the summit itself. The terrain itself also managed to be quite captivating, rarely leaving a moment for boredom, more a time for tired contemplation and navigation.

It was one foot in front of the other, as any good hiker does, but the course got progressively harder. The last 500 metres were nothing short of exhausting, but a welcomed exhaustion if that makes sense. I guess it's that old notion that if there's "no pain" there's "no gain." It's something I always felt was especially applicable to long, grueling Canadian canoe trips where the final few steps of the trip feel almost divine, but that wasn't always the case on a particular portage during the trip. It always seems to be the case that physically demanding trips seem better, more euphoric even, in retrospect. However, I'd have to say that I appreciated this hike the whole way through. I was particularly fond of a lookout located about 200 metres from the summit.

After 200 metres of grueling stairs and rocky paths the summit was finally in our grasp. There's something remarkably satisfying about reaching the peak of anything, be it a mountain or a career. We took a well deserved rest, and investigated our surroundings. The first thing I noticed was the presence of three large stone towers. Apparently, the proprietor of a bakery in Wonju erected these towers in the early 1960's. He said that he received a divine command in a dream to build three towers on Birobong Peak on Chiakson. They have collapsed several times and even been struck by lightning, but are now actually maintained by Chiakson National Park Office (after the passing of this man in 1974). If nothing else, it gives the summit a distinctly interesting flavour, and adds to the achievement of reaching it in the first place. The summit is as good a place as any to find yourself.

All the big problems of your life suddenly don't seem so big from 1300m up. In fact, they don't seem big at all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kyoto, Japan Part III: Bamboo, Baby!

Welcome to the beginning of the third part of the only three-part blog I've ever written. Surprisingly, these three posts are focused on a period of only about three days. Evidently, three is the magic number today. More than anything, the short visit translated into a slew of blog posts is indicative of the kind of city that Kyoto really is. Although it's small in stature, it's incredibly rich in history while containing unparalleled depth for those with a keen eye. That, or it's indicative of the way in which I've fallen in love with this city, longing for just one more symmetrical rock garden with lush green hills in the backdrop. Nonetheless, I've taken more pictures of Kyoto than National Geographic, so in a moment of nostalgic despair I'll always have those. More realistically, I'll just haul myself back to Kyoto at some point, as there's still a large portion of Japan that I'm aching to see. Alas, I'll now recount my final day in Kyoto just weeks ago. I'm sure the Korea Blog will be enthusiastic about the fact that I've finally stopped talking about Japan, and will continue to focus on Korea. Don't worry, Korea Blog, I promise I haven't forgotten you. But I haven't forgotten me, either, so for my sake, welcome back to Kyoto for one last roll of the dice.

Arashiyama Mountain across the Oi River
What at first appears to be a Japanese Eden far away from the city turns out to be a Japanese eden within the city. That's the name of the game when it comes to Kyoto. This particular Eden or district, if you will, is known as Arishiyama and is located on the Western outskirts of Kyoto. Arishiyama Mountain ("Storm Mountain" in English) manages as a gorgeous backdrop for the whole district, while gives the area a noticeably peaceful aura. Arishiyama contains many notable sights, but we accepted the long bus ride on the pretext of a visit to a particular temple and bamboo grove. Our first stop was to the renowned Tenryu-ji. You get a virtual high five to be sent via e-mail if you guessed that it's a UNESCO World Heritage site on your own accord. After you're in Kyoto for a few days, you start to wonder if by chance the bus you took to get to the site also somehow managed to be blessed as a world heritage site itself. The moral of the story as far as UNESCO is concerned, Kyoto is a city worth preserving. That's an attitude I'd pleasantly adopt.

Ohojo Abbey at Tenryu-ji
Tenryu-ji is an extraordinarily important temple complex in Kyoto with a storied history. It's considered to be one of top five most revered temples in Kyoto, as it sits as the head temple of the Tenryu branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. The temple was founded and constructed in the middle of the 14th century, but the present day buildings are considerably newer due to a multiplicity of fires throughout the years. While I was researching a bit about this temple I came across a peculiar tale. Tenryu-ji managed to cast itself into a close relationship with China's Ming Dynasty in the middle of the 15th century. Essentially, the deal was the Chinese would have a say in the succeeding chief abbot of the temple, and Tenryu-ji would enter into a formal trading relationship with them. It's quite a bit more complex than that, but ultimately this gave them a monopoly of legitimate trade with China. I can only assume that this is yet another reason that Tenryu-ji is held in such high esteem. Bri and I both really appreciated the large abbey pictured above, but The Sogen Pond located directly in front of it was also a highlight of the complex. I'm afraid Kyoto turned me into something of a garden aficionado.

The real treasure we were searching for lay beyond The Sogen Pond in an area that was seemingly straight out of Harry Potter. Only a few minutes away from this pond lay the Arishiyama Bamboo Grove, which transports you into a world of mystery, accompanied by some of the largest and thickest bamboo you'll ever see. After being surrounded by concrete for so long in our Seoul suburb, it was nice to be surrounded by something else, namely bamboo. It was a unique experience, which Bri and I are always quick to welcome with open arms. Photos don't adequately convey the feeling of the grove, but I'm sure you'll be able to envision what emotions a place like this could conjure up.

Our time was short until Kansai International Airport would be beckoning us back to Korea, so a bus swiftly took off from the western outskirts back to the central area. The last destination would be Nishiki Market, also known as the "Kitchen of Kyoto." Nishiki Market has housed traditional Japanese items since the 14th century, but came into its own in the Edo Period in the 16th Century. It's actually a tremendously long and narrow market that looks more like an extended alleyway than anything else. The market extends about 400 metres and is a fairly narrow 5 metres across. Along this distance there are more or less 125 shops that offer anything and everything Kyoto will put on a plate. Personally, I delighted in the fact that the roof of the market was comprised of stained glass. The reflective products, such as plastic wrapping, flickered with the stained glass design high up above. I never really feel like I've seen a city unless I've visited a market or two, and it was the same with Kyoto. The variation of products, as well the manner in which they are selling them, are always indicative of cultural norms. Thus, Kyoto's market was logically planned, contained a smorgasbord of variety, and the products were sold by venders who weren't overly aggressive, and tended to have a smile.

Alright, so it wasn't as exciting as my second day in Kyoto, but few are as far as I'm concerned. Moreover, I'm not sure how many days a year you walk through a bamboo grove with nothing but your thoughts to keep you company. Overall, the sum of the trip Bri and I took to Kyoto was incredible and it will surely be something I'll cherish for the rest of my life. However, you can't spend too much time cherishing these memories now, when there are more to be made in the meantime. Thus, it was back to Korea for more escapades and the meantime.