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We spent an awesome three days in Kyoto.  After that we took an overnight bus to Hiroshima.  If anyone is traveling to Japan, the overnight buses are a great way to save on one night’s hotel cost.  On the bus ride over, a passenger threw up on the bus.  In true Japanese style, instead of cleaning it up and moving on.  The bus was evacuated and a new bus brought in.  So we had an unexpected hour-long break in Osaka.

We arrived in Hiroshima at about six in the morning.  Christian and I spent about an hour in the bus station trying to figure out what to do next.  Everything was still closed and we didn’t know anything about the city.  We didn’t have a map to look at or have any idea what part of the city we had landed in.

Once the ticket office opened, we got a map of the city and bought our bus tickets for the next day back to Fukuoka.  We were happy to discover that the bus station we were in was near all of the tourist A-bomb related sites.  We rented a locker in the bus station to put our backpacks in and headed out to get a cup of coffee before exploring the city.

Hiroshima is a beautiful city.   The sidewalks are clean and wide.  I actually saw a woman mopping the sidewalk.  People were riding bicycles every where.  There was a lot of green space.

We spent most of our time exploring the A-bomb related sites, starting with the A-bomb dome.   This building was one of the only ones built out of concrete at the time the bomb was dropped, so it was one of the only buildings to survive.  The Japanese decided to leave it standing to show the destruction caused.

The park around the dome was full of japanese school children and a few other tourists.  Christian and I ate a self catered lunch in the park then spent the afternoon in the museum.

The museum starts by giving the historical and political background of the atomic bomb.  The English version was not anti-American, but was unbiased in my opinion.  The second part of the tour was about the current state of nuclear weapons.  The last part was the most memorable for me.  It contained personal stories about those who lived through the bomb.   The most tragic part of the human toll for me was the length of time many of the civilians suffered.  For a lot of them, they did not die immediately, but suffered for days, weeks or months before eventually succumbing to radiation poisoning.

We finished the day with a short nap and dinner.  We caught an early bus back to Fukuoka.  We spent one more night there before heading back to the ROK.

Visiting Japan – Part 1

Christian and I just got back from spending 5 days in Japan.  We had a great time.  It was one of my favorite places that I’ve traveled to.  We decided to go Monday and left on Tuesday.  There wasn’t much time for planning.

South Korea is geographically close to Japan.  We took a three-hour ferry and landed in Fukuoka at around 5:30 in the afternoon.  From there we went straight to the train station and bought a ticket for the bullet train, called Shinkansen in Japan.  The bullet train goes around 170 miles per hour.  As well as being fast, it’s known for its punctuality and safety.  In 30 years there has never been a fatality.

At around 10 at night we arrived in Kyoto, the historical capital of Japan.  Since it was late at night and we didn’t do any planning, our first priority was to find a place to sleep.  It turned out to be more difficult that we imagined.  Our first few choices had no vacancies.  The next two places we saw only had single rooms available.  The next ones we visited were out of our price range.  By this time it was near midnight and we were both getting tired.  We settled on the cheapest hotel that offered two single rooms.

The rooms were tiny.  They had a single bed with maybe three feet between the bed and wall.  The bathrooms were equally small.  We were both provided with pajamas to wear.  Also the TV and phone were pay as you go.  We spent the next few days exploring Kyoto.  The were way too many sites to see in the time we had.  We concentrated on two neighborhoods, Higashiyama and Arashiyama.  Both of these areas had most of the historical sites.  We saw a lot of Japanese dressed up in traditional clothes.

The first day in Kyoto was sweltering.  We took a break to enjoy some green tea ice cream.  We also had another dish, but I don’t know what it’s called.  It was a little like green tea jello.  You were supposed to take the jello cubes and dip them in a powder.  Christian thought the powder tasted like cacao.  I’m not sure that’s what it was.  If anyone is familiar with this dessert, let me know.

Below are some more pictures around from around Kyoto, a really beautiful city.

About 40% of Koreans practice Buddhism.  Historically this number was much higher.  Korea has a number of large, historic temples.  One of the largest is Haeinsa.  Haeinsa is a little over an hour away from Daegu by bus.  It’s located up in the mountains beside a river.  The temple is a world heritage site because it houses the Tripitaka Koreana.  The Tripitaka Koreana is a Korean collection of the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures, and the Sanskrit word for “three baskets”), carved onto 81,340 wooden printing blocks in the 13th century. It is the world’s most comprehensive and oldest intact version of Buddhist canon in Chinese script.

Buddhism, for me, is mysterious and foreign.  I was curious to know more about the religion.  Also, I’m a huge history buff.  I couldn’t resist visiting a historic site like Haeinsa.  Because the population of Koreans who practice Buddhism has been consistently shrinking, the government began a nationwide temple stay program.  This program allows anyone interested to stay in a Buddhist temple and observe / participate in the daily life of a the monks that live there.  The program’s goals are to reignite interest in Korean Buddhism and help preserve the historic traditions.

Christian and I arrived in the evening around 5 pm.  We checked in and were given traditional Korean clothing to change into.  After that we were sat down and given the rules of our stay.   While wearing the traditional clothing, we were not to consider ourselves as tourists, but as students of the temple.  We were to walk around the grounds in a respectful way.  This meant with our hands clasped in front of us and our eyes down.  If we saw another monk, we were to bow to them.  We were not to talk during mealtime or any of the ceremonies.  When we did speak, we had to keep our voices low.  We were to respect the practices of Buddhism, which meant removing our shoes before entering any of the temples and not turning our back on any image of the Buddha.

Next we had dinner with the monks.  As mentioned before, it was done in silence.  The meal was simple and vegetarian.  After that the monks went out to a pavilion that housed a huge drum.  They beat the for about 30 minutes, switching monks every few minutes.  Each monk had their own style and it was clear that they had practiced what they were doing a lot.  It’s hard to describe.  Next we followed the monks into the main temple where they chanted and prayed for another 30 minutes or so.  After that we went to the meditation walk.  A meditation walk looks like a maze.  The one at Haeinsa took 30 minutes to walk.  As you walk, you are supposed to keep your mind clear and focused on one desire – good health, a new job, etc.  If your mind wanders from that thought, you stop walking and refocus. 

    

After the walk, we went back to the temple stay hall and had a “get to know you” session.  We made lotus flowers out of paper and each person introduced themselves.  It was about a 50/50 split between Westerners and Koreans.  Throughout our stay, there was constant translation between languages going on.  Lights out was at 9:00pm.  This seems early, but we had to get up at 3:45am the next day for morning prayer.

The next day we went to morning prayer, followed by chanting, then meditation.  After that we went to breakfast which was nearly identical to dinner.  The stay ended after a we were given a tour of the grounds by an American educated, English-speaking monk.  I thought his most interesting story was about his first year as a monk.  When you are a first year monk, it’s like being a freshman in high school.  You are the lowest ranking person there.  The monks have a difficult work schedule and are still adjusting to the lifestyle.  One day, some of the freshman monks wanted to eat chicken really bad.  They ordered some chicken and had it delivered to the temple.  The monk giving the tour had just walked into the room with the chicken when they were all caught by a senior monk.  Even though he didn’t get a chance to eat any of the meat, he was guilty by association.  They were all told that they would be expelled from the temple.  The monk begged to stay and the senior monk said if he really wanted to stay, he had to do 3,000 prostrations a day until further notice.  This is a bow that starts in the standing position, goes all the way to the ground, then stands back up again.  He had to do these prostrations for two weeks before he was allowed to stay in the temple.  The monk is pictured below.

The temple stay was a great experience.  I learned a little bit about Buddhism, but one day is not nearly enough to begin to understand this complex religion.  I’ve tried to read more about, but it’s still difficult to understand.  Unlike Christianity, Buddhism is not an evangelistic religion.  Therefore, there has never been a big push to translate Buddhist texts.  If you are interested in it, you have to seek it out.   Also, the differences between Eastern and Western languages and culture make translations of Buddhist writings, for me at least, difficult to understand or relate to.  Here’s an example.  This is Chuang-Tzu, a 3rd century Chinese philosopher’s thoughts on the central Zen principle of “no mind”.  “Body like dry bone, mind like dead ashes; this is true knowledge.  Not to strive after knowing, the whence.  In darkness, in obscurity, the mindless cannot plan.  What manner of man is this?”  huh??

We are in the middle of a hottest part of the summer here in Korea.  The heat and humidity are at times nearly unbearable.  Below is a picture of the beautiful lotus flowers that have finally started to bloom at my school.

   

Living here in the summer has brought many new things to observe that seem uniquely Korean.  One of them is the numerous vegetable plants.  Everywhere I look I see tomato and pepper plants.  Most homes have at least a small container garden. 

 

Some have dozens of plants growing outside their front doors. 

 

All of the green spaces, including parks and playgrounds in our neighborhood have cultivated garden patches.  My school has a garden.  Even the planters outside of the parking ramp near our home has 5 foot tall stalks of corn growing in it. 

 

Koreans are nothing if not self sufficient.  I feel these gardens are another demonstration this.  Whatever happens, all of these families will have their own supply of fresh vegetables for the summer.

World Cup 2010

Watching the World Cup here in Korea was a lot more interesting than watching it in the US.  It’s hard to describe how enthusiastic everyone was about the event.  Imagine the Superbowl in the US, only everyone is cheering for the same team. 

Now imagine the Superbowl and it being Halloween.  Everyone is dressed to the nines in their teams colors. 

Another big difference is that watching it here is a community event.  It’s not like Koreans watch the World Cup with a couple of friends at their house.  The games were playing everywhere, in parks, on the big screens downtown and in every restaurant.  You can watch the game at the baseball stadium.  There have been commercials on TV for months now.  There is a fight song that every Korean knows and sings.  They all do the same cheers together while watching the game.  It would be impossible to not know that the World Cup is going on. 

Unfortunately, on Saturday both Korea and the US were eliminated from the tournament.

Christian and I visited Seoul over a long holiday weekend.  The holiday was Buddha’s birthday.  We were able to observe some of the celebration.  The pictures below are at Joyesa Temple in downtown Seoul.  There was a large crowd of people and hundreds of brightly colored lanterns.  Incense and candles were burning all around and inside the temple.  I don’t know much about the Buddhism, so I’m not sure what the celebration actually consisted of, but it was interesting to watch nonetheless.

    

Seoul is one of the world’s largest cities.  It is also one of the most densely populated.  Walking around the city it’s hard to imagine that it was completely destroyed by war only fifty years ago. 

 

We visited one of the five historical palaces in Seoul, Changdeokgung.  The highlight of the visit for me was a tour of the palace gardens.  It was a hot day and the gardens were a cool relief from the city.  The garden covers 78 acres and has hundreds of different kinds of trees.

    

Seoul is full of outdoor markets.  We visited the two largest, Namdaemun & Dongdaemun.  Both of them are huge and you could spend the entire day exploring them.  The last picture below is of a man selling flying squirrels as pets.  We also made a trip to the Itaewon area to have an American style breakfast.  It was worth the trip. 

   

My opinion of Seoul is that it’s a great city for shopping, eating and exploring.  It’s not a great city for breathing, sleeping or relaxing.

Last Friday I went on a field trip with our sixth grade students.  It was a marathon of a day.  It started at 7 am and we didn’t get back until 8 pm.  We made four stops all in the Jiri mountain area.  Jiri mountain is the tallest mountain on the South Korean mainland and a favorite destination for Koreans.  The first place we stopped was Samseong-gung, a Daoist temple.  On the grounds there were hundreds of mounds of stones.  The middle picture shows the students adding stones to one of the piles.  My co-teacher said that you make a wish or request and add the stone to the pile. 

     

We stopped for a picnic lunch.  The student’s parents packed a lunch for the teachers.  So I had gimbab, which is sort of like a sushi roll, but there’s no fish.  They are filled with vegetables and sometimes meat.  We also had and cherry tomatoes, grapes and orange slices. 

After lunch, we visited an old movie set that demonstrates a traditional Korean village.  There didn’t seem to be that much to see, but the kids liked the animals, horses and chickens. 

   

Next we stopped at Jirisan National Park  which was the first and is the largest national park in Korea.  Here we saw a historic Buddhist temple, Ssanggyesa.   The temple was founded in 722 by two disciples of Uisang named Sambeop and Daebi.  It is said that they were guided to the location by a Jiri-sanshin in the form of a tiger, after being instructed by him in dreams to look for a site where arrowroot flowers blossomed through the snow.  The middle picture below is of a student who found a leaf-shaped like a heart.  I’m pretty sure she was more excited about that than the temple. 

  

The last stop was Seom Jin River.  Several of the students spent the time digging up tiny clams.  Most of them were smaller than a fingernail.  I asked them what they were going to do with them.  They said they would take the clams home and make a soup.  Koreans seem to be able to eat just about everything from the earth.

     

The bus ride home took another three hours.  How did the kids pass the time?  karaoke (or norae as it’s known here).