Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Japan/SoKor Day 23: Hwagaesa Buddhist TempleStay

January 2, 2010
SoKor Day 23: Hwagaesa Buddhist TempleStay

Today: an overnight experience at a Buddhist Temple, hiking, learning about their culture and waking up the next morning at 5am to bang gongs and meditate with monks!

We got up early and Liz made us a bunch of tasty great stuff for breakfast: strawberry shake, coffee, toast. That was great and we then packed up quickly and headed out right after breakfast cause the TempleStay folks were very definite on their website about the start time of the overnight TempleStay program and I thought it would be not cool to be late. Lisa and I zoomed out after breakfast and found the bus stop pretty quickly. It turns out there was a bus almost directly from Sillim to Hwagaesa Temple! Liz was super helpful telling us the directions and it was really easy to find. She cleaned up her place after we left and planned to meet us later on during the day.

It was a 1 hr direct bus, and the last stop on Bus #152, so it was really straightforward to get there. We arrived just after 11, dropped off our stuff and went right to the orientation room just as things were getting started. We met the other participants, from many different countries including Germany, Russia, USA, Canada, and South Korea. After chatting for a little bit and getting our stuff settled, we all donned our TempleStay Buddhist clothes on top of our regular clothes and headed downstairs for lunch. Fun!

The food was all vegetarian: soup, rice, kimchi and lots of different plates of vegetables. I chatted lots with everyone and it was really cool to hear everyone's reason for wanting to visit and learn about the Monk's culture. A Korean girl working there was a high school student and was volunteering as a translator for TempleStay. She said, "I really like your hair!" - ha ha. That's hilarious. Lisa told me that it's very uncommon for Korean people to see big curly hair like mine so they would be pretty surprised at how different it is from what they see all the time. Haha?!?!! Hilarious. Anyhow, I certainly appreciated the compliment :) The kind Buddhist-y comments continued, as I was getting lunch. The Zen Master for the International Zen Center, (we called him "Sunim") noticed me in line and laughed and then smiled at me, looking insightful. Almost instantly he said, "Are you a Comedian? In the Movies?" I laughed and said, "Well, sort of!"

After lunch we met outside and started our hike up the mountain. Our guide, Sunim, was SUPER FUNNY. He started with some jokes and encouraged us to all take group photos together. We then headed on a 1 hour hike up a snowy mountain, reaching the top and seeing a beautiful view of Seoul. We were having a serious discussion and then Sunim drew a line in the snow with his walking stick, and said we should make teams. Then he started a snowball fight!!!!!!!!!!! I couldn't BELIEVE it. It was SO awesome. This was literally the last thing I ever expected to be doing on a Buddhist TempleStay - having a full-on snow battle with a Zen Master. This is one for the storybooks!

After the, uh, snowball fight, we met some more of the monks. There was another monk who runs a temple near Fairfax, Virginia. These visiting monks were on a winter retreat to this temple. Sunim then asked us to gather around and drew a circle in the snow. He told us a story about student and master, good and evil, opposites, and asked us "if the student wanted to avoid evil (to avoid a beating from the master), should he be in the circle, or not?", and he pointed to the snowy circle that he'd just created with his walking stick. I'm not sure if there was supposed to be an exact answer, but it was definitely meant to be something to ponder. He asked us for our opinions, and I think mine was "the student should stand along the edge of the circle" (i.e., balancing between good and evil) and he laughed and said, "10 beatings!" (meaning the student would have gotten 10 beatings from the master). Other people answered things like, "the student should float above the circle", and he said that wasn't possible, and "50 beatings!" and he laughed. So I don't think we got the "right" answer, but it also seemed like it was a question meant to get us to think of lots of divergent possibilities.

We then walked down the mountain and back to the temple. We had a discussion about the meditation and chanting schedule. The schedule was very detailed and had very well-defined times on it! Liz had arrived when we were hiking and was dressed up in the same TempleStay clothes as us once we got back! Good times to share with a few old friends and lots of new ones.

We started with meditation. First, our Sunim discussed that the "bows" were not praying to idols (for the Jews and Christians in the crowd who would be nervous of this kind of issue) He said that Buddha is a teacher, and the "bows" are actually showing respect to our "inner Buddha" - very interesting! We sat on soft mats in the meditation room and focused on a poem that he had given to us on a piece of paper. He called it a "Koan" (from Wikipedia: "A Koan is a fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism. It consists of a story, dialogue, question, or statement; the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking, yet it may be accessible by intuition.")

After the meditation, we walked to the room at the back of the meditation hall and Sunim opened a bag of chocolate cookies!!!! He was SO excited for cookies. "Mmm... So good!" he said. After I ate one, he motioned towards the cookies and said, "Please, please, have some more!" They were really good! This was really interesting. Liz and Lisa explained that the monks don't earn a salary or anything, so they live off food donated by the community, donations, and so on. The cookies were probably donated by someone in the community. It was interesting and awesome how excited they were about the cookies and how eager they were to share them with us, strangers they had just met only a few hours before. Very awesome!

We then vacuumed the area, and helped maintain their operation. The TempleStay is a bit like an old-style hostel - you also help maintain the place as well as having your place to sleep and food. After the clean-up, we went downstairs for dinner (right after the cookies!) Dinner was roughly the same as lunch, pretty much ("very healthy!"). Probably a good idea after all those cookies. We all chatted a bunch more. One of the German girls said to me: "You really are crazy!" since I was joking around a lot. One of the German girls was named "Maike", which she pronounced like "Mike-a", so we had a good laugh about the fact that our names sounded so similar with the Korean accent. She said when they were divving up the rooms by gender, they asked one of the other guys and "Mike-uh" to go move their stuff to the room for the guys. Of course, by "Mike-uh", they meant me, "Mike" and not the German girl "Maike" :) She was really nervous at first they were asking her to move her stuff to the room with the only other man there, until she realized my name was Mike. Haha.

After dinner we helped wash dishes and fold pamphlets. There was a public lecture there that evening and there was some leftover chocolate cake (very exciting!!) and we got into that pretty fierce. The TempleStay lady and the Korean student laughed when I took off my hat. "You look like Johnny Depp!" they said. Whaaaaaa!!! So awesome :) haha, it must have been my backpacker/lazy-traveler goatee and moustache and long curly hair. Hilarious!!

We then went up to a temple room and did some chanting and bows and listening to a bell and monks chanting. After that, and following the schedule closely, we headed back up to the meditation room for a longer meditation. We continued focusing on the small thing, the small "Koan" idea. Sunim said that the small "mustard seed" becomes and "entire tree, forest." The idea was to think intuitively and creatively about the small idea, and try to keep looking at the same idea from more and more perspectives.

After meditating, it was getting colder outside so I went downstairs and got a cup of tea and yapped with the German girls for a bit. After that I took off for bed time, and was asleep by 9:30pm! It turns out the early morning wake-up was not 5:30am as I had heard... it was 3:00am!!!!! So the early bedtime suggestion was a very good one! I was off to dream Zen-y thoughts and relax after some uncomfortable attempted lotus positions today, aiming to improve more the next day.

Welcome sign in the parking lot

Another beautiful roof

Vegetarian lunch, here we come!

Tasty, healthy stuff

Lisa and Me in our TempleStay clothing

Lisa chowing on some seaweed and/or other random vegetarian goodness

Off we go for a "Mountain Walk!"

Our TempleStay group with our Sunim guide, who is the Zen Master for the International Zen Center at Hwagaesa Temple

Lisa on the hike

Me on the hike

A walk in the woods

At the top of the mountain!

Yes, and here comes the snowball fight! Out of nowhere, the Zen Master collected up some snow and started throwing it at people, encouraging us to form teams and have a snowball fight! It was *hilarious*. Just about the exact last thing I would have expected.


Cool frozen water

View of Seoul

The Zen Master, and one of the visiting Monks

Another photo of our big group

More snowball fights

Walking back down towards the Temple

Beautiful architecture

All of our wet shoes, lined up

Amazing artwork underneath the Temple roof

More vegetarian sustenance

Making new friends

...and then we found some chocolate cake and went to town on it.

Amazing experience!!

Japan/SoKor Day 23: Videos: Hike and Snowball Fight with Buddhist Monks!

This was HILARIOUS. Soon after arriving on our overnight TempleStay at the Hwagaesa Temple north of Seoul, South Korea, we went on a walk up a snowy mountain with our Sunim, the Zen Master for the International Zen Center. We had a deep spiritual discussion on the nature of good and evil... and then we had a snowball fight with several monks. It was AMAZING.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My buddy Matt's China Blog

Not getting enough discussion of Asian Culture and Travel on my blog?! Well then check out my buddy Heev's blog (the commoners refer to him as "Matt"). He was just in Shanghai and China for a work trip and for the Expo, and he has some AMAZING photos on there, great videos, and hilarious insightful journal posts, as always.

Japan/SoKor Day 22: Suwon Folk Village and N'Seoul Tower

January 1, 2010
SoKor Day 22: Suwon Folk Village and N'Seoul Tower

In the morning we made some breakfast and chilled out for a bit and got going soon after lunch. Korea turned out to be somewhat harder than Japan to travel. We ended up on a bit of a round-about unplanned bus-tour of the city. All was not lost though, it was pretty interesting to see some sort of protest on the way, and I believe we also walked past a soup kitchen at one point which was an unexpected sight in a reasonably fancy looking area near the downtown core. The bus stops were insanely confusing because there seemed to be a lot of possible lines, and none of the signs had any English characters on them, so it was very tough to figure out where to go. We tried to get on a few busses but the drivers were as confused as we where (probably our pronunciation of where we wanted to go was terrible), so we tried to get on a few busses and were motioned off with a concerned "you're about to get on the wrong bus" look from the drivers. :)

Anyhoo after a bunch of unexpected tourism, we eventually gave up and followed Lonely Planet's advice to jump on a subway train and head out of the city to Suwon. This turned out to be a fair bit easier than the bus, because all stops were announced in English, and bright electronic signs told you which way the train was going, which helped make sure we weren't going the wrong direction. We arrived at Suwon and grabbed a cab to the Suwon Folk Village as it was getting to be late in the afternoon and we wanted to make sure to have enough time there. The weather was chilly, but it was totally worth the distance to get there!

With my glorious luck, it turns out they had longer holiday hours, so they were open for an extra 30 min longer than Lonely Planet had said, so we still had a good 1.5 hours to wander around. The windy was bity and it was cold as a beast out there, so that amount of time was cool with everyone. We got in and it was a hilarious place - at first there was some pretty standard carnival-like stuff: a haunted house (?!), a boat ride, theme park rides, etc. After we got through that then we arrived at the Folk Village.

There was some really cool stuff there, kimchi pots, a corn mortar and pestle, herbs that you could buy, cool shack houses, and lots of other staples of folk villages. :) It was really interesting and enlightening to see all the families playing about on the frozen lake - there was some sort of wooden spinning-top game they were playing, and it was spun with a leather whip! Also lots of kids were sliding about on little wooden sleds, pushing dangerous-looking mini ski poles into the ice to propel themselves forward. It was cute and an interesting look at South Korean parents and the activities they chose for a cold winter's day with their children.

After wandering through the village, we got to a place where a traditional dance was happening. It was very interesting and had some pretty intense drumming. There was also some weird "cutting" stuff going on - the lady had some (fake) blades and was putting them in her mouth and motioning cutting herself with them or licking them with her tongue! Definitely didn't expect that, and it's probably not advisable on a day as cold as this one! The guide explained the ancient ritual very well... in Korean ;p We figured it was some form of ancient ritual, but we didn't know for sure. Very interesting, though. Eventually, the lady climbed up a ladder and stood on these (fake) blades, on top of a pile of stacked desks! It looked dangerous.

We then got some "Horse Hair Candy" on the way out. It's made of honey and nuts, and has 16,000 individual strings. The guys making the candy called it a "magic show" :) It was cool, they created it and split it exponentially in powers of 2. As well as being a tasty representation of a mathematical exponent function, it also tasted pretty damn good!

After our day out in the chilly outskirts of Seoul, Liz headed back home and Lisa and I took off to go up the N'Seoul (Namsan) Tower to see a view of the city. There was a big wait, so we had a chance for a nice long chat and to catch up some more on the last few years since University. Then, up we went to the top of the tower! It was an AMAZING view. I couldn't believe it! I must have taken 100 photos. It was a really great nighttime view of the city, and clear enough to be able to take some photos without a tripod. We wandered up there for a while and walked around the entire 360 degree view. It rocked.

On the way down, someone had mentioned it was a good idea to use the Men's bathroom. So I wandered in there, and it was hilarious - right behind the urinals were big windows with the same GLORIOUS view of the city!! Haha, definitely good scenery while you're taking care of business. Hilarious. I didn't check to see if the stalls had the same glorious view, but that would be been awkward. ;)

We left the tower and got down to a subway station a bit late, about 11:30-ish, and we grabbed something quick at a Kimbop place which was warm and hearty on a cold night. We didn't realize the subway closed at a certain time, so we had to hail a cab back to Sillim to Liz's place. Cabs are so cheap in South Korea though that it wasn't too expensive and we were back in Liz's area pretty quick. Until we met up with Liz, we found a "PC-Bong" (internet cafe/video game) place to hang out. This was sortof a Red Light district area so it was a bit of a dodgy place on the street, but actually inside the PC-Bong it was pretty fancy and not dodgy at all. It was super funny, lots of students in there all playing Starcraft and other networked computer games together. It was very busy for 1am! They had lots of computers (maybe 100?) all with flat screens, and fancy desk chairs. It was unexpectedly fancy given what I expected the clientele would be at that time of night! I guess that's what Seoul can be like, some dodgy stuff outside, but all the regular non-dodgy businesses just carry on as usual. We jumped on the internet and caught up on some emails, and we got a "serviceuh" of a CUP of cola with ice cubes in it! Not a can, or a bottle... a plastic re-usable CUP. haha, I thought that was really hilarious and so awesome that they had soda from a fountain or a 2-litre bottle and just casually poured you a cup of it. It was pretty warm in there too, so a nice cold soda hit the spot.

We called Liz and were quite close to her place. We met up and she had some leftovers from dinner which was very kind and a nice nightcap before going to sleep after a long day of running around. I was excited for the next day where I'd planned a trip to a Buddhist Temple north of Seoul!

Making breakfast at Liz's place

We drove by the War Memorial on the bus

N'Seoul Tower, from a far

These little guys were on an ad for the Suwon Folk Village - they don't look all that happy to be there!

Cool totem pole

Very interesting artwork and sculptures along the trail

Traditional Korean masks

Being pouty with the mask

This giraffe has a steering wheel

Kitana blades, now only 5,000 Won!

Liz and I wandering in the folk village

A Ferris wheel?!

Cool straw roofs

Families skating on a frozen lake, with cool straw huts behind them

Fun times

This was really funny, lots of people were spinning some spinning tops using a big long string that they would pull quickly away from the top to spin it on the ice

Ice Picks and little wooden sleds

Love that the lady in the middle has a cell phone.

Beautiful, but does this mean the lake isn't structurally sound?!

Great view as the sun went down

Kimchi pots

Dried chillis

Liz walking in the park

More cool roofs! Now this time 100% more snow-covered.

Traditional dance demonstration

Bowls of fruit

More explanation (in Korean, of course) of the dance

Loved this guy's hat

Great photo of this little guy very cold from the cool wind, and just taking a break from the culturalisms and warming up his face with his hands.

Cool bearded guy

Then it got a bit nuts, the lady started to pretend to cut her face with the "blade" (was fake for this demo, of course), and then lick it?!?!

Involving members of the crowd

Two animal-toque onlookers interested in the action

Dance demonstration is almost done

Try to hold your balance on 1 chair, let alone 20! :)

"Haunted House", "Toilet" - two folk museum staples!

Great views from the Suwon Folk Village 1

Great views from the Suwon Folk Village 2

Great views from the Suwon Folk Village 3

Interesting hut

Crazy sculptures!!

More cool Korean-style houses

"Horse Hair" Candy being created

Kiwi Juice and Kimchi potato wrap!

Beautiful view of Seoul from N'Seoul Tower


Gorgeous view of the city 1

Gorgeous view of the city 2

Great one of Lisa

Gorgeous view of the city 3

Toronto and San Francisco!


Gorgeous view of the city 4

Gorgeous view of the city 5

Lisa and I posing for another classic photo!

Photo in a mirror

Personalized Tiles

Tasty chicken dinner

Lisa at dinner


At the PC Bang (internet cafe), everyone is on a computer playing a networked video game

Lisa checking her email

Look closely at the far right of this image - free Coca Cola in a plastic cup!!