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This weekend

Kaze no bon pre-festival in Yatsuo


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216 bows

Geumsansa Temple (A) is located about 4 hours from Seoul, in South Korea's Jeollabuk-do.

I’ve started serious preparations to leave Korea: packing, cleaning, paperwork, etc.  I feel like I’ve done a lot here and I’ve learned a lot about Korean culture.  Still, there are some things about which I know embarrassingly little. Like religion.

About 23 per cent of Korea’s population is Buddhist.  Unfortunately, I know very little about Buddhism and even less about Korean Buddhism.  Luckily for me, Korea knows that this is the situation for a lot of Westerners.

During the 2002 world cup some Korean temples started hosting a TempleStay program. The program is exactly what is sounds: an opportunity for foreigners to stay at a temple and experience the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk for a brief time.

I signed up for a TempleStay at Geumsansa Temple, in the southern province of Jeollabuk-do. After the 4-hour bus ride, we were greeted by English-speaking volunteers, who gave us our outfits to be worn during our stay. They are loose fitting pants and shirts. We changed into our temple clothing, but thankfully we were allowed to wear extra clothing underneath and even jackets on top to keep warm.

Once we were in our Temple-appropriate garb, we met the monk who would be our guide for the stay, “Stone Head.”  He was one of the most charming people I have ever met and he instantly managed to put us at ease, even though he was working through a translator. Stone Head welcomed us and explained the temple rules and etiquette. He taught us how to walk, bow, and greet others in the temple grounds.

After we met the monk we made lotus lanterns. They were really easy to make (at least, our dumbed-down version was easy to make) but I had some challenges.  My fingers became so sticky that by the end I could no longer make the paper leaves stick to the lantern. Thankfully, Stone Head came and helped me. Actually, he took pictures of me struggling and then he hijacked my glue stick and started laughing at me while he helped me fix my mucked-up lantern.  When we posed for a picture together he said “new friend.” I think that’s one of only a few English phrases he knows.  It has since occurred to me that it’s a good phrase to learn in any language.

After we made the lotus lanterns we went to dinner. Meals are eaten in complete silence and there is zero food waste. You have to eat every last grain of rice. The food was delicious. It was standard Korean food: kimchi, soup, and rice, but with LOTS of vegetables, which is not always the case in Korean cuisine.

After we finished washing our bowls, we participated in the evening service. This mostly consisted of bows and chanting. Or, for most of us, bows and watching the monks chant. We had booklets with the chants printed in roman letters, but it was really difficult to bow and keep up with the chanting.

When the evening service was done we had a tea ceremony with our monk.  We learned how to properly serve and drink the tea and we were served snacks.

The ceremony was also an opportunity to ask Stone Head any questions about his life or about Buddhism.  It was during the tea ceremony that we learned the importance of the number 108 and the significance of the lotus flower.

The thing that stuck with me most, however, had nothing to do with Buddhism itself. Someone asked the monk what he had been like as a child and he laughed. He said that he was notorious in his neighborhood. Everyone knew him because he was such a troublemaker. I thought of a few of my students, the ones who are responsible for my few grey hairs, and imagined them as future monks. It’s a thought that still makes me wonder and laugh.

After the tea ceremony was complete we had a bit of free time before lights out at 9:30. Wake up the next morning was at 3:00.  We awoke and prepared for the pre-dawn morning service. This time there was more chanting (or listening to the chanting) and then we did 108 bows.

A note on the bows: these are not simple “standing and bending your waist” bows. They are “get down on your knees and put your forehead to the ground before you stand up” bows. They are exhausting, particularly at 3:00 am. The bows were followed by a quick 10 minutes of meditation and then a bit of rest time before breakfast.


Geumsansa Temple grounds, as seen through the surrounding bamboo forest

At 5:30 we reconvened ate a formal Buddhist breakfast.  I don’t have any pictures of this part of the day because I left my camera in our room. However, the breakfast ceremony consisted placing four bowls of different sizes on the corners of the placemat. Then we poured water from one bowl to the next, in a particular order. Once all of the bowls were clean, we were served rice, soup and side dishes. When we ate we held the bowl very close to our faces, so that the others could not see our mouths.  When we finished eating once again poured the water from bowl to bowl, cleaning them with water and a yellow radish slice. Then we drank the water.

After breakfast we participated in community work, which was just raking some leaves for about 30 minutes. After our “work” we went for a “walking meditation.” It was really more of a walk in the woods while we chatted with one another. I should mention that the monk was one of the chattiest, so we didn’t feel like we were breaking any rules.

Next up: 108 prayer beads. Stone Head taught us how to make them.

Step 1: Bow.

Step 2: String one bead.

Step 3: Stand up.

Repeat 108 times.

Once we had our instructions we were on our own. We went to the prayer hall of our choosing and made our beads.  If your keeping count, this brings us to 216 formal bows so far. (This does not count the 3 bows taken upon entering and exiting the hall.)

After finishing our beads, we walked back to the meal hall and had one last lunch before it was time to change back into our everyday clothes and go home.  It was not a particularly restful weekend. My legs are still a little sore from the bowing and I was a bit tired while teaching Monday’s classes. Regardless, it was one of the best experiences of my year in Korea. I highly recommend the TempleStay program in general and I especially recommend the program at Geumsansa, where the monks and volunteers are absolutely lovely.

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Weekends in Seoul

I’ve been taking it easy since I returned from Taiwan.  However, I am not taking for granted that I live so close to Seoul, a completely awesome city. A few weeks ago I hiked part of the city walls with some friends. The portion of the wall that we hiked offers some nice views of Gyeongbokgung and Gwanghwamun Square. In the center of the foreground (well, behind the shrubs)  you can see the corner of a square; that’s Gyeongbokgung Palace.  A little further, you can see a strip of grass in the middle of big roads; that’s Gwangwhamun Square, probably one of the most recognisable places in Seoul. Last, but not least, N Seoul Tower is near the top left.

4/5 of the hiking group. Missing: Heidi, photog extraordinaire.


The next weekend I took another trip into Seoul to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace.  I’m not sure why I waited almost ten months to visit the Palace; it’s usually one of the first stops for visitors to Seoul.  If you want to see pictures of the palace’s buildings then a Google image search is worthwhile, but here are some of the sights on a smaller scale.

Gyeongbokgung guards

Later that same day I took the bus to the base of N Seoul Tower, atop Namsan Mountain. (Side note: the English name for Namsan is Namsan Mountain, even though “san” means mountain. So really, it’s Nam Mountain Mountain. Same goes with every other mountain in Korea: Bukhan Mountain Mountain, Jiri Mountain Mountain, etc.)  At the base of N Seoul Tower there are fences where the fad of “love locks” is becoming more and more popular. Couples put the locks on the fences to symbolize the eternity of their love. I know. I just threw up in my brain too.  Cringing aside, it can be fun to take pictures of the locks.

I have no major travels planned until I leave Korea, but I’m hoping to make use of the few weekends that I have left to take more mini trips.  My year in Korea is quickly winding down and I’m starting to feel those familiar bittersweet emotions.  I know that leaving Korea is the right decision for me, but it is hard to know that I will be leaving a place and a lot people that I have grown to love. Still, I have six weeks left in Korea and I plan on making the most of my time here.

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Taiwan, part III

On my fifth day in Taiwan I woke up early and headed to the train station.  My destination was Ruifang, where I was to meet up with the Pingxi Branch Rail Line, a 12-kilometre segment of rail that has been kept open for tourism.  It was a public holiday in Taiwan so I was a bit concerned about how busy things might be; however, I was pleasantly surprised.

My first stop on the line was the tiny town of Pingxi. Pingxi put itself on the map with its famous Lantern Festival and the train station is appropriately decorated with beautiful lanterns, even outside of festival season.

In the off-season, the reason to go to Pingxi is hiking.  About five minutes from the train station there is a trail with a series of crags to climb. Fortunately, the crags require zero technical skill because they have stairways carved into the rock.

Have I mentioned how hot it was? Well, I was dripping sweat even before I started the hike. Still, I chose a crag and climbed up.  I won’t lie: it was a bit intimidating to climb. Unlike a normal mountain trail, where you can look around, the only thing I could see was a staircase leading straight up.  Still, it was worth it to get the view from the top.

If you squint then you can see the lady who climbed the other crag with an umbrella.


By the time I had climbed to the top of the first crag it was about midday.  I was running low on water and I was dripping sweat so I decided to leave Pingxi and head to my second destination of the day.

You should know that the centrepiece of the Pingxi railway is the Shifen waterfall. It is 40 meters wide and is said to be quite spectacular. However, it is also the biggest tourist draw and you have to pay to get into the park to see the waterfall. I decided to pass on Shifen and instead I got off the train at the deserted Sandiaoling station.

After about five minutes of walking along the train tracks I reached the trailhead for the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail.  The trail was not part of a park, so it was free, and I only saw a handful of people. (Although, keeping in the spirit of hiking, they were the nicest people I met in all of Taiwan — which says a lot.)  The main part of the trail takes a few hours to hike and takes you past three waterfalls. The first one is pretty magnificent, but you can’t get very close to it.

Sandiaoling Waterfall #1


After the first waterfall the trail changes from fairly flat and well groomed to a more challenging terrain.  About an hour into the trail I arrived at the second waterfall.  This waterfall was cool because you could walk almost right behind the waterfall. (I suspect that during the rainy season the waterfall does, in fact, fall right in front of the trail.)

Sandiaoling Waterfall #2

Again, the trail got even more difficult. There was a ladder carved into the side of a cliff at one point and some serious clambering to get up to the last waterfall. It was absolutely worth the effort.  The pictures don’t quite do it justice, but I felt like I had stumbled onto a waterfall movie set.

Sandiaoling Waterfall #3

By the time I reached the third waterfall the sun was started to get low in the sky. I hurried back along the trail so that I could catch the train back to Taipei. Sadly, I was at the end of my time in Taiwan.  However, Taiwan, as it turns out, is always thinking of its tourists. As I waited in the airport on day six I was feeling really sad to be leaving. I had such a great trip but I really wished I could have seen more. And then I saw this:

Hello Kitty waiting lounge in the Taipei International Airport.

Suddenly, I felt at peace with leaving. So thank you, Taiwan, for giving me so many reasons to love you, and one very good reason to leave.

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Comfort foods

I will finish writing about Taiwan soon. However, I’ve been struck with a pretty awful cold, one of those colds that makes getting dressed seem like an extensive and painful process.  Today I decided to make some soup, and I also decided that it would be a good time to learn how to cook lentils or beans.  So I went to the little  store around the corner and I looked for a long time at the different kinds of beans. Eventually I realised that I didn’t know what any of them were so I just bought the bag that looked best.

when I got home I collapsed into my chair and turned to the translator on my computer to tell me what I had purchased.  It was no help, it told me I had purchased Frost thay. Huh? Perhaps, I though, the internet will be better. So I typed the korean into an online translater and was given this gem:

Thanks to Google I did finally figure out that they were black soybeans, which is an added bonus because they apparently don’t require soaking.  I don’t know how the soup will turn out, but  I hope it’s turns out well. I really want to be able to cook Frost Crack Soup for my mom when I get back to Canada.

Update: It was purple. It tasted ok, but it was completely purple. Carrots and all.

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Insert Hiking Pun Here

Hiking is a favourite pastime in Korea.  Koreans of all ages love to don their hiking uniforms, thrown on a backpack, and head for the hills. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Bukhansan National Park, which spreads across the North of Seoul and into the surrounding Gyeonggi province, has been distinguished by the Guinness Book of Records as being the national park with the highest number of visitors per square foot.

So this past Sunday I was surprised when I went hiking in Bukansan, the busiest national park in the world, and found myself constantly reassuring other people that I was ok by myself. After all, you’re never really alone on a hiking path in Korea.  Still, all along the mountainside I met people who were shocked that I was hiking the trail by myself.  “Be careful!” they all cautioned.

My day started out pretty normally. I had purchased some new hiking boots the previous day and I wanted to break them in before I took them to Taiwan. I figured I would take a leisurely stroll, duplicating a hike that I took back in February.  Unfortunately, when I got to the park I learned that the trail I wanted to take was not open. So I looked at the map and I decided on another rout. The trail to Uisangbong peak was only 1.5 km, which seemed like a very do-able 3 km round trip.

The trail started out as a very easy walk through the woods with a moderate incline.  However, about one kilometre into the trail things got rockier and a bit more fun because there was scrambling and climbing involved. This was when I started seeing groups of people resting and started getting offers to sit and take a break with their various parties. I kept on hiking though. After a few hundred meters, the terrain became much more difficult. At one point I couldn’t figure out how to keep going up. I started to wonder if maybe I had left the trail by accident. So I did what I do when I’m unsure: I ate.  I pulled myself up on top of a big rock and I sat and ate an apple. While I perched on my rock,  some other hikers came by and after seeing their route I figured out the best way to continue on the trail.

The view from my perch.

The other view from my perch.

At some points the incline was so steep that I literally had to use the cables to pull myself up.  (Normally cables and ropes are intended for the descent.)  In other places I had to jump and pull and push myself up various rock faces. After a few bumps and scrapes, I did make it to the top — I think.  I’m not positive that I was at the peak, but I’m content to believe that I was. I had a nice few minutes at the top, enjoying the views of Seoul and Goyang, before heading back down the mountain.  About a quarter of the way down the trail I met yet another man who told me to be careful. I was about to issue the standard “thank you and I will be careful,” when he continued talking. He explained that this was one of the most difficult courses on the park.  Huh.  Go figure.

View from the top

The popularity of hiking in Korea means that hiking here is not the same as going for a hike in Canada.  The biggest difference, of course, is that you are almost guaranteed to see at least some people, no matter when you hit the trails.  There is also the fact that anywhere you go in Korea, even amongst the most remote rice paddies or mountains, you will have cell phone reception. There is no escaping society in that sense.  And yet, while those two things are my biggest complaints about hiking in the Land of the Morning Calm, they are also the things that let me safely hike by myself. Even if Koreans continue to think that I’m a total oddball for doing things like being a  woman and hiking by myself.

Look at the brilliant job I did focusing on the shrubs behind me!

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Easter with Don Juan

My life here has become rather comfortable, which is great. It is, however, somewhat of a hindrance to blogging. I went to a meeting downtown and did not get lost. I went to the grocery store the other day and found everything that I needed. I met friends for lunch and ate a delicious sandwich. That was my week.  Are you still with me?  Fortunately, I have about a bazillion weeks of blog-worthy material about which I have yet to write. (See, my break from blogging wasn’t laziness. It was foresight!)  Let’s rewind all the way back to April 4th.

On Easter Sunday I met my friend from Korean lessons, Heidi, and we caught a bus out to Kanghwa-Do, an island on the West coast of Korea. We hadn’t planned exactly what we wanted to do, beyond getting to the island. So, after 90 minutes on a bus we were dumped in a parking lot with no clue where to go next. While we stood, staring at the oversized map in the parking lot, a man appeared from out of nowhere and gave us some English tourist maps before vanishing again. So we started to map out our day on the maps.

We knew a little about the island. It used to play an important role in defending Korea against the Japanese and any other countries who had their interests set on Korea. Consequently, the island has some impressive fortresses. It also has a few mountains to climb and in Korea where there’s a mountain, there’s usually a temple.  The real attraction for us though, was the beach.  We both craved the ocean and were hopeful that we would get to see the Pacific before the day was over.

It takes about 90 minutes to get to Gangwha-do (the pink island) from Seoul by bus.

It was while we were looking at our maps that we met Don Juan.  Well, at least that’s how I remember his name. In reality it was probably closer to Dong Won, but let’s not get caught up in details. To be fair, he remembered my name because he associated it with Megan Fox but that’s not how I spell my name either. Don Juan approached us to find out where we had found the tourist maps. We tried to explain about the disappearing map man but I think something got lost in translation. We offered to share our maps with Don Juan and then we got to talking.  It turned out that DJ, as he shall henceforth be known, was visiting the island for the day with his girlfriend. He offered to give us a ride to the various sights on the island and we took him up on the offer.

the entrance to a fortress on Ganghwa Island

Now, we had considered the safety of the situation before we agreed to get into a car with DJ and his girlfriend, and we decided that it was pretty safe. We did not, however, carefully consider how awkward it might be.  I’ll save you the full play-by-play, but we spent much of the day trying to make awkward small talk with DJ, who spoke very good English, and his girlfriend, who spoke very little English. When we weren’t making small talk in the car, we were following them around historical fortresses and temples.  We decided that it would be good to give them space; so instead of walking with them, we crept behind them and tried to be nonchalant. As it turns out, feigning nonchalance while you’re following a couple on a date is almost impossible.

The day was, however, a success. We saw a lot of sights and we even capped of the day with a visit to the mud beaches on the Western side of the island.  Awkwardness aside, it was a good way to spend an Easter Sunday.

Sadly, there was no message in this bottle. (That is, aside from social commentary about both alcohol AND littering. This just got deep.)

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