in Korea (part I): Busan
In a couple of days I’ll be off to Taiwan for a week, my first trip outside of the US and Japan since I visited South Korea in 2009. Since I never really had a chance to post about my trip to Korea, now seems like the perfect time.
To get to Korea, I took the JR Beetle hydrofoil from Fukuoka to Busan, a port city of over three million people. The Beetle is fast and convenient, but it turns out not to be a very interesting ride since you’re forced to stay belted in your seat just as if you were in an airplane. Since 99% of the experience of taking a boat is the experience of walking around on deck taking in the ocean views, that means that the JR Beetle only leaves you with only about 1% of the seagoing experience. Apparently the reason you can no longer walk around the cabin freely is because the Beetle hit a whale in 2006 and six passengers who weren’t wearing their seatbelts were injured.
I stayed in Busan for three days in a hotel right on Haeundae Beach, one of South Korea’s most famous resort beaches in the summer. Since it was early March, and still quite cold, there were few people on the beach, which is how I preferred it. I spent a lot of my time in Busan exploring the coastal area on foot. At night, the waterfront restaurants were mostly empty and on one evening I was able to enjoy a restaurant completely to myself. The meal that I was served, which included the process of calling forth doom upon one of the fish in an enormous tank, was absolutely the largest meal I’ve ever eaten by myself. Sung, the incredibly nice guy who was working at the restaurant, ended up sitting down with me for part of the meal and we had an interesting conversation about the state of Korea’s economy (very bad after the worldwide financial crisis of 2008) and the fact that even though he had a degree as a computer programmer he had come back to work at his parents’ restaurant since it was impossible to find work in his field. I hope things have picked up for him since then.
When I wasn’t at the beach I was walking through the city or visiting one of Busan’s famous temples. In the mountains outside of Busan I visited Beomeosa temple, a Buddhist temple that was originally built in 678. The temple complex contains several national treasures, including a series of brightly colored gates that you walk through as you weave your way up and down the mountain. Beomeosa’s second gate is the Cheonwangmun, or Gate of the Four Heavenly Kings, which houses statues of the four heavenly guardians which keep watch over the temple. The name Beomeosa can be translated as “Nirvana fish.” As Wikipedia explains,
Beom(범;梵) = nirvana – eo(어;魚) = fish – sa(사;寺) = temple. Thus the name of the temple came to be “Heavenly Fish.” It is also claimed that the fish came from Nirvana, the Buddhist state of non-suffering. Therefore the temple also became known as “The temple where fish from Nirvana Play.”
The next afternoon I hiked up the mountain to Seokbulsa Temple, which has a central courtyard for prayer that’s surrounded with enormous Buddhist reliefs that are carved into the mountain itself. It was a rainy afternoon and the temple grounds smelled of incense and wet granite.
My final temple visit was to Haedong Yonggungsa temple, a spectacular temple on the coast that features a giant golden Buddha, a stairway lined with 108 stone lanterns, several stone pagodas, a beautiful main hall decorated with carved wooden dragons, and a stunning metal dragon sculpture. The dragons represent the god of the sea, who came to the monk Naong in a dream and instructed him to build the temple there. Monks were chanting in the main temple hall during my entire visit to Haedong Yonggungsa, their voices playing off as counterpoint to the constant thrum of soft waves.
You might have noticed by now that, slightly uncharacteristically, none of the photographs included in this entry were shot on film. The reason for this is the great tragedy of my trip to South Korea — I lost about seven rolls of film on the ferry back to Osaka from Pusan, so the only film shots that survived were shots from the rolls of film that were still in the camera when I got back home. However, even though I managed to pull off one of the worst possible bungles for a photographer, I still managed enough good digital shots to get a few of them included in a children’s book about Korean Buddhist temples. And losing all that film is, after all, the perfect excuse to return to Busan, to recapture all that once was captured and then was lost.
Filed under: culture, photography, religion, sweet story of Trout Monroe, travel | 2 Comments
Tags: Beomeosa, Beomeosa temple, Buddhism, Buddhist temple, Busan, Cheonwangmun, dragon, Four Heavenly Kings, Haedong Yonggungsa, Haedong Yonggungsa temple, Haeundae Beach, hydrofoil, JR Beetle, Korea, lost film, Pusan, Seokbulsa, Seokbulsa temple, South Korea