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Archive for the ‘From Korea with love’ Category

The charmer

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Doesn’t matter where he is, where he goes, what he’s doing…

He can always get a smile from the ladies.

My dad.

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If I traipsed past a fourteenth century castle on my way to the grocery store would I still gaze in awe? Would the changing of the palace guard cease to thrill and instead become dull and mundane? Would the interminable bus loads of goggling tourists and the incessant chatter of schoolchildren drive me a bit mad? I suppose it’s easy to take for granted even the most spectacular of urban nuclei, tho this mid-city castle is hard to ignore.

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Gyeongbokgung Palace, deep in the heart of Seoul, soared to its zenith in the mid-1400s, largely due to the vision of the monarch at the time, King Jeongjo. No idle ruler, he created a writing system for the Korean language (called Hangeul) which allowed his citizens to build words in the same way as our alphabet, abandoning the need to commit to memory thousands of Chinese characters.

I didn’t get the chance to research (yet) but I wonder if historical literacy rates are consequently higher in Korea than in China.

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The main palace compound served as both residence for king and family and as the meeting place for palace and foreign business discussions. Walking through the compound was a bit like the opening credits of the Get Smart tv show: Door upon door in a never ending sequence, tho here it was archways and inner layers of courtyards and more buildings.

The layers of inner and outer courtyards are quite symmetrical and the courtyard walls form perfect squares aligned with the points of a compass. Quite amazing.

I read that the buildings were sited according to Confucian values of propriety and virtue.

Obviously something was successful as the whole place has a feeling of being stately rather than overbearing.

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Late in the 1500s the original palace was destroyed by the Japanese and the site remained vacant for 273 years! (Gives me hope for some of the demolished-buildings-turned-empty-lots in Winnipeg…) During the reign of another king, Gojong, the compound was rebuilt and expanded.

As Korea lost so many of its significant structures to one battle or another, the various modern-day presidents seem committed to restoring to their original state a large number of palaces, temples, stupas and pagodas.

And the emphasis is on restoration — excavating to the original foundation and endeavoring to replicate the originals as closely as possible. Korea records and numbers these ‘national treasures’ — some research on my return will tell me how many there are.

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When we first walked through the palace gates I told my two free-range children that living in a compound such as this often meant rarely leaving for one’s entire life, especially if one were female. As we wandered though the many buildings it became clearer to us all that this was more like an enclosed village — more than 3,000 royal family members and their servants lived inside the palace walls at one time — and with a few more acres, not so different from living on an island in the Pacific Ocean!

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And while Seoul traffic bustles its way around the outer confines of the palace, the serenity inside the walls of the palace is not too hard to imagine.

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King Jeongjo is quoted as saying, “I read books in my spare time, away from the 10,000 things I must do.”

And so he built, among other secluded spots, this pavilion, where he and his family would retreat from their official obligations.

We were pleased to see the aura of calm remains still!

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Village in the city

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Tucked into the heart of Seoul, near the Gyeongbokgung Palace is the little village of Bukchon.

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A few winding streets, on a small hill above trendy coffee shops and art galleries, are home to about 900 hanok, traditional Korean homes.

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The hanok are built from wood, stone and plaster and have tiled roofs (thatched if they were peasant-class). Behind the surrounding them is a courtyard providing ventilation and light to the surrounding rooms.

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Increasingly, hanok are disappearing as the predominant view among Koreans is that such traditional houses are an anachronism in their modern country, unworthy of preserving.

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The area we discovered in Seoul is increasingly a tourist destination but it’s worth the wander to get a sense of the twisting streets and admire the ancient details contrasted with the modern city panorama.

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National Pride

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The Korean flag is called taegeuki (tah-eh-ge-oo-kee).

The entire design symbolizes the forces of yin and yang — balance and harmony.

The centre circle is divided into two equal parts — the red represents the proactive cosmic forces of the yang and the blue represents the responsive cosmic forces of the yin.

The two forces are always moving and achieve balance and harmony throughout infinity.

The black lines in each corner represent the four universal elements. I’ll try to imitate with colons representing the broken lines.

Heaven – III
Earth – :::
Fire – l:l
Water – :l:

Balance and harmony with the forces of nature.

Sounds like a temple experience all wrapped up in a flag!

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In the previous post about the areas of Gyeongju, I mentioned that this area holds a lot of historic Korean relics — palaces, padogas and sustaining examples of architecture from the Shilla period of just about a millennium ago.

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Right in the central part of the city of Gyeongju, about the size of any city’s central park — Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park, Vancouver’s Stanley Park or Toronto’s High Park, for example — is a massive massive green space that looks like something from the introductory scenes of Teletubbies (if anyone else remembers back that far) — great grassy hills of green.

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These ictures won’t do them justice but if you can imagine an enormous green pasture, bubbled up in spots, you’ll get the general idea.

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The domes are similar in purpose to the Egytian pyramids — giant place markers for deceased nobility.

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One of the tombs, Cheonmachong, is called Heavenly Horse Tomb. It’s open to visitors and a cross-section display shows its construction.

After the death of the worthy nobleman or -woman, the person was placed in a wooden coffin inside a wooden box, along with crowns, jade jewelry, pottery, weaponry and other items that might be needed in the afterlife. In this particular tomb was found a saddle with a horse painted on its wooden back — hence its name, Heavenly Horse Tomb.

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The park has a serene peaceful quality; a nice place to spend eternity!

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English lesson

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Pronunciation guide included.

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Gyeongju, a region about an hour’s train ride from where we’re staying, is referred to as “the museum without walls,” and indeed, in just a couple of metro bus rides, we saw a condensed collection of tombs, temples, pagodas — sadly missing the palace ruins, Buddhist statuary and rock carvings — in a single day.

This dragon’s head greets visitors immediately upon entering the main temple grounds. I thought it had the feel of Thai design and later was surprised to see a Thai-influenced statue of the Buddha. I don’t know if the coincidence is accidental but no doubt there would have been common influences.

The wooden fish, I learned after my weekend in Haein-sa, is rattled with a stick from the inside, to call people to prayer.

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To put the timeline into perspective, about 57 BC, when Julius Caesar was subduing Gaul, this area of Gyeongu was the capital of the Shilla dynasty, and remained the capital for about 1,000 years until it eventually fell victim to fighting from within and invasion from without.

This pagoda is considered such a shining example of Shilla architecture that a replica sits outside the government buildings in Seoul.

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Bulguk-sa temple represents well the architecture of the Shilla period as some of it was spared from Japanese bombing (a sensitive topic throughout Korea).

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The approach to the temple includes crossing a bridge that has 33 steps — representing the 33 stages to enlightenment…

It’s very kind that we have so many opportunities to practice our routes to enlightenment and Nirvana — I suspect I need more time!

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I’m so glad to traveling with my faithful companion!

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Oh, Johnny

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Johnny Depp is one of my favourite actors, in part because he appears to enjoy playing quirky characters and also because, I’ve heard, he will not tote about a cell phone.

Now, of course he’ll have a whole slough of staff to manage his life, but he has been reported to have stated to everyone — friends, family, stalkers — that he is available only via e-mail — ie. I choose not to have my life interrupted at will.

Nice.

So imagine my immense surprise when I saw him at the Jagalchi fish market in Busan!

Selling dried frogs no less!

In lieu of an autograph I asked if I might photograph him with some of his best sellers.

His friends in the neighbouring stalls howled with laughter over this photoshoot but Johnny was, well, he was Johnny. He was cool as only Johnny could be.

Love ya, man.

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Chow down

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Prior to attending the Saturday evening session of the World Track and Field Championships in Daegu last evening, we happened upon a couple of stalls selling an assortment of dishes whose English translations had clearly been provided by the venerable Google Translate.

Provide Chinese Chapter dump upon bland pile.

Yup. Two of those please.

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Among the dishes which came to our hungry selves — and really, Mary, Susan and Blake, isn’t it all just about the food? — was a plate of noodles, doused in liquid fire, and spotted with tiny body parts of tiny little sea critters.

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Homeboy does not usually take a dare. You might call it self-confidence, stubbornness (his Montessori teachers would call it ‘independence’) or no fun at all. However, encouraged by the thought that he’d be doing something thirty years earlier than either of his aged parents, he took the bait — er, the octopod.

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The younger one, however, was not to be outdone. She picked up a piece of the ‘pod and equally bravely tossed it back.

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Some surprise, however, encountered with the level of spice.

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Whoops! A few scary moments when the octopus threatened to return to open air…

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But one can always count on a bowl of miso soup to make all right with the world.

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And to always keep peace — and pace — with your sibling!

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Something fishy

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Following our morning in Gukje market, where we saw everything from sparkling neckties to fine leather shoes to rubber chickens and knock-off designer eyeglasses, we followed our noses to the most lively portion of our travels, the Jagalchi fish market.

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When I wander through these little alleys stacked to their tented rafters with every piscine offering available to humankind, I’ve got to assume that not much has changed over the centuries. These tightly packed stalls are just a few metres back from the water’s edge, a coastline that is now banked with concrete and peppered with ocean-going sea liners, but the shop keepers may as well have been selling their wares on the same wooden crates 100 years ago. The single light bulb illuminating the stall could easily have been an oil lantern.

And replace the plastic with woven bamboo, as many still do, and there you go — living history!

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My little troupe found the sights and smells interesting and a suitable replacement for the aquarium field trip for which they’d been angling.

Most of the shopkeepers were tiny, tho not always elderly, women, at work tying, scraping, packaging and sorting. I would guess the men were out arranging the catch.

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Most of the food for sale was freshly caught, although one entire series of alleys was devoted to dried seaweed in various forms, nori and kombu being the most recognizable, and another block was all about desiccation — octopi, cuttlefish, squid, wee fish so tiny the grains of salt on them were as big as their eyes, and great giant whacks of something that lives in the corner of my bad dreams.

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And for the most part even a veg-head like me would know how to prepare them for eating.

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But then there are some things which defy description — I don’t know what these things are and I’m not even able to imagine how I’d swallow them if they were presented to me on a plate.

I told Homeboy what I thought they felt like, after giving one a poke.

“Oh?” he inquired archly, all his pre-adolescent ‘tude coming to the fore. “And how would you know?”

Because I have a son, I replied.

Howls of laughter all ’round.

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Shortly before leaving Vancouver I read a story about an 80-year-old lobster that had been caught in Atlantic Canada. Its captors had decided its venerable age had earned it a quiet retirement so they advertised and found it a home in a Chicago aquarium.

I doubt this giant specimen will enchant its owners similarly.

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I have an abiding affection for a few odd creatures and the octopus is one.

Its ability to camouflage, the ultimate sacrifice made by the female for her young, the ooey-gooey-ness of its eight-limbed body — all tickles my sense of the bizarre.

Observe the many octopi in this large plastic tub.

See the lid?

See the small opening left between the lid and the tub? You’re right, you can’t see it because it’s too small.

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But someone else can see the crack.

The octopus in this red plastic tub was in the large tub a shutter-snap ago, until one long exploratory tentacle found a minute space between the lid and the tub’s edge. Then, like an entire tube of toothpaste being squeezed through the nozzle of some Crazy Glue, the patient and persistent octopus wrangled himself into a red basin of freedom.

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A few exploratory reaches more, however, and it was gonna

head out on the highway,
looking’ for adventure
and whatever comes my way…
’cause he was born to be wild…

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We all stood there, somewhat agog, wondering how far the octo-thoner would get before his recapture. And more confusing yet, should we encourage the escapee? Cheer on the convict? Aid and abet these limbs on the lam?

Or should we protect the prisoner and get him off the road before a tragic encounter with a bicycle tire?

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I will say, if you’ve only thought an octopus glided serenely and peacefully through the cool brine of the world’s oceans, you are one mistaken landlubber, my friend. These guys know how to suck it up and move on down.

And now the story must end.

The little lady who guarded the tubs with an amused smile looked even more entertained at our useless selves just standing there and indicated that I should pick it up.

Sure, hon. Not a problem. I’ve handled worse. Right.

I bent down, right hand out, got my fingers interlaced with the tentacles and lifted. Actually, no I did not. I did not lift up Mr. Octo because he was firmly anchored to terra firma. I pulled up again, uh, nope, he was not going anywhere. That little sucker had all his little suckers working firmly in his favour and most clearly was not coming with me.

The little lady took pity on me and indicated I should surprise Mr. Eight-Legs with a swift tug when he wasn’t expecting it.

I grasped again and then gave a swift pull. Success! He was mine!

I tossed him back in the tub as another little lady handed me a bucket to de-slime my hand.

Arm- wrestling with an octopus. How I spent my summer vacation.

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