A multicultural dialogue, and a birthday parade for Buddha

Dialogue on Multiculturalism held at Hanyang University (at Ansan).  Photo by Steebu

Dialogue on Multiculturalism held at Hanyang University (at Ansan). Photo by Steebu

Saturday, May 11
This day, we headed for a conference for a small number of returnees to Korea. The conference was the sixth in a series of such discussion called by CJ Park, a professor at Hanyang University, in his capacity as one of the heads of the multi-cultural studies department there. Their department received a grant to reach out into the local community in which many returnees live to offer the half-day conference of returnees and students in the department, under the (loosely translated) theme of “Multi-Culturalism in Korean Ethnic Groups.” The returnees are people who were born in Korea, moved out of the country, and then returned as older people or even senior citizens.
We took the subway almost to the end of the line, over an hour south of downtown, in an area that looks a lot less like Seoul and a lot more like a regular town or small city. The campus, like many university campuses in Korea, is designed for large numbers of people. It looks institutional, devoid of personality, like it jumped out of the ground yesterday. Not exactly ivy league. We found the place by walking – we were supposed to take the bus, but found out belatedly that the buses don’t run on Saturdays. A kind soul decided to show us the way, but it was a long walk and the guy walked so fast that I was already hot and tired by the time we got into the neighborhood and he pointed out the building in the distance.
Gag Story (not to be confused with Gag Chicken).  Photo by Steebu

Gag Story (not to be confused with Gag Chicken). Photo by Steebu

Along the way, Steve took a photo of “Gag Story,” apropos of nothing except that some years ago, he also had taken a photo of “Gag Chicken” in another area of Seoul. Evidently the “gag” label means something in Korea. Another mystery to solve someday…

The conference venue was a building at the university that apparently doubled as a wedding hosting business as well as a conference center. After getting into the building and being bowed into the room by hired greeters, we knew that we were not in the right place. We checked the second floor, as he instructed, and found a large sign announcing the multi-cultural festival. After calling C.J., we found out the entire group had adjourned to a nearby restaurant for lunch. CJ eventually found us, and led us to the restaurant, where we sat with the students.

A participant from the ethnic Korean community in Sakhalin Island, Russia.  Photo by Steebu

A participant from the ethnic Korean community in Sakhalin Island, Russia. Photo by Steebu

Steve got a few photos of the participants, who had warmed up to each other quite a bit by the time we got there.

A Korean brand of multi-culturalism

Korea has better retirement support and better medical insurance for retirees than some of the countries returnees came from, such as Sakhalin Island, China, and North Korea, we had heard from CJ at our previous meeting. This relatively attractive economic environment for seniors has resulted in a new wave of returning senior citizens in South Korea, each with their own culture, history, and story to tell.
The conference gave each of the returnees to tell their own story to the group. The discussion was structured by having the participant returnees seated in the circle, and tell their personal histories to one another. The students and other onlookers sat in a wider circle in the background. Two women and two men participated with a one man and one woman facilitating the discussion.
Sun Mi Ho, a woman who began life in what is now South Korea, told a fascinating and at times horrifying story of being born to a traveling family, in a trajectory that took her from South Korea to Sakhalin, to North Korea, China, and eventually back to the South. Her parents left her two brothers with their grandparents in Kyungsangbokdo (now South Korea), and brought little Sun Mi and her sister with them to Sakhalin Island, and later to what is now North Korea.

Sun Mi tells her story.  Photo by Steebu

Sun Mi Ho tells her story. Photo by Steebu

Sun Mi ended up as a young widow with a daughter. She earned her living doing business buying goods in one area of North Korea and selling in another, later by buying goods that came from China. She and her daughter moved closer to the border. She and her daughter suffered along with the majority of North Koreans, and she told some heartbreaking stories of “kotjebi” (sp?), or the wandering people of North Korea, most children, who end up gathered around train stations where passengers might give them a little money or a bite to eat. There were occasions, she said, when she was traveling and would try to give a small amount of food to the most elderly and feeble of the wanderers, only to see it snatched away by a bigger, stronger person.
Ho said she did not plan to end up in China, and finally South Korea, but for the fact that one day her young adult daughter went missing. She talked to and bribed several traffickers of women in the border region she was living, trying to determine if her daughter had ended up being sold to a Chinese husband through a trafficking business. She and her mother decided to go to China personally and find out.
The happy ending to the story is that she was reunited with her daughter and her elderly mother survived the harrowing journey. I am hoping to use the transcript of the proceedings plus my own recording to tell this story in Sun Mi Ho’s own words.

Preparing lanterns  at Dongguk University for parade participants in celebration of Buddha's birthday.  Photo by Steebu

Preparing lanterns at Dongguk University for parade participants in celebration of Buddha’s birthday. Photo by Steebu

The Lantern Festival Parade
We then took the subway to Dongguk University, one of the major Buddhist universities of Seoul, to see the start of the Lotus Lantern festival, which started with a sort of a Buddhist cheer rally, at an outdoor amphitheater and involving thousands of people, about 40 percent of them monks.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

There were a lot of gray outfits and a lot of straw hats in the audience (since they all have bald heads). There were also a lot of spectacular outfits created for the parade, as we were to see later.
The parade heads north from Dongguk University past Dongdaemun along Jongno Street to Insadong and Jogyaesa Temple.  Photo by Steebu

The parade heads north from Dongguk University past Dongdaemun along Jongno Street to Insadong and Jogyaesa Temple. Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

I saw more Korean traditional drumming groups before and during this parade than at any other time. The music of one group would blend into the music of another after we got walking faster than the parade. There were hundreds of teenagers, who had been on temple stays with the final event of the temple stay the festival and parade. They looked a little overtired. I think you get up at about 4 a.m. for a temple stay. However, the whole event was cheerful, upbeat, colorful, and a bit bizarre. At one point, there were huge floats pulled by about 20 people apiece. One was a lifesize, moving elephant, with a deafening roar, followed by two smoke-belching, fire-breathing (as in real fire) dragons, both with recorded, more-deafening dragon screeches.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

At some point, we ducked into a Japanese restaurant, went to the second floor, and perched in a window seat, watching the parade from above while eating our ricebowl concoctions. The parade stretched into the night, rendering the people of the parade almost invisible and putting the focus on the many different kinds of lanterns, which waved and bobbed in the night.
It was plenty of walking, probably more than five miles from the beginning of the parade. We were exhausted, and at the end of a long, and eventful day. But we had an eyeful at one of Korea’s most popular cultural festivals of the year. It was beautiful also to see thousands of people operating a huge event with maximum cooperation, cheer and good will. Even the organizers, it seemed, were having a nice time, attempting to keep things on track by yelling “bally bally” (hurry up!) if any parade participants were lagging behind. However, there were virtually no police, no disorder, not even a harsh word said that I could tell. Buddha’s sense of harmony certainly permeated the whole event.

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Friday, May 10

We spent the morning doing “business,” if one can call gallivanting around in Seoul businesslike. One of the serious parts of our trip included getting drum supplies for people in our Korean drum troupe, Shinparam.

We set off for Hanullim Drum Shop. Somehow, this shop is connected with Kim Duk Soo and the original Samul Nori – Not sure whether there is still a business connection or not. We had directions from the subway — better ones than last time — but we could not quite get there even with the connections. Addresses are strange in Korea. Even if you can read them, and get to the right subway stop, there is also the question of finding the individual building once you get there.

I even saw an article in one of the English-language dailies this time which said that the idea of street addresses is being revisited once again. At present, street addresses don’t exist in Korea. You are first finding the “gu” subsection of the city, followed by the “dong” subsection. It apparently works. It at least gets you down to a couple blocks’ worth of buildings, but not to the exact building like a street address would. Like all of us, Koreans are not willing to reorganize their mailing address system in such a complete way, so maybe the system will never change.

After getting to a restaurant (which I remembered visiting the last time we bought drum equipment there), I left Steve eating his samgaetang while I poked around the neighborhood. A couple people I asked about it asked me for the “chuso” (address), so I went back to see if Steve had the exact address written down. We had not only the address, but the phone number, and we had the waitress call for us. (Not having a cell phone this time was a major inconvenience).

Yes, there is a sign for it (all in Korean, of course) but it is in a jumble of so many signs, and it is on the second floor over a billiards place that has a few larger signs. These folks obviously do not depend upon street traffic, but they make good (and nice-looking) drums. Going somewhere new in Seoul always includes a good slug of time to find the place.

We bought two janggo drums there and some other supplies, and then we were pretty much immobilized. We had to take them to the corner, and hope to flag a taxi with a good-natured driver. Luckily, we found one, and with one box jammed into the open trunk with a tight the fit and the other in the backseat next to Steve, we made it through the Seoul traffic.

We hauled everything back to our yogwan, then headed out for another adventure, to see what was going on with the upcoming Lotus Lantern Festival, Seoul’s biggest festival of the year.
Seoul was getting ready to turn into a party town for the Lotus Lantern Festival, the occasion of Buddha’s birthday, which is part-religious, but mainly a fun community festival on an enormous scale. This night, we walked around in the Insadong neighborhood, in which things were being built here and there for the upcoming festival.

Jogyaesa worker attaches names of sponsors to individual lanterns in preparaton for Buddha's birthday.  Photo by Steebu

Jogyaesa worker attaches names of sponsors to individual lanterns in preparaton for Buddha’s birthday. Photo by Steebu

Walking into the Chogyesa temple, there were construction cranes here and there, with a gigantic rainbow ceiling of lanterns strung from one side of the courtyard to the other.
In a quiet park nearby, we saw a collection of lit-up handmade lanterns that had been entered into an art contest.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

There were also some very charming oversized lanterns (the biggest ones the size of an easy chair) designed with quintessential Korean themes. I liked the little thatched house with the pumpkins.
We went back by way of the Sajik Park neighborhood where we found a “juk” restaurant. Juk is a nice old-fashioned dish that has been making a bit of a come-back. The place we found is actually a small franchise restaurant called Bon Juk, which includes a dozen or so versions of this pureed or semi-pureed rice and vegetable concoction, a bit thicker than a pureed soup, each with its own flavor profile and personality.
I remember some elementary cooking lessons I had at the Korean Institute of Minnesota in which one teacher accused the other of not knowing how to make pumpkin soup (hobak juk) because her dad must have had enough income during the war that their family did not need to eat it. Perhaps it is making a comeback due to nostalgia — the dish that people used to eat when times were tough. Indeed, I think I could feed my family with a dinner of hobak juk, even today, for probably less than a dollar. All you need is a pumpkin, some red beans, and rice flour. When the pumpkin is done cooking, it’s pureed and you add cooked red beans and tiny rice flour dumplings for some extra texture and flavor.
Bon Juk was about to close, so we got our juks to take out. I got hobak juk; Steve got one with mushrooms and oysters. Each one was accompanied by about 8-10 little containers with pickles, kimchi, bean sprouts and other side dishes. We sat in front of our giant TV in the yogwan, watching the most recent Korean drama Jang ku Jang with limited understanding, but fascinated nonetheless), with our side dishes taking up almost all the rest of the floor space in our room. It was a nice end to a fun business day.

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Seoul Fortress Walk and some students of shamanistic music strut their stuff

Thursday, May 9
I had a chance to go ahead of Steve that morning, while he stayed behind to “blog” at the coffee shop. I proceeded to Seoul Selection, the English language bookstore that advertises in KQ and often sends books to us. They are a resource for us for literature, dvds and cds in Seoul. The owner Hank Kim was not in the office; we had talked to him the last time we were at the store two years ago. It is a cute coffee shop, with chairs and tables, and books up to the ceiling.

A Korean dude’s perspective
I amused myself by reading a book entitled “Ask a Korean Dude” by Hyeung-geun Kim, who wrote a book answering questions posed by poor foreigners who are mystified by many things about living in Korea. It’s funny, and cleverly written, going into topics that only people living in Korea would ever think of (“Why are Korean women terrified of pigeons?”) to more general issues, such as why Korean people think it’s OK to make personal remarks. One of the questions had to do with “why do Koreans tell me I ‘have to’ do something.” Korean dude’s explanation had to do with the differences in use of language, and the idea that in English we use the conditional tense (could you?) and the word “please” which is imbedded in the verbal form of address in Korean. Because the “please” part comes automatically in Korean, Koreans speaking English tend to forget about it (I remember well trying to teach our Korean exchange student to say “could you please,” particularly to her teachers). The conditional tense is likewise not considered to be important, when actually, it is important in order to be polite.

Near the Waryong Park entrance to the Fortress Wall path.  Photo by Steebu

Near the Waryong Park entrance to the Fortress Wall path. Photo by Steebu


Up the wall
Seoul Selection was a pretty close jumping-off point for the Seoul Fortress walk, a serious hike that goes up and down the mountains along the ancient wall that used to surround the city. There are a few ways to get on and off the long and ancient trail; we took a short taxi ride from Anguk station through the Bukchon neighborhood to Waryong Park a high public park with a trail into the Fortress Wall area at the Malbawi Information Center.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

After about three hours of hard hiking and gorgeous vistas, we exited at a gate called Changuimun,
Changuimun (Buksomun) North Gate, one of the ending points to the Fortress Wall walk.  Photo by Steebu

Changuimun (Buksomun) North Gate, one of the ending points to the Fortress Wall walk. Photo by Steebu

basically the route that traverses Bugaksan mountain, the tallest of the three peaks of Seoul (the others are Ingwansan and Namsan).

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Hikers have to check into the office, get a number and a tag to wear around the neck, and at the end, check out. The trail is patrolled by the military, since part of it overlooks the residence of the president (the Blue House), and therefore, there are only certain hours the walk is open. Because of the trail’s military/strategic importance, it is marked with annoying signs that tell you not to take photos in the most picturesque places. I still don’t understand the importance of not taking photos in what is already a well-known area, in this age of satellite photos and all the rest.

One of the trail exits from Bugaksan Mountain to North Gate.  Photo by Steebu

One of the trail exits from Bugaksan Mountain to North Gate. Photo by Steebu

View of the Bukansan Mountain range looking north from Bugaksan Fortress Wall walk.  Photo by Steeb

View of the Bukansan Mountain range looking north from Bugaksan Fortress Wall walk. Photo by Steeb

Craning my neck, climb after exhausting climb, I couldn’t believe how the trail kept going up, seemingly steeper as we went on. The walk consisted of trails in some places, and stairs in others. The views were spectacular, and it was interesting going along the ancient wall. The wall and the steep, rugged approach to it would be daunting for any army, even today. It was an achievement to walk it once, but I barely made it. Not sure I would try it again.
Sukjeongmun (Bukdaemun) gate

Sukjeongmun (Bukdaemun) gate to the east of Bugaksan Mountain. Photo by Steebu

Halmonis and ajumas having a picnic on the second level of Sukjeongmun Gate.  Photo by Steebu

Halmonis and ajumas having a picnic on the second level of Sukjeongmun Gate. Photo by Steebu

After many hundreds of steps and many fabulous lookouts, we reached the end, and checked out on rubbery legs. The whole walk was only recently opened, Steve said, and the place of our exit, at Changuimun, he remembered that it was recently a small overgrown park. Finally, we were over the mountain on the other side of Bugaksan from Kyungbokkung Palace and downtown. At that point we flagged a taxi (wonderful inventions, taxis) and beat it over to nearby Kuggidong, location of one of our favorite folksy restaurants, Kuttakae Minsuk Jip which serves soy products like homemade tofu, and our particular favorite, biji chigae.

A culinary mystery – biji chigae

The best biji chigae, tofu and makkolli restaurant in Seoul - Kuttakae Minsukchip in Kuggidong, just a few minutes away by taxi from Changnimun Gate.  Photo by Steebu

The best biji chigae, tofu and makkolli restaurant in Seoul – Kuttakae Minsukchip in Kuggidong, just a few minutes away by taxi from Changnimun Gate. Photo by Steebu


I made biji chigae for Christmas last year. You have to take some organic Minnesota-grown soybeans, and soak them overnight. Next day, make a wicked rich broth with kimchi, dry mushrooms, some clams or other seafood, and some seaweed, strain it all out, add more chopped up kimchi, and set aside. Meanwhile rub the soaked beans together and get off as many shells as possible, discard shells. Process soaked, cleaned beans to a fine paste in the food processor, add to broth, and simmer.

That’s how I made it, checking it against my favorite online Korean cook, Maangchi, who has zillions of how-to videos on Korean food, made in her tiny homey kitchen. Maangchi didn’t do it much different than I did (I think she used some pork), but I was pretty sure I was hitting all the important items of the recipe. But the flavor of the biji chigae at the Kuttakae Minsuk Jip beats mine to heck. Literally, maybe there’s something in the water. Or in the soybeans of Korea, or its kimchi. In any event, it’s something I can’t duplicate. I just have to go to the Kuggidong place whenever possible and appreciate what they do.

They also serve pretty great makkoli (a milky-white rice liquor) there. It’s kept in a special makkoli cooler, has a tangy taste and is on the edge of frozen, filled with little ice chips. I drank a lot of water and rubbed my calves, took Naproxen and drank makkoli, and pretty soon, started feeling like a human again. Having my favorite soy comfort food was also reviving, as well as filling. We started giggling about the boring headlines in the newspaper, and soon, decided to stop the makkoli doses. Our legs were rubbery enough.

Student mudangs

Students at Korea University of the Arts perform shaman music from the eastern region Gangwon area for their final project.  Photo by Steebu

Students at Korea University of the Arts perform shaman music from the eastern region Gangwon area for their final project. Photo by Steebu


We felt good enough to attend a student performance recommended by our friend Hendrikje Lange at Korean Institute of the Arts (K-Arts), where famous drummer (and our hero) Kim Duk Soo teaches. Hendrikje has been in Korea almost three years, learning Korean drumming; she is informally a student of Kim Duk Soo. We spent a long time looking for the place; we found out (almost too late) that we had to name the place in Korean, although the subway has the school name in English. As soon as we did that, the driver knew where to go.

We arrived late, and the live performance was already taking place inside. We saw Mr. Kim as soon as we entered; he was gazing sternly at the closed circuit TV monitor of the live performance. He is a professor of traditional music there, and it looked like he was grading them. Mr. Kim is a person we seem destined to run into. It happened the last time in 2011 when we were there looking at the school with Emma — no professors were in residence and the place was apparently deserted, yet we ran into him in his office.

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

The traditional arts music students showed off their knowledge of Korean east coast shamanistic music. We learned later from a couple of people in the know that the east coast music has a particular style, higher in pitch, with more tunes in major keys compared to the far south and west areas, where the music is sung in minor keys, with lower, more gravelly voices.

It was fascinating and skillfully done, with drumming and singing throughout. There were some fun, traditional activities going on throughout. People seemed to treat the stage like their own personal village green, striding up to tuck money into the waistband of the mudang soloist of the moment.

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

At one point, the participants brought a strange-looking cut-off sapling into the audience, hung with long white ribbons. This was a money-collecting device. People came forward and tied their own won notes up in the ribbons.

It was repetitious, haunting, melodic, and sometimes shrill – there was definitely something magical about it. Interestingly, they showed the lyrics of the songs on a screen above the heads of the performers. Later, Hendrikje told us she had seen them practicing day and night for weeks – it showed.

We were fortunate that night to meet up with a professor, Bohi Kim, who is studying the development of traditional folk songs, particularly, the Arirang song. I told her about how we went to the Arirang museum – she does not accept the premise that the famous folk song was originated in Mungyeong, as the museum we visited in Mungyeong maintains. It is interesting there’s disagreement about the origination of such ancient things. Such songs seem to come up out of the ground – how can their birthplaces be traced? Yet, that is what musicologists try to do.
She offered to drive us back – blessedly, since we were close to exhaustion from the day’s activities – and entertained us on the way to boot. Great things – cars. They really come in handy.

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Soonryemun, and a visit to the former comfort women’s weekly demonstration

The revamped Soongryemun (Namdaemun) Gate. Photo by Steebu

The revamped Sungryemun (Namdaemun) Gate. Photo by Steebu


Tuesday, May 7
Back in Seoul after taking the bus back over mountains and through tunnels, we got to the Express Bus Terminal, and from there back to the motel at Sajik Park (same room). We went out to see the rehabbed Soongryemun gate, the newly-refurbished Namdaemun. After a fire by an arsonist in 2008, the whole roof, perhaps the entire wooden part of the gate needed to be rebuilt. For some reason, it has a new name now, which is related to the refurbishment project. It looks, for all purposes, just like the old gate, and the little plot of land around it, which used to be surrounded by roads and traffic, is now connected to one side of the street so that visitors can stroll through and under the gate.
View of a billboard of Soongryemun gate seen through the arch of Soongryemun, now accessible to the public.  Photo by Steebu

View of a billboard of Soongryemun gate seen through the arch of Soongryemun, now accessible to the public. Photo by Steebu

Detail of painting of the ceiling of the archway.  Photo by Steebu

Detail of painting of the ceiling of the archway. Photo by Steebu

There is one interpretive sign also, but not much else about the project in the area. The new gate was getting a lot of attention from visitors – it had just been opened for the first time over the past few days. People were taking still photos and video of each other under and in front of the gate. It was obvious that there was a lot of affection for the place and joy to see it opened up again.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu


From there we went to the Hongik University area, where Steve wanted to check his want list against the inventory of a certain beloved CD and vinyl shop, Metavox. He got some “obscure collectible psych,” he said, which I’m not sure exactly what that is. He just tells me I won’t understand regardless of whether he explains or not. He got to check in with some musical soulmates there anyways, everybody standing around, intensely with their heads down, looking at the zillions of CDs there.
I spent most of that time looking around the neighborhood for a fun place to eat, noticing all the places selling small and medium-sized flower arrangements, with carnations and other spring flowers. We learned that “Parents’ Day” fell in that week – maybe Wednesday — which is the week after “Childrens’ Day.” Also, a cab driver told us, when we commented on the children’s songs he was playing in his taxi, “Teachers’ Day” had also just happened a week ago. Evidently there is no separate Mothers’ Day, but it is interesting that it all occurs within the same week of American Mothers’ Day. The whole week is a good time to see lots of flowers, and the way they do flowers in Korea is so lovely. I saw people carrying clear plastic boxes, with the arranged flowers held in place inside. I also saw tons of ribbon flowers and paper flowers looking really cute, made into arrangements and also corsages and boutonnieres.
We finally ate in a cute boonshik (tiny/fast Korean food restaurant) that had a staggeringly long menu of kim bap as well as lots of ramyeon noodles and rice dishes (rice and kimchi aka kimchi bokumbap) and other faves. I got some soondubu chigae, which was really good, and Steve got his summer favorite, kong kuksu, which is a cold noodle thing with broth-flavored soy milk, cucumbers, and other fresh, cold veggies. It all cost about $8, and we ate a ton of food. Eating like a local (and developing a taste for the local stuff) really pays off in Korea.

Wednesday, May 8
We spent quite awhile “blogging” at Starbucks, which for us involves a lot of “how did we do that again?” and “I remember you did it it this way the last time..” and a lot of discussion about how we forgot what we learned how to do on the blog two days ago. For other people, this could be a slam-dunk, but we have not even read the WordPress instructions or even started to do the blogging until we got here. No tech help and no one to blame for our ineptitude except each other. It is a sad situation sometimes…

Four former comfort women weekly demonstration number 1073  in front of the Japanese embassy.  Photo by Steebu

Four former comfort women weekly demonstration number 1073 in front of the Japanese embassy. Photo by Steebu

We set off later that morning to visit the 1073rd demonstration of the former comfort women. We have been to this demonstration many times, held since 1992 every Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy. The former military sexual slaves (forced prostitutes) of the Japanese Imperial Army have been demonstrating once a week, faithfully, since that time, putting their demonstration in the record books as the longest-running weekly demonstration in the world.
A statue dedicated to the former comfort women across the street  from the Japanese embassy, surrounded by comfort women supporters.  The bronze statue was installed last year.  Photo by Steebu

A statue dedicated to the former comfort women across the street from the Japanese embassy, surrounded by comfort women supporters. The bronze statue was installed last year. Photo by Steebu

Despite various civil efforts by Japanese society towards peace and reconciliation and private apology to these women for their nation’s brutal enslavement of Korean women, no official apology has been issued by the Japanese government. I learned later from Jenny Cheong, an English speaking outreach person with the Korean Council (for the Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan), there are 283 women registered as former comfort women, and 59 are still living. One person asked to be put on the register in the last year, and two died, she said.
Lee halmoni is presented with a flower in honor of parents day by a member of a college student union.  Photo by Steebu

Lee halmoni is presented with a flower in honor of parents day by a member of a college student union. Photo by Steebu

We got interviewed (via a video gadget on a phone) by some students from Yonsei University, who said they had to do a project in which they choose a social cause, find out about it, raise consciousness on campus about it, and even sell something and donate the proceeds to an organization supporting that cause. One of the students, Andrew Lim, was from Toronto, and all of the group were English speakers. I’m hoping to find out more about their project by email to Andrew to see if there is anything about it we could use for the newspaper. The director of the Korean Council also talked to us, mentioning our friend Byung Moon Kim, of Minnesota, who was on the committee to help plan the Museum of Women in War, which we also visited later on that day.
At the demonstration, we discovered that it was a Japanese group joining the group that week, as well as a student peace group consisting of members from several different Korean universities. The demonstration has not lost steam. The demonstration seems to attract several different groups each week. A representative from each organization speaks, and this particular week, one of the former comfort women also spoke, her voice strong and assertive and passionate. Some of the onlookers were crying or trying not to cry.
The demands of the former comfort women have not waivered over the years. They want an official apology and reparations from the Japanese government, and they want the Japanese people to understand and learn about their issue by having a memorial in Japan, having their history written into official Japanese history books (the issue of how World War II is taught in public schools is always a controversial one), and their history consistently taught to Japanese students. After all this time demonstrating, and after having the kind of widespread support they have had in Korea and in other countries (including an act of Congress sponsored by Mike Honda (D-California) in 2007 calling on Japan to meet the demands of the former comfort women) one would think the Japanese government would just apologize, settle the issue, and hope that it would lose its momentum.
The new Museum of Women and War featuring exhibits of the lives and experiences of the former comfort women - not far from Hongik University. Photo by Steebu

The new Museum of Women and War featuring exhibits of the lives and experiences of the former comfort women – not far from Hongik University. Photo by Steebu

Detail of artwork inspired by the former comfort women at the Museum of Women and War.  Photo by Steebu

Detail of artwork inspired by the former comfort women at the Museum of Women and War. Photo by Steebu

But Japan seems to be recalcitrant, which is not so surprising, given Japanese culture, according to our Korean American source C.J. Park. We caught up with CJ in a meeting at Starbucks later on. He is a progressive activist, now teaching multicultural studies at Hanyang University. We met to discuss a variety of issues in Korean society today. He is well connected in both the U.S. and Korea, and also bilingual, which helps us bridge the language and culture gap in reporting on many stories going on in Korean society.
Japanese people cannot apologize for a big wrong, although they can do anything but, CJ opined. He recounted a story about an encounter between Kim Jong-il and the then-Prime Minister of Japan Fujimori, who at one point demanded an apology from the North Korean leader concerning Kim’s kidnap of various Korean-Japanese citizens from Japan (including, I think, a famous film producer in Japan, among others). After getting badgered by Fujimori (or maybe his officials) about the kidnapping, Kim apparently decided he could not deny the incidents, since to do so would be to suggest that he was out of control of his own government. “So, Kim said ‘alright, fine, I did it!’” CJ said.
At which point, CJ said “Japan could no longer deal with him.” The reason? There’s nothing to do after an apology for something so dire except to commit suicide (hari-kiri). But Kim, of course, could apologize, being Korean and having no particular qualms about it. He also had no plans to kill himself afterwards. Japan, on the other hand, could not culturally deal with Kim being OK with an apology, and his wanting to go on from there with the official relationship.
Both parties were, therefore, in a ridiculous situation. Japan asked for an apology, and got what they said they wanted. But, au contraire, they really did not want it. They really just wanted to embarrass the North Korean leader and seemingly were not envisioning the diplomatic consequences if he did do what they demanded. They were in a situation of getting what they wished for and regretting it. Kim, in apologizing, may have thought, incorrectly, that the diplomatic relationship would be able to go on, but it could not. Instead, Japan had to officially pretend that Kim did not exist – that he (culturally, or perhaps diplomatically) had committed suicide. These days, with the new leader Kim Jong Un in power, CJ said, Japan can begin again with a person who actually exists from a diplomatic perspective.
He told it in a funny way, his American-developed mindset seeing the ridiculous aspect of the situation from a Western perspective. We laughed together at the absurdity of the whole thing…But he had a serious object lesson in mind.
The predicament of the former comfort women is just another case in point. Admitting on an official basis that such a system exists would be so huge as to be impossible for Japan to apologize for in any official way. However, other kinds of private war crime reparations (such as restoration of lost wages to former forced laborers from Korea and other Pacific-Rim countries) might be possible, and have been done.
An official apology to former comfort women is one of those things – in CJ’s opinion – which is too huge to ever be possible. Hence the predicament of the Japanese government vis-à-vis the former comfort women. And hence the predicament inherent in the campaign of the former comfort women, to have the job of raising the consciousness of the Korean and Japanese people, and standing up for rights of women and children in war, but never getting satisfaction of their goal. It was all food for thought for me – I had never thought there was a cultural difference between Japan and Korea that was so vast.
In fact, I asked CJ “well what about Koreans, do they apologize a lot?” and he said, “yes, definitely. We do it regularly!” That day, I saw a photo of men in suits, members of a board of directors of a Korean dairy organization, bowing low on the front page of the Korean Herald concerning some scandal involving out-of-date dairy products. This week, a scandal involving Chung-jung Yoon, the presidential spokesman for the Geun-Hye Park administration, who reportedly grabbed a Korean American woman’s ass while on an official visit with President Park to President Obama last week. Stories with meaningless video of the empty halls of the Washington hotel in which the alleged incident took place are on TV news several times a day. The guy (who we are now calling “the grab-ass guy”) was depicted on the front page of the Korea Herald, among other places, apologizing with a separate photo of the Chief of Staff Tae-yeol Huh.
After reflecting on the headlines, I had to agree – Koreans apologize a lot. It is part of the culture. And they don’t necessarily resign or commit any kind of political or social hari-kiri when they do apologize (although they sometimes do, if it’s a huge deal)
After that and other enlightening and amusing conversation, we went to Jiri-san restaurant, a really old restaurant in the Insadong neighborhood, famous originally for its paper arts, including hanji (mulberry bark) paper and brushpainting. A brush statue about 12 feet tall still commemorates that neighborhood history. Also, there are still a lot of shops selling paper, cards, brushes, art supplies, and various decorative items made with sturdy hanji paper. But Insadong is also a walking mall that is good for buying Korean traditional and (extremely expensive) designer clothes, as well as extremely cheap souvenirs. There are a maze of alleys that twist and turn, by small restaurants and tiny fancy shops. There’s a fun surprise around every corner.
Martha in front of Jirisan Restaurant in the back alleys of Insadong.  Photo by Steebu

Martha in front of Jirisan Restaurant in the back alleys of Insadong. Photo by Steebu

Jiri-San is a pretty big place by Insadong standards, and has green spaces and gardens open to the sky within the restaurant. I tried the biji chigae there (ground soybeans in broth with veggies), deciding it was way better than my own at home. Having good kimchi to add to the broth probably makes a big difference.
Electric cars hit Seoul.  Photo by Steebu

Electric cars hit Seoul. Photo by Steebu


After that, Steve wanted to go to his favorite samgyetang restaurant (we did this a few times, visiting one restaurant and then another so that we could each have our favorites). Eating samgyetang (a whole small chicken, slow cooked in broth with ginseng, date, garlic and rice stuffing) is a project, because you have to take apart a whole chicken which is immersed in a soup. It is not fast food. The place we visited is frequented by Seoulites, sometimes with lines out the door. You can get samgyetang, and variations thereof, and nothing else. I had kimchi and watched Steve do his chicken project. He declared that the cold that had been developing over the last few days was banished by the end of the meal. No germ could survive such an onslaught of chicken soup, ginseng and garlic.
Street decorations celebrating the upcoming Buddha birthday Lotus Lantern Festival held later in the week with a huge parade and party in Seoul.  Photo by Steebu

Street decorations celebrating the upcoming Buddha birthday Lotus Lantern Festival held later in the week with a huge parade and party in Seoul. Photo by Steebu

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A hike in Sobaksan National Park and in Danyang’s Garlic Market

Monday, May 6
On Monday morning, we changed yogwans to the Sketch Motel. We had decided to avoid it originally because of its patent-leather appearance and apparently disturbing decoration style, but we needed the bathtub and internet.
We explained to the Destination of Coffee people, who told us apologetically that they really could not deal with the internet situation, since they were headed to Seoul for a Buddhist ceremony for a recent death of his mother in law. Soon the place was deserted and the shop locked up tight. Before this, however, they brought us hot water, coffee, six pieces of toast, jam, cute little pumpkin jelly things, and an orange with a knife to peel it with. It was pretty fun to have continental breakfast delivered, and we were ready to forgive them for the bathtub. But the internet was important. So, I bravely ventured next door to the Sketch and got a room there, in a room with rather alarming decorations, and English language phrases on the walls that were both puzzling and hilarious.

English language nonsense – a dying art form in Korea
It used to be that one could see lots of English language nonsense on signage and t-shirts in Seoul, but alas, Korea is becoming so English-savvy that ridiculous verbiage is becoming a thing of the past. I wish I would have stocked up on t-shirts while I had the chance. Nonetheless, that tradition is still alive at the Sketch, where words like “Angel,” and “Love” are written sideways into the designs. Our room was labeled as a “Sketch Primium” room outside the door. My favorite graphic design was a phrase written into the wallpaper on our floor which declared “Exploding Cigar We Willingly.” We have a shot of that. These things, and all such pop art in Korea must be documented. After all, pretty soon all the love motels will have correct English on the walls – and ultimately, maybe Korean again.

A feast for the eyes at a marketplace
That day, we explored the Danyang riverfront and marketplace.

The Nam Hangang as it winds its way through Danyang.  Photo by Steebu

The Nam Hangang as it winds its way through Danyang. Photo by Steebu


Pagoda overlooking the river in Danyang.  Photo by Steebu

Pagoda overlooking the river in Danyang. Photo by Steebu

We saw the tiny landing pad where the hang gliders come down, and walked on a riverfront boardwalk that overlooked the wide, shallow river with mountains rising up on the opposite side. We also explored the covered marketplace that went on for blocks and included some of the “mountain vegetables” that feature prominently in the local cuisine. Green was everywhere, from the freshly picked things ready to pop into bibimbap, to flats of vegetable plants ready for home gardens.
Ginseng being kept hydrated at the Danyang garlic market.  Photo by Steebu

Ginseng being kept hydrated at the Danyang garlic market. Photo by Steebu

Among the green new vegetables, I recognized the “kosari” or fiddlehead ferns but not much else. There was also tons of garlic and ginseng of all sizes, and lots of seafood available.
Various jangs at the Danyang garlic market.  Photo by Steebu

Various jangs at the Danyang garlic market. Photo by Steebu

Even the lamp poles exude garlic in Danyang.  Photo by Steebu

Even the lamp poles exude garlic in Danyang. Photo by Steebu

poongmul is everywhere...  Photo by Steebu

poongmul is everywhere… Photo by Steebu

Sobaksan hiking
Next, we made our way to Sobaksan National Park, via the Darian Resort which includes a bus stop, stores, and a huge high rise youth hostel. It was so enjoyable to hike (a moderate amount) next to the rushing river tumbling down from the mountains, listening to birds we never heard before.

Entrance to one of the main trails in Sobaeksan, near Danyang.  Photo by Steebu

Entrance to one of the main trails in Sobaeksan, near Danyang. Photo by Steebu

The terrain is rugged, with huge boulders forming a path for the river to rush down. The layers of rock are stuck sideways into the side of the mountain, and they jut out here and there. We walked up to the first ranger station, rested there, and went a little ways up the mountain from there. After walking a hundred flights of stairs the day before, my legs just were not up to the task.
We had to put our feet in the water on the way back, and it was so icy that it numbed my feet about five seconds. The place, with high rock walls and a canopy of green, had its own ecosystem and its own spell. The sound was a big part of it. All the white noise caused by the rushing water had a hypnotic effect. I felt like if I stayed any longer, I wouldn’t ever be able to leave. So, I think we left in the knick of time, shaking off the magic, and proceeding down the mountain, ending up at a restaurant across from the bus stop.
Rustic boonshik at the entrance to the Sobaeksan trail.  Photo by Steebu

Rustic boonshik at the entrance to the Sobaeksan trail. Photo by Steebu


While we ate our bibimbap and tofu and kimchi in a rustic, open-air dining room, a contingent of elders started up singing folk songs at a picnic outside. Whoa, it was like a Korean movie set! The group sent one of the elders back in a few times with their empty beat-up kettle for makkoli. (The beat-up kettles seemed to be the main decoration item of the restaurant). This lady, one of the younger elders, was sent in a couple different times with the kettle, looking more sheepish with every trip, as the volume of singing got louder. Eventually, the elders trotted off to their bus, probably to serenade their driver on the way back home. All quiet, and the bus came on time to pick us up, as well as two other people.
We certainly did not have to deal with any crowds of tourists on our trip to Danyang. Despite its many attractions, we seem to have had the place pretty much to ourselves. After visiting so many places with mobs of tourists in the past, particularly in Korea, it was nice to be in the countryside, and have empty space around us, as well as beauty.
Back at the Sketch, we sat down at our his and hers computers. I bought a bottle of soju for about $1.50, and with some orange juice, we were set for a limited amount of catching up on email and news back home.
Marth in her Sketch bathrobe...  Photo by Steebu (natch)

Marth in her Sketch bathrobe… Photo by Steebu (natch)

You never have to worry about the sun waking you up at the Sketch because the windows are blacked out. As with most “love motels,” if you are driving, you can park in the secret underground parking lot underneath the building. It all made us feel like we were really getting away with something.

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A trip to a mountainside temple

May 5 – Sunday
We negotiated a taxi ride from Mungyeong to Danyang, rationalizing that it would take us a couple of changes on the bus, plus possibly a taxi ride, to get there otherwise. This is one of those calculations you do when weighing transportation time against time you could spend doing other things.
Evidently, there is a big mountain, or maybe a couple of them, between Mungyeong to Danyang, and we went up switchbacks, and around bends with nothing between you and lots of empty air but a railing. It was a good road, though, and with our ears popping and a few white knuckle turns, we made it to Danyang in good time. We were there by 9:30 a.m., sitting in front of the local 7-11 with cans of coffee, watching hang gliders sail from the mountaintops to a small landing area next to the river below.

Para-gliding into downtown Danyang.  Photo by Steebu

Para-gliding into downtown Danyang. Photo by Steebu

Later on, we found out by looking at the photos that an experienced hang glider goes with each person on their ride. They don’t just send you out there on your own. Phew. I could never do it, but it was fun to watch.
The not so sketch, Sketch love motel.  Photo by Steebu

The not so sketch, Sketch love motel. Photo by Steebu

Around the corner was the Sketch Motel, aptly named in terms of the apparent clientele. The building seemed to be a bronze and black shiny box of a place, with large photos of bedrooms out front, similarly furnished with black and white tile floors and fluorescent plastic furniture. Instead, we opted for a little place next to the Sketch called Destination of Coffee. It was apparently the former Rivertel, which appeared in our guidebook from a few years ago. When we got our key, it said “Rivertel” on the tag. The hosts were English speakers, and they had a really fun coffee shop on the first floor, with designer textile items, like shoes and hats, made from interesting traditional cotton fabric.
We dumped our stuff and headed for the Guinsa Temple, which reportedly served a vegetarian lunch to anyone who shows up. The bus went up one mountain and down another, and eventually dropped us off at a bus station at the foot of the mountain area that is Guinsa. It was green all around us. The mountains all have sharp peaks, all are heavily forested. There was a large pagoda building on one side and restaurants on the other, and for a moment I thought “is this the temple?” I was in for a surprise. Getting to the actual temple required another long walk up a steep road with a sidewalk on one side.
Entrance to Guinsa.  Photo by Steebu

Entrance to Guinsa. Photo by Steebu


We began to see people really in their climbing gear, some with hats, sunglasses, jackets, pants, gloves and walking sticks, looking quite serious and purposeful. It gave us pause about what might be ahead. Guinsa is built on a mountainside. The only level places are terraces and floors of buildings. The place seems to connect via various stairways and walkways in a confusion that reminds me of Hogwarts. Maybe the stairs even move around from one place to another with Buddha power.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu


We first noticed our friend Mr. Yu when we first got off the bus and were asking about the times of the buses back. We also asked about the lunch served daily, and he indicated to us that it we needed to climb up further on foot. He set off at an energetic pace, but instead of leading us to the lunch, or to a sign to the lunch, or an English language info center, or some other obvious clue, we went directly to one of the main temples of the complex. Along the way, Mr. Yuh was stopped by a car coming back down, driven by one of the monks (su-nims) of Guinsa. He told me “that was one of the monks,” when the car continued to drive down, and “I also work here,” along with a lot of other explanation in Korean I didn’t understand.
We never understood whether he only volunteered at Guinsa or if he was actually employed there, but his help in this giant place was certainly appreciated, as there was apparently no information in English about what we were looking at or how to get around.
One of the natural springs where visitors can get a cool drink while climbing around Guinsa.  Photo by Steebu

One of the natural springs where visitors can get a cool drink while climbing around Guinsa. Photo by Steebu

Buddha boy.  Photo by Steebu

Buddha boy. Photo by Steebu


He also had us go to each temple on the way up, bowing three times at each of the statues, which I’ve never done before (with the exception of North Korea, I guess. Everybody who goes there has to bow to Kim Il Sung’s statue). Mr. Yuh was clearly very serious about his faith, and wished to do “in-sa” or homage, to every temple he passed.
Entrance to one of the temples.  Photo by Steebu

Entrance to one of the temples. Photo by Steebu


In this place, one really understands (especially after a half hour or so of straight mountain climbing with a few breaks of stair climbing) how the mountain, and the act of climbing up and up to the temple, is part of the spiritual experience. The arduousness of it makes the goal sweeter, and the idea of climbing to heaven (or nirvana, as the case may be) is obvious. The fabulous spring weather, and bright azaleas and flowering trees everywhere, enhanced the effect. With the grand old buildings and beautiful foliage, it was hard to take a bad picture in this place. The wind blew in gusts and all the hundreds of Buddha birthday lanterns clinked merrily in the breeze.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu


In the cafeteria, we were served rice and beans, bean sprouts, kimchi and soup in gray plastic trays.
Our "guide" Mr Yu gets lunch from a Guiness-loving temple volunteer.  Photo by Steebu

Our “guide” Mr Yu gets lunch from a Guiness-loving temple volunteer. Photo by Steebu

I gave one of our cold waters to him – the only thing I had to say thanks. And he took a photo of us and told us we looked beautiful together. Awww.
Martha climbing up to the next level of enlightenment as the stairway goes up along the rock face.  Photo by Steebu

Martha climbing up to the next level of enlightenment as the stairway goes up along the rock face. Photo by Steebu

We thought our tour was over then, but no! Mr. Yu continued to lead us up and up, to the top terrace of the temple, where there is a statue of the founder of the Cheontae order.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Part of the temple was clearly built at the order’s founding after World War II, and part is much older. The place is cleverly and interestingly put together. All of the exteriors look old, but in some, like the large seven-story building near the top, there is an elevator to take the faithful up to the terrace level. It is a nice break. At the founder’s temple, Mr. Yuh asked one of the volunteers or su-nims in training to bring us coffee. We then had coffee overlooking the best view in Korea.
Main temple.  Photo by Steebu

Main temple. Photo by Steebu


From there, Mr. Yuh invited us to visit the very top of the mountain, where one su-nim lives at a shrine. We decided to go for it, a trek that included about 50 flights of stairs, which switched back and forth against the steep slope, ending in a small grassy area with a small terrace, one tiny building, and a shrine with various obelisks built into the slope. Unfortunately, there is no information here in English about what you are looking at. There was a woman there with her daughter or granddaughter. She must have been 80 years old. I could not believe she made it up to this place. We also were not sure whether it was a Buddhist or a shamanistic shrine. At one point, we thought we heard him describe it as “the place where the mudang lives,” but later said one su-nim lives there.
Mr Yu giving Marth a helping hand.  Photo by Steebu

Mr Yu giving Marth a helping hand. Photo by Steebu

It was probably the highest point we had been to thus far. Soon we went to a last overlook, a place that seemed to look out over the entire world. We found out later that it is referred to as the “lotus mountains” because the sharp peaks seem to overlap one another like lotus petals. Mr. Yuh also referred to it as the “seven peaks” which we didn’t see in the guidebook, but perhaps he was referring to the view from that particular point.
Overlook that views the seven peaks.  Photo by Steebu

Overlook that views the seven peaks. Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Halmoni in peak condition goes off trail to do some extra hiking at the top of the mountain.  Photo by Steebu

Halmoni in peak condition goes off trail to do some extra hiking at the top of the mountain. Photo by Steebu


Halfway back down in the temple, we persuaded Mr. Yu that he could leave us, and he said he had to go to work. He did give us his name and address (no email!) which I saved so that I can send him a word of thanks and Korean, as well as a photo of our meeting at the tallest spot. We took some more photos of him, and he gave me one of his Buddha bracelets, which is a really nice keepsake of a special day.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu


After he left, we decided we never would have seen most of the stuff we saw without such a fabulous guide. We also discovered the temple through the perspective of someone who really worships there, which was unique. We really felt like we had a special experience because of one person who, for whatever reason, decided to help us.
We also asked at the information desk about some English language information, and soon an English-speaking su-nim was summoned to talk to us. He said he had spent time in Los Angeles, and told us a little more about the order. The English language information says the order was founded to bring Buddhism to the common people and emphasizes Buddhism in daily life.

After taking the bus back and getting dropped right at our corner, we had a regular “jongshik” dinner that included a mushroom broth soup, and super-healthy black and white mixed rice (looks purple) with special local garlic steamed into the top. After eating the rice from the stone bowl, you pour in hot water and scrape all the bits (nooroongi) from the stone. The baked-on rice flavor in a broth is what you are going for at the end of this dish. In addition to the soup and rice, the dinner included tons of side dishes, baked fish, and all sorts of fun kimchi.
We finally managed an electric hook-up in the yogwan consisting of three different plugs from our motley collection. Hoping the jury-rig wouldn’t start a fire or blow out the computer, we just plugged it in and let it go. It seemed to be charging. However, then we noticed that the “hot” water was barely tepid (plus there was no bathtub, just a shower) and the internet connection was not operational. Internet – especially since we don’t have a phone – we decided was necessary. A hot bath, after all this mountain climbing, is really a necessity for me. My bones won’t move without a bath after all this abuse! So we decided to change yogwans, despite the fact that we liked the people at Destination of Coffee aka Rivertel.

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The Chasabal (Tea Bowl) Festival

Saturday, May 4
We stayed at the famous King Motel (with a 7-11 on the first floor, which was mega-convenient), then went to Mungyeong Sejae for the Chasabal (or tea bowl) Festival.

Entrance to the Chasabal Festival - location is also the filming site of many Korean historical dramas.  Photo by Steebu

Entrance to the Chasabal Festival – location is also the filming site of many Korean historical dramas. Photo by Steebu

A friendly drone circles the Chasabal Festival - keeping track of things...  Photo by Steebu

A friendly drone circles the Chasabal Festival – keeping track of things… Photo by Steebu

The festival apparently attracts traditional potters from all over Korea, plus a small contingent from abroad. We were delighted and awed by all of the original ceramics there, although we do not know a thing about the art form. We viewed all of the wares, in individual uniquely decorated booths. Artist were located inside a variety of traditional film-set buildings, which were not always so convincing on the inside, but nice enough to make a very elegant backdrop for their art.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu


Well of course, the tea bowl festival has its own mascot. Doesn’t every event in Korea have a cutsey-wootsey mascot? This one was a tea bowl-headed guy (and girl, as we soon found out). They were walking around together and I got my photo taken with them.
Martha with Mr and Ms bowlhead at the Chasabal Festival.  Photo by Steebu

Martha with Mr and Ms bowlhead at the Chasabal Festival. Photo by Steebu

There were also beautifully-clothed men and women in traditional clothing. Steve got some photos of women in kisaeng (traditional entertainer) outfits looking fabulous with hats that resemble oversized lampshades.
There were vendors for many local products, including omija wine and juice, tablets and extracts, mushrooms, onion juice (?), sole ip or pine needle powder, black garlic (hok manul jib) and a special dandelion green tea native to the area.
One of the local versions of an omija liquor - that must be good for some health reason...  Photo by Steebu

One of the local versions of an omija liquor – that must be good for some health reason… Photo by Steebu


There is also a monument to a hero I have not heard of, Shin Gil Won, Hyun Gahm, who taught the common people and also led the farmers against the Japanese invaders in 1592.
The Arirang Museum or Museum of Old Roads
In the Mungyeong Sejae area, there is a museum set back from the road with a garden out front. It took a few minutes for us to make out what it was, and even after we paid our admission fee to get in, we were not sure what kind of museum we were going to. The museum was built around the rather complex idea of Arirang, a song about traveling, and Mungyeong as a place many travelers came through. It is the founding idea of this museum that the original place of Arirang, a song which exists in different forms everywhere in Korea, is Mungyeong.
Because of the mountains, there were very few routes to Seoul in the old days (probably the same is true to some extent today). Because of the physical limitations of the landscape, there were few choices of people going from south to north. This happened a lot when scholars had to travel to Seoul (or Hanyang in olden days) to take scholastic exams, which would move them up in the meritocracy system of Korea. They favored the Mungyeong route for superstitious reasons. “Munhi” one of the exhibits explained, means “happy news,” where the Jukryeong road is reminiscent of the word that means “slide off or fall off.” The Chupoongryeong road, similarly, has an association with autumn leaves, which also “fall off” at the end of the season. The “happy news” road therefore, was the route of choice for scholars who ascribed to certain etymological superstitions.
Beyond this long-winded explanation for the museum’s existence, there were a lot of fun versions of Arirang preserved in audio and audio-visual formats, some professionally sung, some individualistic versions by community members, and some just very sweet and dear, like the motley group of Jindo elders joining in a rousing version of Jindo Arirang, with various soloists taking the floor with practiced ease.
One of the recorded versions of Airirang on vinyl at the museum.  Photo by Steebu

One of the recorded versions of Airirang on vinyl at the museum. Photo by Steebu


The idea of “the road” or “the journey” is explained as an element of Korean life, in an exhibit that explains the ideas of “earth,” “mountain,” “water,” and “road,” which all resonate after one has been on country roads in Korea for awhile. Indeed, there seems to be nothing else sometimes, as the bus winds on through villages, through mountain passes, over rivers, negotiating the non-judging and non-forgiving earth in the effort to conquer the physical challenge that is characteristic of travel in Korea.
More Chasabal
There were a lot of traditional crafts and traditional games available to try for free. In one area, people whacked dough for traditional rice cakes (ddok). It’s very solid, and isn’t kneaded like bread dough. It’s folded and then pounded with a big mallet. (I happen to know there are electric ddok makers these days, where you put sticky rice in one end and get ddok out the other. But food prep has come a long way since then. Homemade ddok used to be even more of a labor of love than it is today).
Martha gets a smooch from a roaming hard candy vendor.  Photo by Steebu

Martha gets a smooch from a roaming hard candy vendor. Photo by Steebu


Local Korean band in fake school uniforms (and hypster glasses - Ramones, eat your heart out) perform for the Chasabalites.  Photo by Steebu

Local Korean band in fake school uniforms (and hypster glasses – Ramones, eat your heart out) perform for the Chasabalites. Photo by Steebu


In other areas, there were traditional drums to try. Steve and I played with a beat-up buk, janggo, and gwengarri and drew a crowd of about five people.
Shinparam members (Martha and Steebu) in exile, perform a version on Youngnam with a member of the crowd.

Shinparam members (Martha and Steebu) in exile, perform a version on Youngnam with a member of the crowd.

It’s fun to be able to play something for people at a thing like that.
We eventually ended up with around $100 of inexpensive chasabal (the expensive ones sell for hundreds of dollars) which we are now trying to keep in one piece in soft-sided luggage. They were impossible to resist… so pretty and simple and original.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Living with a presumption of honesty
We just can’t live with the assumption that others are going to be honest toward us but in Korea, it seems that people do. In general, one sees little children out by themselves at night, even in Seoul, and there is a placid acceptance of whatever shopkeepers do. Nobody ever counts their change, or in any way implies they may need to doublecheck the honesty of others. I love this. A case in point was our incident at the Chasabal Festival, when we identified a couple of bargain bowls in one stall, only to discover that the shopkeeper was not in the shop, and apparently not even in the vicinity. Pretty soon, a few other customers were standing around with their bowls, waiting patiently, at a loss at what to do.
The phone number of the shopkeeper must have been posted on something, maybe a business card, because one of the customers got off the phone and started finding the bubble wrap and newspaper, and wrapping up their stuff in preparation for carrying them off. I was a little alarmed, but continued to wait, and pretty soon, the shopkeeper/artist returned, a tall, skinny, longhaired dude who spoke some English and apologized to me that he was at lunch! He had evidently told the couple over the phone to please wrap up their stuff, and he would be right back. He proceeded to calmly check out the couple who were before me, trusting that what they wrapped up was exactly what they wrote down on a piece of paper they handed him, despite the fact that there were bowls in the shop priced at hundreds of dollars!
My conclusion from this and other observations — petty crime is simply not a thing people think will happen. It must happen sometimes, but it is infrequent enough that people trust others in a way we just cannot do in the U.S. Is it increased honesty due to peer pressure, a more homogenous society, or something intrinsically Korean. I am awed sometimes by the Korean mindset. A little dose of that in our society would improve it a lot.

The Minnesota Connection in Mungyeong
May 4
At lunch in a somewhat raucous outdoor restaurant inside the village, we saw two Caucasian women eating together. We had ordered makkoli, a slightly alcoholic rice wine, for 7,000 won, and we got an entire teapot-full, enough for six people. Not wanting to be weaving around the festival grounds with our $100 worth of tea bowls, we offered the rest of the pot to the two women, who accepted tentatively. It turns out, they were both old hands at the Chasabal Festival. One was an artist from New Zealand (Elena Renker) , and the other, an artist from Boston (Stephanie Young). Stephanie, who has abundant long blond hair and blue eyes, told me she thought she was the most-photographed artist at the festival, although they all were receiving plenty of attention, since they were such a small group. Both had displayed at the festival for multiple years, and Elena had turned into a real Korea fan, coming early or staying late some years to travel around.
The two told us there were a few more artists from the U.S., including two from Minnesota. We followed them back to their artist shop and hung out with the artists for awhile. Two were from Denmark (one of those a British transplant to Denmark), and one was from North Carolina. Lee Love from Minneapolis immediately told us he is a KQ reader and fan. His mom is Japanese, he said, and his dad is a Korean War vet, and he feels an affinity with KQ and many of its contributors and subjects. Finding a KQ reader and fellow Minnesotan was pretty fun. We also met Craig Edwards from New London, Minnesota.

Lee Love and Craig Edwards, Minnesota potters at the Chasabal Festival.  Photo by Steebu

Lee Love and Craig Edwards, Minnesota potters at the Chasabal Festival. Photo by Steebu

Group photo of the visiting international ceramic artists along with traditional performers (and Martha).  Photo by Steebu

Group photo of the visiting international ceramic artists along with traditional performers (and Martha). Photo by Steebu


Everyone assumed we knew a lot about ceramics, since everyone there knows a lot about ceramics. We had to say several times that no, we were completely ignorant about the subject, but that we were having a good time looking at all of the stuff. People seemed to question us, like “why are you at a ceramics festival all the way from the U.S. if you don’t know anything about it?” but once we explained about the newspaper and the Korean connection, people seemed a little easier. At least there was some logical reason for us to show up there!
The foreign guests were just about to have their own performance of traditional arts at a little courtyard located on the top of the mountain, and they invited us to join them. They served us tea in a traditional pavilion, and then some rice wine, as we watched traditional singing and dancing performances – beautifully done, which ended with everyone dancing in a circle.
Pansori singer Ki Ok Jung performs for the international ceramic artists.  Photo by Steebu

Pansori singer Ki Ok Jung performs for the international ceramic artists. Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu[caption id="attachment_76" align="alignleft" width="640"]Singer Ok Ja Song performs a local Mungyeong version of Arirang for the visiting artists.  Photo by Steebu Singer Ok Ja Song performs a local Mungyeong version of Arirang for the visiting artists. Photo by Steebu


Being artists, they were all very good sports about joining in and dancing goofily, and singing “Arirang.” In that setting, with mountains all around, the songs and dances being performed in the place they came from, was all pretty magical, and a great ending to the day at the festival.

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