Thursday, August 26, 2010


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Seoul Summer

Currently sitting at Incheon International Airport (ranked the best airport in the world, incidentally, by ACI and Skytrax. And little wonder—this transportation hub contains spas, a golf course, casino, computer lounges, indoor gardens and a fine arts museum.)

Only a couple hours until my flight back home, sweet home, where the grass is green, the sky is huge and the dogs are skinny.

Although I'm excited to be back at school in just a few days, I also can't believe that my time in Seoul is over. I already miss the people I met here, the places we visited and our incredible, instructive, surprising, exhilarating adventures this summer.

Below, in no particular order, are some of the most memorable experiences I had or places I visited this summer:
  • 경희궁의아침 - Here survived three college buddies for a summer in their cramped summer quarters. The poor, innocent apartment witnessed explosive pumpkins, jajangmyeon gatherings, epic-worthy snoring, pillowtalkfestivals, Rollercoaster marathons, grilled cheese parties and so much more.
  • 金·張法律事務所 - Work. Play. Repeat.
  • Changdeokgung Palace - The most beautiful of Seoul's royal palaces.
  • Gyeongju - Capital of Silla.
  • Hongdae - DWeg headquarters (arguably). Also home to Korea's indie music scene, kebab restaurants, artsy expats and cheap clubs.
  • Samcheong-dong - One of my favorite neighborhoods. Renovated hanok, tea houses, art galleries and interesting back alleys. Less kitschy/touristy than Insa-dong.
  • Apgujeong - Weekend mainstay/eye candy.
  • Cheongdam - Great restaurants, galleries, designer flagships. Everything from Seoul's most famous jazz cafe to Rolls-Royce Korea.
  • Itaewon - Koreans are a minority in this diverse neighborhood of Indian restaurants, Irish pubs, Greek tavernas, Chinese restaurants, beer halls and Seoul Central Mosque.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Hanjeongsik (한정식 - 韓定食) refers to Korean prix fixe, or set price menu. Originally designed for the banquet tables of royalty and aristocrats, it comprises course after course of salads, rice, noodles, sprouts, seafood, meats, soups and drinks.

I enjoyed the best hanjeongsik meal I've had all summer for lunch today. The name of the award-winning restaurant was Pungnyeon Myeongjeol (풍년명절). Opened by celebrity chef Chu Hyang-cho, the traditional restaurant specializes in the cuisine of Hwanghaedo Province (modern-day North Korea).

Frankly, the neighborhood, in Eungam-dong, isn't one where you'd expect to find top-notch hanjeongsik; upon turning onto the street, Mother and I both assumed that we had made a wrong turn and tried at first to reset the GPS navigator. But don't be dissuaded by the surroundings—the restaurant itself provides an unexpectedly charming oasis of understated traditional architecture. And most importantly, the food itself is superb (and less expensive than most hanjeongsik restaurants).

Unfortunately, we were there for a meeting, so I couldn't take pictures of the food during the meal.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Oliver and I headed to Golgulsa, a Buddhist temple in North Gyeongsang Province, for a weekend temple-stay program. The temple, located 20 km east of Gyeongju, was built by Saint Gwang Yu and a group of Buddhist monks from India in the 6th century.

The weekend program in which we participated focused on meditation, yoga, temple food and seonmudo (선무도 - 禪武道), a Korean seon (zen) martial art. It also included tea ceremonies, hiking and archery.

The adventure begins.

One train station closer to Nirvana

Front gate of Golgulsa Temple

One of the dormitories

We were woken up at 4 AM to meditate here until the sun rose.

Seonmudo center


Meditation room

Neat dancheong

Lots of gold

Buddha carved into the mountain peak

I was surprised by the number of foreigners at the temple-stay program; of the 30-some weekend participants, over half were European. The largest group was from Germany—there were more German speakers than native English speakers—and there were also a handful of Frenchmen and Americans.

I think for many of them, as for me, the temple-stay was not about anything religious—we couldn't understand most of the esoteric explanations anyway—as much as it was about relaxation, vigorous exercise, reflection and interest in traditional Korean culture.

Did I mention that our instructor was a friendly Norwegian fellow who spoke Korean more fluently than I do?

Friday, August 20, 2010


I'm back in Seoul after a couple days of craziness at a camp site in Gyeonggi Province. I was working as a youth camp staff member because the program was an initiative of the NGO I'm interning for this month. While there, I was reminded that 1) sleep is for the weak, 2) I truly despise mosquitoes and 3) Koreans like to incorporate physical pain in their "games".

Last night, I met some relatives for an amazing dinner at the Shilla, where I was reminded that 1) the Korean economy is doing very well and 2) 피가 물보다 진하다.

In a few hours, I'll be leaving for a temple-stay at Golgulsa (골굴사), where I hope to learn a few more things.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Liberation Day

Happy Gwangbokjeol everyone! Gwangbokjeol (광복절 - 光復節), whose literal translation is "Restoration of Light Holiday," is also known as Korean Liberation Day or Independence Day.

The highlight of the Gwangbokjeol ceremony in downtown Seoul this morning was the unveiling of Gwanghwamun, the front gate of Gyeongbok Palace. As the entrance to the primary seat of government during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), Gwanghwamun was used by the king for official events and occupies a central location of great symbolic importance: it lies at the end of Sejongno Boulevard below Blue House grounds at the foot of Bukhan Mountain.

The restoration of Gwanghwamun, which is often referred to as "the face of Seoul," marks the culmination of a 20-year campaign to meticulously and accurately restore royal buildings destroyed by Japan. In the case of Gwanghwamun, which was destroyed again during the Korean War, restoration involved dismantling and rebuilding the 1968 gate using traditional carpentry techniques in accordance with Joseon-era blueprints. The gate's location was also shifted 11.2 meters to the north and 13.5 meters to the east and also rotated 3.75 degrees, restoring Gwanghwamun in its original location along the north-south axis of the other palace gates and the main throne hall.

Sejongno (in the middle, statue of famed Admiral Yi Sun-sin)

The restored Gwanghwamun

Palace guards

Here's a good AFP photo of the palace complex.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rodin Retrospective

Just got back from the Rodin "신의손" retrospective at the Seoul Museum of Art (서울시립미술관). A collaboration between the Musée Rodin in Paris and the Seoul Museum of Art, the exhibition features masterpieces created by the Auguste Rodin, including some major works that have never before been displayed outside France.

Photography was not allowed, but hopefully these images from the Rodin retrospective website provide at least a glimpse into the mind of "the progenitor of modern sculpture."

If you're in Seoul and haven't seen Rodin's works before, definitely try to visit! (The exhibition, which has been in Korea all summer, will be open for another week until August 22.)

Friday, August 13, 2010


Daereungwon Royal Tombs
This verdant complex of 23 royal tombs, including the resting place of King Michu, is located in downtown Gyeongju—believe it or not, there are office towers on the other side of the street in the pictures below. In accordance with Korean tradition, the tombs are covered by large, grassy mounds that, at least from the outside, resemble small hills (kind of like environmentally friendly Pyramids). During excavations, archaeologists discovered tens of thousands of ornate relics and gold accessories buried with Silla monarchs. Hwangnamdaechong Tomb, for instance, contained over 30,000 pieces, including crowns, paintings and other cultural treasures.

Cheomseongdae Observatory
Constructed during the reign of Queen Seondeok, Cheomseongdae is the oldest observatory in East Asia and one of the earliest existing scientific installations in the world.

Bulguksa Temple, constructed during Korea's golden age of Buddhism, was commissioned by Prime Minister Gim Daeseong in 751 and took 23 years to complete. In addition to the main structures and Buddha statues, the stone pagodas Dabotap and Seokgatap are particularly important. Bulguksa Temple was inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995 for being "a complex of exceptional significance" and "an outstanding example of the religious architecture of the region."


Seokguram Grotto
Seokguram Grotto is considered an architectural and scientific masterpiece representing the peak of Silla-era art and was added to the World Heritage List in 1995 together with Bulguksa Temple. The inscription reads, "Established in the 8th century on the slopes of Mount Toham, Seokguram Grotto contains a monumental statue of the Buddha looking at the sea in the bhumisparsha mudra position. With the surrounding portrayals of gods, Bodhisattvas and disciples, all realistically and delicately sculpted in high and low relief, it is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Far East." I've also included below pictures of the adjacent belfry (they let you ring the bell!) and traditional Buddhist prayer lanterns—colorful ones for the living, white for those who have passed away.

History of Silla

After visiting Hahoe, we headed south to Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla (57 BC - 935 AD).

Silla evolved from the city-state of Saroguk, a member of the Jinhan Confederacy during the Proto-Three Kingdoms period of Korea. The Silla monarchy was officially established in 57 BC by King Bak Hyeokgyeose near present-day Gyeongju. Throughout the Three Kingdoms of Korea era (57 BC - 668 AD), Silla coexisted with rivals Baekje to the west and Goguryeo to the north. Silla later defeated and absorbed Baekje and Goguryeo, reunifying the peninsula and ushering in the Unified Silla era of Korean history, which lasted until the founding of the Goryeo dynasty in 935.

During its millennium-long rule—Silla was one of the longest sustained dynasties in world history—the kingdom witnessed a golden age of Korean science and culture. Exquisite statues, temples, academies, pagodas, weapons and ornaments from this period remain among the most representative treasures of traditional Korean art and architecture. Many of these pieces were inspired by Buddhism, which was imported from India and formally adopted as the state religion by King Beopheung in 527.

As the capital of this prosperous kingdom, Gyeongju was at the center of Korean commerce, politics and culture for several centuries; today, a vast number of archaeological sites and cultural properties from this period are concentrated in the city. Despite damage inflicted upon valuable relics by Mongol forces, Japanese invaders and Joseon-era Neo-Confucian radicals, most of the cultural resources remain remarkably well-preserved. Therefore, despite its diminished political influence today, Gyeongju is now one of Asia's most popular and historically significant tourist destinations.

Hahoe Village

The first stop on our trip to North Gyeongsang Province was Hahoe Village, located in the town of Andong (안동하회마을). Our interest in visiting the village was piqued by Hahoe's recent UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

Hahoe was founded in the 16th century by the Ryu (류) clan of Pungsan and remains one of Korea's most representative clan villages. Isolated among the eastern mountains of Gyeongsang Province, Hahoe has preserved centuries-old traditions and the distinctive Confucian culture of the early Joseon Dynasty that reflects Andong's aristocratic yangban roots. A majority of the residences are still inhabited by Pungsan Ryu descendants, making the village an authentic, living, open-air museum.

Rice paddies on the outskirts of the village

Huge pond of lotus flowers near the village entrance

Path leading to the village center

Traditional residence

One of the village's two seowon (private Joseon-era academies)

Front gate of the seowon

Poem inscribed on a stone outside

Oldest tree in the village (surrounded by thousands of handwritten prayers)

Giwa tile roofs for aristocrats' residences; thatched roofs for servants' quarters

Yangjindang (the pen name of Ryu Yeong) is the oldest existing house in Hahoe Village.

Chunghyodang was built for a prominent Joseon government official after his retirement.

Enough firewood?


In the background, clay jars of doenjang and soy sauce

Ferry on the Nakdong River

Residences on the other side of the Nakdong

Andong's famous high-quality soju.

Andong is also famous for its traditional wooden masks.


Pine forest on the eastern edge of the village

To the north, Buyongdae Cliff

Korean fir tree planted by Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Hahoe in 1999.

Hahoe's UNESCO World Heritage Site designation seems well-deserved—I would definitely recommend Hahoe Village to tourists in Korea as a weekend trip destination (especially compared to the relatively Disneyland-esque Korean "folk village" in Yongin).