Renewal and re-birth!

A year in Korea happened on Tuesday (19/02/2013), yes 365 days since I landed in Incheon disappointed by “Man City Airlines” (Etihad). I disembarked full of excitement and with a semblance of trepidation. What had I heard? The most wired country in the world! An economic miracle! Korea has one of the best education systems and a great world delicacy, the ubiquitous Kimchi. Of course we must not forget that global great of football, or soccer to the Koreans, Park Ji Sung. Was it fiction or reality?

To be truthful a “bibimbap” of both, there have been many highlights and more than a few disappointments and frustrations but its been a wholly captivating and enjoyable experience. After finishing a 2-day Harry Potter Winter camp and a five-day “Fresher’s” week twas the time for re-birth and renewal; on Friday I re-signed for year 2 in Korea.

I had a very productive meeting with the school principal who seemed keen to value and use my experience of the education industry! Stop! A principal wanting to listen. Amen! After this I travelled with my co-worker Violet (Ki Ppeum) to Cheongju and the immigration office. We’d booked an appointment but it wasn’t necessary.  Last year’s visit coincided with a cohort of Mongolian road workers, this time it was less fraught and only took 15 minutes.

From immigration we headed into central Cheongju taking in a lovely Japanese lunch.  I was meeting the departing Mr. Gray and the re-signing Mr. Miah and Mr. Greg before heading to Cheonan to meet up with FOBY. AG didn’t arrive until 5:30 pm so I did a coffee shop crawl managing an edition of National Geographic (Yellowstone) in the process.

I did spend 30 minutes wandering around an awful mega-market between the two bus stations; it seemed to be a shopper’s wasteland. I bumped into MM just before AG arrived and then we headed to MM’s minuscule flat for refreshments. Later we headed to Pearl Jam bar for some beers, the others tucked into veggie burrito’s, burgers and a monumental plate of nacho’s whilst a cornucopia of foreign English teachers swelled the clientèle  After a couple of hours we said our farewells, I had a 45 minute bus ride to Cheonan, Alan (on Tuesday) a long flight back to South Africa.

On Saturday FOBY and I headed out for a drive exploring two mountain temple sites, Gwangdeoksa and Magoksa. The road to Gwangdeoksa (broad virtue) was extremely picturesque with the mountains still glazed with the preceding snow; the temple was positioned at the foot of Mt. Gwangdeoksan. On arrival we parked up opposite a number of restaurants and vendors selling vegetables, eggs and roasted chestnuts.

At the entrance of the main sanctuary is a 400-year old, 18 metre high walnut tree which has resulted in Cheonan receiving the label of “the home of walnuts” and becoming famous for Hodugwaja cookies. This thousand year old ancient temple is said to have been founded by the great monk Jajanagyulsa as was our next temple. The walnut tree sits in front of the Bohwaru Pavilion which leads through to the main hall, Daeungjeon. To the right of here is a mountain spring decorated with the usual mini-me Buddha’s and from here many hikers take the mountain trail to the summit of Gwangdeoksan Mountain (699 metres) via Janggun-bawi (general rock). The return trek takes about four hours. There’s a nice little shop here with Buddhist souvenirs and I picked up a scarf to send back to mum in England.

From here we travelled a further 13 km to Magoksa. The parking area around a kilometre from the main temple is relatively commercialised with motels, a spa and a variety of restaurants. We came across a mother and her four puppies which were available to carry away free of charge.  Magoksa Temple was founded in 643 by the famous monk, Jajang-yulsa. In 636 Jajang had traveled to China to study under the great Buddhist masters of the Tang Dynasty China; after seven years he became a Taeguksa (Great Noble Priest). On his return to Korea he was venerated by his Queen Seondeok.

Jajang brought with him invaluable holy treasures: a fragment of the original Sakyamuni Buddha‘s skull, a wooden begging-bowl and monastic-robe of Buddha, and 100 of the Buddha’s “sarira” (pearl or crystal-like bead-shaped objects) that were purportedly found among the cremated ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters.

Magoksa Temple is situated on Mt. Taehwasan around 24 kilometres outside of the city of Gongju.  The first gate you pass through is the Liberation Gate, similar to the one at Beopjusa Temple. This gate is supposed to inspire visitors to seek liberation from earthly problems. Inside this gate are housed two Bodhisattvas and two Vajra devas that help guard the temple. The two Bodhisattvas are Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom), who rides a blue tiger; and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power), who rides on a white elephant. The next gate you’ll pass through is the Cheonwangmun Gate, which is more commonly known as the Four Heavenly Kings’ Gate, unsurprisingly inside are images of four heavenly kings! The entrance to the temple was extremely muddy probably due to the excesses of melting snow. The setting is extremely beautiful and I can imagine especially so in autumn.

After crossing  stone bridge we came to a large bell pavilion within the lower courtyard alongside this is a slender five-tier pagoda that dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty. Uniquely, the top of the pagoda is adorned with a Tibetanesque finial. Straight ahead is the Daegwangbo-jeon hall that dates back to 1813, rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original structure (sound familiar?). This hall houses the solitary Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). Uniquely, Birojana-bul is situated in the left of the hall, much like Birojana-bul at Buseoksa Temple’s main hall, Muryangsu-jeon. To the right of the Daegwangbo-jeon hall are the monk’s dorms and the temple stay buildings.  Daeungbo-jeon hall was rebuilt in 1651 and is a double storied hall, within are housed a triad of Buddhas. In the centre is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). To his right is Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha), and to the left is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). When we visited people were worshipping so out of respect we didn’t enter.

Returning to the car we drove into Gongju for a late lunch before travelling back to Onyang Spa Tourist Hotel. In the evening we had some excellent oven-baked chicken and Korean dark beer at Wa bar, the main clientele being foreign English teachers.

Sunday saw a walk along the lake in Onyang, Sinjeong Lake Resort has landscaped themed gardens along its banks and would be a great summer picnic area.  Of course it’s less inspiring at this time of year but we did come across some unusual sculptures and characters including a suited and booted hyperactive poodle.

After an altercation with the Korean mafia and getting new specs (Ray Ban Clubmaster) we headed to the Onyang Grand Hotel Spa (see previous post).  Later we had Shabu at my favourite Vietnamese in Cheonan, after coffee I headed back to Chungju for a “Casualty” catch-up.

Next Friday is Independence movement holiday. The March 1st Movement, or Samil Movement, was one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance during the occupation of the Korean Empire by Japan. The name refers to an event that occurred on March 1, 1919, hence the movement’s name, literally meaning “Three-One Movement” or “March First Movement” in Korean. I’m heading to Seoul with Angel Disley and meeting up with FOBY for some trolling along ancient walls, traditional markets and good food.

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