Soongsil University and Re-visiting Magoksa


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Last Saturday I traveled with a party of students to Soongsil University in Seoul. We were met at the entrance by two volunteer students who acted as campus tour guides. It was a bitterly cold and wet day made worse by the fact that I’d followed the mild forecast, leaving warm clothing at home.

Soongsil University’s pedigree can be traced back to 1897, when Dr. W. M. Baird, an American missionary started teaching from his residence in Pyong Yang and was then given the title of the first university in Korea. Later during the Japanese occupation when Korea lost its sovereignty, Soongsil University made national liberalization its top priority and took the lead in the national independence movement. In 1938, the school temporarily closed down in protest against forced worship at Japanese shrines.

The present campus has a range of modern buildings commemorating Mr. Baird and other famous alumni. The university is paired with University of Leicester and Herriot-Watt University in the UK. It is most famous in South Korea for its Computer science department. After a swift circumnavigation of the campus and two promotional videos later, we pleasured ourselves in the cacophony of love that was the Christian Museum before sampling the $3 cafeteria meal which, at this point, was the day’s overarching high point.

Crossing over by coach to Yeouido Island we arrived at the Finance Centre for another movie and an hour of interactive business education in the Virtual Finance Village.  The kids seemed to enjoy the interactive nature of the “Village” but then narcolepsy prevailed as we watch our 4th promotional video of the day.

The party dissolved at 2:30pm so I headed to Seoul Station to catch the KTX to Cheonan-Asan station. The very efficient Korail ticketeer changed my 5:30pm booking to 3:30pm and travelling at 300km per hour I was in Cheonan by 4! The journey was made even more electric by a 3-year-old Sherpa Tenzing Norgay scaling the seat in front of me and showering me with candy!

FOBY collected me from the station and later that evening we gorged on steak and the buffet at VIPS. We spent the first 20 minutes trying to shake off two kids who had become detached from their exemplary parents, eventually the staff intervened to ensure our liberation. After being sprung I have to confirm that the food was excellent, the service less than dynamic, exemplified by a 30 minute wait for a bouteille de vin rouge. Of course the wait involved us knoshing even more of the excellent but not inexpensive buffet. At the end of the evening we were party to a brief but entertaining birthday celebration.

On Sunday after coffee and the moorish rolled scrambled egg and bacon butty from Paris Baguette we head out to what for me was to be a surprise destination. The only clue I was given by FOBY was that it was “one of those shit temple places”! Enough said! After around 45 minutes drive I notice a sign for Sudeoksa Franks chosen destination.  I suggested we had been there before and after my vivid descriptions mirrored in another post on this blog, he remembered we had! We then headed for another temple site Magoksa, again FOBY’s memory lapse skill came to the fore and he couldn’t remember that one either.  He was further confused by us approaching the said temple site from the opposite direction.  As readers will know he is Korean and spatial awareness is a severely lacking Korean trait and skill.

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Anyway I was happy to re-visit as it was a beautiful day. The remnants of spring cherry blossoms popped out of nothing from bare branches, but as we know all too briefly… then they are gone. Maybe they represent the Buddhist insight that all things are fleeting and change, that everything like the seasons themselves keep changing, where the only thing of value is the cultivation of awareness to appreciate this very moment. Bloody well poetic eh? Maybe not!

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Before taking the 20 minute stroll from the car park we had a tasty lunch of regional vegetables and tofu soup. The wind was testing the stoicism of the blossom and I was grateful for the use of FOBY’s fleece. The river follows an ox-bow course and vendors lined the side-set selling chestnuts, mushrooms, various types of rice and other local delicacies. It seems that all the over 70s in Korea are struggling to sustain themselves in this way, one wonders how their extended families support themselves.  All over Korea spring sees the aged population returning to the fields at the end of an overly harsh winter.  Their backs are frozen at a near 45 degree angle as they prepare the land with the green shoots that signal warmer times. As we passed the usual mountain gear clad ninja’s and masked kids, I felt a little sad for the desperate looking, leather skinned vendors with their empty eyes and dry lips.

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The whole walkway had been garlanded with colourful lanterns in preparation for the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. As we approached the temple we decided to cut across the riverbed that skirted the ox-bow.  The temple sits in the anterior of the ox-bow joined to its knave with a beautiful stone bridge. Kids tossed coins towards the submerged carved turtles whose shells seemed to be magnetic as the collections of silver-mounted. I’ve written about the temple history and layout before, click here to read the previous post. FOBY and I crossed the stone bridge stopping at the well-stocked shop as I needed a new key chain. I picked up a lovely one shaped in small wooden majong style block with characters carved on its sides.  We then circumnavigated the three terraces on which sit the various temple structures, stopping to watch construction workers beavering away replacing roof tiles.  This temple seems to be one of the focal point for the developing Temple Stay Program in South Korea.  Beyond the main complex further along the river major construction work is taking place.  It’s a fantastic setting and a number of treks can be enjoyed from the temple complex.

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We took a short walk to a wooden bridged in whose shadow families noisily picnicked at a spot where patriot Kim Gu used to meditate. Who is Kim Gu? FOBY reminded me that his giant statue sits, flanked by two giant tigers,  in the new park at the foot of Namsan Mountain in Seoul. It’s the park that has a newly renovated section of the old Seoul wall which snaked down to Nandaemun Gate. Crossing the bridge we followed the path on the outside of the ox-bow and cut across the shallow river bed to take the walk back-down to the car park.

Returning to Cheonan Terminal I took my 2 hours bus ride back to Chungju.

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