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An Autumn Day in Seoul

SOUTH KOREA | Monday, 11 November 2019 | Views [61]

Yogyesa Chrysanthemum Festival

Yogyesa Chrysanthemum Festival

My first introduction to South Korea came on the Peach Airline flight that showed a video of Yeongdo Island that had been illegally annexed by the Japanese and after recovery was now a symbol of independent Korea.  The advertisements and videos on the plane and throughout the National Museum told a story of a country that has been constantly pushed and pulled between China and Japan. Today’s threats come in other forms and there are emergency kits available everywhere and evacuation path signs are prominently displayed. Through all this, though, I was struck by the beauty of the area surrounding Seoul. The rolling hills were carpeted with autumn colors, the metal barriers on the bridges were covered with bright pink petunias draping almost to the ground, and flower pots with multi-hued mums lined many of the main streets.  Behind the main transportation arteries, in the back alleys where I naturally got lost, the sights and smells were not quite so pleasant. Trash bags were stacked in huge piles and stank. 

 My first stop was, as usual, the National Museum. National museums provide a perspective on a country’s history and diverse cultures. I find it is always a good introduction to a place I have not been before. The National Museum of Korea is easy to locate and is just off the Line 4 I-cheon subway station. The modern building is architecturally stunning. It is a really pretty building. (And this from someone who isn’t wild about modern architecture.) Inside the building is airy and quite spacious. The ground floor is given over to pre-history through to the early modern period, the second calligraphy and painting and a number of rooms dedicated to displaying works from various collectors, the third floor has the large Buddhist statuary collection along with works from other Asian countries. One of the most impressive figures is a Pensive Buddha from the 7th century, although I also like the Bodhisattva from the 6th C and the Arhat from the Late Joseon Period (probably 19thC) that I posted in the photo gallery as I can't get the images to load here. One of the aspects of this collection as well as the collection in Tokyo was the number of images of Buddha at birth. I don’t recall seeing this theme as well portrayed in other countries.

 As I only had the afternoon left, I headed to one of the main Buddhist temples in central Seoul, the Jogyesa Temple which offers temple stays for those who wish to retreat to meditate. The founders of this temple tried to bridge some of the differences between Pure Land and Zen Buddhist ideas an,d as this is the central office of the leading Buddhist sect in Korea, they were obviously fairly successful. The teachings center primarily on the Diamond Sutra, but the Lotus Sutra is also prominent.  When I was there a priest was chanting from the Diamond Sutra and I was amazed that he hardly stopped for a breath in the hour or so I was there. The subway system in Seoul is excellent and the temple is therefore easy to get to.  After leaving the subway station (Jongat) one walks up Buddhist Street where they sell all sorts of Buddhist ritual artifacts and souvenirs past a bunch of high rises to arrive on the left side at a brightly painted Buddhist gate that this time was covered in yellow and red chrysanthemums.  I had arrived during the Fall Mum Festival and the entire complex was awash in vivid flower colors. A number of the statues had been clothed in mums, including the Buddha, the Lying Buddha, and the dragons. Other symbolic figures had been created with mesh and petals including fish and an elephant.  People were mulling around, lighting incense, putting wishes on the wooden tablets (this time for free!), or sitting in the temple listening to the priest chant. The central tree in the complex, which is supposed to be over 1,000 years old, was decorated with colored lanterns and paper.  The outside of the main temple hall did not have any additional decorations as it didn’t need any.  It showcased perhaps the best set of wood panel paintings of the life of the Buddha that I have ever seen. This temple complex isn’t particularly large and is overshadowed by the towering high rises surrounding it, but it is very impressive.

Korean culture has been substantially influenced by Confucianism.  Confucian ethics, according to the Korean Foundation’s Religion in Korea, is an integral part of the culture. As such it seemed appropriate to visit one of the leading Confucian shrines in the city, the Jongmyo, which is only one stop further along the Subway 1 line than the Jogyesa Temple. According to the site pamphlet the main hall is the place where the spirit of deceased royalty were kept and enshrined. The neighboring structures house the spirit tablets of  ‘meritorious subjects’ and of the ‘seven gods of heaven.’ Off to the left of the main hall is the Yeongnyeongjeon which was built to house the spirits of four generations of King Taejo’s ancestors. “Its name literally means ‘long live both ancestors and descendants of the royal family in peace.” (Korean Foundation) It now is the resting place of 16 kings and 18 queens. Ceremonies are still held at intervals throughout the year at the site. Ancestor worship is seemingly alive and thriving here. The complex is in a very pleasant park, which provides a bit of respite from the noise, traffic and high rises surrounding it.

While I didn’t visit a church, I did see a number of Christian crosses lit up in neon.  According to the previously mentioned book, Christianity is one of the leading religions in Korea with both Catholic and Protestant branches present. In contrast to Japan where everything was open on Sunday, in Incheon, all the stores other than the 7-11s and Coffee Bean (yes!) and some restaurants were closed.

The subtitle of the Korean Foundation’s book is ‘Harmony and Coexistence’ and this seems to me an appropriate saying for what I found in my very brief day in Seoul. The city is incredibly busy and noisy with trash in the alleys and clean swept highways, yet everyone was polite and didn’t push their way through. There is something to be said for the Confucian belief in the greater good of the community taking precedence over individual desires.

One last comment on the subway system.  It is easy to get around as there are signs in English and the lines are color coded.  One new twist on the system was that one pays an extra deposit at the ticket vending machine. One chooses one’s stop then the machine says what it will cost, one puts in the correct amount and gets a card that is then read at the turnstiles. On the way out the card is again read and this is when one goes to a green vending machine to get the W500 deposit back. I assume this is so that if a person goes further than the allotted amount the machine will catch them.  In any case, if you go on the subway, don’t forget to get your change back. The W500 coins are needed for the laundry mats.

A good novel to get a feel for what Koreans experienced in Japan in the 20th C is Min Jin Lee's Pachinko published in 2017 by Apollo Press. 

































Tags: city visit, museums, sacred sites

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