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Archive for September, 2011


Korea’s biggest holiday of the year is upon us. That’s right! Chuseok has officially started! For Koreans, this means returning to the ancestral seats of either the husband or eldest son, and spending time with family while enjoying the harvest. For Expat teachers, this is an opportunity to travel! Several of us will be heading to Busan for the weekend to enjoy the last bit of warm ocean breezes. I also hope to make a side trip to Gyeongju, a smaller town about an hour north of Busan that hosts some really amazing burial mounds and temples.

I hope to see some traditional Chuseok celebrations and rites along the way. One interesting tradition is the exchange of gifts of money and food items. The stores are stocked with gift sets, and Spam is one of the most popular items to give and receive. ( I have a theory that this began during the war, but am still researching the origins. I do think the popularity of meat products is a reminder of just how poor the country was in the not-so-distant past.)

I’m both fascinated and repulsed by the love of Spam in Korean culture.

We did receive two very lovely gift sets from our bosses:

A very nice wine set, and………

SPAM!

Although I have no intentions of actually eating the Spam, I really think my very first Chuseok would not have been complete without receiving a set as a gift!

Oh, Korea…..Have I told you lately that I love you?

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I had another fun outing to a strange and remote part of Korea on Saturday. I had planned to jump onto a bus for parts unknown, when a friend of mine, Michael, invited me to go with him and some of our friends to Maisan. Maisan (or Horse Ears Mountain) is the home of Tapsa, an incredibly unusual temple site that I had been wanting to see since I arrived.

I woke up early Saturday and met Michael at GS. One of our friends had decided the night before not to go, and we waited for another friend who never showed up. When we realized we would be the only ones going, Michael suggested we take our bikes to the bus terminal. We had a nice ride to the station, and locked our bikes up, bought tickets for the hour-long bus ride to Jinan and boarded the bus. It was here that I discovered that I had left my camera…..somewhere! Feeling completely sick, not only at the loss of camera, but also the nearly 4 gigs of memories I wouldn’t be able to replace, I made the quick decision to go in search of my camera. I also made rapid apologies to Michael, and told him to go on and have a great time. I felt completely horrible because everyone had ditched out of the trip leaving him alone.

I walked back out to my bike, mentally retracing my path from GS to the bus terminal, when I saw my camera. I had placed it in the basket as I was locking the bike up, and forgot to grab it when we headed in! (Again, Korea’s lack of crime and petty theft never ceases to amaze!) I ran back to the bus, and found that it had just pulled out, so I checked the ticket booth. They had a bus heading to Jinan ten minutes later. Thinking that I could meet up with Michael at the next station, I bought the ticket. Michael had his guide-book with him, and had mentioned that we would need to take another ten minute bus ride to reach Maisan. I had no idea what bus this might be, and only hoped I would be able to catch up with him when I got to Jinan.

Once in Jinan, I found no sign of Michael. Unsure of which bus to take, I asked the agent at the terminal, and she just pointed outside and said, “1000” ( meaning won, which is roughly eighty cents). I walked to the street in one of the smallest towns I have seen in Korea, and was stopped by a school girl who was fascinated by the foreign woman in her town. She was sweet, and tried to help when I asked about Maisan Mountain, but wasn’t sure how I should get there. I decided to stop a cab, and the driver knew exactly where I needed to be. He drove me towards the mountains, and pointed them out to me, and insisted on driving me all the way up to Tapsa.

Tapsa (or Pagoda Temple) was started in 1885 by a lone buddhist hermit, Yi Gap Yong. Over the course of the next thirty years, Yi Gap Yong constructed over 100 natural stone pagodas without the use of mortar.Today, about eighty of the original stone pagodas remain, and Maisan is unlike any other temple site found in Korea.

After I explored Tapsa, I walked the mile or so back down to the main entrance of the park. I wandered the area, and kept looking for Michael. I had expected to see him at some point at Tapsa. Along the way, I passed some really cool shops with handcrafted wood items, and some mouth-watering barbecue places. I stopped and found shade by a gorgeous lake:

I also found another, more traditional, Buddhist temple (Geumdang Temple):

I finally made it back to the tourist information center and bus area. I stopped by tourist information, and the men there spoke very little english, but were so nice. One showed me the bus schedule, and called an english speaking representative to help me figure out how to get tickets. (You don’t. You just get on the bus and pay the driver. There is a bus to Jinan bus terminal, and one that goes directly to Jeonju.) It was a little after three by this time. The buses weren’t scheduled back until after 5:00. I grabbed a coke, and poured over the english map and brochures my new tourist center friends provided. Apparently, there is another buddhist temple located above Tapsa….

I made friends with the shop owner that I bought my coke from. I sat in the shade in front of his store, and watched the hikers and tourists coming back down from Tapsa, feeling certain that I would see Michael at any minute. After about forty-five minutes of people watching, one of the men from the tourist office came over to me. He managed to tell me that he thought I had too long to wait for the bus back and that he could give me a ride back to Jinan to the bus station. In Atlanta, I would probably have said “no” without a moment’s hesitation, but he was such a sweet, older Korean man who was genuinely concerned to see a lone foreign female sitting in front of a shop waiting for a bus. I followed him to his work truck, and had the nicest drive back to Jinan. He did not speak much English, but understood and seemed excited when I explained that I teach English in Jeonju. When we arrived back at the bus station, he walked in with me, and told the attendant what ticket I needed. He went well out of his way to  make sure I arrived safely back in Jeonju!

I will never forget that little impromptu hitchhiking, or the kindness of that Korean man!

Later that night, I saw Michael. We compared notes, and still have no idea how we missed each other at Tapsa. I think it was meant to be. We each had fantastic experiences, and were there, alone, together.

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