Monday, September 20, 2010

Chuseok: A Korean Thanksgiving

One of the most significant Korean holidays is Chuseok.  Similar in some ways to our American Thanksgiving, it falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar annually (September 22nd this year).  The harvest festival is a three-day event, with celebrations the day before and the day after the official date.  Most Koreans return home to spend time with their families, pay respect to their ancestors and celebrate the harvest season.  Women often prepare traditional foods, including songpyeon, a crescent shaped rice cake filled with sweet bean paste and steamed with pine needles.  Fancy gift sets and presents are often distributed to friends and family.

For the last month, Ryan and I have noticed increasing displays of colorful fruit baskets, beauty sets, even gift boxes filled with nothing but SPAM.  We were lucky enough to receive small gifts from our director and a few students, including baked goods, gift cards and socks for the holiday.  Luckily, we didn't receive any canned meat.

In anticipation of Chuseok last Friday, all of our kindergarten kids dressed in traditional Korean hanboks. I don’t think they could have been any cuter!

Ryan and I also dressed up, borrowing the traditional attire from co-workers.  

 Once we were dressed, students and teachers made songpyeon together.  

A small piece of dough enveloped sweet bean paste (better than it sounds), then the cake was set on a tray to await steaming.  
Step 1
Step 2
Step 3
Once the dough was gone, the students were more than happy to polish off the leftover filling.

After the rice cakes had been made, we all headed to the gym for traditional Korean wrestling.

The students gathered facing a mat in the center of the room. 

Two by two the competitors bowed and sat face to face on the floor.

Then they stood, grasping their opponent’s waist, waiting to be tapped by the “referee.”  Once they were tapped, it was go time.  Ryan and I couldn’t believe that in their formal attire, they were clinging to each other and rolling around on mats. 

The girls somehow still managed to look elegant and adorable.

For some reason the boys weren’t quite as graceful….

At least they were entertaining!  And did I mention, adorable?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Birthday, Buddha and Beauty

The last week in August is my birthday.  Shortly after its passing, Labor Day comes and goes, the leaves change to fall hues, yellow school buses are seen everywhere, and the season opener of Duck football brings friends together.  

This year, in South Korea I celebrated turning twenty-six with friends and co-workers at a Thai restaurant and then a beachfront bar. 

Being away from close friends, family and the comforts of home, I wanted to do something more than the usual dinner and drinks.  Why not take a trip?

Many small South Korean cities have piqued our interest, and sadly we won’t have time to visit them all.  However we knew that Gyeongju was one we didn’t want to miss.

Previously the capital of South Korea, it is now known as the “museum without walls.”  The nickname is well deserved considering Gyeongju’s history includes numerous buildings and artifacts that date back to the 600s.  We left early on a Saturday to start our exploration of the city.

After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we set out for our walking tour of the city.  Immediately we noticed that the city is not only famous for its history, but also for its local bread.  Shops like these dotted the corners of virtually every street.

Various other vendors offered their goods for sale on the city's narrow streets.

Most of the sites in Gyeongju are geographically close, making it easy on the many tourists who are hungry for history.  

We began our day at Tumuli Park.  Home to various tombs dating back to the 600s, the manicured, rolling hills were more unique than anything we've ever seen.  Its countless tombs are visible from all different parts of the city.  

The Cheonmachong Tomb has been opened and cut in a cross section, now available for the public to view.  Unfortunately photos aren't allowed.

Handmade jade and gold necklaces, earrings, plateware, weapons and even a crown similar to those found in the tomb had been replicated and showcased within the cross section.  We later saw the original items on display at the local museum.

Cheomseongdae Observatory (meaning “star gazing observatory”) was a short walk from the park.  Built in 634, the tower is made of twelve rectangular base stones positioned in a square, three on each side, representing the four seasons and twelve months of each year.  The twelve tiers of stones also represent the twelve symbols of the zodiac.  Ryan and I felt privileged to be in the presence of such ancient architecture, considering nothing as old exists in the US.

A sprawling field beyond the tower showcased a stunning garden.  The native (and unfortunately named) golden “Rape” flowers were gorgeous.  We took our time walking through the gardens and enjoyed the summer day. 

The sky threatened rain at times, yet never delivered.  It was humid, but not uncomfortable.  It was very romantic.

Across the street, a hypnotizing lotus flower garden stretched far in front of us.  Ryan captured some amazing photos there.   

A short walk across the street brought us to Anapji Pond.  The pond was originally built in the year 528.  When drained during a rebuild in the 1970s, many artifacts and relics were found.  

Various temples and gazebos surround the pond, creating a nice atmosphere.  The shelters have been restored in the same places they originally stood all those years ago.

What we guessed to be a women’s group of some kind had gathered on the park’s grass under a tent.  Most women were dressed in traditional Korean hanboks, which was fun to see.

The last stop on Saturday's sightseeing self-tour was the famous Gyeongju Museum.
Outside, a giant Dharma Bell was displayed. 

Used to gather and teach audiences in Buddhist temples, the Dharma Bell’s sound differs from similar bells in Japan and China.  This particular one was created from a single sheet of copper.

An abundance of historical pieces waited for us within the museum’s numerous rooms.  Intricately designed original jewelry excavated from the tombs we saw in Tumuli Park was encased in thick glass.

One hall had been dedicated entirely to various statues of Buddha.  An explanation detailed each one’s origin and the purpose it served.  Some symbolize healing, others peace, and still more acceptance.

Upon leaving the museum, we realized we’d skipped lunch and were famished.

Kisoya, a Japanese restaurant we’d read about, turned out to be only a short cab ride away. Our dinner was delicious.  We enjoyed sushi, udon noodles, miso soup and tempura. 

I tried to combat a cold with lots of green tea.

The bulk of Sunday was spent at the well-known Bulguk-sa Temple, thirty minutes outside of the city by bus.  We were conveniently dropped off right outside the door, where we took advantage of various photo-ops.  (Thanks to the new tripod I received as a birthday gift from my parents!)

As we entered through the gate, we were welcomed by these massive figures.

We meandered through a park leading into the temple and were surrounded by a large pond and beautiful greenery.

We came to a clearing where massive temples peeked out over the hills before us.  Unlike the previous day, Sunday was sunny, creating a backdrop of blue sky mixed with wispy white clouds.  

Many of the original structures within the temple were built in the 500s.  

Unfortunately few remained after the Japanese occupation. In the 1970s the entire site of Bulguk-sa was restored to its present beauty.

Most of the beautiful structures housed varying statues of Buddha.  Like in the museum, explanations of each were displayed on plaques.

At one point we came upon an enclosed area filled with little sculptures of small rocks and stones statues.  We learned that building a statue is considered good luck, or a way to pray to Buddha.

Around each corner of Bulguk-sa, it was as if each new building was more amazing than the last. 

What a beautiful way to spend a birthday weekend.

Exhausted, we slept on the bus back home.  We vowed to explore more of the gorgeous Korean countryside before colder weather forces us inside.  Until then, Seoul this weekend and our first venture to Japan next week!