It’s been a while now since my last post. Since my break from school started, it seems I’ve also taken a break from the blog. After my past set of final exams and all the work/thought that led up to it, I was pretty exhausted. I also came down with a cold for 5-6 days following the beginning of my break. I needed some time to just take it easy and let myself wind down a bit. I also wanted a bit of space from writing/posting. School’s starting up again 2 days from now and I’m feeling great about it. I’m feeling well rested and prepared to begin again, and so my activity has increased as well. I’d originally planned to use my break time to travel down to Busan and Gyeongju, but due to my sickness plus another event, I chose to stick around Seoul. I’ve done a lot of travel within Seoul now and beginning to understand its geography/areas pretty well. Yet with a city this size, 3rd in population in the world, one could explore the city for a lifetime and still find interesting new spots. So, I’ve embraced this and I won’t simply settle with the major places I’ve seen. I’m starting to do some of my own research, a combination of Korean websites and English language sites, to find new spots. I’ve got a particular interest in buddhist/shamanic temples. There’s no lack thereof of these in Korea (1000+) and about 59 (according to Wikipedia) in Seoul. I was craving, as I often do, some time in nature and a break from the 빨리빨리 (Balri balri, literally “hurry hurry”) culture of Seoul city life. I found a temple named Dalmasa, located in the Dongjak area of the city, overlooking the Han River.
This turned out to be a great find. I got lost along the way, but mainly due to text messaging my girlfriend on the bus and losing track of time/where I was. All in all the trip there from Sinchon was pretty easy. I’ll start adding directions onto my blog in case anyone chooses to visit Seoul and happens to be reading my blog, but I took Line 2 to Dangsan station, then line 9 to Heukseok. From there, I took bus 1 from the Jungang College Hospital stop. The bus ride was short, only about 5 minutes, but steep. Along the way, the bus stalled about 3 times. Granted, it appeared the bus driver was in training. He was there, with another man sitting on his side. They were both talking loudly and the bus driver himself kept making loud exclamations. As he tried to get the bus back going, the other man helped him out. I, however, could not understand most of their Korean, so my interpretation could be incorrect. Nonetheless, the bus made it up the hill and from there I walked to Dalmasa.
It wasn’t immediately apparent where to go, but I saw an old rusted sign with the name Dalmasa printed on it. The trail leading up was a bit wild looking, and there was some trash scattered along the side. I followed the steps up, eventually reaching a pathway that led to the entrance. I noticed near the entrance were some piles of trash and the temple stood parallel to an indoor golfing range. I’d be surprised to see such things near a holy site, but I’ve found this to be somewhat common in Korea. I’ve been reading Michael Breen’s book The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. In one of the early chapters he recalls a conversation with a Korean tourism expert and friend of his about Deoksugung palace in Seoul:
“What do you see out there?” said a Korean friend, a tourism expert. He was pointing down to the grounds of the historic Doksu Palace. It was pitch black.
“Down there” He pointed again.
“Well, it’s the Doksu Palace, but you can’t really make it out” I said.
“Exactly”, he said.
“What?” I wasn’t quite following this Socratic method.
“Can you imagine any other major capital city in the world which hides its most historic sites like this? All the other places are the same. You can’t see them at night. They should be floodlit for everyone to see.”
“Is it because they don’t know what tourists like to see?” I ventured.
“It’s because we Koreans hate our history” he said. “We don’t want to think about it and we don’t want to show it” ¹
He follows this to say his friend was only partly right. He continues to say that he also believes Koreans do have a negative view of their past and a lack of regard for their history, but primarily because they do not know how to observe it. This is another post in and of itself, but the point is, the observation made above and my experience is consistent. The temples and palaces here are wonderful, but there’s a sense that they aren’t valued as much as they can be. Dalmasa’s a beautiful temple, albeit small, but the way there didn’t suggest anything special. I’d consider this temple a hidden gem, as the interior itself was beautiful but it also offers some amazing panoramas of the Han River, with Yeouido Island’s bronze coated 63 building (5th tallest in Seoul) and Mt. Namsan and Namsan tower in view.
I started by walking through the temple area and checking out the chamber halls. This spot’s a bit off the tourist radar and not a huge draw for either locals or tourists (from my understanding) so it was pretty quiet and I was one of the only people there. The smell of the fresh incense is always calming to me, as well as the plants and flowers spread throughout the meditation halls. There was also a really unique meditation chamber carved into rock, essentially a cave, with turtle statues placed outside. I’d like to comment more on the temple, but I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. All the signs were in Korean, there’s very little to no information on the temple in english on the internet, so my observation and picture’s about all I’ve got for now.
After making it through each temple quarter, I walked along a connecting walking path that offered views of the city and the Han River. It was a beautiful late afternoon/early evening and one of many unusually clear days. The humidity, however, was heavy as you can see in the distance. Continuing onwards I came across an older man walking across a strip of rocks laid out in an ordered fashion, alternating between black and white sharp but rounded stones. He’d first walk on the sharper stones, then go back along the side to repeat the walk. I asked my girlfriend about this and the name is 지압판 (Jiappan), a bed of stones used for acupressure purposes, creating more bloodflow and movement within the body. Walking further, I encountered a group of older Korean men and women playning Go, a popular game for the older generation here, in a wooden pagoda. This was the top of the hill. On the way down, I scrambled through the woods on some worn trails and watched the squirrels leaping through the trees. This was honestly a refreshing sight. I sat down for a few minutes to watch the squirrels doing their thing. Back in Vermont, squirrels are ubiquitous. Living in Seoul, it’s a rare sight, and these were slightly different, as their fur was pitch black. It’s a small thing, but it brought some temporary joy to see them bouncing about.
I then followed the trail back down to the temple entrance and made my way by bus back to the station. The trip down was beautiful, as the sun was setting. Along the streets, back in town, the vendors were still open, loud speakers blaring, selling fruits and snacks. Large bags of popcorn, crackers, dried beans and sugary treats. The crosswalks weren’t working so you had to find your way through the heavy traffic, and as usual, the motorcyclists were whizzing past to and fro. I could feel the energy, from the previous quiet to the frantic and pulsating. All the while I was in Seoul, but after some recharge in the forest I felt ready again for the streets.
¹ Breen, Michael. The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.