Monday, August 24, 2009


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tokebi Storm

Today, I went to see 'Tokebi Storm', a Korean show blending traditonal music with contemporary themes and rhythms.

The group was formed in 1995 by South Korean playwright, Ye In-dong. Having achieved much success in South Korea, the group then went on to have lots of international acclaim, including winning the Herald Angel Award For Music, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2000.

In Korean 'tokebi' means 'goblin', mischievous creatures with supernatural powers that have human characteristics, which are frightening but not evil. They are untamed spirits that enjoy eating, drinking and singing and are quite different to the concept of a monster or ghost that we have in Western culture. They are very much like humans in terms of emotions and appearance and they not only reward the good, but punish the wicked.

Just before the show begins, a projection screen is lowered in front of the audience. Instructions come up and then everyone has the chance to practice clapping and stamping in time to the beat. This livens everyone up and gets them in the mood for what's about to come. Then the lights dim, it becomes pitch black and fluorescent lights dart back and forth around the theatre to create a ghostly, otherworldly feel.

The show begins with four members of a Korean punk band practicing their latest song. Through a series of mishaps they then end up trapped in the netherworld of the tokebi, unable to escape. Wandering about lost, they finally come face to face with the tokebies and a series of comedy chases and mishaps ensue.

In order to return back to the real world they have to face off against the four tokebies in a music duel, playing a variety of different instruments such as drums, to ordinary household objects like plastic bottles which are banged on the floor. Only if the humans win will they be able to return to the real world.

There's plenty of audience participation along the way which all adds to the sense of fun and atmosphere, quite similar to what you would experience in a pantomime back in dear old Britain at Christmas time.

There isn't much speaking as the story is told through the music and actions of the characters, so a knowledge of Korean isn't nescessary to enjoy it. It moves along at a terrific pace and it kept the audience sitting alongside me enthralled for the whole performance, which seemed to just fly by.

Much of the music takes its inspiration from Pungmul, a traditonal style of Korean music used to expel evil spirits from villages and purify drinking wells. The percussion element of this has been blended with more modern instruments, making it an entirely unique experience.

I have to admit I was rather pleasantly surprised with the show. Its infectious beats even had someone as rhythmically challenged as me tapping my feet and clapping my hands by the end. Above all else it's the sense of fun the show has that makes it so enjoyable for old and young alike. The world of the tokebi is definitely a place I wouldn't mind visiting again.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Guksadang Shrine

On Saturday, I decided to take a hike a up Mt. Inwangsan, on the northern side of Seoul. Once the home to wild tigers which died out just over a century ago, it is now famous for being home to Guksadang, Seoul's most important shamanist shrine.

Getting off at Dongnimmun station, just north of Gyeonbukgung Palace, I began my walk along the path upwards. Unfortunately not to the tranquil tones of the birds singing in the summer sun as I'd been hoping, but to the morose drone of bulldozers tearing up the landscape.

A little way up I came to a large gate and just beyond this were some Buddhist temples set amongst some houses. Fortunately I couldn't hear the sound of the construction work going on down below, which allowed me to have a little walk around whilst admiring the temples in peace.

On all of the temples there were many beautiful designs and paintings, the most impressive being on the gates of the largest temple, Bongwonsa, depicting the guardian kings of heaven who protect Buddhists from evil and harm. There is a huge bronze bell at the entrance and a side shrine for the shamanist deities Sanshin(the mountain god), Chilsung(the seven stars of the Big Dipper) and Doksung(the river god).

Just behind Bongwonsa lies the Guksadang Shrine. Quite small and simple in its structure, it has none of the ostentatious decor or designs that I've seen at other temples on my travels so far throughout Asia.

It was originally built at the request of King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty on top of Mount Namsan, at the southern end of Seoul. Destroyed during the Japanese occupation in 1925, it was then secretly rebuilt on Inwangsan.

Korean shamans worship things in the natural world such as trees, mountains, rocks and streams, as it is believed that thousands of spirits and demons dwell within them.

A religion that is thousands of years old, it eventually gave way to more sophisticated ones such as Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Today it is not very widespread and there are believed to be no more than 100,000 people currently practising it in South Korea.

Laid on an alter outside was food including rice cakes and a pigs head, as shamanists believe that dead still require food and drink.

I also got to see a gut ceremony, which you may remember I saw for the first time when I went to the Dano Festival in Gangnuem a few weeks ago. This time I didn't take any photos, in respect of the wishes of the people I spoke to at the shrine. The last thing I wanted to do was disturb the ritual.

Gut ceremonies involve contacting departed spirits, who are attracted by the offerings of food and drink. They are often used to help cleanse a spirit of its impurities allowing it to enter the world of the dead. They are also used to wish for the wellbeing of a village or hamlet, for good fortune and prosperity, to make contact with a deceased relative or to cure an illness.

To accompanying drums, the female shaman priest, known as a mudang, gradually worked her way up to a frenzied state and went into a trance that allowed her to contact the spirits and it is even possible for her to become possessed by them. It was incredibly interesting to watch, even more so than at the Dano Festival, due to the more intimate nature of the ceremony.

Seoul Fortress Wall

Further up I came across two huge black rocks, which through thousands of years of weathering and erosion looked like two enormous lumps of slightly melted Swiss cheese and had a somewhat eerie feeling to them. It is here that people come to pray for a son, as there has always been much importance placed on having a boy in Korean culture as the inheritor of the family line, especially during the Joseon period of Korean history. Whilst here I saw people lighting candles and placing them in glass cabinets and various other places around the rocks.

Going upwards I noticed more candles and incense sticks randomly dotted over the rocky landscape. Following the path, I eventually came to an area with a small shrine and a small picture of the Buddha carved into the rock. The man here told me that it was over 300 hundred years.

Here it was peaceful. A complete contrast to the construction going on down below.

After waiting here a short time to gather myself and cool down, a feet easier said than done in the humidity South Korea is currently experiencing, I then made my way back downwards.

Taking this route I saw part of the recently renovated Seoul Fortress Wall. Twisting across the landscape like a huge snake, it was originally built in 1396 and at one point in time it was 18.1km long, but now just small parts of it remain dotted around various parts of the city.

I stopped quickly to take some more photos and then returned to the Buddhist temples that I saw at the beginning of my climb for some quick refreshment, before finally returning home.

You can see all the photos here.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Friday, August 07, 2009

Jagalchi Fish Market

Jagalchi Fish Market is the largest in South Korea and is famous for its fresh fish, the noisy deal making that goes on in the early hours between retailers and the peculiar local accent of the Jagalchi women who work there.

After the Korean War ended in the 1950s, women came to play an important role in the market and as a result they have the rather quaint nickname of 'Jagalchi ajimae'(Jagalchi aunts).

It's worth getting there early in the morning to watch the unloading of the fresh fish from the boats and to see the retailers noisily haggling over the prices. You can even get to try some in one of the many restaurants that are located nearby, if you want to.

After spending most of the morning taking in the sights and the smells of the market as well as having a very nice fish breakfast, I went to Gwangali beach for the next day of the Busan Sea Festival.

The unfortunate thing about travelling is that you are always at the mercy of the weather. By about mid afternoon, before the festival had even started it began to rain and it just looked as if it was going to get worse. Not one wanting to wait around around in my hotel room, trying to find things to do whilst waiting for the rain to stop, I decided to cut my losses and return back to Seoul that day.

Whilst walking along the seafront on I saw a Korean man with a big grin on his face dressed in shorts and carrying a back pack, urinating in front of a restaurant. Of course a sight you could see in any country, but what made the situation slightly surreal was the fact that he was doing it in front of a group of nuns who were sitting down for their afternoon meal.

Obviously the last thing they would have been expecting on their afternoon outing to the seaside. Fortunately they saw the funny side and were laughing at the situation.

This managed to put a smile on my face and walking on, I was unable to unable to hold back a little chuckle to myself, which was unfortunately like a red rag to a bull.

'Hello my friend. Nice to meet you', the man said to me after doing himself up.

Slightly worried I may have attracted a cheeky little chappy I didn't really want to befriend, I began to walk a a bit more briskly and then darted into a nearby convenience store, whereupon I managed to lose him.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time I've had the pleasure of someone exposing themselves to me whilst travelling abroad. One time in Japan, when I was in my local watering hole, the Avion Bar, a man in his mid-twenties, the worse for wear after having far too much sake and beer, decided to reveal himself to me. He then continued to ask me my opinion about what I thought.

I naturally declined to comment in the vain hope he would just just leave me alone.

Fortunately he did eventually manage to put everything away.

Unfortunately, he then decided to get a bit carried away and coming from behind, decided to try and undo my trousers. Obviously in his drunken stupor he had thought to himself, 'I've shown you mine, now you must show me yours.'

Luckily for my humility and everyone else watching in the bar, he was unsuccessful in his attempts, as after a small struggle, I eventually managed to fend him off.

The night then turned into a series of challenges set by him against me and my friends, which included arm wrestling, Pop-Up Pirate, drinking games, electronic darts and a game of Jenga, which turned into a tactical behemoth of a match and went on until the early hours.

Experiences that definitely fall on the side of what one would call, how can I put it?


You can see all the photos here.

Here's a short film of the Jagalchi Fish Market.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Beomeosa Temple

The next day, I went to the Beomeosa temple, one of Korea's oldest Buddhist temples, which lies at the foot of Mount Geumjeongsan, to the North of Busan. The temple was originally founded in 678 AD by the priest Uisang-daesa.

Legend says that one day golden fish came down from Nirvana to play in a well at the top of the mountain, which caused the water to glimmer like gold. Hence the name of Mount Geumjeongsan, which means 'gold well' and the name of Beomeosa Temple, which means 'where the fish from Nirvana play'.

The climb to the temple is about 3km along a winding road, so in the heat and humidity that South Korea is currently experiencing, I wisely decided to take a taxi.

Surrounded by coniferous trees, it is set amid some extremely beautiful scenery and there is definite feeling of peace and tranquility here, despite the crowds leading up to the temple.

The entrance gate to Beomeosa Temple is supported by stone, which is unlike other temples where the entrance gates are usually wooden. Walking up steps towards the main hall you pass through a number of gates, most impressive of all which is the Gate of the Four Heavenly Kings. Guarding the entrance to heaven, the huge carvings here are beautiful to look at and are common to many temples in Korean culture.

Further up you come to main temple complex itself. I love visiting temples as I always feel a sense of peace and serenity when I am in one. It's partly a combination of the architecture, the smell of burning incense and general ambience that help to create an atmosphere quite unlike any other in Western culture.

At one point the temple had over 360 rooms and 1000 monks in residence. During the Japanese invasions of the late 16th century the temple was destroyed and now only a stone pagoda and lantern date back prior to these events.

Deserted for ten years after it was destroyed, reconstruction was finally completed in 1713 and the temple has remained intact to the present day. Although now smaller, it is still an impressive site with its stone pagodas, ornate carvings and huge bell.

Hoguk Buddhism is also practiced here, a form of Buddhism which is based on the belief that Buddhism protects and defends one's country. It's also possible to stay here as part of the temple stay programme, where you have the chance learn about Buddhism and even practice a traditional Korean martial art known as 'pulmudo'.

Heavenly Kings

After admiring the beauty of the temple, I went back down and luckily some Korean people very kindly let me join them in a taxi back to the subway station and then it was off to Haeundae beach, for the 10th Annual Busan Sea Festival.

The beach was packed with people who had come to watch various Korean artists perform and a good night was had by all, despite the weather's best attempts to rain.

I also had the pleasure of accidently staying at a hotel in the red-light district that I had checked into earlier that day, just next to Busan Station. Although I didn't actually realise this until it was night-time and I was walking back.

There is a large foreign population living in this part of Busan and at around 3.00 am in the morning, I was woken up by what basically almost amounted to a full scale riot, between around ten big and burly Eastern European men and a group of Koreans. I had an ideal spectators viewpoint from my hotel room, to watch the carnage of bottles being broken and chairs being thrown.

Fortunately, after not actually witnessing any blood or unnecessary mutilations, the police arrived to break up the fracas, finally allowing me to get back to sleep.

The very next morning I decided to check out and find somewhere that was perhaps a little quieter, as I thought this would probably be for the best.

You can see all the photos here.

Here's a short film I made of the Beomeosa Temple.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Min-ju and Yang-suk

On Saturday afternoon, I set off on my holiday to Busan. Despite a couple of minor hiccups that involved me missing my train, I finally arived at Busan Station in the late afternoon and I checked into my hotel at around 5.00pm.

Busan is South Korea's second largest city and is also the world's 3rd busiest container port and has a certain ambience that making it different to other Korean cities. Situated in the south eastern part of South Korea, it has a population of just over 4 million and it's only 2.5 hours from Seoul by the high speed KTX train, making it a really convenient place to travel to.

Busan is also famous for its seafood and the Jagalchi Fish Market is one of the top tourist destinations here, as well as the Beomeosa Temple. The beaches here are also very popular and during the height of summer it is almost impossible to move on them with vast the crowds of people who flock to them.

It is also one of the few areas to remain under control of South Korea during the Korean War, when the American troops established a perimeter around the city, known as the Busan Perimeter, during the summer and autumn of 1950.

Once I was unpacked I went to the area around the Busan National University, which has some of the best nightlife in the city and is full of bright neon, bars and restaurants. Here I met my friends Min-ju and Yang-suk, who I originally met in Kyoto whilst travelling in Japan, nearly a year and a half ago.

After meeting each other at the subway station we went out for a Korean meal of spicy chicken, with rice and noodles, that was brought in on a hot plate. It was delicious and the more Korean food I try the more I love it.

They told me that they had both been following my exploits since we had last seen each other and complimented me on my travels around Korea.

'You are almost Korean', Yang-suk jokingly told me.

'If you can pick a grain of rice with chopsticks you are definitely Korean.'

Now at the best of times I'm not the most skillful person in the world with chopsticks, although I am competent enough to use them without completely embarrassing myself at the meal table.

The problem with in accepting the challenge, is that chopsticks in Korea aren't wooden like those in other Asian countries that I've been to, but are made of metal and are very long and thin. Therefore they can be a little more difficult to use than what I'm used to.

One of the reasons for this may be that during the Joseon era, the Kings, ever worried about security believed that by using silver bowls, dishes and utensils it would tarnish if any poisons were present. This tradition was then passed down to commoners. Another reason may be that metal is just easier to clean and store. It is also harder to break and easier to disinfect.

Fortunately I managed to pass the challenge with flying colours.

'You are definitely Korean', Yang-suk said with a smile on her face.

Afterwards we went to a bar and it was great catching up on old times, what we had all been up to and where we were now in our lives. Yang-suk was doing very well working for Samsung designing computer software and Min-ju was in the process of completing her Masters in Computer Software Design. I told them both how impressed I was with them and what they had achieved.

The topic of conversation got onto our experiences in Japan and joys of meeting new people when travelling. I love travelling and the greatest experiences are always those that are shared with others. Going to new places and seeing new things is always wonderful but it is often the shared experiences that are most memorable and important, as the people you were with know exactly how you were feeling at the same time as they felt it too.

Yang-suk and Minju talked about the good times that they'd had and how much they also missed the people that they had met whilst travelling around Japan and it got me thinking about everything that I've been doing for the past five years.

All of the wonderful experiences and people that I've met whilst teaching in England, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

Many aspects of travel itself are transient in nature. You meet new people and you have wonderful times, but unfortunately everyone has to move on at some point. Sometimes the experience of meeting people is all but fleeting in a hostel or guesthouse for a couple of nights maybe, or sometimes longer if you're working with people or living somewhere.

Travel has broadened my horizons in so many ways, given me insights into foreign cultures and I've made so many friends along the way it's been unbelievable. Of course, as I mentioned before nothing lasts forever and I always feel a slight tinge of sadness when leaving a country, knowing that I might not see the friends and people I've met again.

The past five years has been amazing. I wouldn't change it for everything. Be it Thailand, Japan or South Korea, it's been the people who I've met who have made it all such a joy.

Shared experiences. Often fleeting moments in time. All part of the rich tapestry that is life and travel.

You can see all of the photos here.