Good morning (late afternoon) to you on the last day of holiday before my final school term in Japan. Jennifer, Emmie, Carys and myself have returned from our week-long holiday in South Korea, during which we saw and explored some wonderful landscapes, ancient history, shopping malls, spas and cuisine. The country we experienced was varied and lively; the people we met were expressive, well dressed, and at times eccentric; South Korean food is phenomenally flavoursome and rich, and the subway systems, amongst many other things, are far more advanced than those of Japan. It was in all a refreshing change. DSC03674

Our visited locations of choice were many – perhaps a few too many for the amount of time we had – but looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a lot of what we saw. Seoul was a city which didn’t care for time of day or night: constantly was she flooded with people, her shops open for midnight custom, and restaurants just about managing to restrain the consuming crowds within. Music and voices were everywhere all of the time, and not a person was ever poorly dressed. Ever. English was spoken by anyone if it was called for, and we never stood out, or were noticed, for our being foreign. We were of the same crowd, and that was very nice to feel.
We both started and ended our holiday in this city, and on the last day took to the parts we wanted to see alone. Having experienced the bright lights of South Korea’s two great cities Seoul and Busan by this time, I opted to see some more history, and headed to the northern part of Seoul called Bukchon, a reconstructed village of hanok (traditional houses) in which the rich used to live some 300 years ago. The narrow pedestrian streets were lined with merchant shops and workshops, and at the peak of her hill which overlooked Seoul and her mountainous environs was perched the Asian Art Museum, which had exhibited Tibetan, Chinese and Korean artifacts exploring the mythology of dragons. Top stuff.  Walking back down to the centre of town, I passed tens of specialized art galleries and boutiques, and a bunch of men very patiently waiting for someone.

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The hanok and Asian Art Museum were beautiful.

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In Sokcho on the north-east coast, we took to South Korea’s mountains. No matter where we were in the country, there were very few places from which a perimeter of mountains could not be seen. The range at the Sokcho national park however were of a new kind of beauty. It was a pleasant way indeed to spend my 24th birthday: tracing the curves of a waterfall with our toes; taking a cable car up to the tallest peaks, only to find that they were too dense with cloud for us to see or hear anything other than chanted Buddhist sutras which emitted from an invisible temple; watching wild chipmunks squabble and race over the rocks; after our descent, BBQing our own dinner; to end the evening, Jennifer kindly sought out two, yes two, birthday cakes, and with beer and Carys we celebrated in the hostel room which appeared to be too much for Emmie, who took to her bed.

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To Suwon in the late 1700s, a king had once attempted to move the country’s capital from Seoul, but died before finishing it. The result is a walled city atop of a tall hill, and a palace we passed in the dark guarded by a beautiful lantern imitating a stone pagoda.

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Our next destination was the one of my request: Gyeongju. Gyeongju, old name Silla, had become the capital of ancient Korea after its king had unified the country’s three kingdoms of Baekje to the south west, Silla of the south east, and Goguryeo of the north (stretching to Manchuria). This period was of particular interest to me because it demonstrates the interaction of trade between China, Korea and Japan at the earliest of recorded history, including the three countries various interpretations and individual developments of Buddhism. China had aided Silla’s conquest of the two other Korean kingdoms, and as means to escape from the bloodshed and retain their culture, scholars, artisans and architects from Baekje fled to the capital of Japan – Asuka (capital between 528 and 710). Amongst many other things, from Baekje ancient Japan gained the Buddhist religion, the Chinese written script, architecture, ceramics, and the intention to create its own unified state. It is very easy to say that Japan would not be the same country it is now, were it not for the influence of Korean culture. Three weeks before visiting Korea, I went to the ancient capital of Asuka in Nara prefecture; having now seen the sources of that capital’s culture, I intend to learn much more about the two ancient country’s relationship, and shall write it all up on here sometime soon. Watch this space.
Needless to say, I enjoyed Gyeongju very much. We visited a park full of ancient Imperial tombs, one of which you could enter – and rented bikes so as to see some of the sites of ancient and medieval temples which hosted relics of Korea’s past, and her suffering of Mongolian, Chinese and Japanese invasions throughout her history. At Seoul, we had visited the Leeum Art Museum’s exhibition on artifacts of gold. Many of the early Silla items had been excavated from Gyeongju, and from these tombs.

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Our last port of call before returning to Seoul was Busan, the south-east port city. Having had some trouble finding the blasted (but very nice) hostel we were staying in that night, our day was shortened a little, and unfortunately the city’s temple had to be cut from the day’s itinerary. Instead, we went to the city’s ridiculously great spa, and soaked and sweated in various baths and rooms designed like the interiors of an Egyptian pyramid, a Roman bath, a Turkish bath, floors with vibrations and rooms with sounds and lights. It was badass. I bought some badass shoes, too.

The trip was a welcome break from our routines in Japan, though I am very glad this morning (even later afternoon) that today was also a national holiday. I intend to do nothing but eat. I shall miss the food we’ve been munching this past week, though. Before I sign off, take a look at these beauties.

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To the left, you have traditional street food, rice dumplings and tempura in hot sauce with sesame leaf. Divine. The dishes in the center photograph are some examples of side dishes which come with every meal you order for free. These were brilliant: beansprouts, acorn jelly in sesame sauce, sliced mushrooms, kimchi-flavoured squid tentacles, sweet lotus root, and the leaves of radish in a spicy kimchi sauce. To the right you have raw fish bibimbap, a bowl of rice, vegetables, and fish mixed together with as much spicy sauce as you want. My favourite!
An exhausting but fantastic holiday.

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