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Finding Kindness in Korea

I flew alone to attend my mother’s funeral and afterward I had a few days before my return trip to San Francisco, CA.  One day I saw the Korea tour advertisements in a newspaper and I decided to visit there where I never been even though I was born in Kyushu, Japan. In a nice clear day you can see Korea peninsula from Kyushu. There have been long histories between Japan and Korea in cultural exchange, Japanese occupation, etc.

Sin Trees at Naejangen Temple

I did not have the slightest idea what Korea is like today, the language or how expensive to travel. The Japanese group tour is usually for two or more and fairy expensive for a single tourist.  All I was informed was that the Korean foods are hot and the cities were not clean when my wife visited about 30 years ago.

So, I was not sure how long I can or wanted to travel in Korea but I planned to stay the minimum of 2 nights in Busan area, the southern port of the Korean peninsula.

Day One: Thursday, November 25, 2004
Well, things changed when I walked up to the boat ticket counter a few minutes before the departure time. There was a round trip packaged coupon good for riding on a high speed boat from the Hakata International port in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan to Busan and the all-you-can ride 5 day Korea Railroad pass for 25,000 yen (approx. $250). There were other longer tour packages but I chose the 5 days due to my time constraints.

Autumn Leaves in Daereungwan Tomb

Since the boat ticket was $120 one way anyway, I thought it was a bargain just in case I wanted to travel to other cities. I got to Busan in less than 3 hours on a high speed boat. The boat had the hydrofoil wings which flew through the Japan Sea in 83Km/hr (about 50 miles/hr). The boat ride was fast, quiet, without vibration or the typical boat rolls that make many people sea sick. It was built by Boeing and powered by a Rolls-Royce turbine. Once I got to Busan at about noon, I asked a tour operator to book a hotel for me. She booked a hotel in Haeun-Dae area for $50. Since it is a bit away from the downtown, she said it was best to take a tour bus for $10. Since I did not know the city and I had a plenty of time before the check in time, I followed her advice. It turned out the tour bus took me and several other Japanese and Korean tourists around all the major tourist points, i.e. the Busan Tower, Jagalchi Market, 7.5 Square & Taejongdae Point in Yeongdo-gu Peninsula, Busan Lotte Hotel, etc. and finally got to my hotel through Gwangan Grand Bridge (built in the middle of the bay) in about 3 hours . My hotel was located near the Haeundae beach resort area east of Busan. The hotel was brand new and clean, with a larger than American style bathroom, floor heating, a large TV showing English program, and a high speed internet PC. The Haeundae beach was beautiful. It was clean and no trash in sight. The people, locals and foreigners, male and female, young and old, singles, couples and groups, are walking, jogging, and pushing baby strollers.  At night, people are shooting fire works till late night. It was well lit and safe to be out alone, even for females. There were rows of restaurants in tent along the beach front road where you can snack on many different fresh sea foods picking your own live sea creatures from their water tanks and cooked in front of you. Also, you see bright lights from fishing boats in the Japan Sea far away in the horizon.

Buddha Naejangen Temple

When I stopped by the beach front tourist information center, they wanted to know how to improve the area. The downtown area around the train station were also bustling with a lot of people, restaurants, outdoor food vending yatais, department stores that were open  past 10 o’clock at night.

Day Two: Friday, November 26, 2004

The early next morning, I decided to go to Seoul. Also I asked at the train tourist information center where the major attractions are in Korea. She advised the Jeollabuk-Do area, where the old Korea is and the traditional Korean foods are prepared. Another place was Geongju area, where the old temples and emperors tombs are. So I got on the KTX (Korean Train Express, a.k.a. Korean Bullet Train) to Seoul. It started snowing, the first snow of the year. After visiting the Deoksugung Palace, I walked around the Myeong-dong and Namdaemun Market underground shopping centers, where hundreds of tiny shops are, and bought a few Christmas presents. Then, I hopped on a KTX bullet train to the Jeollabuk-Do area in the evening. I got a hotel near the Jeong-eup station for the night for $25.

Day Three: Saturday, November 27, 2004
About 7am in the morning, I hired a taxi for 4 hours for the negotiated $40 fare to take me around the area because I did not see any tour buses so early morning and the mountains in the Naejangen National Park is a distance away. The taxi driver first took me to a Szanche-Jeongsik style restaurant in the town in the Naejangen National Park area. It was 8 am in the morning but the owner prepared the traditional dishes with mountain vegetables, matsutake mushrooms, river fishes, sea foods, crabs, snails, three different sizzling clay pot foods, one with miso based stew. The last one was the delicious blackened rice ojiya. All the dishes filled the entire table top and more for just $12. It was enough for more than 4 people. I tried my best and I wished I had my wife to share the experience and the tastes with. I realized that the Korean dishes are not all hot. Just a few, like Kimchi and other chili based source dishes, are hot but you can pick and choose. Also I realized that the each dish is prepared totally separate and you mix them as you eat to enjoy the taste and texture of each different food in the mouth.

Hae-undae Beach

After eating to my oblivion, the taxi took me to the Naejangen Temple where the Zen priests hid and meditated and cleansed the 108 evils in people. This was the beautiful season for the colorful autumn leaves. The gingko tree leaves turned yellow. The maple tree leaves turned bright red. And the hundred of ripe persimmons are hanging, ready to drop.  The taxi driver bought and shared with me a bag of rice crackers with white long round chewy shell and roasted pine nuts wrapped inside. It was good but different. It looked like Japanese okosi but with the flavorful roasted pine nut taste.

I took the cable car to the Yeonjabong Peak to look down and around the valley and serrated mountain peaks surrounding the temple.

There was a museum on Route 49 that displayed the traditional Korean living, ecological and environmental information and preservation programs, traditional Korean paper making, etc. Had I not negotiated the taxi fare, it would have been more than $80, the taxi driver showed me the meter later.

While I was waiting for a KTX train to go to Deongju, I met Mr. Lee, an 81 year old rice and vegetable farmer who was trained in Japan by the Japanese military during the war and by the American military during the Korean War. He spoke a little Japanese and English so we could communicate fairy well. For his age he was remarkably sharp, alert and strong even with having a broken leg by a traffic accident two years ago. We traveled together for a while by KTX. He was traveling to have the Korean letter translated to English so he, as the area Christian leader, can send the message to the US government his church’s view on the Iraq issues. He was planning to visit his son in New York, and Washington area next year. He promised to call me in San Francisco, then.
We both thought it was a fate to meet each other.

After getting off the KTX train and saying good-bye to him, I went to Deongju in the late afternoon. As soon as I got to Deongju station, I asked about the tour of the area.

However, the tour bus takes all day visitng many temples and tombs but it does not go to the most famous Seoguram Granite Budda Temple.

Day Four: Sunday, November 28, 2004
Well, with my typical approach, I took a 6:30 am train to the next train station, Bulguksa, against the recommendations from the train ticketing officer that the temple will not be open. It was still early and dark. I found a taxi with the driver still sleeping in the car. I negotiated the $10 fare to drive up the winding mountain road to the Seoguram Budda Temple. When I got to the temple, I was surprised to see hundreds of Koreans already waiting in the cold morning air to see the sun rise over the mountain peaks far away. It was moving to see the bright red sun started peak through with so many Koreans and with the thought of the Buddhist priests saw the same sun rise for hundreds or thousands of years.

Seoguram Temple

After seeing the Seoguram Budda sculptured in the granite rock, I took the 2 mile downhill walking path toward the Bulguksa Temple. About the half way down, I saw people carrying many plastic bottles to the water fountains at the end of a narrow mountain path. I asked one family and was told they came to fill up the bottles with the clean underground mineral water. Of course, I replaced the water in my PET bottle with cold, refreshing and soft tasting water. It was an interesting family. The husband spoke a little English and his wife was studying Japanese. Their son also spoke a little English. The family offered me a ride back to the Geongju city but I had to decline because I wanted to visit Bulguksa Temple. After that I took a bus to visit the Geongju National Museum and Daereunguwon Tomb Park that had many single or double mounds (emperor and his wife  were buried together). Since I had to fly back to San Francisco from Fukuoka soon, I headed back to Busan in the afternoon.

After getting my hotel in Busan for $30 and the reserving my morning boat seat, I wanted to visit the busy Nampo-dong shopping area but also I wanted to taste what the local folks eat. I stopped by a tiny restaurant where the owner hand made her own udon noodles. It was a delicious noodle dish with chocolate colored source mixed with sautéed onions, potatoes and tender meat bits for only $2.50. In the busy Nampo-dong shopping area, there was a long line with young people waiting in front of a grilled chicken stand. It looked like Japanese yakitori with Korean mochi, green onion, corn and hot and sweet source over for only $1.50. It was hot, delicious and filling. I walked back to my hotel through maze of thousands of tiny outdoor shops snaked around streets selling anything from kimchis, odens, butter fried tempuras, clothes, jewelries, accessories, hand bags, shoes, and everything else. 

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