Beomeosa (Temple of the Nirvana Fish) is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Built on the slopes of Geumjeongsan in 678 as one of the ten major temples of the Avatamsaka School of Buddhism, it is one of the country’s most known urban temples.
Legend has the mountain where Beomeosa is found is said to have huge rock at the summit where there is a golden well which never, ever dries up. The water of this well is believed to have very special magical properties as one day a golden fish came from heaven and has lived there ever since. Aiden and I drank from a spring ostensibly coming from this well and the only magical powers were that it slacked our thirst on a sweltering day.
Beomeosa Temple is considered one of the three major temples in southeast Korea, along with Haeinsa Temple and Tongdosa Temple. Its strong Seon Buddhist spirit has earned it the title “Great Headquarters Temple of Seon Buddhism.”
Getting to Beomeosa is quite easy. So easy, in fact, that we decided to make it harder. As in, simply look for the subway stop that reads, “Beomeosa” and basically ignore all the other directions like “take bus 90 from the subway exit”.
I know when you do the little math conversion that 3km is basically…oh…uh…carry the one…about 1.8 miles and think, “no prob”. But it’s also important to note that Beomeosa is on a mountain slope. Which means that if you start below it, you’ll have to walk uphill. Also, note your stupid fitness tracker doesn’t take this into account and is basically mocking you that you only burned a mere 30 calories or something lame.
So, the irony is that you’re basically swearing and thinking terrible thoughts slogging up a mountain hike as you come to a temple of religious thought solely based to banish those thoughts.
Beomeosa Cheonwangmun – two of the Four Kings
The two additional Kings of Beomeosa Cheonwangmun
Underside of Beomeosa Cheonwangmun
Next is Beomeosa Daeungjeon, the main temple hall, built in 1614 after the temple was burned down during the Japanese invasions. Major remodellings of this building were undertaken in 1713, 1814 and 1871.
In the inner part of the temple grounds, there are several buildings used for ceremonies. At the time were there, most of them had chanting rituals happening, which was a very interesting experience as all doors were opened and you could peer inside to see the monks leading the chants.
While were there, an elderly man stopped us and asked if we wanted to hear about any of the history of the temple. He spoke very good English and patiently explained the significance of many of the buildings, both historically and their spiritual meaning to Buddhism.
When we complimented on his English, he told us about being a veteran of the Korean War and spoke thankfully for the sacrifice of the American people to help South Koreans in their time of need. It is a repeated theme we’ve seen and heard of from these older Korean generations. As much as we sometimes forget our own history, it is very present in the minds of millions of South Koreans who continue to pay respects and remembrance. We thought it was a fitting end to our visit.
Not a lot to tell about our last morning in Seoul. Bailey and I got up early to get some coffees for the team and scouted out some possible breakfast places since our choices have been somewhat limited previously. We found a little bento-box style place offering tasty meat choices over rice.
Next, after a quick sweep of the apartment for any straggling power cords or converters we were off to the train, getting to Seoul Station without problem on the subway. The always seems to be the law of the land that as soon as you become marginally proficient in a city’s subway, you leave.
We were at the station plenty early, so we had our tickets moved up to an earlier train. None of the kids had been on a train before and none of the group had been on a bullet train. This new high-speed express train (KTX) has been designed to reach speeds of 305 km per hour, making the travel time from Seoul to Busan less than three hours.
The scenery from the train was nice and really displayed what I hadn’t fully realized before: South Korea is fairly mountainous. Most of the cities along the way had huge high-rises, as it seemed flat land was in high demand.
The taxi ride drove us past a large portion of the port area (the 10th busiest port in the world). Just like in Seoul, the street naming and addressing was a complete mystery to us and without a skilled taxi driver getting us there, we would have been completely at a loss on how to find our Airbnb.
After settling in, we headed out for a quick lunch and found a spot that seemed to be within our tolerances for explaining what we wanted (meaning it had menus with pictures). Bellies full, we decided to head out to one of Busan’s main attractions, the beach. We were luckily two subway stops from Haeundae Beach.
Sand sculpture artists had already been there, greeting us with some very nice sculptures to start our visit.
Sand art on Haeundae Beach
Haeundae Beach sand art
Nobody was too old to still have fun burying their brother in the sand
Insa-dong is a neighborhood of the Jongno-gu district of the South Korean city of Seoul. The main street is Insadong-gil with many narrow, winding alleys leading to other shops, restaurants and tea houses.
During the Japanese occupation, the wealthy Korean residents were forced to move and sell their belongings, at which point the site became an area of trading in antiques. After the end of the Korean War, the area became a focus of South Korea’s artistic and cafe life. It was a popular destination for foreign visitors to South Korea during the 1960s, who called the area “Mary’s Alley”. It gained in popularity with international tourists during the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Insadong-gil contains a mixture of historical and modern atmosphere with the majority of the traditional buildings originally belonged to merchants and bureaucrats. Some larger residences, built for retired government officials during the Joseon period, can also be seen. Most of these older buildings are now used as restaurants or shops. Among the historically significant buildings located in the area are Unhyeongung mansion, Jogyesa – one of the most significant Korean Buddhist temples, and one of Korea’s oldest Presbyterian churches.
Art installations over a shop courtyard
Colorful balloons in a nearby mall
Flowered display in Insadong
The area is well known for sightseeing and contains 40 percent of the nation’s antique shops and art galleries as well as 90 percent of the traditional stationery shops. Particularly noteworthy is Tongmungwan, the oldest bookstore in Seoul, and Kyung-in Art Gallery, the oldest tea house. There are daily calligraphy demonstrations and pansori dancing performances.
Insadong-gil, itself, didn’t hold many restaurants we found to be desirable to have lunch. Ducking into an alley and promptly getting a little lost, we were prompted to sit down and order by husband and wife proprietors. It was a slow, rainy day and they seemed grateful for the business, despite a huge language barrier. We trusted our host that she would provide something tasty and memorable, mostly using International Traveller Hand Signals for “I’m hungry and also thirsty and is this spicy? Ok, no matter, I’m really hungry and have Alka Selzer.”
What we ordered was told to eat was a spicy squid dish to be served over white rice and MIXED THOROUGHLY. I emphasize this because apparently I didn’t do this to our host’s desired consistency and, barely concealing her tired disdain, grabbed my bowl from me and mixed it. And then when I thought it couldn’t be mixed any more, she continued to mix it. I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be cement or something you ate, so I sat dumbly like an inept child waiting for her to finish.
Despite my exaggeration for the sake of humor, it was one of those personal experiences that make travel such a special experience. We had a good meal as a family, had some fun with it (the same thing happened to my SIL as well) and put the finishing touches on a fun day in Seoul.
We started off the second day in Seoul with what I think most first time travelers do: Realizing that we made a mistake in using cash-only metro cards for the subway and that we didn’t put enough money on them to get through the day. This would be a recurring theme.
The next part of the adventure was figuring out what our breakfast options were. A few of us on the trip were doggedly determined to “go native” and Eat As The Koreans Eat, which we took to mean eating subway sushi (gimbop). Now, I know many will think subway sushi is the American equivalent of a gas station burrito and I’ll quell your argument right there. This was simply a street vendor selling her food near the entrance of the subway. And while Korea didn’t have any visible public health inspector grade cards displayed, generally it looked clean. And by “clean” I mean we were blinded by hunger and didn’t care.
Oh, that’s so very spicy
Throwing caution to the wind
Others in our group were steadfast in clinging to the American lifestyle and opted for good ol’ McDonalds. Being big parental softies, we relented just this one time.
Gyeongbokgung (경복궁), also known as Gyeongbokgung Palace or Gyeongbok Palace, was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. Built in 1395, it is located in northern Seoul, South Korea. The largest of the Five
Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty, Gyeongbokgung served as the home of Kings of the Joseon dynasty, the Kings’ households, as well as the government of Joseon.
Gyeongbokgung continued to serve as the main palace of the Joseon dynasty until the premises were destroyed by fire during the Imjin War and abandoned for two centuries. However, in the 19th century, all of the palace’s 7,700 rooms were later restored under the leadership of Prince Regent Heungseon during the reign of King Gojong. Some 500 buildings were restored on a site of over 40 hectares. The architectural principles of ancient Korea were incorporated into the tradition and appearance of the Joseon royal court.
In the early 20th century, much of the palace was systematically destroyed by Imperial Japan. Since then, the walled palace complex is gradually being reconstructed to its original form. Today, the palace is arguably regarded as being the most beautiful and grandest of all five palaces. It also houses the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum within the premises of the complex.
Gwanghwamun (The Main and South Gate)
Re-enactment of the guard changing ceremony
Guards at Gwanghwamun
As in the States, museums and areas of historical significance are magnets for school tours; this day wasn’t any different. Loads of elementary-aged kids were running around doing anything except actually taking a tour (which is to be expected, they had probably already been here a dozen times with their parents). Perhaps the cutest thing watching the guard changing ceremony was getting fly-bys of kids wanting to practice their English or illicit a response.
From the corner of my eye, one of the braver (or dared) souls would walk up behind our group and say “Hello!” or “Hi!”, giggle and fall back to the relative safety of their squad and chat excitedly about coming “this close!” to the foreigners. We decided to change the game and answered back, “Hello!” with a wave. More laughter and louder chittering about getting a bigger reaction.
Finally, the bravest among them held up a camera, “Picture?” Uh, yeah, of course! Why did it take so long for my many fans to ask? The dam had broken and a succession of others seeing it was ok to ask the White Shrek for a picture followed suit. I even photobombed other’s group photos, making them erupt in nervous laughter.
Heungnyemun (The Second Inner Gate)
Gangnyeongjeon (강녕전), also called Gangnyeongjeon Hall, is a building used as the king’s main residing quarters. First constructed in 1395, the fourth year of King Taejo, the building contains the king’s bed chamber. Destroyed during the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592, the building was rebuilt when Gyeongbokgung was reconstructed in 1867, but it was again burned down by a major fire in November 1876 and had to be restored in 1888 following the orders of King Gojong.
However, when Huijeongdang of Changdeokgung Palace was burned down by a fire in 1917, the Japanese government dismembered the building and used its construction materials to restore Huijeongdang in 1920. Current Gangnyeongjeon was built in 1994, meticulously restoring the building to its original specifications and design.
Gangnyeongjeon consists of corridors and fourteen rectangular chambers, each seven chambers located to the left and right side of the building in a layout out like a checkerboard. The king used the central chamber while the court attendants occupied the remaining side chambers to protect, assist, and to receive orders. The building rests on top of a tall stone foundation, and a stone deck or veranda is located in front of the building.
The noted feature of the building is an absence of a top white roof ridge called yongmaru (용마루) in Korean. Many theories exist to explain the absence, of which a prominent one states that, since the king was symbolized as the dragon during the Joseon dynasty, the yongmaru, which contains the letter dragon or yong (龍), cannot rest on top of the king when he is asleep.
Geunjeongjeon (근정전), also known as Geunjeongjeon Hall, is the throne hall where the king formally granted audiences to his officials, gave declarations of national importance, and greeted foreign envoys and ambassadors during the Joseon dynasty. The building was designated as Korea’s National Treasure No. 223 on January 8, 1985.
Geunjeongjeon was originally constructed in 1395 during the reign of King Taejo, but was burned down in 1592 when the Japanese invaded Korea. The present building was built in 1867 when Gyeongbokgung was being reconstructed. The name Geunjeongjeon, created by the minister Jeong Do-jeon, means “diligence helps governance”.
Constructed mainly of wood, Geunjeongjeon sits on the center of a large rectangular courtyard, on top of a two-tiered stone platform. This two-tiered platform is lined with detailed balustrades and is decorated with numerous sculptures depicting imaginary and real animals, such as dragons and phoenixes. The stone-paved courtyard is lined with two rows of rank stones, called pumgyeseoks (품계석), indicating where the court officials are to stand according to their ranks. The whole courtyard is fully enclosed by wooden cloisters.
Geunjeongmun (근정문), aligned and located directly to the south of Geunjeongjeon, is the main gate to the courtyard and to Geunjeongjeon. The gate is divided into three separate aisles, and only the king was allowed to walk through the center.
Gyeonghoeru (경회루), also known as Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, is a hall used to hold important and special state banquets during the Joseon Dynasty. It is registered as Korea’s National Treasure No. 224 on January 8, 1985.
The first Gyeonghoeru was constructed in 1412, the 12th year of the reign of King Taejong, but was burned down during the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592. The present building was constructed in 1867 (the 4th year of the reign of King Gojong) on an island of an artificial, rectangular lake that is 128 m wide and 113 m across.
Constructed mainly of wood and stone, Gyeonghoeru has a form where the wooden structure of the building sits on top of 48 massive stone pillars, with wooden stairs connecting the second floor to the first floor. The outer perimeters of Gyeonghoeru are supported by square pillars while the inner columns are cylindrical; they were placed thus to represent the idea of Yin & Yang. When Gyeonghoeru was originally built in 1412, these stone pillars were decorated with sculptures depicting dragons rising to the sky, but these details were not reproduced when the building was rebuilt in the 19th century. Three stone bridges connect the building to the palace grounds, and corners of the balustrades around the island are decorated with sculptures depicting twelve Zodiac animals.
You may think Samsung or Hyundai are some of South Korea’s biggest exports. But, you’re wrong: It’s barbecue or “Gogi-gui” (meat roast).
The term Korean barbecue is the “Korean” method of roasting meat, typically beef, pork, and such dishes are often prepared at the diner table on gas or charcoal grills, built into the table itself. Some Korean restaurants that do not have built-in grills provide customers with portable stoves for diners to use at their tables.
The most representative form of gogigui is Bulgogi, usually made from thinly sliced marinated beef sirloin or tenderloin. Another popular form is Galbi, made from marinated beef short ribs. However, gogigui also includes many other kinds of marinated and unmarinated meat dishes and can be divided into several categories. Korean barbecue is popular among Koreans but has also gained popularity worldwide.
Bulgogi is the most popular variety of Korean barbecue. Before cooking, the meat is marinated with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and pepper. It is traditionally cooked using gridirons or perforated dome griddles that sit on braziers, but pan cooking has become common as well (don’t be coaxed into a pan-cooked bulgogi dish though. It is a mere shell of the glory that is actual roasted meat).
Galbi is made with beef short ribs, marinated in a sauce that may contain soy sauce, water, garlic, sugar, and sliced onions. It is believed to taste best when grilled with charcoal or soot (숯, burned wood chips).
Jumulleok is short steak marinated with sesame oil, salt, and pepper. It is almost similar to unmarinated gogigui and one thing that distinguishes it from other kinds is its steak-like juicy texture. Spicy pork daeji bulgogi is also a popular gogigui dish. It is different from beef bulgogi in that the marinade is not soy sauce-based, but instead, is marinated in sauces based on gochujang and/or gochu garu (Korean chili powder).
Gogigui comes with various Banchan (side dishes). A green onion salad called pajeori and a fresh vegetable dish including lettuce, cucumbers, and peppers invariably accompany the meat dishes at restaurants. A popular way of eating Korean barbecue is to wrap the meat with lettuce and add condiments such as – pajoeri (spicy scallion salad) and Ssamjang (a spicy paste made of Doenjang mixed with Gochujang).
By the time we hit the restaurant, we were all tired, hungry and dehydrated. The curious thing about Korean restaurants is, (seemingly) universally, small beverage glasses. Tumblers, actually. Maybe 3-oz. After the third water pitcher refill, our harried server took an extended break sight unseen, leaving us to surreptitiously pilfer water from the server’s station.
Further adding to our server’s consternation is how we treated the greens used for wrapping the meat. If you’ve been to a P.F. Chang’s, one of their best-selling dishes is their chicken lettuce wraps. Wrapping a protein in a leafy green is a common theme in Asian cuisine and extends to Korean barbecue as well. The roasted meat is picked off the grill by each person, placed in a lettuce leaf (or kale or some other leafy green) and topped with whatever else seems tasty (e.g. garlic, onion, chili paste) and eaten. The wrapping lettuce came out in individual bowls with raw onion and a light dressing of vinegar, sesame oil and soy sauce (just like a salad!). In our relative naivety, we treated it like a pre-meal salad and munched down post haste. When our server saw our bowls empty before she had even brought out the meats, she brought out a large communal bowl of the lettuce (salad!) and pantomimed how to use it. We nodded in mock understanding and wolfed down that bowl of greens, too, plying her for another bowl to actually use the lettuce as intended.
In our (very limited) experience, Korean barbecue joints tend to specialize in certain meats (often just beef and pork) and limit the variety of dishes as such. This is different from some of the grills I’ve been to in LA’s K-Town having the ability to get a range of chicken and seafood along with your typical beef and pork choices. In our haste to stave off The Hangry, we chose a restaurant with scant few options for non-red meaters. The last resort was a couple of seafood pancakes – squid and crab meat in a fried egg and flour batter. They weren’t bad, but very oily and made for several longing looks at our table with obvious wishes that it was some chicken on that grill.
The Bukhansan National Park (Korean: 북한산국립공원, 北漢山國立公園) in Seoul and Gyeonggi covers an area of nearly 80 km (31 sq mi) and was established in 1983. Bukhansan means “mountains north of the Han River.” Bukhansan’s proximity to Seoul, its natural setting and its historical significance combine to make it the park with the most visitors per square foot, according to the Guinness World Records. That means it can get extremely crowded, especially on weekends.
The park is home to towering granite peaks, forest-laden valleys, and miles of hiking trails in between, as well as about 100 historic Buddhist temples and monks’ cells. The three main peaks are Baekundae, 836.5 m (2,744 ft), Insubong, 810.5 m (2,659 ft) and Mangnyeongdae, 799.5 m (2,623 ft). Among the granite peaks, the best known is Insubong Peak’s Giam rocks – over 200m above sea level, and there are about 100 mountain paths leading to the rock. When you stand on Baegundae and look down, sometimes you can see as far as Seoul City and the Hangang River. Due to its popularity with hikers and Seoul residents, some trails are closed on a rotation basis to protect the local environment.
The historical must-see, though, is Bukhansanseong Fortress, one of the representative mountain fortresses of the Joseon Era, together with its 9.5 km (5.9 mi) long defensive wall. The fortress was built in 1711 and served as a place of refuge for kings in times of emergency (rebuilt on the foundations of the original, which dates back to A.D. 132). Silla’s King Jinheung Sunsubi Monument on Bibong Peak, Sangunsa Temple built by the monk Won-Hyo, and numerous other temples occupy the mountain areas.
The Seungasa Temple on the east Bibong Peak, with Maaeseokgayeoraejwasang (seated rock-carved Buddhas) carved into a 5m granite rock, and the Munsusa Temple located halfway up the Musubong Peak, with purified mountain water dropping from the ceiling of Munsugol Cave, are indicative of both Bukhansan’s history and culture.
The first temple gate we reached up the mountain
Bailey and Aiden at a mountain temple gate
Bukhansan is perfect for hiking in all seasons. In the spring, all kinds of flowers bloom, and in the summer, lush forests carpet the numerous valleys.
The hiking path along the valley is perhaps the best summer mountain climbing course. And the fall is the perfect time to visit the temples and pavilions in their autumn colors. In the winter, the snow-covered mountain scenery is very beautiful.
Despite our research in Bukhansan as a destination on our trip, we were woefully unprepared. I wore Teva sandals, which was a huge mistake. They didn’t afford the protection needed for mountain hiking and their looseness coming down the mountain made my feet slip inside them, resulting in blisters that plagued me for the rest of the trip. Live and learn.
Had we really done our research, we would have known that hiking in Korea is kind of a Big Deal, replete with the Proper Uniform.
Nearly every Korean hiker was decked in similar attire – hiking boots, half-pants, wicking shirts, light-windbreaker, hat and hiking poles. There are dozens of street vendors in the streets leading up to the park, all with incredibly cheap hiking gear (most of them knock-offs of more expensive brands). We could have outfitted ourselves for probably 100,000 ₩ – if they could have handled American 3XL sizes.
My family has strong Midwestern roots, and with that, there is a deep social perspective of what work and life are. While it borders on cliche to sum it up as “you go to school, get a job, married, house, kids…”, it really has some truth. Wanderlust is left to bored trust fund babies and whatever travel pinings we have are satiated with watching the Discovery Channel or reading travel blogs of other people visiting the Great Wall and taking pictures of photobombing llamas at Machu Pichu.
Not this guy.
College opened up a completely new world to me. International students once regarded as “exotic” and “different” were now “friends with interesting stories”. Midway through my freshman year, I started the planning of merging a newfound love of biking and the promise of travel with multi-month biking trip through Europe. It was a bold plan considering the lack of previous experience and funds. The naivety of youth allowed me to blithely forge ahead armed only with a Let’s Go Europe book as my travel bible and savings scrounged from medical studies and odd jobs.
I had a blast and my initial foray into international travel turned into several more racking up visits to much of Western Europe and eventually adding East Germany and the Soviet Union.
Carefree young adulthood turned more serious with a family and career responsibilities, working to build equity in both. Frankly, travel beyond what would placate young children (and a precarious bank account) never entered our mind. So, when my wife’s father got sick and with the realization of his condition he uttered, “There was so much more I wanted to do”, we made up our minds that waiting until “later” might not ever happen.
Our eldest son, Eli, had been thinking about a homeland tour for some time now. A South
Korean adoptee, he had been looking at options to visit. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to have all of us experience what Korea had to offer. Seoul was an obvious choice since it had the most to offer for sightseeing and serves as the headquarters for the South Korean office of our sons’ adoption agency, Holt. Busan was added since Eli had been born there, plus with its numerous beaches and national parks, it had many options to explore. Beijing, China, was added as a compliment to our travel to the Far East.