Friday, August 23, 2019

Gakwonsa Temple

On Friday we decided to break out of our bubble and drive further than the distance from our apartment to the army base. Driving in South Korea so far has been exactly like I was warned told it would be. Let's just use the word "interesting" and leave it at that. But even though the public transportation system is excellent sometimes, especially with a toddler, having your own car and being on your own timetable is easier than figuring out buses, trains, and taxis. We plugged in our destination to Waze and headed out onto the open road feeling pretty confident we could manage a short 30 minute ride. Well that 30 minutes turned into about an hour with three unexpected trips through tolls and several u-turns but we finally reached Gakwonsa Temple.
This buddhist temple is tucked into the green hills outside Cheonan and was such a pretty escape. We pulled up to a nearly empty parking lot and took in our first look at the stunning temple grounds. Gakwonsa is an active temple which means it's not simply a tourist destination but the actual home of monks and a place of worship, and meditation for buddhist practitioners. It also means that it is open early to visitors (4am-6pm are the hours I could find online), which we appreciated because so far we've noticed that many places in South Korea tend to open later in the day and we prefer to get up and go so we can get back before nap time.
This temple was enshrined in 1977 to pray for the reunification of South and North Korea. We know little to none about Buddhism so we hesitantly approached the first structure, not wanting to disturb anyone or be disrespectful of their sacred space. Of course, with Tommy, quiet respect is not exactly a concept he understands and he's definitely not temple ready. Visitors are welcome to enter the temples as long as they remove their shoes. In the main temple you could see two large golden Buddhas that were stunning and would have been interesting to see closer up but we satisfied ourselves with peering in from a distance instead since there were people gathered to meditate, chant and pray, not just snoop around and snap photos.
We then climbed up another set of stairs and the trees opened up to reveal a large space centered around a huge bronze buddha. It used to be the largest in South Korea and, though it is now the third largest, it's still striking. Tommy pointed and exclaimed "big people!!" when he saw the statue before quickly running on to see the colorful paper lanterns strung up around the base.

All of the signs and descriptions at the temple were in hangul but with a little help from google translate, it is my understanding that the buddha's open palms displayed in this statue symbolize that all are are welcome here and his long ear lobes are meant to show that he is listening to to the world. 
Had it been less muggy and had there been less mosquitos we might have explored some of the wooded trails that lead higher into the hills. We decided instead to add this to our list of places to return to when family visits in the fall and the leaves are changing, or in the spring when the flowers are blossoming. I've also heard it's especially beautiful all done up for buddha's birthday sometime in May. While we probably need to read up on the history of buddhism to better understand all the symbolism and practices we noticed, I consider our first experience at a buddhist temple a peaceful morning away from the hustle and bustle. 

**Check out my youtube video from our morning at Gakwonsa temple here

Saturday, August 3, 2019

First Trip to Seoul and the Gwangjang Market

I think maybe I had gotten a bit too comfortable in my life back in the States because when T.J. said "let's go up to Seoul tomorrow," I was daunted.  I'd like to blame it all on Tommy and say all my hesitations were because we have a toddler along for the ride but... honestly I think somewhere in my growing up I've lost a bit of the adventurous spirit that I'd found and cultivated back in high school, my first experience living overseas as an expat. All the unknowns, the unfamiliar transportation system, the language barrier, the crowds, I was nervous.

We've been in South Korea a little over a week but we haven't had much time to venture off the Army base. Still we decided not to be too ambitious with our plans. We picked just one thing off our extensive Seoul bucket list to attempt on our first foray into the city.  The night before we booked our train tickets online, we loaded won on to our shiny new metro cards, and we planned out our route. It required a quick taxi ride to the train station, a 45 minute ride to Yongsan station, transferring to the metro and going a further 6 stops to Jongno 5(o)-ga, the closest station to Gwangjang Market.
Gwangjang Market is one of the oldest traditional markets in Seoul and is known for its countless  vendors exclaiming for you to buy their kimchi or grab a seat at their stall for a bite to eat- and that's just the food vendors- we didn't even venture upstairs to see all the silk and textile stalls or where they can make custom Hanbok. It's like the Pikes Place market on steroids x 1000000. And did I mention it was also ten million degrees...?? Literally on the train ride up we got one of those iPhone "emergency alert" notices. Of course ours showed up in hangul characters but a quick screen shot uploaded to Google translate declared it was an extreme heat advisory.  I thought maybe we'd be those dumb tourists going to this crowded, un-airconditioned market in the dead heat of summer when the locals know to stay away but it was packed with Korean nationals, students, families, people on their lunch break, all shopping or settling down for a quick meal.
We got to the market a little bit before we were ready for lunch, which gave us time to wander around cluelessly taking in all the sights and smells. It's a bit disorienting and overwhelming navigating the narrow halls and weaving between the stalls (especially when you're on the verge of a heat stroke and wrangling a 2 year old who wants to run ahead). First we grabbed our wild boy a fresh watermelon juice blended with ice. It was the perfect treat to cool him off and also distract him for a few minutes while we narrowed down what foods we were craving.
Then we found an empty bench at a bindaettok stall and after only a little pointing we were given a huge plate of the yummy fried mung bean pancakes and some chopsticks and we went to town! It was a huge portion but the three of us cleaned the plate before we moved on to the next item on our menu.
We crossed the aisle and plopped down at another booth where we were eyeing a few classic dishes we'd been told were must-trys.  More gesturing and pointing, do we like spicy or no, okay sure, and not entirely sure what we just ordered we were handed an enormous plate of tteokbokki (spicy soft rice cakes) and gimbap (kind of like a Korean version of sushi),  and another plate of japchae (glass noodles). A third plate of steaming mandu (pork and kimchi dumplings) soon followed and T.J. and I both looked at each other and asked: is this what we ordered and did we mean to order this much, and will we have enough won?? Luckily we were able to bag up what we couldn't finish and incredibly only spent ₩23 (barely $20) the entire time we were at the market.
We wandered around a bit longer and located the now famous food stall that sells hand-cut noodles featured on the Netflix documentary series "Street Food." We made plans to come back and try it when the weather was cooler, although the heat didn't seem to stop anyone else from ordering big bowls of soup.

We had booked our return train tickets for a little later in the afternoon, not knowing how long we'd need or how adventurous we might be feeling. I had heard of the Cheonggyecheon Stream just outside one of the market gates so we made our way there and gravitated towards the first shade we could find.  I think in other circumstances it would have been the perfect place to walk off our lunch and I definitely want to try to go back in the fall when it's all stung up for the national Korean Lantern festival but we had hit our limit with the heat for the day and knew it was time to start making our way home.

Nap time was not totally sacrificed in the name of adventure and Tommy went right to sleep once we got back to our hotel and T.J. and I also crashed on the couch after cool showers. Even though we were hot and sweaty messes I feel so proud and excited about our first trip to Seoul, that we managed it without getting lost and without any major meltdowns (on the part of Tommy or myself). I feel more confident about getting out on my own, going to new restaurants, new grocery stores, finding new places that will slowly start to feel like ours.

I think I needed this first excursion, just like I needed this big move across the world to remind me that I'm brave and that I can do hard things! We're all slowly coming out of that thick fog you're wrapped in when you land in a foreign country and I think we're doing pretty good over here.

**And if you want to see a bit more of our day at Gwangjang Market check out my youtube video here!