Monday, September 9, 2013


We made our way from Busan to Haeinsa on a bumpy bus ride, eager to see the small town and its famous temple, which is one of three Jewel Temples in South Korea. After finding a hostel and settling in, we strolled around the quiet streets of Haeinsa and took in our first view of the temple in the twilight. It was lovely, and we were eager to return again the next day.

During dinner at our hostel that night, we all decided to try the mountain vegetable bibimbap (a dish of rice with vegetables and sometimes eggs, which James and Antonia ate almost daily while in South Korea), along with a spicy peanut noodle soup, and the seemingly dozens of banchan (small side dishes) that accompany every Korean meal. 

The soup was excellent; the bibimbap was cold and a bit bland. We read that in Korea, vegetarian food is often bland because if you're eating it in the first place, you're doing so to be moderate and humble. Plus, monks don't want to get their blood going with any garlic or spice. Some of the banchan was very good, like the acorn jelly. But very much of the banchan was either not vegetarian or fermented in the style of kimchi ('fermented' turned out not to be Antonia's favourite flavour). Suffice it to say that Korean cuisine was not our preferred cuisine of this trip - except for the green onion pancakes, which were amazing! The food would probably have been a lot more exciting overall had we been meat-eaters.

To unwind before bed, we watched a little TV. The language barrier was not a problem, as two of the thirteen channels carried math tutorials for students (well, Antonia still couldn't understand what was going on, but the language wasn't exactly the problem there). Apparently, since academics are so important for Korean children, parents often hire tutors to give their students an advantage. These math television programs were designed to bridge the gap between students whose parents can afford a lot of private tutoring, and those who can't. So now, every child can spend their free time learning more math! But seriously, it seems like a good initiative.

We made a plan to get up at 7 am the next day to hike around the temple, which is set at the base of a mountain that is reputed to offer beautiful views of the temple and its surroundings. We were eager to do the hike before the rest of the tourists, and while it was still relatively cool. So we psyched ourselves up: "Are we really going to leave at 7? We're going to do this, right? No sleeping in!" But it turned out that we had overestimated Emilie's enthusiasm, and at 7 am, she was more enthusiastic about a couple more hours of sleep. So we started our trek closer to 10 am, after a breakfast of juice and coffee, and Cream Clan cookies that we had found the night before at a grocery store.

We walked to the temple and began the 5 km climb up the mountain. It began with a very pretty path along a babbling brook, but then quickly turned into a steep, rocky ascent. 

(Along the way, we were pretty sure that we could spot twigs and leaves on the side of the path that had been part of our mountain vegetable bibimbap the night before). 

There were lots of stairs and makeshift stairs formed of uneven rocks that were steep enough that we had to climb with our hands as well as our feet. 

As we climbed further, we began to climb into mist, which became fog, which became clouds, which started to rain. We became drenched first in sweat from the climb, and then in the rain. To make matters worse, we kept thinking we should be at the summit very soon, only to turn a corner and see an even steeper set of craggy rocks to climb.  

James was not impressed and kept repeating, "Remind me why we're doing this, again?" Emilie and Antonia tried to assure him that we would climb above the clouds and be rewarded with an amazing view at the top, not quite believing it themselves, but needing to say something to keep everyone going. 

When we did arrive at the top, all we could see was a grey wall of fog in front of us. It wasn't completely without beauty, though - there were some interesting rock formations, and it was eerily pretty to watch the clouds and fog flowing past them. 

The way back down was wet and muddy and slippery and the rocks had punctured a hole in the sole of one of James' shoes. James denounced what he believed was the futility of our walk, and revoked everyone's privilege to drag him on any more hikes for the remainder of the trip (luckily, this didn't last too long).

After our hike, we visited the Haeinsa Temple more closely. 

The main hall was beautiful, although we weren't sure if the thin mustache is a good look for the Buddha - but in this area, he is always depicted with one.

Antonia decided to walk the labyrinth set up for walking meditation.

The most impressive sight at the temple was the Tripitaka Koreana, which is the collection of Buddhist scriptures and laws carved onto more than 80,000 wood blocks and are nearly one thousand years old. They are the oldest known intact version of the Buddhist canon in Hanja script, and are believed to contain no errors in their over 52 million characters. They are preserved in a lovely library and guarded at all times. As a souvenir, we bought an imprint of a copy of one of the blocks to take home.

Here is Antonia inside the library:

Fooled you! Since photographs are prohibited inside the library, we took pictures of ourselves in front of the handy 'photozone' outside.

Before leaving for our next destination in the morning, we stopped for breakfast at KFB. That's right, North America might have KFC, but it doesn't hold a candle to Korea's Famous Bread. We had walnut and red bean donuts with coffee - quite delicious! So perhaps we have been too hard on Korean cuisine. There were certainly some bright spots, but just way, way too much cold bibimbap for the vegetarians.

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