Seoul and Jeju Island, South Korea Friday April 8, 2016 8pm
We spent yesterday in Seoul and today in Jeju Island, South Korea. In each place, guides emphasized that Korea is different from China and from Japan. Koreans are descendants of Mongolians, not Chinese clans. Koreans appreciate things on a smaller scale than the way things are done in China (the population is much smaller, of course, as is the land mass). The Japanese took over Korea for a number of years, and the Koreans are glad to have that period over, and to enjoy relative freedom and prosperity today. We heard a lot of discussion about North Korea, much along the lines we hear in US news reports.
We saw a secondary palace yesterday, the Changdeokgung Palace. This was not the king’s major residence, but rather a place for his concubines and a getaway spot for him. It’s tucked among the busy streets of Seoul, near to residences and high rise office buildings. You’ll see from Joe’s pix that it is modest when compared to the Summer Palace or the Forbidden City in Beijing – smaller, less ornate, quieter.
We spent the afternoon out in the sunshine on a nice warm day exploring the Hwaseong Fortress – we only walked a part of the wall, but it runs for 4 miles, and has numerous guard towers, observation towers, and platforms for archers to rain arrows down on those who might try to attack the town within the fortress. One unusual thing about this Fortress is that it was completed in 3 years (by 1796), and the laborers were compensated (not usually the case). Visitors were encouraged to try archery, and to learn from their efforts at the sport – look within yourself to identify ways to improve your performance, and don’t place the blame for error elsewhere.
Seoul as a city reminded us of New York and other major cities (it’s home to millions and has been the Korean capital for a very long time). There are many high rise office buildings with logos you’d recognize (not just Sansung or Hyundai, but also Citi and other western firms). Lots of construction going on, and very vibrant.
Today we are on Jeju Island, the southern tip of Korea – it’s a beautiful island with rich soil from the volcanic ash, and many crops are grown here (tea, carrots, garlic, potatoes, barley, and 40 species of Mandarin oranges). We visited a lovely bonsai garden with waterfalls, pools and stone sculptures (the Spirited Garden) and read about the philosophy of its creator, how tending these miniature plants teaches us how to live: be patient, work hard, trim away what we do not need and what makes us bad (greed, envy, etc.), learn to appreciate nature and people who are different from us, etc. The various areas of the Garden have great names: the Welcoming Garden, the Soul Garden, the Inspiration Garden, the Philosopher’s Garden, the Peace Garden, etc. It was a very serene spot, and there were no crowds – quite a difference from China.
We also visited Jeju Island’s largest tea plantation, and viewed beautiful rows of tea plants, lined up almost like vines in a vineyard. It was mid-afternoon when we left, and lots of parents with schoolchildren (in their uniforms, just like ours were when we were 10 years old) were arriving to enjoy the area.
We have more of Korea to see tomorrow, but are really enjoying the philosophy that is embraced here – hard work but a search for understanding and calm. We were interested to learn that in the 1400s during the Joseon Dynasty, the leader created a new alphabet so that more could become literate. Instead of the complex Chinese system of characters, new letters were grouped into syllables that were easy to learn.
Hope that you are all doing well. We’ll be back in NJ in just about 4 weeks – hard to believe!