May. 25 2014

A Tea Visit to Seonamsa Temple on Mount Jogye

Coming back from our two weeks spent in Korea felt like waking up from a dream. To me, the experience of being in Asia is always surreal. I remember talking to friends before I left, and telling them about how even though I had definitely lived for more than five months in Japan, sometimes I still caught myself wondering, “Did that actually happen?”. So different it is from the experience of daily life here. As time passes, again I’m sure I’ll feel the same way about Korea. Then, I’ll have to go back to Asia again.

So, with that said. Here is my first post from Korea. Our friends from Halifax,  Danielle and Gordo, were our hosts while we were staying in Suncheon (순천시). They were also our excuse to go and see Korea in the first place. Even though they are living in a typical, small one-room and kitchen apartment like most English teachers are given (in fact, their furnishings were a bit above-average), we still managed to live and sleep all four of us plus two doggies all quite comfortably. They also got me addicted to Coconut Oil, which you can use for just about everything, and which I suggest you go out and buy/try immediately. You can it on your face, in your oatmeal, in your coffee, makes pancakes with it, etc. Seriously: go and try it (bonus: it’s also super healthy for you, medium-chain triglycerides for energy and is very stable at high temperatures. Plus, whenever you use it you get to smell like you’re at the beach).

An adorable cup with a barley tea sample that we were handed on the street in Suncheon-si. More tea, please!

Seonamsa temple is relatively close to Suncheon-si, located in the west end of Mount Jogye Provincial Park in Jeollanamdo Province (for Canadians – Korean provinces are much smaller than Canadian provinces. For example, South Korea’s largest province is Gangwon at 20,569 km². Nova Scotia is 55,284 km², and is Canada’s second-smallest province after P.E.I.). Danielle and Gordo had described to us what a special place Seonamsa was, and how they even offered walk-up tea ceremonies. I love tea, and I hadn’t seen tea ceremony since Japan, so I was very, very encouraged to go. We were so lucky that Danielle had an afternoon free from classes, so she was able to come with us to spend time and be our tour guide in the mountains.

We took a bus ride from Suncheon-si (luckily, bus service in Korea is great, with most city buses going to even remote tourist and temple locations, for only a couple dollars – very unlike Halifax) up through the mountains to the temple bus stop. I think it only took about 45 minutes. Once we were there, we hiked up the 1km path through the mountain that takes you to the temple entrance.

Seonamsa lived up to its hype as a beautiful and spiritual place.

So many temples have been destroyed by fire. Nowadays, there is no shortage of fire extinguishers located on temple grounds.

Halfway up the trail to the main temple complex, there is a gathering of smaller buildings which is where tea ceremony is held. As we approached, there was a small group of women weeding the gardens out front. We timidly approached them to ask if we could have a tea ceremony, and they warmly welcomed us. One of the women bid us entrance into this beautiful little building with glorious in-floor heating and soft, purple carpets (seriously, the Koreans know how to do cozy rooms. Japan, are you listening?).

The Tea Ceremony

Our host sat us at a low table near an open window that looked out onto the foliage of the temple grounds. Over the crest of the mountain next to us we could see the sun beginning to set (it sets early in the mountains), and so we were bathed in a golden light as our host spoke to us in Korean and told us in what sounded like poetry, the way of Korean Tea Ceremony. After she finished, I had the same feeling of contentedness like I had just lain in the sun for a two-hour nap. She was probably wondering why I was gazing so ardently at her, but after she left I confirmed with Rob and Danielle that we all felt like we could’ve just sat there listening to her for hours.

Our host served us these small treats that had traditional symbols associated with tea stamped into them. One was the kanji for cha (茶) that I was pretty excited to recognize from Japanese (no surprise really, as Korean language also has it roots in Chinese characters). I think the treats were made out of barley (please, someone correct me if you know I’m wrong), and had a sweet, grainy taste. We ate them with the bamboo skewers you see in her left hand.

And we haven’t even been to the main temple yet!

Despite feeling like we could sit there in that pool of sunlight sipping tea for eternity, we paid the fee for the tea ceremony (the equivalent of only a few dollars apiece. More than worth the experience), gathered ourselves up and continued our hike up the mountain.

Seonamsa’s Main Temple

Seonamsa’s famous bridge, Seonamsa Seungseongyo

We finally reached the entrance to the main temple!

A beautiful example of a classical Korean temple paint job.

It’s common to buy a roof tile to write your wish on. The tiles are then used during temple construction and become a part of Seonamsa.

Tiles to buy and write on to be included in the temple.

I had to take some pictures of our beautiful guide once we got to the end of our climb. She had been so good in telling us everything about the temple!

Once we had seen all the temple grounds, we beat it quickly back down the mountainside with the last of the day’s light. Once the sun leaves the mountains it becomes chilly very quickly. We waited below for our bus to come back to get us, minds full of what we had seen, but bellies substantially less so. But, all the restaurants near the bus stop had already closed for the night!

This little restaurant near the bus stop overlooking the bridge reminded me of Howl’s Moving Castle – with its steam pipes and thrown-together appearance.

Luckily, I was distracted from the hunger and cold by these lovely flowers near the bus stop. Never go into the mountains without a sweater!

Mmmmmm. Kimchi Jji Gae.

Because our friend Gordo is an excellent chef, as well as a super-par human being, when we got back to the apartment he already had a hot and spicy pot of Kimchi Jji Gae (김치찌개) waiting for us.  This hearty kimchi soup might have been one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.  I’m craving it again just looking at this picture.  Does anybody know any good spots in Halifax that make Kimchi Jji Gae?  I would dole out a large amount of love and appreciation if you told me where I can find this here.

Wow, that post ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would. Thanks for sticking around! If you have any more questions about Seonamsa, let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them. For now, I’m going to find some food.