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Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Gaecheonjeol (National Foundation Day) is an annual National holiday that is celebrated in both North and South Korea. This seems to be one of the quieter holidays in Korea, but each year the whole country has a day off on October 3, so no one seems to complain. This holiday celebrates the mytholical foundation of an ancient Korean kingdom which occured around 4,500 years ago. Since I had the day off I decided to go check out the annual celebration at Dangun's alter on Manisan, which is located on the southern portion of Ganghwa-do.


The first Korean kingdom was said to be created by by Dangun, the ledgendary Demigod who established his divine kingdom in what is now Pyongyang, North Korea. Dangun's father was the son of god and his mother was a former bear who was transformed into a woman through her devotion to god. This is an ancient creation myth that has been gaining popularity in the past several decades due to the rise in Korean nationalism and new found interest and pride in Korean Shamanism. This story implies that Korea and her people decended from the grandson of god, so that would techinally make all Korean's the direct desendents of god himself.

Ceremony at Dangun's Alter

A ceremony is held every year Chamseong-dan, which is an ancient stone alter that is located on the top of the island's tallest mountain (Mani-san). The ceremony starts around 10AM each year, but you must make sure you get there on time because it get crowded and when the ceremony starts they will not let you in. The surprisingly difficult hike takes over an hour, but it offers some amazing views.

Deborah and I were a little late because we didn't expect the hike to be an actual hike. About 75% up the hill I decided that the only way to make it in time was to jog up. Unfortuanetly, the last 25% is the hardest part, and worse yet, when I made it to the top the gates they were already locked. No one was happy about that, but I didn't just run up a mountain for no reason.

I managed to sneak through the gate. I waited until the guard (yes they had guards) wasn't paying attention and then I snunk in. A few people followed my lead, and luckily Deborah was one of them!

This is said to be the actual alter that Dangun performed animal sacrifices to his grandfather and to the other dieties. The alter is quite big and I find it hard to believe that it's acutually 4,500 years old...That would make it the oldest man made thing I've ever personally seen...

The alter was quite packed, so I understand why it was closed…

We managed to see the last several minutes of the ceremony. There were several priests and a nice table full of offerings. Some chanting and Confucius rights were going on, but I didn't see any Shamanistic rites, at least not that I'm aware of.

Several Confucius priests walked up to the top of the alter and continued chanting. Everyone was talking and scrambling to get a picture. It certainly didn't feel very sacred.

Several beautiful women were dancing at the top of the alter. One lit a metal torch by using something that looked like a satellite dish. 

The women walked down and lit the insense burner which was the signal that the ceremony was over. That's when the real craziness started!

After that everyone made a dash for the offering table. People took handfulls of offerings and stuffed them into sacks. Unfortunately, but probably for the better, some of the priests had already removed the money. It was quite chaotic and left me feeling a little confused and somewhat shocked.

 Some people were just taking handfuls of grain and shoving them into their mouths. I did the same after a slight hesitation. I got a few good pieces. 
Deborah decided to go for the flowers. She had to wrestle them away from a greedy middle aged woman who was hoarding them, but Deborah's no push over.

Overall I felt a little disapointed. I was hoping for a genuine Shamanistic ceremony, but I felt like I just watched another show for the newspaper. Since I've been here I've been in search of traditional Korean culture. More often then not I've been left disappointed, which makes me wonder if those days have entirely passed on.

Thanks for reading and,

P.S. Here are some great website for a little more indebth information

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Mugwort Health Center of Ganghwa-do

Mugwort. It's a weed that grows wild in many parts of the world. Here in Korea, people use mugwort for many different reasons and in many different ways. The first time I was exposed to mugwort was in a sauna where they had a mugwort hot tub. There was a sign on the wall that tried to explain the medical benefits of soaking in this tub, but of couse the translation was really terrible and I couldn't get much out of it. The only thing I learned from that tub was that mugwort is good for "gynelogical diseases"...Sometimes the translations aren't the best, but the idea of soaking in a hot tub that people with gynelogical disorders seek out was especially troubling. I jumped in anyway.

A little more reasearch and it turns out that Korean's have been using mugwort since Korean people became Korean. The traditional Korean creation myth invloves the Dangun (more on him in a later post), who's father was the son of god and his mother was a former bear. Dangun's mother was transformed into a human by a lot of prayer and a sacred diet of garlic and mugwort. Dangun is credited with civilizing and culturing the Korean people, and with teaching them how to use traditional medicine medicine, specifically how to use mugwort. As you can see this herb plays a very important part in Korean culture.

Mugwort Health Center

When Deborah and I were visiting Ganghwa-do, we noticed that there was a Mugwort Health Center. We has some time to kill, so we decided to check it out. The first thing we did there was to make mugwort soap. This soap is very popular because it is good for alleviating the many different types of skin disorders that seem to plague Korean people. After the soap making the real fun began.

The pot

I was under the assumption that this place was just a sauna that specialized particular focus on mugwort. While this is true, there are no baths and no showers here, so if you come, come clean. The first thing we did was to strip naked, put on long, cult like skirts. Why a skirt? Well, we needed unobstructed access as we sat on pots of smoking mugwort. Yes...what I'm trying to say is that the first thing we did at this clinic was to literally have mugwort smoke blown up our asses. It wasn't blowing so much as billowing, but it was a rather awkward experience none the less. It was very hot and burning mugwort doesn't smell too great, so it wasn't the most comfortable thirty minutes I've spent on a pot. Afterwards I felt a little silly and smelled like I had spent the night sitting too close to a camp fire.

Ball pit and lounging

Next we put on some shorts and went to go play in a grown up version of a ball pit. This was a hot room filled with little marble sized pellets made of mugwort. We wallowed, burried each other, and slid around until it was time to move on to the next area. The next room was like a napping room filled with more mugwort. I was getting a little tired of this miracle herb and the room was really hot, so we didn't stay too long. The last thing on the menu was sticking your feet in foot warmers filled with the little mugwort balls. This was quite comfortable. After a while we sipped some mugwort tea and headed for the locker rooms. We heard a lot of stories about the wonders of mugwort, but my favorite was the one about a man who couldn't hold his soju. He was only able to drink about a bottle before he was too drunk. If you've been to Korea you know this situation would be a social disaster. The man started drinking mugwort tea during the day and also while he was drinking soju. Thankfully, he is doing much better and reportedly he can drink all night. 

The whole health center experience took a few hours. By the end I was pretty tired of mugwort and tired of smelling the smoke residue left of my body. Did I feel any healthier? Not really I guess, but it was an interesting and funny experince, yet one I'm not sure that I'm in a rush to do again.

How to get there

Once in Ganghwa-do, take local bus number 2 and look for this big pink sign. Everything on the island is in Korean, so if you don't speak Korean it may be a bit confusing. Your best best to to grab a local tourist map, point to the bus driver, and let him know you are going here. He'll probably be kind enough to not let you miss your stop.

The center is rather unassuming, but you should be able to spot it. The whole experience only cost 15,000 won (plus 8,000 for making the soap which is optional).

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The North

Many people know about the famous border area of Panmunjom where the armistice agreement was signed in 1953 and where North and South Korean soldiers to this day stare each other down only meters apart, but most people don't realize that the entire North-South border is not quite like this. In the western most area of South Korea is a large island called Ganghwa which directly shares a border with The North. Here, the border isn't a 2 km strip of heavily minded no man's land. Instead it is a surprisingly narrow and unassuming stretch of the Han river. Deborah and I ventured out here to get away from the city for a few days because we heard it is surprisingly unmodernized and relaxed. As usual, we didn't really know what to expect when we got to this rural island, but we were soon surprised by all the things that can be done here. One of the easiest and strangest things to do is to in the area is to walk along the border and check out the Ganghwa Peace Observation Deck. While we were here we witnessed one of the most touching human moments I have ever seen...

Peering into North Korea

North Korea is not hard to miss when you are on the island. Deborah and I were riding on a local bus heading toward the Observatory and suddenly these brown, barren mountains came into view from around a river bend. After a few seconds of processing I realized that North Korea was a lot closer then I thought it was. As quickly as they appeared, these odd, treeless mountains disappeared as our bus continued to climb the mountain roads. It was a very odd feeling when I first snuck a glance of North Korea. All the mountains in South Korea are heavily forested, so the barren mountains of The North instantly stuck out. Why are the mountains barren? Supposedly, when the 90's famine struck things got so bad that the people either ate all the tree bark and the trees died or they had to cut down all the forests to use as fire wood. Other than glimpsing what looks like a barren waste land in the far off distance, there is not much else to indicate that North Korea is only a few kilometers away.

The last road before North Korea
The only thing that gives it away on the South Korean side is a large but abandoned looking wire fence that runs along the river. This is amazingly different than the border at Panmunjom. Right near the river there are slightly more military things going on, but that's not unusual in Korea. Everyone acts normal, the towns look the same, and fields stretch up nearly to the rivers edge.
The South on the right, The North on the left...

Ganghwa Peace Observation Deck

Located on a hill at the narrowest point in the river is the Peace Observatory. It's a small but modern looking building that has a gift shop where you can buy North Korea liquor (I have some "finely aged" acorn liquor to share when I get home), a little resturaunt, and a few decks with binoculars and Korean propaganda movies and the like. For many the binoculars are the real draw to this place. By using these binoculars I had a personal glimps into North Korea and somewhat amazingly it was rather unamazing! I saw people riding bikes, kids playing volleyball in a school yard, farmers farming, and people passing in the streets. If North Korean's look over at us in South Korea from their binoculars they would see almost exactly the same thing, except there are a lot more cars in South Korea. Other than that I noticed all the buildings where the same color and of traditional Korean style. The only genuninely interesting or unusual thing I saw was a large propaganda painting showing obnoxiously happy farmers harvesting rice.
Deborah peering at her less fortunate Northern neighbors

When Things Got Real

We were solemn but having a fun and interesting time. As we were getting ready to leave we ventured down to a side memorial where some loud opera style music was playing. Having my ear turned in for interesting propaganda I figured this music was a good lead. We got down there and looked at a strangely and obviously distorted map that showed North Korean mountains pointier and redder then they really was a map that was representing your view from from where you were standing, so it was strange that it wasn't the view you were actually seeing...

Right after that is when we saw something that really made this whole experience real to me. At a shrine we saw a family, led by a man in his 90's, holding a Confucian ceremony. The old man was also there with a few other old men. He could barely walk but he got down on his knees and bowed three times while facing North Korea. They offered food and drink, lit incense, and then burned a piece of paper with people's names on it. I can only imagine what a divided Korea has cost this man...

People in America fear and dislike North Korea, but here in South Korea people regard The North with sympathy. South Korean's generally feel bad for their distant family members who were tricked or forced into believing in three generations of megalomaniacs who have led them into a life where, for many, a good day is a day when you eat. This old man and millions of others have had to live with the fadding memories of their suffering family members. Luckily, these are feelings few people will ever know, but unfortunately they are feelings that many Korean's are forgetting. Right after seeing this old man sob and bend to his knees for a lifetime of loss, I heard a Korean woman say "there's nothing to see here..." as she stuffed her fat face with over priced gift shop ice cream. Sadly, that feeling of apathy is a feeling many younger Koreans have toward The North, "there's nothing to see here..."

Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Shikanoshima Island

Shikanoshima Island is a small island that is easily accessable from Fukuoka, Japan. There is not a whole lot to do on this island, but that is part of the draw. The island is surprisingly rural and natural, which can be a nice contrast to the busy and modern city of Fukuoka. Walking along the edge of the island is a nice few hour walk where you will find a lot of random things and small towns that should keep you interested and wondering what is around the next corner. 
It's a sleepy kind of island...but that's the main reason why you should go.

Golden Seal

There is a small park on the island where a famous Golden Seal was found. At first, I thought they were talking about some urban legend that had to do with an animal made out of gold. When we go to the park it turns out that an ancient Chinese letter seal made of gold was found here...Not quite as exciting as a golden animal, but the park was nice none the less.

Out of Place Hot Dog Stand

If you do go to the island, try looking for MamDog. It's a strangely random place that sells the best hotdogs I've had in a long time. There was a little girl that worked there that continously spoke Japanese to us, even though neither one of us can speak Japanese. She didn't seem to mind and we had a fun time trying to comunicate with her.

Katsuma Beach

The biggest draw to the island is the beach. It's a beautiful which is very clean and not terribly developed. There are many nearby island which make the view something to yip about. The surrounding ocean is a busy shipping and fishing area and it was interesting to watch all the activity going on out at sea. The most interesting thing was the giant school of fish we saw. At first I thought it was just patches of sea weed or coral, but as I looked longer and harder I noticed all the fish jumping out of the water. These school of fish must've had hundreds of thousands of fish each and probably took up an area of about two acers. There were several fishermen who just threw their lines into the clump and pulled fish out by their tails or sides or faces. It didn't look like much fun considering how easy it was, but they seemed to enjoy it.

Getting There

 There are a few ways to get to the island. One way is by ferry from Hakata Pier, but the easiest way to get there is to go to Hakata station and buy a JR ticket to JR Kashii station. At Kashii you will need to transfere lines and head to the JR Saitozaki staion, which is the last stop. From Saitozaki there are a number of local buses that will take you to the island. This sounds like a lot of work, but the whole trip only takes about 45 minutes.

Thanks for reading,

A nice shot of the end of summer country side.

A dad drawing in the sand with his daughter. You can see a few islands and shipping boats in the background.