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2011 Travel Diary day 4: the private side of Sancheong

Busan, Tuesday 3 May 2011. My head is still feeling slightly foggy from Sunday night, and my appetite has not yet returned, but at least I’m feeling well enough to tackle the Busan subway system for the first time. It’s a breeze, and soon I’m on my way to the Nopodong area of North Busan, where my friend Kyung-sook will pick me up at the main bus terminal, which is not far from where she lives in Yangsan.

The journey to Sancheong

We are heading to Sancheong for the annual Herbal Medicine Festival. En route, we pick up Mr Min, my guide from the previous year, and we drive to the home of the mayor for lunch. The mayor himself could not join us, but his wife and various of her friends were there as hosts, and we have a leisurely lunch of home-made food. Fortunately, my appetite has now returned, and my hangover (my longest ever, at more than 24 hours) completely dissipated. I was even feeling well enough for a few shots of soju.

It is pleasant sitting in the picturesque garden sipping tea and eating some early season strawberries. As we leave, I see the mayor’s wife handing a brown envelope to my companion Kyung-sook. I learn later that the contents are intended to compensate her for any expenses incurred during my stay in Sancheong.

The private side of Sancheong

When I visited Sancheong the previous year I was shown the “public side”: some of the attractions they show to the tour parties. So: the herb festival and related exhibition sites; Daewonsa, probably Sancheong’s most famous temple; the tomb of the last King of Kaya – very unusual in not being covered by a smooth grass mound; the peaceful beauty of Namsa-ri hanok village; the big turtle rock which seems to ooze geomantic energy from its surface; a hike in the foothills of Jirisan; the memorial to one of Korean Buddhism’s most prominent practioners – Seong Cheol; and the museums commemorating the struggle against the leftist partisans in the first decade or so of the establishment of the new Republic of Korea in 1948.

This time I was to be shown some of the things which are less prominent attractions: a couple of small temples – one with historic associations and the other still in the course of construction, and some of the sites associated with a prominent Confucian scholar from the turbulent 16th Century: Nammyung Cho Shik.

We climb into the car and head off in the direction of the first secret attraction: Jongchuiam hermitage.

Jeongchuiam (정취암)

Our driver drops us off at the bottom of a steep slope. We climb up a rough, rocky path to a hermitage high up on the hillside. At the top, a small collection of temple buildings cling to the rocks.

The origins of Jeongchuiam lie in a rather spectacular legend. It is said that in the sixth year of King Sinmun of Silla (r. 681–692) Amitabha Buddha leaped up from the East Sea like a rocket and emitted two rays of light. One ray illuminated Mt Geumgang in Gangwon-do and the other caught Mt Daeseong in Sancheong-gun. Witnessing the miracle, Monk Uisang built hermitages at the very spots indicated by the Buddha: Wontongam on Mt Geumgang and Jeongchuiam on Mt Daeseong. Jeongchuiam continued in existence until the reign of King Hyojong (r 1649–1659). What we see of the hermitage today is mainly late 20th century restoration and construction.

Inside the shrine to the Sanshin there is an altar portrait that is registered as a provincial treasure. But it is rather difficult to see in the gloom, and much more fun is the large sculpture of the Sanshin with tiger behind the shine, high up on the rocky crag, enjoying the splendid views over the valley beneath. Below the Shinshin statue, on an altar that is open to the elements, a painting of the sanshin is protected behind a glazed frame.

After our exploration, we sit with the abbot, drinking several different types of tea, one after the other. I learn that once a monk starts pouring tea, especially when your companions are good conversationalists, you are in for a long session.

I settle down for my traditional role in these circumstances: appreciating the tea and listening to the rise and fall of the language as my companions converse on matters the nature of which I have no idea.

Suseonsa (수선사)

After a visit to a centuries-old temple high up on a rocky mountainside, the next stop is a temple nestling on the gentle green slopes of a hillside overlooking the Gyeongho river valley. Suseonsa is a temple which is still under construction, but it is full of promise. Up in the mountains, among the rocks and closer to the heavens, the focus of the monks must have been on meditation and withdrawal from the world; here we are closer to humanity, and the buildings are stationed round a beautifully manicured lawn with ornamental rocks and an artfully contorted pine tree. Slightly lower down the hill is a large pond with a water wheel being gently turned by a channel of water. The monks here must be contemplating the beauty of nature rather than focusing on more spiritual and intangible matters.

But monks anywhere enjoy their tea, and before long we are seated on the floor facing the abbot, with a splendid low table and all the tea paraphernalia separating us. A large picture window behind the abbot provides glorious views over the garden. Once more I enjoy listening to my friends converse while my mind wanders freely.

The tea table at Suseonsa
The tea table at Suseonsa

Donguibogam Village

The afternoon is fast passing, and it’s approaching time for dinner. We drive off to meet some county officials over a convivial meal, and on our way to the overnight accommodation we pass through the Donguibogam Village to see how the future site of the International Traditional Medicine Expo 2013 was progressing.


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