Road Trip

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
Trip End Dec 02, 2012

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Flag of Korea Rep.  , North Gyeongsang,
Saturday, June 29, 2013

This weekend, my friend and I rented a car so we could drive out to a remote temple in eastern Korea. We rented from Incheon airport because I wanted to go with an international company so I would understand what I was agreeing to. The cheapest international rentals were from Incheon.

It was my first time driving in Korea for more than a few miles, but I'd been driven around Korea on buses and in cabs enough that I had plenty of idea what to expect on the road. I would say the only thing that stood-out to me was how much it felt like driving in America. I don't know the history of Korea's highway construction, but it must have been heavily influenced by US reconstruction efforts after the Korean war. The roads looked identical to US roads and almost all of the signs were even the same color and format as US road signs.

The trip took about a four hour drive from our town to our destination: Buseok-sa Temple (부석사). Buseok-sa was first built in 676 and rebuilt during the 1300s, so the temple has both Silla and Goryeo influences and artifacts. It has the second oldest wooden building in Korea and the oldest mural painted on a wooden building (in Korea I assume). A friend of a friend had found it listed in a book of 1000 best architecture things in the world, or something like that. It would have been possible to get there via a couple of buses, but it seemed easier, less stressful, and a lot more fun just to drive.

When I picked-up the car, they offered me an English GPS, but the Korean one was already in the car and it seemed like it would be a hassle for the woman to switch them out, so I said Korean was okay. This worked out fine although for a few minutes after I first turned it on I wondered if I would be able to figure out the menus. I got it set, though.

My only complaint about the GPS was it gave me too much information, especially since it's so easy to tune out foreign languages. The GPS would tell me when speed cameras we coming up, which was good, but it also insisted on notifying us every time we came to a tunnel. There were a lot of tunnels in eastern Korea. I missed one exit because it was amongst a series of tunnels, and I had tuned-out the GPS. It only cost us a few minutes, though, so no big deal.

The drive was a lot of fun, even though the car stereo could only find one album on my iPod, and the GPS was excessively talky. We stopped at a couple of travel plazas for breakfast and snacks, and arrived at the temple just a bit after noon.

The temple was fantastic. I'd say it's my new #1 temple in Korea. (The second is Donghwa-sa, the third is Seonggok-sa, although that order isn't set in stone, and the fourth is Mt Nam-san near Gyeongju, even though that's not actually a temple.) Buseok-sa's architecture was elegant, but not overly elaborate. Unlike most Korean temples, some of the buildings were simple bare-wood and white paint, which was a nice change of pace. When I first came to Korea, I really loved the colorful Korean temples, as a contrast to the plain Japanese temples I'd been used to seeing. But after being here for a year and a half, it's nice to see a simple style again.

What was so great about the temple (for me) was the architecture combined with the location. The multi-level temple was just on the outskirts of Korea's Sobaeksan National Park. There were plenty of amazing mountain views from the temple buildings. It was cool just to imagine a monk striking the temple drum at 3am from the pavilion perched on the side of the mountain and the sound echoing across miles of valley. If the temple did a temple stay (I don't think it did) that would be awesome.

Because the temple was so far away from a major city, there was almost no one there even though it was a pleasant, if warm, Saturday. It was nice being able to find some peaceful spots on the mountain. The downside of the lack of visitors was that we definitely stood-out. I heard the Korean word for "foreigners" several times and one little girl even pointed at us and shouted across the temple to her mother. She was cute, though.

Honestly, I would have been disappointed to see other foreigners there, it wouldn't have felt like as much of an achievement to get there if there'd been other tourists all over the place. On the other hand, it does start to feel a little like "really?" when you are constantly surrounded by people blatantly expressing their amazement that you're not Korean. Not that anyone was rude or anything.

On the way back home, we stopped at the nearby Sosu Seowon (소수서원), an early and important Confucian academy recommended by my guidebook. I personally wouldn't say it was worth going out of your way for, unless you were super excited to see one of the key academies in the history of Korean Confucianism, but it was a nice set of buildings next to a clear river. There was a Confucian Museum, but we didn't have the energy to do more than give it a quick browsing. We did stop to make some woodblock prints. My first try was terrible, but luckily no one was in line behind us so I was able to try again once I understood the reason we sprayed the paper with water was to get it to conform to the characters carved in the wooden block.

Adjacent to the Sosu Seowon was Seonbi Village (선비촌). This folk village was oddly empty of visitors. Well, not odd considering the location, but odd considering how large it was. Although there wasn't much going on in the village, it was a good collection of buildings and they had some layouts I hadn't seen before at other folk villages. I don't know if they were regional differences or if the residents of these homes had been slightly higher class than in the other villages I'd seen.
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