The official Buddha’s Birthday holiday was Tuesday; I’d hoped to head out of town to somewhere like Bongamsa Temple in Mungyeong, but the weather was so crappy that we stayed in Seoul.
And with that, I bring you my Buddha’s Birthday holiday.
Joseon Jjigae 500 Years
We had a decidedly non-Buddhist lunch at a recently opened restaurant in an alley near my office in Bukchon called Joseon Jjigae 500 Years. As the name would suggest, they specialize in jjigae, or Korean stews. Interestingly, they name their jjigae after Korean kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392—1910). We ordered the Sejong Kimchi Jjigae for two (6,000 won per person) and a Hong Gil-dong gyeranmari (egg omelet, 5,000 won). If you’re in the Bukchon area, I highly recommend the place — the kimchi jjigae is prepared with big, juicy hunks of pork, is spiced to perfection and served in charming old-style nickel-silver pots. And who doesn’t appreciate the Hunminjeongeum wallpaper?
Almost next door to Joseon Jjigae 500 Years, right across from the terrace wall of Jeongdok Public Library, is Coffee Factory, which I think is now my wife’s favorite Seoul coffeehouse. This place probably deserves a fuller review than I’m prepared to give at the moment, so check out the review here. Suffice it to say, though, that it’s a terrific place with a great atmosphere, very good cakes and waffles, and excellent coffee. There’s usually somebody manning the big Probat roaster. Outdoor seating is available, but I rather like sitting on the left side of the establishment with a view out the window facing the Jeongdok Library wall.
In the evening, I went to Gilsangsa Temple in Seongbuk-dong to take in the evening celebrations.
Gilsangsa Temple is a unique place. For starters, it was not always a temple. Gilsangsa began its earthly existence as the Daewongak, one of Seoul’s three greatest yojeong of the 1970s, the Golden Age of yojeong politics in Korea:
Obscured from prying eyes by verdant forests and general remoteness, yet close to Seoul’s centers of power, the mountains and valleys of Mt. Bugaksan were the center of Korea’s culture of “yojeong politics” in the 1970s. For the uninitiated, a yojeong is an exclusive, high-class restaurant, where the mostly male clientele is served by comely young women in hanbok (Korean traditional attire); these women often sing, dance and play Korean traditional musical instruments as well, in the tradition of the gisaeng courtesans of old. In the dictatorial era of late President Park Chung-hee, the wealthy, powerful and influential would meet in the privacy of such establishments to discuss policy over libations and merriment. It was backroom politics at its most sublime.
The Daewongak was founded in the 1970s by Kim Yeong-han, a former gisaeng and, prior to the division of Korea into North and South, the lover of the poet Baek Seok, who had really great hair. A devout Buddhist, Kim—then living in Los Angeles—donated her property (estimated at the time to be worth over US$1 million) to the revered Buddhist monk Ven. Pubjeong in 1987. Pubjeong turned the property into a Buddhist temple, which was completed in 1997. Kim died in 1999, and the Ven. Pubjeong passed away last year.
With this unique history, it should not surprise visitors that Gilsangsa does not look like a traditional Korean temple. Indeed, much of the complex remains just as it was in the days of the Daewongak, including the main hall, which resembles more a Korean house than a temple main prayer hall. The monks live in the restaurant’s old private rooms. It’s an absolutely lovely place to stroll about, with forested hills, flowers and running streams.
If you’re wondering why this Bodhisattva of Mercy looks just like the Virgin Mary statue in front of Myeong-dong Cathedral, it’s because the statue was crafted for the temple by Catholic sculptor Choi Jong-tae as a symbol of religious reconciliation.
What was that you say? You wanted still more lotus lanterns?
Gilsangsa put on a bit of a concert that evening to celebrate the holiday. Because really, what Buddha’s Birthday would be complete without samulnori and selections from Phantom of the Opera?
These guys, meanwhile, were playing stuff from the 1980s — I think I heard some Deukgukhwa in there. The lights and canopy of lotus lanterns produced some stunning imagery.
As I tell everybody, it’s not the size of your lotus lantern that counts. It’s who bought it.
Oh, and you can see here the unique main hall of the temple with its very non-Buddhist design.
Remember, it’ll be a year before you get to see the lotus lanterns again, so enjoy ‘em while you can.
By happy coincidence, some friends of mine were visiting Gilsangsa, too, so after our visit, we walked down to the wonderful teahouse Suyeon Sanbang on Seongbuk-dong’s main drag.
Built in the early 20th century, Suyeon Sanbang was originally the home of Yi Tae-jun, one of the fathers of modern Korean literature. Last time I checked, his descendants still own the place, although Yi himself defected to North Korea in 1946. It is now a Korean traditional teahouse, serving great cups of Korean tea and rice cakes. It’s a tad expensive, but the atmosphere cannot be beat.
MAP: Buddha’s Birthday 2011
View Gilsangsa in a larger map