Friday, 11 August 2017

A love letter to Taiwan

Absence truly makes the heart grow fonder. The more I think about that little island the more I appreciate just how wonderful a place it is. I was trying to think of its faults, to come up with a critical appraisal but it's almost impossible. 

The only thing you can blame it for is the trails of cities that encroach inland from the west coast. It's these cities such as; Khaosiung, Tainan and Changhua who are responsible for all those rubbish plastic goods that come in Christmas crackers and last less than a day. A mountainous spine runs through the centre of the island and in parts remains difficult to access. It's the east coast that is the greatest attraction and has been preserved in large swathes by national park status. It's worth protecting as well, when the Portuguese sailors sailed past in 1544 they christened the island the 'Ilha Formosa' the 'Beautiful Island'. The mountainous highlands are verdant and luscious but it's the coastline which is idyllic. Ragged and magnificent, the cliffs are nurtured by cascading waterfall and flanked by luscious woods (just forget they are infested with venomous snakes). As you pass the equator the forests morph into rainforest and the imposing black beaches are given the sun's Midas touch. Warm rainfall cools after the days heat and bird song embraces the morning and ambient evenings. The highlight is the Taroko Gorge. Hundreds of construction workers died while carving the roads and buildings which support the bus loads of Chinese tourists that go daily. As an achievement of engineering it's almost as awe inspiring as the sound of the thunderous river which over millennia has carved through the marble stone. From the top of a solitary Buddhist bell tower it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by the expanse of the gorge. 

As the night falls every town begins to hum with activity. The night markets line the streets and amongst the fake sports brands and flimsy flip flops is food fit for a king. Teetering on thin plastic chairs you can sit and gorge on fresh seafood or hide behind bowls of beef noodle soup. There is so so many dumplings to gorge on that the night markets can be a stressful experience. Even the stinky tofu, which has been left to rot and is sewer like in its pungency has a crunchy texture which is brilliant with a spicy chilli sauce. The undisputed royalty of Taiwanese food is not the dim sum which it is so famous for but the humble pork rice bowl. For about two pounds you can go to heaven. Succulent minced porked over steamed rice is about as good as life gets and for the famous restaurants people will queue right down the street for a seat at a table. In general the Taiwanese I met seemed to take life seriously and no more so than at meal times. They eat in silence except for the slurp of wanton in sparse rooms with a tiny kitchen hidden in a corner. There is no need for pretense or dramatics when the key is in its simplicity. 

In some ways Taiwan has defied expectations, diplomatically isolated as the rest of the world panders to China, it has set about becoming quietly prosperous. A significant proportion of the population are highly educated and employed and consequently has led Asia in being one of the most socially liberal places. While I was in Taipei they were celebrating being the first ASEAN country to legalise gay marriage. Aside from the shiny glass and steel of the financial district crowned by 101 is the glamour of old Taipei. I was staggered by the exoticism of the capital. It fulfilled all my ideas of what the exotic 'Far East' would be in a way that I'm sure would make Edward Said furious. You duck into narrow streets stooping underneath birds in cages and squeeze past men and women dragging produce to the markets in wooden carts. There is a sense of a constant activity and a purpose that feels inherited and vital. Thought its the smell that is so exciting, a smell of Chinese spices that's  sweet and rich and perfumes the air which is intoxicating. It's easy to point out how the history interacts with modernity in a big city but it's how much of the past that seems ingrained in the past and it's chaotic. One of the major temples Longshan shows this perfectly. A heady blend of Buddhism and Han folk religion in a temple with both Indonchinese in this crowded place some are offering doughnuts to the deity of passing exams, others are wafting three incense sticks in the air, wooden blocks are thrown to the ground and one woman is spinning around and around an enormous lantern that beltches smoke. The chaos of the city contrasts perfectly with the serenity of the countryside in my favourite place in the heart of Asia. 

Taiwan, I miss you. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

A night at the races

The crowd begins to roar. Louder and louder, the whole stand expands with exultation and expectation, and then, a collective groan. The mob deflates into a drawn out gurgle of dissapointment. The Australian trained outsider finished outside of the placings, the favourite from the UAE is still wallowing amongst the mediocrity. Behind me an old Chinese man with a neatly buttoned shirt but glasses askew tares his slip in disgust. Someone squeezes past me clutching a polystyrene box, the smell of kebab rising in the beer froth bubbles of air. From the balcony I can see a young banker/investment/suit-wearer, straight out of Fulham, holding forth with two gorgeous South African blondes. If I haven't laboured the point enough already, Hong Kong is international and this is where its inhabitants collide. 

The races have endured since the 19th century and was one of the few places where British and European merchants would share the same space as the local Hong Kongnese residents (beside brothels and opium dens). It's longevity is a testament to how significant these brief moments of mutual pleasure were. The density of the city creates an intensity that has metamorphosed from narrow wooden streets to shiny glass skyscrapers which lean precariously on every river bank and hill. Yet rampant commercialism remains at the core of the city and its success. On the whole Hong Kong has been a triumph, like anywhere of immense prosperity there remains inequality. However, with increasing rapidity locals are rising to purchase their own companies and property. The recent student-led demonstrations have protested against China and its monopolying tendencies exerting too much influence.  Both the magnet for migration and the reason for its success has derived from this attitude to the great mercantile tradition. Different nations and cultures collect together such as the large population of Sunni's who live around the large Mosque just north of Kowloon bay. The issue of cultural identity which seems to cause such political strife in the West seems almost absent. This must be in part because each community must interact to survive in such a competitive atmosphere and so all supposed relative cultural values are secondary to market forces. 

What the Wednesday nights in Hong Kong reveal is the secret to how we can all get on in a globalised economy. It's not a newly found appreciation of other cultures which although, obviously desirable, has not been the view of much of the West's electorates. Instead we should celebrate our shared vices. If dancing is our universal language than its drinking which is our conversation. Even more puritanical attitudes have been quick to profit from drunken appetites. As I queued for my one winner it struck me that the only thing I shared in common with the other pushing punters was the Tsindao in my hand and that reckless fleeting elation of  triumphing over the odds. In that joyous crowd we were all reduced to our most basic human element and we are not always virtuous but if we can console ourselves in our shared failings, we can cultivate our shared aspirations. 

Monday, 10 July 2017

What did the Spanish ever do for us?

Escaping from the scorching midday sun, I scuttle to the shade of nearby building. As my eyes adjust to the gloom I can make out a black drape hanging mournfully. I am in Baler town museum, a town in Luzon,  the most northerly island in the Philippines and this black cloth is the greatest prize of the museum apart from the air conditioning. I near it and it becomes recognisable, a monks habit. It's coarse, thick and heavy and would be unbearable in the heat but these were worn by perspiring Spanish Fransiscans from soon after Margellan's 'discovery' in 1521 till independence in 1898. Throughout the Philippines there seems little evidence of Spanish presence, a colonial house in Manila here, an imitation of Spanish pork casserole there but not much. One of the few enduring remnants is a significant one, Christianity. Churches are everywhere, some are even bigger than the cock fighting arenas and spontaneous genuflections swat the rampant mosquitoes away. The colonial era is not reflected on with great fondness by Filipinos which begs the question: why keep the religion of the oppressors? 

I think this question can be answered in part by this rather neglected local museum. Some amateur historian has with meticulous care compiled an impressive section devoted to the work of missionaries in Baler using their own personal diaries. Like all good local historians he has been utterly impartial and rigorously non-partisan in his judgements. The missionaries are arrogant and exploitive, Friar de Santa Rosa, in a fit of passion, writes "the devil has his throne here ... they are murderers like none other"! Admittedly, the friar was referring to the tribes of the highlands above the town, who well into the 18th century still demonstrated strength by the number of heads they had decapitated. In these same hills a local statue is displayed on Emita Hill which commemorates brave Philippine families who escaped a tsunami in 1735. The recount from one of the friars to officials in the capital tell a remarkably different tale to the local patriotic myth. Rather than one giant wave it seems that heavy rainfall caused mass flooding and landslides. Converts rushed to the church where they were protected by the monks. When the church was collapsing the monks shepherded the flock to safety above the town, probably the same hills. At the end of the letter the concerned friar asks for the people of Baler to be exempted from the Real Tax, which was granted for life. 

Within sixteen years from the first conversion in Baler the pious had trusted their lives to the Fransiscans and this relationship of cooperation seems to have lasted until its bloody denouement. Besides some hasty notes of baptisms performed (the monks never seem to remember their new Christian names) there is limited statistics for conversion success rates. Regardless of spiritual contributions, the Fransiscans provided vital medical services tendering to the sick and dying. More unexpected was that the normally gentle and peaceful order oversaw the defence of the Filipino people not from rampant conquistadors but Philippino pirates selling their own people into slavery. The powerful watchtowers which guarded the shore was in decline by the time of the Japanese invasion (1942). There is a particularly lurid painting on the upstairs floor of the museum depicting a brutal beheading of a missionary by a revolutionary. It might be expected that like Spanish rule, the missionaries proselytism became aggressive or tyrannical for such a breakdown in relations to occur. Yet it seems that the missionaries and the religious community in general were instrumental in setting up free basic education. By 1876 over half the boys were literate and at the girls school 40% could too. So it's clear that the missionary community were still making a positive contribution. The tragedy is that the men who were slaughtered by the revolutionaries were simply caught up in the violence and were failed to be protected. Men who had travelled across the world and in a hostile climate devoted their lives in total isolation to spread the word of God were massacred and their efforts burned with them. They should be remembered. 

In part they have been memorialised in film because Baler was so isolated that the Spanish troops maintained a siege for nearly a year refusing to believe they had surrendered. There is a really enjoyable series on Netflix made by a Spanish director called '1898, Our last men in the Philippines' and a Filipino film entitled 'Baler' which I have not watched but can guess how it will portray the missionaries. The black habit looks limp and tragic on its plinth, which contrasts with the pride and inspiration all of humanity should feel when confronted with such conviction and sacrifice. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

Robot lavatories

I have not been in Japan nearly long enough to give much credible insight into Japan and the Japanese. This is predominately my failure but Sake should also bear some responsibility. Getting to know the Japanese has been obscured by a total language barrier, Japanese is an assortment of Japanese, Kanji and Chinese characters while most Japanese I have met are far too shy to show off their English. The final reason derives from History which tends to provide a broader vista of a culture, often the most helpful aspect being the glaring omissions from a nation's myths. Infuriatingly, Japan has whitewashed its History so that if an alien visited Earth they would believe that until recently Japan had for centuries been a land stuffed with Samurais' Katanas and Geishas' Kimonos. The glorification of the Edo and early Meji period is farcical particularly because Japan's present achievements are so impressive. 

What makes Japan such a pleasant place is the sheer practical convenience of everyday life. The best examples of this are the bogs. As you enter the bathroom the lid rises to salute you and your righteous mission. Having completed the job, should you miss a continental bide - no fear, with a choice of three options; general, female and what looks like a power jet that I am far too intimidated to try. Eventually and with great reluctance you tear yourself away from your heated throne and regally wave in the general vicinity of a black button. You then wash your hands in a sink which is on top of this ingenious contraption which pumps water recycled flush. I have never been sure how hygienic this is but I place total faith in the machine. 

This meticulous view extends beyond the practical to an aesthetic level too. The most obvious demonstrations can be found in the architecture of  the traditional wooden homes I stayed in both Nikko and Tamayaka. They both relied on canvas screens to open and close space by manipulating light, though I suspect the tatami mats we slept on were the cause of the pungent cabbage odour of both houses. These beautiful wooden houses are not a new phenomenon and the ancient capital, Kyoto, has rows of these original houses. It would be false to claim that all cities in Japan have the same compact charm; Tokyo, Osaka and the southern port cities Nagasaki and Satsuma (sadly renamed Kagoshima) have all fallen victims to the grey tower blocks of prosperity. However, I would argue that the greatest aesthetic examples can be found in the cuisine. Consider the humble sushi, perfect proportions of fresh fish with one mouthful of rice and lying in between a small dap of wasabi to provide subtle heat. The glistening whiteness of the rice contrasting with the black soy all serve to emphasise the morsel on top. It is also true for the cold thin noodles underneath the steaming, thick tempura and the umami balance of  a bowl of miso soup alongside a yolky ramen. 

So why is it that we wipe our bums like apes and the batter from a chippy is always greasy at the end? How come Japan views the everyday with such analytical precision? I think there are a couple of long term reasons, the first being geographic. Though it all looks blurred from a bullet train,  Japan is a land of mountains and rivers over a conglomeration of four major islands as well as countless others. Therefore to harness the very fertile potential of the land requires ingenuity in both irrigation and land management. The landscape for Japan also provides difficulties for any government trying to exercise control, the difficulties of communication and transport naturally leading to martial rule (refer to early 20th century Japanese Empire and the domination of Shoguns for around 900 hundred years before them). Military rule promotes conformity and aside from weapon development and torture refinement does not cherish whimsical everyday inventions. Even now that Japan is a flourishing democracy it remains a highly regulated and bureaucratic society to the extent that a voice (mechanical, obviously) barks instructions of when, how and where to queue before you cross the road. 

One advantage of a highly controlled state is that it can put massive resources into education for designers but also for major companies such as the omnipotent Toyota. Counterintuitively the control exerted has promoted more rebels and a celebration of eccentricity. From the crazy fashions paraded in Harajuku to the bizarre themed cafes where waitresses dressed as maids serve you milkshake while talking to you through a high-pitch puppet, Japan has morphed into a Murakami daydream. The love of freedom has led to some of the top tourist attractions going to Nara park and Mirajima Island to see liberated dear walking free mugging ice creams from the vulnerable. The Japanese have come to celebrate the things government can do least to control, cloathes, entertainment and food. A pinnacle of this is sex, sex is everywhere. Porn lines the walls of every convenience store, even the Manga cartoons have a suspicious number of 'sexy' schoolgirls. I think that ever since the government banned showing genitalia on all pornography it has simply spilled into the cartoons shows which are shown all day and the main audience is children. It's not that I'm a prude I'm definitely all up for sexual liberation, just like Tim Farron... The sex shops sell things that look so complicated the romantic ambience must be killed by the sound of one the thousand sex toys on charge. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world because they have dissected the art of sex so completely and utterly they have worked out the perfect orgasm without the inconvenience of a relationship. 

After a long digression about sex shops this seems an apt moment to talk about Zen Buddhism and Shinto, the two unofficial religions that have a presence in the vast majority of Japanese homes. You often see Shinto shrines in Buddhist temples with the characteristic white lightening bolts. This is because they share some common ideas, among the complexity of Zen Buddhism can be dragged the idea of being in the present. Shinto reinforces this idea by emphasising a reverence for the domestic. You can walk past Shinto shrines in the street and they are simple altar-like structures made from stone often with a ceramic cup holding incense. Often they can be found beside areas of stunning beauty and they emphasise a oneness with nature. At most tourist destinations there are Shinto shrines and gongs erected and an overwhelming majority still perform the ceremonial offering, bow and clap for a blessing. It is an offering of thanks a brief pause to celebrate the natural and domestic in our lives. The belief that the banal and humdrum have a great spiritual significance must provide one of the strongest reasons for Japanese precision.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017


A spotters' guide to Ajumma


Ajumma is sometimes translated as aunt but really is a polite way of addressing married older women. Imagine the kind of aunts that torment William in 'Just William'. On achieving the status of 'Ajumma' she must acquire the uniform. Make-up is applied thickly with as much boldness as a tribal tattoo, one-inch foundation and bright pink lipstick is smeared on. A thermal vest is worn regardless of the season, temperature seems to have no noticeable effect. If she is a particularly classical Ajumma she will sport a thick vest decorated with garish and vivid patterns, if she considers herself more trendy she will wear a waterproof sports jacket in a rainbow of offensively bright colours. Fashionable brands seems to change on a decade cycle and current brands which are enjoying patronage are Eider and North Face. All Ajumma exhibit a terrifying turn of pace whether dashing through you on the underground or getting the choicest fish at the market. Accordingly they dress appropriately, in Adidas tracksuits. JD Sports should relocate, their target wardrobes are in Seoul's retirement homes. Comfortable but practical slip-on trainers are worn at all times. Neon pink and green features heavily. Lastly, the crown for all Ajumma, a golf visor which is apparently designed to protect the face from the sun's rays and the appalling threat of wrinkling.The visor casts the whole face in a pinkish glow and makes every Ajumma a pocket general, these Napoleons' march down the street using the visor as a battering-ram. Ajumma know that face masks are for wimps. 


Ajumma live throughout Korea and will be found running almost every institution they happen to come into contact with. They do not really believe in leisure but are fanatical excisors. Exercise parks are small areas filled with an array of contraptions and Ajumma flock to these watering holes. It is here that they can demonstrate their proficiency at weird leanings and gentle stretches which are accompanied by much grunting. It is this routine which grants Ajumma with eternal life. They are also intrepid mountaineers, the steeper the better. Donning sports sunglasses and with walking sticks raised they trudge up the mountain dragging their poor soju-addled husbands behind them. Some Ajumma have become aware of the dangerous potential of wielding walking sticks and have weaponised them, using them for daily errands and gesticulating at innocent bystanders. Other Ajumma noted the effectiveness of Soviet tanks in the Korean War and have constructed their own versions. Now they chunder down the middle of the pavement leaning on a four wheel metal devices laden with food. Ajumma know that queuing is for losers. 


Ajumma long ago realised that families control Korea. From the humblest restaurant to the most grotesque chaebol the structure of family prevails; even the Samsung dynasty run the government... Therefore by asserting themselves as absolute rulers of the family Ajumma find themselves wielding immense power. Ajummas' governing style is a potent blend of Frederick the Great and Vlad the Impaler. Absolute and capricious rulers full of wisdom and wrath which they unabashedly express in roars, flecks of kimchi and raw beef rain down upon the loved one or victim alike. I have seen children both kissed and kicked almost simultaneously.  Ajumma's omnipotence means they do all jobs at all social strata, every morning tiny women carry enormous wheelbarrows and perform the role of mobile skips. Meanwhile others drive exhausted children crumpled in the back of huge saloon cars to school where they will then pick them up and drop them off at after school academies till late into the night. Then they will then go home and cook huge ten dish meals while washing and ironing in a tornado of relentless activity. Most men of this age are so broken by work they sit toothlessly staring into the distance. One of Ajumma's greatest pleasures is to shout at her gregarious husband and his prattling drinking buddies and send them home. They always obey. Ajumma know that men are incompetent. 

The herd:

Ajumma are matriarchs and much admire the Black Widow spider's policy of eating their mate immediately after reproduction. Yet Ajumma know that fermented Ajussi (old man) is not good to eat so grant him life. To give men the pretence of usefulness they let them wear suits and go to factories so they come home exhausted and leave them in peace. Ajumma are extremely territorial and it is very rare to seem them socialise with each other. When many congregate it is a seriously dangerous situation. The Korean government deployed thousands of armed riot police during the recent pro-President-Park demonstrations which contained large numbers of Ajumma. Whole supermarkets have been destroyed by brawling Ajummas. This lonely existence is softened by grandchildren who are often abandoned at homes by harrassed parents perpetually late for work. They are totally indulged by Ajumma and have become hopelessly spoilt from her love. No self-respecting Korean child below the age of thirteen would dream of tying their own laces. Because Ajumma's live for so long they do not believe they sugar is bad for you and provides liberal quantities of fizzy drink and sweets. Though Ajumma would rather you were completing A level maths questions she knows that Kim Song is online and that gaming is the only way for the grandchild to speak to her friends. Ajumma knows what's for the best. 

Threat of extinction: 

Ajumma are such ferocious beasts that their vulnerabilities are hidden beneath the armour of bullet-proof foundation and severe mascara. Conservationists are now worrying for the future of Ajummas. Korea has changed into a different world from the spartan poverty that most Ajummas grew up in post civil war Korea. This prosperous world they helped to build has collided with Capitalist comfort to create the all consuming, for ever working animal that is the Ajumma. For future generations raised in the trappings of luxury and the inane drumming of K-Pop the Ajumma may be dying out. This may be a good thing, the vulnerabilities about ageing and beauty will dissipate and the visor will be slung off. The world of endless domestic work will slacken as perception about gender roles collapse. However, the values of the Ajumma: the work ethic, aspiration, self-betterment and love of family must be preserved. So, please adopt an Ajumma today and remember 'Ajumma knows what's for the best'. 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

DMZ: The hope of the hopeless

If you type 'DMZ tour' into Google it reveals that Korea's most popular tourist destination has over ten major tour operations offering daily tours. Busloads flock to the demilitarised zone that stretches across the 38th parallel and demarcates the border between the Republic of Korea and the People's Democratic Republic of Korea. The uneasy mile between South and North. Dark tourism has fostered an experience of expensive souvenir shops, jolly tour guides and photo-ops galore besides one of the most well-armed and volatile states on earth. It is shockingly easy to find a sneering satire when leering through binoculars at the humourless North while the South has erected viewing platforms and blares K-Pop through throbbing speakers. The DMZ tells us nothing of the North which remains a nightmare of secrecy except for survivors' tales which are promptly consigned to the transient celebrity/anonymity of the bestseller shelves of the World. How the South would like to be perceived in its attitude towards Kim-il-Jung's regime is of real interest. Beneath the slogans dreamt up in tourist boardrooms and blasé apathy is the heartache of families lost and condemned to a hell on earth. 

Laughter masks the tears and there was a dark irony that laced the observations of the tour guide. As we drove beside the river that marks the boundary between the two countries she remarked, with total seriousness, that the grass is greener in the South. This in an absurd way is true, the North has cut down the trees to render escape across the river impossible. The only thing to have been saved by the South Korean Army is a cow that was caught in one of the many floods. A helpless cow floating in a river while an entire military task force strives to save it is a pathetic image. This impotent gesture is so treasured by the South that it has become a poignant symbol of the South's desperation for reconciliation. On the other side of the road is a whitewashed building streaked with grime called 'Hotel DMZ' which must rival the Grand Hotel in Raqqa for least desirable couples retreat destination. The jarring paradox of tragedy and humour generates moments of surrealism, the most head-scratchingly bizarre is the fair ground rides in the Peace Park. Suspended in the air, the chairs of the rides hang lifeless unlikely to be used except at occasional intervals. At first glance it seems wildly inappropriate to construct a fun park in a space dedicated to the resolution of a brutal civil war. What it may do, however, is represent the exact thing that millions of Koreans and U.N forces died for the freedom of laughter. 

Another element which complicates understanding the attitude of the South to the North comes from the apathy of the present and impartiality of the past. Most Koreans below the age of thirty express very little interest in reunification and in some cases an open hostility. Two generations have been raised in a climate of manic competition and rapid growth which cannot bear the hindrance of inheriting the North. Like the two squabbling step-sisters the thought of more competition as well as the painful process of rehabilitating Cinderella is repugnant. Meanwhile the historical enemy of South Korea has been Japan and every museum is unequivocal in its condemnation of the "savage", "barberous" and "murdering Japanese". The role of the traditional national enemy has been cast and Japan is too firmly established in the main role to give way to the understudy. This anger remains very real a good example is provided by the furore created by Shinzo Abe (Japan's  PM) comments about comfort women (girls forced into prostitution during the Japanese occupation) last year caused a major diplomatic incident. This deep-rooted hatred leaves little room to consider the real threat and to younger Koreans who share much culturally with Japan this must be very confusing and diminish the seriousness with which the North is viewed. Resentment of military service and its tedium has caused the North Korean to be clouded with pessimism that reunification will ever occur. The city on the boarder, Paju has resorted to bribing its residents by creating a tax and military service exempt haven with the 'cleanest rice in Korea'. Paju's motto 'preparing for reunification' is undermined by a visibly underpopulated place. Amid such powerful current concerns and a history still too painful to do anything but commemorate,  future dreams have been indefinitely delayed. Anger and bitterness are normal symptoms of bereavement and teenage apathy can distract from a shared wish to see a united Korea in principle. 

Hunched over tourists are invited to creep down through the Third tunnel, which was discovered in 1978you can still touch the charcoal coated on the walls which aimed to disguise the North's plan to invade Seoul in a multiple pronged attack. Only four of the tunnels have been discovered so far. After 350 metres the path is sealed by three rows of cement but a small chink is left open to gaze into the darkness. Staring through this sliver is how it must feel for Koreans as they witness the arbitrary violence of the regime that starves there fellow Koreans who remain waiting deep in the darkness of the future. A monument to hope shines in the bright white modernity of Dorsan station which hopes to reconnect the Seoul-Sinuiju line. The cleanliness of the empty station is haunting and desperately sad, the departure board to Pyongyang does not dare show a sign. Hope for the future permeates the building and silently waits amid the uneasy humour and shaking heads a real belief that a Korea united could fulfill its potential. The South will be open and ready, waiting for families when they can finally come home. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

24 hours in a Buddhist Monastery

2:00 - I stepped off the bus from Gyeonbokgung station relieved to have not trampled my neighbours' foot to oblivion. Looking around it is striking to move from the urban desert to a mountainous suburbia. As I began to climb up the slope I saw a crowd of people gathered around a feathered lamppost hung in the air. Coming closer I witnessed the tragicomedy of Korean soap television. A car-crash scene acted with a car-crash of chemistry between the two characters. It was hard to not stay transfixed by the Victorian melodrama of sweeping gesticulations and much ersatz wailing and gnashing of teeth, but I carried on my climb.

Though this little observation seems to fit rather clumsily and materially into what could otherwise been a tale of epoch defining spiritual awakening it can be shorehorned to represent a little context to the position of Buddhism in Korean society. For with all the subtlety of Korean advertising, the cars that collided were between a Hyundai hatchback against a white van made by Nissan. The leading car manufacturer of Korea crashed at a T-Junction with a Japanese van. With this seamless segue I introduce the prime difficulty for Buddhism in Korea. Buddhism was introduced to Korea by Japanese monks and so consequently by the 15th Century it was established as the religion of invaders and oppressors. Consequently at the first (of many subsequent half-life attempts) exuberant eruptions of independence the Yi dynasty (the 'liberating' Chinese dynasty) chased the Monks to the mountains. They have stayed ever since. 

2:30 - I cannot pretend my knowledge of Korean Buddhism is extensive. All I know was gained by sitting on a rock above the Geumsunsa temple killing time by reading a really charming lecture by Frederick Starr. He was an American who in 1918 went on a tour around Korea in a rickshaw with an interpreter and some woollen suits. In one amusing tale he hectored some Monks for not showing him enough respect for not greeting him at the lijumun  which is the gate that marks the boundary of sacred space. The walk up the mountain is supposed to represent a spiritual journey and part of the Zen process. Being in a moment of simultaneous nothingness and oneness in the total present is paid no heed to by the armies of Korean hikers. Like ants they march; visors on, backpacks slung, sticks aloft, boots laced. They trample up the hill in their hundreds. 

3:30 - I entered into the monastery under a purple Templestay banner. This is the company which has resurrected modern Buddhism in Korea under the broad title of Jogye. I passed underneath the bell tower  past two dogs nursing puppies. On entering the central courtyard I was immediately greeted by Moonyum, a very enthusiastic and kind volunteer. In halting English he demanded money and though tempting to create a caricature of rapacious monks, they certainly have a financial saviness which has allowed the maintenance of twenty-four temples despite relatively few practioners, according to 'The Economist' about a quarter of Koreans consider themselves Buddhist. Geumsunsa has only five practioners for instance. On entering a large wooden room, 60,000 Won lighter I met the other guests. Half were Korean and the vast majority were female, they were resiliently maintaining their perpetual quest for wifi. The other noticeable people were Ricky and Jeremy two Wall Street bankers anxiously worrying about the state of their private room. 

5:30 - The anti-climax of the rushed tour of the temple was erased by the magic of the drumming that calls the monks to prayer, like the call of the imam and the tolling of the Church bells it carries a sense of both communal expectation and ephemeral beauty. Four drums are used, a large canvas is played with great skill using both ends of a drumstick pair, it is a call to the beasts of the earth and mimics a four-legged gallop. The fish drum hangs higher and has a wooden slit underneath with one end thicker than the other, the monk plays from low to high and back as if scouring the depths of the ocean. A cloud gong hangs in the sky while the huge gong that requires a battering ram that summons all to the Buddha Ho, the central ceremonial space. I have passed over dinner, a description of Vegetarian Korean food would only give me another opportunity to wallow in as much self-pity as I did at the time. 

6:30 - Buddhist art has never had a Renaissance, the Buddha-ho has a largely universal form. At the front is a large Golden statue of the Buddha whose weight fluctuates by nation from emaciated in India to enormously fat Chinese Buddhas. Like so much of Korean Buddhism he poses rather neutrally of medium weight flanked by two Bhoddivitas. We shuffled to the back, nervously finding mats and beginning the protestations, this daily ritual which involves collapsing to ones knees, the head touches the floor. Your palms turn to face the lantern festooned hall and are raised. Then with lithe nimbleness the monks, as if on a surfboard gracefully stand, palms touching. This is utterly exhausting especially after completing the sacred one hundred and eight expected as a daily minimum requirement. Each one is prompted by a stick clacked against the wooden floor. The drum, the literal heartbeat of music captures the paradox of the Buddhist ethic. It is entirely about driving the self to Enlightenment meanwhile the loud and the audible pulse of the personal journey is magnetic to others. Hence why this eclectic group shuffled and bowled humming out of tune as the monks ended the ceremony chanting at the two sacred images which have a status as significant as icons in the Orthodox Church. On the left is a shrine dedicated to the ill and the dieing. While on the right is a frightening canvas full of grotesque images of warriors which feels out of place in the incense filled calmness. 

7:30 - I then endured the agony of the lotus position during Zen meditation practice. The training and mental endurance required to train the mind to focus on your breath for even fifteen minutes is infuriatingly difficult as your concentration wonders into the recess of your consciousness. I was dissapointed that the dust of scattered thoughts that my mundane mind kicked up were achingly benile worrying about whether I had left my gas stove on in my flat, said a pretentious thing at a party many months ago and wandering what monks do at night if a mosquito buzzes in their ears, can they swat it? 

7:50 - With great relief we were released from Meditation and uncoiling my limbs I sat on a balcony looking down at the mass of lights they call Seoul. The sense of calm derived less from the rigorous exercise both physical and mental but primarily from breathing clean air leant to a sense of total serenity. It was short-lived as I was joined by a director of Abv brewery who came to seek peace from the stresses of his work, he promptly immortalised the sensation with a selfie, no doubt he looks at the slightly puzzled and lost face he made in the darkness on the crowded subway when he needs motivation to work! 

8:00 - An aspect of the great commerciality of Zen Buddhism is its emphasis on 'the present' which when explained badly it becomes painfully simplistic. This has given rise to the packaged, instant-healthy-lifestyle propounded by yoga-pant clad, smoothie sipping, 'gurus' propounding Mindfulness. A continuing allegory used throughout the day comes directly from the first Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Who when trying to explain to his followers how to seek this clarity compared it to stepping into a pond. When we step into a pond it immidiately becomes clouded and filled with stones and pebbles and it becomes impossible to see the floor. The only way to gain clarity in the pond is to stand still and attain oneness. So far so simple. What is them carefully emitted is the attempt to also create a sense of nothingness an idea so profoundly complex I begin to question why bother getting in the pool in the first place. Back to the simple part of being in the present requires simple creative and fiddiley tasks of craft so we sat cross legged making bead necklaces. It was so infuriating to try and get the beads on the string that I went to bed on the floor of my dormitory far more flustered than when I had left it. 

4:30 - The drum clacked and the low chant rumbled past the dormitory. We were called to the morning wake-up in the depths of the black night. I spent so long being in 'the present' that by the time I had dragged myself from the shower I was late for the ceremony. Panic and guilt at upsetting the devotions of the Monks caused my fingers to shake uncontrollably as I fumbled on a thick grey flannel vest and trousers in an outfit; part Elephant in the school nativity play, part Guantanamo bay's yearly wash has blended fabrics. 

5:05 - I sheepishly sidled to the back stepping over a monk facing the gong at the back of the wall, the intensity of his gaze is strangely eery but also comic as though he has been sent to the back of the room for mischief. The chanting and bowing began as before, a couple of the more confident tried to mumble the intonation of the chant to discover subtle changes in pace. Still the tune picks up at the end into a magical crescendo as the wall to the dead and the wall of protective spirits are both in turn addressed with a call for both rebirth and protection in this life. 

5:25 - I collapsed into the living room and had tea with the two French guys who I shared my dormitory with. One romantically had met his girlfriend in Paris when he was teaching French lessons and now she was teaching him Korean. His friend, less romantically,  came to make the springs between those railings required to suspend bridges. 

6:40 - Breakfast involved a fascinating ceremony an emphasis on moderation and frugality. After eating a small portion of rice, Kimchi, vedgetables, a clear beansprout soup and a yellow radish we were instructed to not eat. One of the few prohibitions imposed over the whole weekend.The monk leading the meal ate a truly tiny portion when he had finished everyone hurried to shovel down their seconds. Then a pony tailed American with the softly spoken voice, twitch in the eye and disconcertingly friendly manner (that I imagined all 'converts' are like) poured rice tea into the soup bowl. Using the tea as edible fairy liquid and the radish as a sponge we swished it around the bowl to wash the dregs. The tepid tea followed by the dregs takes an uncomfortable effort to drain and left in the bowl you stare at the yellow grimace at the bowl. 

8:50 - A monk then met us in the courtyard underneath the clear but cold sky. She made us play a game reminiscent of GCSE drama warm-ups, we held hands in a circle and while still holding hands you all change places. Zen twister is much less fun. We then had to get back to our original position, in the carnage of limbs I only regained one hand after a scrabble and when we reformed I ended up facing away from the circle. The monk explained that this expressed the way that Buddhism relies on realignment and cooperation with others. For me it seemed to show something far more revealing, if you try and take shortcuts you will miss the entire point and end up facing the wrong way. She then led us up the mountain on a short hike like a mountain goat despite being barely taller than the rocks she skipped over. We found ourselves on a rock that learned over the valley. We sat on small mars and tried to focus entirely on the self, it was a remarkably powerful sensation amongst the trees, except the slight rustling of Jeremy trying to get comfortable. With deep regret, after an all too brief hour we descended. 

10:00 - The closing tea ceremony provides an opportunity to talk with an English-speaking monk. Like much of Korea's proported skill with languages the reality is more of a challenge. The rather concise translations provided by Moonyum suggested that this was Zen distilled into his vision rather than the monks. I would much rather have heard about the Monk's personal journey which I'm sure has far more drama than the average Korean soap. However, the director from ABV was not messing around and went for all the big hitters; reincarnation, existence of God and compatibility with Christianity. The monks composure and ease with the world was awe inspiring though her formula of answers was probably not done justice when rendered into English. She used many examples from natural imagery then projected it back into the teaching of the Buddha with the answer being explained in the extended metaphor, which is elegant and satisfying as allegories but feels like an evasive use of gushing springs and grains of sand. Sadly, I was too hungry eating rice crackers provided with the tea to ask the most pivotal question: would you swat away a mosquito if it landed on your face at night? 

I guess I shall never know.