Temples and Tombs


 During my first weekend in Korea I didn’t get to see a football match. I’d had a bit of an eventful night out in one of the livelier parts of town, Itaewon, on the Friday, followed by having to view a few apartments on the Saturday whilst nursing a hangover. The combination of the previous nights drinking, no breakfast and a touch of car sickness was making me a little nauseous and was introducing a note of tension to my apartment search. I don’t know what the house viewing etiquette is like in Korea, but certainly back in the UK if you asked to use the bathroom whilst looking around and then vomited loudly in their toilet, you probably wouldn’t be regarded as a particularly desirable tenant. Even less desirable if you failed to reach the bathroom and just hurled your guts up in their front room. But what would you do then, particularly if you didn’t speak a word of Korean? Just smile and shrug, perhaps? How about bowing? I’ve already noticed that they do that quite a bit over here. But if so, how deeply? I read in one of the guide books that the full bow to the waist is rarely used in Korea these days and it’s more usual now just to lower the head a bit. Well, if you have already lowered your head once and deposited the previous evening’s noodles across their polished wooden floor then I doubt that looking like you may be doing it again is going to make amends. Perhaps a quick nod of the head and then running for the door would be the best option, particularly if your potential landlord felt obliged to politely return the bow before grabbing a kitchen knife and giving chase. The downside with attempting a speedy exit though is that with all of the apartments I’d seen I’d had to take my shoes off before entering. It’s not easy to make a quick getaway when you are struggling to tie your laces. Fortunately I managed to stave off the urge to vomit and after viewing four apartments and enduring four traffic jams I found one that would do.

So, with the accommodation for the next nine months sorted out, what to do for the rest of the weekend? I’d checked the fixtures for the Sunday games and saw that the club that is nearest to me, Seoul F.C, was playing away. Not really knowing where the other clubs were, or even how to use the subway yet, I thought I’d leave the football for a week and just have a wander around. There were a couple of places in the guidebook that were reasonably close to my hotel, a Buddhist temple at Bongeunsa and the tombs of some of the long dead Kings and Queens of Korea. I had a walk along to the temple first and discovered that rather than it being one big building, it was actually a number of small temples on the same site, some no bigger than and bearing a remarkable resemblance to a garden shed. The various temples seemed very similar to each other in that they were all just rooms for praying in. That’s the nature of temples I suppose. I’m not really one for praying, but I am one for noseying around. First though, I had to take my shoes off again, that’s even more of an important thing in temples apparently than it is in apartments.

 There weren’t any security lockers or places to exchange your shoes ‘ten pin bowling style’ for a pair of slippers. Instead you just left them outside the door of the temple with everyone else’s and went inside in your socks. I left my size twelve’s alongside a few dozen pairs of much smaller footwear and went in. The inside of the temple was pretty much like any church hall or community centre, that is with the exception of the three great big gold painted Buddha’s that filled one side of the room. We didn’t have anything like them in the church hall at home, which is probably just as well really as there wouldn’t have been much space left for the ping pong table. There were about fifty people sat or knelt on the floor, bowing or praying, possibly even both. I stood just inside the door, watched for a while and said a brief prayer asking that nobody would be led into temptation to have it away with my shoes and then I slipped back outside again.

 The power of prayer is obviously pretty good in Bongeunsa as my shoes were exactly where I left them, possibly helped by them being a good three or four sizes bigger than anything worn by any of the other worshippers and also them being a whole lot scruffier than most of the other footwear. I’m a bit doubtful as to whether you could leave your shoes like that in the UK. You certainly couldn’t have done it in Norton when I was a kid. The temptation to swap all the shoes left by the congregation outside of St Joseph’s church with those left around the corner at St Mary’s would have been too much for us to resist. Even if we couldn’t have been bothered to move a sackful of shoes then I’m sure we would have found time to carefully distribute a box of eggs into the toes of some of the shoes before retiring to a safe distance to watch the fun unfold as the worshippers attempted to head for home.

Some people thinking about sneaking eggs into other people's shoes.

I read afterwards that had I been in town a few weeks earlier then my shoes would have been at much greater risk. In February the Korean Police had arrested a man who had managed to steal 59,000 pairs of shoes from outside temples and restaurants. That’s what happens when sticking eggs into shoes as a child goes unpunished. I’ve no idea whether he only stole shoes in his own size that he intended to wear or whether he had a bit of a thing for something like bright red stiletto’s with 6” heels. Mind you, I didn’t notice many pairs like that outside of the temples, although perhaps every pair that had ever been sold in Korea was currently bagged up as evidence at the Seoul cop shop. Still, a bloke needs a hobby I suppose.

 With the shoe robber no longer much of a threat I wandered further up the hill, glancing into those temples where the door was slightly open and I could see what was going on without having to untie my laces again. It was mainly just more bowing and praying, so I continued up to the top of the hill to see the great big Buddha. I wasn’t overly impressed; it looked quite recently built and was possibly made of concrete. It was about sixty feet high however, which I suppose was relatively noteworthy in a country where the average person seems to be about five feet tall. Some people were lighting candles in front of it or burning incense before saying more prayers. I did a quick circuit of it, headed back down the hill and exited past the gift shop, slightly disappointed that despite one of the temples reputedly dating from the mid nineteenth century, nothing that I’d seen looked to be remotely old. It was more like a Buddha Theme Park than a historical site.

This Buddha was a bit smaller

 Twenty minutes walk away from the temples was a park with the royal tombs in them. I quite like tombs and have seen some fascinating ones over the years including, on a trip to Rome to watch the Boro, one situated below a church in which they had monk skeletons sat around in their habits and with the walls and ceilings decorated with what I presumed were spare bones. You probably don’t need all of the bones when reassembling a dead monk, I imagine they are a bit like an Airfix kit in that respect, you can build it perfectly well and still have a few pieces remaining in the box that, with a little imagination, are just right for decorating your walls. I did hope at the time that it might just influence someone on one of those house makeover programmes where neighbours do up each others houses in an afternoon with a budget of about thirty quid…

 “That space above the fireplace is a bit plain. Tell you what, why don’t you go out into the garden, dig their cat up and glue a few bits on at random. And if you have time after painting the carpet purple nip up to the cemetery and see if you can get a couple of his Grandad’s thigh bones, I reckon they would love a bedside lamp made out of them”

 I visited a tomb in Orkney a few years ago, The Tomb of the Eagles, which was pretty much a family sideline where a farmer had excavated burial mounds on their land which turned out to be the final resting place of people who, a few thousand years ago, thought it would be cool to be accompanied to the afterlife with birds of prey. Fair enough, although I suspect that if you tried it these days the RSPB might have something to say about it. Not to mention the undertaker…

 “You want what put in with him? Where the f**k do you think I’ll get half a dozen Golden Eagles from? Tesco’s? What wrong with a photo of his kids and the Carling Cup Final programme like everyone else has?”

 The best thing about the Tomb of the Eagles though was that on the windowsill of the farmhouse conservatory were a few artifacts that, unlike in most official museums, visitors were allowed to handle. As well as a collection of eagle bones and some bits of pottery, there was a human skull which we passed around between us. It was a little bizarre really, how old do corpses have to be before it becomes acceptable to dig them up and toss them around for amusement?

 I think I would rather I was left in peace. I’d always thought I’d like one of those Zoroastrian ceremonies, where you are just left out in the open and the sparrows snack on you until you are gone. That’s got to be better than waking up from a deep coma six feet under or just as they are turning the gas up at the crematorium. Or at least I did before I saw a programme about it on the telly. There’s nothing peaceful about it. In an effort to speed things up the deceased had his legs, arse and back scored with a knife, possibly, I speculated, with the Zorro ‘Z’ and then a flock of vultures descended and tore him apart in about an hour. If he had had his flesh stuffed with rosemary and garlic I wouldn’t have been surprised. So, after seeing that, my current preferred method of disposal is to donate my body to one of those Forensic Science study places where they just leave you out in the garden to measure the rate of decomposition. That seems much better than waking up after a misdiagnosis and discovering yourself in a coffin with nothing more than an old football programme to read or finding some Tibetan funeral director stuffing herbs into the cuts in your back.

 Anyway, I’ve digressed a bit, so back to the royal tombs in the park in Seoul. There were a few of them and whilst some were as indistinguishable from the park keeper’s sheds as the temples at Bongeunsa, there were three quite good ones. Just mounds really, no eagle or monk bones to see, but plenty of statues around them and about five hundred years old. It wasn’t difficult to imagine how the park would have been in those days, which for those with an especially limited imagination, was pretty much the same as it is now.

An old statue

 There weren’t many other people wandering around from tomb to tomb, but of those that were, a surprising number of them were wearing surgical style facemasks. Perhaps M*A*S*H had been a bigger influence on the place than I’d thought. The masks seem pretty popular in Seoul, they sell them in the little corner shops alongside the sweets and the pot noodles. Coupled with a hat pulled down over the eyes it meant that most people were fairly well disguised, which I suppose is ideal for them if they were planning to nick your shoes. It struck me that if Michael Jackson had ever moved here he could have blended in perfectly with his hat and mask. He could have gone about his business in complete anonymity as long as he had managed to resist the urge to break into a verse of Billy Jean, moonwalk down the High Street or invite small boys back to his apartment to stroke his monkey.

 Meanwhile, about three hundred miles to the South, Jeonbuk Motors were playing away to Jeju United in their second league game of the season. After failing to score in his club’s opening league match or in the midweek Asian Champions League game, Lee Dong Gook had been dropped to the bench. He came on as a second half substitute but he didn’t manage to get a goal in what finished as a 2-2 draw. But I guess that if you are a Boro fan, you could have seen that coming. Next week though, it’s the Lion King in the flesh as Jeonbuk Motors visit Seoul and I get to see my first live K-League match.

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