Day Five: Tapgol Park, Jogyesa, Foster Family Visit, Dinner with S, Namdaemun

All of our days in Seoul were wonderful (no, I’m not exaggerating), but this one was a favorite. We knew we’d be meeting Mr. C. later that afternoon to visit K’s foster family, but the rest of the day was somewhat unscripted.

It was raining when we woke up. For late June, I guess, we’d been pretty lucky. Somewhere in or near July, Seoul’s rainy season starts. We only had a few mornings of rain our whole week. We took our umbrellas with us and headed out.

Our first stop? This little restaurant right around the corner:

Ever since reading this blog/website about Korean food I’d been intrigued about all the little restaurants with Korean-only menus. Not only is the food incredibly cheap ($10 would be a large multi-course meal), but it sounded like the food was really good! It’s kind of the equivalent of an American diner. A rainy morning seemed like the perfect morning for a little Korean comfort food. The restaurant interior:

I chose this (warm mushroom and veggie juk, or porridge):

D chose this (I think it was ddokguk: soft rice cakes, egg, and small pieces of meat in a beef broth):

If you know D, you know that soup isn’t his thing. Never has been, even though soup is one of my favorite things. “Too liquidy,” he says. Well, apparently Korean soup is so good it’s made a soup person out of him, because at the end of this meal he said words I never thought I’d hear: “We should eat more soup.” Wha?!

This was our basic set-up (notice the basin of metal chopsticks and spoons):

The food was delicious. While we sat and ate, there was a woman in the storefront window making kimbap at a rate I couldn’t believe.

Her kimbap must have been popular, because a steady stream of business people came in to buy rolls (and at $1 or $2 a roll, what a cheap and healthy lunch!). Since D was now a soup convert, I thought I’d encouraging kimbap (he swears he’ll never eat sushi or any kind of seaweed roll):

Nope. Oh well, more kimbap for me!

It was still raining after breakfast. Umbrellas in hand, we set out for Tapgol Park. It’s just a short walk from our hotel, and on our last try (day two) it was closed.

The map of the park:

The brochure:

click to enlarge

This morning it was open…and better still, the rain kept other tourists away. It was just us and the regulars…small groups of older men who sat at the pavilion to read and talk, and individual men who prayed at the sacred sites.

Sitting on the steps:

Praying (he was also doing some sort of physical exercise against the pillars; we weren’t sure what it was):

Tapgol Park isn’t large, but it has a lot of sights. National treasures #2 and #3 are here, and the octagonal pavilion at the center of the park is where the Declaration of Independence was first read, and where the 1919 (March 1) independence movement began. The movement was ruthlessly crushed by the Japanese occupation, and Tapgol Park contains several monuments memorializing the independence fighters and their unsuccessful struggle.

Some of the sights…

At the center of the park is the octagonal pavilion.

From it’s plaque: This pavilion, built in 1897, was originally used for musical performances for the royal family during the time of the Great Korean Empire, but it also has meaning as the place where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud at the time of the March First Independence Movement of 1919.

Beginning on the morning of March 1, 1919 four to five thousand students and the crowd gathered in Tapgol Park and read the Declaration of Independence. They waved Korean flags and shouted “Long live Korean independence!” Then the crowds headed for Daehanmun, and thus began the demonstrations of the March First Movement, which spread across the whole country.

Around the western edge of the park are ten metal reliefs depicting the March First Movement. Hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested. In the country-wide movement for independence, over 7,000 were killed by the Japanese. Most of the courageous teachers and leaders who read the Declaration at Tapgol Park were locked up in Seodaemun Prison…a place known for torture of prisoners.

One of the park gate roofs in the rain:

March 1st memorial writing:

The Wongaksa pagoda is South Korea’s National Treasure #2, and dates from 1467. It’s encased in a glass and metal building, but you can still see some of the pagoda’s details of you get close:

From the plaque: This 12 meter-high stone pagoda once stood in the early Joseon-era temple, Wongaksa. In 1465, Heungboksa temple, which had stood here since the Goryeo era, was rebuilt and renamed Wongaksa. This pagoda was built three years later, in 1467.

In 1947 the upper three levels, which had long lain scattered on the ground, were restored to their original state. This marble pagoda is unique in form, being the most recent of all pagodas designated national treasures. Also, the structure has been built in a refined and richly ornate, thus making it a superior work of a kind not found in any other Joseon-era stone pagodas.

National treasure #3 is a stone stele (tablet) from 1471, recording the history of the Wongaksa temple. It’s in the building I showed earlier, where the man in blue was praying. Like many other stele in Korea, it rests on the back of a turtle…a symbolic means of passage from the secular world to the idealized world of Paradise.

From the plaque: This monument was built in 1471 and records the history and founding of Wongaksa Temple, which was built in 1465.

The monument is 1.3 meters wide and 4.94 meters high. The turtle-shaped base is made of granite, while the head and monument are made of marble. The turtle-shaped head and body of the monument are made of one stone, and on the head of the monument are two elaborately carved intertwined dragons rising toward the sky and holding a wish-fulfilling Buddhist gem (yeouiju; Sanskrit: cintamani).

We wandered around Tapgol park, sat at the pavilion, and enjoyed the quiet and the rain. It’s a very peaceful place, or at least it was that morning, and it was nice to sit and watch the world go by for a little while. We weren’t the only ones who seemed to think so.

We walked back down Insadong-gil, and tried to get some frozen yogurt at Red Mango (which after a few days became either “The Elusive Red Mango” or “The Forbidden Red Mango” because it was always just closing or not quite open when we’d walk by). Closed again. Just up the street, though, is Bizeun, a trendy little tea shop and “riceteria” with a delicious creation called eng tu cha (sweet cherry tea, I think?). Cool, sweet, deliciousness.

We sat at the little table in the window and watched traffic move up and down Insadong street, then continued walking up toward Jogyesa. On Insadong-gil, near our hotel, is a little kkultarae stand that’s so well-known it’s in most of the guide books we read. If you spend thirty seconds anywhere in its vicinity, you’ll hear why…the guys who run it are hilarious.

Kkultarae is type of candy once served at court. A hardened block of honey is stretched and rolled in cornstarch until it becomes 16,000 individual threads. It’s then rolled around a mixture of sweetened nuts, and eaten in little bite-sized pieces of sweet fluff. It’s chewy, but it also melts in your mouth. Good stuff!

You can see someone else’s video of its production (along with some of the verbal antics) here:

More walking in the rain (this time snacking on kkultarae), gradually making our way toward Jogyesa. We stopped on the way at a little artists’ shop to inquire about having a name stamp made for K. More on that later…

Jogyesa during the day is a very different place than at night. I’m glad we were able to see both. On this day it was very, very crowded. Some sort of service was taking place in addition to all the other people that were there to pray, so people were everywhere. It was standing room only inside, and outside people were spreading out prayer mats under the eaves.

There was prayer and chanting, later followed by a choir singing a song that seemed similar to what we used to sing in church. You can hear a little of the prayer and chanting in this video I found (recorded by someone else on a different day):

For a look into Jogyesa at its most festive, see this video taken at the Buddha’s birthday celebration in 2008. Other pictures of Jogyesa…

At the side entrances, you take off your shoes before entering (only the monks use the front entrances):

Standing room only:

Prayer books:

A monk (wearing the traditional Jogye grey robes) looking in:

Prayer cloth:

Monks walking across the grounds with their golf umbrellas:

Offerings for Buddha (and a ceiling hung with paper lanterns):

Details of the exterior painting:

Jogyesa bell pavilion:

A charming little donation box with a smiling Buddha and an offering someone left…bottled water and Pringles:

Jogyesa has a little shop across from the temple where you can buy Buddhist prayer beads, traditional dyed fabrics, trinkets, prayer books, foods etc. that support the work of the temple monks. We spent quite a while in the shop looking around, and bought a few things for family and friends. For our older daugther, who loves stickers, we got these:

Buddhist monks playing sports!

And I liked this image (on a piece of cloth), so I brought it home:

If you’re curious about Jogye Buddhism or Buddhism in general, this FAQ from the Jogye website is an interesting read.

The main street near Jogyesa is lined with dozens of stores selling Buddhist items. We wanted to bring home a model of a Korean bell in a cherrywood stand (our kids would have loved ringing it) and a bronze Buddha, but we were a little dismayed at the prices and thought we could come back later if we didn’t find something we liked elsewhere. Note to self: when on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, if you find something you really like…get it. We never made it back to those shops.

It was getting close to our meeting time with Mr. C., so we went back to our hotel to change, then bought flowers for K’s foster mom at a local shop (I wish we had bought a plant instead…turns out she has a green thumb):

We took the subway to Meet Mr. C., then took a taxi to Mrs. S.’s home. K’s foster family lives in a high rise on the north side of Seoul. This is the view:

I don’t want to post public pictures of her home, but the time we spent there was wonderful. Mrs. S. was so kind and friendly, and she seemed more willing to give us advice about K than she had been at the orphanage. She was concerned about the photo we’d sent of K’s future bedroom (with a double bed), and was relieved when we assured her K would only sleep there when she’s much older. We had a snack of watermelon (one of K’s favorite foods) and rice cakes, and spent a couple of hours talking.

We got to see K in her home environment, which on its own made the cost and effort of traveling to Seoul more than worth it. It was such a gift to see the games she played with Mrs. S., to hear about her life in the past months and about Mrs. S’s family, and to see all the little ways K was comforted, made happy, fed, held, washed, dressed… not only did it give us a window into the care she’d received (such wonderful care), but it helped us make K’s transition a little easier.

We’ve tried to maintain similar routines…even down to the lotion Mrs. S. used after baths (Johnson’s baby lotion) and K’s favorite snacks (which took up half a suitcase on our way home). Best of all, we were able to establish the beginning of a relationship with Mrs. S….exchanging addresses, email, and making plans to exchange photos and letters in the years to come. K will always have a connection to her family in Seoul.

We left Mrs. S’s home (past her enormous tomato plants out on the balcony). We thought we’d be seeing her two days from now when K was brought back to the orphanage for the trip to the US, but it didn’t turn out that way. The last time we saw Mrs. S. she was holding K, waving and smiling, framed by tomato bushes taller than she is and a view of Seoul in the background. I hope we’re able to meet again someday, perhaps with our whole family in tow.

Leaving Mrs. S.’s:

Saying goodbye to Mrs. S. also meant saying goodbye to Mr. C. His kindness meant the world to us. Without his help, I don’t think we would have been able to have this window into K’s life with Mrs. S. We were so sad to see him go, and we hope either he can visit the US or we can visit him again in South Korea…though perhaps next time we could come to his region of South Korea. It sounds beautiful. Thank you so much, Mr. C.!

Late in the afternoon we returned to the store of the name stamp artist. He had given us a design for K’s name (in the Korean characters rather than the Chinese ones), and we wanted to run it by Mr. C. before deciding on it.  Mr. C. thought the circles in the characters should be hollow dots instead of solid ones, and the artist had a good laugh when we communicated that. It took us a little while to understand, but he was laughing because solid dots are part of his artistic style. Essentially, we were telling him to change his style. Whoops. Once we understood, D and I agreed that we wanted him to make the name stamp as he saw fit. We agreed on a design, picked out a stone, and agreed to return the next day.

That evening we had a special treat…we were going to meet S., a South Korean blogger I’d met when I asked around for photos of K’s birthday. S. didn’t have photos from that day, but she very kindly volunteered to translate some of the headlines and stories from K’s birthday.

When we found out we could travel to Seoul to meet K, I emailed her and asked if she’d like to meet. We nearly missed each other because of timing, but in a crazy coincidence it turned out she works in the office building right next to our hotel. In a city as enormous as Seoul, what are the chances of THAT?! In another strange coincidence, her English nickname (Sunny) is the meaning of K’s English name.

We were so excited to meet her. She met us at our hotel after work, and we walked to a restaurant in Insadong. I wish I’d taken a photo of the exterior, or even the restaurant name, because it was our favorite meal in Seoul. It seemed to be a very popular restaurant…the upper level was full, so we went to the basement level to find an open table. The interior looked like this (that’s the menu on the wall):

The main dish had three components…a bowl of rice, a basket of greens (chives and lettuce?), and a bowl of stew (a type of doenjang jjigae, I think?). When mixed all together, the flavor was incredible (!!) and looked like this:

That’s the stew in the background. Different varieties can have tofu, meat, veggies, shellfish, or a combination of several. Ours had tofu and veggies. Here’s a recipe for a slightly different doenjang jjigae. You can bet I’ll be attempting several versions in the near future…D can’t stop talking about how good it was.

The meal had great side dishes (banchan), too. Soup, oi-kimchi (stuffed cucumber kimchi), a salted marinated beef (D ate almost all of that himself):

salty dried fish (I tried it…pretty good, actually.)

This might have been yeolmu kimchi (young summer radish kimchi). Whatever it was, it was beautiful and delicious:

S. was a great dinner companion. She’s lived and worked in other parts of the world, she’s funny, and she was really patient with all our silly questions about Seoul (there were many). Why is so little water served with meals? What’s with the English t-shirts? Why is Korean food so good but so healthy? Is it okay that I’m always taking pictures of the food (A: Yes, because South Koreans are always taking pictures of their meals for their blogs, too.). She asked us our favorite sights so far, and encouraged us to get out of the city a little to appreciate the outdoors. We talked about our impressions of Seoul, about her work and plans, and about adoption.

One question S, Mr. C., and P. & J. all asked us was why are we adopting a child from South Korea? It’s a good question to answer, because not so long from now it’s a question K will be asking. The answer isn’t one simple reason, but a long list of logical reasons, random chance, and personal leanings.

We’re adopting a child because we’ve always wanted to. Because ten years ago, when D and I were dating, we talked about it and decided we wanted children to love, and it didn’t matter how they joined our family. Birth or adoption, they’d be our own. Back in college we also had lofty ideals about overpopulation, and environmental footprints, and only having one biological child at most, but over the years that’s faded. The truth is, the plans to adopt have been around so long that do-gooder reasons don’t really apply anymore. When you dream of a child for years on end, that dream becomes your motivation. Selfless turns to selfish, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s just my opinion, but I don’t believe do-gooder motivations hold up very well under the strains of parenting.

So why South Korea? We enjoy traveling, and always pictured adopting internationally…probably from Asia. For a long time we’d assumed we’d adopt from China, but for lots of reasons that wasn’t an option for our family. When the time came to get serious about adopting, we looked at all the programs and the South Korean program seemed like a perfect match for us. There was so much we liked about how children are treated in South Korea (small orphanages, foster care, access to great medical care, accurate medical reporting, the chance to know birth/first parents, a predictable process mostly free of corruption, etc.). We appreciated the changes happening in South Korea, and the gradual push for increased domestic adoption and increased support for single mothers.

We also liked the idea of having a relationship with South Korea and its culture. When we adopted, we knew we’d want to make that country and culture a part of our lives…through travel, through holidays and customs. If you’re going to have a lifelong tie to a place, and spend precious family vacations returning to a country, best to make it a country you think you’ll like, right? We read about Korea, about its history, about its climate, food, customs, people. It was definitely a country we wanted to explore, and a country we felt we could embrace with genuine enthusiasm.

So those are our reasons for adopting, and for choosing South Korea. Hopefully I can polish that up a bit and make it a little less rambling when 3-year-old K pops the question.

Back to dinner with S. After our incredible meal and happy conversation, she suggested tea. We went to a tea house she liked…a quiet little place in a second story overlooking Insadong-gil. We ordered her suggestions for tea (plum tea and red berry tea…both delicious), then spent more time talking. She gave us the articles she translated from K’s birth day (they’re in K’s memory book already!), and we talked a little more about all her travels and about our meetings with K. We were having such a good time, and the chance to sit and talk with S. (who really knows Seoul, and has all kinds of interesting stories) was one of our favorite parts of our trip to Seoul.

Before we knew it, it was late. S. had been out late the night before, and we felt guilty about keeping her out so late this evening. We said our goodbyes. Thanks so much for the relaxing, delicious, enjoyable evening, S.!  Best of luck in your future travels!

We walked away feeling so lucky…what a great night! Rather than go home to our hotel, D and I decided to go late-night sightseeing. We were more than halfway through our trip to Seoul, and we were getting worried we wouldn’t be able to see or do all that we had planned. All the guidebooks say that Namdaemun market is open all night, and that sounded fun… from Frommer’s 2008 South Korea: “Namdaemun is the largest traditional market in the country and going strong since 1414. They say if you can’t find it here, it probably doesn’t exist. There are no set hours, which vary by store, but the shijang is bustling any day of the week. Serious bargain hunters come for the night market from midnight to 4am.”

Bargain hunting? Traditional market? Vendors, shops, and alleyways? Sounds great!!

The main gate of Namdaemun Market:

And it would have been great…in theory. Turns out 11pm isn’t the best time to see Namdaemun. Though some shops are open, 90% or more of them are closed. Most of what you see are deliveries taking place for the next day’s market, or people closing up their stalls, stores, and restaurants. In a city less safe than Seoul (it’s so safe!), it would have been a darkish scary place to be at night.

This is a good picture of what it was like…lots of store signs, but almost all the vendors had packed up and left their stores covered in black tarps.

Some shops were open, though.

We checked out these two toy stores for Pororo:

And looked at all the beautiful kinds of wrapping paper for sale in this alleyway store (it’s a shame the lighting was so harsh…the colors of the paper were incredible):

A ginseng store was just closing (the ginseng stores kinda creeped D out…most of them had large posters with ginseng roots in the shape of human bodies, preserved in bottles and covered with wispy roots. I thought it was kinda cool.):

And restaurant alley was still bustling, with sample dishes set out to draw in potential customers:

The one thing we wanted from Namdaemun was a hanbok for K’s first birthday celebration (called a Tol in Korea). A few hanbok stores were open at that time of night, but the hanboks they sold weren’t the nicest. We knew we couldn’t leave Seoul without that special purchase, so we made plans to come back during the day.

Before leaving, we sat down at Namdaemun Gate. The wooden structure of Namdaemun dates back to 1447. Namdaemun Gate, or “Great Southern Gate,” was South Korea’s #1 National Treasure, and was destroyed by arson earlier in the year by a man who held a grudge against the government. Now there’s a temporary enclosure around it, and at the window you can see scaffolding for rebuilding.

Namdaemun is surrounded by business buildings, the market, and busy city streets, but it sits in the middle of a green lawn with a plaza and benches. I’d seen old photos of Namdaemun all over the internet and in books, and before it matched the bustle and bright lights of its location. It was ancient in the middle of modern, but it was grand and bright and busy. The night we visited, it just seemed quiet. Still. Almost like it was asleep behind its new blue walls.

They’re rebuilding. I hope when we return with K and the rest of our kids we can see it as it was. We sat for a long while and looked, then wandered back through the market and back to our hotel. G’night, Seoul.

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~ by themagpiesnest on June 25, 2008.

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