Hunting World Heritage Sites on our first trip to East Asia
  • Day48

    Kyoto Day 1

    October 14, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    We've got two days here in Kyoto so decided to spread things out a bit. Got up very early and made our first stop the bamboo grove, a site super popular with Instagrammers because it's a pretty looking, well, bamboo grove. You can get some great photos here, so we spent a while taking various photos and glaring at people doing the same thing but paying a bit less attention to their surroundings. Nothing irks me more than standing in a pathway waiting for someone to take a photo, they finish and say thanks, then walk forward directly into where you're about to take a photo. Really?!?!

    Spent about an hour here and it was starting to get busier (plus the area isn't actually that large), so we caught a bus across town to the Thousand Gates walk, which again is exactly what it sounds like. It's a pretty famous Japanese landmark, where there's a thousand or so tori gates covering a pilgrimage trail up a mountain. It was ultra busy at first (like shuffling in a train station queue busy), but it slowly thinned out and you could eventually take photos without other people in them - with a little patience of course.

    Also visited a nearby temple that's part of the Kyoto Temples WHS that we'll mostly tackle tomorrow. Starting to get a bit of temple fatigue, even though they're usually nice and interesting.

    Grabbed a quick 7-11 lunch then headed for the Gion area which is a historic part of Kyoto and where all the geishas used to live. There aren't many still around though they can still be spotted occasionally - just look for the hordes of tourists acting like paparazzi. It was drizzling a bit now and not that pleasant, but we still wandered around for a couple of hours looking at the old wooden buildings. Did a bit of shopping too, where I managed to replace my sunglasses that I'd left at a restaurant a night or two earlier. Shandos also replaced her handbag which was wearing out and starting to die.

    By mid afternoon we were both a bit over it so we headed back to the hotel and chilled out the rest of the day. Went to a nearby ramen restaurant for dinner which was very tasty. You know it's been a good bowl of ramen when you drink a litre of water afterwards and can still taste the salt on your lips!
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  • Day47

    To Kyoto, via Horyuji and Nara

    October 13, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    Super busy day today. Packed up and headed out early, catching the train eastwards for about an hour to near the city of Nara. Our first stop was the Buddhist Monuments of Horyuji WHS, where there were some important temples and pagodas to check out. Thankfully this site isn't as famous as others we've seen recently, so it was relatively quiet which was nice. Though not as quiet as the previous day of course!

    Horyuji is one of the most important locations for Japanese Buddhists, and the spiritual home for one of their main sects. It's also home to what's considered to be the world's oldest wooden building! This building is a beautiful five-storey pagoda that's believed to house a fragment of Buddha's bone, though of course entry is forbidden (and I'm not even sure if it's possible). The pagoda is about 32 metres tall, and dendrochronology (ie, counting rings) suggests that the trees it's made from were felled in around 594 AD. Staggering. There's been fires at the complex in the past but it's managed to survive!

    The temple itself nearby is quite nice too, with impressive statues and the typical Buddhist relics, though photos aren't permitted for a lot of it which I always find a shame. Some people can't be trusted to keep their flashes off I guess!

    Back on the train where we headed to the city of Nara for more ancient temples! Nara was briefly the capital of Japan during the 12th century, and there's some important relics from that period still remaining. These are chiefly Buddhist and Shinto shrines (the two religions happily coexist in Japan as neither demands exclusivity from adherents), but also a palace and a primeval forest.

    Most tourists visit Nara for the famous Deer Park which is exactly what it sounds like, and happily for us, several of the WHS temples are located inside the deer park! So we wandered over after leaving our bags in a locker at the station. Lots of deer around and they're fairly chilled out, so you can buy wafers from local vendors and feed them and pet them which is pretty cool.

    Decided to focus on a few temples: Todai-ji, a large wooden building that houses the world's largest bronze Buddha statue (enormous!), Kofuku-ji which is a 7th century Buddhist temple that had been entirely dismantled and moved twice because the emperor liked it so much (!!), and Kasuga Grand Shrine which is famous for the huge number of stone lanterns outside and bronze lanterns inside. Seriously, there's thousands of them! Very pretty. And there was a wedding happening at the last temple too, which we enjoyed watching for a bit, especially when they were taking Very Serious family portraits and the bride's little niece and nephew refused to behave. Some things never change.

    Wandered back through the deer park in the late afternoon sun and joined the throngs of tourists heading to the station back to Kyoto. Found our guesthouse with no dramas (though it's in an odd spot, very residential) and had our bento boxes for dinner.
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  • Day46

    Typhoon Day

    October 12, 2019 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 15 °C

    Today was the day the typhoon finally passed over, after days of warnings and alarm. Thankfully it passed near Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres away from us, so we weren't really ever in any danger. But we awoke to pretty heavy rain, and decided fairly quickly that our plans for the day were done. I drew the short straw on going out to get breakfast, mainly because I'd said the night before not to bother grabbing any food (dumb), so off I went in the heavy rain and wind to get our typical pikelets and coffee breakfast.

    We spent the morning working on various things in our room, waiting out the storm. After lunchtime the rain had lifted a bit, so we decided that we could still see a bit of what we'd planned, but only if we hurried. So in a big rush we scurried over to the station and caught a train heading south.

    Destination for the day was the Kii Mountains, a peninsula sticking out south from the mainland beyond Osaka. It's long been a sacred spot for Shinto believers, with lots of temples, shrines, pavilions and pilgrimage routes. The biggest issue for us was that because it's a mountain area, you need to access it via a cableway (not a dangling cable car, more like a cogwheel railway like they have in Switzerland), and that hadn't been running in the morning.

    The train journey took about 2 hours, then the brief cable car, and then a short loop bus before we finally arrived at the first and only spot we were going to see: Koyasan temple. Thankfully it was open, though it was going to shut pretty imminently as we'd arrived just by 4pm.

    It was a nice temple to look around, with some beautiful painted screens though I couldn't take any photos of those. It's also home to the largest rock garden in Japan at 2640 square metres which was quite cool! Very zen. Though it felt a bit like Get Smart, as the workers were essentially following us around the tour route and closing each door/window behind us - clearly nobody else was allowed in! Though I'd be surprised if they'd had more than a dozen visitors all day, the entire area was deserted.

    Finished with the temple, we decided to head for one more spot. Caught the bus to where there's a grove of tall cedars lined up around stone lanterns and gravestones, but of course we couldn't go in because branches were down and the place looked a bit of a mess. Should've guessed! Hurried back up to the main road where we got the same bus heading back on its loop, and answered the driver's quizzical look with "ker-osed" and a point in the general direction. He understood!

    Cableway back down, then the two hour train ride back to Osaka where it was now getting on for 8pm. I was bloody freezing since I'd worn shorts and thongs (I basically can't wear my shoes in wet weather now because they're so full of holes), and we hurried back to a chain katsu curry house where we had dinner. Very satisfying to have a thick tasty curry on a cold wet evening.
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  • Day45

    Himeji Castle & Osaka

    October 11, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ☁️ 28 °C

    Packed our bags early again and headed out on the train, eastwards towards the city of Himeji. We wanted another early start as Japan seems to be quite busy at the moment, and tourist sites are always pretty packed. The train was only an hour or so, and we hopped out, dropped our bags in a locker and walked up the main street to Himeji Castle.

    This is another super famous spot, one of the icons of Japan. It looked magnificent, shining brightly in the sun with its white walls and richly coloured wooden support beams. Only problem - schoolkids! Hundreds of them, crossing the moat and invading the grounds. It was going to be a long few hours!

    We got our tickets and headed inside since, what else were we going to do! Himeji Castle had been a fort of various types for centuries, but acquired its current form in the early 17th century after a new warlord took it over and strengthened all the defences. The Japanese call it White Egret Castle because it supposedly looks like a white egret taking flight, and I guess I can kind of see the resemblance.

    The walk from the main gate to the keep entrance was quite interesting, as you keep zig-zagging through narrow passageway and doubling-back etc. It's only about a hundred metres in a straight line, but you have to walk nearly 400 metres to cover the distance - an ingenious defence system since you're vulnerable to shots fired from the walls the whole time.

    Inside the keep itself it was actually quite small, smaller than I was expecting. The whole thing was built of wood and plaster which I wasn't expecting, and the footprint wasn't especially large. Obviously it got smaller as you climbed up, since the castle tapers towards the top. Very crowded in places, mostly with noisy schoolkids but there were a few big tour groups of westerners too (mostly Italian and Spanish I think for some reason). But there were ebbs and flows so you occasionally got a bit of time and space to yourself.

    Back down where we explored a few other more remote areas of the castle which were mercifully free of schoolkids. Wandered through an interesting display about a princess who'd lived in the castle for most of her life, and the modifications she'd made to certain areas. But we were done by lunchtime, so headed back down the main street to the station and collected our bags. Back on the train to Osaka, and then another train further south to Sakai City where we had another WHS to check out - ancient burial mounds!

    Unlike the last bunch we'd seen in Korea, these were at least impressive to look at. The tombs are mostly keyhole shaped, which is quite unusual, and surrounded by moats. They date from the 4th to 6th centuries, and the largest one is absolutely colossal - over 800 metres on the long sides. That makes it the largest known tomb in the world, bigger than the Great Pyramid or the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (Terracotta Warriors guy). Unfortunately we couldn't actually get that close to it, and from across the moat it just looked like a bunch of greenery on a hill.

    The museum nearby was closing but we managed to sneak in just in time. They had a quite well produced video about the tombs (there's about 160,000 keyhole shaped burial mounds in Japan but none elsewhere in the world!), and then a display of artefacts recovered from the mounds. Weapons, armour, pots, jewellery and the like. Since the only spot you could really see the mounds properly was from the air, we headed for the observation deck on the 21st floor of the city hall. But it was about 20 minutes walk and a couple of kilometres away, and by the time we got there it was approaching dusk, so you couldn't really see much. Oh well.

    Another long walk to the train station, mainly because a lot of the trains in Osaka are privately operated and our JapanRail pass only gives us free access to JR trains. Another long walk at the other end for our hotel, but we were finally checked in and done. Headed out in the evening to grab some Osaka specialities for dinner: okonomiyaki (pancake) and takoyaki (squid balls). Very tasty.
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  • Day44

    Exploring Hiroshima

    October 10, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    Up bright and early this morning as we had a lot of stuff to see! First stop was a train ride about 30 minutes down the coast to a ferry wharf, then a ferry across to Itsukushima Island. This island is the location of the famous floating shrine, where an iconic red shinto gateway (⛩) seems to just float in the water. It's not floating, of course, but placed in very shallow water. Unfortunately we couldn't actually see it, as it was covered in scaffolding to clean it before the Tokyo olympics next year! Ah well.

    There's still a whole shrine to see here as well, which we spent a bit of time exploring as it was quite nice. Like the gateway, it's constructed pier-style out over the water so at high tide it looks to be floating. Although we'd missed high tide by an hour or so, it was just sticking up out of mud flats which was a bit funny. The idea is that the island itself is sacred, so the shrine and gateway were constructed out over the water so mortals didn't have to set foot on the island during their pilgrimages. I don't know how that works now, since they have shops and hotels everywhere, and even a cable-car up to the top of the island. A sacred cash cow perhaps.

    We'd started early partly for the tide but also for the crowds, and as we got the ferry and train back to Hiroshima, the crowds heading the other direction were pretty heavy! Grabbed a quick 7-11 lunch in downtown Hiroshima ahead of our next stop: the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. This is the famous domed building that survived being essentially at ground zero of the atomic blast - the bomb went off about 150 metres south-east and 600 metres above the building. It was aimed at the bridge next to the domed building (then known as the Industrial Exposition Hall) and missed by a few hundred metres, but when your bomb obliterates an entire city it doesn't really matter that much.

    70,000 people died instantly, and another 70,000 died over the next 12 months from burns, radiation, injuries and other diseases. Pretty horrible stuff. The building itself survived because the bomb was essentially straight overhead and the pillars were strong enough to withstand a downward blast. It's preserved these days as a memorial for those who died, and is the centrepiece of the Hiroshima Peace Park, which we spent some time exploring. The building itself is also a World Heritage Site - one of the rare ones that focuses on war which UNESCO has typically shied away from.

    We spent a couple of hours in the nearby peace museum as well which again was heavy going. Lots of brutal exhibits - stories, photographs, clothing and personal items from people killed and the like. But I had a slight reaction to it as well, because it slowly dawned on me that it focused entirely on the "what", and didn't even mention the "why". Unlike German museums which are quite open about the fact Germany was essentially destroyed because of the crimes of Hitler, the Third Reich and the Nazis, it almost seemed to treat the bombing as an act of god, like an earthquake or hurricane that just sort of happened. At one point it even glossed over some of the soldiers killed were Korean conscripts - not mentioning that they were only there because Japan occupied Korea and had conscripted these poor guys to fight for Japan!

    Don't get me wrong, was it a horrible thing? Definitely. Was it a war crime? Absolutely. But definitely some food for thought. It's also worth noting that Japan has never actually apologised or even expressed remorse for what happened during the war - not for their aggression, forced labour, comfort women, POWs, nothing. No small wonder that other Asian countries aren't particularly fond of the Japanese. And you'll probably be surprised to find that under Japan's constitutional monarchy, their current emperor is literally the grandson of Hirohito, the wartime emperor. So yeah. Make of that what you will.

    Wandered back to our hotel via a few cool shopping streets which were interesting to check out. Japanese shops tend to be quite intense with a lot of noise, light and writing, so quite a fascinating cultural experience. We also saw a pet shop that had a litter of dachshund puppies which was cute but also a bit sad. Dachshunds are a very popular breed in Japan and we've seen a lot of them already which is cool.

    Back to the hostel where we decided to stay in for the evening instead of heading out.
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  • Day43

    Iwami-Ginzen Silver MIne

    October 9, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ☀️ 20 °C

    Heading north-east today, into one of those random isolated areas that we seem to end up in. Took a series of local trains and by lunchtime we'd arrived in a small two-horse town in the middle of nowhere. This was the location for the Iwami-Ginzen Silver Mine, Japan's most productive silver mine that operated between the late 16th century and the early 20th century. Got some brochures from a very friendly if puzzled lady at the train station, then caught the bus for about an hour out to the actual mine site.

    Had some lunch at a tasty recommended restaurant, then started exploring the town. It's a historic town and fairly well preserved, with a lot of the old buildings built off the silver wealth. Though probably the highlight was walking a couple of kilometres through the forest to find the old mine shafts. It's ticketed and well lit, but wandering through for a few hundred metres was pretty cool. In some places you could see chisel marks where the miners had done their work - remembering most of this was extracted by hand, not explosives.

    Back down to the town, we wandered around for a few hours looking at the buildings, a ruined refinery, shrines to pray for the miners' safety, and graveyards for those who didn't come home. Moderately interesting stuff, about on par with other mining sites we've been to. Hurriedly finished up before getting a 4pm bus all the way to Hiroshima. It would've been cheaper but longer to get a series of trains south to Hiroshima, but the thought of just sitting on a coach for a few hours was fairly appealing, so that's what we did.

    Arrived in Hiroshima after 7pm, where we found the hotel and grabbed some 7-11 food for dinner.
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  • Day42

    Nagasaki

    October 8, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    Up early around 6:30am and headed out to the station to catch our first train, a couple of hours south to the port city of Nagasaki. There's two WHS for us to visit here. The first site relates to Japan's industrialisation of the 19th century, when Japan's isolationist rulers realised that without massive change, they were going to be colonised like the rest of Asia. So after a pleasant tram ride down to the waterfront, we boarded a boat that would take us to Battleship Island, site of a large former coal mine.

    It's a famous spot these days, a tiny speck of land in the ocean covered with tall and crumbling concrete apartment buildings. It was all built for the coal mine between the 1890s and 1960s, which was one of Japan's largest and most productive. These days it's a ghost town, which you might remember from the James Bond movie Skyfall. Unfortunately due to typhoon damage we couldn't go ashore, but it was nice to cruise around a couple of times and get some footage.

    On the way there and back we also got a great view of the huge shipyards in Nagasaki's port. These were massive engines behind Japan's navy in the build-up to World War 2, and their flagship Yamato was built here, though these days they mainly build Princess and Carnival cruise liners. It's part of the World Heritage listing though, which is cool.

    Quick 7-11 lunch, then we walked over to the large cathedral on the hill. This is the centre of our second WHS visit for today, which relates to Christians in Nagasaki. Christianity arrived in Japan in the late 16th century with Portuguese missionaries and St Francis Xavier, and it spread like wildfire. Within a decade or so there was apparently 650,000 Christians in Japan which is quite startling! Suspicious that the missionaries were foreign spies laying the groundwork for colonisation, Christianity was eventually banned for 200 years, only being rescinded in 1863.

    But in the Nagasaki area, many people continued to secretly practice Christianity, worshipping Virgin Mary statues disguised as Buddhas, saying special prayers after they'd been forced to publicly renounce their faith, and passing on the gospel father to son. Unfortunately the site is called "Hidden Christian Sites of Nagasaki" and many of them are just that - hidden away in inaccessible locations. The best we could do is visit the main church in Nagasaki which was built just after the ban was lifted, and where the sudden emergence of all these practicing Christians turning up for church was considered a genuine miracle. The museum here was quite interesting too, showing how missionaries won over local leaders with their western science contraptions that seemed a bit like magic.

    Filming finished, we hurried back to the station and jumped on a train back to Fukuoka. No time to see the atomic bomb museum, but we'll see that particular legacy in a few days. We got back around 5pm, enough time to walk back to the hotel and enjoy their hour of free beer in the bar. More work and some washing, before dinner at a nearby traditional ramen place. Very tasty!

    It's funny how there's always an odd system in Japan. At the ramen place, to order you used a touchscreen at the entrance. You paid, and it would spit out a pair of chits. Take a seat at the counter, give the chits to the guy who then comes back a few minutes later with steaming bowls of ramen. Or on the bus, where you board via the back door and take a ticket with a stop number. When you get off (via the front door only), a screen at the front tells you the cost for tickets stamped with each stop number. You then put your money and tickets in the basket. Very different from Korea where every bus in the country takes the same tap-on/off cards, and to China where every bus in the country is 2 yuan and you just chuck notes in the bucket!
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  • Day41

    To Japan - Okinoshima Island

    October 7, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    Super early departure today, as we had a 7:30 flight out. Out the door by 5:30am and we managed to get a cab pretty quickly, thanks I guess to our train station proximity. It was only a 30 minute ride to the airport, so we got there around 6am with plenty of time to spare. No hitches checking in or going through emigration/security and before long we were in the air for a hilariously short flight of 40 minutes. I think most of that was spent taxiing as well!

    We landed in Fukuoka, took ages in an immigration line but eventually got through with no dramas. Slow bus to the domestic terminal then a subway to Hakata Station in downtown Fukuoka. Spent ages sorting out our J-Rail pass and picking up train tickets for the next two weeks, but eventually that was sorted too. Left our bags in a train station locker before catching a train north to our World Heritage site for the day: the Sacred Island of Okinoshima.

    It's a sacred island about 50km off the coast, and it's forbidden for mere mortals to enter, but we had a plan! After an hour on the train and then an hour on the bus (stuffing things up along the way because systems are quite different here), we got to a particular shrine that is part of the world heritage listing. Shinto is an animist religion that worships essentially animal spirits, and this shrine is devoted to the same spirits that inhabit the sacred island. They're considered to be guardians of safe travel, as fishermen and merchants heading to Korea would leave their offerings on the island. These days people get their Toyotas and Hondas blessed instead.

    We were done with the shrine in about 45 minutes, and the nearby World Heritage museum was closed, so we pressed on with another bus to a ferry terminal on the coast. Here we could (and did) get a ferry to an island off the coast - not the actual sacred island, but one where you could theoretically sometimes see it, and where there was another sacred shrine that was part of the WHS listing. 30 minute ferry ride and a 40 minute walk later we arrived at a beautiful, rugged and isolated spot on the coast. The proper sacred island was still 50km offshore and lost in the haze, but the shrine was nice, if small.

    Finished up filming before we retraced our steps walking, on the ferry, the bus, and the train all the way to Hakata station where we collected our bags and got the subway to our hotel. We were staying in a Japanese capsule hotel - essentially a dormitory where you stay in a bed-sized capsule with a blind for privacy. It was quite a fancy one, with iPods to control lights/fan, and a reclining bed so you could sit properly and have a bit of space. Though unfortunately we'd just missed the free beer at the bar downstairs!

    Settled in before heading out for dinner at a chain curry house around the corner. Japanese style katsu curry, and very tasty.
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  • Day40

    Last Day in Korea

    October 6, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    Our temple stay continued with a fairly typical Buddhist monk wakeup time: 3:50am! They have another drumming ritual starting at 4:07am precisely, so we had to be up in time for that. Much the same as last night, though still quite cool to see. This was immediately followed by morning prayers and meditation in the main hall of the temple, so we followed our guide in.

    I'd figured out that if I folded the prayer cushions three times I could sit high enough to be cross-legged on the floor without much discomfort, so that's what I did! I'm pretty bad at meditating, but it was really cool to sit in the same room as all the monks, seeing them all in lotus position, still as statues. Listened as they went through the ritual singing and chanting, then the worst part which was 10 prostrations before the Buddha. Basically a burpee, you start in a standing position, bow and then kneel before bowing to the floor so that your knees, elbows, nose and forehead all touch the ground. Then you rise to a kneel and stand again. Ten times. I guess if you're meditating properly the pain isn't noticeable.

    Prayers finished, we had an hour before breakfast at 6am which I used for a bit more merciful sleep. Breakfast was much the same as dinner, though less spicy and with a soybean soup that had squishy rice cakes in it, a bit like gnocchi. I wouldn't call it tasty, but it was nice enough. Temple tour at 7am with a monk, though we were mainly revisiting spots we had already seen yesterday. We got to go inside the tripitaka pavilions, but you can't see the actual blocks and no photos are allowed inside.

    A little free time which we used at the coffee machine to load up on caffeine and chat to the others. At 8am we had a woodblock printing session where we got to print our own copies of the Heart Sutra, the same way copies would be printed from the tripitaka. The woodblocks are of course just imprints of what you want to put on the paper, and the Chinese had this printing technology centuries before Gutenberg. His innovation was the idea that having lots of letters meant you could quickly and easily change what was being printed each time. The Chinese, of course, with thousands of characters, didn't have that luxury!

    Last step on the program was chatting with a monk over tea. It was the same monk who had guided us with the meditation the previous night, and it was nice to see her in a slightly less formal setting. Very surprised to learn that she had been at the temple for 30 years, and had started the process when she was 9, so she was at least older than us! But I guess with the shaved head and the genetic "Asian women don't wrinkle until their 50s" thing, she didn't look more than 25.

    The session was nice, but a bit frustrating too because of the language barrier. She spoke a little English and even though our guide interpreted for us, Arlette kept asking odd tangential Marie-style questions (with an additional language barrier since her English was only okay), and the Israeli man kept asking questions by talking about his favourite topic - himself.

    And with that, we were done! Packed up, said goodbye to everyone and hurried down the hill for the 12pm bus back to Daegu, where we got another bus south to Gimhae. This was a flying stop, as there was a tentative WHS to visit here - Tumulus mounds! Ancient burial mounds from kingdom that even pre-dated the Silla. There wasn't much to see in either the museum or the mounds themselves, just a lot of locals walking their dogs around the mounds since it was a sunny Sunday afternoon in a large park. The highlight was probably when we saw two dachshunds! But at least we've been and ticked it off, as Korea will probably push it through in the next couple of years.

    From Gimhae we got an hour-long local bus into central Busan, second-largest city in South Korea. Gimhae is basically a satellite city, sort of like Penrith I guess. Our hotel was downtown near the train station which must have been a good idea when we booked, but it was a long way from the bus station and the airport, both of which we actually needed, so it wasn't a great choice in the end. The room was nice enough, and we passed the evening working before our traditional final meal in a country: McDonalds.
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  • Day39

    Haeinsa Temple

    October 5, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    Another DIY hotel-provided breakfast of eggs & toast, before heading to the bus station and catching a 2 hour bus back eastwards to Daegu. Killed an hour or so of time before our bus to Haeinsa Temple, today's main destination. This is the largest and most important Buddhist temple in Korea, and as usual is located up a mountain in a remote area, surrounded by creeks and forests. We were going to do a temple stay, spending the night at the temple with the monks.

    As we got on the bus there were a couple of other foreigners and then suddenly - Arlette and her sister, our French friends from the other day! Funny coincidence. They were heading for the same temple to do the same temple stay program. Arrived at about 2pm after a long uphill walk from the bus stop, and checked in after a bit of confusion over where to go.

    The program didn't start until 4pm, so we headed over into the temple itself and checked it out. The main highlight (and the reason it's a World Heritage Site) is actually because of two pavilions at the back of the temple that hold a genuine national treasure: the Koreana Tripitaka. The Tripitaka is a collection of Buddhist sutras, mantras and other writings, sort of like a bible I guess. This version, carved with Chinese characters onto a series of 81,000 wood blocks dates back to the 12th century and is one of the most incredible works of literature in Asia. Apparently there's about 52 million characters hand-carved into the wood, and the whole project took 10 years to finish.

    The pavilions were purpose-built a century or so later and have several cool features. The windows have an unusual open-slat design, allowing air circulation and consistent indoor temperatures. The shelves sit a foot above the floor, which is made from lime, sand, salt and charcoal to prevent moisture build-up. The blocks are packed tightly together so that insects can't get in, and everything is still is fantastic condition. The system works so well that even a purpose-designed modern facility built in the 90s was found to be inferior, and plans for moving the blocks were abandoned.

    After exploring the temple and seeing the pavilions housing the blocks (you obviously can't go inside), our program started with a 30 minute intro session where we learned about temple manners. We didn't have to wear robes, just a yellow vest which made me feel like a council worker. We had 30 minutes to socialise with the others - there was about 20 people doing the stay. Us, the two French women, an Israeli couple, and a big group of Germans who seemed to be on a tour.

    5:30pm was dinner with the monks which was taken in silence, except for Arlette who as I said reminded me of Marie, and the Israeli man who seemed to quite like the sound of his own voice. Food was very bland temple food, plain rice, kim chi, boiled sour cabbage, an odd dish of white beans that had a half-cooked consistency, and a spicy cabbage leaf dish. It was emphasised to take what you will eat, because you're expected to finish! So I was a bit careful, filling up on rice but managing to stomach the stuff I didn't like.

    After dinner we watched a drumming session as a series of monks hammered on an enormous drum (the skin was probably 3 metres diameter), followed by 10 minutes of bell ringing on a huge building-height bell. Next up was meditation practice, where a young female monk guided us in meditation techniques. It was a bit tricky for me since sitting on the floor is ultra-uncomfortable, but at least the meditative walking part was a bit easier!

    From here it was back to our rooms for lights out at 9pm. Men and women can't cohabit, so we each had our own little room. These were quite newly built, with a very comfortable bed - much better than the sleeping on the floor with 40 people that I'd feared! Felt strange going to bed this early, but there wasn't much else to do!
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