We planned a trip to Pusan this month. Well, I say planned. Next time we'll do better - it was pretty much a debacle but at least we got to check off one thing on the list, and we do have pics to share with you!
We didn't work out our route ahead of time and relied on an out-of-date Google map on my (Judy's) phone to navigate, so we took longer to get there and endured traffic jams on the way. Then, too, it was a sunny weekend, so taking the road directly between the most famous beach in Korea ( Haeundae Beach) and the biggest shopping mall in the world (Shinsegae Centum City, registered with the Guiness WBOF) was probably not the best navigational decision I've ever made. As you can see, it includes a spa, golf range, ice rink, and more, among countless shops and stores, plus a food court famous across Asia. Sadly, we did not have time or energy to stop and browse.
None of us three were in particularly good temper at this point, so regrouping and making a decision was made just that much more difficult. Being hungry and needing a washroom didn't help any either! We had a number of things on our to-do list but after spending thirty minutes inching along one tiny section of roadway in downtown Pusan, in mounting heat and dwindling endurance, we decided to scrap everything but the most peaceful, least urban option - Haedong Yongkungsa, or Yongkung Temple. I'll cheat and let the Korean Tourism Authority give you the introduction:
"Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is situated on the coast of the north-eastern portion of Busan. This superb attraction offers visitors the rare find of a temple along the shore line; most temples in Korea are located in the mountains. Haedong Yonggungsa Temple was first built in 1376 by the great Buddhist teacher known as Naong during the Goryeo Dynasty. Haesu Gwaneum Daebul (Seawater Great Goddess Buddha), Daeungjeon Main Sanctuary, Yongwangdang Shrine, Gulbeop Buddhist Sanctum (enclosed in a cave), and a three-story pagoda with four lions (symbolizing joy, anger, sadness, and happiness) can all be seen looking out over the ocean." Well, we were quite done with two of those lions and ready to move on to the more positive two, but again our plans didn't match reality.
"Many people often come to this spot on New Year's Day to make a wish for the new year as they watch the sun come up. April is an especially beautiful time of year with cherry blossoms in full bloom. The birth of Buddha is also celebrated in the fourth month of the lunar calendar and offers a spectacular night view as the temple area is aglow with lit lanterns."
We were there a day after the actual celebration, so the temple was still decorated but also thronged with visitors.
As many people as lanterns! I was able to get a clear spot for a photo of Bryan, which immediately filled in when I lowered the camera. We wound up literally shuffling up and down those hundred and eight steps, elbow-to-elbow with other tourists, to be able to move through the temple and out onto the rocks of the coast. Worth it once we were there, though...
Finally out on the rocks! Anywhere in North America this would be fenced off and totally inaccessible to the trippers and tourists. The shore here is - obviously - extremely irregular, with dropoffs into deep water, and the waves coming in with sucking force. No barricades, no concreted path, no handrails, no life ring on a post - just the snack vendors and souvenir hawkers with their carts and tents atop the flattest parts, and people wandering casually about over the damp boulders.
Were we able to find the fabled peace and tranquility supposedly available at this sacred site?
No, we weren't. It was indeed a beautiful place in a beautiful setting, with careful workmanship, striking paintings and carvings, and natural advantages to set off the human creativity, but it was also packed with vendors and hawkers, children shrieking for food and toys, tawdry balloons next to the worship lanterns, people shoving and pushing to get their hands into the 'holy water' pool in a tiny cavern beneath the temple, and a general overlay of commercial self-centredness of the sort that must have made Jesus start tipping temple tables in his day. One imagines the old monk on the left, above, stepping down from his tree perch with a glare of similar condemnation for the lack of sanctity, or the two tight-lipped bonzes on the right slowly shaking their long-lobed heads.
We shuffled our way back, eventually, through the hordes to the exit; tramped the roadway out to the overflow parking lots (pay parking only); crept our black Korando carefully down the hillside out to the highway; on the open road with, I am sorry to say, a sense of relief.
I think of one of my favorite Korean poets, a maverick wanderer known for his love of makkoli and his oversized rainhat, and how he might have skewered the entire scene in one of his eccentric and colourful pieces - but choose this more printable thought instead.
Joy, he might have said, is where you find it, but while we could see the bones of the coastal hill and the lines of the temple's beauty, there was little of either peace or joy about the place. Let me return to my own green mountain and look again!
Bryan & Judy Alkema are educators, travellers, pilgrims, wordsmiths, and global learners. They are returning to Asia for the third time in their 25-year marriage and look forward to sharing their travel writing, cross-cultural experiences, wisdom perspectives, and beautiful images with you.