Sunday’s Excursion: Magoksa Temple near Gongju

[In which we ride the oldest bus in Korea on the twistiest roads in Korea, and are forced to eat temple food by an enthusiastic monk.] 

Lately Gongju has simply been the best place to start for intriguing day trips. People in search of some interesting destinations around Daejeon would do well to start there. On Sunday, we decided to enjoy the warmer weather and take the day to do something cultural. Kristen has a new coworker at her school, so we were treating him to the ‘life in Daejeon’ skit, but since we hadn’t done anything other than eating and partying, we figured it was time to do something ‘cultural’. (Though eating and drinking is basically a cultural experience here.)

We set out around noon to Gongju, and got our bus at the Yuseong bus station. The Yuseong station is a crowd of bus madness, pulling in and out through the traffic of a regular street. I don’t know how these drivers manage to do this without killing anyone–or hitting the other buses–but somehow it all works out. People wait in the corner of the small lot patiently, and then when the bus arrives (destination written only in Korean), you make sure that you make eye contact with the driver so that he knows that you are actually getting on the bus.

The bus ride to Gongju is also quite beautiful, since you are passing around Gyeryongsan National Park. While in Gongju we walked across the city (not knowing we could pick up the Magoksa bus at the big terminal!) and took some silly tourist pictures.

The local bus station in Gongju is right by the market. Now when Stephanie and I went to Gongju in September, it was a big holiday, and so the market was closed as closed could be. However, on Sunday, it was a big old markety mess, and I was instantly in love. The buses pulled into little “ports” when they were about to leave, which meant that there was a covered platform where the destinations were listed. On the market side of the platform, some old people were playing “Yoot”, a game that we played at the Traditional New Year’s Party last week. At first I didn’t know what they were doing, because they were doing it with such enthusiasm–and at first, in my direction–that I thought they were attempting to exorcise me or something. This ancient woman in a pink felt zip up tossed those sticks like a fortune teller, speaking in the harsh Korean dialect that the older people tend to use. (Which to me sounds SO much better than the whining tone that the younger city kids seem to have.)

Sneaky as I am, I took a video.

Anyway, we meandered around the market, looking at the fish, meat, various feet products, and, of course, RED PEPPERS!

These bags come up to my waste. Looks like Kimchi dipping season is soon…. One of my students mentioned it to me, so I think it is coming up. These are the peppers that go into literally every Korean dish imaginable. In the fall they were all laying out to dry, now here they are in huge bags.

 Anyway we explored the market, saw our fare share of weird animal products, boots, buckets, and oddities, and then we hopped on the bus to Magoksa.

Sadly I don’t have any pictures of this bus, but it was probably the oldest Korean bus I have ever been on. It was mostly open, with a few seats. We sat in the back, on the raised part above the engine, and we slowly jerked through Gongju, then we were released into the surrounding countryside. We were at first in a city, and then we went through a tunnel, and arrived in what seemed to be a completely different country. The countryside was empty except for farms, occasionally grave yards, and these little cement houses. The road became narrower and we jostled and flew down the road and increasingly more precarious speeds, and I was feeling delighted. The only people on the bus were these ancient ajummas, who all seemed to know each other. Just like in America, life in the country in Korea must be a completely different world.

We arrived at the temple feeling ready for an excellent time, and then we began our walk. Magoksa was established during the Baekje kingdom, but was also a principle temple during the Silla period. And then, during Joseon (when the Japanese invasion of the 1590s occurred) the temple was a place of refuge. So, in short–most of Magoksa is now entirely intact–which cannot be said about most other temples in Korea. Unlike all the things in Buyeo that Stephanie and I visited two weekends ago, the Magoksa buildings haven’t been moved, rebuilt or even repainted in quite some time.

Yet there are new buildings among them, and we had a very pleasant time strolling through the complex. We heard chanting coming from a service inside one of the main halls. I paused to listen for some time. A few monks spoke to us–enthusiastically explaining things in Korean which I didn’t understand.

When we were about to leave, I heard the bell being rung, so I skirted close so I could see it. This tiny little man with a sort of bucket hat on was ringing the bell (I assume for dinner), and then when he saw me standing there, he began to talk to me. I mostly had no idea what he was talking about, but when I inquired about their temple stay program, he lit up and dragged us back to their office. (We were a little bit worried about the last bus at this point, but we couldn’t be rude.)

Then after a long discussion, and many, many brochures, he said “I am very hungry!” Oh, well we need to leave, so I figured now was a good time to escape… because I had definitely convinced him that I understood MUCH more Korean than I actually do. Now was the proper escape time. But no, no, “I am very hungry and you are very hungry!” He wouldn’t take no for an answer. We kept saying “bus, bus!” but he kept saying “time many time!” So we really had no choice. Lee, the new guy, seemed a little concerned, but I was happy to finally feel like I was traveling, and I just put my hands up in the air and said, “It’ll work out.”

So we went downstairs to the monk’s quarters–a new building–and feasted on some delicious vegetarian bibimbap style food. It was delicious! And the monk came up to Lee and made a huge round sign with his hands, and then put it to his stomach. Then he grinned with this absolutely uncontrollable joy and bounced off to speak to more people. Then the temple secretary gave us this weird piggy bank thing and we set off.

It was a really odd experience, but one that I absolutely loved!

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