Sunday, October 30, 2011

Eastern Elegance And Eccentricity

It's no revelation to say that the cultures of the Far East (by Far East I mean China, Korea and Japan) differ quite markedly in many ways to European, and even Middle Eastern, cultures. I have become particularly intrigued by the Oriental sense of aesthetic - perhaps also because the aesthetic has a clear, external manifestation, whereas it's hard for me to be able to talk about how people actually think and what they believe. The Oriental view (and I am writing this as a layperson who hasn't studied this at all, but more from my observations and experiences whilst travelling here) emphasises a holistic harmony and balance, which we see, at the most basic level, with the complementary forces of yin and yang.

The ultimate expression of Far Eastern  esoteric harmony: the Japanese karesansui (dry landscape) garden, heavily influenced by Zen Buddhist principles. (The garden in the picture is at Ryoan-ji temple and is perhaps the most famous example of the style.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

8:15. The Time It's Always Been

The name Hiroshima will forever be linked in the consciousness of the world with the events of the 6th of August 1945, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, ushering in the nuclear era with a bang. A bang so large that it destroyed 90% of the city and killed almost half of its population and helped precipitate the end of the Second World War (although some academics argue that the USSR's declaration of war against Japan and invasion of Manchuria on the 9th of August was a far greater reason for their surrender). The effects of the atomic bombs on the world were momentous and too great to mention here, but in Japan it led to the pacifist constitution and a widespread national desire for peace (not that Japan doesn't have its militarist nationalists, and its continued inability to admit and apologise for, rather than regret, its World War II atrocities doesn't help make it any friends in the region). The epicentre for the peace and nuclear disarmament movement worldwide is undoubtedly Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park where a museum, shrine, cenotaphs and statues pay moving tribute to those who perished on that fateful day. The symbol of the complex is the A-Bomb Dome. The building was an exhibition hall before the war and was almost directly below the bomb - the hypocentre, or ground zero - when it exploded (the bomb was detonated 600m above the ground so that the destructive heat and shock waves would not be impeded so as to cause maximum damage) and so its vertical walls survived the devastating blast since they were perpendicular to the shock waves. Its preserved skeleton serves as a grim reminder to what happened on that fateful day.

The empty shell of the A-Bomb Dome serves as a stark reminder of that horrific day 66 years ago.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fishy Friends

My last stop in South Korea was Busan, the country's major port, located at the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula. The steep, indented coastline with its myriad islands as an ideal deepwater port location and has long been Korea's gateway to the world. The densely-packed city of over 4 million coalesces at the feet of the surrounding hills into discreet neighbourhoods connected with each other by an intricate maze of tunnels and bridges. Like many port towns Busan is loud and brash - at least by Korean standards where conformism and not rocking the boat are desired traits. A place where conspicuous consumption is lauded with the world's largest department store along with one of the world's tallest towers also under construction. There are few worries about the future in this prosperous city. Way gooks (white foreigners) are far more conspicuous than elsewhere in the country, and it's not just the English teachers; there's even a Russian ghetto in town where you can get your fill of pirozhki and stock up on Baltika beer.

Panorama of Busan's crowded harbor area.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jeju See That?

Wherever I went in South Korea people never neglected to recommend that I should visit Jeju. "Very pretty." "Sandy beaches." "Delicious oranges." "Good weather." Indeed, Jeju island is South Korea's Hawaii. As well as being the main holiday destination for locals it is also a volcanic island and is home to south Korea's highest peak, Hallasan, a dormant volcano. In fact the whole island is basically the mountain, whose main cone rises up in the very centre of the island and can be seen from everywhere (theoretically at least, although the peak is usually shrouded in mist). What makes it unique though, at least for geology geeks, is the numerous so-called "parasitic cones" (oreum in the native dialect) of which there are over 350 scattered around the island. Many are easily overlooked, but others form clusters of craters that pop unexpectedly out of the surrounding farmland and look distinctly otherworldly. Add to this some funky, hexagonal basalt blocks that spill into the sea and lava tubes that look like dragons' lairs and you have all the ingredients for a volcanic geologist's wet dream.

View of some oreum peeking out of the mist on the way up Hallasan.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Painful Past, Better Present

South Korea is well under the radar of public consciousness when it comes to anything other than its hugely successful industrial behemoths, or chaebols, such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai. They are household names the world over and exert tremendous influence at home with a finger in every proverbial pie. As for history, people may be able to cite the Korean War (though not that many, given its nickname of The Forgotten War), Korea's colonisation by the Japanese and a handful of sporting events, such as the '88 Olympics and 2002 World Cup. That's as far as my knowledge went anyway before I arrived. So it came as quite a surprise to learn that South Korea was under consecutive military dictatorships right up until the early 90's - the first peaceful transition of power was in '92. The fact that little is known about this period of South Korea's history is probably due to the Cold War mentality of the West supporting any despotic regime as long as they were anti-Communist - "he may be a son of a bitch, but at least he's our son of a bitch" - that also helped keep various Latin American juntas in power.

Rows of graves of the victims of 518 in Gwangju.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Masked Balls

The southeast corner of South Korea is home to many cultural and historical relics, perhaps partly because it wasn't so severely damaged by the Korean war which left much of the rest of the country devastated (many historical sites are reconstructions, albeit faithful ones, of their former selves). Of the three "must-see" sights in South Korea (Seoul being another, and more on the third in a later post) is Gyeongju, which is often called the "Museum without walls" due to the many historical remains scattered around the city dating back to the time when it was the capital of the Silla kingdom that ruled over the region for almost a thousand years. Most of the remains are grassy tumuli that represent tombs of nobles and royalty and are dotted around all over the place, but there are also old Buddhist temples, grottoes, statues and rock carvings that bear witness to what was once one of the largest cities in the world.

A 1000 year old pagoda on Namsan mountain in Gyeongju.