Monthly Archives: November 2008

Seoul’s delight (part 2)

On Sunday, the second day of our trip, we went to the studio of Brian Barry, a Buddhist Temple painter. I must admit that with all of the walking we had done the day before, my feet were still hurting all the way up to my bellybutton. So I was grateful that we hopped into a taxi for the journey across Seoul to Brian’s home and studio. It was a glorious fall day and the trees were flaunting their most perfect colors for us as we drove along the winding roads through some of the wealthiest and most scenic residential areas of northern Seoul.

It’s thought that Seoul’s earliest settlement may have been as long as 6,000 years ago and the geomancy of the mountains that ring the city were considered auspicious by the Chosun dynasty rulers, who chose the site as their capital. Modern Seoul has become home to over 10 million people, forcing an urban spread up the slopes of those surrounding mountains. Despite differences in the architecture and signs in a language I couldn’t read, the topography of our route reminded me of driving through parts of Marin county in California.

Brian Barry, Buddhist painterBrian’s studio is on the third floor of an apartment building nestled against a hillside that has been designated a national park. Thus on the one side he faces the immediate glories of the natural world and on the other the great urban sprawl, a perfect perch from which to reflect on cosmology in the modern world.

Brian Barry, Buddhist painterInitially, Brian came to Korea with the Peace Corps. In 1967, he was assigned to public health work, fighting TB in an underdeveloped country still reeling from the devastation of the Korean Civil war. As his love for the Korean people and culture grew, he stayed to study Buddhism, supporting himself as an interpreter. And decades later, one of those interpreting jobs for an American architect led him to focus on dancheong (colorful cosmic design patterns) painted on Korean temples.

Thereafter, Brian sought out Master Manbong (1910-2006), a dancheong specialist who had been designated transmitter of Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 48 of Korea, and then to this master artist, Brian expressed his ardent desire to learn Buddhist painting.

Although Master Manbong accepted this strange blue-eyed foreigner as one of his students, there was much doubt that a foreigner would ever be able to endure the hardships of the training regimen to learn the intricate skills of temple painting. Indeed, learning Buddhist painting proved to be extremely demanding, but Brian stuck it out for more than 20 years, continuing to learn from and serve Master Manbong until the Master’s death in 2006.

Over the years, Brian’s paintings have come to grace not only Korean temples, but also those in Thailand, Bangladesh, Russia and the U.S. His modern Buddhist paintings are also sold to private collectors. A fantastic story of an amazing life, you can read it in more detail by clicking on the link to his name above or by visiting Brian’s own site:

And to glimpse the world of dancheong that has so inspired Brian Barry for 20 years, I offer below a small collection of images from Buddhist temples in Korea.Korean painted temples Who could fail to be inspired by dancheong? I can foresee that even my humble sewing projects will have a future influence reflected in shades of teal and turquoise, richly punctuated by coral, gold and navy.

Seoul’s delight (part 1)

Last weekend I managed a brief getaway with three of my friends: Wendy Carroll from Australia, Kazuko Horiuchi from Chile and Judith Clancy, who was once upon a time from New Jersey. And our trip was indeed a delight. We flew off for a weekend in Seoul, South Korea.  Although I had been to the Korean port city of Pusan many many long years ago, I wasn’t really prepared for the melange of flavors and textures that greeted us on our arrival. We stayed at a traditional Korean inn called the Tea Guest House in the neighborhood of Insadong, which was a mix of traditional and modern buildings as shown by the images below. architecture in SeoulIt was only an hour and a half flight from Osaka to Seoul, but there was a two-hour trip from Kyoto to the airport early in the day and a two-hour bus-ride from the airport in Seoul to our guest house in Insadong. So we were a pretty weary group of travelers by the time we checked into our lodgings. But we quickly found our way down the street to celebrate our arrival with a feast of Korean sea food at a restaurant that had been recommended by one of Judith’s many friends.boy playing a street-side video game in Seoul

Seoul boasts of having the world’s best Wi-fi access and broadband connections with mind-boggling download speeds ranging up to 100Mbps, so it was amusing to see this young boy playing street-side video games in front of the local grocery store as we scouted out the city the next morning.riverside park in Seoul

In the center of Seoul, there’s a branch of the Han River that had been paved over during the rush to modernize. But with the 21st century preference for green cities, a major reclamation project was initiated to tear down the elevated freeway and restore river as a sunken riverside park for city residents to enjoy.

We spent most of Saturday walking around Dongdaemun Market, one of the major shopping areas in Seoul. When we set out in the morning, we blithely started off to the gold district to buy earrings…and arrived to find block after block after block lined with stores selling every manner of gold adornment. And though we could have easily spent the day there playing with gold till our heart’s content, we decided to press on deeper into the heart of Seoul’s shopping district. Or rather I should say, one of Seoul’s shopping districts. We never made it to Namdaemun Market, Seoul’s other older shopping district.

We walked for hours. There was a lamp district, where all the stores sold lighting, and a plastics section, where you could buy anything made of plastic. Sheet metal fabrication shops were clustered in another area we walked through. An area that seemed to sell only towels for blocks and blocks. And bedding covered another area.

For lunch, we finally stopped to eat at one of the food vending stalls that line the edges of the street. And again, the variety was enormous. The stall in the foreground offered chestnuts: roasted, candied and batter fried. Other stalls offered noodles, tempura or sausages. Still other stands sold bags of traditional sweets made from puffed grains and/or nuts sweetened by honey. These were so reminiscent of granola that we wondered if Korea had provided the original inspiration when that cereal was introduced to America in the 1960s. lunch-time food stalls in Seoulshopping in Seoul

Then finally we came to crafts and fabric. Was I in heaven?

When there was lace, there was lace galore. And ditto with yarns and buttons and ribbons and tassels. Each bit of craft had it’s own area with more choices than I could possible sort through or savor over if I’d had a month of Sundays. All in all, Dongdaemun Market is comprised of 20 shopping malls (with fashion segmented by floors), 30,000 stores, and around 50,000 wholesalers. If you want it, they’ve got it.

Sadly though, there was not enough time to drink it all in. We had barely found the embroidery section when it was time to go. The time allotted to our shopping spree was over. At least for the moment anyway. Having discovered that such delight is so close, I’m sure I’ll go back again.

And that was only Saturday, but it is enough to fill one blog-post for tonight. I’ll have to write about Sunday later.

In a world before Nintendo…

…there were a variety of games to play.  And since my wonderful computerized electronic whizball of a sewing machine had to be sent off for a week in a sewing machine hospital, I was forced spend the weekend trying to remember what I did before that lovely electronic toy entered my life.

Fortunately for me, there was a Genji exhibition at the Museum of Kyoto this week, celebrating the thousand year anniversary since The Tale of Genji was published by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, an 11th century aristocrat. Widely considered the world’s first novel, Genji is a classic of Japanese literature detailing courtly life in ancient Kyoto.Japanese woodblock pictureFor ten centuries The Tale of Genji has been a source of inspiration for the Japanese arts. Bugaku dance and Noh performances have re-enactedJapanese board game and playing pieces the life of Prince Genji, while the games and pastimes described in the story were adapted and expanded to reflect the novel. The playing pieces for the 19th century board game shown at right were painted to represent all the main characters from Genji. The center panel of the woodblock print above shows the same game being enjoyed by a cluster of noblewomen.

Likewise, the kaiawase clam shell matching game with its hexagonal storage box were delicately painted with scenes from the novel. kaiawase clam shell game Kaiawase matching is an ancient game, but quite similar to the card game “concentration”. Pairs of cleaned and polished clam shells are painted with matching images, then multiple sets of clam shells are collected to form a complete game set. To play, the clam shells are placed painted side down and the players take turns trying to find and match the identical pairs. Though I’ve never had a chance to play the game itself, I’ve always been fascinated by the elaborately detailed imagery painted on the shells and storage cases.19th century Japanese manga

And of course, there is manga. Reading manga has always been one of the quintessential forms of Japanese entertainment. The books shown here are examples of a 19th century retelling of Genji. Never having been stigmatized as “mind-rot”, the way western comic books have been, manga have always enjoyed an appreciative audience in Japan. In an earlier time, they were simply called e-hon (picture books) and attracted some of the brightest artistic stars of the day.

There were, of course, vastly more games on display in the exhibition, involving skills as diverse as incense sniffing and poetry reciting — far too many of course for a simple blog entry to recount. But it seemed as though in a simpler world, the goal was to find ways to delight each of the senses rather than just to kill time.