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The Traditional Korean Tea Ceremony

Korean Tea

As we were saying goodbye, the instructor continued to praise our skills. “You did so very good! Very talented at pouring tea, the traditional Korean way!” We sheepishly accepted her acclaim, but I knew what she was really thinking. “Get these clumsy oafs out of my sight, so that I can finally start laughing my ass off!”

Traditional-Tea-Ceremony-in-Korea

The Tea Ceremony Experience is offered for free, three times a day (except Fridays and Mondays), in the Busan Museum’s Cultural Center. Our instructor, who was geared up in a hanbok (a traditional Korean dress), motioned for us to take seats in front of trays on the ground. Sitting Indian-style doesn’t present a problem for me, but Jürgen’s 6’6″ frame and lanky legs always require a couple minutes of painful twisting. The instructor looked on patiently while he arranged his body into the correct position. “Clearly”, she must have been thinking, “this lesson will present more of a challenge than usual”.

For the next twenty minutes we learned the procedure of a traditional Korean tea ceremony. Every movement is completed very particularly, from raising the napkin off the tea set and folding it, to pouring the water into the teapot. We were expected to be very calm, very exact; our instructor told us that the whole process is a form of meditation. While pouring and drinking the tea, you remain silent and still, concentrating on nothing but the simple tasks at hand, trying to complete them as perfectly as possible.

After three rounds, we were almost able to complete the ceremony without a mistake: grabbing the cup with the wrong hand, pouring out too much water, or laying the napkin on the floor upside-down. Our instructor was pleased enough, and after the torturous spectacle of watching Jürgen disentangle his legs and stand up, we said our goodbyes. I doubt I’ll be working a tea ritual into my daily schedule, but I can certainly appreciate the moment of collected quiet that it provides. And the tea wasn’t bad, either.

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July 27, 2012 at 1:56 am Comments (3)

Yangdong Folk Village

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Occupying a gorgeous swath of forested hill country about eight kilometers outside Gyeongju, the Yangdong Folk Village preserves the buildings and customs of Korean life during the Joseon Dynasty. In 2010, this historic village was named a UNESCO world heritage site.

Yangdong-Korea

Yangdong was founded at the beginning of the 15th century by a member of the Joseon nobility, who selected the site based on the Korean practice of pungsu — a superstitious reading of the earth which identifies geologically significant areas: those featuring patterns in natural formations such as hill shapes or river paths. The modern day village, with around 150 tiled- and thatched-roofed houses, still looks almost exactly as it did centuries ago.

Our visit began at Yangdong’s only restaurant, where we enjoyed a bowl of Kongguksu (wheat noodles in a cool soy milk broth) and had the chance to shake hands with the village chief. The other guests, who generously shared their rice wine with us, were listening attentively to the chief’s stories and there seemed to be an unspoken expectation that we do the same. Of course, we didn’t understand a word but stayed respectfully quiet and followed the group’s lead with an occasional chuckle or “ahhhh”.

Yangdong is surprisingly large and feels more alive, less like a museum, than I figured it would. Reconstruction and preservation efforts were underway all over, and we took a random, looping path through the hills. The Joseon Dynasty practiced Confucianism, which placed a strong emphasis on class distinction, and Yangdong’s layout reflects this; the aristocrats lived in the larger houses with tiled roofs, set on top of the hills. Commoners had houses with thatched roofs, found lower down.

With its rural forest setting, the nearby river and roads which follow the natural slopes of the hills, Yangdong Village is unquestionably beautiful. Our visit here was one the highlights of our trip to Gyeongju.

Location of Yangdong Folk Village on our Map
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July 11, 2012 at 9:59 am Comments (3)

The Lotus Lantern Parade

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Though Christianity has recently become the dominant religion in South Korea, the country had been a primarily Buddhist land for nearly all of its history. Buddha’s Birthday, which fell on May 28th in 2012, is a major celebration across the peninsula. And the week-long Lotus Lantern Festival which precedes it is an engaging reaffirmation of the country’s traditional faith.

Neon Dragon

The festival kicked off with a host of events in Yongdusan Park, in Nampo-Dong. A collection of floats were on display — automated dragons, Buddhas, fire-breathing peacocks — and the park was packed with both monks and people out looking for a bit of fun. This wasn’t the most somber or conservative of religious festivals; one of the events was a B-Boy break-dancing competition.

A group of tents in the park constituted the Arts & Crafts center and, walking past, we were immediately targeted for participation by an overly-enthusiastic volunteer. She sat us down next to kids, where we created toy lanterns. Then she grabbed our arms and led us the “ink stamping” section, where we pounded out Buddhist designs. Then she pushed us over to the “wishing ribbon” section, where we wrote down our names and our dreams for the future. “My name is Mike, and I wish for a world free from the scourge of Arts & Crafts!”

The festival-closing parade on Sunday night was a colorful event. We were surprised how few onlookers were lined up on Daechung Road to watch it pass, but then… most of the city was in the parade. Group after massive group of waving, lantern-carriers passed by, along with neon-colored float and the occasional marching band. We followed the final group up to Yongdusan Park, where there was a fireworks show followed by a concert of traditional drumming.

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May 26, 2012 at 3:05 am Comments (0)

Korean Dance and Drumming at the Gugak Center

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The Busan National Gugak Center opened in 2008 with the mission of bringing Korea’s culture to the masses. We went to an incredible Tuesday night performance which introduced us to some of the peninsula’s traditional music, dance and drumming.

Folklore-Busan

We weren’t sure what to expect on taking our seats in the Gugak Center’s comfortable Yegi-dang (small hall). At just ₩6000 ($5.40) apiece, the tickets were cheap and the hall was packed full with Koreans of all ages. We were the only foreign faces in the crowd of around 300, despite the fact that foreign residents get a discount. The show got underway at 7:30pm and, over the course of its 90 minutes, brought the house down.

Folklore-Korea
Act One: Percussion

As the lights came up, a group of seven drummers were seated in front of traditional percussion instruments. Five barrel drums, a gong, and two horrid things I’ll call “metal clang pots”. This act lasted at least forty minutes and I don’t really know how to describe it. Imagine the sound of 50 sugar-fueled five-year-olds equipped with metal spoons and their parents’ best pots and pans, just banging like crazy, non-stop for forty minutes. Except they’re very talented and keep an amazing rhythm. The drumming got softer and louder, building up into exhilarating crescendos or descending into asynchronous cacophony, but it never stopped.

It was awesome, but the drummers in charge of the ridiculous “metal clang pots” prevented us from truly enjoying the music. And we were way toward the back of the theater! I have no idea how the old women seated in the front rows weren’t covering their ears and screaming in pain, but they weren’t. They were clapping, squealing, dancing in their seats and generally behaving like Mötley Crüe groupies. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a bra thrown on the stage.

Pihyang
Act Two: Pihyang

Things quieted down considerably for the second act, a graceful court dance featuring a solitary performer. Dressed in a flowing red robe with overly long sleeves, the woman glided around the stage to the sounds of drums and flutes. I’m not sure whether this dance is actually called “Pi-hyang”… it’s listed in the program as 비향, but we couldn’t find any information about it online. Regardless, it was a pleasant intermission between the riotous first and third acts.

Pangut
Act Three: Pangut

Pangut is a traditional rural dance of South Korea, featuring a troupe of drummers wearing hats with long white ribbons affixed to them. As they drum and dance around the stage, they rotate their head or twist it from side to side, causing the ribbon to spiral above and behind them. The skill which needed for this, I can hardly imagine. Not just the complicated drumming, but an intricate dance and — on top of that — knowing when and how to twist your head to induce the correct ribbon swirl. Amazing.

Pangut
Act Four: Geumho Drum Dance

For the fourth act, an additional pair of dancing drummers joined the stage. These two were wearing bizarre giant feathery hats which made them look like human ice cream cones. One all in white, and the other in a mix of red and green. It was about the last thing we’d expected and, while they danced around in their poof-hats, I wasn’t sure whether to take it seriously or die laughing. And then six other featherheads joined them on stage, and I couldn’t help myself. This was hilarious.

But my mirth wasn’t out of place; this was clearly a joyful dance and, as it concluded, the troupe pranced out into the audience and encouraged us all to follow them outside. For fifteen minutes, performers and spectators danced and drummed in the Gugak’s courtyard.

Quite a night. We hadn’t been expecting to have anywhere near that much fun, and began to plan our next trip to the Gugak Center during the subway ride back home. What a great way to experience traditional Korean culture.

Busan National Gugak Center – Website (English)
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May 19, 2012 at 6:54 am Comments (0)