I originally posted this two years ago, after a sojourn to South Korea, then took it down almost immediately in an attempt to sell it. Alas, I was unable to find it a home, but it remains one of my favorite stories. Lockdown and isolation have me feeling nostalgic for days of travel past, and I’m sure there are many who agree with me. Let’s take a trip back to Seoul together, as I try to discover Korea’s “geeky old traditions”, to use the words of a dear Korean friend.
6 August, 2018
I stared at the wavering little blue dot on my Googlemaps. It appeared that it couldn’t make up its mind, quivering for a few minutes before finally jumping to the path left of the fork. Damn. I didn’t want that path. I had made a wrong turn. Again.
Frustrated, I collapsed on some steps leading to a small park strewn with gravel and a few exercising devices that looked like they hadn’t been used in a while. My sweaty t-shirt clung to my body, and I could feel more sweat dripping down my legs. I dabbed at my forehead with a towel, an act that accomplished nothing since it was still soaked from the last dabbing. I’d spent the last hour trying to find this shrine, but I’d made so many wrong turns and was close to throwing my sopping wet towel in and heading back into Seoul. August in South Korea is no joke.
I heard a rustle and turned to find an equally-sweaty Korean man smiling down at me.
“Hello,” he said in perfect English. “Where are you going?”
When planning my time in Seoul, I’d struggled to gain a comprehensive picture of South Korea. Thanks to its recent economic boom, it’s a country that is becoming increasingly well-known in the west, famous for it’s television dramas and pop music and cosmetics industry. But Koreans are also an ancient people whose continuous history on the Korean peninsula go back thousands of years. I wondered how much of this long history and culture remains a part of life today, and if it can even be found in Seoul, a city that is so desperate to be a major player in the modern world.
In my guidebook, I stumbled upon a mention of Inwangsan Guksadang, an old Shamanist shrine on a hill on the fringes of the city. I knew that many Koreans were Buddhist or Christian, but I was unfamiliar with shamanism. My interest was piqued, and I asked my friend Sun-ah for more details. After a childhood in the rural Korean countryside, Sun-ah spent the years of her young adulthood in Seoul. While she has a complicated relationship with her homeland, it’s clear that she remains nostalgic for its special city.
“I visited that shrine just before leaving Korea behind, and it was amazing,” she said in her message. “Shamanism is a really faded old tradition in Korea, so honestly I totally recommend you to visit there, as you’ll be exploring [the] geeky tradition of Korea [that] predates all the other ‘major’ traditions.”
By “geeky” I gathered that she meant “old-school” or “antiquated”, words that I don’t readily associate with a place like Seoul. This seemed like a perfect way to try to get under its surface. Sun-ah had some further advice for me:
“It’s not hard hiking at all to go there. The problem is not of height but of how to find that weird, hidden entrance to go up there. I’m sure you’ll find it though.”
I should have known it wouldn’t be so easy when I got off at the wrong subway stop. I laughed it off and doubled back to the correct one, figuring that now I should be able to figure it out, no problem.
Upon exiting the subway station, I found myself at the base of a hill, in an area vastly different from the sparkling civic center I’d come from. The hillside was dominated by towering apartment blocks, and the narrow, uphill streets between them were a jumble of old shops and houses that seemed piled on top of each other. The streets and old exteriors were faded and grimy, the scent of stale water and plumbing wafted in the air, and grizzled old Koreans who looked like they gave no fucks manned markets and housewares stores, the kind where it seems the owner just tossed a bunch of brooms in a corner and put up a sign.
Examining a local area map, I could clearly see where I wanted to go, but the question was how. It would have been easy to simply walk straight up the hill, but most of the apartment blocks appeared to be gated, so I had to go around them, which was kind of a nuisance. As I trudged around the buildings, I discovered a bigger nuisance: most of the apartment blocks looked exactly the same. Deceived, I had made too wide of a loop and walked halfway around the wrong one. Sighing, I went back to the base of the tower blocks and started over.
By the time I finally made it behind the apartment blocks, my shirt was wet with sweat and I’d drunk most of my precious water. Now I needed to continue up the hill, but there were quite a few paths. I chose the one that I thought was right, but after a few minutes, that path started going downhill. I pulled out my phone to consult Googlemaps before collapsing in a small park in a disgusting, defeated heap.
Which is where the sweaty Korean man found me.
He smiled down at me, his shiny, wet forehead gleaming in the sun. “Where are you going?” he asked again.
“Um, I’m trying to find. . . I don’t know how to say it. . . Inwahnsan Gu. . . Goo,” I faltered, unsure of the Korean pronunciation.
I pounced upon the familiar name. “Yes! That’s the one. Do you know the way?” I asked.
“It’s not too far from here,” he said, and gestured for me to follow him up the road. “Sometimes I see other foreigners like you around here looking for it.” I learned he was a construction worker, working on a nearby house, which explained why he was also so sweaty. He had passed me while he was on his way home.
“I’m sorry you have to work in this heat,” I told him sympathetically.
“It’s OK, I like the work,” he shrugged. As we came around the bend, I could see the rooftops of dozens of temples nestled on the hillside. He pointed in their direction.
“This mountain is very special to us,” he told me. “See those rocks there? We think they look like the first Joseon king and his master monk, praying or conferencing together. The king’s wife, she came here to pray, and she became pregnant.” He gestured down the path. “The road will go up, and then down, but keep going. You will get there.” He smiled again, a warm, easy-going smile.
I heartily thanked him and we parted ways. Just as he said, the path went up, and then down, and ended by a large ceremonial gate decorated with peeling paint. A shiver ran down my spine. This had to be it.
To reach Inwangsan Guksadung, I made my way along a narrow, uneven alley with cracks in the pavement that was lined on both sides with tiny, old temples. I wasn’t prepared for how colorful and decorative these temples were. It seemed that the goal was to maximize the small space with the largest amount of ornamentation possible, and murals of different aspects of Buddha and mythical creatures such as dragons and phoenixes covered every available surface. Finally, at the top of the lane, looking out across the temples, I found Guksadung Shrine.
Although still colorful, with crimson red walls and contrasting teal latticework doors, the shrine seemed smaller, plainer, more austere than the Buddhist temples below. There was also a thick chain and padlock across the door. Damn. I had been hoping to observe some mysterious Shamanist things. In an attempt to console myself, I paused to admire the view.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man approach the shrine. He nonchalantly removed a bottle of makgeolli (Korean rice wine) from his backpack, and opened it. Instead of drinking the wine, though, he set it out in front of the shrine and bowed, before sitting down in reverent prayer. Food offerings for the gods? Definitely a Shamanist ritual! I was intrigued, but I also didn’t want to intrude on his private spiritual time, so I slunk away to the back of the shrine, where a small path lead further up the hill.
The path ended at Seon-Bawi, the mythical rocks that the construction worker had pointed out, said to resemble a king and his monk. At the entrance to the site stood a white-clad Buddhist priest wearing a straw hat and holding a broom. I wasn’t sure if he was standing guard over this holy place, or simply taking a break from cleaning, but he paid me no mind. At the foot of the rocks were rows of flickering candles, incense, and two women, cross-legged, still as statues. It hit me that, like the king’s wife in the legend, they were praying for childbirth, continuing one of the oldest traditions of their culture. That even in this modern city of Kpop and consumer culture, old customs do survive, and make their way into the daily lives of some of its citizens.
Satisfied, I turned away from the still, praying women, and looked out over the hillside, apartment blocks, and distant skyscrapers of downtown. My quest was complete: I had found the mysterious shrine, and seen firsthand how its ancient traditions still figure into people’s lives. Now if only I could find the way back . . .