Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Big Guy's Birthday

The Big Guy, the big, fat, bald one that is, had a birthday in the beginning of May. That's right, I'm talking about Buddha! The following are the tales of my weekend celebrating his birth with soccer, lanterns and merriment.

For those of you that aren't in the know, 25% of the Korean population claims to be Buddhist, thus making it one of the main religions of Korea. Consequently, 25% of the population claims to be Christian as well. But much like Christian Holidays, Buddha's Birthday is celebrated by everyone, regardless of their beliefs. What that means is everyoen heads to the temples, but I'm getting ahead of myself so let's start from the beginning........

So after a morning Saturday practice on May 2, I rushed back to my home to take a quick shower and pack my school bag with all the necessities for a one day trip. I refueled with some quick little snacks at the local grocery store and then went over to the Ulsan Bus Station.

Seeing as how Ulsan isn't exactly the hub of Korean Culture nor Buddhism, I decided to take a trip to Busan and check out some temples there. One of the best things about living in Ulsan is that Busan, Korea's 2nd biggest city, is a 40 minute bus ride away, making it perfect for weekend trips. Another good point is due to the clsoe proximity to Busan, buses leaving for Busan from Ulsan leave every 7 minutes. I was literally en route to Busan within 5 minutes of getting to the station. A-SSSAAAHHH!!!

As previously noted, it took me maybe 40 minutes to get to Busan. From the bus station I was able to navigate the subway to find the station I needed to get to my destination, Samgwansa Temple, a modern temple located inthe heart of the metropolis. While looking at the subway map, I realize that Beomeosa Station, the stop which leads to Beomeosa Temple, is one stop over from the bus station and is still on the way to my final destination. 왜 안돼 (way- an dway), or "why not?" Hooray for sponteanity!

After getting off the subway, I decided to follow the signs pointing to the temple and walk the 3 kilometers to the temple as opposed to taking the bus. I came to this decision as I figured I would not be able to figure out Lonely Planet's directions, only to find the bus station that services the temple by accident. A-SSAH! So I paid the 1,000 won (about .75 U.S.) fare and crammed into the bus full of people itching to taste some of that sweet, sweet Buddha B-Day cake.

So for the first kilometer, everything was going well, we were moving fine along fine, and then boom, we hit the traffic of half the city of Busan in this hill. Finally, after some minutes of waiting there, these older Korean ladies got the same idea that I had, which was to get off and walk it and get there in half the time. I took advantage of their abilities to ask the driver to let them off and got off as well and continued my trek to see the birthday boy. On my trek, not only did I pass the bus that left the station prior to the bus that I was on, but I past 2 other buses, which is to say the 3 buses that left before my bus had left.

Considering the amount of cars waiting to arrive to the temple, it was no surprise that the temple was crammed even from the bottom gate. The steps leading up to the temple were adorned with paper lamps in the shades of green, red, yellow and blue. Totally Asian and totally cool.

So I walked around a bit, took some pictures of the pagoda and the all the lanterns. One thing about Beomeosa is that it is supposed to be one of the most famous temples of Busan. While the actual temple itself didn't seem to impress, the surroundings were pretty cool as there were lush green mountain/hilltops in the background. The lonely planet book noted how you almost forget that you're in a city of a couple million people which I could see, minus the whole fact that half of those couple of million people were at the same temple as me.

I continued to meander around the temple and saw some more prayer halls but was unable to get close as there was some type of ceremony going on. Beatened down by the vast amount of people at the park, I decided to take a few more pictures of the pagoda and go on my way.

From Beomeosa, I took the subway to Samgwansa Temple. I had gone to Samgwansa with Mal, Lu and Mike in my first trip to Busan and remembered them having tons of poles meant for the lanterns. Surely, they would have a great set up for festivities, i thought.

Samgwansa is totally different from Beomeosa. Samgwansa is right off of semi-main street where as Beomeosa is a bit more hidden in the mountains and forest. Beomeosa is an odler temple while Samgwansa is a newer temple. With that said, don't let Samgwansa's youthful age (I believe it was built in the 80's, of the 20th century) fool you about it's importance. Apparently, or so a woman told Mal on our last visit, Samgwansa is the hub of a certain sect of Buddhism for a large part of Korea, making it a rather important temple.

Walking up to the temple gate, as the taxi couldn't take me to the temple gate due to the people traffic, you could see all the people selling traditional buddhist garb and everything buddhist. As I got closer to the temple, the items became more frivolous and irrelevant to the actual celebration. Starting with some slushees then moving to random t-shirts and finishing with street vendors selling q-tips and band-aids. Really? Not sure what that was all about, but it just goes to show that nothing is sacred anymore, not Christmas, not Buddha's Birthday and definitely not Presidents Day......err, well forget the last one.

As predicted, the decorations at Samgwansa was quite impressive. There were large dragons and a roof of lanterns covering the grounds of the temple. I meandered through the masses of people and tried my best to capture the moment without offending the religious attending. With that said, a lot of the decorations were similar to those of Beomeosa so I did not stay there too long.

Finished with Samgwansa, I went back to Haeundae to meet up with a my former coworker and his girlfriend. From there we went to his new apartment and started up the night with some Andong Soju, which is 40% alcohol. We then packed up some homemade soju fruit juice cocktails and went over to the Busan sports complex to watch the Ulsan Hyundai Tigers, the professional soccer team of Ulsan, face off against Busan L'Park.

Being my first in-person professional event in Korea, the differences between Korean and American sporting events were clear even before I entered the stadium. For one, the most expensive ticket was 8,000 won, or approximately 6 dollars. Not even for MLS games in America are tickets that cheap. Furthermore, there were few people at the stadium, definitely under 5,000, which is shocking because soccer is most definitely in the top 3 in the world of Korean sport.

After getting past the shock of the prices and lack of attendance, it then hit me that we totally walked in with quart size jugs of homemade soju cocktail. Not only did they not detain us for the alcohol but they also sold cans of beer, at ridiculously reasonable prices. It's almost as if they encourage you to get drunk at the games. They obviously haven't had many people from Cleveland attend their sporting events here. Now back in the states, I usually like to have a beer in one hand with some nachos in the other and enjoy a good contest. Korea does things a little differently, with packages of dried squid or ramyeon (the Korean pronunciation of ramen). It's actually quite a sight to see a giant thermos of hot water next to the snack stand so you can prepare you ramyeon.

Well, my mood was lightened with a 2-1 win for the visiting Ulsan Club and by my soju cocktail. The celebrations continued as the 3 of us went to the Haeundae Beach area where we hit up several bars. At that point everything pretty much got blurry and basically all I remember was getting some gimchi jjigae (gimchi stew) before heading back to my friends place where I would crash on his floor.

The next day came early, as I had set my alarm for 10 till 9 so I could get back to Ulsan to catch the soccer bus to take us to our match in Daegu. With my stomach feeling like it had just been on the scrambler ride at an amusement park, I snuck out of my friends apartment and navigated my way back to the bus station to catch the bus back to Ulsan. Ah, this is the life I lead...........