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The Misty Mountains of Jirisan, South Korea

wild tea of jirisan
wild tea of jirisanJirisan is a mountain range in the far south of South Korea. The surrounding county, Hadong, is home to Korea’s “wild tea”, which has been cultivated here for over 1000 years.
I arrived late in the afternoon with my wife and we took a bus through beautiful scenery following the river to the village of Agyang. We got off the bus and walked up the hill to a quiet and quaint little village of traditional Hanok houses. There were a lot of shops selling pottery and tourist souvenirs but they were all closed, it seemed as if we had the village almost to ourselves!
After a dinner of local noodles we found a small shop selling the local tea and had our first try. It was the first pick of the year, before the rain season. The green tea was smooth and had a note of toasty rice to it with a fresh finish. We drank about three pots and then headed to bed.

Ssangyesa Temple: the Most Important Site in Jirisan

We got up early and took a 30 minute bus ride to Ssanggyesa, passing many tea plantations on the way. When we arrived the first thing we did was go to see the original tea plantation which was started by Dae-Ryeom, who was sent to China as an envoy in AD828. Since then, the field has been preserved and the current tea trees are unkempt, left to grow naturally, and so it is called “wild tea”. I picked a few buds off a bush to take back and brew later.
After that we headed up to the temple, which is the first Korean one I have been to. A major difference from Chinese temples I noticed is that it is an active place of worship ad cultivation, rather than a tourist site. As you enter the temple signs appear in multiple languages asking for silence. There were several natural wells you could drink mountain water from, which I collected to brew my tea leaves I picked with.
The temple is also famous as being the place where abbot Jingam created Korean Buddhist music after studying in Tang Dynasty China.
Hiking up the beautiful trail behind the temple the only people we saw were monks on their way to a meditation retreat in a bamboo grove. There were truly wild tea trees growing on the side of the path, which looked as if they had been heavily picked, I’m guessing by the monks who do produce their own tea.
Later, we headed back to the village for lunch, which was a vegetarian meal consisting of lots of small dishes, one of which was tea leaves pickled in vinegar (unfortunately, I can’t say I was a huge fan of it).
In the afternoon we first visited a small shop and sat with some local monks drinking a black tea. The Hadong black tea was fairly light, quite similar to Tanyang Gongfu, a Chinese variety from Fujian. I personally think it would have been better had it been brewed with more leaves. After we left the shop we saw a very old woman by the roadside selling herbs picked from the mountains. She had some rough tea leaves in a bag for a very cheap price, which we decided to buy. As you would expect from rough leaves the flavour was fairly course and bitter, actually it reminded me of cheap green teabags you would buy in the UK supermarkets.

The Tea Museum

Just below that original tea plantation I mentioned was the Tea Culture Museum. The museum exhibition itself is really of little interest, with some inaccurate information on the history and classification of tea, and some pieces of ancient teaware, but one part that did interest was offering hands on lessons on making green tea as well as performing tea ceremony. Unfortunately the making tea lesson was only available to groups of people who prebooked, but we did get to try our hand at Korean tea ceremony.
I will talk about the ceremony later, first I want to mention the teas we tried and bought in the museum shop. The green tea was excellent. We tried a “pre-rain” first flush, the cream of the crop so to speak. It’s flavour was bold and powerful, but not overwhelming. Unfortunately this tea was way out of my price range, so I went for a third flush, which still didnt come cheap. We also tried a Wulong, which to me tasted very similar to a light black tea, different to Chinese or Taiwanese wulongs.
On the whole, the Hadong wild teas are very good, especially the greens. They are expensive which I think is due to several factors; the small amount grown, the organic and fully handmade processing and for Koreans it is a national pride. I have often found, like in Britain, the Koreans will pay much more for locally made produce than for imports, while China is exaclty the opposite.
In the tea cultural centre they were offering free classes on tea ceremony. The lady who taught us was very cultured and polite. The first thing we learnt was how to properly sit, and how to handle the tools. Sitting should be kneeling, but you must not step your feet on the cushion as you kneel down. When you handle something you should use your right hand, palm up, and the left hand also palm up pointing at your right elbow.
To start the ceremony you bow and say to the guest “차 한잔 드십시오” (tsa hanzan te sip siyo), which means “please enjoy a cup of tea”. The tea ceremony is more ritualised than a Chinese ceremony, but simpler than the Japanese one. The ceremony is full of Confucian etiquette, with a definite hierarchy of who is given tea first and who drinks first. It generally starts from the oldest male present.
The room was layout was very beautiful, all wooden with tea sets layed out on the floor and a risen platform at the front where the teacher would give lessons to larger groups. It gave me the feeling of an ancient Chinese Confucian academy. I think Korea does a very good job of protecting and preserving the traditional culture, but they don’t always give due credit to their Chinese influences. I wish in the future I can see China work harder to promote these kind of activities as they have so much to offer.
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Taekkyon Training

When arriving at the Taekkyon training for the first time, I was impressed. It was hidden down a small street in Insadong; the tourist/culture district of Seoul. The floor was all matted and the schools decor was very traditional. That lesson there happened to be visiting a group of Australian students on a martial arts tour of Korea. I just watched as I didn’t have the proper clothes. The class started with a kind of dance to the Korean folk song Arirang. During the dance, students stepped in rhythm, occasionally striking, kicking or patting their bodies. A couple of good reads for some background on Taekkyon and Korean martial arts are Taekyon: The Korean Martial Art and 5,000 Years of Korean Martial Arts: The Heritage of the Hermit Kingdom Warriors.

The master, Do Ki Hyun, was full of energy and gave me a very positive feeling. I saw him demonstrate sometechniques on one of the students and the crispness and power impressed me. At the end of the class everybody sat down and learnt a basic meditation set. Breathing along with some basic hand motions.
taekkyon trainingAfter that I was impressed and decided to sign up the next class. The first thing I had to learn was how to correctly wear the traditional clothing, tieing the knots the right way etc. After a bad attempt at following the warmup, an elder student taught me the first basic, which was shifting the weight from side to side by bending the knee. The difficult thing was not to swing the shoulders while moving. I was left to practice in the mirror for about half an hour. The movement looks simple, but my legs were killing, and then my neck and shoulders became tense. The feeling took me back to my days practicing Qigong; standing on the spot trying to relax, shoulders and neck killing!

Finally relief came, and I was taught how to step. The stepping pattern was like a triangle, bending the knees in a rhythm of three beats. The master explained that Korean music is all based on three beats, and so is Taekkyon. This step, called Pumbalkki, is the beginning and end of Taekkyon training. Just like Ba Gua has circle walking and Xingyi has San Ti Shi, Taekkyon training has Pumbalkki. All techniques, strikes, kicks, blocks or throws, come out of this step, and it dictates the rhythm for the fight.

At the end of class, I went up to the office to talk to Master Do. He had a beautiful collection of antique swords and many relics and paintings on the wall. He seemed very caring about his students, and took an interest in my martial arts training in China, asking what it was like to train there. He explained the traditional Korean way was very informal, and that the movements were comfortable and natural, as opposed to the technicality of Chinese martial arts or the strict nature of Japanese ones.
For the third class, I learnt some basic hand techniques, and did some slaps and palms on the pads. Master Do started to explain some concepts of Taekkyon training to me. He explained that in the beginning, you do the movements very light and naturally, not moving the shoulders. In order to learn to use your whole body power and Ki, you have to first learn to relax and be natural. In Taekkyon, he said, you must conserve power, only use it where its needed. He asked me to hit him and push him and showed me some techniques. His power was amazing… it made me think of a very skilled Taiji or internal practitioner. Soft, but overwhelming. He stated to make fun of Japanese martial arts being very hard and aggressive, saying that is a waste of power. He then added that it’s not that other styles are bad, its just that according to Taekkyon, they go against the Taekkyon theory. He said that of course, other styles would say Taekkyon is wrong. As I am here to learn Taekkyon, he wants me to understand and practice the principles of it, and to be immersed in it. And so that is why he is explaining this to me.
The difficult thing for me is relearning movements in a new way. Although Taekkyon is very different to Chinese martial arts, there are of course similar movements; but the difference is in the details. One thing for starters is learning to be much softer and natural than the aggressive, hard movements of Praying Mantis Kung Fu. I’m slowly making my way through the basics and getting to see the art of Taekkyon, which is a deep and complex martial art. Below is a clip from Chris Crudelli’s series “Mind, Body and Kickass Moves” which shows my Taekkyon teacher in action.

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My Year in South Korea

As my year in South Korea comes to an end, I would like to reflect on my experience here. I feel I have gained some small insights into a country which is fairly off the radar to most travellers.

my year in south koreaIf I look back to my attitude towards Korea, it has changed quite a lot over the last year. I came here after living in Yantai, a small and unpleasant city in North-eastern China. There wasn’t much to do, and so my life consisted of my work and my training. It was less than an hour’s flight to Seoul, the capital of Korea, a huge metropolis of bright lights. My very first experience was the crowded subway which we took to Kyung Hee University, where my girlfriend would study her master’s degree.

Early on, I felt very positive about Korea, I was keen to explore, and having seen most of the sites of Seoul and nearby places, planned a couple of trips to the far south, to Kyeongju, Jeonju and Jiri-san Mountain. Kyeongju did not disappoint, there was so much to see and do, and it had a lot of history and culture. Jiri-san also, a peaceful mountain with beautiful temples and a lot of small tea shops. You can read more about those in my previous posts. Jeonju, on the other hand, was a slight let down. The guidebooks had told of a beautifully preserved ancient town full of old culture. What I found was a few old buildings amongst some modernly built replicas made into guesthouses and restaurants. Aside from a shop selling traditional handmade paper, there wasn’t really any culture, just stalls selling tourist garbage like beer ice-cream and tacky street food.

After a while of searching for a martial art I wanted to study, I came across Master Do Ki-Hyun and his Taekkyon School (which you can also read about here). There are many martial arts styles in Korea, but most of them are modern creations, some, like Hapkido or Kuk Sul Won, are pretty effective, but others are just New Age bullshit or Mcdojos. However, Taekkyon is one of the few authentic Korean martial arts out there, and is very interesting in how it captures the spirit of the Korean ancestors. The art is based around a game, a match where you either kick the opponent in the head, or throw them to win. Korea was traditionally an agricultural nation, and the people were very peaceful. This is apparent in how Taekkyon techniques are not designed to inflict injury, but only to win the tournament. Violent techniques are frowned upon and movements are performed naturally and effortlessly, with a positive attitude. This a stark contrast to the modern Korean martial arts which have a heavy Japanese influence and a militaristic attitude.

After some time in Korea, the novelty of new things started to wear off, and I began to grow tired of the country. Koreans, as a nationality, are a people with a strong inferiority complex. Somebody once used the phrase “a prawn between two whales”, which I think fits perfectly. For most of its history, Korea has been overshadowed by China, and the Korean kings usually paid tribute to and followed the lead of the Chinese dynasties. Then came the Japanese occupation, which lasted around 100 years. Following that was the Korean War, which essentially led South Korea to become a puppet state to America. Since that time, the country has developed at an incredible rate, and now has a very good economy, high living standards, and is one of the most high tech countries in the world. Korean people have traditionally been a very peaceful people, but a long history of having to answer to the bigger powers has left them with a huge inferiority complex, which they cover up by being incredibly arrogant in their views towards other Asians, such as Chinese or South East Asians. There is a strong sense of Korean people wanting to distance themselves from less developed nations, and latch onto western powers. Modern Korean culture is very Americanised. With things like K-pop, TV soaps and plastic surgery/cosmetics, superficiality and materialism reigns supreme. This, combined with a very strict Confucian system of hierarchy and etiquette has led to a very stressful lifestyle. Everybody is competing with each other and social status as well as physical appearance is everything.

This sense of insecurity is very deeply ingrained in the Korean mindset and not only affects modern society, but traditional cultures too. Most Korean culture originates from China, there is some indigenous culture, but not that much. Koreans are fiercely proud of their culture and don’t take kindly to criticism (which is why parts of this article will make me some enemies!!!). They dispute the origins of many things which came from China. To us westerners it seems petty and unimportant, but imagine if you are a Chinese person living in Korea, and they are constantly telling you chopsticks, soy sauce, Yin and Yang, Chinese medicine, martial arts etc etc all actually originated from Korea not China!

On the flipside, Korean people have a good sense of social awareness, there are many people collecting for charity in the streets and people are willing to give. People are very respectful to old people (although many old people expect the treatment and are very rude, even to people who are kind to them) and often help strangers in the street. It’s one of the few countries in Asia where I have had to bargain or felt I am being overcharged. However, they are a closed people and it is very difficult to enter into their social circles.

As far as food, Korean food is generally either Kimchi or soup, or Kimchi-soup! I do quite like Kimchi however, just not in the doses Koreans serve. I also really enjoy their Samgyeopsal, which is belly-pork that you barbeque yourself. Maekgoli is a thick and sweet rice wine which is excellent too, although the Korean drink of choice, Soju, tastes like watered down vodka. My favourite restaurants in Korea were generally Japanese sushi/sashimi restaurants, which were always affordable and fresh. The Chinese and Italian restaurants were terrible and didn’t resemble at all those great cuisines.

On the whole however, my experiences in Korea have mostly been positive. I didn’t have many expectations, as to be honest, it’s not a country I would have chosen to live in myself. But I learnt a lot, had new experiences and met a lot of new friends. I am grateful for my time here and now I have moved back to China, am looking forward to my next adventure.