The Sea Temple and the island of camellias, Confucianism and Buddhism, a duel between sonants and consonants – your eyes and ears will stay busy in South Korea


“Marayu” is a nickname. “Yu” is an actual name, and “Mara” is derived from the word “marathon.” Yu brings me a mango juice in a cup and begins sharing his story. He has run 60 marathons in his life, but has quit running. He has got other things to do. He works as a subway train operator and is bringing up two children. His older daughter is dreaming of becoming an artist, but persistently fails the entrance exams. Talking about her, Yu is giggling (perhaps, out of embarrassment).

Everyone knows that South Koreans work hard and learn throughout their entire lifetime. There exists even a geopolitical explanation for this phenomenon: a small country surrounded by superpowers must be ready for adverse challenges. Therefore, one must work hard and make sure their children acquire good education. While working as a full time train operator, Yu got a tour guide license. On weekends, he takes American Koreans on tours around Busan. He is telling me what places of interest the city has: Beomeosa Temple, Taejongdae Park, Haeundae Beach, and Jagalchi Fish Market (Busan is the country’s largest port). Well, let’s start with the market.

Octopus resembling blind ghosts, all sorts of seashells, impeccable ranks of shimmering fish tails hanging down from tables, more shells, live crabs, pyramids of fiery-red shrimp – the Jagalchi Market, an inland department of the marine kingdom, captivates all your senses at once. The first sense that surrenders to the magic power of the Market is the vision. One of the reasons is that the market sellers wear uniforms with crazy colors. Lilac rubber boots? There you go! Vicious pink gloves? No problem!

Having enjoyed the visual feast to the fullest, one can be sure – the taste of the local food will also leave a lasting impression. And it sure does unless you chicken out and steer clear from the authentic Korean food like raw fish hoe (synonymous with the Japanese sashimi) spiced with hot soy sauce. Though local waiters seem to have little confidence in the durability of the European gastrointestinal tracts, my advice would be “do not deprive yourself of an unforgettable food adventure.” Otherwise, all you bring back home will be just a bunch of pictures and memories of eating boiled oysters.

With an increase in the foreign tourist influx, South Korean eateries had to revise their food serving concepts. For example, restaurant owners had to start equipping their businesses with tables (Koreans eat sitting on the floor). The traditional Korean cuisine menu has also been transformed. Though Koreans prefer salads, soups and rice, local restaurants now have a bigger selection of meat dishes. Koreans eat at the pace of their lives. Therefore, their favorite dish is bibimbap, which literally means “mixed rice,” i.e. it is rice mixed with all sorts of vegetables you can find in your fridge.

Since we are already using Korean words, we can discuss some peculiarities of the Korean language. For you to get a slightest idea of how much we were confused with the pronunciations of the word “bibimbap,” check out the Wikipedia article listing the versions of its pronunciation: “pibimpab, pibimppap, bibimbab, bibimbap and pibimbap.” It is quite a task to conquer the phonetics, which is as hard to catch as an eel in muddy waters. How can you possibly remember the expressions “anyon haseyo”, “kamsamnida” and “anyonhi kaseyo” (“hello”, “thank you” and “goodbye,” respectively) and not confuse them at a crucial moment? There is another difficulty for the European ear. Koreans seem to constantly juggle with sonants and consonants. Even the city has two official versions of its name – “Pusan” and “Busan”.

In addition to being famous for the total indifference to the fate of half of consonants, South Korea is also known for its exceptional nature. This is especially true for the Busan suburbs. The city itself is a conventional modern metropolis, featuring the New-York style skyscrapers. The city has the Diamond Bridge, just like San Francisco. It’s got wide alluring beaches (five of them), just like Tel Aviv. But Busan has tranquil oases right in the city. One of them is a beautiful Dongbaekseom Island. Here, camellias planted along the walking trail encircling the island bloom in winter and the air is saturated with pine scent. The island also houses a pavilion resembling a flying saucer built for the APEC 2005 summit.

When you set your foot on the Dongbaekseom Island, you realize that Korea is a perfect place for pacifying your wound-up nervous system and the brain. This feeling intensifies once you get closer to the Haedong Yonggung Temple. This Buddhist temple was built in 1376, renovated after a blaze destroyed it in the 1930s and renamed in honor of Guanyin, a female incarnation of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, considered the embodiment of infinite compassion, who lives at the seaside and comes to people riding a dragon. But there is much more to see there. The journey begins as an ordinary walk in the open air. The walker enjoys the views of a cliff that looks like wrinkled elephant skin, grayish-green water, bushes and pine trees. And then he spots the outline of a temple. A roof with slightly curved oversize eaves, a square plate with Chinese characters above the entrance (Koreans got their own alphabet only in 1443), golden statues of Buddhas. This place disturbs you and ignites your imagination.

We begin a discussion on the nature of Buddhism with another guide in the Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. This city, the former capital of the ancient Kingdom of Silla that existed for almost ten centuries and at the peak of its development (7th–9th centuries) occupied two thirds of the Korean Peninsula, is Korea’s main tourist attraction. Back then, Gyeongju was one of the largest cities in the world. Today, it houses several UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, including the Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto and Yangdong Folk Village.

Bulguksa is one of the largest and oldest Buddhist temples in Asia. It is a paradise for those looking to study doctrines of Buddhism. That’s what we are doing here as well. “Buddhism sets you free from suffering caused by passionate but unfeasible desires. It uses different tactics to rid man’s mind of them,” says our guide. We hear chants and rhythmic banging coming from the Temple. “What about ambition?” I ask. “What is yours, yours. Do whatever you need to do, but be humble. If you are gifted, you can become even a president, but never compare yourself with others or think highly about yourself. You should reflect on things. Come to the temple and think things over.” That was the answer.

I nod. The guide is not a Buddhist. He is not religious at all. Half of the country’s residents aren’t. About a quarter of Koreans are Buddhists. There are some Catholics (Christian missionaries came to the country in the late 19th century). There are hardly any Muslims in South Korea. Confucianism, which shaped the mentality of the Koreans, seems to be almost inexistent. This doctrine prevailed in the Joseon era (1392–1910). It instilled a very peculiar work ethic in the minds of Koreans. A subordinate must never leave his workplace before his boss does. A worker must not reject his boss’s invitation to a corporate dinner. You cannot even refuse to drink alcohol (and alcohol is known to be a soft spot for Koreans), as it is a part of the ceremony. A Confucian society has a strictly hierarchical structure. Junior son is subordinate to his older brother, son – to his father, wife – to her husband. Even to this day, Koreans use different forms of address for employees with different seniority. When speaking to a senior stranger, they use the word “sunsengnim” (“the teacher”) because the person who lived longer knows more and can teach how to do things.

What lessons can we learn from the lifestyle of a country that never stops learning? For example, that those working hard and obeying their seniors can boost economic growth and become the 11th economy in the world within just forty years. And if something does not work out, Guanyin would arrive on her dragon and comfort you.


  • Local currency – won. KRW1000 ≈ $0,85. It is more convenient to pay with credit cards as they are accepted almost everywhere.
  • KTX – high-speed trains connect Busan with Seoul. The journey takes less than three hours. The cost of economy class tickets is 60 thousand won (approximately $50).
  • Hotel 4* – in Busan charges at least $50 and in Seoul – about $60 per night.
  • Vegetables are the staple of the authentic Korean cuisine, but if you get hungry for meat, try the bulgogi (“the fiery meat”). This dish is cooked from marinated beef, veal or pork. Restaurant staff can bring all the ingredients and equipment (a frying pan, a burner and the foodstuff) for you to prepare the meal yourself.

Published on: December 28, 2017

Теxt: Polina Surnina