Religions of Korea

Jonathan Thomas is a Second Year student, currently enrolled in the UVA Exchange: Seoul National University Program in Seoul, South Korea.

Seoul National University is nestled into a contour on the side of one of Seoul’s largest mountains, Gwankak mountain. The mountain is located to the south of the city, and like most of Korea, is particularly picturesque during the fall months when the trees covering the mountains turn from green to autumnal colors. Getting off at Gwacheon station puts you at the base of the mountain path that begins the ascent to the top of Gwanak mountain.  The path winds its way up, following a clear stream which makes it way down the mountain in the opposite direction.

Just before the peak of the mountain, there are a series of buildings, where you’ll find an ornate and active Buddhist temple, with its members still operating and maintaining the temple. However, this isn’t out of the ordinary. Walking up to the top and finding a temple is quite common in Korea, with many of them located on or around mountains. This doesn’t mean that Buddhists or Buddhist monks are in anyway secluded. Often times you’ll see monks with their heads shaved dressed in gray robes riding the subway. Additionally, if you take the bus from Seoul National University to the closest subway station on the east side of the school, you will be thrust into the busy area of Nakseongdae station. The busy streets are home to coffee shops, restaurants, stores, and churches. The churches are highlighted by the spires jutting up from them, but apart from this they look like any other building on the street.

What is remarkable about this is the coexistence of both of these religions in harmony. Many times, religions butt heads, clash in their ideology and generally don’t get along. While there have been rises and falls in popularity of both religions in Korea over the centuries, Korea has had a history of religious acceptance, especially of foreign religions, and the divide between Christianity and Buddhism is about fifty-fifty. This has created a dynamic that has continued into the present. The religious order of Korea isn’t something of tension, but rather a virtue, where the religion you hold is your belief and the religion another person holds is their own belief. This has created a society where Buddhist temples and Christian churches sit virtually side-by-side without the slightest hint of animosity.

While this may seem trivial, to me it’s a refreshing reassurance. Currently, there are quite a lot religious conflicts spread across the world, and these conflicts are some of the most difficult to resolve. Therefore, to see a country and culture like Korea where two religions can coexist, sans conflict, gives me hope that those conflicts have some sort of resolution, and makes me appreciated Korea for its unique cultural aspects like this one.

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Special Introductions to Florence

Sarah Genovese is a Foreign Affairs major, who went to Florence, Italy in Spring 2017 during her third year.

I can’t believe what a whirr the first 11 days in Florence have been. It feels as though I have been here for 10 minutes, but also for 3 years. I am beginning to have a sense that I am in “my neighborhood” as I approach my apartment at the end of long walks. I am getting lost slightly less often, though I have never been particularly good at directions (and still get lost in my hometown). I have faced a few obstacles: the hot water in our apartment shut off one day; my debit card is scratched and a new one is (hopefully) on its way. “Our apartment.” I share an apartment with 8 girls: 4 from UVA and 4 from Penn State. Everyone is very nice and very compatible—it turns out that college age girls with an interest in travelling Europe for four months have a lot in common.

Our first weekend here was full of school orientations, and less formal means of orienting ourselves in Florence. My personal favorite part of the first few days was going to an aperitivo, a cheap “pre-dinner snack,” buffet-style and served with a drink. It was a cultural experience, very revealing of the slow-paced, food-oriented Italian lifestyle. It was also a lot of fun to do with my apartment-mates. It’s been a continuous, conscious effort to avoid the “study abroad bars” and “American diners” that study abroad students here tend to frequent, and make sure that I’m doing culturally engaging things with my study abroad friends.

This weekend, two of my apartment-mates went to Berlin, and three of us went to Siena. Siena was a beautiful town—we went to the Siena Duomo, a medieval art museum, and Il Campo, the city square. We had lunch at a highly recommended restaurant, L’Osteria on Via Rossi, and I had Siena’s traditional pasta with a wild boar ragu, which is a Siena staple as well. Engaging with Italy via food has definitely been one of my preferred modes.

Sunday of this weekend, I went to a church service at the nearest cathedral which, like all of the churches in Florence, is amazingly beautiful. I am a confirmed Catholic, but hadn’t been to church in a while. The contrast between the strange language and the childhood memories gave me a mix of emotions that was hard to sort out, but which draws me to go again. However, my plans for many long weekend trips may disrupt this desire. Indeed, the hardest part of study abroad so far has been trying to establish a balance between all of the things I want to do in Florence and Italy, and the things I want to do in wider Europe. I look forward to figuring it out!

UVA in Costa Rica

Mariam Gbadamosi attended the UVA in Costa Rica Program in Summer 2017.

This picture was taken in the market in the city of Grecia in the province of Alajuela in Costa Rica. This picture showcases many of the fruits that are characteristic of Costa Rican cuisine like pineapple, coconut, and watermelon. Ticos, as they refer to themselves, visit their local market to buy fresh fruits and foods.

This picture was taken in the coastal city of Jacó, which is in the province of Puntarena. The picture showcases the beach landscape and the mountains in the backgrounds.

This is a picture of the uninhabited Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Nicoya. The island is undisturbed and home to many animals and numerous species of plant.

This picture showcases murals on the ceiling of the Iglesia de Costa Rica.

This picture was taken in the central plaza of the city of Alajuela. It showcases the Iglesia or church of Alajuela, which is central to the community.

This picture was taken in the central plaza of the city of Alajuela and showcases the park. One can see the city landscape and locals enjoying a stroll through the park.

This picture was taken in Juan Santamaria park in the city of Alajuela. The mural depicts the events of the invasion of Costa Rica by Willian Walker in 1856 and the heroic acts of Juan Santamaria, a soldier for the Costa Rican army. He is recognized as a national hero.

This picture was taken in ICLC, where we studied Spanish during the program. The image showcases the landscape of the area and one of the classrooms of the institute.

The catholic church is always the physical center of the Costa Rican city, because it is central to the lives of the people. This picture was taken inside the church and showcases the religious imagery.

This picture was taken in the market in the city of Grecia in the province of Alajuela in Costa Rica. This picture shows one of the many shops that make up the market and the people that work there. In addition, one can see plantains which are a staple of the Costa Rican diet.

Seoul, Korea: History, Modernization, and the balance of tourism and respect

Zachary Diamond is studying abroad in South Korea and Japan on UVA’s short-term Commerce program Finance in Northeast Asia.

After visiting Samsung in Gangnam, a group of us ventured to Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple constructed in 794 A.D. The first thing was the temple is absolutely beautiful, especially because they are currently celebrating Buddha’s birthday so thousands of colorful paper lanterns are hung up throughout the temple. It was extremely relaxing to walk through the entire area. Apart from the central prayer building, the temple is built into a hillside allowing for a small dirt trail surrounding by trees and a giant statue of Buddha that people would circumambulate in prayer.

Below is my favorite picture I’ve taken so far on the trip as it resembles the most fascinating part of this temple. From the spot of the picture, I was standing around trees, listening to nature and wind set off peaceful wind chimes. However, directly across the street are large class skyscrapers that hold offices for national and global firms. In Seoul I found a direct contrast of modern and traditional that is not evident in the United States. While Korea feels like a new and foreign land, the skyscrapers remind me just how similar it is to a large city in the states.

At the temple, I found myself conflicted between respect and experience. At the temple, people were in deep prayer and I felt as if I was trespassing on their special place. Especially at the statue of the Buddha, I was hesitant to walk close to the statue as I did not want to distract or interfere with those in prayer. Personally, I would be extremely thrown off and probably mad at anyone who was being a tourist at my temple back home. While for me the Bongeunsa was a spot to visit on this trip to Korea, for many people it is their sacred space and normal temple. The more I stay in Seoul, the more I realize it is just like any other city, and that makes me feel somewhat guilty about trying seeing special places of the city as I’m treating the city as a spectacle and not what the locals treat it as, home.

My favorite picture taken so far

Lanterns hung up at Bongeunsa

Falles de València 2017: Patrimoni Immaterial de la Humanitat

Thomas Sumner is a second year Spanish major spending the spring semester on UVA in Valencia: Business. Read the rest of his Valencia blog at https://thomastravels.tumblr.com/.

Fallas of Valencia 2017: Intangible World Heritage

Fallas. Where do I even begin? Professors and other students talked up this festival to me long before I arrived in Valencia, and now I know why. Even after having lived through it, I still find it difficult to explain the “locura” (madness) that is “las Fallas.” The celebration is truly unlike any other, and although I doubt my words will be able to fully explain the celebration or convey what an incredible experience it was, I’ll try my best!

Fallas is a festival of fire that takes place in the city of Valencia every year from March 15th to 19th. During this time, huge, brightly painted wooden sculptures are erected in plazas and public areas and are ultimately burned to the ground with fireworks displays at midnight on the 19th. From the minute the clock strikes 12:01 am the morning of March 15th (and honestly, even way before that point – certain festivities begin as early as February 3rd!) until the moment the last ember dies out, the city of Valencia is in a perpetual, 24 hour “fiesta loca.”

Here’s an example of a falla (the Falla Cuba-Literato Azorín, to be precise)

As if the opportunity to be living in Valencia and experience all this wasn’t cool enough, my best friend Sam joined me for the week! I loved getting the chance to celebrate Fallas with her 🙂

The most commonly agreed on explanation for the origin of Fallas dates all the way back to a pagan celebration during the middle ages. Because of scarce daylight hours during the months of winter, Valencian carpenters frequently labored far after the sun had set. In order to continue working without daylight, the carpenters would hang oil lamps from precariously built wooden structures. As winter came to an end and the days lengthened, these structures were no longer necessary, and the carpenters would set them on fire to celebrate the Spring Equinox and the lengthening of the days. Eventually, the celebration was Christianized and made to coincide with “La diada de Sant Josep” to honor Saint Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary and the patron saint of carpenters. The day of Saint Joseph always falls on the 19th of March, and is also when Father’s Day is celebrated throughout Spain.

These crude wooden structures from the middle ages have evolved so much that they have almost nothing to do with the fallas you’ll see today (except for the fact that they’re flammable). Fallas nowadays are made of what is essentially papier-mâché and sanded wood, painted over in bright colors. Fallas are satirical in nature and normally are designed to poke fun at someone or something (and really, anything is fair game). In this way, fallas vary in style and subject each festival because they offer social and political commentary on the events of the year (you had better believe that there was no shortage of mini Donald Trumpsbeing burnt to the ground in Valencia last weekend, and I can’t say the sight brought me much remorse).

This year, the day of Saint Joseph (also known as the Cremà, the last day of the festival when the burning of the fallas takes place) happened to fall on a Sunday, which was just a coincidence. However, this means that the largest days of the celebration fell on a weekend, allowing many more people from outside of Valencia to take days off and experience the festival. What’s more, 2017 is the first year that Fallas has been recognized by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as intangible world heritage. Both of these factors made the festival even larger (and more crowded) than normal. All in all, it’s estimated that the population of Valencia doubles (some will argue it almost triples) during the week of the celebration. The preliminary numbers indicate that this year’s festival was record breaking, as the city welcomed well over a million tourists and spent around 8 million euros (and remember, that number is even larger when converted to US dollars) on the festivities.

Most “barrios,” or neighborhoods in Valencia have a “casal faller,” a committee that sponsors the neighborhood’s falla. This committee is composed of different residents of the neighborhood who oversee the falla’s design, construction, and erection. The process lasts year-round (no exaggeration – they’ve already begun planning for 2018 and it hasn’t even been a week yet!) and brings neighborhoods together to form tight-knit communities. The process can also be quite costly – many committees sponsor fundraiser paella dinners (a typical Valencian dish) throughout the year to help defray costs. Each year, the neighborhoods enter a friendly competition with each other to see who can sponsor the best falla (as deemed by a committee of judges). To be as fair as possible, neighborhoods are separated into different levels of competition based on their budgets. The top tier of competition consists of neighborhoods that have been sponsoring fallas for years, and are so good at it by now that they can mount absolutely spectacular and humongous fallas (or in other words, they have a huge budget at their disposal). For my pictures of fallas at the bottom of this post, I looked up the names of all the fallas in the top tier of competition. For the rest of them, I’m just going to leave them captionless, because looking up all those names would take forever! Fallas are normally named after the intersection of streets they are placed on, and at times the official names can get pretty lengthy.

As if the normal fallas weren’t enough, each casal faller normally sponsors a falla infantil, a smaller falla (normally more lighthearted and less satirical) for kids to enjoy. Each individual character on a falla is known as a ninot. Each casal faller chooses one ninot that they feel is an example of their best work and most representative of their falla as a whole to be put on display the month before the festival. Leading up to the week of Fallas, anyone can visit the museum and cast a vote for their favorite ninot. The ninot with the most votes becomes the “ninot indultat” of the year. This means the ninot is pardoned from the flames, and is kept in the museum instead of being burned. This is done for both regular fallas and fallas infantiles.

The ninot indultat from this year, depicting a scene that one might see in Valencia’s famous Mercat Central

Each casal faller also chooses one fallera mayor and one faller mayor infantil to represent their neighborhood falla in various ceremonies like parades and events at the town hall. For these events, the girls wear traditional fallera dresses and have their hair done up in a particular style. There is also one fallera mayor and one fallera mayor infantil chosen to represent the entire city, a great honor.

The fallera mayor and one fallera mayor infantil of Valencia, 2017

Walking up and down the streets of the city during Fallas, Valencia sounds like a war zone. You can hear explosions 24 hours a day coming from “petardos,” or firecrackers. If you’re like I was before I came to Valencia, when you hear the word firecrackers, you think of cute, small little packages that pop when you light them on fire. Not in Valencia! Petardos make huge explosions, a very loud bang, char the ground, and flash brightly. They can either be lit from the ground or thrown (theoretically also at the ground, unfortunately sometimes thrown at people). Many Valencians use the illegal variety packed with an excess of gunpowder, which can be quite dangerous if set off incorrectly. Petardos are used every morning around 8 am as part of the “Despertà,” or wake-up call, where partygoers roam the streets and set off explosives to wake up anyone still sleeping and start off the day’s festivities. Although most people exercise common sense and are able to set off petardos without getting hurt, there are inevitably accidents, and the hospital burn units are always busy during the week of Fallas. There are even men who will set off full-on fireworks (which is also illegal) down in the Rio, the drained river that the city of Valencia converted into a park system. It was astonishing for me to see so many young children set off and/or play with these explosives with minimal or no parental supervision. The camp counselor in me wanted to run up and take the explosives out of their hands, but I had to restrain myself.

Venders selling food or knick-knacks out of mobile stations are also very common. Although the sale of food is supposed to be regulated and the vendors are theoretically approved by the health department, we’ll just say from my observations, the standards seem to me a bit more flexible than they might be in the US. I was advised by my host mom to buy food sooner rather than later, as some vendors don’t change the oil they use to fry food in from one day to the next, which makes buying food the last few days kind of dicey. Sam and I took her up on that suggestions, and enjoyed some delicious churros and buñuelos on our first night.

Another quality tip from my host mom was to go out the nights leading up to the beginning of the festival. This way, Sam and I got to see a lot of the fallas without having to deal with crowds. We saw a good number of fallas during the “Plantà,” the process of setting up the fallas, so some of them were only partially constructed. However, it was a lot more pleasant than trying to elbow your way through lots of people in the midday heat. In fact, some families will take their children out at insane times (like 4 am) to see the fallas in order to avoid crowds.

There are lots of events and traditions that go on during the week of Fallas. Every day at 2 pm, there is a Mascletà in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (the town hall square). For this event, the crowds are simply unavoidable. You have to get to the plaza at least an hour early if you want a half decent spot. The Mascletà is similar to a fireworks display, except it’s put on during the day, and the fireworks stay closer to the ground and are even louder. The joke is that the Mascletà is so deafening, you can hardly hear it – but you can feel it! The vibrations you feel from all the explosions, particularly at the finale, are dangerously potent (I’m talking so strong, we were warned to keep our jaws slack to avoid chipping a tooth). What’s even crazier, the Mascletà starts long before fallas do, on the 26thof February to be precise! And seeing as it’s a daily occurrence, the city of Valencia spends a great deal of money on pyrotechnics well before the actual Fallas celebration even begins.

Mascletà in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. The big spaceship-looking tower is the falla of the town hall, which has nothing in particular to do with the Mascletà, they just happen to be in the same place.

There are also many “cavalcadas,” or parades, throughout the week. At any time during the festival, but especially during these parades, you’ll see people dressed up as falleros and falleras, wearing traditional Valencian outfits. You will also hear all sorts of bands and percussion ensembles playing music to rally people up and excite passerby.

(Very cute) falleras infantiles!

Each casal faller has its own parade to the “Plaza de la Virgen” (Plaza of the Virgen, although I feel like in this case the translation was hardly necessary), where they offer bouquets of flowers to the Virgen Mary on behalf of their neighborhood. This is known as the Ofrendà. All of the offerings are used to construct a larger-than-life Virgin Mary made out of flowers that is left on display for the week (and I feel the need to note that this structure is not burned).

However, my favorite of all the Fallas traditions are the castillos, or fireworks shows. They are absolutely stunning, and the photos don’t begin to do them justice. I also must say, as much as I love my country, these fireworks displays put the 4th of July to complete shame. Each night, the show gets bigger and starts even later. The biggest show, the Gran Nit del Foc, doesn’t start until 1:30 am!

But then again, during Fallas, the city never sleeps. This is a week where there are more people in the streets at 5am than at 9am. Fallas is a time where everyone kicks back and enjoys themselves, socializes and unwinds. However, the celebration has negative aspects as well. There is a horrific amount of trash generated in the likes of beer bottles, discarded wrappers, and the remains of fireworks that lie scattered all throughout the streets. Clubs and discos move outside, and blast music at all hours of the day, preventing people who live nearby from sleeping at night. The city infrastructure becomes absolutely paralyzed. Driving anywhere is nearly impossible with so many roads blocked-off to mount fallas, or converted to pedestrian-only for the week. This causes any remaining roads to become insufferably congested with traffic, to the point that it’s really just quicker to walk and save yourself the trouble and the gas. The metro still runs, but it becomes insanely crowded and everyone is shoved into the train like sardines (Sam and I got to experience this firsthand on multiple occasions). Businesses are shut down for the holiday and it can be difficult or near impossible to run errands or get things done during the festival. And this is not to mention the considerable environmental impact of so many fireworks, Mascletà’s, and burning fallas. For these reasons and more, some residents of Valencia dislike the Fallas, and others leave the city for the week altogether. Many residents stand somewhere in the middle, as they enjoy the celebration but dislike the effects it has on the city. My host mom is of this persuasion – she told me that she has seen enough of Fallas in her day that she would have left the city for the week had I not been staying with her. However, from my perception at least, the majority of Valencians seem to enjoy Fallas and are proud of what it represents for them in terms of cultural heritage.

Last but certainly not least, at midnight on the 19th is the “Cremà” (burning), the fiery end to the festival. Explosives are laid underneath the fallas, and when the clock strikes the hour, they are ignited. The fallas infantiles burn at 10 pm, the regular fallas burn at midnight, and the big falla by the town hall burns at 1am. These times tend to vary based on the amount of firefighters available to supervise and control the burning. Fallas that have won awards may also be burned later so more people can come to watch. I was amazed at how quickly the fallas burned, and how I could feel the heat from the fire even being a considerable distance away. At first, I thought it was sad that artists spend the whole year crafting these beautiful sculptures, only to burn them to ashes. And it is sad, in a way. But I now understand that it is all done in the spirit of the Fallas. The festival reminds us that beauty is not eternal and doesn’t last forever, and neither do the fallas. The Cremà symbolizes rebirth, a sort of purification through fire – out with the old, in with the new.

The Cremà on a Sunday night

I can now say with certainty that the title of World Heritage is well-deserved by the Fallas! I consider myself so fortunate to have been able to experience such an incredible festival firsthand and will always treasure my memories from this week.

Katin’s South Korea Photo Blog

Katin Tran is currently studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea. Take a look at her photos thus far!

The main entrance to the Namsangol Hanok Folk Village. Namsan Park, located in the center of Seoul, has many entry points, including this grand gate that opens up to an array of traditional-style buildings.

The main performance stage of Namsangol Hanok Folk Village. Large folk and traditional performances are held on this stage as the stage and its surrounding area are both spacious and wide. When not in use, anyone can walk around it and also lounge in the structure behind it. Make sure to take your shoes off first!

Entrance to Seoul’s Thousand Year Time Capsule. Located in the Namsangol Hanok Village, this time capsule was buried in 1994 to commemorate Seoul’s 600 year anniversary as the country’s capital city. The capsule itself is buried in an open space, but that space is enclosed within elevated walls and fences. To reach the capsule, one must walk down stone pathways.

Wall inscriptions about the Thousand Year Time Capsule. The inscriptions lie directly across from the entrance to the capsule and are inscribed in both Korean and English, a plus for international tourists! The capsule’s name comes from its future opening in one thousand years from its date of burial, and inside the capsule lies 600 chosen representative cultural items.

The entrance to Jogyesa temple in central Seoul. The temple is conveniently located in the middle of the city, making it very accessible to those coming to and from work. As such, the temple is very popular and full of people, even on weekdays. The temple is currently adorned with colorful lanterns in preparation for Buddha’s birthday.

The Great Hero Hall of Jogyesa. As the central building on the temple grounds, the elevated hall serves as the primary meditation space. The outside walls, as well as the inside ones, are decorated with murals of important moments in the Buddhist religion.

Central altar in the Great Hero Hall at Jogyesa. Gigantic in size, the three-set of Buddhas on the central altar are atypically larger than most of the statues found at temples. The overwhelming size provides a larger sense of presence and can make meditators feel mentally closer to Buddha. Worshippers will often provide donations in a box to the side of the altar or provide food offerings on the altar.