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December 23, 2012 thesundaytimes
Seoul experiences in a temple
Temples in South Korea open up to paying guests who want to experience the simple life
eoul – As a paying guest at Mihwangsa, there is no need to book a morning wake-up call. It is provided well before sunrise, at 4am to be precise. And it is not optional. Instead of a telephone call – none of the rooms have phones – guests are roused by a monk walking past their rooms, knocking on a wooden block to call them for a round of pre-breakfast chanting and meditation. The dozen guests who make their sleepy way to the temple’s main hall – clad in identical grey loose-fitting outfits – are all taking part in Mihwangsa’s Templestay programme. Ranging from middle school students to housewives in their late 30s, and including Koreans and foreigners, they were attracted by what has become a thriving mini-tourist industry in temples across South Korea. “I wanted to be isolated in the mountains while experiencing the traditional life,” said Ms Helena Ranneberg, a Danish web consultant. Mihwangsa temple is undoubtedly isolated, located halfway up a mountain in coastal Haenam county around 320km south-west of Seoul. The Templestay programme has its unlikely origins in the 2002 football World Cup which was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. When the government made a general appeal for help in overcoming a shortage of hotel accommodation, the Jogye Order, the country’s largest Buddhism sect, saw an opportunity and began opening its temples to short-term paying guests. “There were shared voices within Buddhism that we needed to interact with the outside world by opening ourselves to the public,” said Kumgang, the head monk of Mihwangsa. The rates are relatively cheap, ranging from 50,000 to 80,000 won (S$57 to S$91) a night, and the amenities are spartan compared to any mainstream hotel. Guests are obliged to sleep on thin cotton mattresses on a hardwood floor, eat vegetarian food and participate in classes on Buddhism, morning meditation and evening chanting of scriptures – all led by monks. “The most difficult part for me was to sit and lie on the wooden floor,” confessed Ms Ranneberg. “I just couldn’t sleep at night.” In their free time, they can hike in the surrounding area, read books, drink tea and participate in much of the temple’s daily life. Drinking and smoking are forbidden and mobile-phone use actively discouraged. “Other than ceremonies, I can relax, drink tea with the monks and have discussions on life... It’s all I could wish for,” said Ms Park Seung-Kyung, a housewife from Gwangju who had booked in for three days.
Guests and monks at meditating sessions during temple stays at Mihwangsa temple (left) in Haenam, 350km south of Seoul, and Jikjisa temple (above) in Gimcheon, 185km south-east of Seoul.
PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/CULTURAL CORPS OF KOREAN BUDDHISM
Foreign guests practising teamaking during a stay at Geumsansa temple (left) in Gimje, 205km south of Seoul, and at Baekdamsa temple (right) in Inje, 140km north-east of Seoul.
None of the monks at Mihwangsa speak English, but a lay Buddhist living in the temple helps interpret for foreign guests. For Ms Ranneberg, the language barrier was not an issue. “Before dawn, I had time on my own in complete darkness, just sitting in front of the traditional architecture. And that really was something different, something I would never be able to experience anywhere else,” she said. Since the programme began a decade ago, the number of participating temples has risen from 33 to 109 and close to two million people have stayed in them. Last year, the number of Templestay
guests was 212,437, of which around 12 per cent were foreigners. Since 2004, the government has provided subsidies totalling around US$100 million (S$122 million) to the programme which it sees as a force for promoting traditional Korean culture. But not everybody is happy. Last year, the Korean Association of Church Communication issued a statement arguing that there was “room for conflict” in the government subsidising a programme associated with one particular religion. “There clearly is a problem with financially supporting missionary events by specific religion,” it said.
The official Templestay website stresses that the programme is mainly aimed at providing a cultural experience, rather than an effort to promote religious belief. Tensions between Buddhism and the Christian Church have deep roots in South Korea. Historically the dominant religion, Buddhism has been eclipsed by Christianity which grew at an incredible pace in the 20th century, especially after the 1950-53 Korean War. Thirty per cent of the population describe themselves as Christian, making South Korea one of the most Christian countries in Asia, ranking third after the traditionally Catholic Philippines and East Timor.
Buddhists now comprise a little over 20 per cent, and there is some resentment in the Buddhist community over South Korea’s embrace of a particularly evangelical style of Christianity that places a strong emphasis on proselytising and missionary work. The Jogye Order plans to designate more temples as Templestay hosts next year and head monk Kumgang says Mihwangsa will continue to participate in the programme. “Templestay can provide people who live a busy life with a place to relax and refresh... like a realm of peace and spiritual growth,” he said. Agence France-Presse
Legends and beauty at home in Brittany
Huang Huifen Who: Mr Richard Mille, 62, founder of the eponymous luxury watch brand. He was in town recently to open the world’s first Richard Mille concept boutique in Grand Hyatt Singapore. He lives in an 18th-century chateau in Moulins in the Brittany region with his wife and three kids aged 14 to 20. Favourite place: Brittany, north-west region of France. It is a 21/2-hour car ride from Paris. Why: Brittany has wet and cold weather like England but it more than makes up for it with its beautiful coastal countryside that awards views of ocean waves crashing against big rocks. Its capital Rennes is an old but wellpreserved city that is bustling with life because of the undergraduate Richard Mille’s population at the University of Rennes. North of Brittany lies Saint Malo, a unique fortified harbour town. I love these well-preserved cities and their friendly people. Favourite scenic spot Visit the beautiful harbours of Saint Malo, Brest and Mont Saint Michel. Mont Saint Michel (www.ot-montsaintmichel.com), at the border between Brittany and Normandy, is the most interesting as it is a fortified abbey and village surrounded by the sea and linked to the mainland by a causeway. While you are there, try the famous light and fluffy omelette at La Mere Poulard (Grand Rue Bp 18, Mont Saint Michel) for about ¤20. Favourite restaurant Auberge du Pont d’Acigne (Le Pont d’Acigne, 35530 Noyal-sur-Vilaine, tel: +33-2-9962-5255, www.auberge-du-pontdacigne.com), located a half-hour drive from Rennes, is what I consider one of the best restaurants in France. It serves a very light cuisine with lots of fish, which is typical of the Brittany region. The chef, Sylvain Guillemot, and his wife worked at French chef Alain Passard’s three-Michelin-starred L’Arpege in Paris, famous for its haute vegetable cuisine. Auberge du Pont Acigne is located next to the river Vilaine, and in summer, it is very romantic to dine alfresco and enjoy the serene view. Budget about ¤100 a person with wine. When in Brittany... Try crepes, the thin pancake dish that originated there. There are many restaurants such as Creperie Paysanne (6 Place Sainte-Anne, Rennes) that sell crepes for
Time your visit to Brittany to coincide with the street Festival of Desarticule which is held in June or July, says Mr Richard Mille.
PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
TRAVEL BLACK BOOK
Favourite hotel Hotel Pen Roc (La Peiniere, Saint Didier, 35221 Chateaubourg Cédex, tel: +33-2-9900-3302, www.penroc.fr) is a typical countryside hotel which I always recommend to friends or customers who visit the region. My friend, tennis player Rafael Nadal, stayed there on his recent trip. The restaurant there serves extremely good lobster dishes such as lobster tagliatelle cooked with tomato sauce, onions and basil for about ¤80 (S$129).
about ¤6 to ¤10. My favourite flavour is the one with frangipane paste and vanilla. Drink cider as it is a speciality of Brittany, thanks to the region’s Celtic heritage. You can find it in any pub around town for about ¤10 a bottle. I am not a cider specialist but I like the cider from Loic Raison brand (www.loicraison.fr) for its dry and harsh taste. Favourite drive Take the scenic coastal routes along Saint Malo to Brest and La Baule, said to be the longest beach in Europe. The towns are near one another and you can complete the trip in one day. Favourite walk If you are into fairy tales and legends, take a walk in the forest of Paimpont (www.broce-
liande-tourisme.info) near Rennes. Legend has it that it was the location of the mythical Broceliande forest where the King Arthur tale is set. There, you can visit the Valley Of No Returns, said to be where the half-sister of King Arthur imprisoned people, and a fountain with meteorological power to summon rain. Must-go museum for car lovers Manoir de l’Automobile (4 Rue de la Court New 35, 550-Loheac, tel: +33-2-9934-0232, www.manoir-automobile.fr, admission costs ¤10) is a car museum located 30km from Rennes with more than 300 vehicles ranging from F1 cars to vintage cars. Favourite tailor I go to Everwell (4 Rue de Clisson, Rennes, tel: +33-2-9978-1792) to tailor my suits. The
cheerful tailor Jean Marie knows what I like and what I don’t, and allows me to dictate the style I want. He also has a fantastic collection of high-quality fabrics such as cashmere and has very precise workmanship. It costs ¤3,000 to tailor my suit and the process takes three months. One festival to bookmark The Festival of Desarticule (www.desarticule.fr) is held in my village, Moulins, in June or July period. It is a street festival filled with arts and drama performances. I like the friendly atmosphere where everyone knows everyone and the party does not end till 3 or 4am. My 17-year-old daughter, Blanche, performs in a comedy at the festival and I am one of the sponsors of the festival. A ticket to the festival costs about ¤6.
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