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Bomunsa at Seokmo-do, Ganghwa Island

A ten-minute ferry ride from Oepo-ri terminal on Ganghwa Island, Gyeonggi Province takes one to Seokmo-do, a small island formed of three mountains. Many people visit Seokmo-do to enjoy a day out in the open, away from the polluted air in the metropolitan area. The ferry carrying vehicles and passengers is followed by a flock of spoilt sea gulls whose sole purpose is to earn free biscuit snacks from the tourists, who delight at the sight of the birds catching the food thrown in to the air. The round-trip ferry fare costs W14,000 per vehicle (including one passenger), W1,200 per adult and W600 for children. The ferry runs from 7:00am to 8:30pm every 30 minutes. There is one bus leaving for Bomun Temple (Bomunsa) every quarter past the hour in front of Seokmo wharf.

To reach the main temple of Bomunsa, one has to walk up a hill covered with rock. The temple itself is very quiet and pleasant to be in. Some of the buildings are outstandingly colorful, in bright blue, green and orange and the slightly unnatural characteristics of those painted wooden edifices are a remarkable contrast to the dull and solemn dark, worn-out and pale green seen in most temples throughout Korea. The somewhat unrefined quality, however, transforms them into beauty and a delight. Bomunsa is said to have been built in 635, during the rule of Queen Seondeok in the Silla Dynasty. A Chinese juniper tree that is nearly 600 years old stands by the Bomunsa Grotto adding to the serenity of Bomunsa.

Another strange sight was that of a tourist or a devout Buddhist praying with a cloth rack buckled at her back and her jacket tied around her waist. The first impression was that of a lady carrying a baby in front of her who was visiting the temple to pray to the gods for the future of the little one. From a distance, the woman's jacket resembled the piece of cloth Korean women use to wrap their babies on to their backs to carry small infants around. When the woman turned around after making her prayers, the writer noticed to her horror that this woman was indeed carrying her beloved ¡¦ baby, only that it was not an actual, "human" baby but a small ¡¦hairy Yorkshire terrier.

Seokmodo is best known for its Buddha images carved on the flat side of a rock further up (some 484 steps) the mountain at Bomunsa. The Buddha is also called the eyebrow Buddha because it has a projecting rock covering the image like a giant eyebrow, which also acts as a roof sheltering the sacred image. Two head priests carried out the work in 1928. The place is a sacred religious place sought by pious Buddhists, but it is also becoming a popular tourist spot, and meeting place for young Koreans.

If Bomunsa is a must-see among places within the boundaries of Ganghwa Island, a must-try food experience is to eat fish caught in the waters near the island; baendeng-i, or large-eyed herring. One can have served raw or seasoned with red pepper paste and vegetables. Either dish goes well with a bowl of Ganghwa Island's ginseng rice wine, insam makgeolli. One dish of baendeng-i costs from W15,000 to W17,000 and a bottle of insam makgeolli costs W5,000 at a restaurant on Seokmodo.

After trying baendeng-i and ginseng makgeolli, the only thing left before heading back to Seoul is to buy salted seafood. There are various types of delicacies sold by generous villagers near Oepo-ri terminal who offer tourists free samples of their food. A specialty of Ganghwa-do is, of course, the salted baendeng-i. Although it may differ according to personal taste, in my opinion, the baendeng-i is best when served raw with a mixed salad. When it is fried or salted, ¡¦ I think one has to have a typically Korean palate to enjoy it.

(Written by Jinna Park, Photos by Namkyu Lee)


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