Thursday, October 29, 2009
Monday, October 19, 2009
Today I came across an interesting discussion in the New York Times entitled, "Beauty and the Bento Box." It was a follow up to an article on these artful Japanese lunch boxes featuring several experts weighing in on the question:
"What does the care devoted to the visual details in a packed lunch suggest
about the culture? Why is such value placed on aesthetics in everyday life
Due to recent travels I've developed an interest in the beautifully delicate Japanese aesthetic, so I've decided to make a short exploration of my own.
It seems that the Japanese aesthetic permeates nearly every aspect of culture on the island. It's concepts are rooted in a set of fundamental principles which are deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness. These principles manifest themselves in infinite forms, reaching all the way from the elaborate tea ceremonies to the aisles of the supermarket. Identifying these elements of style have allowed me to better understand the feelings of harmony, restraint and elegance I experienced even in the most unexpected places in Japan, as well as a method to introduce them into my own life.
Central to the appreciation of beauty in Japan is the concept of impermanence. Everything in this world, whether lovely or terrible will eventually fade away. Dwelling on this idea can lead to feelings of melancholy, but it also inspires gratitude for the moment. If all the world is ephemeral, then we must cherish it all the more. In the Bento Box we can see quite obviously a celebration of the fleeting. Just because food is impermanent is not a reason it should not and must not be beautiful. Everyday deserves wonder, no matter how routine.
Another important stylistic element is "simplicity" (known as wabi to the Japanese). The subtle grace of an object can add infinitely to its beauty. Additionally, this concept dictates moderation and restraint. One of the strengths of the Bento Box is that it makes food appear much more copious. Ginger curls into delicate flowers, salad is shredded and layered in contrasting hues, and each element is housed in its own space. When the lunch plate is an art form there is much more enjoyment in the process and therefore less need for abundance.
Finally, we come to the concept of mono no aware, or, "awareness of things." In the Japanese aesthetic there is an interconnectivity between all forms of art and intellectual pursuit. The cultivated individual must be skilled in many areas to truly attain greatness. Calligraphy, gardening, Haiku, cinema, and painting all depend upon and borrow from one another. Preparing food in such an elaborate way can show off such skills and be a credit to the one who has prepared it. And it appeals to the part of every person that reveres the beautiful.
These are just a few examples in a complex web of concepts which make up the Japanese artistic style and they are based upon my limited understanding. Even so, I can now look upon the iconic flower of Japan and Korea, the Cherry Blossom, with a new vision. It seems to be a perfect representation of these stylistic elements: beauty in grace and simplicity, imperfect and impermanent, unfurling to the height of loveliness before falling to decay. A perfect allegory for nearly everything.
1. Parkes, Graham. "Japanese Aesthetics." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008). Edward N. Zalta (ed).
2. Aesthetics in Asia - Japan a>
After deciding to stay the night in Busan, we asked William for some advice on what to do. He recommended an inexpensive motel in Gwangalli Beach and gave us the phone number so our taxi driver could get directions. It turned out to be an adorable place with a view of the beach and at $40 bucks a night for all three of us, we were happy.
Gwangalli was supposed to have a decent nightlife, and though it was a Sunday, it was also a holiday weekend so we wanted to check it out. We took a stroll along the beach and admired a gorgeous bridge lit up in technicolor against the dark sea and sky. The bridge is just part of the reason why they call Busan "the San Francisco of Korea." After, we checked out the numerous cafes lining the shore and chose one to have dinner at.
We were only half way through dinner when the requisite group of crazy British boys invited us to check out a local bar. We headed over after we'd finished eating and had a few beers outside. All of a sudden a Korean man who had been observing us quite shamelessly handed me a pair of sunglasses and showed me his phone. It was open to a Korean-English dictionary and said "paying back a kindness; saying thank you." I was a bit confused but understood that he was trying to give the sunglasses as a gift (I later learned you got them free when you bought five Heinekens...). He introduced himself to our group as Kevin after we invited him outside to join us. He then proceeded to buy the six of us several rounds of beer.
Later on, Kevin asked us if we wanted to go to "a wine party." If the words "wine" and "party" are used in the same sentence, I am automatically in, so we followed him to the top floor of his hotel, where he rented out a noraebang. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, a noraebang is a Korean karaoke room. They are EVERYWHERE in this country and an absolute favorite of Koreans to end a night of drinking. Basically you rent a room, play music, act a fool, eat, and drink. I had never been to one because I hate singing in public, but in the interest of culture, spontaneity, and crazy fun, I figured it was time.
The room was huge, and featured a large screen and a huge table with about twenty chairs surrounding it. It seemed more like a board room than a party, but that quickly changed when Kevin started ordering bottles of wine, beers, and huge fruit and cheese platters. We started the music and shortly after the singing, dancing and tambourine playing commenced. The best part of all, however, had to be when Kevin started singing Korean slow jams.
We stumbled out into the street at about 4 am and the three of us passed out on our beautiful circular bed. In the morning we had coffee and sat on the beach. The weather was still warm enough for bathing suits, although too cold to swim in my opinion.
After lunch it was time to head back to Seoul, but I had really enjoyed Busan's laid back atmosphere. Seoul has so much to offer, but I seriously miss living by the ocean. The mild weather and beach bum lifestyle in Busan might be enough to have me considering a move next year. Thoughts??
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Although I can't get enough of the night life in Seoul, my friends and I decided we needed to take a break and get in touch with nature. The four day weekend we had for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) at the beginning of October was the perfect opportunity to get away from the city.
We checked out our favorite travel group on meetup.com and discovered a biking trip to Tsushima, Japan that sounded amazing. It was being planned and led by William, the lovely guy who planned our Jeju trip, so we knew it would be great.
Tsushima is a small island that while part of Japan, is actually closer to Korea. It takes about 2 hours by ferry from the port city of Busan, located on Korea's southeast coast. It has a subtropical climate and its economy is based mainly upon the abundant supply of fish in the surrounding blue-green ocean. The same crystal clear waters also attract tourists from South Korea who help to supplement the marine economy.
After catching a bus to Busan late Thursday night, we'd be picking up our bikes upon arrival and bringing them over to the island on the ferry. They would be our only means of transportation on the mountainous 700 square kilometer island. We planned to arrive on the southern end of the island and leave from the north, so for this trip, the lazy need not apply.
The first day we had a lunch of supermarket sushi that blew the sushi I've eaten in most restaurants out of the water. We also spent about a half hour roaming the Japanese beer aisle, ecstatically checking prices. It's the best beer around in my opinion, but its completely over priced in Korea. We spent the second half of the day on a 20 km bike, but we were totally unprepared from the arduous inclines that dominated the trail. After some consideration of our time constraints, we had opted for the shorter of the two routes leading to our campsite. This turned out to be a great decision as those who had gone on the longer route eventually had to abandon their progress and loop back around to the shorter road, arriving at the tents long after dark.
That night we lit a campfire, played some music, and enjoyed some more sushi and beer. We all had sore limbs and bums, so it wasn't long before I grew tired and went to sleep. There was a full day of biking ahead after all and we wanted to get an early start.
The island was truly beautiful, with 89% of its land covered in lush green forest. Towering mountains and rugged cliffs carve a dramatic landscape surrounded by sparkling ocean the color of emeralds. Nearly every time I looked above me I would see huge predatory birds soaring silently over head. It was fantastic, never in my life had I seen such a dynamic and lively sky.
After hours in our seats, the 50 km we needed to cover that day began to take its toll. We quickly realized we wouldn't be finding any restaurants to stop in and settled for an ice cream bar and banana to get us through the ride. It was a tough 6 hour work out with stops few and far between, but I felt inspired by what I saw around me. I was basking in the challenge.
I could taste the fresh sashimi and cold beer awaiting me at the endpoint. The smell of the ocean breeze at our seaside motel danced around my nostrils and the feel of the hot sauna water played on my skin as my legs pumped up each hill. The descents were exhilarating. I let my tires spin wildly, the cool air sweeping back my hair as the world passed me by in a blur. I had found that feeling that I am constantly seeking, that feeling of being alive.
All of the beautiful things I imagined awaited me and more. Draped in soft cotton kimonos, we watched the sun set against the purple sky and stared into the golden shimmer of the moon as it reflected on the sea. We sank deep into pillows and blankets laid out on the floor and sipped fresh green tea until we drifted into a peaceful sleep, only to be awoken to witness the sun rise again over the ocean. After, we enjoyed a traditional Japanese breakfast of fish, miso soup, rice and seaweed.
After spending the morning at the beach, we boarded the ferry again feeling triumphant and completely refreshed. So much so, in fact, that Lacy, Maddy and I decided to spend an extra night in Busan. We still had another day off and, as Maddy rightly argued, we had always wanted to explore the city.
So much for a weekend without city mayhem...