Please clean the plates, dear
The Lord above can see ya
Don’t you know people are starving in Korea?
~ Alice Cooper, ‘Generation Landslide’
Schools of rotting fruit bobbing cheerfully at the ocean’s edge. Dozens of half-melted candles in paper cups dumped in the sand or abandoned on rock ledges for the tide to claim…
You get used to trash and junk adorning the beaches and coves in this part of the world, but early on in my Korean coastal rambles I noted the prevalence of candles and floating oranges, apples and bananas, and wondered what was going on. Seemed like a waste of perfectly good fruit (and it’s expensive over here).
On one of my first forays north of Haeundae, Korea’s most famous beach, approaching Seonjeong Beach early one evening, I stumbled upon this eerie tableau, an old woman hunched on the rocks before a small fire, repeatedly prostrating herself as she prayed to…who? Or what? The sea gods, or one in particular? Note the ubiquitous pile of fruit on offer to the (presumably vitamin C-deprived) deities:
There are apparently around 14 million Christians in Korea, and the country must be a world-beater in the churches-per-square-mile stakes (I can see three spires from my kitchen window), but Buddhism and the local varieties of shamanism, folk religion and nature worship, blended into an idiosyncratic theological cocktail the way they are in Japan, have long traditions here. You don’t have to look very hard to find the superstitions and arcane rituals that stripe the country’s underbelly.
I went to the popular beach of Gwangalli the weekend before last, desperate for some winter sunshine after a fortnight of illness. I was still coughing with frightening intensity. It was sunny and the sky was painted an uncommonly salubrious shade of blue. Just aiming your face at the sun felt like medicine. I loaded up on coffee and ambled listlessly along the sand, pausing here and there to absorb some sun or enjoy an invigorating coughing fit.
And then to take in this arresting sight:
You might recall my first encounter with Korean paganism as Spring dawned last year. Lucking upon a similar scene in some ravaged wasteland on the edge of Jangyu, I watched transfixed while white-clad ladies in pom-pom hats danced ecstatically to drums and some nightmarish wind instrument around another Christmas tree-like pile of bamboo and firewood. The pile was ignited; much drinking, eating and praying followed, the spectators disappearing into the night only when all the flammable trash — closely followed by all the non-flammable trash — had been thrown into the flames.
Fortunately, though I achieved no spiritual ecstasy that night, I did experience the sense of wonder that ensues when you fall down an uncovered concrete drain. Nobody offered assistance. Dragging myself out to limp home, jeans torn, shin busted open, I cursed the entire godless nation of Korea — but not too loudly, in case some of those pagan deities were listening.
Despite that still-bitter memory, I was excited at my good fortune. A banner confirmed that from 3:00pm that very day I could gawp at the spectacle of another Jeongwol Daeboreum, the fire festival timed for the 15th day of the year’s first lunar month, essentially a way of welcoming in the new year after the endless (believe me) drabness of Winter. As the full moon rose, the bonfire would be lit and much Jisin-balgi — stomping on the ground — would appease the God Down Below.
So I had some time to kill. Meanwhile, lines of old ladies in familiar white attire had begun snaking around the Christmas tree, beating on drums while the M.C. bellowed into a microphone in an ever-escalating frenzy, and again that painfully shrill traditional wind instrument, squawking like a wheezing bagpiper with a rat stuck in his pipe, till I was driven down to the docks…
..and then up a big hill that was overrun, as always, by old people doing calisthenics and making spectacles of themselves with gigantic PVC-tubing hula hoops.
Old people exercising so flagrantly make me uncomfortable. I retreated to the beach, stopping where a small group was gathered, praying, around a woman in padded priestly garments with a prayer book who chanted shaman-style at the water’s edge. Apples and oranges bobbed devoutly. Someone tapped out a hypnotic-or-just-plain-boring beat; another woman poured a bottle of milky makgeolli (rice wine) into the sea (by some accounts the best way to enjoy the stuff):
Over on the sand things were about to heat up. A crowd encircled the pile of boughs and bamboo; policemen in cruisers barked at drivers through loudspeakers; the last spectators pinning prayers or wishes or pleas to the base of the pile were chased beyond the ribbon-marked safety perimeter. The stench of some accelerant (more makgoelli?); an expectant hush; a mighty whoosh…
..and up it went with a great spasm of searing heat…
..sparking a mini-stampede to cooler climes:
It was an excellent show, if not exactly environmentally friendly, and I can recommend the spectacular view of the 6,500m-long Gangwan Bridge through a pall of oily smoke.
Amid the cool of dusk it was quite pleasant there by the fire. Now and then one of the women in the crowd — always women — would clasp their hands and bow towards the flames in prayer.
The crowd thinned. A fuzzy moon crept up over the beachfront sprawl…
..and I split at last as the pile collapsed and spectators began hurling balls of paper or anything convenient into the flames.
I had a Skype session planned with Kate, and it was a 2-hour journey home.
I just hope someone cleaned up the debris, and it wasn’t just left for the water gods.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote