City Hall and Bongeun Sa

It rained for most of the day - this is always important to a traveller, but it will be very important to our story.

I had breakfast at the hotel - not a free breakfast, so the food selection was better. The shrimp fried rice was quite good, and the coffee was well into the drinkable zone. Having not identified any breakfast places in the immediate area (not to mention that traditional Korean breakfast consists of exactly the same foods as the rest of the day), I may be eating at the hotel again.

My first stop of the day was City Hall. The new City Hall looms very much like a glass tsunami over the old city hall, which is a classical Western style block building built in 1926 - which now houses the main library. City Hall is quite an amazing place, housing what was (evidently for a short time) listed in Guiness as the world's largest vertical garden inside that curvaceous glass facade. It's also home to two or three pieces of mildly weird and fairly wonderful modern art. Sadly, you can't get to the upper floors without an official pass, so all my photos are from ground level. (You can actually get to the eighth and ninth floors - but neither is connected to the open space housing the vertical garden.) I'm afraid I didn't give the library a lot of time: the guide book told me there was a tour at 1000 in English, but they've apparently pared those back to less frequent outings so I hope to get back for one of the remaining events.

photo: On the wall at of the old City Hall (that's a map of Korea, North and South)

Two hands clasped, each with half of Korea on it so they match and join.

As the guidebook hinted, Seoul Plaza directly in front of city hall is a popular place for protests. The instant the rain stopped, a group of 30 or 40 took to the field with signs and shouted slogans, accompanied by their own contingent of about 15 police. Apparently the truncheons come out for the bigger protests, I was just as happy this wasn't one of those.

Since it had stopped raining (that break turned out to be short-lived), I went across the street to the Deoksugung Palace - several buildings in an enclosed area. What was particularly weird was the mix of classical Korean buildings with classical Western buildings. My favourite feature was an open raised walkway going from one building to another ... common enough in Korean and Japanese buildings, but this was done in a Western style and made out of stone.

Also on the Deoksugung grounds is the MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art). Right time period for me, but not a lot of Impressionist stuff - which is essentially my primary style of art.

I noticed that I had made a note that Thursday was the right day to go to Bongeun Sa, one of the biggest Buddhist temples in the city. This was because there was a tour and tea ceremony thing through the Templestay program - which has its name because it mostly arranges for people to stay overnight in the temples. Lonely Planet recommended a reservation, but it was unclear if they were talking about the tour or the overnight. I walked from Deoksugung to the nearest Tourist Information Centre, but no joy there: I could convey to the gentleman that I wanted to go to Bongeun Sa, but conveying a question about reservations and/or asking him to call them for me - that wasn't in the cards. So I made the rather long metro ride out there on spec (of course there was still a temple to see even if I couldn't get the tour). I was able to sign up for the tour, and had a bit of time before it started. They're really going to town for the upcoming Buddha's birthday: there are literally thousands of brightly coloured paper lanterns hanging beside or over all the pathways. It looks like each has a bulb in it: it's going to look fantastic at night. They also have massive paper sculptures - a life size tiger, four temple guardians at the front gate each about 3m tall, several 1m long fish ... I think I need to go back there this weekend at night.

Four of us attended the Templestay event. It started with a guided tour around the temple buildings, complete with the Korean re-interpretation of the life of Buddha: quite similar but occasionally oddly different to the version I've heard several times before. (They asked what my religion was on the form I had to fill out: I wrote "Buddhist," although I think my interpretation of that differs somewhat from theirs. But Buddhism tends to be pretty forgiving about ... most anything, it's why I identify with the religion.) She told one particularly gruesome parable to go with a painting on the side of one of the buildings. Two Korean priests were going to China to study Buddhism. They stopped in a cave, and one of them groped about in the dark to find a cup and some water. Having found them, he drank, then slept the night. In the morning, he realized he'd drunk dirty water from a human skull, and promptly vomited all over. At which point he realized he'd been just fine until he found out about the skull and the water, and further realized that it's our mind that creates our suffering. Our guide didn't use the term, but that was his moment of enlightenment in the Zen Buddhist tradition. I like the story: it's undoubtedly grotesque, but it makes the point very well ...

photo: Buddha sculpture at Bongeun-sa - a modern metaphorical interpretation that I liked

A modern, almost traditional Buddha sculpture - but the torso is entirely empty.

We then proceeded to a Korean tea ceremony, where we very formally made and poured tea for each other. I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of green tea - nor of overly formalized ceremonies. Our last task was to copy a small piece of Buddhist text - writing it out in gold ink with a brush, tracing over the Korean characters. My brush work was every bit as appalling as I expected it to be: it's partly because I'm left-handed and the characters were meant to be drawn by the right hand, but I'm also not practised with a brush ...

I took the subway to Gangnam, where I visited Samsung D'light, their flagship store and playground for showing off new products. I can now tell you that a 105" curved OLED 4K TV looks very beautiful indeed. I didn't try any of the VR headsets on offer.

Unfortunately, the rain kept me indoors so I didn't get to tour the neighbourhood as I'd hoped: I had noticed that I was getting a lot of hazy flare in the corners of my photos, and the most likely explanation is that there's condensation in the lens of the camera. From past experience I know this will clear up in a couple days in a dry(-ish) room, but I haven't the time for that ... so the camera is on rice. No, that's not a typo or a way of describing the camera as dead: I literally went to a supermarket and bought a bag of rice. It acts as a desiccant, and the camera is now in a bag, with rice. I have to hope that the rice doesn't cause any other worse issues than the condensation.

Dinner was at "Bon Juk," another restaurant from the hotel's wonderful hand-drawn guide book to local food places. When I was in southeast Asia, I loved "Jok" in Thailand and "Pork Rice Soup" in Cambodia. Both are fairly closely related to Chinese congee: boil rice in a lot of water until it becomes a porridge, then add some stuff and serve. The Chinese versions I've had tend to the dull side, but the Thai and Cambodian versions mix in shredded raw ginger and raw green onions: it's quite lively. I've been making my own version ever since so I wanted to try the Korean version. I had the shrimp one - closer to the Chinese than Thai. It was nice, but I'll stick to my own version.

In Bon Juk, I watched the owner drag three small tables together. The couple next to me and a threesome from another table all descended on this new larger table. They were all about 20. All five of them stayed on their phones until the food arrived. They talked a little over the food, but as soon as they were done eating, the phones came out again. Am I just old? Why do you eat with other people if you're not going to talk to them? I've seen behaviour like that in Toronto, but here it was taken to the logical extreme: no communication at all except via phone.

The weather is supposed to clear tomorrow. Let's hope the camera does too.

And an odd note from City Hall and the hotel ... Elevator buttons are toggles. If you press an elevator button for a second time in Korea, it TURNS BACK OFF. How weird is that?