Saturday morning 5.30 a.m., up An-Sam mountain (well, more of a hill) to an area of temples, or maybe it’s all one temple. This isn’t anywhere in the tourist guide, it’s just one of the many temples in the city, and at this time on a Saturday morning, the hills are alive with the sound of …hikers, calling to each other. The hikers, mainly seniors, walk in single sex pairs for the most part, and donning nylon jackets, visors, and canvas backpacks. I am with Richard Nunns, a New Zealander who is devoting his life to saving old Maori instruments. He has chosen to play a pipe that is symbolic, both for the Maori people, and also for this sacred Buddhist place, he says.
We are nervous about entering one of the beautifully decorated houses but we slip out of our shoes, and do. Silk cushions cover the floor, and the room is adorned with many statues, candles, plastic flowers. On the roof is a sign that looks like a reversed swastika – an ancient Buddhist symbol. We enter another house and take jujube tea in the kitchen. Slices of ginger float on the top, it’s thick and sweet. The little houses are on different levels up the hill and all around the site. There’s lots to explore, including a carp pool, statues of giant tortoises and a stack of roof tiles which can be painted with slogans. Down the hill, wood lanterns are being put up in readiness for Buddha’s birthday on May 8. Monks, in tunics and pants, look very ruddy and hearty, not at all skinny ascetics. They are loading a coach with food for what looks like a picnic outing.
In early afternoon, we take another visit to an ancient site, the Changing of the Palace Guard at Deoksugung. This doesn’t seem like a pageant, but much more of a bona fide military exercise. Not surprising when you’ve seen the DMZ. Borders always have to be carefully patrolled here. With their angular hats and black mustaches, The Guards appear North Asian or possibly Mongolian. This palace dates back to the fifth century but was mostly destroyed by the Japanese and has been rebuilt.