Apr. 19th, 2017

I will fully admit that I spent most of last month's travel guide gushing about how much I absolutely loved the Korean Mask Dance. The amount of detail I decided to include and describe really speaks for itself. While I was so busy going on and on about the dance, I barely even mentioned the area where this dance took place, which is famous all on it's own. I mentioned Hahoe Village a few times, but it was more of a passing thing. This month, I'm correcting that oversight by dedicating my travel guide to the village itself (and technically some small parts that aren't actually in the village proper but still count). So let's get this party started.

Hahoe Village is a folk village, this one a bit different than the others I've covered based on the architecture. There are well over a hundred buildings here, and most of them are straw roofed houses. While there are quite a number of traditional hanok buildings (mostly those that the upper classes would have lived in), most of what you see is a much more down-to-Earth looking homes. Down to Earth is the best way to describe these houses, because they actually look like something normal people would live in (fun fact, people do live in these places. It's a fully functioning village. People live here, and it's pretty surreal to see satellite dishes on top of straw roofs). They're just pretty simple looking stone buildings, big enough to have two or three rooms (many of which the owners rent out for the tourists who want to stay in the village. I stayed in one of these rooms, which is just a big open space with room for four and empty besides a closet and TV. There's no beds, and instead you sleep on the floor. This sounds uncomfortable, but it's actually really great. It can be a tad uncomfortable at first, but once the ondol heating (heat coming out of pipes in the floor) turns out, it seems to be a little slice of heaven). This isn't just a museum place for the tourists, but a living, breathing village where people spend their days and nights living and working. While I can hardly say it feels like you're back in time (again, satellite dishes), it does actually feel like you're in a real place, not just a fake one made for your enjoyment.

The reason that this village is so famous (besides the mask dance), is that it was the birth place of some pretty important Confucian scholars and politicians. Those important people came from the Ryu family. The Ryu family has lived in the village for 600 years (and there are still some descendants living there today) . The two famous ones were a Confucian scholar and a Prime Minister during the 1592 Japanese invasion. Like I mentioned last month, Confucianism has a long history here, and that's seen the best in the fact that there are two seowon academies (the name for Confucian schools). Neither are in the village proper, but out side it (one just across the river and up about ten minutes, the other about an hour walk/fifteen minute ride down the river). The smaller of the two academies is located across the Nakdong river, a fairly wide and surprisingly deep river that cuts the village off from the small Mt. Hwa. You need to take a ferry across, though the trip only takes under five minutes. If I had to guess, it's more about the current than anything else- it's rather strong for a river of that size. Once on the other side, you climb up a fairly easy path until you come to the Okyeon Pavilion. It's only a small area, a live-in get away that took over a decade to actually finish because of a lack of funds. It's a nice little area, filled with hanok buildings. There's also some pretty expensive video recording stuff set up into the area, which makes me believe that one of the Korean historical dramas was/is filmed there. In order to get to the seowon, you need to go through the back gate of the pavilion and continue walking up the hill. As I already said, Seowons are Confucian schools/academies, but they're not really what we think of when we hear 'school'. Instead of one big building full of many rooms, there are just a handful of hanok buildings. There are one or two small ones, but two main ones, and both of those function as school rooms. In these schools, potential scholars would sit on mats on the open floor. They would have little individual table/desks to do their work on. One room had four walls and a closing door. That had the aforementioned heating flooring. The other room wasn't really a room. It was basically a raised platform with a roof. This was for the warmer days. This place was pretty interesting, but admittedly it wasn't all that of a spectacular place. Interesting, but not a must see.

About a fifteen minute car (terrifying, since you're driving up narrow, twisty roads on the edge of a cliff. ride (or hour walk, if you're feeling like being either ambitious or healthy) is Byeongsan Seowon, a large Confucian academy, first built as a shrine to Ryu Seongryong, and named by the King. Where the last seowon was small, this one is huge. Instead of just a few buildings, there are half a dozen. The school rooms are probably a quarter bigger than the ones at the other school. It's not only bigger, but it's much more aesthetically please. There are beautiful gardens all around it, with a spectacular view of the mountains when looking out. There are brightly coloured flowers and ivy creepy up all the stonework walls. I was lucky enough to see this place over two years, and in two different ways. The first year it rained, though we had a break in the rain while looking around the area. It left everything glittering in its wetness. The flowers seemed to shine, and the ivy that crept up the walls seemed that much brighter. It left a fog clinging to the mountain tops in front of the school, and a slight mist around the school itself. It gave it a more mysterious feel, which was pretty interesting and almost worth being soaked. The second year it was bright and sunny, which made everything seem that much brighter. It wasn't mysterious anymore, but easier to imagine that this was, in fact, a school. Not one that we'd be used to, and certainly one far more serious, but it was much easier to imagine students going about their day while sitting under the warm sun. If you had to pick one seowon to see, I'd go with Byeongsan. And on a side note of 'things you'd never think you'd see', there is a tree just near the entrance to the school. It's a normal tree, albeit a pretty bushy one. Nothing special...except once you read the plaque at its base. This is a tree planted when President Bush (sr) and his wife Barbara when they visited. Again, a pretty 'wait, what?' moment, mostly because I find it kind of mind blowing that a former American president and First Lady picked this as a place to visit when they came to Korea this one time. Not that Byeongsan Seowon wasn't really cool, but it just doesn't land on the 'Must See Korea' list either.

While the academies are both very interesting and worth checking out, it's really the village proper that I suggest spending the most time. I've already talked about the straw roofed houses, and I really reccomend getting a closer look at them. Their construction looks really cool up close, especially when you have so many of them grouped together. These buildings are the most numerous, because that's where the most common people would have lived. There are always more common folk around than the upper class, for the all upper class has power over everything. None of the straw roofed buildings are designated as any sort of historical material/area on an individual level. The hanok buildings, which housed the aristocrats, are another story. While not all those buildings are considered historically important, quite a few of them are. Remember how I mentioned the Ryu family came from here? Surprising no one, most of the buildings considered historical treasures are the ones that belonged to that family. It's actually really interesting, these buildings. I've talked about a number of palaces and how different buildings around the complex basically function as their own rooms. It's a house that's not connected. I didn't, however, realize that they worked not only outside royal palaces, but apparently in villages as well. All of the hanok buildings are just pieces of the Ryu family home. They're different residences for the various family members. The biggest residence, Yangjin (made up of about five buildings), for example, is the great house set aside for the patriarch and his eldest son. The second largest residence, Chunghyo (about four buildings) was for the eldest sons. Granted, these designations may have changed over time, but they generally remained similar in type. One part of the family got one residence, which was then used like a normal hanok house (separate rooms for men and women, along with a common area where they could all mingle).

Besides the buildings, there is another thing to see in the village. That is a tree. I know, I know. Trees are not exactly a strange thing to come across. This tree, however, is unique for what it's supposed contain. In the middle of the village, there's a 600 year old tree. It's a wide tree, with multiple trunks coming out of one root system. They all lean outwards, leaving the centre open, almost like something stood there and pushed them outwards to make room for themselves. In regards to that last one, it might not be so odd. According to local legend, this zelkova tree is the home to the local goddess. The goddess Samsin, in charge of pregnancy, child-birth, and fostering, is said to inhabit the tree. You can tell that this is a lovingly taken care of tree, and one people appeal to for good fortune and probably a happy, healthy family. There's one last sight to see in the village, and it's sadly not one that I was able to see, on account of the weather. As I said, it poured like crazy my first year, when these fireworks were happening. That's right, the last thing was fireworks, but not in the way you're thinking. These fireworks look so much cooler. During the fall(ish) months, it was apparently a creative season for scholars and Yangban citizens alike. They would take a boat to the middle of the lake, have a few drinks, and come up with some poetry. There were ropes that went from the top of the cliff (which you can see an amazing view of the whole village from all there) down to the beach and tied in place. There was a whole lot of fire going around, giving it a lovely atmosphere while writing poetry for a competition. If one of them managed to compose their poem before their time was up, a shout went up. With the shout, the people on top of the cliff lit the ropes on fire. They were covered with dry pine needles, which caught fire instantly and burned brightly. Fire traveled down the rope, all the way to the end, and the pine needles came loose, making it look like it was literally raining fire. The pictures I've seen looked spectacular, and I really wish they'd been able to do it the years I was there.

So there you have it. The back drop to the Mask Dance Festival I love so much. Really though, there's more to the village than just the festival. Obviously, if you're planning to visit, I highly recommend scheduling it when Mask Dance Festival is happening. That said, if you're not able to do that, I still say you should check out the Hahoe Village. It's an interesting place all on it's own, and has some really cool architecture for you to check out while you're there. It's a folk village that feels a little more down-to-earth, and there's something quaint about that.
Out of all the traditional aesthetics and symbols in Korea, my hands down favourite it the traditional masks (called Hahoe) for folk dance performances. I love them both as a symbol, dancing prop, and decoration. They are wonderful and very elegant looking -deeply and precisely carved dark brown wood, with a hint of colour depending on the design. There are nine different characters in the traditional dance. Even after having fallen in love with the masks and bought a few to hang on my wall, I hadn't actually seen the mask dance itself. That's why, when I found out about the existence of the Andong Mask Dance Festival, I just had to go.

Andong is quite a few hours South-East of Seoul. It's considered the home of Confucianism (a philosophy/religion based on the writings of Confucius) in Korea, a place where Confucian scholars flocked to during the Joseon Dynasty (and 'til this day). What Andong is most famous for, however, is the folk village (which, spoiler alert, will be covered next month), which is turn is directly related to the mask dance. It's here that the mask dance festival really takes off, and where I got my first taste and experience of the art form.

There's a small stage on the small slope over looking the river, pretty much just as raised platform. That's where they hold the mask dance. While they're called dances, there's not there is to it. There are eight scenes, each depicting a different idea. Besides the dances, there are also little skits as well. It's comedic, so the acting and dialogue are completely over the top and parts are pretty obvious, even to a non-Korean speaker. The music starts up, old instruments like drums and horns setting the scene and starting the drama. Then the first of the characters appear, multiple drummers heralding her entrance. She is the Gaksi, or bride mask. This character is a little different, because she actually stands in place for the village goddess. Not surprisingly, people didn't want to offend said goddess, so she is a much softer, shyer, and less ridiculous character. She's not an over-the-top characters, no matter how many times she appears in the dance (three times over all). They bring her in in a position of honour, standing on the shoulders of a man, above everyone. She's carried around the stage, waving a small cloth as a banner, and generally seeming as aloof as a goddess can be.

After the bride leaves the stage, we have one more ritual aspect of the dance to get through before we can move onto the funny parts of the show. There's a dance that's meant to represent the harvest and the asking for a good one. I'd actually call it the strangest part of the performance. It begins with two weird looking animals, made of yellow sack-like tubes covering the dancer's body and large sticks coming out of the top coming out and circling each other. I later found out that they're meant to be lions, but it does make me wonder if the original designer had ever seen an image of a lion before. The lions dance by jumping around, engaging in a fight that basically seems to engage in that 'I'm bigger than you' posturing you do see in the animal (and, quite frankly, human) kingdom. Awkwardly, by the end the fighting looks to turn into something else, so this part (and another later on, when we come to the girl and the monk) dance gets a not safe for work warning from me. The first of the servant characters, or Choraengi, comes into watch before hopping around and apparently enjoying the show. Watching him dance is like watching a jig. It's amusing to watch, because he really does remind me of someone jumping rope with the way he bounces. He keeps coming back to watch things and gossip about them later. Seriously, a good part of the play is him and the fool character gossiping and basically mocking everyone he's come across. It's meant to be amusing, both based on the dialogue and dance moves, and it really is.

Then we get to the Butcher's, or Baekjeong, Act. At the time that this play was created, butchers were considered the lowest of the low in Joseon society. It should come as no surprise that the mask reflects this, for all that the butcher in never shown as completely bad. He is, however, bloodthirsty and cruel. He dances around the stage, taking up the whole space and looking like he's skipping along. He is happy and gleeful as he gives commentary...about how he's going to slaughter the next bull he comes across. He is carrying the tools of his trade around, just waiting to find a bull to use them on. He gives a full, vivid description about what he's going to do, and it's given so dramatically. Then the bull wanders into his path, and the fight is on. The bull character isn't a mask, but two people with a shaggy brown blanket with a bull shaped head. It actually kind of looked like an overgrown Muppet. It was kind of cute, so I was left with the sad thought of "Poor bull". The bull interacts and plays up the crowd, going up to them and dancing around, side to side. After circling each other for awhile, with the butcher still taking away (half about how he's going to kill the bull, half mocking the upper class repression), the butcher gets the bull and kills him. It's dramatic and rather violent, for all it looks vaguely like a stuffed animal. For all that, he's still meant to be a sympathetic character. For all the high society may consider him the very bottom of the social order, they rush in and gleefully buy his products off him. They'll take what he'll over while still despising him. It's a trend we still see today- people buying products while simultaneously degrading the people who create the very thing they've made a demand for.

The next act is by far the most serious and sobering scene in the dance. It is the dance of the old woman, or Halmi. She comes in dragging a heavy, awkward looking room. Her dance moves are shuffling and almost seem to be dragging herself along. She's hunched over and you can feel her weariness, for all that her arms are moving in a way that is an attempt at energetic. When she sits down at the look, she speaks. She weaves and tells us her story, and it's a sad one. She tells that she has had a life of begging and poverty, after being widowed only three days after her wedding at fourteen. Saying she's really sympathetic is an understatement. The old woman represents the poor working class who have way too much hardship. She shows the pain of common people, who is the audience for this show. She goes to crowd to beg, continuing her tale of hardship. You really, really feel the pain and weariness in her dance and voice. Everything about this character feels so tired, and you can just imagine how the lower classes could have seen themselves reflected in her. She's the character that represents them all, and she's pushed around by the upper class characters in the finale, finalizing your unimpressed view of that section of society. It tells you exactly what they thought about the society and social structures they lived in.

Then we enter the Bune, or woman mask. This is a mask of a flirty woman, who in the next act teases both the aristocrat and scholar with her feminine wiles, which leads them to do more ridiculous things. Which, ouch when it comes to the portrayal of women, but she still serves an important role. She is meant to represent the woman who acts demure (and her actions, for all that they are flirty, really do come across as a sweet, humble woman), only to use it in a way that gets her what she wants. It's another mask that shines a light on a type of hypocrisy, one that once again lends itself to the politicking you'd see in the upper classes. For this scene, however, she's just a girl dancing and going about her business like it's a normal day. She has an airy, soft dancing style. She uses small movements, nothing too big or sharp. There's a delicateness to it, and she comes across as a girl without a care in the world...and then that changes.
Enter a new character lurking in the back ground. That would be the Jung mask, or monk. This is a straight up creepy character, and it's really awkward to watch some of his scenes. He represents how religion, Buddhist in this case, has basically corrupted itself, and how monks no longer care about anything but themselves and their desires. He is a threatening character, so the opposite of what monks (and all religious followers) are supposed to represent. He's probably the most blatant of the satirizing characters. There's no getting around what he's doing and how wrong it is. You even see it in his dancing- his moves are awkward, too straight and jerky to look graceful. He seems to lurk in the background, moving around in movements that seem too jerky to be anything good. After watching the woman for awhile, he goes up and starts talking, only for her to give him a polite, demure leave me alone. It doesn't work. Instead, he kidnaps her. She comes back later, but it's still pretty horrific at the time.

Because the last scene went pretty dark, the creators of the dance apparently felt the need to make the next scene a lot more light hearted. We now welcome in the fool mask, Imae. This is exactly as it sounds, and it is hilarious to watch. He is a drunken fool, and he acts it. His dance is stumbling around, barely able to catch his footing before he falls. He's the man you see after last call, getting helped to his car by his friends. He's loud and making jokes as well, basically acting exactly like a character known as the fool would act when it comes to hamming it all up for entertainment's sake. He and the servant have a grand 'ol time together, gossiping about everything that's gone on so far, and that the two yet unseen characters are being morons in the way they're trying to court the woman. They're interesting the watch together, the fool and the servant, when it comes to their dancing styles. They really look at the physical slapstick comedy aspect, while other characters take up the dialogue hilarity.It's also really uncomfortable a little while later, when this character who is one of the few not portrayed as terrible or malicious, gets treated to a great deal of malice and hate by his boss, the scholar. The characters are nasty to him, and it makes you pause for a long moment, wondering if your laughing is just as bad as their blatant disgust. Laughing at those less fortune as you, even when it's in a dance, still can leave a bad taste in your mouth...and it's supposed to.

Then we come to what I think is the most satisfying part of the play- the scene that is devoted to two men with overblown egos fighting over a woman who is clearly playing them both. First, we have the Yangban, or the aristocrat, mask. It's a mask that's meant to showcase the aristocratic society in Joseon Korea, and it's not a flattering portrayal. The over the top acting paints a very unflattering image of the upper class, and it's not exactly an unfair one. Like any country, the aristocrats had it all, and were usually involved in power struggles or matters of government that severely impacted the common and lower classes. When portraying the Yangban, they were showing a character that represented a group of people who cared little about their welfare. Secondly, the Seonbi, or scholar mask. I'll admit that this mask kind of speaks to me, as someone who loves learning and knowledge. I even love the presentation in the dance, because there's so much truth to it. The scholar character is the perfect mix of a dignified, learned person, but with the arrogance that can often come with it. He's a know-it-all, someone that we can all agree can be very, very annoying (even when we can act like know-it-alls ourselves at time). It's a character that shows the two sides of the coin, and once again does it in a way highlighting the hypocrisy of it. He has a whole shtick of humble bragging about how smart he is, especially when he's competing with the Yangban. He's not portrayed in a good or humble light, and is fact seen just as way at all, he's just as much of an idiot as the aristocrat. Worse even, I'd say, since it's obvious he's absolutely terrible to the person who works for him. There's also a lot of history here that goes beyond fighting over a pretty woman. Historically, there was a great deal of fighting between the upper and scholarly class, one that led to multiple purges of the later. There's a lot of symbolism in this section of the dance, and it's more than meets the eye (and people of the time would have known this). They see who can bow the deepest, who looks the best...and it only gets more over the top and cringe worthy as they go. It's a power struggle portrayed in a hilarious way, full of braggarts arguing over who's better while a woman toys with them both. When you look at it, however, there's so much symmetry between them. Not only in the way they act, but there dancing mirrors each other as well. They dance with big movements, taking up a lot of space. For all the characters would think themselves complete opposites, they're virtually indistinguishable in the eyes of the people watching. Neither wins in the end, because the lady flirts with them both and neither seem to win her true affections.

Everyone then comes back on for finale, which is a wedding (where the bride makes her comeback). It's basically a big party, where all the characters appear to be throwing their particular dance styles together like it's some kind of mismatched party. We get one final look at the characters, and each of them gives us a reminder of if the dancers want us to love, pity, or hate them. It's a lesson so blatant that you feel like you've been slapped over the head with it. What's so interesting about this dance is what it portrays. In a lot of masked dances around the world, there tends to be a theme of recreating legends or myths. There are a lot of supernatural creatures involved, maybe even gods or folk heroes. They tend to show larger than life stories. It's different with the Hahoe dances. Instead of anything extraordinary, the characters are everyday people who would have been around in the Joseon Dynasty. The butcher, the old woman, the scholar...they're normal people (with the exception of the Bride). There's nothing magical about them. They're telling a story that's not really all that special. Even if you can't understand what's being said (like me), you can still get that idea from the actions of the dancers/actors. There's a reason for this. These dances and skits were made by the common class, and they are satire at its finest. These plays were a way to mock the upper classes and to speak out about their society without risking themselves. It was comedy, so overblown that it looked like a soap opera wrapped up in music. It wasn't seen as serious, so it was able to air out very serious grievances. It was a way to not only give the powerless a voice, but a way to make it amusing for them at the same time. It's social commentary sort-of hidden in hilarity.

This isn't the end, even if we've gotten to the end of the mask dance. Since this is a festival, there is a lot more to it than just one dance. Away from the village, on large festival grounds, the whole thing gets bigger. It's an area that is so obviously for masks dances- the entrance is a giant colourful Yangban mask. Statues in masks, including famous figures like Batman and Shrek, are wearing masks. Giant masks, designed as ones from all over the world, are everywhere. There's a giant statue of the characters from the Hahoe dance. I have literally never seen so many masks in my life. There's the usual things to do at a Korean festival, as well as a really fun activity where you get to decorate your own mask using the equivalents of silly putty. Besides the performances (more on that later), the highlight for me was definitely the World Mask Exhibit. Masks from all over the world, including some examples from the First Nations on the Canadian west coast, were showcased there. Each continent is represented there, and it's pretty amazing to see just how varied the masks from around the world are. Some are pretty terrifying, monsters with exaggerated features that look like something out of a nightmare. Some are really odd, leaving you to wonder what in the world the creators were even trying to portray. Some are downright beautiful, full of lovely colour and intricate designs. Some are creatures of myth and others look more human. Each one quite clearly as a story behind it, even if we weren't really told what it was. That little bit of mystery and question of 'wait, what?' made them even more interesting to see.

The highlight, however, is the arena where they host dances from around the world. Dance groups from all over the world, come and do their own traditional masked (and sometimes more modern and not-so-masked) dances. In the two years I went, I got to see a few different countries represented. One of the first was the Chinese dancers. There was a few contemporary group dances, followed by a solo mask dance that also looked pretty interpretive. It was obviously telling a story, one that looked like a character dealing with some sort of grief. It was flowy and soft, beautiful and sad. They then did a really interesting rain dance (I blame them for the heavy rain that year). It was far from the solo dance, with pretty strong, powerful moves. It had power behind it, with both the dancing (lots of stomping) and the music. Even their costumes were different, looking far more old than the beautiful silks of the masked dancer. Next were the Russians. They didn't go with a mask dance, per say, but traditional folk dances. They were basically what I think of as stereotypical Russian dress and dances that we all think of, Including the go into crouch and kick out knees dance. I admire anyone who can do that, and the applause told me the rest of the crowd agreed.

The next year I was able to catch two more groups. The first was Indonesia. There were multiple dances with breathtakingly beautiful costumes. My favourite was the giant golden bird. It is clearly designed to look like a bird, and the movements help with that. It really dances in a way that shows it's not human. It's too stilted with it's large gestures and awkward steps to look normal, let alone when the lady birds (in less elobrate costumes) come in. The lady birds that come in, looking all a flutter with their quick whipping of wings and hurried footsteps. Throughout the dances, there's really smooth movements, to music that is heavy on the bells and quite upbeat. There's even a battle depicted, were dancers on broomstick horses attack a giant monster. The mask of monster is at least a few metres tall when the peacock features at the top are counted in. It's pretty frightening, to be honest. The dancing really tells that story- The dancers actually make themselves look like they're in a gallop They dish out some whipping going around as they push back the twitching monster. They win in the end. These are so obviously telling a story, and multiple ones at that. It's fun to try and figure them out. The second performance I caught was by the group from Malaysia. These dancers were so precise in the movements that they looked as straight and unbendable as statues. They even appeared this way when they were in fact bending. Despite looking so rigid in posture and sharp in the movements, they were able to move in spectacular ways. It really worked with the music, that was heavy on metal sounding drums. I didn't see as much of a story in this dance, but I did see a wonderful performance.

Yes, a good chunk of the performance turned kind of pop song, contemporary, but that was pretty neat to see as well, especially after seeing it go straight from traditional. I really did like watching the traditional dances best, because they seemed much more unique. Yet when you see the difference, how it has gone from that to modern dance forms we're all pretty familiar with, it's a pretty clear evolution for us to ponder over. I like having to think about what I saw, and the dances let me do that. Plus, those are only the ones I managed to catch. There were so many others I didn't see, including dancers from Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, and so many more. I would have loved to have stayed and seen them all, but it would be really hard, since the festival runs for a week. As it were, I would have to be happy with all I did see, and I was. In fact, I went there to finally see the Hahoe dance I admired so much, and I got my wish. I gained a greater understanding and appreciation for the masks, and got some pretty good entertainment out of it as well.
I love fantasy. I also, despite a bit of embarrassment on my part, love romance. Put them together in a well-written story and chances are I’ll check it out. One of said stories is PC Cast’s “Divine by Mistake” (in first publication is was called “Goddess by Mistake”. The story begins in Oklahoma with English teacher Shannon Parker buying a vase that she finds herself drawn to. Turns out that the vase had a spell on it and pulls Shannon into a new, mythological world. In this other world, everyone has a doppelganger (person who looks just like you) and Shannon’s double Rhiannon is a bratty priestess who got bored, so went and switched places with Shannon, leaving Shannon to take her place and pretend to be a chosen priestess in order to stop things from falling apart. Of course Shannon really doesn’t have all that much idea what she’s doing and it doesn’t help that Rhiannon has a completely different personality. She’s engaged to a shape-shifting centaur who can’t stand her alter ego and evil creates are trying to take over…not exactly the best time to be thrown into all the drama. “Divine by Mistake” takes numerous mythologies and mixes them all together; Epona is a Celtic goddess, centaurs feature in Greek mythology. I love mythology and it’s exciting for me to read something that features it so predominately (Yes, I am a huge geek). The book has a good storyline, a good romance and a great amount of good ‘ol fantasy. If that’s your cup of tea, then “Divine by Mistake” is totally the book for you.
Stephen King apparently has a hate for cell phones. Or at least you come to assume so after you’ve finished reading one of his newer books, appropriately named ‘Cell’.

The book takes place in a semi-post apoplectic world. On October 1st at 3:03 pm cell phones rang and brought insanity. Everyone who answered turned into a ‘phone crazy’- which is King’s version of your classic zombie.
Like any good zombie story, it focuses on a group of survivors who are trying to make their way to safety through all the death and carnage. Of course, this is also a zombie story written by Stephen King, so that means that there’s going to be a lot more to it than that.

The zombies’ intelligence levels seem to grow as time passes (though not intelligence the way we see it per say), they have to ‘recharge’ every night, travel together in huge bird-like flocks and best of all? They’re telepathic as a group. Oh, and there’s no eating people.

Again, not your average zombies. You also have strange dreams telling the ‘normies’ where to head for potential safety (much like another King classic, ‘The Stand’) and a very blunt look at what makes up the very essentials of human nature. All and all, King at his best. Another thing that makes ‘Cell’ such a great novel? After reading it you’ll be a little leery of answering your cell phone next time it rings.

Alleycon

Apr. 19th, 2017 12:52 am
Back in September, I did something I've been wanting to do since forever- I went to my first Con! Alleycon is the name, and it's down in Gwangju (a handful of hours south of Seoul). It's a tiny thing, but a friend and I went down for the weekend and had a blast!

There weren't many people, but people who were there were pretty cool. It was a really laid back atmosphere, which was really nice for my first con (less stress). There were some great, really informative writing panels (one of coming up with stories in general, and the other on self publishing. The last one I found especially good, since you never know if I'll go that route someday. It now seems far less of a terrible idea if traditional publishing doesn't work out). A third panel I went to was on Game Theory, which was a lot more complicated than the first two (and kind of random), but I actually managed to understand a good part of it (thank you TV!). It's basically how people will react in situations, based on logic. It was interesting, and totally a thing you can use later on when coming up with how characters in are going to act in whatever you're writing.

Outside of the writing, there were a few costume/acting panels. One was make up (fun fact- I didn't realize how much effort goes into seriously applying makeup. It's downright bewildering to someone who rarely uses it. I salute you, ladies and gentlemen who take the time). The second was supposed to be about getting into character for cosplaying, but it turned out to one about acting in general. That didn't actually apply to me, but it was fun. It was full of those 'practice walking this way' kind of exercises. It was so silly, but it was good to feel silly. I hadn't done that in awhile. The same woman did both workshops, and she was so good. She was really nice and approachable (actually, everyone working at the Con was. They were all so welcoming and great), and man did she kill her cosplay (Snow White day one, and then a Vulcan on day two). Another workshop, which kind of goes with the acting, was how to choreograph a fight scene. Also a blast- I now know how to make it look like I'm beating someone up. I looked really good too! I'm good at fake fighting, especially slapping. Since then I've shocked some of my students with it.

Of course, there was cosplay! My first cosplay! It was pretty low key, with not as much effort put into it. Tracking down some of the pieces was hard, but an overall simple but effective costume. I was Capable from the new Mad Max. I rocked it, and my friend went with Nux, so it was a pseudo couples costume (it was funny, because a photographer said something about a category for couples and then started to backtrack awkwardly, and I just turned to my friend and said 'see! I told you!). We didn't win of course, but posing in costume was 100% worth it.

All that said, it was kind of disorganized at times (a timetable/map was only available on the internet or a Smartphone app, which left my Smartphone-less self out in the cold). There were also random room changes. discussions being booked that was basically just a table (I'm so sad no one showed up for the Tolkien discussion. I was SO excited for that) that weren't clearly marked. You know what though? It was the perfect way to dip my toes into the world that is Cons.
If possible, I am totally going again next year.
For the past couple travel guides, I've hit some places that were fairly modern. Both were very contemporary, built and thriving within the past one hundred (give or take) years. With that in mind, I've decided to take a few steps back in time for this one, going for a far more traditional location. The place I've chosen is Jongmyo Shrine. Not only because it's an interesting place, but because just this week it was playing a key role in Korean cultural history.

This place takes us back to the familiar Joseon Dynasty. Jongmyo Shrine served a very specific, very important purpose during the dynasty. This was the spot that housed the ancestral tablets of the dead kings and queens, and where the living royals undertook the very serious ceremonies to honour them. This is a deeply Confucius ritual, rooted in filial piety to both the deceased as rulers and as parents/elders (filial is arguably the most important cornerstone in Confucianism). It was believed that the spirit separated from the body immediately after death and moved straight onto the heavens. The body is sent back to the earth, which is why tombs/burial sites and spirit tablet shrines are in completely different places- the spirit and the physical body need to stay apart. After a three year mourning period, where the tablet of the dead monarch was kept in the palace, it was moved to its final resting place at Jongmyo. Offerings were made to these tablets, which was basically a stand in that could bring the spirit of the owner back to receive them.

For all that the ceremonies and rituals that take place here are elaborate and decorative, the shrine itself is not. Founded in 1394, Jongmyo Shrine is a model of simplicity. The buildings are traditional hanok, but they lack the design found in most of the royally used areas. There's virtually no colour and the architecture is without flourish. All of this is very, very deliberate. This is meant to be a serious place, where all who entered were meant to contemplate the ancestors they were about to honour. This isn't only seen in the plain buildings, but the walkways as well. The paths leading to and from the main halls are just like I described when writing about Seolleung and Jeongneung Royal Tombs (divided into three parts, one for the king to walk on, the other side for everyone else, and a raised middle reserved for spirits), but these are a little different in the construction. These paths are made of rough, uneven stones, one that would be easy to trip over if you weren't paying attention...and that's the point. This pathway forced you to not only go slowly, but to think seriously about where you were going and what you were doing. This path allowed for no frolicking only deep, sombre thought.

I was pretty surprised at how large the shrine was, and just how spread out it was. In my mind, a shrine was a pretty well packed and self contained, but I was very wrong. Not only is the shrine fairly wide, but the outlying edges are set on and off some fairly steep hills (fun fact- a good lot of those hills are artificial. They were made by builders to make the shrine surrounded by hills to give it some more harmony with the landscape). It's actually much bigger than it used to be. It began with only a few buildings, but after it burned down in 1592 and rebuilt in 1836, even more buildings were built to house even more tablets. By the time it reached full capacity, it was up to sixteen chambers, growing bigger to accommodate the increasing amount of deceased monarchs.
When you first walk into the shrine, you have to pass through a traditional gate. A stone walkway, which I already mentioned, one that goes on and on in a straight line. If you follow it along (and please, for the love of all that's good, be respectful, and don't walk on the spirit path. I don't care if you believe it or not, the sign says 'stay off the path'). The path eventually branches off into dirt paths, but the stone keeps going all the way to the tablet buildings. Eventually you pass by a pond, one that's round with a small island in the middle. There's a nice, twisty evergreen tree, but sadly the foliage wasn't as pretty as it could have been. I went to the shrine in early December, at a time when only a few brightly coloured leaves were left clinging to the trees. It was a bit...brown overall, which might have taken a bit of the huzzah out of the place, but it wasn't really an issue. There's plenty of symbolism going on with the pond (because of course). The pond is round to represent the round heavens, while the islet is the flat Earth.

You pass by many buildings as you travel around, and many of them aren't even used to store spirit tablets. Everything that's needed for the rituals is kept on site, and everything is prepared there as well. There are waiting rooms, preparation buildings, storage buildings, and just about everything in between.

Finally, you come to the main buildings, the biggest one being Jeongjeong. The first thing you notice is just how long the building is. It wasn't all that tall, but it was one of the longest traditional buildings I've seen in Korea. In front of it is a wide rectangular stone pavilion. The stone yard is raised off the ground and it's huge. I'd wager you'd be able to fit at least 40-50 people on it, easily enough. This is where the spirit tablets of the former kings and queens are housed. The pavilion is where the ancestral rites were (and still are- now only once a year, still very serious, and it's the only ritual like this that still happens in Asia) performed. There are a lot of tablets in the buildings is closed and you can't see them. After moving capital to Seoul, King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty moved the past four generations of kings and queens to the shire to give it an air of legitimacy. Speaking of legitimacy, the four generations weren't the only ones the king moved there. The tablets of one King Gongmin and his Mongolian queen of the Goryeo Dynasty were also brought to Jongmyo. Here's the thing- moving the tablets to say 'Hey look! We have a former king now so we're legit!' is boring. No one likes a boring explanation, so of course a far more interesting legend popped up. The legend goes that a portrait of the king was accidentally blown onto the shrine's ground when it was first under construction. The heavy wind didn't damage it, nor did the landing, and that of course was taken as a sign. That led to his tablet being moved, since his portrait had shown its desire to go there. The portrait stayed as well. While I'm sure the first explanation is the true one, my over active imagination is determined to go with the second. One last note on the spirit tablets. There are two Joseon kings you're not going to find- King Yeonsangung and Gwanghaegun. Fun fact- being deposed and kicked off your throne will get you banned from the royal spiritual resting place. If you ever find yourself ruling a country, maybe keep it in mind.
So the shrine itself is wonderful. Its simplicity compared to the palaces is refreshing. It's importance and sombreness is on a different level than most of the places I've been while here. It's so interesting and different, but the place is not the only thing of fascination here. As I mentioned, the ancestor rituals still happen here. Full disclosure- I didn't actually get to see this on my visit, and I've just never gotten back. So this isn't a first hand account, but a rundown on the events (that I'll hopefully get back to someday).

The royal ritual is called Jerye, and it made up for all the pomp and circumstance the shrine itself lacked. This is big, loud, colourful, and elaborate. It's also very serious and very important. To start the ceremony, everyone (and everything) has to take its place. There are three gates that lead to Jeongjeong, the ritual site, and each is there for a purpose. The south gate, AKA the spirit gate, is where the spirits are to enter. The ritual officiates, including the king and crown prince, come in from the east gate, and the dancers and musicians come through the west. They meet in the middle, and then the ritual begins. It takes place in three sections. The first person is to welcome the spirits. This makes sense, given the fact the first thing you do when you invite someone over is to greet them. To welcome them, they burned incense, poured wine on the ground, offered them clean white cloth, a mixture fur/blood/cooked entrails of sacrificial animals (why the spirits would want that unpleasant concoction I am not sure), and burned a mix of liver, millet, and mugwart in a charcoal brazier.

After the spirits have been nice and welcomed, it's time for them to be entertained. They're offered more food and wine, this time from the king and crown prince themselves. Afterwards, it was assumed blessings were given to the king, and he ate a little of the ritual food. This was also where the royal music, or Jeryeak, played the biggest role. The music was an ode to the virtues of dead kings. It praises both civil rule (botaepyeong) and military accomplishments/prowess (jeongdaeep). Both of those things were important to the unity of Korea, for different reasons, and the music reflects this. Civil rule tends to relate to diplomacy and other such talents. It's a skill we consider to be a strength of the mind. It's all about cleverness and slight of hand, of manipulation and compromise. It's the calmer way to rule, thought probably (I'd personally argue) far more important, or at least more efficient, for all that it's far less overt. It makes sense that the music for that part is far more soft and calm. Battle, on the other hand, is bombastic and loud. This is also shown in the music- it's a strong beat, far more powerful than the first. It's aggressive, just battle (though with infinitely less bloodshed).

To finish the ritual, they need to send the spirits back to heaven. This part loses the musical aspect, and goes back to a more formal-formal. The ushering of the spirits back to heaven goes on by burning ritual paper and white ramie cloth. Then, with the offerings burned and the words spoken, the ritual comes to an end. With that, the officiates and royals depart, leaving the shrine until the next ceremony needs to take place. With the end of the ritual (that yes, I seriously do have to get back and see it for myself), I'm going to close out this review. This is a great place to visit, especially given it's right in the heart of the palace district (and literally right next door to one of the palaces). It's easy to combine Jongmyo Shrine with a tour of (at least one) of the palaces. Play it smart and schedule it around the time of the ritual (early May- it actually happened last weekend), and it'll be a day of the best of Joseon history, AKA a day well spent.
If Tolkien wrote it, I’m going to read it. If it has anything at all to do with Middle Earth, I’m not only going to read it, I’m going to obsess over it and most likely read it multiple times. In case you haven’t realized it yet, I’m a Tolkien geek (and proud of it!), which is why, when I realized that “Children of Hurin” had been released, I bought it then and there.

“Children of Hurin” isn’t a new story, but an expansion of a tale mentioned in “The Similarion” (which I have previously reviewed). The story takes place long before “Lord of the Rings”. It tells the story of Hurin and his descendants (his wife, son and daughter). It’s a pretty complicated story, intertwined with the rest of the events of Middle Earth. This is right in the middle of the war against Morgorth, and actually has a pretty important place in that war. Honestly, that’s about as much of a plot summary I can give, because there’s just too much to talk about. The sheer expanse of the tale is amazing, but I can also say that this is a tragedy (this quite possibly the most unlucky family in Middle Earth) of Shakespearean proportions.

Like all of Tolkien’s other works, this story is world building at its best. The description is beyond belief, the history epic. I’d HIGHLY recommend reading “The Similarion” first, otherwise you will be so lost it’s not even funny. This is just a side story amongst a much larger one, and you need that larger one in order to make sense of this one.
So, I could give a bunch of reasons why you should read “The Children of Hurin”, but it all comes down to one point in the end. It’s by Tolkien, and that makes it awesome. That’s all you really need to know.

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