South Korea’s third largest city was once known as the ‘City of Apples and Beauties’, famed for the especially large and juicy apples produced there, and the beauty of Daegu women which was attributed to eating lots of apples. The apples are indeed both large and juicy. Whether local women are any better looking than those elsewhere in Korea is not our place to judge.
Apple cultivation began here in 1899, spearheaded by Dr Woodbridge O Johnson, a Presbyterian missionary, who brought apple seeds from the US with him.
Since European powers never made any real political or mercantile inroads into the Korean Peninsula, there is almost no Western colonial architecture anywhere in South Korea. But on a hill in metropolitan Daegu is a little pocket of it where Dr Johnson established his home, a church and Daegu’s first apple farm.
A tree grown here from the original seed brought by Dr Johnson survived until 2018. Three trees grafted with that tree’s branches were tended in the Daegu Arboretum and transplanted to here in 2013 and are still thriving.
Daegu has been a famed centre for Oriental Medicine for centuries. Yangnyeongsi herbal medicine market has been in operation since at least 1658 and during the Joseon Dynasty, supplied markets as far as way as Japan, China, Russia and Manchuria. Its products were considered to be of the highest quality as they were subject to strict controls imposed by royal inspectors to ensure authenticity.
It was one of three major herbal medicine markets in those days, but has outlasted the others and remains the most active herbal medicine market in Korea today. You can wander around looking at all sorts of kooky stuff.
Ginseng root, deer’s antlers, all manner of bottled and dried … things.
The Yangnyeongsi Museum of Oriental Medicine takes visitors through the history of herbal medicine in Daegu with a mock-up of Medicine Alley where practitioners plied their craft 400 years ago.
There are displays of products used then and today. Preserved plants – no problem.
But the exhibits of animal-based ingredients such as a bear’s bile duct and a tiger paw were a bit distressing, a stark reminder of the cruelty involved in some of these practices.
In the last room, there are interactive screens where you can find the answers to questions that may have been keeping you awake at night, like ‘are cattle gallstone pills a cure-all?’ Apparently they aren’t, but they are good for people with facial paralysis. Glad we cleared that up.
All very interesting, but the best reason to come to Daegu is to get to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Haeinsa Temple, in the countryside about an hour and a half away.
Like many of Korea’s best temples, it’s tucked away in a beautiful, leafy setting in the mountains.
The temple buildings are intricately decorated, and the complex is serene and calming.
But what makes Haeinsa one of Buddhism’s most revered temples is that it houses the Tripitaka Koreana, a set of printing blocks recording the world’s most comprehensive and intact version of the Buddhist canon, in Chinese script, with no known errors.
52,389,400 characters carved on 81,350 wooden blocks. Each block contains 23 lines of text with 14 characters per line carved in relief on both sides. Beginning in 1237, it is estimated a team of 30 scholars took 12 years to complete the carving, with thousands more scholars and craftsmen involved in preparing the blocks, verifying the sacred texts, making paper etc.
In preparation for carving, the blocks were soaked in sea water for three years, then dried in the wind for another three. The carving process was painstaking and after completion each block was examined for accuracy. If any character was flawed, it was carved out and a replacement fitted in with such precision that no traces of correction can be seen in any of the blocks. The blocks were then treated with a lacquer poisonous to insects and framed with metal to prevent warping.
Lined up, the blocks would cover 60km. In total, they weigh 280 tonnes. It took a national commitment of money and manpower whose modern equivalent has been said to be akin to the US investment in the Apollo moon landings.
Although more than 750 years old, they are in pristine condition, with no warping, cracking or deformity thanks to the treatment of the wood and ingenious storage.
Haeinsa Temple has been home to the Tripitaka Koreana since 1398. The blocks are housed in two primary buildings, with two secondary buildings containing later editions of Buddhist scriptures, built around a courtyard behind and up a level from the temple. The buildings themselves were specially designed for optimal ventilation and to regulate temperature and humidity to preserve the woodblocks from rodent and insect infestation. An engineering feat for its time.
The Depositories for the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks are specifically included in the UNESCO World Heritage listing for the temple in recognition of their unique design and the rarity of being a historical structure purpose built for the preservation of even older artifacts.
You can’t go into the buildings, but you can see through the ventilation slats. The blocks look like a library, but each one is just two pages. A religion, a philosophy, a manual for righteous living, recorded in 6,568 books totalling in excess of 160,000 pages of perfect text. More than an individual could learn in a lifetime.
As Julie’s brother, who came here a few years ago, said “F@#*ing awesome!”