Dreams do come true – but often, not by chance. In the case of the most recent Chosun Taekwondo Academy Korea Taekwondo Training & Cultural Tour, forethought and determination combined over the course of many months to create an unforgettable journey to the “Land of the Morning Calm”. In early July of 2012, twenty eager students, headquartered in Warwick, NY, along with several colleagues from across the nation, converged to become immersed in a profound experience certain to last a lifetime. By conjoining the thrill of training in the homeland of taekwondo with the cultural revelations only a tour of this nature can invoke, all involved were rewarded with skills and adventures far beyond measure.
Taekwondo is the national martial art and Olympic sport of Korea. Defined as “foot-hand-way” or the “method of smashing with hands and feet”, it stands as the most popular martial discipline in the world today with an estimated membership of over ninety-million practitioners. Rooted in Japanese karate and Chinese chuan fa, taekwondo has matured over the past six decades into a uniquely Korean entity replete with its own set of skills, customs and code of honor. Like kimchi, hanbok and the Tripitaka Koreana, the Korean people are rightly proud of this achievement and the global notoriety taekwondo provides.
Nevertheless, in order to justly comprehend the rich philosophy that supports taekwondo, one must sample the heritage, history, geography and culinary delights that fuel its country of origin. Only then is it possible to truly appreciate the traditional Korean martial art in its fullness.
Korea is a nation of mountains; in fact, 70% of its landmass features towering peaks tapering into lush valleys bisected by ribbons of meandering, concrete roadways. Houses topped with scalloped, ceramic- tiled roofs surrounded by rice paddies dot the countryside. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, stands in stark contrast to these bucolic settings. An ultra-modern metropolis with a population of 11,000,000 people, Seoul boasts skyscrapers of steel and glass juxtaposed against the backdrop of ancient Buddhist temples standing side by side, reflecting the native Confucian ethic of senior and junior so prevalent across the strategically-significant peninsula. Here, past and present meet. Yet, in order to reach these scenic treasures, one must first endure a journey of many miles and hours.
Invariably, after committing to a tour of this magnitude, one of the foremost questions asked by participants is “How long is the flight?” When traveling to Korea for the first time, it is always helpful to recall the great seaward expeditions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, those for example, braved by Balboa, Magellan and Cook, taking months, if not years, to complete. Subsequently, while daunting, the comparatively short thirteen-hour transit, shoe-horned into a coach seat, correctly acts as a prelude to an intense week of extraordinary training and cultural enlightenment.
Departure – A Much Anticipated Moment
Saturday morning, 5:30am. Our group boards a yellow school bus chartered long ago in the throes of winter for the first leg of a journey that will eventually lead to our final destination over six-thousand miles away. It was mistaken to think the commute would consume little more than the usual two hours as we crawl across the Tappan Zee Bridge due to weekend road repair. Still, we arrive at JFK International Airport with more than ample time to clear security, converge on the gate and enjoy a light breakfast.
On five separate occasions in the past, I have led enthusiastic groups of individuals, often accompanied by my mentor and teacher Grandmaster Richard Chun, on expeditions such as the one we are about to embark upon today. Each, in its own way has proven unique. Age, gender of the participants, training locations, choice of cultural sites, even hotels and restaurants, all merge to create vast stretches of experience certain to enhance the mind, body and spirit of the practicing martial artist for all time. Even the few not directly involved in the martial arts that join us simply out of curiosity, are exhilarated and enlightened by the journey.
Conceiving, planning and, ultimately, executing a tour of this depth involves, at minimum, a year of extensive preparation. An appropriate travel agency, ideally with offices both in the United States and Korea with English-speaking contacts, must carefully be selected. Previous experience in arranging taekwondo tours is preferable. Once this hurdle is cleared, and a reasonable cost is negotiated, the recruitment process begins in earnest. Securing the requisite number of travelers can either make or break a tour; too few, and the all-inclusive price will soar substantially. Too many, and the delicate interplay between participants can suffer compounded by exigent logistical challenges. Successful management has, by now, led us to arrive at just the right balance overall. Regardless, from the start, excitement and anticipation quickly become infectious.
Arrival in Korea - Land of the Morning Calm
Sunday afternoon, 4:10pm, local time, South Korea. Having crossed the International Dateline, gaining a day, the landing gear of Asiana Airlines Flight OZ221 meets the tarmac with a disconcerting shudder followed by an audible sigh of relief emanating from the weary passengers. Bleary-eyed, we deplane, clear customs, collect our baggage, convert our dollars to won and search for the tour guide who will become our constant companion for the next seven days. Jed “The General” Kim, surprisingly tall with an officious demeanor, welcomes us, quickly taking a head count. With our number confirmed, he briskly leads us through a maze of fellow travelers to a blue and white luxury motor coach idling outside the main terminal. With our luggage stowed beneath, we roll on toward the four-star Somerset Palace Hotel, our home away from home for the duration of our stay.
The port of Incheon is legendary for the decisive amphibious invasion that took place during the Korean War on September 15th, 1950 involving UN forces. Commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, the stunning all-out assault disrupted enemy supply lines, reclaiming much of the territory previously captured by North Korean troops at the start of the conflict. Today, the four-lane Airport 130 Expressway connects Yeongjong Island, on which the airport is built, to the center of Seoul, a span of roughly twenty-five miles that includes a crossing of the two-mile long Yeongjong Grand Bridge. Once in Seoul proper, our driver adroitly negotiates the winding, narrow back streets that branch off wide, well-lit thoroughfares, barely missing other vehicles in the process.
The Somerset Palace Hotel, across from Kyeongbok Palace originally built in 1394, is located at 85 Susong-Dong, Jongno-Gu. This has been our chosen place of residence for many years offering extended stay suites, in-room washer-dryers, a pool, sauna and hot tub tucked away on the roof. But perhaps most importantly, scrumptious Western breakfasts for those not yet use to the traditional Asian fare. Best of all, Gogyesa Temple, the leading Buddhist religious site in Seoul originally established in 1395, literally lays a few steps from the rare entrance. Meditation practice begins at 4:00am. A few sturdy Chosun members often weave their way through the darkened street to sit quietly in reflection prior to a long day of vigorous training, joining the throng of devotees, mostly dominated by elderly women, who are performing the 108 prostrations.
International Kumgang Taekwondo Center
Monday morning, 8:00am. Following a fortifying breakfast washed down by strong cups of coffee, we board our motor coach destined for the International Kumgang Taekwondo Center. I have had the privilege of knowing Master Byeong Cheol An, the center’s head instructor, since he hosted our first mutual training session at the Korean War Memorial Museum in 2004. There, in a building segregated from the main structure, he had created a striking, hexagonal-shaped training facility, then known as Hoki Taekwondo, complete with fitness equipment and a full complement of training gear. Eventually gaining notoriety, he moved his operations to his present site at 736-123F Yangcheon-gu. This quaint district of Seoul dates back to the twelfth-century and is lined with tiny stalls selling an astonishing assortment of fresh fish, thorny herbs, blazing red peppers and long strands of garlic cloves. Here, he manages two spacious training centers marketed worldwide through the Korea Tourism Organization. Practitioners from many nations, interested in experiencing the practice of taekwondo on its home turf, eventually find their way to his door.
To the accomplished practitioner the talents acquired by Master An over a lifetime immediately become obvious. Assisted by several juniors, his affable manner and almost perfect English provide an effective vehicle for transmitting the martial secrets first revealed at the feet of his seniors. A captivating instructor, his skills accurately reflect those supported by grandmasters throughout Korea well over twice his age.
Due to the comprehensive nature of the International Kumgang Taekwondo Center curriculum, we allocate a full day for training. Following a short commute to the dojang, our group is met by two assistants who guide us through lanes too constricted for our coach to manage. After climbing two short flights of stairs, we change into our toboks (uniforms) and line up, acutely aware of the potential intensity the session is certain to offer.
For the next forty-five minutes, following the requisite bows of respect and meditation, we engage in a series of flexibility exercises, calisthenics and relays intended to distribute blood and elevate the core temperature of the body in preparation for the extreme movements yet to come. By now perspiring freely, our students are loose and ready to train.
Basics, or kibon, represent a central pillar of traditional taekwondo. Master An clearly appreciates this fact and begins class with a progression of strikes, blocks and kicks, first in a stationary position, followed by multiple, shifting stances across the length of the dojang. Close attention is paid to the chambering of individual techniques with each sequence assigned a two-count; the initial motion being the preparation, with the second allowing for the execution or follow through of the skill. Low, middle, high and knife hand blocks are examined closely in conjunction with knife hand and back fist strikes
Moving on to kicking, or chagi, we are directed to take a step forward prior to delivering a number of well-practiced foot techniques. This simple addition in footwork adds a perplexing challenge to otherwise simple techniques. Lastly we are required to perform front leg side, round and hook kicks
Our school, the Chosun Taekwondo Academy, is well known for its focus on poomsae or formal exercises. Literally defined as choreographed sequences of techniques aimed at defeating multiple imaginary attackers advancing from various directions, poomsae practice lies at the heart of taekwondo and symbolizes it’s the unique catalog of tactics. Subsequently, we are delighted when Master An commands us to line up in preparation to perform the Taegeuk and Yudanja poomsae sets sanctioned by Kukkiwon, the World Taekwondo Federation and the Korea Taekwondo Association. Aside from the Moo Duk Kwan and Palgwe series so dear to our students, these are the most popular formal exercises in taekwondo and are reviewed with regularity at our dojang. After executing the eight Taegeuk poomsae to Master An’s count, followed by their performance without count, we progress to the significantly more complex black belt poomsae. However, due to time constraints, we focus exclusively on Koryo, Keumgang and Taebaek, fine tuning each.
Before we know it, it is time for lunch. Changing into our tour tee-shirts, we jam into three minivans for the short ride to the restaurant – a Korean barbeque eatery where we sit cross-legged on the floor chatting away with our hosts about the pitch of training here in Korea, as opposed to in America. Conversations such as these are always illuminating.
The hour passes quickly and we are back in the dojang. There is still much to learn. During the early stages of preparation for our journey, I generally communicate to the travel agency that our group will consist primarily of adults, some, like me, advanced in years. For this reason, coupled with the fact that we consistently practice a pure and traditional form of taekwondo emphasizing self-defense, I request instruction in all the major aspects of the art less Olympic-style sparring. Knowing this, Master An continues the day with a multiplicity of defensive and conditioning skills.
In the days of Itosu and Funakoshi, back when the great masters of karate-do were cultivating their art in Okinawa, the makiwara or kwon go in Korean, was liberally used to condition the hands, arms and legs. Often constructed of rice straw bound by rope to an upright wooden post anchored in the ground, the makiwara was struck anywhere from fifty to one-hundred times daily in the hope of calcifying the fist making it impervious to injury upon impact. Present day taekwondo training continues to rely on this practice albeit with modified tools. One on one, using arm against arm in this case rather than the kwon go, we are taught a sequence of movements whereby the forearms come together conditioning both the outer and inner edges. Beginning with a left, then right low block (ahre makki), the drill continues with inside middle blocks (an momtong makki), high blocks (eogul makki), outside middle blocks (bakkat momtong makki), inner arm middle blocks (palmok bakkat momtong makki), and concludes with crescent strikes (bandal chilki). By choice, I am paired up with my senior, Master Pablo Alejandro, and so we proceed with vigor, arms aching from the effort, but delighted with the outcome.
The remainder of the afternoon is filled with a wealth of self-defense techniques (ho sin sool) ranging from five, formalized releases, to extractions from an assortment of grabs including single/double-hand seizures and collar grasps. Fortunately, all are captured on video for later documentation and practice back home.
After posing for group photographs, Master An presents each students with a certificate and school uniform. In turn, we honor him and his assistants with a plaque inscribed with his name along with a copy of my latest book in which he is depicted. Pleasantly fatigued, we return to our hotel for an evening of sightseeing and dinner.
The Kukkiwon – World Taekwondo Headquarters
One of the many highlights unique to our expeditions, past and present, is scheduled instruction at the Kukkiwon, center of taekwondo operations worldwide. While many martial artists visit this cathedral of the Korean martial arts, few actually take part in the rigorous training sessions exclusively offered there. Stepping out onto what appears to be acres of blue and gold puzzle mat under a sky of flags symbolizing delegate countries, the taekwondoist cannot help but feel inspired by the rich history and heritage contained within its sacred walls. Here, great championships have be fought, promotion tests conducted and poomsae created.
Literally translated as “National Gymnasium”, the Kukkiwon immediately satisfied a need for a centralized training facility upon its inauguration on November 30, 1972. At the urging of Dr. Un Yong Kim, benefactor and president, the structure was intentionally located high atop a hillside in the Kangnam district of Seoul in hopes of precipitating the highly sought-after “miracle” of Olympic recognition. Mirroring traditional Korean architecture by virtue of the blue kiwa tiles used for its rooftop, the humble exterior is deceptive in that it houses management offices, locker rooms, seminar space and a museum. But perhaps most importantly, its spacious interior filled with ample spectator seating, permits various national and university teams to competitively test their hard-earned skills in a world-class environment.
Tuesday afternoon, 4:30pm. The morning was spent wandering the somber, cavernous halls of the Korea War Museum. Now, with the monsoon season nipping at our heels, rain is falling. Glass doors on all sides of the Kukkiwon are thrown open to the outside, the humidity and heat, oppressive. Awash with anticipation, we change into our toboks, venture out onto the training floor through a narrow access ramp, and await the arrival of our designated instructor.
Within minutes, Mr. Nam Gyu Park, an official, greets us is jacket and tie. Through our guide, he requests that we join Kukkiwon president Won Sik Kang for a group photograph using the main entrance of the building as a suitable backdrop. With three, large hangul characters spelling out Kukkiwon at our backs, we pose proudly with Grandmaster Kang tasked with shepherding taekwondo through the coming decade.
Back on the floor, our instructor, Grandmaster No, a slender man in his mid-forties with thick black hair and heavy eyebrows accompanied by a quick smile, invites me to conduct the sequence of warm ups. I comply and after forming appropriate lines predicated by rank, begin the routine. I have been a visitor to the Kukkiwon on five separate occasions, training there twice. But never before was I directed to lead a class in even as something as fundamental as the opening exercises. As I look around I experience an odd sense of surrealism; here I stand at the hub of taekwondo, leading a group of students in a drill that we perform multiple times on a daily basis yet feeling so humbled given the significance of the moment. The honor leaves me breathless.
Upon completion, I fall back in place at the command of Grandmaster No. And so begins the most challenging training experience without exception of our entire tour. For the next several hours, interrupted only by one brief break for water, we vigorously execute an array of stepping basics, kicking techniques, and complex footwork (baljitki), culminating in a full hour of poomsae practice. Much to our satisfaction, we are being taught the most current iterations of the Taegeuk and Yudanja series now being transmitted by Kukkiwon masters.
With the physical portion of our session complete, Grandmaster No, accompanied by several officials, presents each student with a Certificate of Training. A sense of accomplishment is clearly etched on the beet-red faces of my students as they accept a document that will no doubt hang in an honored place back home.
Quick to replace sweat-soaked uniforms with dry clothes, a question is raised by the group as a whole. All are keen to obtain uniforms and other taekwondo-related accessories and ask when our schedule will permit a visit to a martial arts retail store. Recalling that I intend to replace a dozen worn-out kicking paddles presently in use at our school with those of a higher quality, we walk down the long hill from the Kukkiwon, through its renowned gate, and descend on Sang Moo Sa, a local supply outlet. Almost empty, the establishment is about to close but remains open pleased to absorb this great influx of surprise business!
Korean Cuisine - Banchan, Kimchi and Bulgogi
Any portrayal of our journey would be incomplete without a sampling of the succulent culinary delights unique to the Land of the morning Calm. It is difficult to put in words the multitude of tastes and textures offered up in Korean cuisine. From banchan to kimchi and bulgogi, dishes of all varieties ooze with tangy hot spices, garlic and pickled seasoning. Huge pancakes stuffed with seafood and dumplings the size of monkey fists are washed down by frosty, cold glasses of Cass beer or soju, the clear liquor distilled from sweet potatoes; cold noodles in a delightfully refreshing broth revives the palette on exceedingly hot days. All this dominated by thin cuts of marinated beef cooked over open barbecue pits centered on each table with exhaust tubes dangling from the ceiling sucking up vapors infused with mouth-watering aromas.
Eateries vary as they do anywhere in the world. One evening finds us seated at a long table in the famous Korea House. Built in 1981 to echo the style of architecture used in constructing Kyongbokkung Palace, musical and cultural performances can be viewed over dinner. Most restaurants we frequent, however, require that we sit cross-legged on the floor, conforming to traditional Asian custom. Almost exclusively, the tables are filled with numerous tiny dishes of pickled vegetables, noodles and seafood. Drinking tap water is not recommended and so large decanters of filtered water are distributed; that along with small covered bowls of steamed rice or bap, eaten with long spoons or thin metal chop sticks. Either way, partaking of such a balanced diet day after day undeniably leaves one with a strong sense of pronounced health.
The World Taekwondo Instructor Academy
Paging through the Kukkiwon Textbook many years ago, a comprehensive volume originally published in 1975, I took notice of a severe looking martial artist chosen to model the technical attributes of taekwondo by virtue of his long experience and skilled attention to detail. Again, in 1998, this accepted standard-bearer of the art recognized for his technical acumen, would appear in a promotional video produced by the Organizing Committee for Taekwondo Korea 2000 as a staff instructor. Seeing who I eventually came to know as Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee in motion rather than on the printed page, convinced me all the more that I would someday seek out his instruction. As destiny would have it, this was more difficult than expected. In planning the 1999 Chosun Taekwondo Academy Korea Training & Cultural Tour, partially sponsored by the Committee, I had inquired if Grandmaster Lee would be one of the teachers as advertised but was informed that his schedule did not coincide with our visit. Likewise, in the initial planning stages of our 2004 tour, I once more requested his talents; “Unavailable” was the response from Korea and so, disappointedly, I turned my gaze elsewhere. Then, a few short weeks before departure, I received a surprise email from our travel service stating that the grandmaster had accepted our group provided we allow his senior instructors to assist. Naturally, rather than a condition, this stipulation amounted to a bonus. Since then, I would not consider developing an itinerary without including a day of training with Grandmaster Lee.
Wednesday morning, 8:00am. We board our motor coach and began the short journey to Yangsu-ri, a tiny village roughly one hour’s drive due east of Seoul. The metropolitan scenery flashes by as Jed Kim directs our attention to several key points of interest along the way. Asia, in general, is noted for its picturesque rice paddies and the Korean countryside is no exception to this rule. Slowly, the urban sprawl begins to thin as acre upon acre of rice plants replace the high rise apartments. We exit the freeway and snake our way through winding country roads barely wide enough to accept the width of our bus. Eventually, the quaint village we are bound for materializes along with its single gas station, restaurant and shops selling an assortment of daily needs. Crossing a well-maintained concrete bridge minus guard rails that spans a swiftly running brook, we have gone as far as our coach can carry us. After a trek measuring thousands of miles, we have arrived at the World Taekwondo Instructor Academy under the direction of Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee.
Graciously met by one of the grandmaster’s instructors, we follow up a rutted dirt road, small dogs in a kennel barking beside it, to a narrow set of stone steps cut into the hillside. Before us stands a corrugated-steel structure with a set of double glass doors thrown open to the elements. Inside, it is cool in stark contrast to the humid air that weighs heavy in the small valley; again, it is raining. Instantly, we are enchanted by our surroundings. The safety floor, set with green puzzle-mat bordered in orange, sits surrounded by walls adorned with memorabilia directly reflecting a lifetime devoted to the Korean martial arts; brass plates inscribed with the names of the original kwans or martial arts institutes established during the 1940s and 50s, are suspended above the door; a black-framed scroll written in hangul characters reading: “A National Sport, Taekwondo”, mindfully painted in the personal calligraphy of South Korean President Chung Hee Park in March of 1971, remind us of the tenure and seniority Grandmaster Lee enjoys within the taekwondo community.
After rapidly changing into our uniforms, we line up according rank as is the custom. Astride Grandmaster Lee are nine additional instructors, mostly adults of advanced age, from Sejong University, all teachers of Taekwondology. Center stage, introducing his disciples, is the man we have traveled a world away to train with.
Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee, currently president of the World Taekwondo Instructor Academy, cuts a striking image; with a shock of white hair centered over the left eye in concert with his drill sergeant demeanor, his presence is unmistakable. He is in his early seventies but moves with the agility and stealth of a cat. His flexibility, enthusiasm and strength are in direct proportion to his long years of dedication to the art of taekwondo. From 1990 to 1998, his abilities earned him the position of Chairman, Kukkiwon Training Subcommittee. Prior to that, from 1973 to 1982, he directed the Kukkiwon Demonstration Team. Most recently, he represented South Korea in the 2012 World Taekwondo Championships, is featured in a Web-based seminar series and has been selected to train Chinese nationals.
Much to my surprise, the grandmaster summons me to stand beside him. In his native tongue, he is describing my school, editorial contributions and affiliation with Grandmaster Chun to his Korean students. I am humbled that he would take notice and make mention of these topics. As he concludes, I return to my place in line, assume the joombi posture, bow, and the long-anticipated training session officially begins.
In preparation for the dynamic martial movements about to follow, a Sejong University instructor performs the mandatory warm up exercises. Many components of the standard sequence appear to be enriched by postures borrowed from hatha yoga, ultimately intended to enhance flexibility and cultivate core strength. Upon completion, Grandmaster Lee takes command. Fortunately for our group we are conversant in Korean nomenclature as it relates to taekwondo technique. Still, even though the grandmaster speaks passable English, he relies on an interpreter to accurately transmit his technical philosophy into words.
We begin, as most training sessions do, with a series of strikes in a stationary stance followed by blocking skills moving back and forth across the dojang floor. It swiftly becomes clear that Grandmaster Lee is adamant concerning precise movement during the detailed practice of basic technique. A staunch believer in the Korean martial arts doctrine of shin chook, he exhorts us to relax in the delivery of each strike and to punctuate the point of impact with tension. The phrase, “relaxation and power!” is repeated over and over again.
Being a vanguard of Kukkiwon-sanctioned poomsae, Grandmaster Lee specializes in the practice of the Taegeuk and Yudanja series formal exercises. Subsequently, following the practice of basic technique, we enter into an intense period of poomsae training.
Prior to the execution of traditional taekwondo formal exercises, it is always helpful to recall their purpose, philosophy and definition. Poomsae, of whatever pedigree, can be defined as choreographed sequences of techniques aimed at defeating multiple attackers approaching from various directions. They represent the method through which venerated masters transmitted martial arts skills to worthy disciples across the centuries. Armed with this knowledge, the practitioner unimpeachably sets the stage for meaningful practice.
Curious to obtain feedback on a little known heirloom form taught to me by my teacher, Grandmaster Richard Chun, and the subject of our upcoming book, I request permission to execute Original Koryo. This formal exercise represents the primordial version of Koryo, today the most popular 1st dan black belt poomsae bar none. Grandmaster Lee looks on and as I complete the final sequence and return to the joonbi position, I can see a smile crease his face. He appears amazed that I am in possession of this poomsae and beckons one of his students to videotape a second performance. He later shares with me that he and his colleagues were taught Original Koryo decades ago but practice it no more since it was supplanted by the current iteration of Koryo in 1972. He is very pleased to see that Grandmaster Chun is reviving this gem of traditional taekwondo.
As the day progresses, under the grandmaster’s watchful eye, careful scrutiny is given to all eight Taegeuk poomsae in conjunction with Koryo, Keumgang, Taebaek, Pyongwon, Sipjin and Jitae. At one point, Grandmaster Lee takes Master Alejandro aside and focuses on poomsae Cheonkwon, the required 7th dan poomsae. He then flawlessly performs the formal exercise himself requesting that we capture it on video so that Master Alejandro may practice it correctly upon his return to America. Needless to say, it is a stunning performance.
At the completion of poomsae training, following a short break, Grandmaster Lee and his disciples advance to a segment of the traditional curriculum often not addressed in modern taekwondo. Never before in our expeditions to this dojang amongst the rice paddies, did we engage in the practice of ho sin sool. Therefore, we are delighted when Grandmaster Lee directs us to choose partners and begins to demonstrate a variety of tactics focused on defensive measures against various grabs. Some resemble those accumulated at the Kumgang Taekwondo Center in Seoul. This comes as no surprise since Master An has been a student of the grandmaster for some time. Nonetheless, many are new with one being of particular interest. Grandmaster Lee begins this technique by having an instructor execute a bear hug from the rear in an upright, standing position. He then breaks the hold by raising both elbows and shifting his weight by dropping into a horse stance. Reaching between his feet, he secures the attacker’s right foot, pulling upward and forcing him to ground. As if that were not sufficient to defuse the altercation, he sits on the knee of the extended leg and finishes with a foot lock, ultimately breaking the ankle. While I have trained extensively in ho sin sool, both at home and in Korea, this is a skill, until now, unknown to me.
With great enthusiasm, Grandmaster Lee continues with a plethora of self-defense training. Yet each time we think the class is sadly drawing to an end, he smilingly yells “One more, one more”. In all of my visits to his dojang, I have never seen him so eager to share his talents and think how fortunate we are.
Kyongju – A Museum without Walls
If any location in modern-day Korea can be designated as the repository of an ancient culture, it is the coastal city of Kyongju situated in the southeast corner of North Gyeonsang province. Once the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 BC – AD 935), this “museum without walls” as it has come to be known, was home to over 1,000,000 people in its prime. Here stand stately shrines and exotic temples that date back to antiquity. The Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), describes Kyongju as “having as many temples as stars in the sky and pagodas stretching out in lines like a flock of wild geese in flight”. No tour of Korea would be complete without an exploration of its many treasures.
Thursday morning, 8:00am. Excited to see the hustle and bustle of Seoul unfurl through the windows of our luxury coach, we motor south along the Kyongju-Busan Expressway for what is to be a two-day immersion into historical Korea. I have made this trip many times before and so settle in, Nikon in hand, ready to enjoy the five-hour ride.
Almost literally a trip back in time, the present seems to recede with each mile as we leisurely penetrate the interior of the Korean countryside. Scenic vistas open around every bend and my students are enchanted at the sight of small family shrines chiseled into the steep hillsides lining the thruway. With each consecutive visit, I am constantly fascinated with the vast improvements in the Korean infrastructure, both structurally and technically. The major roadways connecting cities throughout the country are new and well maintained lending comfort to our journey south.
It is no mistake that taekwondo pays tribute to the great mountain ranges of Korea in the shape of poomsae like Kumgang and Taebaek. With 70% of the nation’s terrain towering high above sea level, we frequently pass through long tunnels that bore through rolling hills. As the municipalities of Cheongju, Daejeon and, finally, Daegu, flash by our windows, I know we are drawing near to our destination.
Eventually, our motor coach negotiates the long arc of an exit ramp and the distinctive toll booths that mark the spiritual border, at least for me, of Kyongju, come into view. After adjusting our speed to the local limit, we casually roll down the wide avenue of Seorabeol-daero, making our way to Bulguksa Temple, Korea Historical Site #1 - a striking monument to both the skill of Sillian architecture and its Buddhist faith.
Bulguksa Temple – Sacred Buddha Land
Bulguksa, or Buddha Land Temple, contains a remarkable collection of sacred sites and incense-drenched meditation halls accented by several distinctive structures. Originally built in the mid eight-century on the slopes of Tohamsan Mountain, significant features include the Blue Cloud Bridge or Cheongun-gyo, and two stone pagodas, Dabotap and Seokgatap that point toward heaven. We are humbled by the splendor of the ornate tiled roofs supported by timeless timbers painted in the brilliant blue, green and red hues unique to temple art. With prior consent, many of us seize the moment and pose for a series of photographs depicting the beauty and strength of traditional taekwondo using the hallowed temple grounds as a backdrop. Korean tourists, paying tribute to this historical treasure trove, observe with great curiosity and nod in acknowledgment as we embrace their native martial art.
After the long bus ride and trek through the hills to Bulguksa, we welcome the relative modernity of the Kyongju Hilton Hotel, our home for the night. Following a scrumptious dinner of Korean cuisine supplemented by a walk appreciating the sweet, evening air, we turn in for a welcome night’s sleep.
Golgusa Temple – Bastion of Sunmudo
Without question, complete proficiency in traditional taekwondo often requires a lifetime of undiluted practice to achieve. And so, as martial pilgrims, we devote all our energies to this worthy pursuit uncorrupted by competing, stylistic influences. Still, at least while in Korea, I strive to expose my students to forms of the Korean martial arts that vary somewhat from taekwondo. One such discipline is sunmudo.
Formally known as bulgyo kumgang yeong kwan, sunmudo or traditional Zen Korean martial arts, mirrors the native combat art practiced by Buddhist warrior monks during the 16th century. Once reserved exclusively for clerics, laypeople and non-Buddhists alike can now participate in this ancient practice revived and systemized by Monk Yong Ik in the 1970s. The central syllabus of sunmudo revolves around the twin aspects of still training, including breath control, seated meditation and yoga, and active training involving martial arts peppered with an element of gymnastics.
Friday morning, 7:00am. For us, our experience in sunmudo begins as we climb through cloud-like mists to Golgusa Temple (Stone Buddha Temple), perched high atop Hamwol Mountain. Together, we struggle up a steep flight of 108 stone steps leading to the mouth of Gwaneum Cave originally cut into the mountainside by Saint Kwang Yoo during the 6th century. Inside, the air, drenched with incense, is comparatively cool and dry. Our eyes quickly become accustomed to the dim light thrown off by an array of lotus-shaped lanterns suspended from the ceiling. In delight, we notice that we are surrounded by an army of small, stone Buddhas resting in alcoves throughout the cave. Quietly, we sit in meditation as Doo Seob Yang, resident monk and martial arts instructor, speaks in hushed tones about Zen philosophy and how it relates to sunmudo.
A short time later, we are led across a sheer rock face, grasping safety ropes, to the pinnacle of the mountain. Carved into the surface, protected from the elements by a massive glass overhang, sits the four-meter high, bas-relief sculpture of Maya Tathagata Buddha, one of the oldest religious ruins in Korea. This is a profound moment; an awe-inspiring sight to say the least. To compound our wonder, we turn; from this vantage point the view of the valley below and the sea beyond is nothing short of breathtaking.
Afterward, we make our way down a serpentine, rain-slicked trail leading to a spacious training center. Here, our group is introduced to the rudiments of sunmudo beginning with a prolonged period of Zen meditation. Having engaged in this process of purification on a regular basis back at Chosun, we are at an advantage. Where others involved begin to fidget after a short fifteen minutes, we sit perfectly still deep in a contemplative state. Our trance is broken only the clap of a temple bell.
Refreshed, we are then challenged by an hour’s worth of yogic postures intended to strengthen the body’s core and enhance flexibility. Our instructor is amazingly loose, twisting into stances only those aligned with an intimate knowledge of yoga can attain. The room, while large enough to accommodate our group and several other visitors, radiates a tranquility that encourages stillness of mind. And so, as an epilogue to the vigorous training we had just received, we are rewarded with a period of relaxation exercises, closing the session.
Golgusa is home to a small community of Buddhist adepts from the world over who marry their religious beliefs with martial skill. Not far uphill from the training center sits yet another small temple surrounded by a large wooden deck cantilevered over the mountainside. We are invited to find seats on the massive temple steps. Suddenly, several students begin a spirited demonstration of sunmudo skill put to music, leaping and spinning in midair while executing a blindingly-fast array of hand strikes and kicks. While the influence of taekwondo is clearly evident, it is obvious that much has been borrowed from other Asian martial disciplines to arrive at this unique style. Commemorative photographs are taken after which our visit comes to a conclusion as we are lead to a cafeteria where we enjoy a silent, monastic, vegetarian meal.
Tong-Il Jeon Shrine – In Tribute to the Hwarang
A perfect ending to the Chosun Taekwondo Academy 2012 Korea Training & Cultural Tour, comes in the form of a visit to Tong-Il Jeon Shrine dedicated to the memory of the Hwarang and the illustrious generals that lead them, with valor, to key victories over the centuries. This elite warrior corps, responsible for the unification of the Korean peninsula for the first time in recorded history, represented a caste of young nobles drawn from prestigious stock. The code of behavior governing the negligent use of martial arts skill that continues to be embraced by the modern-day taekwondoist, traces its roots back to two, young Hwarang warriors, Kwisan and Chuhang, in their quest for moral guidance during the heat of battle.
Friday afternoon, 2:00pm. Nestled in the folds of Namsan Mountain, overlooking the great Kyongju Plain, we climb what appears to be a countless succession of steps in order to reach stately structures housing oil paintings of military training and legendary battles. Here, in an open courtyard, we came to attention and perform several key poomsae in solemn tribute to fallen warriors of the past. Our kihops echoing throughout the valley clearly amplify the strength of our movements. Unexpectedly, I recall a moment in 1994, on this very spot, when, during my first journey to Korea, the grandmasters in command directed us to humbly accept the reverberations of our spirit yells and return with them to America where we were they were to be shared with others as a tool of inspiration. I direct my students now, to do the same.
Emotionally charged by the spiritual significance of our actions within the bounds of this sacred setting, we reverentially stroll back to our motor coach for the return trip to Seoul and, eventually, Incheon International Airport. After a week of demanding, yet unforgettably rewarding training and cultural exchange, our martial pilgrimage sadly comes to a close…
A Martial Arts Adventure to Remember
Training and touring in Korea - Land of the Morning Calm, is an experience taekwondoists everywhere, regardless of style, will vividly recall for a lifetime. Visiting the various dojangs and universities, becoming acquainted with the many gifted masters and students of the art, is certain to add color and meaning to ones practice. Moreover, it is essential to sample the customs of this vibrant nation firsthand in order to fully comprehend the roots of the Korean martial arts. In so doing, practitioners make a geographical and historical connection with physical technique while acknowledging the distinctive heritage of the Korean people. It is a journey every practitioner of taekwondo should consider making during their continuing quest for excellence in the martial arts. As we prepare for our next training excursion in July of 2014, we invite fellow martial artists interested in joining the tour to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.chosuntkd.com for a sample video of our most recent expedition.
Master Doug Cook, a 6th dan black belt, is head instructor of the Chosun Taekwondo Academy located in Warwick, New York, a senior student of Grandmaster Richard Chun, and author of three best-selling books entitled: Taekwondo…Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior, Traditional Taekwondo - Core Techniques, History and Philosophy, and Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, all published by YMAA of Boston. Master Cook and Grandmaster Chun have recently completed a new book, Taekwondo Black Belt Poomsae: Original Koryo and Koryo, targeted for publication in July of 2013. Master Cook can be reached for lectures, workshops or questions at www.chosuntkd.com or email@example.com.