A Final Day with Yi Sun Shin

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
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Trip End Dec 02, 2012


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What I did
Hyeonchung-sa Temple

Flag of Korea Rep.  , South Chungcheong,
Sunday, May 6, 2012

After last weekend's Yi Sun-Shin Festival, I decided to head back over to Onyangoncheon and check-out his shrine, the Hyeonchungsa (현충사). The name roughly translates as "Memorial Shrine", but with the connotation of the memorial being for soldiers. Yi Sun-Shin's shrine was established around a hundred years after he died. The original was demolished in 1868 during a period of "reforms" intended to modernize Korea and distance the country from Chinese influence. Not coincidentally, this was at the time when Japan was assertively increasing it's influence over the Korea.

The shrine's first modern restoration was in 1932. Japan was occupying Korea at the time, but I haven't been able to find any English information as to how they felt about Korea re-enshrining their national hero who was arguably the single biggest contributor to the defeat of Japan's 16th century invasion. I'd be interested to know the story. Anyway, the shrine got another makeover following the end of the Korean War, and that's basically the version visitors see today.

By visiting the shrine, I thought I could learn a little more about the man who's birthday I celebrated last weekend. It was located was just across the river north of town, free, and easily accessible by city bus, so there was no reason not to go.

Arriving at the admission gate, my initial impression was the shrine was much larger than had I expected. I had kind of pictured a small, one or two building, shrine nestled in the woods. While the main shrine hall itself was something along those lines, it was surrounded by sizable, well-groomed grounds. As it was a beautiful spring day, many Koreans were out enjoying the weather with a visit to the shrine. With numerous flowering bushes and some serious landscaping, it was a good place for a spring stroll.

My first stop was the area with Yi Sun Shin's house and archery range. I don't know if the range was really where Yi Sun Shin practiced archery, or just a patch of grass "scholars" speculate he might have shot across. Today, visitors to the shrine can try their skill at the bow. It looked to be free, and I really wanted to shoot, but there were a lot of Koreans around waiting for their turn. Plus, I wasn't sure if the staff in charge would have trusted me with a bow, although judging from some of the visitors I saw attempting to shoot, there was a very low threshold of competence required for shooters. Anyway, I probably shouldn't have, but I passed it up, mainly due to the large crowd waiting for a turn. I would like to shoot a Korean bow, though. I'll have to keep my eyes open for another opportunity.

Wandering on, I came to the bottom of a relatively long and steep staircase. I wanted to see what was at the top, so I went up and found basically nothing. Just a small grassy mound and a marker, in Korean of course. It hardly seemed worth the climb. When I got back down the stairs, I noticed for the first time a picture by the stairs showing what was at the top. I guess it's so visitors can decide if the climb's worth it. It would have been nice if I'd noticed before I went up, but I probably would have ignored it anyway, wanting to see for myself if that was really all there was...

Next, I stopped by the Admiral's house. It was my first visit to a traditional Korean house. It was of similar size and outward appearance to the old Japanese houses I had visited. However, once inside the front gate the layout of the house was very different. While the Japanese houses I'd seen extended linearly from a covered kitchen/barn area, Yi Sun Shin's house was built in a ring around an inner, open courtyard. I don't know how typical this was of Korean houses at the time. I suspect I will have to visit some sort of folk village and investigate further.

Also, I wasn't sure if the house was being prepared for some sort of restoration or if it was in its "original" condition. The floors looked like they were covered with masking tape (although they weren't, it was just whatever the coating was really looked like masking tape), and the white walls were dotted with what appeared to be small paint splatters. I guess that's something else a visit to a folk village might clear up.

After that, I went to the main shrine building. Thankfully this one was actually worth the climb. The shrine was nice, but not amazing. There were some wall paintings I assumed depicted events in the Admiral's life, as well as the standard colorful Korean temple highlights. The best part, though, might have been the view from the shrine back towards Asan. The shrine info plaque requested visitors "show their respect by offering solemn prayers." I declined, but several older men who visited while I was there were clearly praying. I assumed the plaque was more concerned about the "solemn" part than the prayers anyway.

I swung by the unremarkable former main shrine building on my way back to the museum. (Although I suppose I could remark on the use of Chinese writing at the old shrine compare to the Korean characters used at the new shrine.) The museum architecture was very cool. It was  built in the shape of a grassy mound, with a concrete canyon separating two halves. I'm not sure if the mound was meant to symbolize a Korean burial mound or just covered with grass for energy efficiency. Either way, I approved.

Inside the museum, there was basically no English. Maybe two blurbs about Admiral Yi bravely repelling the "savage" Japanese in glorious service to his country. Really, now that I think about it, the things written about him were a lot like the blurbs about WWII and Korean War heroes at the Korean War Memorial Museum I'd visited in Seoul... Anyway, there were a few models, some of Admiral Yi's writings and commendations, two really long swords, and a "4-D" theater. I had missed the last show of the theater, which was no doubt in Korean anyway, so I didn't get to experience the Admiral in "4-D".

As mentioned before the shrine grounds were a nice place to stroll around on a pleasant spring afternoon, but nothing about the experience really stood out for me. The architecture of the shrine buildings was fine, but not exceptional, and I didn't learn anything new about the Admiral due to the lack of English. I'd say it's not worth making a special trip, unless you'd really like to say a prayer at the shrine. Last weekend's festival was certainly a much more interesting way to experience Asan, although I wouldn't say avoid the shrine if you happened to be in Asan anyway. After all, it's free admission.

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