Nothing is static, as fictitious character Tyler Durden says in the novel Fight Club. Certainly not in Seoul, a city whose internal cogs move so fast it wouldn’t know how to slow down, continuously and rapidly evolving. So too for the country’s seasons, which are indeed distinct, yet vastly over-proportioned in the extreme ends of Summer and Winter. Spring doesn’t last long.
The first warm winds of the year allow many things to bloom in Korea. The first empty rice wine bottles of the season sprout all over the country’s convenience store seating. The unveiling of the lower halves of the nation’s young women mirror the covering of all things flesh-related in the old. Floral arrangements are furiously installed in any green space around the cities as the first minute buds on the trees begin to emerge. One flower then explodes into the urban scenery like a ticking time bomb of exquisite beauty.
The cherry blossom.
Mount Ansan, in the North East of Seoul, hosts a cherry blossom festival, where although the trees seem meticulously plotted, they are so engulfing once in their midst that it only enhances the natural experience.
Korea doesn’t possess the most fertile soil in the world, so nature is given a little helping hand. This area of of the mountain has been sculpted to be a perfect leisure experience. On your way into the area, classical music emanates from fake rocks with internal speakers, an epic waterfall descends from great heights at designated times and everything is in it’s right place.
Between the numerous academies, themed entertainment venues and closely monitored weekend activities, the emergence of young lives in Seoul seems much like that of the start of the trail – too engineered. Where are the groups of kids roaming around town? Of course, they’re doing extra homework for their extra English class.
Still, when you see happy families hanging out on the mountains, sometimes literally, the children seem as happy as they would anywhere else in the world, so I guess it’s just a matter of perspective.
Heading down to Bongwonsa temple, the kaleidoscopic lanterns are also in full bloom. Unlike cherry blossoms, their vibrance can be maintained year-round, and cast an impressionable shadow in the warm glow of Spring.
We’d heard the drums from within the temple pounding on our descent from the mountain, yet any activity had ceased on our arrival. Monks had since left, or were hidden from view. With little knowledge of their schedules, witnessing a ceremony here is more luck than planning, so witnessing a ritualistic dance or listening to zen-inspired chanting offers more of a conscious appreciation when you are lucky enough to come across it.
The same feeling can be applied to spending time in a place like Bongwonsa, or any of the large yet quiet temples when contrasted with the everyday hustle and haze that is weekday life in the city.
The colors will undergo many changes throughout the year now until they supernova into the declining stages of Fall. “A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection”, says Tyler in Fight Club. That brief window in which these changes occur lead us to a higher level of appreciation than if they were always present. We might not be in the same place or even alive to experience them next time, such is the impermanence of life that even in the comforting blanket of modernity offers no guarantees.
They descend as rapidly as they appeared. The soft, snow white confetti sprinkles down onto the hard concrete and we’re reminded once again nature can be a cruel mistress, offering us her most fruitful charms only for a fleeting moment before returning to the familiar green landscape that take the reigns.
Tyler Durden preaches: “You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” In a country overflowing with ant-wrinkle creams and infatuated with surgery that pursues perfection, maybe we can learn something from these elusive flowers.
Our own perceived skin-deep beauty is as the rest of nature – transient, ephemeral, prone to displays of brief magnificence yet in a constant state of flux. Seeing examples of this in the natural world to reflect upon can be a good reminder of our inevitable mortality. Although, much like the chameleon, and indeed the blossom that evolves and dissolves quickly enough to spread its seed, the self-imposed physical adaptations of Seoul’s citizens can be a survival technique in itself; Korea’s hiring practices are as unforgiving as nature itself.
So don’t mourn the loss of natural beauty, for it was only so because of it’s brevity, and were it not so brief, would surely lose it’s spectacle. Cherish the moment when you are in it, be it an engulfment of blossom trees or any other passing occurrence.
After all, “Even the Mona Lisa”, Tyler says, “is falling apart.”
This was part 3 of the Beauty series on Ansan mountain. Click for parts 1 and 2.
Simon Slater writes The Secret Map. You can view it here and check out his Facebook page here.