Field Report: Sunday Stories from Suncheon, South Korea (26 January 2020)

This post is both prelude and epilogue to my upcoming report on Suncheon’s really-quite-spectacular Japanese castle. (Yes, you’ve read correctly: there are ruins of an old Japanese castle in Suncheon and I’ll tell you more about it in another post). Just some little vignettes and casual observations that illustrate what I went through on a quiet Sunday as a stranger in a strange land.

The church

In all my visits to Korea, I’ve never had much difficulty in locating a Catholic church for Sunday Mass. Despite being a minority, Roman Catholics make up a rather substantial 10% of the population here, so there’s bound to be a parish somewhere close by (unless you’re out in the deep countryside).

One thing you may have some difficulty tracking down is a Mass in a foreign language, English included. My personal preference is for Mass in Latin – more specifically according to the traditional 1962 Missal – but since that isn’t widely available, I gravitate towards Korean Masses when holidaying in this corner of the world, even where there’s an English Mass available. By and large, the atmosphere at a Mass for Korean locals tends to be more reverent, with a number of immemorial traditions maintained: amongst which is the beautiful custom of women wearing chapel veils. Granted, there are certain liturgical aberrations here as well, with two particular peeves of mine unfortunately commonplace in Korea (but a travel post’s not the place to discuss these at length).

Amongst Suncheon’s Catholic churches, I found Jogok-dong Church (조곡동 성당; Sunday Mass in Korean at 07:00 local time) the most easily accessible from where I was staying.

The church was deceptively empty when I arrived, but it soon filled up with parishioners as the appointed time drew near.

Now that’s a Sunday well started.

The childhood dream

Having fulfilled my sweet and seemly Sunday duty, I set off on the long walk back to my hotel. The path took me above and across a set of railroad tracks leading to Suncheon Station.

I’m something of a railfan, which may seem strange given that I’m from a place where transportation depends mostly on road vehicles. Had I been born in Korea, or perhaps in neighbouring Japan – both of which rely on rail transport to a far greater degree than my own country – I’d have probably pursued a career related to trains, whether as a driver or as a back office operations chap.

Or I could have ended up in exactly the same sort of occupation as I currently have. But at least “train driver” is less pie-in-the-sky than the usual wild fantasies of “astronaut” or “prime minister”.

As things stand, I’m mired in a completely unsatisfying, unfulfilling job that has very little to do with anything I’m interested in or passionate about. That said, it pays the bills and then some – with enough left over for the odd bit of travel – and when things get rough I’m at pains to remind myself that it’s a blessing, a real blessing indeed, to have any sort of employment at all.

Still, one can’t help but look at the tracks and contemplate what could have, might have, dare I say should have been.

The convenience store breakfast

I tend to avoid restaurants when travelling. Nothing to do with the expense; everything to do with having to consume a meal in the presence of other people. What can I say – I’m a very unsociable chap.

Thankfully, my two favourite holiday destinations (Japan and Korea) are chock-a-block with convenience stores and vending machines. This makes it easy for me to assemble a meal that I can tuck into within the comfort – and privacy – of my hotel room.

Michelin stars? Pfft. I’ve no use for that sort of thing. All I need is right here – in this machine-wrapped, mass-produced parcel of flavourful goodness.

No cooking, no washing, no social conventions to navigate around, no arcane points of etiquette to stumble over, no starched linens to soil or tips to calculate … and best of all, no strangers in the vicinity to ruin my quiet enjoyment of this delicious breakfast. Ahh, sweet bliss.

The castle that’s hard to reach

Not to worry: I won’t bore you to death with my castle obsession in this post. Well, maybe a teeny tiny bit. (But we’ll save most of that mental torture for the next post.)

At present, I’d just like to converse a bit about how I got there and back.

Brief background. More than 400 years ago, a chap by the name of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Japanese by nationality, warlord by trade) got it into his head that he should send some of his lads to wreak havoc in Korea. Opinions vary as to his precise motives: invading China, expanding Japan’s sphere of influence, gaining street cred amongst his fellow warlords … the list goes on and it’s not really my place to pick at his long-dead brains and puzzle things out. In any event, the result was a double invasion of Korea taking place over a period of nearly seven years (1592-98), during which Hideyoshi’s forces maintained a small but strategic toehold in the peninsula’s southeast.

The linchpin of Hideyoshi’s control over the captured territories was a network of fortresses, constructed using patterns and methods imported from Japan. These wajō (as they’re known in Japanese) or waeseong (to go by the Korean term) were in many respects identical to mainland Japanese castles of the period, and their highly effective design allowed the invaders to keep a tenacious grip on their sliver of territory in the face of an allied Chinese-Korean onslaught.

Having explored castles all over Japan for years, I had my interest massively piqued when I learned that there was one such waeseong in the part of Korea I was planning to visit. Needless to say, this last-minute addition shot to the top of my priority sightseeing list, and even the knowledge that public transport to/from there was quite poor did little to dissuade me from making the trek.

One particular bus – Number 21 – offered the most direct route to the castle from near Suncheon Station. The service operates so infrequently though that I practically wrote this off from the start.

As always, when forced to deal with Korea’s intricate urban bus networks, I whipped out my phone and consulted two local navigation apps, KakaoMap and Naver Map. Yes, both of them: I like throwing in the same inputs and comparing the results, which quite often differ in the details, to determine which would work best in my specific circumstances.

The suggested route involved taking Bus Number 77 to the stop called LF아울렛 (“LF Outlet”, a.k.a. LF스퀘어 “LF Square”).

After a considerable wait, I then transferred to Bus – or should I say “Mini-bus” – Number 3. It was an infrequently run service plying an infrequently used route, judging from the handful of slots on the posted timetable and the vehicle’s diminutive size. Perhaps it’s a mark of how passenger counts aren’t particularly high on this run that as I boarded, the driver actually bothered to ask where I was going – the tone and question (quite polite I should stress but with a hint of surprise) suggesting that I might have made a mistake in taking this route.

No mistake, though: this was precisely the bus I needed. And as the only passenger, I rather enjoyed having the vehicle to myself with no strangers close by.

In due course, I got off at 현대제철 (“Hyundai Steel”, a.k.a. 현대하이스코 “Hyundai Hi-Score”) – yes there’s a bizarre inconsistency in how some bus stops are named in different sources, hence all these alternate names – from where I walked across a nearby bridge and on to the castle.

Incidentally, had I managed to catch Number 21 from Suncheon Station, it would have dropped me off at 왜성 (“Waeseong”) which stands just outside the castle’s parking lot.

The ruined fortress was an absolute delight to explore, and it’s a place that I highly recommend to fellow Japanese castle enthusiasts. Perhaps not enough by itself to justify a trip, but the Jeolla region has got loads to see and do – as featured in my recent travel posts – and, given sufficient time, it should also be possible to combine this site with similar places in a waeseong-themed itinerary running across the southern coast of Korea.

But yes, as promised, I shall save the castle itself for another post.

Now coming here may have been something of a challenge, but going back to central Suncheon was even more difficult. With bus services of any sort running so infrequently in this somewhat out-of-the-way corner, even my navigation apps were of little use (they couldn’t give me precise timetable data). I had no choice but to wait quite a long while for a bus, any bus, that I could take to somewhere a bit more densely populated – hence with regular services – from where I might more easily make further connections towards the downtown area.

Did I make it back at all? Well, I’m safely home and typing out this post (though a couple of months after the fact) so I guess the answer to that is yes. 🙂

Cheerio.

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