BETHANY HIATT has a taste of traditional Korean culture
“Feel the spirit of the tea,” we are told, as we sit cross-legged on floor cushions in front of low wooden tables at a Buddhist mountain temple in South Korea.
Next to me, my daughter sits bolt upright while cradling a warm teapot, copying the posture of the temple volunteers who are demonstrating a traditional Korean tea ceremony.
She has already poured out the hot water to cool it slightly, then added it to the pot along with two spoonfuls of tea leaves.
The members of our group are seated in pairs, with the person on the right tasked with making the tea for their “guest”.
We are at Beomeosa “heavenly fish” Temple, a complex set in the mountains above Busan, on a shore excursion from the cruise ship Celebrity Millennium.
Busan, South Korea’s biggest sea port and its second-largest city, is on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula and it’s our second port of call on a two-week cruise from Hong Kong to Shanghai.
After some technical difficulties, the ship has docked several hours later than expected and it’s not until after 3pm that we board a bus bound for the temple.
Even though it is spring it’s only 16C and the city is enveloped in a foggy drizzle. We pass forests of bare brown branches and pine trees as the bus winds its way up the mountainside.
Every now and then, huge white magnolia flowers light up the gloom.
The temple complex is a group of ornately painted buildings set into the hillside. While most of the timber structures are only a few hundred years old, our guide, Jay Lee, tells us their stone foundations date from the 7th century.
Jay also fills us in on the importance of tea to Korean culture and religion, with the first flush of the tea harvest dedicated to Buddha. She says that first flush has the prosaic name “before the rain”, while the smaller leaves plucked mid-season carry the more poetic title of “as small as the tongue of a sparrow”, followed by the “middle of the rain”.
Legend has it that a Buddhist monk was the first to bring the seeds of Camellia sinensis (tea) to the Korean peninsula.
Tea still plays an important role in Korean culture and in the lives of Buddhist monks, helping to develop mental discipline as well as keeping monks awake through hours of meditation.
Once the water is poured on the tea leaves, it is time to “feel the spirit of the tea”, which involves embracing a sense of peace and friendship. Then the tea maker pours a little tea in each teacup, alternating top-ups so the flavour of the brew is shared equally. The liquid is a pale amber and tastes much fresher than the green tea I’m used to.
Following the tea ceremony, a senior monk answers questions about daily life in a Buddhist temple, telling us it takes many years of meditation to reach the status of grand master.
Afterwards we emerge into the temple complex, empty now that all the day trippers have departed, and wander past the shrines as monks intone softly in the distance.
As night falls, we leave the tranquil temple behind and start our descent from the mountain — feeling both enriched and calmed by our experience. It seems the spirit of the tea has done its work.
Celebrity Cruises itineraries, ships, cruise planners and bookings at celebritycruises.com/au or contact travel agents.