There's more to travel than sightseeing, shopping and wandering about in foreign climes, writes Ronan O'Connell.
Myths are explained, secrets are revealed and rare skills are passed on as part of a blooming tourism trend across Asia.
From building crossbows in the Laos jungle, to learning to craft supernatural masks in Seoul, becoming a Ninja in Kyoto, or shaping Chinese pottery in Singapore, immersive workshops have become hugely popular in many Asian countries.
In the crosshairs in Laos
I am standing on a rickety wooden bridge spanning a fast-flowing river flanked on either side by jungle-draped hills. This surely is not the best location from which to learn to fire an old-fashioned Laotian crossbow. But my 89-year-old teacher Chai Song, a member of the Hmong hill-tribe, wants to see what my aim is like when I’m off balance. Apparently it’s not great. He shakes his head and ushers me back into the backyard of his home near the small Lao city of Luang Prabang.
Chai Song invites tourists into his home each week to pass on the traditional skills of his tribe, who originally were hunter-gatherers. For decades he hunted animals in the forests near Luang Prabang using wooden crossbows like the one I’m holding. First he taught me how to craft the crossbow from teak and bamboo, then he helped me with my aim. Gradually the accuracy of my shots improved to the point that it was poor rather than embarrassing.
Painting demons in Seoul
While Hmong people hunted with a crossbow, in ancient Korea it is believed hunters wore masks to make them look like vicious beasts. Called “Tal” these masks also were used in shamanistic rituals, to help ward off evil spirits, before in later centuries being worn in Talchum, a form of Korean mask dance which survives to this day. Among the dozens of different Tal are the Bongsan mask, commonly used in the dances and which tourists can learn to decorate in Seoul.
Korea House in Seoul offers a range of fantastic hands-on workshops, including lessons on how to paint and embellish Bongsan masks. My teacher not only gave me pointers on how to give my mask a traditional appearance, but also explained the origins of Tal and how the mask dance has evolved over the past few centuries. It is such opportunities to both pick up a new skill and also to gain insight into foreign cultures that have made these kinds of workshops so popular with tourists to Asia.
Becoming dangerous in Kyoto
It’s just a guess, but I don’t think there were many stocky, 195cm-tall ninjas in ancient Japan. One of the key skills of these iconic Japanese mercenaries was the ability to be quick and agile while making next to no noise and remaining inconspicuous. Whereas when I move I’m slow, clumsy, noisy and as conspicuous as a pink shirt at a biker pub.
Luckily I’m not auditioning to be on Japan’s Next Top Ninja. Instead I’m in the city of Kyoto taking part in a fun lesson on some of the more rudimentary skills of a ninja. Led by a properly-trained ninja, Sensei Izo, I practice how to walk efficiently and quietly, how to wield a ninja sword, and how to throw ninja stars. All the while Sensei Izo was explaining how ninjas rose to prominence in the 1400s during Japan’s feudal era when they acted as part-soldier, part-spy on behalf of powerful lords.
Shaping earth in Singapore
I’ve just shaped earth and placed it into the belly of a 3000-year-old dragon. That is a grandiose way of explaining that I moulded a lump of clay into a slightly wonky vase before placing it to “fire” — dry out and harden — in an ancient Chinese dragon kiln. These kilns have been used by Chinese artisans since about 1000 BC and now there is only one still in use here in Singapore.
It is at Kwang Pottery Jungle, where locals and tourists visit to be taught the traditional methods of making and decorating Chinese pottery. Their workshops range from introductions to the basics of Chinese pottery through to more intensive courses on ceramics spread across several lessons.
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