The Cheonggye Stream, an inner-city park that slices through the heart of Seoul, the South Korean capital, was a surprise to me when I visited this spring.
The Joseon kings (1392 to 1910) created this canal for drainage into the Han River. After the Korean War, the city covered the stream with a highway, then removed the roadway early in this century to create the below-street-level park.
The manmade waterway has to be fed part-time with water from the Han and several subway pump stations for a consistent and brisk flow.
Twenty-two bridges cross the Cheonggye, 12 of them for pedestrians. At water level, the stream is bracketed by walkways and foliage. Pedestrians also can cross the stream at water level using strategically placed stones.
The 3.6-mile park provides a vignette of South Korea itself, a nation that cherishes its long heritage while leaning vigorously into the future. (Click here or on the images for a slideshow from Nadine's trip to Korea.)
From the park, my group, journalists and tour operators hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), could see striking examples of the city's newest high-rises, and the stream is only a block from the brand-new Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), a spaceship-like design center, which makes the city's strongest futuristic statement yet (more on that later).
By contrast, in the Cheonggye section we visited, a 630-foot painting along the tiled wall on one side of the stream, the world's largest ceramic painting, depicts 1,700 characters and 800 horses, representing King Jeongjo's Procession, an eight-day 18th century journey to his father's tomb.
Re-enactments also recall Korea's royal past. Before our Cheonggye walk, our group had witnessed a re-enacted changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Seoul's Gyeongbok Palace. It was a flamboyant display, and it's performed daily, barring dreadful weather, at Gyeongbok or Deoksu Palace, also in Seoul.
On the other hand, Buddhism, dating back 1,700 years in Korea, does not require re-enactments.
During our April visit, the Cheonggye waterway was lined with lanterns in anticipation, within a few days, of the Lotus Lantern Festival, the celebration of Buddha's birth.
Also, workers were placing nearly life-size human and animal figures on Cheonggye's waters. Although unrelated to the lantern festival, the figures, which created beautiful visuals, were effectively oversize lanterns meant to be lighted at night.
Our itinerary included an overnight at the Haeinsa Temple, five hours from Seoul and home of the 13th century Tripitaka Koreana, the world's most complete collection of Buddhist writings, carved on 81,258 wooden blocks.
Korea has promoted short temple stays since 2002, currently with 16 locations.
Our Haeinsa host, Do Moo Zee (meaning "Just Don't Know"), gave us instruction on temple manners, bowing and prostration routines and making use of meditation time. He answered questions, too, and I asked: "Why bother with outsiders?"
"It's important to introduce Buddhism to those who are interested," the monk said.
Jeongmin Yoo, a spokeswoman for the Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism, reported 186,376 people participated in temple stays last year. Koreans generally are more than 85% of participants, but Americans are prominent among foreign participants, she said.
Temple stays are enlightening but are not for everyone. Wake-up was at 3 a.m.; bedding was thin mats on the (heated) floor, with several guests to a room. Hosts provided chairs for those who couldn't do the prostrations, but there was no avoiding Haeinsa's many steps.
Also, a posted sheet said comments about food were "highly discouraged." Understandably in a place where many are fasting.
But hosts were gracious, and there were surprises. One monk, using a tablet computer, filmed another who was beating the temple's huge drum announcing a Buddhist service. This was for training purposes.
Stays can be booked at http://eng.templestay.com.
The crafts scene
Our itinerary included trying out traditional crafts, no skills required. There were temple rubbings at the Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, another temple-stay site but with fewer steps.
We tried folk painting in Seoul's Bukchon neighborhood and made lotus lanterns at Seoul's Jogeysa Temple, an afternoon activity aimed at foreigners who were on site to attend the lantern festival's main parade in downtown Seoul that evening.
For such special-interest activities, plus temple stays, KTO identifies Los Angeles-based Hanatour USA (www.usahanatour.net) as a U.S.-based source of assistance with FIT bookings. Hanatour is an Ensemble supplier. Craft activities can also be booked in Korea.
Finally, the aforementioned Zaha Hadid-designed DDP, opened in March, takes the concept of crafts to a whole new level.
The DDP is an eye-popping set of three linked units shaped like smooth, oval stones. Its design has been controversial, but the DDP attracted a million visitors in its first month.
Built by the city, the facility, with meetings and exhibit space galore plus a design playground for kids, is meant to foster and showcase Korean and international product design, to make Seoul a go-to design center.
In its Design Lab, even the casual visitor can spend a lot of time viewing and sometimes buying innovative products from around the world.