The Korean Tae Kwon Do Experience
Touring and Training in the Land of the Morning Calm
By Master Doug Cook
For the tae kwon doist, training in Korea is tantamount to a ballet dancer practicing in Moscow with the Bolshoi - the experience is second to none. And so, every three years since 1994 I have lead an elite group of students and colleagues on the Chosun Taekwondo Academy Training & Cultural Tour to the epicenter of the Korean martial arts. In the past each excursion offered its own unique set of adventures and challenges. Accordingly, we have never been disappointed. Yet the 2010 expedition, our most recent, promised to be a particularly exciting event based largely on a comprehensive itinerary featuring visits to legendary training facilities and exotic Buddhist temples located high in the southern mountains.
In retrospect, I have always believed that in order to appreciate tae kwon do in its fullness one must make at least one pilgrimage to Korea, the homeland of tae kwon do, over the course of their training. A journey of this magnitude is certain to alter the manner in which the tae kwon doist views their art forever. Visiting the Kukkiwon, training alongside legendary grandmasters in their native land and sampling the unique cuisine, is guaranteed to add color and meaning to ones training unmatched locally. In so doing, the practitioner is certain develop a geographical and historical connection with their physical training, while acknowledging the distinctive heritage of the Korean people.
The success behind the many training tours we have sponsored requires a great deal of planning and forethought. Negotiations with various travel agencies, training venues and instructors sensitive to our needs typically begin at least a year in advance. As in the past, it was essential to secure the services of an organization with offices in America as well as in Korea in order to create a seamless experience. This we did through an agency in New York City with a sterling reputation for excellence. Furthermore, accompanying our group as he has many times in the past, was martial arts pioneer Grandmaster Richard Chun, 9th degree black belt and president of the United States Taekwondo Association; a true legend who, among other accomplishments, established a celebrated tae kwon do dojang on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1960s. Because of his participation, doors traditionally closed to Westerners were certain to open wide.
A Journey of 8000 Miles
Perhaps the greatest challenge of our excursion was getting to our destination in the first place. We began with a three-hour bus ride originating from the rustic upstate New York farming community where our school is located, to JFK International Airport. The anticipation was palpable as we checked our baggage, cleared security and sat chatting at the gate. Finally, after months of careful planning, Korean Air flight KE86 grudgingly lifted off the tarmac shortly after midnight. With coach seats that oddly seemed to shrink with each passing hour, we read, watched movies, ate and attempted to catch some much-needed sleep. However, once our jumbo jetliner gently touched down at Incheon International Airport, we knew our journey had truly begun. The fourteen-hour flight, though tedious, acted as a fitting prelude to an intense nine days of physical, cultural, and academic training. Upon arrival, we were met by our tour guide and lead to a luxury motor coach that would act as our rolling home for the next week. After touring Gyeongbokgung Palace built in 1394 during the Chosun Dynasty and the National Folk Museum of Korea, we made our way to the Somerset Palace, an outstanding four-star hotel that would remain our base of operations for the duration of our stay in Seoul.
The Kumgang Taekwondo Center
Our first full day of training found us winding our way through a narrow market street located in Yangcheon-gu, a quaint district of Seoul dating back to the twelfth-century lined with tiny stalls selling an astonishing assortment of fresh fish, thorny herbs, blazing red peppers and cloves of garlic.
Within minutes we were met at the door of the Kumgang Taekwondo Center by Master Byeong Cheol An, a face familiar to many of us from previous training excursions. After graciously providing each member with a uniform or tobok as a memento of our visit, we began a demanding six-hour session interrupted only by a brief lunch of barbecued beef and steamed rice complimented by kimchi, the ubiquitous fermented cabbage served as a side dish at every meal. We began our morning training with the execution of basic stances, blocks and strikes followed by poomsae – sets of formal exercises that reveal the unique character of tae kwon do. However, later in the afternoon, the pace of our training increased significantly. Master An is notorious for his grueling kicking drills requiring the stamina of a marathon runner and the grace of a classical dancer. Consequently, kicks were executed repeatedly along the entire length of the dojang and in groups with kicking paddles held by Master An’s associate instructors. Practice of the basic front, round and side kick was followed by intricate combinations of multiple and aerial strikes including ax, back and spinning hook kicks. Through it all our group persevered and, in many cases, was surprised with our ability to maintain Master An’s tempo of training supported by his superlative teaching style. Regardless, we left hours later, somewhat bruised from the sweeps and arm locks utilized during the self-defense component of our practice, yet invigorated and eager for what lay ahead.
The Kukkiwon: Mecca of Taekwondo
The following day, fortified by a Western-style breakfast at the Somerset, we traveled by motor coach to the Kukkiwon, recognized worldwide as the Mecca of taekwondo. Literally translated as “National Gymnasium”, the Kukkiwon answered a long-standing need for a centralized training and testing facility. A prime mover in its establishment, Dr. Un Yong Kim, past-president of the World Taekwondo Federation, the Kukkiwon and the Korea Taekwondo Association, likewise played a major role in elevating tae kwon do to Olympic status throughout his long career. Prior to its construction, Kim demanded that the Kukkiwon be built on a mountain to precipitate this highly sought-after “miracle”. Accordingly, the structure was intentionally located high atop a hillside in the Kangnam district of Seoul. Construction began on November 19, 1971 with the facility being inaugurated on November 30, 1972. Mirroring traditional Korean architecture by virtue of the blue kiwa tiles used for its rooftop, the humble exterior is deceptive in that it houses management offices, locker rooms, seminar space and a museum. But perhaps most importantly, its large central area allows various national and university teams to competitively test their hard-earned skills in a world-class setting. While I had visited the Kukkiwon many times in the past, this was my first opportunity to train on its legendary floor. Our bodies prepared for extreme motion by the mandatory set of calisthenics, we were led by Grandmaster Jong Beom Park, Vice-Chairman Technical Committee, in a detailed exploration of the eight Taegeuk and nine Yudanja series black belt poomsae. Defined as patterns of choreographed dance-like, self-defense techniques aimed at defeating multiple, imaginary attackers originating from various directions, poomsae represent the manner in which the art has been transmitted from master to disciple over the decades both in its traditional form and its modern iteration. Since the possibility now exists that poomsae may be included, concurrent with sparring, in Olympic competition, minor but noteworthy alterations have been made in the name of standardization. Even though I was aware of these variations months in advance, it was exciting to review them under the scrutiny of a seasoned grandmaster in their nation of origin. The essence of our training that day revolved around these specific modifications.
The World Taekwondo Instructor Academy
One particularly beautiful morning midway through our stay, while back home the east coast was engulfed in a stifling heat wave with temperatures topping out in the high 90s, we boarded our Hyundai motor coach and began the short journey to Yangsu-ri, a tiny village roughly one hour’s drive due east of Seoul. The metropolitan scenery flashed by as our tour guide directed our attention to several key points of interest along the way. Asia, in general, is noted for its picturesque rice paddies and the Korean countryside is no exception to this rule. Slowly, the urban sprawl began to thin as acre upon acre of rice fields replaced the high rise apartments. We exited the freeway and snaked our way through winding country roads barely wide enough to accommodate the width of our bus. Eventually, the quaint village we were bound for materialized along with its single gas station, restaurant and shops selling an assortment of daily needs. Crossing a well-maintained concrete bridge minus guard rails that spanned a swiftly running brook, we had gone as far as our bus could carry us. With great anticipation, we had arrived at the World Taekwondo Instructor Academy under the direction of Grandmaster Gyoo Hyun Lee, an accepted standard-bearer of the art recognized for his extraordinary technical acumen and generous contributions to the tae kwon do community. Graciously met by one of the grandmaster’s instructors, we followed him up a rutted, dirt road to a narrow set of stone steps cut into the hillside. Before us stood a modern grey structure with a set of double doors thrown open to the elements. Inside it was cool in stark contrast to the humid air that weighed heavy in the small valley. Instantly, we were enchanted by our surroundings. The safety floor, set with green puzzle-mat bordered in orange, was surrounded by walls adorned with memorabilia directly reflecting a lifetime devoted to the Korean martial arts.
Grandmaster Gyoo Hyun Lee, currently president of the World Taekwondo Instructor Academy, cut a striking image; with a shock of white hair centered over the left eye, in concert with his drill sergeant demeanor, his presence was unmistakable. Almost seventy years of age, he moves like a cat, with the flexibility, enthusiasm and strength developed in direct proportion to his long years of dedication to the art of tae kwon do. Grandmaster Lee was adamant concerning precise movement during the detailed practice of basic technique and a staunch believer in the principle of shin chook, constantly reminding us to relax in our delivery of each strike and then to tense at the point of impact. The phrase, “relaxation and power!” was repeated over and over again. Following a period focusing on power transfer as it relates to kicks, strikes and blocks, we again returned to the practice of poomsae thus emphasizing their importance within the traditional tae kwon do curriculum. Since the common goal of our visit was the cultivation of personal excellence in our art, the day’s training with Grandmaster Lee could not have been more satisfying.
The Moo Duk Kwan Taekwondo: Institute of Martial Virtue
The years following liberation from Japanese rule and the beginning of the Korean Conflict, represented a turbulent period in Korean history. Aside from political upheaval, the Korean martial arts were beginning to find their individual voice separate and apart from that of karate-do and judo. Several schools or kwans were in their infancy with one of the most prominent being the Moo Duk Kwan, or Institute of Martial Virtue, founded by Hwang Kee. This is the branch of tae kwon do that our school is associated with through our affiliation with Grandmaster Richard Chun and the United States Taekwondo Association. Being offered an opportunity to train under its present principal in Korea was an extraordinary honor expedited before our departure by Grandmaster Chun.
Grandmaster Shin Chul Kang, director of the Moo Duk Kwan/Namchang Dojang in Suwon, traces his statutory authority directly to Hwang Kee and is noted for being a dynamic force behind the success of taekwondo in Iran. Covered in a flowing white robe, he seemed to mystically glide across the floor with an obviously buoyant quality. Grandmaster Kang’s kicking skill, and that of his students, was truly remarkable to behold as were the stance, block/strike and kicking routines they had created to promote precision. In the wake of on outstanding demonstration including these routines and the breaking of wood utilizing multiple aerial strikes, our students were invited to participate in a progression of drills targeted at cultivating devastating kicks. Working in tandem with these young martial artists, most of whom were university students within the limited time available, was only half the lesson; a self-appreciation for the difficulty of our efforts clearly balanced out the equation since our group ranged in age from eight to seventy-two years old. At the conclusion of our training, I was given the honor of dining with Grandmasters Chun and Kang in a traditional setting at a small, local restaurant while discussing the history of the Moo Duk Kwan and tae kwon do in general.
Gyeongju: A Museum without Walls
While the prime intention of our excursion was to build physical expertise in the martial arts, another was to sample the rich heritage that has made Korea an often overlooked thread in the tapestry of Asian history. The nation’s golden past, often wrapped in virtue, has profoundly influenced the philosophical foundation of taekwondo and is most evident in the cultural treasures found in Gyeongju located in Gyeongsangbuk-do Province. Known as a “museum without walls”, this area, situated in the southeast section of the country, was once the thriving capitol of the ancient Silla kingdom and boasts popular attractions for the martial artist including Bulguksa Temple, Tong-Il Jeon Shrine and Golgusa Temple.
First stop on this final leg of our long journey was Bulguksa Temple, Korean Historic Site No. 1 and a striking monument to both the skill of Sillian architecture and its Buddhist faith. Originally built in the mid eight century on the slopes of Tohamsan Mountain, we were humbled by the splendor of its tiled roofs supported by timeless timbers painted in the brilliant blue, green and red hues unique to temple art. With prior consent, many of us seized the opportunity to pose for photographs depicting the beauty, strength and dignity of tae kwon do using the sacred temple grounds as a backdrop. Later, to our delight, we discovered that the monks in permanent residence had given us permission to join them for a period of meditation. Removing our shoes, we bowed and entered the relative dark of an ancient meditation hall. The surrounding air hung heavy with a sense of peace mixed with the twisting wisps of sandalwood incense. A great, gold statue of the Buddha sat before us and time seemed to disappear.
A Temple in the Clouds
Yet, in what can only be compared to a scene borrowed from the epic martial arts movies of the past, a singularly memorable event occurred a day later when our group endured a steep climb through heavy rain and cloud-like mists to Golgusa Temple perched high atop Hamwol Mountain. Protected from the downpour by ponchos provided by our bus driver, together we struggled up a steep flight of 108 stone steps leading to the mouth of a cave carved into the mountainside. Inside, the air, again suffused with incense, was comparatively cool and dry. As our eyes became accustomed to the dim light thrown off by an array of lotus-shaped lanterns hung from the ceiling, we noticed that we were surrounded by an army of small, stone Buddhas resting in alcoves cut in the walls of the cave. Quietly, we sat in meditation as Doo Seob Yang, resident monk and martial arts instructor spoke in hushed tones concerning Zen philosophy. A short time later, after making our way down a serpentine, rain-slicked trail, we were lead to a spacious training center. There, our group studied sunmudo, or Traditional Korean Zen Martial Arts with Master Yang followed by a monastic, vegetarian meal with the Buddhist clerics in residence.
In Tribute of Fallen Heroes
A perfect ending to our training and cultural tour came in the form of a visit to Tong-Il Jeon Shrine dedicated to the memory of the Hwarang and the illustrious generals that lead them with valor to key victories over the centuries. This elite warrior corps, responsible for the unification of the Korean peninsula for the first time in recorded history, represented a caste of young nobles drawn from prestigious families. The code of virtuous behavior coupled with restrictions governing the negligent use of offensive measures followed by the modern day tae kwon doist, traces its roots back to Wonkwang Popsa and the Hwarang warriors Kwisan and Chuhang in their quest for moral direction in the heat of combat. Nestled in the folds of Namsan Mountain overlooking the great Gyeongju Plain, we climbed what appeared to be countless steps in order to reach the stately structures housing oil paintings of military training and legendary battles. There, in an open courtyard we came to attention, and performed poomsae in solemn tribute to the fallen warriors of the past. Kihops or spirit yells punctuated our physical motion, reverberating through the valley with the returning echoes amplifying the strength of our movements all the more. Emotionally moved by the spiritual significance of our actions within the bounds of that sacred setting, we reverentially strolled back to our luxury motor coach for the return trip to Seoul and, eventually, Incheon International Airport.
Training and touring in Korea - the Land of the Morning Calm - is an experience the tae kwon doist will fondly recall for a lifetime. With the nation’s landscape composed principally of mountainous terrain in juxtaposition to its sprawling rice paddies, Korea offers the traveler a wide array of visual, culinary and cultural delights in conjunction with truly singular training opportunities. Similarly, wandering through the ancient palaces built during the Chosun dynasty that stand adjacent to the towering steel and glass skyscrapers of downtown Seoul, reminds the adventurer that time, past and present, can share the same space in this thriving metropolis of over twelve million people. It is a pilgrimage every practitioner of the Korean martial arts should aspire to make at some point during their training. To view additional photographs of the 2010 Chosun Taekwondo Academy Training & Cultural Tour or to obtain information regarding future excursions, visit the Chosun web site at www.chosuntkd.com.
Master Doug Cook, a 5th dan black belt, is head instructor of the Chosun Taekwondo Academy located in Warwick, New York, a senior student of Grandmaster Richard Chun, and author of three best-selling books entitled: Taekwondo…Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior, Traditional Taekwondo - Core Techniques, History and Philosophy, and his most recent contribution, Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, focusing on the rewards and virtues of tae kwon do, all published by YMAA of Boston. Master Cook has been a staff columnist for TaeKwonDo Times for the past nine years. He can be reached for lectures, seminars or questions at www.chosuntkd.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
MAR. 31. 2011. TaeKwonDoTimes.