We are a twenty minute walk from Danggolgae Station, with the sun twinkling through the clouds and the cloying humidity of a Korean mid-summer not quite upon us yet. On this early bank holiday Monday, not too many people have brought themselves out here, and those who have are enjoying a morning of serenity much at odds with the general cacophony of day-to-day Korean life. Andrew White smiles at one of his fellow archers, nods to another, and steadies himself for his first shot of the morning. I briefly wonder if this is some sort of zen-like exercise, where you have to envisage the target and then aim for some illusory object, but no. Far off in the distance… about the distance to a solid par three in golf… I can see a large wooden structure, about the size of a man on a horse. He removes one of the five arrows from his quiver, draws back, steadies himself and releases. One second: the arrow flies from his bow and reaches into the cloudy sky. Two: the arrow’s arc hits its apex and begins to drop. Three: the arrow reaches its destination and as that fourth second strikes it bounces off its target and drops to the ground. A light goes off to announce Andrew’s success and I give a silent clap of appreciation. “Was that a good hit?” I ask, not for the first or last time showing my ignorance of Korean archery. There is, I am kindly but expertly informed, no such thing… it’s either a hit or a miss, as the arrow with its brass blunt tip just slams and bounces off the target 145 meters away. Four more of those and he can start on his 290 meter round trip to retrieve his arrows. So a cardio workout comes free with the archery.
A member of the SuRak Jung range – one of about three hundred on the peninsula and 10 in the Seoul area – since 2003, Andrew initially got involved as a way to meet Koreans outside of the typical working environment. “I was looking for some sort of traditional sport element combined with open hours and a social atmosphere” Having previously practiced Hapkido (a Korean traditional martial art) he had some preconceived notions on what to expect. A sport with a strong military background, but that has changed over the centuries to take in more of a martial arts and exercise focus along with a membership club atmosphere, the realities were somewhat different to expectations. First off were the plethora of stretches and muscle building exercises required before he could even contemplate stepping up to the target. The correct stance. The appropriate breathing. The combination of mental and physical focus needed. Almost a month of exercises and stretches had passed before his coach felt he was ready. “It was pouring rain that day,” Andrew remembers, “and you could barely see [the target] down the shooting line. We were about the only people there and suddenly he says let’s go.” And the result? “Well… me shooting blindly into the torrential rain and then you see that light to show I had hit the target.” He smiles and shakes his head at the memory. First shot achieved then.
While the Korean government has been looking in recent years to build awareness of Korean culture and tradition in general, traditional archery continues to lag behind in non-Korean involvement. “As things stand,” admits Andrew, “I can probably count the number of foreigners involved in the sport on both hands.” However, this is a sport that is seeking greater international involvement, with a number of ranges – such as the SeokHo Jung and SuRak Jung archery range on Mt. Namsan offering walk-ons and introductory courses. Many ranges (away from your typical, somewhat anaemic sports complexes) offer absolutely beautiful scenery, with their own personality, and stand as an antidote to a city of high rises and incessant construction. However, wherever you find yourself, it really comes down to just you and the target. Five arrows in your quiver and your bow. And the feeling of camaraderie that comes when you become known on your range and the occasional makgeolli afternoon. Membership can take time, with any neophyte requiring a current member to vouch for them and once admitted, the initiation fees start at around KRW200,000 per year with approximately KRW30,000 due monthly after that. Bows and arrows are also a cost, although initially most ranges have bows and arrows that a person can borrow as they determine whether the sport is for them.
The previous clouds have given way to a bright early June sunshine and there is a freshness in the air at odds with the typical Seoul breathing experience. Asked for any other thoughts on the sport, Andrew brings to mind a Korean expression: “With your left hand you push the mountain, with your right hand you pull the tail of the tiger.” Drawing the bow means a fifty-fifty expansion of your body to full draw. This is only one of the things to consider in archery, and Andrew explains how he likes the “… combination of mental and physical focus. There is so much involved in the technique. “I relish in the constant 2-way battle between mentally focusing on the multiple details of good physical technique, and emptying all thought and forgetting everything and shoot.” This is a sport that offers a strong physical and mental workout. In addition to those curious about the sport, archery enthusiasts from across the world are known to try their hand when visiting Korea, often with far less success than they had initially expected. That time to build up the muscles and technique is vital in getting your first attempt anywhere close to hitting the target, and even the most adept at other forms will often see their arrow fall around half way.
A morning of 45 shots completed, Andrew stows away his equipment and ponders the coming work week. Concerns such as wind, arrow trajectory and the geography of the land will soon give way to thoughts of classes, meetings and grading. It’s been a long, fulfilling road since he first set foot on an archery range in 2003, and Andrew still has the personal ambition to move up past his present rank of 3 Dan, equivalent to third degree black belt in the sport. Ultimately though, his new goal is to see more non-Koreans involved in a sport quite different to our typical view of archery, and take advantage of a world that is slowly opening up to foreigner interest. It is, Andrew underlines, a sport with fantastic spiritual and physical rewards, but patience is the ultimate virtue if you want to see that light signifying your first hit come on. “Hitting (the target),” jokes Andrew, “that’s a life-time of practice.” A lifetime between the mountain and the tiger.
For more information, call SeokHo Jung Archery Range on 02 2273 2061. Their website is http://cafe.daum.net/SUKHOJUNG (Korean language only)
There is also a hands-on introduction to Korean traditional archery available and a museum inside the HwaSeong Walled Fortress in Suwon.
SuRak Jung archery range is a twenty minute walk from Danggolgae Station on line 4. To find out more about ranges in your area…Andrew White can be emailed at email@example.com