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Korea’s sacred mountain sites

U.S. tourism professor fights for recognition of Korea’s spirit mountains

Professor David A. Mason’s office is a treasure trove.

Valuable giant fungi sit alongside drawers stuffed with medicinal mountain herbs and his collection of green teas and liquors is lined up atop heaving bookcases.

As he explains the wall hangings, including an 1860s map of Korea’s landscape and a photo of him shaking hands with former President Kim Dae-jung in thanks for his tourism-related efforts for the 2002 World Cup, his enthusiasm for his work becomes evident.

Tucked away on Seoul’s leafy Kyung Hee University campus in Hoegi-dong is the College of Hotel and Tourism Management. This is where the Michigan-born professor has been based for the past six years, the first to teach there about Korean cultural tourism in English.

Also a tour guide for organizations including Yonsei University and Seoul International Women’s Association, the animated 53-year-old wants to engross his students in the story of the past, not teach dates and measurements which are the focus for too many tourism courses, he believes.

“The story of Korea is part of the story of the entire human race for the past 3,000 years and it needs to be understood in that context,” said Mason, who tries to bring to life the great heroes and masters of Korea’s past. 
David A. Mason in his office at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
David A. Mason in his office at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

Discovering Korea

When he arrived in Korea as a backpacker in 1982 he was taken by the joy of finding two of his great interests ― hiking and Asian religious traditions ― in one place.

“I found that here, doing both is the same thing. The most excellent cultural religious sites here are on the most beautiful mountains,” he told The Korea Herald, adding that “fantastic” food, water and hot springs are a bonus.

With 20 national parks ― Mason has visited them all ― and 75 percent of the country’s landscape being mountainous, Koreans are inherently “mountain people,” he said.

Mason, who has a masters degree in Korean Studies from Yonsei University, is now striving to get the country’s mountain worship sites and culture recognized internationally.

This fight is often hampered as tourism authorities and officials believe Korea’s long history of shamanism ― a set of beliefs involving communication with the spirit world ― primitive and don’t want to bring it to foreigners’ attention, he said.

Apparently originating in Siberia, it has been practiced in Korea for thousands of years and there remain 30,000-50,000 active shamans ― intermediaries between the human and spirit world ― today.

“This is stuff that is really, truly, characteristically Korean. Stuff that they have that nobody else does,” said Mason.

“It should be considered the fundamental cultural root of Korean culture and the Korean way of thinking. And it has been in modern times very much ignored, disparaged and put down.”

Spiritual curiosity

Mason is particularly captivated by the diversity of shamanism. As it has no set scriptures or teachings, those who practice it have much freedom of expression.

Over the years, he has photographed 1,500 shamanistic mountain spirit paintings ― colorful depictions of key spiritual figures ― and every one has been different.

“You certainly can’t say that about Buddhist statues,” Mason noted.

“They’re much more interesting than normal religious institutions that are very set and standard and you get a lot of repetition.”

In Buddhist temples for instance the main hall is very standardized and therefore less interesting, he said.

His groundbreaking book “Spirit of the Mountains: Korea’s San-shin and Traditions of Mountain Worship” was published in 1999 in English and then in 2003 in Korean. It won the Best Book on Korean Culture Award by Korea’s Academy of Sciences in 2002.

When he started the project, Mason wanted to bring together the best writing on the topic of Korea’s native “mountain spirit” and translate it into English, but was shocked to discover nothing of significance existed so set upon the challenge himself.

Having grown up in what he described as a standard Protestant household, Mason is interested in all religious traditions in East Asia, especially shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, but he is not a formal member of any. Wearing a Tao disc-shaped pendant, he said: “I indulge in many of them.”

The philosophy major initially travelled to the East out of an intrigue with China, but foreign tourists were not permitted entry at the time.

Whilst waiting for the country to open up, he spent a year in Korea and was captivated by what he found. When finally he went back to the U.S. after his travels in China, he found himself missing Korea and wanted to discover more.

“When I came back here it was just intended to be temporary … but it just kept going on. Every time I found a new project to do here, something to be interested in, I thought, ‘OK I’ll do this for a couple of years and then I’ll go home or to another country,’

“But then there was always something more interesting to do … it never gets boring.”

Being in the enviable position of having made his hobby his career, Mason enthusiastically encourages sustainable religious and hiking tourism here through his extensively researched blogs, lectures, tours, books and articles.

Although he continues to counter much resistance, eco-tourism and religious tourism are two areas which President Lee Myung-bak spoke in favor of to the Presidential Council on National Branding in March.

“I think it’s a nice counterbalance,” said Mason.

“Korea loves to put out the image of 21st century technology success ― which is very true and well deserved, Seoul is one of the great modern cities of the world ― and of the modern new wave of Korean pop culture,

“Well the ancient, traditional stuff that is still very much alive, very active, is a great counterbalance to that.”
Mason at Woraksan National Park with the co-authors of “Baekdu-daegan Trail Guidebook: Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine,” Roger Sheperd (left) and Andrew Douch, when he met them during their expedition for the book in 2007. (Lourdes E. Mason)
Mason at Woraksan National Park with the co-authors of “Baekdu-daegan Trail Guidebook: Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine,” Roger Sheperd (left) and Andrew Douch, when he met them during their expedition for the book in 2007. (Lourdes E. Mason)

“Spectacularly beautiful peaks”

Mason was raised in a suburb just 6 km outside Detroit but loves to be amid nature. He spent 15 of his years here as an English teacher outside Seoul, first in Gyeongju for two years and later in Gangwon Province, and relished being so close to the mountains.

“(There was) nothing but clean air, fresh water. When the weather’s good it’s paradise to be out there.”

Mason, who in 1997 was co-author of the Lonely Planet travel guide to South Korea, eventually moved to Seoul in 2001 and became Tourism and PR Consultant for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

At first this was to assist with promotion for Visit Korea Years 2001-2 but he continued to work for them on various projects for some years. He was part of the team who implemented the successful eco-tourism initiative Templestay, an achievement which he remains very proud of.

Despite now living in such a vast metropolis, he is not at a loss for the great outdoors. Bukhansan especially, in northern Seoul, is a world class complex of mountains with “spectacularly beautiful peaks,” he said.

Mason visits the mountains in Seoul and beyond whenever he has the opportunity, although he said these days he spends more time busily writing about them than visiting. Jirisan, one of the country’s most holy, which straddles three provinces in the south of the peninsula, is a favorite of his.

His latest endeavor as contributing editor to “Baekdu-daegan Trail Guidebook: Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine,” by authors Roger Sheperd and Andrew Douch, has been a great success.

Although the government was reluctant to support it prior to publishing, interest has picked up since. The Korea Forest Service has been very supportive throughout and this year appointed him PR Ambassador of the Baekdu-daegan.

Mason said he has been approached by three or four filmmakers interested in making a documentary on his findings. Each time however, funding has been blocked and the project has been scrapped.

At least domestically however, the hoards of hikers on popular trails attest to an appreciation for the country’s mountains. Bukhansan was, until China took the title recently, the world’s most visited national park with 6 million visitors a year.

Mason would like visitors to be more informed of opportunities to explore less populated mountain courses too.

He is heartened by the volume of email inquires he gets.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm and I do my best to stoke it,” he said.

Although in all other respects, Korea embraces the prospect of UNESCO-list inclusion, there have been no moves to register the country’s sacred mountains. Both neighboring China and Japan have, as well as the U.S., Europe and Australia.

Producing a copy of the authority on his pet subject “Sacred Mountains of the World” by Edwin Bernbaum, Mason indicates that there is a chapter for each continent ― although Japan and China both get their own ― but Korea is not included.

He feels this is because mountains here receive so little publicity that the author simply was not aware of their value.

“In the future when a second edition of this book is published, I want Korea to get a chapter. If that happens, I think I will be satisfied my career has been fulfilled,” he said.

“That’s all I want to see.”

David A. Mason

● 1981 ― Bachelor of Arts Degree in (Oriental) Philosophy from California State University, San Francisco.

● 1982 ― Arrived in Korea

● 1990-97 ― Master’s Degree in Korean Studies from Yonsei University focusing on History of Korean Culture, Religion and Philosophy

● 1997 ― Co-authored Lonely Planet’s “Korea: A comprehensive Travel-Guide”

● 1999 ― Published “Spirit of the mountains: Korea’s San-shin and Traditions of Mountain-Worship” ― awarded “Best Book on Korean Culture” by Korea’s National Academy of Sciences in 2002.

● 2001-2005 ― Tourism & P.R. Consultant for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, including Project Team for Visit Korea Years 2001-2002

● 2005 ― “Passage to Korea,” a best-selling coffee-table book, published

● 2005-2011 ― Professor of Korean Cultural Tourism Contents at Kyung Hee University, Seoul

● 2007-10 ― Promotional Ambassador of Seoul’s Samgaksan

● 2001-2008 ― Member of the Royal Asiatic Society’s Korea branch board of directors. An active member of RAS-KB since 1987

● 2010 ― Contributing editor of “Baekdu-daegan Trail Guidebook: Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine” by Roger Shepherd and Andrew Douch and “The Colors of Korean Buddhism: 30 Icons and their Stories” published by the Korean Buddhism Promotion Foundation

● 2011 ― Research-paper on Baekdu-daegan published by UNESCO “Religious Tourism in Asia and the Pacific”

● 2011― Appointed National Promotional Ambassador of the Baekdu-daegan mountain system

By Hannah Stuart-Leach (
Korea Herald daum