World Fireworks Festival and Gaecheonjeol (세계 볼꽃 축제와 개천절)

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I took this photo yesterday while on the bus across Han-gang river. I’d met up with a group of the friends and after buying some fried chicken. We were on our way to watch some fireworks in Seoul. Yesterday was Gaecheonjeol, translated as “Opening of Heaven”, marking the day when Hwanung, a mythical deity, was said to descend to Earth to live with humanity. It’s a long fable, but the important piece is he is said to have fathered Dangun, the founder of Korea according to legend of the Gojeon Period. So, in other words, yesterday was “Korean Foundation Day”, marked each year by a fireworks show along the Han River, “international” because teams across the world participate along with a Korean team. This year, America and Philippines started the show with Korea last. The Korean show stood out with the most impressive fireworks, including a section where a major bridge crossing the river was illuminated from underneath with a waterfall of fireworks, creating a golden-yellow stream like, flowing glow. Yet, the Korean segment was also strange for me as an American viewer. It lacked the non-stop flow and momentum of an American show. Rather it proceeded at a plodding pace with gaps in between, at times waiting 30 seconds to a minute before another firework was shot off…At times the fireworks would shoot in one direction of the river, then in another. I was reminded at times of a battlefield, where shots are fired, with intermissions in between. It had somewhat of a theatrical element to me.

All in all, it was a fun night with new friends, eating chicken and sharing beer in the cold evening air. It was cold enough that a cashmere sweater and hoodie didn’t keep me warm and an older Korean man walked amongst the crowd selling blankets. On the way home, we moved slowly across Mapo bridge, packed like sardines in a hoard of Seoullites heading home for the night. As I walked with my friend, we read the Korean phrases printed across the side of the bridge, lit up at night by panels of light. The phrases along the hand rail say things like “People love me”, “How about we eat some noodles?”, “I understand you”, etc, made in an effort by the government to discourage suicides, as the bridge is infamous for. It wasn’t necessarily a somber walk, as we laughed at some of the funny phrases and chatted on our way back to Sinchon, closing the night with a shared coffee and a few beers.

Dalmaji Park (달맞이 공원)

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Dalmaji Park, located near Oksu Station on Line 3, offers a beautiful expansive view of Seoul’s Han River and a panoramic of Gangnam and Southern Seoul. It’s also a rewarding trek for those not so keen on hiking, being less of a mountain and more of a hill. The hike up took me just around 10 minutes, granted I was scurrying up, more in fashion of a run than a brisk walk. I visited the park this last weekend after parting with a friend, in search of somewhere new in the city to check out. I went during Chuseok weekend, Korea’s thanksgiving…a time of honoring the shift in seasons during the Fall Equinox. The Korean traditional holidays are all based around the Lunar Calendar, and Chuseok lines up with the full moon, symbolic of a completion of the growth cycle during summer and a time of harvest.

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I hadn’t considered the name of the park until I met an older Korean man at the top of the hill. The man saw me and began speaking to me in Korean, asking me where I’m from, what I do, the standard questions. But to my surprise I was really able to follow along with him as he started telling me the history of the park. The Korean name for the park is “Dal” (Moon) and “Maji” (Greeting/meeting)..So when translating, the park’s name is something like “Meeting the moon/connecting with the moon Park”. The man gestured to the sky, making a sign of connection between the sky and himself while explaining this to me. During a time where the moon’s symbolic of a completion cycle and new beginning, was a nice surprise to hear the story behind the park. After the older man complimented my Korean he launched into a description of the history of a lot of the holiday’s in Korea, talking for a good 5 minutes straight. At this point I realized I was struggling to grasp a lot of what he said as I nodded and smiled. We walked down a ways together and parted ways. I continued taking shots, breaking up my time reading a book and taking in the crisp evening breeze.

For a easy hike and slice of quiet in Seoul, Dalmaji Parks a great getaway. Fortunately the sky’s been clear for the past few weeks…providing great views of the city, uncovered from the coming and going hazy veil the city often wears.

Tapgol Park (탑골 공원)

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Street next to Tapgol Park, full of pojang machas (street food vendors)

   Across the street from the language school I’m attending is Tapgol Park, a famous area for it’s history as the starting point for the Independence Movement against the Japanese Rule. I first came here years ago but since then I’ve visited often. I’m usually one of the few younger people there as the park is a popular hang out spot for ajooshi’s and halabeoji’s (korean middle aged men and grandfathers). Why it’s so appealing to that group I don’t know. My guess is just that it’s a quiet, peaceful spot with a history honoring the break from Japanese rule, a time that hits closer to heart for the older generation. I, too, find it to be a really nice break from the busy streets outside. Having a predilection for quiet spaces, I often like to visit here to take a pause from study and relax my mind. Despite being in the midst of one of the busiest area’s of the city, due to it’s size, inside is a preserved quietness. What makes Seoul a great city to live in, for me, is these little outlets of calm spread across the city. Being someone easily fatigued by crowds, these spots are my frequent getaways to recharge and re-enter the hustle and bustle.

Chuseok and My Birthday

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(Jamwon Park, along the Han River, Seoul, Chuseok day)

  I’ve had a somewhat busy past week. Busy in the best possible sense. It’s been a week of celebration for me as Chuseok happened to fall on the same day as my birthday. Chuseok, originally named Hangawi, is a celebration of the changing of seasons and the end of summer. Every year it falls on the 15th day of the 8th month according to the lunar calendar, meaning always on a full moon. The full moon is symbolic of a completed cycle and as a time to appreciate the harvest of good crops. To the American mind, it’s akin to Thanksgiving. Yet, the spiritual undertones are deeper (if I dare say), as the harvested crops are considered blessings from ancestors past.

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   (Two older women walking in Jamwon Park, Chuseok day)

   During this time Seoul resembles a ghost town, an amazing sight, as families leave for their hometowns to celbrate or retreat indoors. The reason for visiting their hometowns is both to spend time with existing relatives and honor their ancestors spirits. Most families will still visit the gravesites of their deceased relatives and honor them by trimming cleaning the area surrounding the tomb. At home, traditional foods are offered on an altar to the spirits of the ancestors. I say spirits because to the Korean mind, death does not entail an end. The spirits of deceased ancestors are thought to live on and protect their descedants. As a way of honoring and offering thanks to their ancestors, traditional foods are arranged in a specific pattern, according to the four directions. The most characteristic food of Chuseok is Songpyeon, a rice ball in the shape of a moon or a half moon and filled with stuffing that often includes honey, sesame seeds, walnut, jujube and many others. The Songpyeon is then (traditionally) finished by steaming it over pine needles. Along with Songpyeon are offered, and eaten, varieties of meat dishes, ddeok (rice cakes) makgeolli (rice “wine”) and soju (korean sweet potato vodka).

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     (Pizza in Sinchon, Seoul)

    This year, this special day aligned with my birthday on September 8th. It’s my first year to celebrate my birthday in Korea and the first time I’ve celebrated outside of the states. I jokingly was telling my mom it’s a rather auspicious occasion. While I don’t have literal crops to harvest, this past year has been full of enriching experiences. I consider these experiences as nourishment for my soul as I enter a new year of life in Korea. As families honor their ancestors, I have my own ancestors to thank, as well as those living now. There’s a lot of people that came before me who have helped me along way in life and a lot living now as well. Instead of seeing Chuseok as just another birthday, it felt like a particularly rich day. There’s little I can really say about this holiday because I’ve yet to celebrate with a Korean family. I’ve been dating my Korean girlfriend for over a year now, but it still wasn’t considered the best time to meet the whole family, yet her and I were able to celebrate my birthday a day early.

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(Typically a very, very busy street during this time. Very quiet on Chuseok, in Apgujeong)

    We met on the day before Chuseok, a Sunday, in Sinchon. We began our day with pizza at a new flatbread pizza restaurant. We had a Korean/American style pizza, half pepporoni, half potato and a variety of toppings. In Seoul, most of the available (and best) food is still Korean, but it’s becoming an increasingly international city as pizza places, microbrew bars, etc. continue to frequently appear. It was refreshing to eat some decent pizza. From there, You Jeong had a plan in her mind for my day, so we went back to my apartment where I found a few bags of gifts awaiting me with a nice card. You Jeong knows I love coffee and Korean cafe coffee is quite expensive. So, she bought me a coffee maker. I’ve since been drinking a little over my average amount of coffee per day but loving the machine. She also gave me an old coffee/tea mug she made in school as a 10-year-old. This one was hard for me to accept, but meant a lot. Her parents also gave me a gift related to Chuseok – a large box of Ddeok (Korean rice cakes), in many assorted flavors, including red bean, honey, green tea and fruity flavors. As Ddeok is relatively heavy and starchy food I’m slowing working my way through the box.

Afterwards we saw a movie at the theater then visited the Bukchon/Samcheong-dong areas of Seoul. Bukchon is known for it’s collection of existing Korean traditional style Hanok homes. It’s also been re-developing as modern Hanok (traditional korean homes) are built. Samcheong-dong is a famous fashion/art area that flows into Bukchon. These areas are two of my favorites in Seoul, offering some quiet on weekdays and a taste of a more traditional Korea as well as some sophistication. Plus, the coffee you can find here can be of very high quality. We walked for a while, just taking in the sites, until reaching a small traditional korean home/cafe. You Jeong had a bought me a cake at Paris Baguette (a chain bakery here in Korea) and we were able to celebrate in a small loft of the cafe. Sitting in the wooden interior, cross legged, we set up the cake. I’d always somewhat dreamed about a birthday in Asia so this was a wonderful way to celebrate. The interior of the cafe was calm and warm. I sipped a hot americano as you jeong prepared the candles. Once done, she sang happy birthday to me in Korean and I blew the candles out. We talked for a while then finally made our way to our homes.

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    (Itaewon area, on Chuseok during a walk)

    It was a really special day, followed by a few more filled with wishes from family and friends back home as well as new family/friends here in Korea and surrounding Asia. Having been here a year, I felt upon my birthday, a sense of connection to both places. The greetings that came to me around my birthday were equally balanced between Asia and the states. I was proud of this, as my goal for myself in Korea has been to open up to the country and culture and become half a step in Vermont and America, half a step in Korea – to become a multicultural man, neither clinging to America nor rejecting it in favor for the east, remaining both flexible and open. This was my celebration this year on this sacred day in Korean history. Celebrating the development of my progressing cross-cultural relationship, the progress I’ve made in my Korean studies and the adjustment process I’m on in understanding myself as a expat and international citizen.

Changgyeonggung Palace – 창경궁

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     Changgyeonggung Palace, in the Hyewha district of Seoul, has an interesting history. From reading Robert Koehler‘s Seoul guidebook I was able to get some background info of this palace. The Palace dates from 1484 when it was built as a home for three former queens. During the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598, the palace was torched and destroyed. In 1616 the Palace was rebuilt and turned into a park in 1907 when the emperor at the time moved palaces. The park included a botanical garden and a zoo. As Koehler says in his guidebook, the “parkification” of the palace was completed by the Japanese occupying forces in 1910 when the palace was renamed from Cheonggyeonggung (“Changgyeong Palace) to Changgyeongwon (Changgyeong Garden). Around that time it was open to the general public but was restored to it’s status as a palace in 1983 when the zoo was removed.

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    I was struck immediately by the beauty of this palace. I wasn’t expecting much as it’s overshadowed by the larger and more historically famous palaces Gyeongbokgung and Cheongdeokgung. Yet, the interior was equally elegant and expansive. The palace itself faces east to take advantage of it’s unique position topographically, compared to the other palaces which all face South, aligned with feng shui principles.

IMGP2618 IMGP2625   The palace itself does still retain a park feel. The zoo is gone, but the botanical garden remains as well walking paths, a small japanese style pond and vast green expanses. Honestly, I could feel some of the lingering Japanese influence here, in terms of some of the architecture. Yet, I can’t comment a lot on the entirety of the Palace as I was in a rush to another apppointment. The palace definitely warrants another visit, so I can explore the botanical gardens, considered a highlight of the compound. Until next time!

 

Dalmasa Temple – 달마사 절

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  It’s been a while now since my last post. Since my break from school started, it seems I’ve also taken a break from the blog. After my past set of final exams and all the work/thought that led up to it, I was pretty exhausted. I also came down with a cold for 5-6 days following the beginning of my break. I needed some time to just take it easy and let myself wind down a bit. I also wanted a bit of space from writing/posting. School’s starting up again 2 days from now and I’m feeling great about it. I’m feeling well rested and prepared to begin again, and so my activity has increased as well. I’d originally planned to use my break time to travel down to Busan and Gyeongju, but due to my sickness plus another event, I chose to stick around Seoul. I’ve done a lot of travel within Seoul now and beginning to understand its geography/areas pretty well. Yet with a city this size, 3rd in population in the world, one could explore the city for a lifetime and still find interesting new spots. So, I’ve embraced this and I won’t simply settle with the major places I’ve seen. I’m starting to do some of my own research, a combination of Korean websites and English language sites, to find new spots. I’ve got a particular interest in buddhist/shamanic temples. There’s no lack thereof of these in Korea (1000+) and about 59 (according to Wikipedia) in Seoul. I was craving, as I often do, some time in nature and a break from the 빨리빨리 (Balri balri, literally “hurry hurry”) culture of Seoul city life. I found a temple named Dalmasa, located in the Dongjak area of the city, overlooking the Han River.

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   This turned out to be a great find. I got lost along the way, but mainly due to text messaging my girlfriend on the bus and losing track of time/where I was. All in all the trip there from Sinchon was pretty easy. I’ll start adding directions onto my blog in case anyone chooses to visit Seoul and happens to be reading my blog, but I took Line 2 to Dangsan station, then line 9 to Heukseok. From there, I took bus 1 from the Jungang College Hospital stop. The bus ride was short, only about 5 minutes, but steep. Along the way, the bus stalled about 3 times. Granted, it appeared the bus driver was in training. He was there, with another man sitting on his side. They were both talking loudly and the bus driver himself kept making loud exclamations. As he tried to get the bus back going, the other man helped him out. I, however, could not understand most of their Korean, so my interpretation could be incorrect. Nonetheless, the bus made it up the hill and from there I walked to Dalmasa.

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   It wasn’t immediately apparent where to go, but I saw an old rusted sign with the name Dalmasa printed on it. The trail leading up was a bit wild looking, and there was some trash scattered along the side. I followed the steps up, eventually reaching a pathway that led to the entrance. I noticed near the entrance were some piles of trash and the temple stood parallel to an indoor golfing range. I’d be surprised to see such things near a holy site, but I’ve found this to be somewhat common in Korea. I’ve been reading Michael Breen’s book The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. In one of the early chapters he recalls a conversation with a Korean tourism expert and friend of his about Deoksugung palace in Seoul:

   “What do you see out there?” said a Korean friend, a tourism expert. He was pointing down to the grounds of the historic Doksu Palace. It was pitch black.

    “Where?”

    “Down there” He pointed again.

    “Well, it’s the Doksu Palace, but you can’t really make it out” I said.

    “Exactly”, he said.

    “What?” I wasn’t quite following this Socratic method.

    “Can you imagine any other major capital city in the world which hides its most historic sites like this? All the other places are the same. You can’t see them at night. They should be floodlit for everyone to see.”

   “Is it because they don’t know what tourists like to see?” I ventured.

   “It’s because we Koreans hate our history” he said. “We don’t want to think about it and we don’t want to show it” ¹

   He follows this to say his friend was only partly right. He continues to say that he also believes Koreans do have a negative view of their past and a lack of regard for their history, but primarily because they do not know how to observe it. This is another post in and of itself, but the point is, the observation made above and my experience is consistent. The temples and palaces here are wonderful, but there’s a sense that they aren’t valued as much as they can be. Dalmasa’s a beautiful temple, albeit small, but the way there didn’t suggest anything special. I’d consider this temple a hidden gem, as the interior itself was beautiful but it also offers some amazing panoramas of the Han River, with Yeouido Island’s bronze coated 63 building (5th tallest in Seoul) and Mt. Namsan and Namsan tower in view.

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    I started by walking through the temple area and checking out the chamber halls. This spot’s a bit off the tourist radar and not a huge draw for either locals or tourists (from my understanding) so it was pretty quiet and I was one of the only people there. The smell of the fresh incense is always calming to me, as well as the plants and flowers spread throughout the meditation halls. There was also a really unique meditation chamber carved into rock, essentially a cave, with turtle statues placed outside. I’d like to comment more on the temple, but I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. All the signs were in Korean, there’s very little to no information on the temple in english on the internet, so my observation and picture’s about all I’ve got for now.

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    After making it through each temple quarter, I walked along a connecting walking path that offered views of the city and the Han River. It was a beautiful late afternoon/early evening and one of many unusually clear days. The humidity, however, was heavy as you can see in the distance. Continuing onwards I came across an older man walking across a strip of rocks laid out in an ordered fashion, alternating between black and white sharp but rounded stones. He’d first walk on the sharper stones, then go back along the side to repeat the walk. I asked my girlfriend about this and the name is 지압판 (Jiappan), a bed of stones used for acupressure purposes, creating more bloodflow and movement within the body. Walking further, I encountered a group of older Korean men and women playning Go, a popular game for the older generation here, in a wooden pagoda. This was the top of the hill. On the way down, I scrambled through the woods on some worn trails and watched the squirrels leaping through the trees. This was honestly a refreshing sight. I sat down for a few minutes to watch the squirrels doing their thing. Back in Vermont, squirrels are ubiquitous. Living in Seoul, it’s a rare sight, and these were slightly different, as their fur was pitch black. It’s a small thing, but it brought some temporary joy to see them bouncing about.

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   I then followed the trail back down to the temple entrance and made my way by bus back to the station. The trip down was beautiful, as the sun was setting. Along the streets, back in town, the vendors were still open, loud speakers blaring, selling fruits and snacks. Large bags of popcorn, crackers, dried beans and sugary treats. The crosswalks weren’t working so you had to find your way through the heavy traffic, and as usual, the motorcyclists were whizzing past to and fro. I could feel the energy, from the previous quiet to the frantic and pulsating. All the while I was in Seoul, but after some recharge in the forest I felt ready again for the streets.

¹ Breen, Michael. The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

  

An Interesting Encounter

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 Yesterday I went for a walk around Samcheong-dong, Seoul. Samcheong-dong, if you’re not aware, is a popular area in the city for shopping, food, unique cafes and gallery’s. It’s situated directly next to/in Bukchon Village, an area of Seoul full of Hanok style homes. Hanok is the name for traditional Korean wood-built homes. I often like to walk around this area of the city for the historic feel and the variety of cafes and shops. I didn’t anticipate I’d be hiking yesterday, but it seems my body has some sort of gravitational pull to the forest. Maybe this is due to living in Seoul for too long as a native Vermonter. No matter the mysterious cause, I ended up in Samcheong-dong park, outside the busy streets near Mount Bugaksan, a prominent peak in Seoul that overlooks Gyeongbokgung Palace and the current Presidential Blue House. 

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   I walked along in the park and notice trail markers leading up to a boulder lookout. The weather was hot, but it was a nice time for a walk and I felt a peace being in a quiet, forest area. So I decided to follow the markers and make it a hike. It was so humid out that within minutes going up the trail I was beginning to get damp with sweat. The air also was thick and humid. It was difficult to see much in the distance due to the heavy air. Along the way up I passed a few woman chatting and eating box lunches and a man and his friend resting at a lookout sharing rice wine. The path was beautiful, wooden steps and handle bars, with glimpses along the way to the neighboring mountains and the city stretched below.  


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   The top of the climb scaled along the edge of some protruding boulders, offering what would be amazing views of the city. With the hazy air, it was hard to see much. I continued to the top and found a nice little perch to sit on overlooking Bugaksan, through the tree brush. The wind was relatively strong, providing a nice chill against the humid summer air. Birds were chirping and I could hear the activity of some small animals in the woods. I noticed someone coming and turned around. An older man was looking at me. He asked in english “What country are you?”. I said “I’m from America” He smiled in return and approached me and to my surprise began to tell me his story. He said “I’m 82 years old….In the Korean war, I fought for the Americans in Pyeongyang, North Korea” I just looked back at him with interest, silently encouraging more. He continued “I fought with chemical weapons…..you know..Napalm?” I nodded and said yes, I do. He motioned like spraying napalm. Continuing on he told me “America is good. I like American music” and handed me a tape from his portable walkman. It had on it the names of old American pop and rhythm and blues artists, the likes of Dwayne Eddy and The Temptations. He said “I don’t like Korean music, but American is good” and continued asking me what I thought of his country. I replied that I love Korea, especially the mountains and food. He shook my hand in response saying “thank you” repeatedly, with a large smile on his face. We shared names, and I offered to take his picture. 

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   We parted ways, and I sat in silence on the top of the rock, looking out over the foggy air. I felt a peace there, just a sense of quiet and release, listening to the birds. The man’s story was fresh in my mind. He was smiling and so kind, yet carried a sadness in his eyes. I felt calm and quiet inside and after a bottle of water, decided to head back down the hill. Along the way, I bumped into him again and he offered to help me find my bus. I knew where to go, but accepted his invitation to help. He led me to the bus stop and gave me a dollar for the ride. I ran to catch the bus, got on, and from the back seat saw him out the window smiling and waving happily as the bus drove away.