Namsan —The Heart of Seoul

Seoul tower is a must see for any tourist, expat, or even local. It is the icon of Seoul, and it captures many aspects of Seoul’s culture and people. It is also bustling with travelers from around the world, so it’s a great place to experience how Seoul is quickly becoming an international metropolis.

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There are many ways to get to the top of Seoul tower. You can take a bus, taxi, cable car, or hike. However, I generally prefer to hike the various trails so I can take my time to appreciate the scenery. (If you are searching for directions, scroll to the bottom of this article.)

The trails are stunning year round. In the spring the roads are covered in cherry blossoms, which creates a very romantic atmosphere if you are going with a loved one. In the summer the leaves are lush and green, and you can listen to the birds chirping in the trees. In the fall, the leaves change to vibrant hues of red and orange. And the fallen leaves decorate the trails. Some people even take the fallen leaves to create designs and art. Though the trees are bare in the winter, it makes the cities landscape easier to see, since there is no foliage to block the view.

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Seoul tower first opened on October 15, 1980, but in 2005 it underwent a 15 billion won (about 14million USD) remodeling project. It was renamed “N Seoul Tower”, the “N” Symbolizing “new look”. The tower stands at 236.7 meters tall on top of Namsan Mountain, and offers panoramic views of he city sprawl, Han River, and surrounding mountain landscapes.

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The observation deck is open from 10am-11pm Sunday – Thursday, and 10am-midnight on Saturday and Sunday. Throughout the day there are martial arts presentations along with other Korean folk performances in the plaza facing the tower. Viewers can enjoy an array of colorful costumes, and listen to the sound of the beating drums and Korean folk instruments. The martial arts presentations are quite impressive as they demonstrate customary swordsmanship and exquisite spear fighting techniques. They also select audience members to try various activities or games.

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After checking out the folk performances, I usually go for a snack from one of the restaurants or cafes on the main levels. There are quite a few options, but I have a few routine favorites. I’m a big fan of movie-style popcorn, so I usually go for a popcorn/soda set from the snack shop in the B1 level. I also enjoy grabbing a coffee from Twosome Place cafe.

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However if you are there around lunch or dinner, there are some great places to grab a meal too! There is a place called “The Best Burger in Seoul” where you can have delicious, handmade burgers. They also serve hotdogs, nachos, fries, and some chicken dishes. Their burgers are quite decent, but if you are looking for the actual “best burger” in Seoul, you might want to save your appetite for one of the restaurants in the Haebangchon (HBC) neighborhood. If your tastebuds are requiring a more local flavor, check out “HanCook” which is also on the main level. HanCook features classic Korean dishes such as bulgogi, braised short ribs, and delicious seafood courses. The price for lunch is around 30,000 won and 43,000 for dinner. Personally, I feel this is a bit pricey for Korean food, but I guess you have to consider that the location and atmosphere are fantastic. Finally, you can also try an Italian restaurant called ” The Place” on the second level, or if you want a fine dining option, consider “N. Grill” for top notch French cuisine with a stunning view. N. Grill is located on the top level (5F) of the tower, and it is highly recommended to make reservations in advance.

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After grabbing a snack, I generally enjoy checking out the roof terrace which features the famous love locks. The love locks started after a popular Korean drama featured a couple who chained two locks to a fence to show their undying love for one another. Today there are tens of thousands of love locks attached to the safety fences around the tower. The love locks gained such popularity, that they have even created sculptures for couples to attach their locks.

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If the love locks are not enough PDA for you, there are also benches that are slanted in the middle, so couples and friends can sit closer together. Expect lines of people waiting their turn to snap a selfie, as Asian culture really loves taking photos. Furthermore, inside the tower there are tiles with couple’s photos and love notes.

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Finally, the last thing you should do is stand in the geographical center of Seoul. The spot is on the far side of the plaza facing away from the tower. It is kind of tucked away in the back corner, so it is easy to miss. However, it is a great place to snap some photos, because it is less crowded than the other areas. Also there are stunning views of the cityscape from that direction.

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HOW TO GET THERE:

Now I imagine you are wondering how exactly to get to Namsan. I’m going to first tell you my favorite hiking trail, then I’ll post the other routes and useful information below.

My favorite trail starts at Donguk University station on Line 3. You walk out of exit 6 and head towards the left through the park. The park itself has a stream flowing through it and some pagodas to add to the scenery. At the edge of the park there is a small man-made waterfall, and it’s a fun place to take a picture before getting sweaty from the hike.

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Next you will see a building that is built to model traditional Korean architecture. It has a public bathroom if you need to use it before starting the hike. I’m not actually sure what the purpose of the building is for, as I never go inside, but maybe it’s worth checking out if you are curious.

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Across from the park will be a set of stairs. Once you find the stairs you are on your way. Follow the signs along the path, as there are a variety of trails you can try. Along the road, there is an archery field where people shoot arrows from long distances. It’s a pretty incredible spectacle to watch, because the targets are placed very far from the shooters. My eyesight is pretty good, but I’m unable to even see if they actually hit their targets. However it’s a nice little pitstop during the hike.

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If hiking isn’t your thing here is a list of the bus routes and cable car directions:

[Cable Car]
-Boarding point: Upon getting off from Myeong-dong Station (Seoul Subway Line 4), Walk out of exit 3 and continue for about 15 minutes to reach the street laying next to Pacific Hotel. The boarding place should be seen.
-Operating hours: 10:00 – 23:00

[Bus – Namsan Sunhwan Shuttle Bus]
1. Namsan Sunhwan Shuttle Bus No. 02
-Take the bus from the closest subway station: Chungmuro Station (Seoul Subway Line 3, 4), Exit 2 (in front of Daehan Cinema) or Dongguk University Station (Seoul Subway Line), Exit 6.
-Interval: every 15 min.
-Operating hours: 07:00 – 24:00

2. Namsan Sunhwan Shuttle Bus No. 03
-Take the bus from the closest subway station: Seoul Station, Seoul Square (Seoul Subway Line 1, 4), Exit 9 or Itaewon Station (Seoul Subway Line 6), Exit 4 or / Hangangjin Station (Seoul Subway Line 6), Exit 2.
-Interval: every 20 min.
-Operating hours: 07:30 – 23:30

3. Namsan Sunhwan Shuttle Bus No. 05
-Take the bus from the closest subway station: Myeong-dong Station (Seoul Subway Line 4), Exit 3 or Chungmuro Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 2 (in front of Daehan Cinema). -Interval: every 15 min.
-Operating hours: 07:30 – 23:30

I hope this helps anyone interested in visiting Namsan. I feel that in order to experience the heart of Seoul, this is a must-see stop! Please leave questions or comments below if you need any suggestions or want to share your experiences.

One Year Reflection– Teaching in Korea

Hello readers. Sorry I have been MIA for a while. With the new year coming soon, I am making a resolution to write more. I  finally have my first DSLR camera (thanks Dad), so I am excited to start sharing some better quality photos as well. Since I have not been writing much I want to catch everyone up on what its been like teaching in Korea.

 

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In Korea,  modern society is focused on extreme competition, and its foundation starts in the school system. Korean students are some of the most hard working and ambitious in the world.  When I first moved here, I expected English teaching to be more hands on with activities and games. A lot of my friends had taught in schools in Thailand, Taiwan, and China, and I heard that teaching was a breeze. Well Korea is a different ball game. Korean society thrives off competition. There is pressure from every aspect of life to be the best. This pressure comes with a price, as Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world, with many of them being high school students. Students start learning English in kindergarden, and sometimes even before that if the parents are wealthy enough. Once children are in elementary school, parents enroll them into various academies, so students can study subjects such as math or English.

I worked at a franchise academy that focused on teaching a debate and an integrated English curriculum. Each student studied at my academy for 6 hours a week, and most of them attended at least one or two other academies on top of that. My work hours were from 2-10pm. When I first heard that, I figured I stayed late for office work, but students actually come until 10pm. Honestly I think they would stay later if Korean law did not enforce academies to close by 10. Many of my students did not want to be at Topia, which caused a lot more behavioral problems than I had anticipated. But how can you blame them? I remember when I was forced to do ballet for a few years, I would sometimes pitch a fit too. Observing these children’s work ethic is heartbreaking. Many of them hardly get a chance to just imagine and play freely, and this intense and methodic way of living will continue into the rest of their lives.

There is one moment that really demonstrated how intense the daily life of a Korean child can be. There was this one student in particular, that I admired because of his hard work and dedication.  I remember I was checking homework and I got to this student’s desk, in a very embarrassed and ashamed voice he told me, ” Teacher I am so tired, so please forgive me, I do not have my homework”.  I looked at his face, and it looked like he had not slept at all. I asked him, “Teddy, why can’t you sleep?” And he told me that he was attending two academies a day, then had to go home to finish homework. He then told me his mother would be angry that he did not do his Topia homework and he was very worried to show her his bad word test score. As I saw the anxiety on this 11 year olds face, I did not even know what to say to him. I told him not to worry about it, and that I was not angry at him, but that did not cure the fear he had of disappointing his mother.  Eventually this student somehow broke his collar bone, which may have been the best thing that ever happened to him, because he was able to take a break and rest for once.

 

 

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As I got to know my students, my heart ached for them. I knew they hated being forced to learn English. I felt as if I was trapped between the expectations of my boss and the emotional needs of my students. Instead of letting this pressure get to me, I decided to be creative. I found ways to put on a show for my boss, while still creating a more fun and relaxed environment for my students. Unfortunately I was watched like a hawk on CCTV monitors in every classroom, so I had to be cautious.  One way I decided to connect with my students was having them teach me Korean. They would laugh at my foolish attempts to try to pronounce words, and they were so proud to make me say it correctly. I showed them my vulnerable side and that I was not “all knowledgeable”. I felt they appreciated the fact that I was willing to learn as much from them as they learned from me.

I decided to leave Topia, because I don’t agree with the academy system. Forcing children to study English until 10:00 at night is impractical and just absurd. Though I am not fond of the academy system, I am thankful for my experience. I think it was exactly where I needed to be, because it helped me understand Korean culture on an intrinsic level.  Next year I will fortunately be working day time hours in a really fun and interactive camp program. I am very excited about my new opportunity, because the program emphasizes creativity, and I will also have a lot more freedom to teach as I choose.

I already miss my students. One of them has even been calling me every time he is at Topia, asking me if I will come back. Many students send me cute text messages and left me notes on my last days.  Here are some photos of some of my classes . . .

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I want to conclude this entry with one more thought. When I was first considered teaching I was inspired by this particular quote from Emerson:

“The great teacher is not the man who supplies the most facts, but the one in whose presence we become different people.”

As the time my aspirations was to be this type of teacher, however I think Emerson forgot to mention how the teacher also grows and changes from the students as well. I hope that as a teacher I can play a positive role and guide my students to be the best they can be, but I also want to acknowledge that they do the same for me. I am so grateful that I found where I need to be, and I look forward to the lessons that lay ahead.

 

Coming Full Circle —- Alchemy to the Korea Burn

Hello readers! I am very excited to finally share this post about the Korea Burn.  Generally when I write I just dive right in, but for some reason I was not sure where to start when writing this entry. Going to a burn is a profound experience, and it can be somewhat daunting when trying to explain it to someone who as never attended. Even when I first heard of Burning Man, I was not sure how to comprehend it or know what to expect. It is one of those things you just need to experience. Right before leaving for Korea I attended Alchemy, the Georgia regional burn. After attending Korea Burn, I felt like I had come full circle. It had been exactly a year since Alchemy, and since then I have made some astounding transformations in my life.

I wanted to make sure to not write this piece to seem as the burn was just a party on the beach for foreigners. So in order to accomplish that I want to share some of the history of burning man and share with my readers what burn culture is all about.

Burning Man was started in 1986 when some friends met together on Baker Beach, in San Francisco to celebrate the summer solstice. The group of friends built a wooden man which was about 9ft tall and burned it as an act of “radical self-expression”. In 1987 the man grew to be about 15ft tall, and then the following year it was around 40ft! Each year the event grew in size, and now over 50,000 attendees gather in Black Rock City, Nevada for the Burning Man festival.

Burning man is founded on 10 principles

1. Radical Inclusion– anyone can participate. There are no strangers or requirements to attend. All types of people are welcomed and encouraged to participate.

2.Gifting — Everyone who attends is expected to give without any expectations to receive anything in return. There is no value attributed to a gift. A gift can simply be teaching a skill, sharing a drink, setting up a theme camp, or giving people a smile and a hug. Also when receiving a gift, one should accept graciously and not attempt to make it a trade of any kind.

3. Decommodification –no commercial sponsorships or money transactions are allowed.

4. Radical Self-Reliance — Participants are expected to bring in what they need, as well as bring something to share. Participants must come prepared.

5. Radical Self-Expression — this is probably one of my favorite of the 10 principles. Participants are encouraged to wear costumes and express themselves through any artistic fashion they choose.

6. Communal Effort– participants are expected to help others in need and to look after one another.

7. Civic Responsibility — participants are responsible to act in accordance to local, state, and federal laws.

8. Leave No Trace — participants are expected to pack up EVERYTHING they bring with them. The objective is to leave the place nicer than you found it originally.

9. Participation — To me this is the most fundamental of all the principles. Participants should come to the burn with an open mind. Transformative change only occurs through intrinsic and cognitive participation. We should focus on the art of  being in the present moment and embracing each breath we take. Everyone is invited to participate whether it be work or play. We can create a beautiful wonderful world by only being open and willing to participate.

10. Immediacy — to have an “Immediate experience” means overcoming barriers that stand between the recognition or our inner selves, the reality of those around us, our active role in society, and contact with the natural world. Burners should strive for awareness and recognition of deeper spiritual realms.

I attended my first burn (Alchemy) right before I left for Korea. It was supposed to be my last hurrah before leaving the country. I had always heard a burn could be a spiritual experience, so I figured it would be the best way to fill my soul with positive energy before embarking on my journey abroad.

Alchemy was held in the hills of north Georgia, right outside of Atlanta. As soon as we arrived greeters embraced us with warm smiles and hugs and told us, “Welcome Home.” The vibe was amazing. Everyone was so colorful in their costumes, and you could feel love beaming from each individual. No one seemed like strangers, but instead it felt like seeing long lost friends or family members. As we drove into the festival site, the hills were covered in various themed campsites. I had no idea how much people put into making this such a spectacular event. There were  bars set up that provided food and drinks to over 3000 people over the course of the 4 days.There was a giant blow up igloo, and inside the entire floor was covered with beanbags, while light specialists and DJ’s collaborated to create an ultimate sensory experience and relaxation zone. Even though we were there for three days, it was impossible to visit every campsite.

In the center of the festival was the large wooden structure referred to as “The Effigy”. This is what would be burned the last night of the festival. Before the “burn” people could climb and sit on the effigy. My friends and I just sat there for hours talking to people as they would come and go. We met people from all over the country, and even all over the world! It was amazing how a burn could bring people from so many backgrounds together to this beautiful place.

The best part of the festival is when the effigy gets burned down . The first thing that happens is a parade of fire spinners does a collaborative performance around the effigy. Then fire work specialists put on the best firework show I have ever seen in my life.I really can’t fit words to describe how spectacular it was. Trust me, it was better than any 4th of July or Disney World show. As soon as the firework finale ends, the effigy is instantly engulfed in flames. As the cheers emerge from the crowd, you just can’t help but feel connected with everyone around you. Everyone embraces one another with hugs and smiles, and just celebrates being aware of this moment in existence.

When I heard that there was going to be a Korea Burn, I almost could not believe it. As with all the awesome things I have found in Korea, I also found this event through facebook. At first, the burn was supposed to be held at Muuido Island, but so many people were interested in attending that it was moved to Gijipo Beach. Last year Katlyn  (one of the years burn organizers) held a small gathering called the “Man on Fire,” which was a gathering for Korean people and foreigners to share in the burning man culture. Originally the producers of the event expected this year’s gathering to only be about 100 people, but over 1,000 people requested invitations!! In a short amount of time (about 2 months) the organizers were able to find a new location and set up everything possible to make this event happen. They did an amazing job and put in a ton of hard work to make this possible.
I was fortunate enough to meet some of these wonderful organizers at Inner Trip festival, and was even able to play a small role in planning for the burn. I wish I could have been more involved, but it was still really awesome to see everything happen behind the scenes.
Generally burns charge admission in order to cover costs of medics, bathrooms, property rental, and other essential parts of the festival. What made the Korea burn so special, is they did not charge admission, but instead only relied on the support of the community to come together and donate. At first there were some dilemmas getting the donations organized, but as the event came closer, more and more people pitched in, and they were able to reach their goal. Because the event was in Korea, many people had never attended an actual burn, but that did not limit the creativity of the campsites. Even though this was a much smaller festival than Alchemy, the Korea burn stayed true to the principles. There was a DJ tent that played until dawn, a camp that gave out bacon if you read them a poem, a cuddle area to relax, a flow arts camp that taught flow and hula hooping, yoga lessons on the beach, body painting, and many other amazing theme camps. Foreigners in Korea come from all over the world, so it contributed to an amazing international atmosphere.
Again, the highlight  was gathering with everyone on the beach to watch the man burn down. Originally I was supposed to be one of the fire dancers in the fire conclave, but due to to unfortunate circumstances with traffic and our rental car, I was not able to participate. Though I was bummed about not being able to spin fire, it was easily forgotten when I was surrounded by all the love and positive energy around me.
One of the most special parts was being able to share this experience with some new friends I have made in Korea. I went to the burn with my friend Laura, Beyong-Jun, and Jun. None of them had ever been to a burn before, so it was special introducing them to this culture. Laura and I spent the car ride decorating t-shirts for the boys to wear with their costumes. Our theme was The Protection Patrol and we made sure to carry around sunscreen, bug spray, and of course condoms in case anyone needed protection.
I titled this blog “Coming Full Circle” because the Korea burn almost marks my one year here. Attending this festival really played a symbolic role in how much has changed over the course of this year. It seems like yesterday that I was at Alchemy talking with Suzie and Emily about how scared I was to make this move, but how I just knew it would be the right choice.  Boy was I right about that! It has been the best decision I have ever made, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. Something beyond me was drawing me to explore the world, and it has led to the best chapter in my life so far. I have learned so many things about myself in this past year. I have met so many amazing people from all over the world. In addition to these fantastic experiences,  I am also in the best health I have been in years. Life moves fast here, so I am glad the Korea burn gave me the opportunity to reflect about everything that has happened since I left the states.
I am excited to continue this journey and see what else is to come . . .

Innertrip Festival — A Korean Music Festival Experience

As summer arrived in Korea, I got my first real feelings of homesickness. As my facebook news feed got flooded with posts about upcoming shows and festival line-ups, I began to notice the distance between myself and best friends back home. It truly has been amazing to be so connected through skype  and social networking, but as my friends statuses showed excitement for the festival season, I finally began to feel the distance between myself and home.

I am a jam band fanatic (or maybe I should say phanatic haha), so generally during the summer I meet up with friends and hit up various shows and festivals. Last summer (summer 2011) my best friends and I did the North Carolina Phish shows in Charlotte and Raleigh.

At this time I was just finishing my TEFL course and was submitting all my documents for jobs in Korea. I knew that once I went abroad, I would have to temporarily close the door on this part of my life. Well that was what I thought until .  . .

I discovered a music scene in Korea!!!!

Facebook really has been my saving grace in Korea. It has not only connected me to my friends and family back home, but it has allowed me to establish so many connections here in Korea as well. I have been able to find hiking groups, volunteering, and then best of all … A music scene!!!

The Electronic scene is booming in Seoul. Seoul hosts “The world DJ Festival” and “Ultra Music Festival Korea”. Acts such as Tiesto and Skrillex headlined in some of the festivals in Seoul this summer. Also, Korea hosted Jisan Festival with headliners such as Radiohead, James Blake, and the Stone Roses. Unfortunately due to money and my lack of days off, I was not able to attend any of these three festivals. I was beginning to get bummed out that I missed my only chance of actually embracing a music scene abroad, but then I suddenly found one last glimmer of hope . . . Innertrip festival!

Innertrip festival is a small festival held in Chuncheon right on the Sinyeongang River. It was a beautiful location tucked right along the river next to beautiful luscious green mountains.

To get there I took the subway to the Gyeonchun Line which takes you East out of Seoul. Since I live in the North East part of Seoul, the trip only took about an hour and a half. At first I traveled alone, but as soon as I transferred to the Geyonchun line I found a fellow hippie chick from England to accompany me on the train ride. We both could immediately tell we were heading in the same direction, as she was dressed in tie-dye, and I was carting my hula hoops. Finding her reminded me of the times that my friends and I would travel to a show or festival, and see cars that were obviously going in the same direction. We would get excited when we saw a car covered in grateful dead and peace stickers, and we would always honk and wave. Seeing other friendly faces only made the anticipation and excitement of seeing the show that much greater.

After we arrived at Gangchon station, we instantly saw other festival attendees waiting for the next shuttle. The organizers of the festival generously provided an hourly free shuttle to take people from the train station to the festival. This definitely made the trip there simple and painless.

As the shuttle dropped us off at the festival entrance, bass notes filled the air. My heart began to beat fast with excitement. There is nothing I love more than losing myself in the energy of a dancing crowd.

When I first arrived I had no tent or anything to set up. My plan was to meet a friend of a friend of mine to camp with. While I waited for her to arrive, some hilarious guys from England and Canada let me stash my bags in their tent, so I could go dance without worrying about my things.

The girl who I was meeting (Tessa) and her friends arrived about an hour later. Tessa is a friend of my friend Kara, who I know from Charleston and some music friends back in Atlanta. Tessa also lived in Charleston, so it was really cool to connect with her for the first time at this festival, when all along we had been running in the same circles back home.  She came with some other awesome folks who graciously shared their tents and soju drinks with me. I instantly felt like I was friends and part of their crew.

As the sun went down the craziness began. The festival had two stages that were placed back to back. One stage was designated for only electronic DJ’s while the other one hosted Reggae bands. At first I was confused and thought the stages sounds would clash being so close together, but it actually worked perfectly.Generally festival goers have to trek from one stage to another at festivals back home, so having them back to back made it very easy and convenient.

The last part of the festival that made me feel whole again was being able to hula hoop dance and spin fire.  Though I am able to occasionally break out my hoops at parks in Korea, hooping alone is not the same as sharing and appreciating it with others. I miss teaching people tricks and sharing ideas with fellow hoopers; but most of all, I miss being able to lose myself. There is something magical about stage lights, heavy bass beats, and just completely losing all thought while dancing in a hoop. It makes all distractions and worries disappear. It is my favorite way to dip into a meditative trance. 

Also at the festival, I decided to invest in my first set of LED poi. There are not very many hoopers in Seoul, but there is a poi scene. I had not spun poi in a long time, but I guess the movements are like riding a bike, because as soon as I picked them up, the moves came back to me. I was even allowed to play with the fire poi which made me VERY excited! I wish I could articulate the feeling I receive when spinning fire. Its almost like nothing else exists except you and the fire. The light of the fire makes everything else around you a faded blur. The whooshing sound of the fire balls moving sends a rush of excitement through every bone in your body, and the slight fear of burning yourself sends adrenaline that just leaves you feeling energized. It is an amazing experience that I have greatly missed. Now if I can only find a fire hula hoop, my life in Korea will be complete . . .

Buddha’s Birthday and the Lotus Lantern Festival

Buddha’s Birthday is a national holiday in Seoul, where most of the population gets to take a relaxing break from work, school, and daily pressures. Many temples invite guests to visit and learn about Buddhist traditions. The temples invite visitors to attend tea and lunch ceremonies. There is also a Lotus Lantern Festival the weekend before the holiday to kick off the festivities.

The Lotus Lantern Festival is a must see event for anyone who is interested in traveling through Seoul. The streets are adorned with vibrant lanterns and the city is bustling with exciting exhibits and chances to experience Buddhist culture. It truly is a spectacular sight to see! The lighting of the lotus lanterns is a significant Buddhist tradition, because it symbolizes a devotion to performing good deeds. It also represents bringing light to areas of the world that are filled with agony and despair.

Thousands of foreigners and Seoul natives gather for the festival’s events. The main events include an opening ceremony, an exhibition of traditional lanterns, a lotus lantern parade, a post parade party and celebration, and a street festival filled with cultural exhibits and events. A second smaller parade is held on Sunday evening to end the festivities.

The lantern parade is the highlight of the festivals activities. The parade route starts in Jongno in front of the Dongdaemun gate to the Jogyesa temple. To arrive in Jongno you can take subway line 1 to Jonggak station, or Jongno 5-ga station. You can also take lines 1,3, or 5 to Jongno3-ga station. The parade runs from Dongdaeumun History and Culture Park, through Jongno, and then ends back at the Jogyesa temple. The parade lasts approximately 2 ½ hours.

One other option is to arrive in Insadong by taking line 3 to Anguk station. If you arrive early in the day, Insadong is one of the most famous traditional neighborhoods to explore. It is filled with tons of shopping, amazing food, traditional architecture, and two famous palaces. It is my favorite district in Seoul to spend the day walking around.

Each temple is represented by various costumes and floats. As soon as the sun goes down, the streets become alive with music and tens of thousands of unique lantern designs. Each temple is dressed in distinctive costumes and robes. Korean traditional music and drums fill the air.

At Bonguensa Temple there is an exhibition of traditional lanterns. The lanterns are handcrafted from silk and traditional Korean paper (Hanji). The lanterns take many shapes such as animals, fruits, flowers, or anything you can imagine! Each shape and pattern is symbolic for different wishes such as health, longevity, and a bountiful harvest.

On the last day of the festival, a street festival is held right in the heart of the Insadong district. If you have an interest in Buddhist traditions and culture, this is definitely a great opportunity to dive right in. The entire street is divided into stages, booths, and tents. They are exhibits that represent each Buddhist tradition from various countries all over the world, guided meditations, lotus lantern making, buddhist monk sand art sculptures, and dance and music performances.

My favorite exhibit at the street festival was being able to watch the Buddhist monks create spectacular sand mandalas. Creating sand mandalas is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition where monks create ornate detailed artwork from colored sand. Every grain of sand is meticulously placed to create a beautiful and perfectly symmetrical art piece. When the monks finish the art piece, they ritualistically destroy  it to symbolize the transitory and impermanent nature of human life. Watching these monks brought back memories from my University. The Dali Lama is a presidential distinguished professor at Emory University , and I was fortunate to have him and fellow Tibetan monks visit while I was a student. I remember watching with utter fascination as the monks created the sand mandalas then dumped them into the creek that flows through campus. I found it to be an incredibly moving experience; so seeing it again in Korea brought not only a sense of admiration and appreciation, but a sense of nostalgia as well.

Hiking in Korea

I have been blessed to be able to get back into hiking while here in Korea, though unfortunately I will be taking a hiatus while my ankle heals. Luckily I have found some kayaking and beach trips to occupy my adventurous spirit for a while! Here are some photos and stories from some of my hiking adventures so far!

Korea’s landscape is approximately 70% mountainous terrain. Seoul’s geography is actually a basin, and it is surrounded by mountains on all sides.  Most mountains have arranged trails with stairs and maps, so it is very easy to find your way.  So far I have done four hikes in Korea: Inwangson, Bukhansan, Jagged Ridge at Sa Rayang Do Island, and a local backyard hike in my district.

Inwangsan was my first hike, which I did on Christmas Eve, right after arriving in Korea. Inwangsan is a fairly easy hike. It  has well arranged trails and only takes about three hours. It is located in the north western part of Seoul, so it has great views of the city, and you can even see the presidents house! (Check the January 2012 archive for the full story on this hiking adventure)

Mount Bukhansan was a very fun adventure! My friend Rachel and I joined this hike through Seoul Hiking Group. There are many different adventure groups in Korea that help foreigners organize trips and hikes. It is a fantastic way to meet likeminded people, and also get some quality time outdoors!

The Mount Bukhansan hike started in Dongdaemun, which is in a busy shopping district in Seoul. The trail followed the Seoul Fortress. The Seoul fortress was originally built in 1396 during the Joseon Dynasty. As you walk along the wall, you can tell from the size and shape of the stones which era in which it was built. The original walls, built in the late 14th century, were constructed of medium-sized round stones held together by mud. The next major expansion, which took place during King Sejong the Great’s reign in the mid 15th century, are marked by rectangular stones closely fit together. Another major restoration in 1704 was when King Sukjong rebuilt sections of the wall using large, uniform stone slabs.

The last hiking adventure I want to share is my trip to Sa Ryang Do Island on the southern western coast of Korea. I found this particular trip through a group called “When In Korea”. Spring time was just emerging so I was hunting for either a  beach trip or an interesting hike outside of Seoul. As I perused facebook, I suddenly found a trip that encompassed both! The trip advertised an island hike with ocean views the entire time.  As soon as I saw it I was hooked! Little did I know that this would be the most challenging hike of my life, as nowhere in the advertisement warned be about what would lay ahead.

After an all night bus ride we arrived at the harbor, just as the sun was rising over the mountains. Even though I did not get much sleep on the bus, I was filled with a rush of energy and excitement as soon as I breathed in the fresh air. It was quite refreshing after constantly being burdened by the pollution in Seoul. We then took a 30 minute ferry ride to Sa Ryang Do Island.

As we arrived at the island, our guide started making comments that this hike was going to be a challenge, and that we may hate him at the end of the day. Of course no warning of any kind was given until we were 20 minutes from starting our hike. I looked at my friend Rachel apprehensively, and wondered what her thoughts were about our guides comments. She assured me I would be be fine, but I still began to get slightly nervous.

As we began the hike, I found it to be a steep climb, but nothing that I could not handle. I was relieved and thought to myself, Oh this is not bad at all . . . Let’s just say I was quite unprepared for what was coming next!

All of the sudden, the rocks became very jagged and steep. Maneuvering began to get very tricky. In order to descend, I literally had to slide down in a crab walk position, so I would not go tumbling down.  I was very nervous, but I was glad to meet two other people that were feeling the same as I was. As we crabbed walked down the rocks dug into my hands and was slightly painful, but the stunning views and our comic attitude made the pain less intense. As we carefully maneuvered each ledge with great caution, I kept thinking to myself, “well it can’t get any more challenging than this . . .”

All of the sudden an enormous boulder emerged at the peak. People were using a rope to scale up the rock. I could feel my heart sink into the depths of my stomach.  I honestly considered giving up. There was no way I was going to scale a mountain on a rope! Even in my younger days, rock-climbing was never really my thing. My guide guaranteed, that once I got closer I would see that it was not as intimidating as it looked. I took a deep breath and decided, “alright, it’s now or never”. I said a prayer to myself and began the ascent. Half way up, I accidentally looked down, and had a small internal panic attack. My breathing began to get rapid, as fear shot through every vein in my body. I took a deep breath, and then I continued the climb. Reaching the top was the most exhilarating feeling. I was full of adrenalin and had an incredible sense of accomplishment. I thought that I had conquered the most challenging feat of my life, but then I remembered, “Uh-oh, I have to climb down”.  Luckily my adrenalin rush had not subsided, so I was able to use this newfound energy to conquer the rest of the hike.

After the epic rock climb, the hike continued to be a challenge, but the beauty that surrounded me distracted any negative thinking.  After coming home from this hike I was filled with a new energy, that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.

Emergency Room Experience

So I had a little accident recently. Let’s just say the sidewalks in South Korea are vicious! You would think with all the hiking and adventures I have been on, I would have earned this battle wound with some dignity.

It was just a normal day. I threw on some cute black boots and took off for work. The walk to work only takes about 5-10 minutes, but of course I always choose to leave at the last minute possible. I was rushing to work when all of the sudden, BAM, I wiped out on the sidewalk. I did not trip on anything, and I was wearing flat shoes. I guess the sidewalk must have pulled a sneak attack or something! I gathered myself as quickly as possible and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. I could tell the Korean people  did not know how to react. They shyly gave me a nod, and I gave them a thumbs up to let them know I was all good. I started walking again, and I realized I had twisted my ankle pretty bad during the fall, then the stinging in my knee started to kick in. I took a deep breath and knew I did not have time to process what had just happened.

When I got to work, I took off my boot, and my ankle was already starting to swell up pretty bad. It did not matter, this is Korea, there is NO getting out of work! I put on my tough face and convinced myself it would be fine. As the day progressed, the pain intensified. Once I got home, I could barely take off my boots, because my ankle was so swollen.

I decided to call my Korean friend for advice on what to do. She advised I go to the emergency room right away. If you know me, then you know that I avoid doctors like the plague. Add a language barrier into the mix, and lets just say I was loaded with anxiety. I tried to debate the issue, but my friend would not let me put this off. I texted my friend Eric, who is a Korean-American, to help me on this journey.

When we got to the hospital, there were a ton of police officers at the entrance. I found out later there was a protest/riot at the hospital (Sketch! ). Most of the time I feel Seoul is very safe, especially when comparing it to Atlanta, but my area is not the nicest part of the city. I am not sure what the protest was about, but whatever it was required about 10-20 police officers to stand guard.

The hospital was very old, and it was not very busy. We checked in, then I immediately saw the doctor. I am so thankful I had Eric with me. After Eric explained my situation, the doctor directed the nurse to go somewhere. All the sudden she came back with a needle in her hand. I joked to Eric saying, “What if that is for me,”, then unfortunately my joke became reality. She motioned me over, and took me behind the curtain. She gestured for me to lower my pants, and then she gave me a shot in my hip/upper butt area.

After the useless shot in the butt, we waited for the doctor to come back with further directions. Suddenly, I noticed a repulsive smell. Then a stretcher came through with what I am guessing was a homeless man. I am not sure what happened to him, but seeing him on the stretcher really freaked me out. He smelt of Urine and filth. It was disgusting.  I could tell I was not the only person bothered by the smell. Everyone there, was turning their heads with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. There was not much privacy in the ER.  This particular hospital seemed very old. Also, I do not live in a very nice area, but apparently hospitals in the southern and newer parts of Seoul are super high-tech and fancy. The room was lined with beds and stations from end to end, and some of the beds were separated by curtains.

I began to get nauseous from the smell of the man, so I was very relieved when it was time to get my X-ray. As we waited for the results, the doctor called for my foot to be splinted. I assumed they would give me a small brace or ankle splint, but instead they wrapped up my entire leg! I was convinced my leg was broken. Eric talked to the doctor about my X-Ray results. Luckily the doctor did not think it was broken, but because of the amount of swelling, I was told to come back the following day.

My friend Heewon was there to take me the following day. The routine was the same. Check in, get a shot in the but, x-ray , then receive a ridiculously huge splinted cast. At least the second time there were no stinky homeless people!

Currently I am still recovering. I am slightly limited in what I can do. Looks like no hiking for a about a month, and I need to take it easy going dancing until the wee hours of the night. Luckily the weather is absolutely beautiful, so I am going to check out a beach close to Inchon this weekend. More blogs will be coming soon!