Busan is a vibrant city with so much to do. Even on regular weekends it’s easy to go out and find adventure. In the last weekend of April, I set off on a Saturday exploration in a quest for the best chocolate dessert cafe and the local Buddhist temple’s Lantern Festival. I was fortunate to have an adventure buddy for the day to share the experience with, because while I’m happy to travel alone, it’s always better to share with a friend.
Dala 100% Chocolate
Back in the getting to know you stage of my relationship with my co-teacher, we discovered our mutual love of chocolate and she told me the tale of this place. Korea is fraught with dessert cafes. Honestly, there’s at least one on every city block and they serve decadent huge desserts that are definitely meant to be shared, but are still on the XXL size. Despite this, the Korean people are mostly healthy weight to slender as a people. I have no idea what the secret is. Anyway, we’d already done the beautiful strawberry cheesecake sulbing, and then she told me about this chocolate place near my apartment that she had been to with her mother. Unfortunately she couldn’t remember the name! So when I saw a post on FB that showed a giant chocolate dinosaur egg and also linked to the cafe that served it, I quickly realized that was the place.
My next dilemma was to find someone to go with, because I knew there was no way I could possibly go there alone without either feeling like a total pig or wasting half a dessert. I finally convinced my new Busan Bestie and Korea travel companion to accompany me. Truth be told, it didn’t take much convincing as it turns out he likes chocolate just as much as me.
We walked around the neighborhood and managed to wander through a street vendor fair on the way as well where lots of local vendors were selling handmade jewelry and art. Just one more reason to love Busan! One of my favorite things about shopping is supporting local businesses and it’s really great to live in a community that fosters events for them. I’d been to the foreigner’s market, but this one was all Koreans.
When we found the shop, it was a small space tucked in between yet more small boutique style eateries, but we were saving our appetite for chocolate! We stood outside for a moment admiring the menu and realizing that we would have to come back several times to sample all the amazing goodies on offer. Our timing was also great as we didn’t have to wait at all for a table.
We decided to order some iced chocolate drinks, which turned out to be more like milkshakes. My companion got a choco waffle ball and I got a mocha. We had a choice of white, milk or dark chocolate and happily paid the extra 1$ for dark. Then we ordered the infamous dinosaur egg! We were handed a pager and headed for a table to await our order.
The drinks arrived first, giant frosty metal cups with straws and chocolate spoons! My mocha was a perfect blend of coffee and chocolate, and not at all too sweet like mochas can often be. The choco waffle ball came with tiny little chocolate dipped balls of waffle batter sprinkled on top and was likewise a luscious bitter-sweet. Plus, the napkins were printed with the Korean Sign Language alphabet! Too cute! We gushed over the deliciousness for a while, taking some obligatory food photos and then the main event arrived.
The dino egg was nestled in a metal bucket (there is no other word for something that big). The bucket itself was filled with the delicious shaved milk ice then topped with chocolate cookie crumbs and chocolate shavings to create the “dirt” of the dino nest. The kit came with a metal hammer and a small pitcher of chocolate sauce. When I went to crack the egg with the hammer, I misjudged the strength of my blow and accidentally flung a shard of shell to the floor. The shell was made of white chocolate mixed with chocolate cookie crumbs and inside was a scoop of the most rich and decadent chocolate ice cream topped with a tiny chocolate dinosaur!
We drizzled the chocolate sauce into the mix and dug in. I’m not going to say it was the absolute best dessert ever, because in my life I’ve been lucky to experience some very top notch desserts, but this one definitely makes the awesome list. Not only was the presentation super cute, but the flavor was outstanding. Mixing and matching the milk ice, the cookies and chocolate, the chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce provided a different palette in nearly every bite, so I never got used to the flavor. One of the things about flavor is that only the first few bites of a new flavor can trigger the best happiness reaction from your taste buds and limbic system, so a huge piece of chocolate cake (for example) is not actually as good at the end as it is at the beginning. But this dish changed flavor so often we couldn’t get used to it and every bite was as joyful as the first! Plus, we could mix and match with sips of our bittersweet milkshakes.
In retrospect, we probably could have split a single milkshake. It took us about 90 minutes to get to the bottom of the bowl, by which time we were left with a creamy cold soup that we decided to divvy up into the remainder of our shakes to drink. Heaven! It made our already delicious chocolate drinks even creamier. There was a Korean couple who came in slightly after us and managed to devour their egg in far less time. I have no idea where they put it.
With our tummies full and our mouths happy, we headed back into the street to find our way to the afternoon adventure that would hopefully help us walk off some of the decadence we’d just spent the last 2 hours stuffing our faces with. After a longer linger at the street festival, we made our way to the bus stop that would lead us to the Samgwangsa Temple for the Buddha’s Birthday party.
Samgwangsa Temple Lantern Festival
I’m becoming convinced that FB groups may be the best way to learn about stuff to do in a city. I’ve now made a habit of joining them where I live, but I’m starting to think it could be a good idea for a month or two preceding an international vacation so you can hear from the expats who live there what’s going on. While randomly scrolling through my feed, I see someone has asked if the lanterns are up at Samgwangsa, and someone else replied that they were. This wasn’t even an ad, these people obviously knew something I didn’t. I promptly headed over to my other favorite internet resource, Google. Here I learned that the Samgwangsa Temple in Busan is one that is dedicated in the main to the Bodhisattva Guan Yin, known as 관음 or 관세음 in Korean, she is the Bodhisattva of Compassion or Mercy and is very popular in Mahayana Buddhism. The temple itself was only constructed in 1983. There aren’t too many ancient buildings in Korea because so much of the country was destroyed during the war. However, the architecture mimics the classical Chinese style and it’s quite pretty as well as being an active place of worship.
* Despite the fact that I studied Buddhism at grad school (and personally find a lot to identify with in Theravadan Buddhism), I was rather aghast to discover that my education was sadly lacking in Korean schools of Buddhism. I’d read plenty about India, China and Japan, but I couldn’t remember anything about Korea. I went on a short online quest and found that there isn’t that much consumer ready info out there, so if anyone knows some good research material on Buddhism in Korea, please let me know.
The Buddhist calendar is lunar, so the holidays move around in comparison with our solar calendar, and the Buddha’s birthday falls on May 14th this year. Rather the same way that Christmas is celebrated for some weeks before December 25th in many places, Buddha’s birthday is marked with several weeks of lantern festivals in Korea. Samgwangsa is far from the only one, not even the only one in Busan, but online pictures promised a level of lantern frivolity that I simply could not pass up. We knew we wanted to be out of town the first weekend in May because of the long weekend, and that the weekend of the 14th was likely to be over-crowded, so we decided to go right away to make sure we got to see the lanterns in peace.
After our chocolate overdose, we took the bus out to Mt. Baekyangsan. This sounds like it should be a long way away, but Busan is not just surrounded by mountains, it’s closely set about with them and even occasionally interrupted by them, so in reality it was only about 15-20 minutes from our chocolate place in downtown Seomyeon. That’s less than half the time it takes me to get to the beach. We had to walk a bit on some winding roads, and it was stunning to see how much the culture changed in such a short bus ride from the city center to it’s edge. Things went from being tall, modern skyscrapers with brand name shops and English ads to being small tile roofed buildings and local shopkeepers selling traditional clothes and foods. The path to the temple was clearly marked, and soon we began to see lanterns leading the way as well.
Much like the temples in China, there was a large, odd shaped rock set out front with the name of the temple in Chinese characters (白楊山三光寺 – bai yang shan san guang si, which roughly translated as “poplar mountain heavenly Temple” and you can clearly see the “san guang si” became the Korean “sam gwang sa”). There was also a long stairwell with a numerically significant 108 steps. The stairs were lined with lanterns, flowers and statues of various sages famous in the history of the sect, although please don’t ask me to identify them because it can be more complicated than spot the Catholic Saint. We got our first glimpses of the lantern coated buildings from the stairs and began to get giddy at the thought of being surrounded by so many beautiful colored lights!
The Samgwangsa Temple did not stint in it’s celebrations. Everywhere a lantern could be hung it was. We walked into open air halls that dripped lanterns from the ceiling. The sides of buildings were lined with lanterns. The air between buildings had strings of lanterns. The pathway from the top of the mountain back down to the main temple was covered in lanterns to resemble the scales of some mighty serpent switch-backing down the hillside. Every lantern was numbered and many already had prayer papers attached to them in little weatherproof plastic baggies. In the plaza underneath the largest contiguous spread of lanterns, there were tables set up all around to let visitors donate in order to add their prayer papers to a lantern somewhere in the Temple.
We traipsed around the temple grounds in awe, randomly bursting into the final song from “Tangled”. At one point we accidentally wandered into the nun’s living quarters, although it wasn’t closed off it was still a bit embarrassing to find them just cooking dinner. There was a sign for the bathroom, which I’d seen before I realized where we were, and they were kind enough to show us to the facilities.
We circled around the standing pagoda and then found the entrance to the main hall of worship. I’ve had the good fortune to be inside some truly stunning temples, and this one was doing it’s best to compete, despite it’s youth. I don’t have any pictures from the inside out of respect, but the walls and ceiling were covered in carved and painted figures, dragons, birds, Bodhisattva’s and sages. The detail was incredible and we sat for a while on the provided cushions in appreciation and meditation. The altars beneath the figures were laden with fruit, flowers and rice, and the back wall was stacked with sacks and sacks of donated rice for the residents. On our way back outside, I finally realized what seemed to be missing from the temple – incense! Every other Buddhist temple I can think of was constantly burning fragrant offerings in giant censors set out for the pilgrims to use, filling the air with sandalwood and other earthy spices. This temple had none. I’d seen one of the giant burners, but there was no incense in it and no fragrance in the air.
We walked around the terraces and balconies taking pictures of the opposing hillside where more strings and patterns of lanterns had been set up in a star shape and the “Buddhist Cross” (no its not a swastika, I promise). We bought some souvenirs at the temple gift shop and gawped at the giant lanterns of dragons and zodiac animals. In need of a snack, we headed off to one side where some vendors had set up near some picnic tables and bought something random on a stick after being reassured that it was “mashisoyo” (delicious). It was. It was some kind of seafood concoction with mustard and ketchup which should have ruined it, but somehow did not. My companion also bought a souvenir lotus lantern to carry around once the sun set.
It didn’t take much to fill our bellies, and we headed up the last peak to see the white lanterns and the top of the winding pathway. From this vantage point we watched the sun set over the temple and the city spreading out below us. It was such a magical blending of the natural and the urban, the sacred and the secular. Busan is an amazing place.
Once the sun was down, we began the second half of our exploration, the lanterns by night. We walked down the belly of the dragon as we descended the mountain back into the main temple complex. Our walk was accompanied by some traditional music that the monks and nuns were performing in front of the main temple room and we were serenaded with chanting and drumming that echoed through the mountains around us.
Once we descended into the main complex again, we found everything we’d seen before renewed by lantern and LED lights. Giant holy symbols lit up the plaza, prayer candles adorned the pagoda base, a wall of lanterns surrounded the pagoda along the mountainside and every single one of the lanterns we’d passed before now glowed. The pure white lanterns created the brightness of daylight for anyone underneath them, and the other colors just made us feel like we were floating inside a rainbow. We retraced our steps, dancing and singing and taking more selfies than is really healthy for anyone. We made it back down to the zodiac and dragon lanterns which I have only ever seen the like of at the Dubai Global Village Lantern display, and that’s *Dubai* where everything is huge and over the top.
Finally, we headed back to the area where we’d gotten our snacks so we could see the beautifully lighted mountain path. We were too tired to walk all the way up, but the view of the temple complex from the other side was amazing. I’ve never been able to visit a temple during a festival like this before and here was one practically in my own backyard! I talked to some of the expats who’ve been here longer and they seemed rather blasé about going again since they’d been last year. I can only say I hope that I never get tired of seeing such colorful splendor. I don’t have the best night camera capability, but please check out the full album on my Facebook page to see the glorificence.
Stay tuned for the Long Weekend adventures to Namhae Island and Taean Tulip Festival! Korea is so full of amazing stuff and yet I feel like it gets very little press or tourism from the West in comparison with Japan. I hope my stories shine some light on the goodies this country has to offer and maybe encourage some of you to get out and see some of them. As always, thanks for reading and enjoy the pictures! 🙂