As the year drew to an end (finally), I found myself in the land of festivals (Korea) for some super holiday times. While nothing on Earth is likely to oust the Dubai December for birthday/Christmas spectaculars, I have to say that I had a pretty good December here in Busan. Commence countdown to 2017: T minus 2 weeks.
Two Weeks Till 2017: Boseong Tea Fields
Starting with my birthday (also known as Saturnalia), we decided to take a day trip down to the Boseong Tea Feilds. I personally didn’t put tea fields high on my to do list but there was a big ol’ light festival going on and that sounded like fun. So we piled onto the bus around noon for a three hour drive. It’s not as agonizing as it sounds. I had good company and the seats are comfy. When we arrived, it was still light and although we could see the framework of part of the light show, it wasn’t quite time yet, so we headed into the tea field area first. This area is a small farm that was about half shut down for the winter (the fountains were drained and many of the shops were closed), but once we got past the tourist buildings and onto the path, it was far more beautiful than I ever could have expected.
Green tea looks like very well kept English hedge,.
and because Korea is 70% mountains, the tea bushes are grown up the side of steep hills, creating a beautiful terraced landscape. As we wandered up one side of the hill, I had the chance to munch a tea leaf right off the branch. It was a robust flavor and while different from the drink that it makes, still pleasant. I even found one lone tea flower to admire in the winter greenery.
We found a small waterfall on the way up, but the winter dry season meant it was barely a trickle. The best part turned out to be that since we’d gone up the opposite side from nearly everyone else we had the shaded little path to ourselves. A rare treat in Korea!
When we emerged onto the main path across the hill, I was totally swept away by the view of the tea around us. I admit that from the bottom looking up, it had been.. well ok, but not spectacular, and even from the high points looking down it was only so-so, but right there in the middle of the hill, with the winding, whirling rows of green tea hedges making patterns all around us, the sun barely above the line of trees and mountains to the west casting long golden rays into the valley, it was breathtaking.
Of course we took our turn to stand on the picture spot (which did have an amazing view), but it wasn’t too crowded. We had plenty of time to admire the scenery and take lots of silly selfies. We passed a wide variety of blossoming fruit trees (that is to say, fruit trees with beautiful blossoms in the spring), so I can only imagine how beautiful the scene is when both the trees and the tea are in bloom. In addition, we were surrounded by tall evergreens similar to the cedars of the PNW makingj us feel a little more like we were in the Cascades and a little more Christmassy, since pines and firs are scarce in Busan.
We stopped in at the local Green Tea restaurant, where every dish is made with green tea in some way. I had a bowl of jajangmyeon with green tea noodles, and a friend got some bibimbap with green tea rice, but my other poor companion is allergic to caffeine and couldn’t eat anything there! (don’t worry, she didn’t starve).Even though it was cold, and even though I’ve had it more times than I could count, I still got myself some green tea ice cream, cause why not?
On our way back to the main entrance we took a quick side detour to the bamboo forest. After a short walk through some more evergreens, we emerged into an open space facing a dark and mysterious bamboo forest. The sun was low and the shadows were long so we couldn’t see far into the mass of stalks. Once we entered, it was as though a twilight had encompassed us, the lush leaves cutting out nearly all the late afternoon sunlight. The birds went bananas, screaming like jabber jays, making us feel as though we were in an arena from the Hunger Games or at very least in an ominous Korean horror movie. I wasn’t sure if we should expect kung fu masters or monsters. (click for more pictures of Boseong tea fields and lights)
A Beam of Hope
We left the tea fields behind and headed back down to the main parking lot that would lead to the lights. There were plenty of stalls with a wide variety of food (green tea added and regular) so my allergic friend was able to find something tasty, too. The light show wasn’t quite as spectacular as Taean (seriously that light show), but it was loads of fun. There were animal shapes, dragons and dinosaurs. There were scenes depicted on the hillside. There was a cupid’s arrow that when “fired” by guests shot a beam of light up the wires to the distant target. There was a beautiful rainbow display of that year’s theme, “A Beam of Hope”, and my favorite was the tunnel of lights that went from the bottom to the top of the whole shebang.
We wandered up through the smaller displays, posing with dragons and hatching out of giant glowing eggs along the way. Like most lantern displays here, everything was meant to be posed with and interacted with, so it was easy to walk up to any set and play around. It’s a small and childlike pleasure, but after so long in the US being forced to stay behind the railing, it is fun to get a little more hands on. On the way back down, we took the tunnel of lights, pausing every time the colors shifted to take more pictures and pose in the rainbow glows. We didn’t feel rushed at all, and got back to the bottom in time to grab a hot drink and warm up by the fire before hopping on the bus to our third location.
A word on keeping warm in Korea in the winter. It gets cold, not Canada cold, but often around freezing temperatures. The buses and subways are super warm, but office buildings and of course outdoor festivals don’t get so much heat. Koreans rely on the “hot-pak” to solve this problem. This is a chemical warmer that last for about 15 hours once activated. There are small ones you can tuck in a pocket (I like to slip one in a glove or under a sleeve just over my wrist where all the blood flowing to my fingers gets warm), and there are ones you can put in your shoes, or stick to your inner layer of clothing. I bought a 6 pack for about 5$, it was an absolute life saver for enjoying the wintry outdoors after dark.
Our third and final location was near the beach where another tunnel of lights and light decorations had been put up. One large tree had been colored in white and green to make it look like it still had leaves. There were reindeer and Christmas trees, but also a giant chicken floating just off shore. I’m not sure why a chicken, but I saw another similar giant chicken in the sea back in Busan the next day.
(Eventually I realized that the next animal on the zodiac is Rooster, so it’s less a Christmas Chicken and more a New Year’s Cock.)
We oohed and aaaahed some more, posing with giant glowing horses, and peeking out from between light wrapped branches. There was a light maze, but it was only about a foot off the ground, so we didn’t get lost. Finally we popped back into the food tents one last time before calling it a night and heading back.
One Week Till 2017: Christmas Eve
The next Saturday was Christmas Eve, and we decided we needed to do a blending of American and Korean activities. We spent the afternoon inside making eggnog and gingerbread houses. I have never made eggnog before. I thought about it a lot, especially when I wasn’t doing dairy. I thought there had to be a better tasting nog than Silknog. But somehow, I never got around to it. This year, although I seem to have no health issues with milk here, there was a complete absence of nog… everywhere… Koreans either have never heard of it, or they are all in the hate eggnog camp.
I turned to Alton Brown, my culinary hero, who provided me with a super simple recipe. It took me about 15 minutes to make, and I added a leeetle bit more brandy, but it was quite possibly the best nog I have ever put in my face. The secret is separating the eggs and beating the yolks and whites separately, then adding the whites at the very end to a cold mixture.
Btw, based on past non-dairy culinary experiments, I’d say if you’re a dairy free nog fan go with unsweetened almond milk and coconut milk– the stuff in the can that is dense and creamy, not the stuff that is a regular milk sub.– Use 2c almond milk to 1 c coconut milk, otherwise just follow Alton’s instructions. If you’re a vegan who wants eggnog… well, one of us is confused about what those words mean. May I suggest a Brandy Alexander made with non-dairy milk or some vegan Irish Cream? (I have some recipes for those if you ask).
Anyway, eggnog which is fresh, creamy, rich and frothy is my new best thing about Christmas Eve.
While we imbibed our culinary delight, we worked on assembling a gingerbread house. Every month here in Busan there is a foreigner’s market where expats sell things they make (or sometimes import) to give us all a taste of “home”. During November and December, one lovely lass was selling her homemade gingerbread cookies and gingerbread house kits. That’s right, no factory made house kit for us, but a local small business! #supportlocal #smallbusinesssaturdays The kit was originally meant to be just a house, but my friend decided to turn the foil wrapped base into a frozen lake and make some green corn-flake treat trees to decorate the grounds, so our house turned into a cabin by the lake before we knew it. Who says you need kids to do fun Christmas crafts?
After our crafting, we headed out to find the French restaurant we’d made dinner plans for. Both of us looooove French food (still trying to figure out how to live there!), and decided that we were ok bypassing “traditional” Christmas dinner (which was exactly the same as Thanksgiving dinner) in favor of a nice restaurant. We opted for Le Jardin which is a small French place near KSU. They had some extra set menus for the holiday and were very accommodating about my friend’s allergies. They were quick to respond to emails and both the service and the food were excellent. We also splurged on a bottle of Viognier since there were 3 of us. I got to try this nice little white for the first time in a French restaurant in NZ this summer and fell in love. I’m not a sommelier or anything. I’m not going to try to describe it, but it’s distinctive and delicious. I recommend if you have a chance to try it.
In addition to our delightful wine, I enjoyed pumpkin soup, a goat cheese/bacon/honey pastry for entree, a superbly well cooked slice of salmon with a light lemon flavor and a unique mushroom risotto which had been made into a breaded patty and lightly fried, and finally a chocolate pear cake that tasted more like it was a ganache or very dense ice cream rather than a cake, too decadent! Nothing will compare to the food in France, but Le Jardin made an admirable effort and gave us all a taste of Western flavors with just a hint of haute cuisine that was perfect for a holiday feast.
Although we lingered perhaps too long over the meal, we made it out in time to get to our final Holiday outing: the Busan Christmas Tree Festival. This year’s theme was the Three Wise Men, and many in Korea felt it turned the holiday tradition “too religious”, which is a marked contrast from the US’s annual war on the Starbuck’s holiday cup not being religious enough. The highlight of the tree festival is a tiered wedding cake looking tree made of thousands of LED lights changing to different colors and patterns as we watched. The main streets were overhung with a veritable river of lights and fun Christmas themed decorations adorned the street waiting for passersby to pose for photos or tie paper wishes for the coming year on them.
Toward one end of the festival, I found an old man with a traditional candy game called ppopgi. It’s a simple candy made from sugar and baking soda, but a shape is pressed into the candy. Kids (and a few adults) can use a little pin to try to break the candy around the shape without shattering the brittle sugar. If they succeed, they win a prize (often more candy). The vendor was using a tiny copper pot to melt sugar over an open flame, adeptly pouring out the steaming satiny brown concoction, pressing it flat onto a popsicle stick and letting his fares choose their shape before pressing a cookie cutter down on the hot surface. I noticed that while adults had to be perfect to win, the little kids were often awarded a prize for a good effort.
After a few hours of glowing fun, we made our way home and fell asleep to the less spectacular but still very holidayesque glow of my own modest 2d Christmas tree. (click here for more pictures of the Busan Christmas Tree Festival)
Christmas day abroad is always an interesting challenge. Traditions that hinge around friends and family must be abandoned or at least altered, but this year I was fortunate to have one friend from home here with me and our Christmas adventures enabled us to both enjoy some of the traditions our host country had to offer while still enjoying our own cultural holiday.
One Day to 2017: New Year’s Eve
A mere week later, the New Year celebrations were upon us. I had done some research and found that here in Busan there is a bell ringing ceremony in Yongdusan Park at the large bell at the foot of the Busan Tower. It’s a big event with musical performers and guest speakers that is televised much the way that the New York Time’s Square ball drop is. Yongdusan park is nowhere near as big as Time’s Square, and the majority of people don’t ascend the multiple flights of stairs until 11pm. Knowing we had plenty of time, we spent the day reveling in some seasonal sulbing, a screening of Rogue One, and a totally accidental Japanese dinner.
Nonetheless, it was a wonderful day and at 5 minutes before 11, we found ourselves in a long line of people patiently trudging up the stairs to the peak of Yongdu Mountain. Normally, this pathway has a series of escalators going up so that anyone can access the park, but tonight the escalator had been closed down and reserved as a dedicated emergency access stairwell. When we arrived at the top, we saw many TV vans and we shuffled with the crowd into the standing space behind the VIP seating. To my surprise, through crowd motion, we soon found ourselves close enough to the bell to get a decent view of the proceedings, and there was a jumbo-tron screen off to one side that allowed us to view the performances.
Despite the bitter cold of the night air, the press of bodies meant that I was soon warm enough to take off my jacket, and we joined in the crowd enjoyment of the music. Koreans are a very reserved people and it was strange to be in such a large crowd that greeted each song with polite applause rather than raucus cheering, but as the musical numbers progressed from Annie’s “Tomorrow” through some Korean favorites and the ever popular “Uptown Funk”, more of the people around us began dancing in place and singing along while holding up phones to snap pictures of the bell and of course lots of selfies.
As the minutes drew to a close, the announcer came back to guide the crowd in the traditional countdown (which I almost managed in Korean, it’s hard to count backwards in a foreign language). At the stroke of midnight, the crowd erupted in cheers and hundreds of golden balloons with wishes written on them were released into the night sky. The bell began it’s 33 tolls, 11 strikes for each of the 3 blessings. As we quite literally rang in the new year, confetti cannons blasted the crowd with fluttering white squares, reminiscent at once of snow and cherry blossoms. My compatriots popped a bottle of bubbly (the benefits of an open container country) and we toasted the New Year with pink ‘champagne’, the cheers of the crowd ringing in our ears even louder than the blessing bell. When the tolling finally fell silent, the MC directed our attention behind us where we were treated to a stunning fireworks display.
Welcome to 2017
The final Korean tradition we decided to indulge in was to head down to the beach to watch the first sunrise of the new year over the eastern sea. After a few hours of sleep, we woke in the pre-dawn dark and walked down to the shore where tents and stages had been set up for the sunrise celebrations. Although the beach was crowded, we managed to get down to the water line where we could sit in the chilly sand and watch the sky redden behind the beautiful Gwangan Bridge. Many in the crowd were holding colorful balloons in anticipation of the first sign of the sun, and several floating lanterns already drifted through the blue and pink sky out over the ocean.
( I know that releasing balloons results in an unfortunate amount of damage to animals and birds as well as litter in the environment. I myself did not partake in the release and I hope that one day soon Korea will find a way to celebrate these events with less environmental impact)
All eyes were on the horizon when I heard a series of ooohs and gasps ripple through the crowd. The first deep red sliver of light had crested the sea and as we watched the rising orb, the sky was flooded with the colorful array of wishes for the new year floating on hundreds of multi-colored orbs. We scampered along the shoreline following the arcing rise of the sun as it bloomed into a full sphere and soon laced through the steel cables of the gracefully arching bridge. A drum performance welcomed the new day and the crowd surged from the sea to long and twisting lines to partake of the traditional Korean new year soup. (click here for more pictures of the first sunrise)
My first year in Korea has been full of adventure, lights, festivals and new experiences. Although I didn’t expect it, and despite the country’s recent political upheaval, I am not ready leave. With the signing of my new contract, I look forward to another year of adventure in “Creative Korea”. Happy New Year, and may your 2017 be full of hope, peace and joy.