Malay Peninsula 7: Ipoh- Temple Caves

Spring marches on, and Korea is filling up with colorful lanterns to celebrate the Buddah’s birthday. While I work on assembling my lantern festival stories, what better time to take a look at the temples of Ipoh? Despite the fact that Ipoh is not a tourist hotspot, there are certainly some stunning things to see. Just remember to take plenty of water!


Ipoh Caves

The Reggae House was a typical late night backpacker’s party hostel and so everyone was still asleep when I got up in the early morning to start exploring. After figuring out the padlock and iron door trick to lock up behind me, I set off in search of breakfast to discover that Ipoh is a very sleepy town. Only a couple places were open at 9am on a Saturday and these were offering a traditional Malay dish called “mee” (which just means “noodles”).20170121_091629 I managed to order something by playing a sort of 20 questions with the waitstaff, and enjoyed my noodles and mystery meat in a not yet too hot outdoor dining area with views of the neighborhood. There were a startling number of funeral homes nearby and plenty of evidence of the British colonial architecture, although much of it was in disrepair.

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Kek Lok Tong
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After breakfast, I caught another Uber to the Kek Lok Tong Cave Temple. Ipoh is probably most famous for it’s caves, and there are many of them around the city, and by around I don’t mean inside, I mean in a ring out and around. Unfortunately, the public transportation in Ipoh is somewhat lacking and it would have taken over 2 hours to get to my target by bus, but less than 20 minutes by car. Online advice suggested that I should negotiate with a taxi driver for a day rate, and I’ve done this before when I wanted to travel to remote places and be assured of a ride back, but I looked at the costs other travelers were paying for half and full day taxi hires and decided that I’d take my chances with ride-sharing.

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The temple is the star of Ipoh tourism and it’s not hard to see why it’s on the top of everyone’s list. Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur is a Hindu temple, but this is Buddhist. There were extra decorations in preparation for the Lunar New Year and a very short stairwell up to the main entrance. There is no admission fee for the temple. The limestone cave is open at either end, making it a lovely wind tunnel and a cool place to get away from the heat. It was still early enough in the day that I wasn’t uncomfortable yet. The wide cavern is completely day-lit, but does have a few artificial lights to show off exceptional formations. There are stairs to help access different levels, and the main areas of worship house large golden statues on plinths with the natural art of the cave as a backdrop. It was breathtaking.

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The back opening leads down to a lake and garden that is nearly completely enclosed by sheer towering limestone cliffs dripping with lush greenery. Although there was a quarry in the distance, it was far enough away not to disturb the tranquility of the garden. I was surprised to see it so empty on a Saturday morning, but I have no doubt that on the weekend of the New Year it was packed to the gills. I took my time walking around the garden in the relatively cool morning air. I enjoyed the sweeping grandeur of the cliffs, the bright tropical flowers, the miniature landscape art, and even the company of a few geese. In those hours I spent between the cave and the gardens it seemed like all the dirt and grime and inconvenience of Malaysia faded away, focusing my attention on only the calm beauty around me. 20170121_111231

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On my way out, I climbed up a few more staircases to get a closer look at the cave formations. Much like Batu caves, the limestone was in familiar shapes, but so much larger in scale than I was used to. I had no trouble getting another Uber to come out for me, and while I was waiting, I took a tour around a little turtle pond on one side of the parking lot. Most of the turtles were quite shy, plopping into the water to escape as soon as I got within a couple meters, but one large guy was holding his ground and I managed to get a few cute pictures.

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Sam Poh Tong20170121_122213

The next cave temple I wanted to visit wasn’t very far away and turned out to actually have 3 temples all along a single short road, so while the other two weren’t on my list it seemed a waste not to at least peak at them while I was there.

20170121_122942Sam Poh Tong is also a Buddhist temple and is said to be one of the busiest and most popular in Ipoh. I could tell it was an active temple from the freshly lit incense, but little else gave evidence that it was maintained or cared for. Even so close to such a large holiday, the grounds looked unkempt and abandoned. The huge numbers of underfed and skittish stray dogs was off-putting, but they were not aggressive. The garden in the front was a small lake with tiny “islands” that became miniature mountains holding tiny temples. As I walked around one side of the temple compound, I came upon a building that seemed long empty, covered in dust and bereft of occupation, yet there was incense burning at the dusty altars, observed it seemed only by me and some monkeys on the fence nearby.

I went back to the main gate and into the cave itself. The differences were striking. Where Kek Lok Tong had been left mostly natural and had only a few additions of statues and stairs, Sam Poh Tong looked almost like a building inside the cave.

20170121_124426The walls were painted and florescent lights were on the ceiling, while piles of furniture and other stored items crowded the rooms. The floors were finished and there were windows and doors installed into the stone. It felt less like a cave and more like a basement.

O20170121_125808n the other side of the cave was a small enclosed garden. The walls of the garden were more towering limestone formations and the greenery within was Jurassic in scale and seemed to be overgrown with no concern for trimming or arranging, dead leaves carpeting the ground. There was a small turtle pond behind a fence filled with turtles of all sizes that could be fed fresh greens and veggies bought from a 20170121_125305stand inside the cave. The stand and it’s sales person were some of the only signs of tending I saw. At the back of the garden behind a locked a fence and a forest of unkempt branches was a bright red pagoda that seemed more like something in an abandoned jungle than in a living temple.

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20170121_132845I crept around the cave rooms from one altar to another, plastic cups and cleaning materials lay scattered around, the tile floor was cracked and uneven. I followed a treacherous staircase up a flight, but it ended only in a tiny window and more dust. It was so easy imagine that I was exploring a temple long forgotten, and then I would find a lit candle, or a smoldering joss stick or even a lone employee selling souvenirs. Outside once more, I continued on to the cemetery. In Buddhism, cremation is the norm, so there were small buildings in another alcove that housed the remains. Despite signs requesting that no incense be burned, there were sticks shoved around all the doors and soot marks as well. The buildings were grown over with moss and leaves, the paint peeling and the ground cracking under the pressure of new roots, yet the incense showed me that human presence was recent.

20170121_133150The farthest end of the compound was an area designated for ritual burning and another weedy and overgrown garden that seemed to be turning into a dumping ground. As I made my way past more dogs and tourists, I couldn’t help wondering at how this temple had been so highly rated by so many visitors when Kek Lok Tong was so clean and well cared for. I enjoyed visiting Sam Poh Tong, but it felt like an archaeological excavation rather than a place of worship.

On my way out, an elderly gentleman on a bicycle greeted me in excellent English and as we chatted he told me that this was his regular temple. He was not looking forward to the coming new year celebrations because he said the temple would be overrun by traffic. Scalpers would charge for street parking and people would come just to show off. I was torn between hoping the extra income would help the temple recover and being bewildered as to how it could still be so shabby when expecting the year’s biggest visiting weekend in less than two weeks.

Nam Thean Tong

20170121_142613Next door is Nam Thean Tong, which turns out to be a Taoist temple. It was sparkling clean and in excellent repair if somewhat empty. The floors were also finished tile, but the rooms felt more like natural cave than basement room and the altars were small but beautiful and well cared for. In front of the main altar was a place to do a fortune telling by a traditional method that involves a cup filled with sticks. The supplicant shakes the cup in a rhythmic way until one stick comes up and out and then the meaning is interpreted. I didn’t partake myself, but I watched another do so. There were carvings and paintings on the walls and lanterns hung around for the coming celebration. Another staircase led me to a viewing platform and a small bridge where wishes were tied to the chain railings. When I came across a steep stairwell leading into darkness, I paused for a moment to consult my own oracle: Google. It transpires that the top few floors of this temple are in total darkness and are rumored to have a haunted house combination of cobwebs, unsteady floors and ghosts. Yet even the most avid ghost hunters seemed to think the climb was a little unrewarding, so I decided to save my energy.

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Although the beautiful artwork and unique architecture was a treat, it’s hard not to think the best part of these cave temples were the wind tunnels created by the rock formations that allowed visitors to have a seat in a naturally cool and breezy spot, gaining some respite from the oppressive heat outside.

Rojak

I was finally drawn back outdoors by hunger. The afternoon was getting on and my noodle breakfast had long since worn off. There were some little shops along the outside, mostly selling souvenirs like a local tea and charms, a few selling drinks and ice cream, and one had a handwritten sign advertising a food called “rojak”. 20170121_145104I looked it up to make sure it wasn’t something too scary, then ordered myself a bowl for lunch. Rojak just means “mixture” but fruit rojak is a common dish made of crisp (less than fully ripe and therefore slightly tart) fruits and veggies. Jicama, cucumber, mango, and apple are standard ingredients. The sauce is the magical part. The recipe gurus of the internet assure me it’s made with shrimp paste, hot chilies, sugar, soy sauce, and lime juice (with some regional variance). To me it tasted for all the world like molasses with chili, ginger and lime. I don’t know if mine was made with molasses or if that’s just what it tastes like when you mix soy sauce, shrimp paste and sugar together, but it was yummy!

The outside area was under some reconstruction, but it was a spacious courtyard with plenty of trees and benches, a giant golden statue of what was probably Lao Tsu, and a brownish pond with a moon bridge.

Ling Sen Tong

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20170121_151734Just one gate over is the third and final temple on this street, Ling Sen Tong. This temple mixes Taoist and Buddhist imagery along with other folklore in a big colorful Chinese melting pot. It is an all singing all dancing color fiesta. There are beautiful facades of buildings and temples, giant statues in fresh bright colors, elaborate scenes of mythology played out, and everything was touchable/climbable so visitors were having a blast posing for photos. There was only one small, dark cave. The ceiling had turned black from years of candle and incense soot, and it was chaperoned by a figure whose offerings exclusively included alcohol (for some reason, especially Guiness…) I enjoyed exploring the many statues and hidden rooms. I even found this one guy who looks like he’s checking his phone in the bath! I’m sure there’s a better explanation for it, but along one wall was a series of statues in sunken pits that had all filled with water. I don’t know if it was meant to be a kind of wishing well or something else entirely, but this one in particular stood out to me.

Hostel Hangouts

Finally, I couldn’t take the late afternoon heat anymore and had to call a car to come and rescue me. It was my intention to have a meal and a rest in the hostel before heading out in the evening (and cooler air) to check out “old town Ipoh”. However, I ended up meeting a trio of backpackers from Europe who dealt me into their game of Uno and chatted for a few hours. Then when they went upstairs, I ended up talking to the wifely part of the duo who runs the hostel for quite a while more. She is a Japanese lady who had spent so much of her young adult years in Malaysia that it just seemed natural to her to find a husband and move there. So it was that I spent my whole evening happily in the hostel chatting with new and interesting people from around the world until I was too tired to stay awake any longer and headed up to try and sleep.

As kind and wonderful and gracious as the hosts were, the Reggae House was a little hard to sleep in. The lack of full walls meant that light and sound easily came in from the spaces around my room, and the visiting rat didn’t really set my mind at ease, but I was settling in to the “roughing it” mindset and managed to persevere.


Stay tuned for the next installment of adventures in the Malay Peninsula wherein I go hunting for Ipoh White Coffee and learn more about my favorite bean on the way. Don’t forget to check out all the photos of Kek Long Tong and the other three temples on Facebook and keep an eye out for more spring colors in Korea coming soon! Thanks for reading ❤

Malay Peninsula 3: Singapore Temples

Here in Korea, the insanity of the first month of school is winding to a close, the root canal adventure goes on with no end in sight, and the first cherry blossoms have burst forth, promising at least two weekends of magical pink snow beauty and wonder. In the mean time, here’s the story of my second day in Singapore exploring the famous temples in Chinatown.


20170118_104531After an incredibly full first day in Singapore, I had a much lighter day of temple viewing planned before I hopped on the bus to Kuala Lumpur in the afternoon. It’s never hard to wake up in a dorm hostel, since everyone else is waking up, too. After packing up and enjoying another cup of teh tarik, I headed out to catch the sights. The night before, I’d run across a giant rooster in the street (in anticipation of the impending lunar new year holiday), so I did a quick rerouting to pass back by in the light of day. Chinatown was already putting on a decorative show two weeks before the holiday; I can only imagine how crazy it was on the actual holiday weekend. 20170118_104832In addition to the stunning decorations, I passed by a street artist sitting in the shade of an overpass and working on the beginning of a painting of the festivities. He was kind enough to let me take a photo and we wished each other a happy new year in parting.

I found the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in the middle of a sprawling street market. One major advantage to backpacking is the space restrictions prevent you from picking up souvenirs. Otherwise, I might have been in danger (I love the red paper cut art!). After locating the temple, I ducked into a little food court and wrangled some dumplings and fresh lime juice for breakfast. I seriously dig the Singaporian food court concept, using a larger space to allow a multitude of different cultural food shops to share a common dining area. We have them in malls in the US, but they are usually terrible food and not a wide variety (plus embedded in a shopping mall, ew). In Korea there are dozens of tiny restaurants with very small seating areas, so you can get variety, but if one place is more popular, seating is limited. None of the food courts in Singapore were top notch restaurants, but they were all several steps above corporate fast food. Just in case anyone is looking for a new business model.

The Love of Money…

20170118_113909After breakfast, I headed into the temple. I generally don’t wear short shorts, and while I go wear sleeveless in heat sometimes, since my plan for the day was temples, I was dressed appropriately. However, for the tourists who weren’t, a staff of firm but polite people arranged for them to wear long skirts or shoulder wraps from a shared bin. Once past the main entrance, I walked into a smaller room where two monks were performing a blessing on a couple donating to the temple in a red envelope (traditional for money gifting at the new year). As I watched, I realized people around me were taking photos and video and I was surprised. I looked around for any signs about cameras, but there were none. It seemed that the temple allowed visitors to take pictures. It felt very strange taking pictures in a temple, and in the end I could only take a few before my sense of unease overcame me.

20170118_114516The main hall on the ground floor was an ode to opulence. I’m used to Buddhist temples being ornate. Wood and stone carvings with intricate detail are common (though never boring). Paintings or works in colorful semi-precious stones, and even the occasional gold paint or gilt covering to add some shine. The point is, that I’m used to temples being about effort and time and skill, rather than about blatant displays of wealth. In fact, a common art form is the sand mandala, which is made over weeks or months of painstaking hand work, then wiped out to represent the impermanence of reality. I don’t have an issue with beauty in a temple, I go to temples in part because they are beautiful, but something about this temple and it’s over the top gold, it’s donation jars every few feet, and it’s designated VIP seating for supplicants just did not sit well with me.

20170118_115923I found the elevator and went all the way to the roof to see the orchid garden. That at least was in keeping with temple life as I think of it. Although orchids are rare in the world, they are common in Singapore and the difficulty of their cultivation reflects the work that monks and nuns put in as part of their practice. Below the gardens, the top floor contained the relic for which the temple is named, a fragment of the Buddha’s tooth. It was also the only room in the building where shoes and cameras were prohibited. There were dedicated meditation mats along the windows where a few people were sitting in silent contemplation, and there was another large gold display.

I don’t actually believe in holy relics. I did not come to the temple to be close to a piece of the body of the Buddha. Aside from the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that this bone was really from the human being known as Siddhartha Gautama, if one embraces the ideals of Buddhism, one would know that the body is not the person, and even beyond that, the idea of separate person-hood or individual ego identity is an illusion. I almost understand Christians who seek holy relics because they are thought to be touched by the divine, but I scratch my head at Buddhists who think that enlightenment may somehow be transmitted through dead tissue.

A sign next to the relic boasted that the shrine housing it was made of solid gold (not merely gold plated) and went on to say that offering gold to the Buddha (meaning of course the temple) was a high honor and was greatly encouraged. I nearly gagged.

20170118_114221I’ve seen American “mega-churches” that have gold plated elevators and preachers with 5 cars and 3 houses and a minimum annual income requirement for membership. These also disgust me and I often wondered how any Christian could justify that kind of obvious money-grubbing and wealth favoring within their doctrine. This was the first time I’d ever seen a Buddhist “mega-temple”, and it was awful. It made me feel ashamed to be associated with the faith. It made me want to run around to tourists and exclaim “that’s not what Buddhism is about!”. It made me want to drag out some scripture and ask the people praying there if they’d even read it. And for just a moment, it made me think about Terry Pratchett’s Yen Buddhists, whose main theological argument is that:

excess money and valuables are a drain on one’s spiritual welfare and an active impediment on achieving dharma and oneness with the universe. Therefore, the monks make the world the selfless offer that they will undertake, at the risk of their own union with the godhood, to take away this impediment to other people achieving consciousness and the opening of the Third Eye. They accept the spiritual tarnish that comes with being one of the richest religious sects on the Disc so that you don’t have to.

Sadly, I don’t think that the Buddha Tooth Relic temple had such altruistic motives in collecting wealth.

20170118_120625I headed down to the third floor to see the museum, which was a worthwhile collection. It was a nice museum of Buddhist art and man-made relics that included a sort of “intro to the Buddha” story on signs around the displays. Like the rooftop garden, it felt far more authentic and enjoyable. The relics were primarily stone, clay, bronze or wooden and had clearly been the result of effort and craftsmanship. Although the extraordinary focus on Guan Yin and the Maitreya was a little overwhelming, it did point to the fact that the temple’s own branch of Buddhism was a salvific form that relies on Bodhisattvas and future Buddha’s to save the world, rather than on the practice of self cultivation for individual enlightenment.

20170118_122525.jpgThe second floor had a nice place to rest, which I desperately needed. Adjusting to the heat and extra walking was taking a toll. It was such a great contrast to my energy level in New Zealand where the weather was cool. Just minimum exertion in a hot humid climate seems to drain me like a marathon! After a rest and a look through the last floor of displays, I made my way back to the ground floor, once more shaking my head at the ostentation, this time walking past the VIP seats they were filled with supplicants who had paid I’m not sure what to get past the velvet ropes. All in all, I’m still glad I went to see it, because I learned something about the corrupting properties of money. All temples ask for donations to help feed the monastic population, pay the basic bills, and to provide services to the community. Money is, in this world, unavoidable. However, when a house of faith relies on wealth or doles out blessings for cash or claims that the donation of great wealth is a higher holy act than living a good life, that’s corruption.

Count your deities, count your blessings…

20170118_132532.jpgAfter the Buddhist temple, I took the short walk two streets over to see the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore: Sri Mariamman. This humble wooden structure was not a display of wealth, but was still anything but plain. Wooden carvings covered every inch of the outer facade and were brightly painted besides. Anyone was welcome to enter, leaving their shoes behind on racks on the sidewalk. There were saris for anyone who felt inadequately dressed, and while we were free to wander around the grounds barefoot, the main areas of worship were cordoned off, not for a fee, but for the faithful. I am not a Hindu, so I contented myself with observing from behind the lines. The interior of the temple is a large courtyard with smaller buildings, each one dedicated to a different divinity. There are over 330 million gods in the umbrella of Hindu faith, and while only a couple dozen are among the most popular, it can 20170118_132153.jpgbe hard for a layperson to know which altar is for who. I found 10 names of deities for this temple on it’s Wikipedia page. There might be more. In addition to the colorful decor and variety of spots to worship, there appeared to be a large hall at the back used for everything from yoga classes to wedding ceremonies.

On my way out and back to grab my bag from the hostel, I passed by one more religious building, a famous mosque. It struck me then that within only a 20170118_132927.jpgcouple city blocks, I had passed 3 major religious buildings, and I knew from the map that a Christian church was not far off. Curious, I looked around the map for a synagogue and found one a little over 3km away, and it was neighbored with another church, Hindu temple, and Buddhist temple. It seemed that it wasn’t hard to find a spot in Singapore where at least 4 out of the 5 major world religions shared a small space and yet no one was getting blown up, shot or even harassed on the street! While I’m sure that Singapore’s strict legal code has something to do with the lack of violence, I like to think that pluralism in the culture helps everyone to get along. People of other faiths or cultures seem less scary when they are our neighbors and not “those others”.


Please check out the rest of the photos in the Facebook albums: Around Singapore and Singapore Temples, and stay tuned for the next installment where I leave the clean and ordered city-state of Singapore and experience a mighty dose of culture shock in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). As always, I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for reading!

Summer’s Almost Gone

I know many people think that summer starts around May or June, but here in Busan the weather didn’t get ugly until July and it’s only just starting to get nice again now that October is half over. I have already shared my early summer adventures, June with the sand sculpture festival, drag show and Pride Festival in Seoul, July with the Mud Festival in Boryeong, and I’ve started to share the August adventure in New Zealand. Oh, and the Jeju September trip is in second draft… but, things in Korea happen faster than I can write about it and I’ve been getting behind on some of my smaller weekend adventures. So, what’s fallen through the cracks this summer? I got some parental visits (other people’s not mine) and had a chance to play tour guide around the Busan Tower, Yongdusan Park, Dadaepo Sunset Fountain of Dream, UN War Memorial Park, more Dala & Sulbing, and Beomeosa Temple. Plus, I took myself down to the amazing lantern festival in Jinju. Let’s check it out.


Busan Tower & Yongdusan Park

escalator-yongdusan-park-busan-south-koreaThis park in the Nampo neighborhood is up on a bit of a mountain, but there’s no need to climb up exhausting stairs because there’s an outdoor escalator installed to let you ride up in comfort! When we got to the top, we were already blown away by the great views of the city below and we hadn’t even gotten to the highest points yet. As we passed by the stage area, it was clear that a performance was about to get underway. There were plenty of people dressed in the standard white garb trimmed with bright colors and fun hats and the parents hadn’t gotten to see any traditional dances, so we pulled up a seat. I have since found out that cultural performances happen here every Saturday at 3pm between March and November.

20160910_142412The MC for the day was excited to see so many foreigners (not just us) in the audience and brought out a poor young Korean lady who was nervous and not particularly fluent to try and translate for us. Representatives from each visiting country in the audience were invited to come up on the stage and play a traditional Korean game of trying to toss a stick through one of 5 rings attached to a jar. My friend’s mom went up and they let her stand extra close because she was over 60 and she brought us honor by scoring the center ring! We didn’t sit for the whole performance, but it was a kind of musical story. From what I could follow, some performers arrived at a lord’s house and were invited in to party, but there were some rascals around who may have been trying to steal away or marry off the lord’s daughter? The language barrier was a bit of an obstacle to the plot, but it was fun to watch and clap along with.

20160910_145221We snuck out during a lull and headed to the main attraction of the Park, Busan Tower. The tower stands 118m high, but it’s also on a mountain so, it seems to be rather higher than that when you look down. For 5,000won you can get a ticket to ride up to the top of the tower where you can enjoy a stunning 360 degree view of Busan. There are helpful decals on the windows that identify major landmarks and there;s a little cafe where you can enjoy a snack with your view.

UN Memorial Park & Busan Museum

I went here in February with the EPIK orientation team and I meant to go back in the summer for the roses and azaleas, but it seems that I missed them because by September, all that was left of the flowers were a few fading blooms. One stunning contrast was this tree which went from a brown lace of twigs in winter to a full brush of vibrant color in summer.

The little streams that had flowed in February were dry, but there were beautiful dragonflies all around the pool and grounds. I think the UN Memorial is a beautiful park, but it’s also a sad one. My trip this time was enjoyable because I was hanging out with some military history buffs who were tickled pink to look at all the markers and statues for different nationalities. I’m not really sure what else to say about it, other than war is horrible.

The Busan Museum is just a short walk away from the Memorial park, so we decided to stop in afterward. Unfortunately, a large part of the museum is under construction this year, so we were only able to access the second gallery, but it was worth the visit, especially since they gave us free tickets to enter. It’s largely a history museum, but it focuses narrowly on Busan and the history of this particular region of Korea. Since I’m still learning the big picture of Korean history, it was occasionally hard to place things on a timeline in my head, but there was a timeline on one wall that lined up Korean history with Chinese and Japanese histories (which I’m much more familiar with) and that was a useful comparison.

Dadaepo Sunset Fountain of Dream

Who doesn’t love giant bursts of water and light choreographed to music on a summer night? Waaaay back in 2008 I went to Xi’an China for the first time and in addition to getting to see the Terra Cotta Warriors which the city is famous for, I managed to catch both the day time and night time editions of the Xi’an North Square Fountain Show (someone else’s video).

Later in 2015, I made it to the Dubai Fountain show (my video).

Both are astonishing and huge. The Xi’an Northern Square is 168,000 square meters (1 ½ football fields) and the fountain show covers most of it. There are dry spaces around the edges to stand, but the whole middle is full of moving, glowing, colored fountains. The largest one, the Fire Fountain, can shoot water 60m high. The Dubai Fountain show is in the man-made lake (121,400 sq m, a little more than 1 football field) at the base of the Burj Khalifa and it’s highest water spout reaches 140m high. It also claims to be the largest choreographed fountain show in the world. I’ve seen tiny versions of choreographed fountain shows in a few other places, including the Tokyo 20150823_200510Sky Tree (left) where the small fountain lights are coordinated with the tower lights high above. These shows are fun, awesome, wonderful, and sparkly, so when my friend told me he wanted to take his parents down to Busan’s own choreographed fountain show, I was all in favor.

I have to be honest, I expected something small, colorful and cute. I was completely blown away. Dadaepo is far out at the south western corner of the city, so you have to ride the subway line all the way to the end and then take a bus the rest of the way. And then walk several blocks. The fountain and lights are all flush with the ground, so before the show starts it just looks like a flat open space. 50f0There are some permanent concrete bleacher type seats along one side, but the rest of the area around the fountain had been filled up with plastic chairs to accommodate the higher number of spectators on the warm weekend nights. We arrived early and laid claim to seats in the front row, hoping that we wouldn’t have to worry about the crowd standing in front of us when the show started. Refreshingly, the Korean audience stayed in their seats during the show and we had a first class view. In both China and Dubai, the spectators jostled for the best standing spots and to get my video, I had to start standing in my spot almost 30 minutes before the show started to get an unobstructed view. IMG_0101This is 2,519 sq m fountain is listed as the largest fountain in the world by Guinness. I suppose that the show at Dubai is not considered a single fountain and is therefore only the largest fountain show. The tallest jet of water at Dadaepo is a mere 55m.
In case you’re wondering, the world’s tallest fountain goes to the King Fahd Fountain (right) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at 260m (which I visited in 2014, it’s tall, but not much else).


While the sheer square meterage of the event isn’t 3% of a football field, the show more than makes up for it in quality. The tempo at which the water and lights shift and change to keep pace with the music is astonishing. The colors come and go, making the water seem to appear and disappear, lighting up only a portion of the water’s path or changing partway through it to take advantage of the new shape to make a different effect. The fountain heads move. Water comes out at different speeds and volumes. There is such a wide variety present that I felt more like I was watching a special effects music video than a choreographed fountain show. This video on youtube is better than what I was able to capture. 

I understand they change songs on a regular basis, so although this was my friend’s second time to the show, the songs were totally different. After the final song, the fountain and lights are turned on a bit more sedately to allow people to come in to the water to pose for pictures in front of the lighted shapes or to run through the cool streams in the warm summer air. There is only one show on weekdays, but two on weekends, so you can see the second one if you’re late or just stick around and watch both because it’s amazing.

Dala & Sulbing

20160430_134641I’m not a food blogger, but sometimes food is just too good not to write about. I’ve done some basic coverage of these things elsewhere, but it doesn’t get old. Dala 100% Chocolate is this tiny hole in the wall chocolate cafe in my neighborhood in Seomyeon. The first time I went there, I had to try their signature dish, the dinosaur egg. This was an amazing concoction of shaved milk ice topped with crushed chocolate cookies and chocolate shavings with a giant egg made of cookies and cream candy. When smashed with the provided hammer, the egg reveals a scoop of truly decadent chocolate ice cream and a tiny chocolate dinosaur. If that’s not enough chocolate, you can pour chocolate sauce over it too. It takes at least two people to eat this dessert. Since that time, we’ve also tried the chocolate pizza (nutella spread, banana slices and toasted marshmallows for toppings, scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce again), and for the two separate parental visits this summer, I also managed to try the fruit fondue (kiwi, grape, orange, grapefruit and banana… turns out grapefruit in chocolate is awesome), the “special brownie” (molten chocolate inside!), and the chocolate churros (churros you dip in chocolate). Let us not forget the milkshakes, which come in a variety of chocolate compliment flavors and can be made white, milk or dark. I don’t just love this place for it’s chocolate, but because it’s good chocolate. It’s not too sweet and they do a good balance of flavors in each dish so you don’t get tired (as if that were possible) of a single chocolate flavor. I think we’re about halfway through the menu now, and if the weather keeps cooling off, I’ll get to try their hot drinks soon!

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My first encounter with sulbing was during my first week at work when my co-teachers took me out for dessert after our first staff dinner. It pretty much blew my mind and I’ve been trying to drag everyone I know there ever since. The season fresh fruit flavor that was there in March was the strawberry cheesecake, and while they have strawberry on the menu year round, it’s just frozen berries out of season. However, the summer seasonal flavor was in full force and we got to indulge in the melon-cheese-yogurt madness. The uniqueness of sulbing as opposed to bingsu is what the ice is made of. The traditional shaved ice desserts just use water ice. The Korean Dessert Cafe (a chain by the way, look for it if you’re here) and a few other places make a different dessert using frozen milk for a richer taste. 20160730_174636-1The melon special was not just using frozen milk, but frozen yogurt… and not the kind you’re thinking. Imagine you mix some yogurt with milk or water until it’s all liquidy, then freeze it solid, then shave it off into teeny tiny snowflakes. Ok. Now, take a honeydew melon (the green ones) and cut it in half. Hollow it out and freeze the shell. That frozen melon rind is now our bowl, filled with the snowflake texture frozen yogurt and topped with some cubes of what I can only describe as cheesecake filling. 20160730_175713Now, over the whole thing, put the melon you removed from the rind, the hemisphere of melon, all of it. The dish was served with a big plastic knife so we could cut up the melon for ourselves. It was the perfect combination of sweet, tart and creamy to refresh us in the summer heat.

Beomeosa Temple (more pictures)

That’s really redundant, since “sa” means temple, but for the ease of transliteration, that’s what people tend to call it. It literally means “heavenly fish temple”. According to tradition, there is a well on the top of Mt. Geumjeongsan and the water of that well is gold. The golden fish in the well rode the colorful clouds and came down from the sky. This is why the mountain is named Geumsaem (gold well) and the temple is named ‘fish from heaven’. Its one of the most unique temples I’ve had the opportunity to visit. It wasn’t even high on my list of temples to see in Busan, but one of the visiting parentals had read about in Lonely Planet and was dead set on going so we set off to the northern edge of the city to ascend the mountains on a warm and misty Saturday.

We took the subway to the Beomeosa stop then decided to hire a taxi to take us up the mountain rather than wait for the bus. The driver didn’t turn on the meter, but helpfully explained his fare to us. We were 4 people and the bus would cost us 1.3 each, totalling 5.2 and he was going to charge us 6. Compared to the meterless taxis in China, it was truly refreshing to have a driver not try to take advantage of four foreigners at a tourist site. As we were driving up the mountain, he pointed out a spot where lots of taxis were stopping and said we could easily catch one back down from there and expect to pay a little less going back, but he drove us all the way to the highest car park so we didn’t have to trek up the mountainside.

20161001_131512When we arrived, a very nice older Korean lady offered to explain a little bit about the main gate to us in English and we got to hear a little history of the naming of the temple and the unique four pillar style that makes this era of architecture distinctive. As we ascended the stairs and passed through several gates decorated with bright lanterns and beautiful paintings we moved through a hall of fearsome statues and finally emerged into the main courtyard. The temple was originally built about 1,300 years ago, but was destroyed during a Japanese invasion in 1592 and later rebuilt in 1713, but a few stone remnants and one stone pagoda left from the original still stand in the wide open square. The temple is dedicated to the practice of Seon Buddhism, which is the Korean descendant of Chan Buddhism the same way Zen in Japan is.

Buildings for various types of study, practice and prayer surrounded the square and monks and supplicants came in and out about their business. We heard chanting, drums and bells and the smell of incense was faint but pervasive. There was a spring near a large rock, presumably the ‘golden well’, where we could drink fresh clean water from the ground with no worries of pollution or infections. There was a hidden path that led around behind the main grounds to a smaller hall of prayer and some living quarters where we found piles of tiny rocks and beautiful blooming flowers.

After exploring the main temple grounds, we wanted to visit one of the eleven hermitages nearby. I’d read online that the Blue Lotus Hermitage was both the easiest to get to and the prettiest, so I asked for directions at the souvenir stand and we headed further up the mountain road. Within a few minutes of walking, we spotted a giant golden Buddha in the distance and soon we came to the Hermitage itself. There were hardly any people there, but the courtyard was a stepped platform covered in statues of sages and Bodhisattvas with the golden Buddha at the peak and center. The entire day was gray and the mountains were wreathed in mist, giving our temple visit a quiet and magical feeling. I hope I can find time to go back in another season to see the mountain foliage in different phases (especially in May for the famous wisteria blooms) or maybe even try my hand at one of the overnight “temple stay” opportunities that allow visitors to experience the monastic life for just one day.

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Jinju Lantern Festival (photo album)

20161008_170238Also called the Jinju Namgang Yudeong Festival, it is held in honor of the fallen during the seiges by Japanese soldiers in the Imjin War in 1592-3 (the same time frame the orginal Beomeosa Temple was destroyed). During the war, lanterns were used as military signals, a means of communicating with reserve forces, and as a way to keep in touch with family members outside of Jinjuseong Fortress. Even after the war, people continued the tradition of floating lanterns down the river to pay tribute to the brave souls that had been lost during battle. Today, the festival is far more than a few lanterns on the river and instead is a whole palisade of life size and larger than life lanterns floating on the river and filling the riverside park where the fortress once stood.

It took us about 2 hours to get there in total, although the intercity bus is less than 90 minutes. We were able to walk down to the river from the bus station and get a daylight preview of the lanterns. We also walked around the festival tents and enjoyed a local specialty of Jinju bibimbap. It’s supposed to be made with a type of spiced raw beef, but sadly our tent dinner stop used the sunny side up egg instead. It was very good, though, so we didn’t mind too much.

20161008_181542.jpgWhen we entered the display area, we were given arm stamps so we could come and go as many times as we liked, then we began our stroll down the riverside. The water was covered in giant lanterns in shapes of mythical animals and heroes as well as famous landmarks like Stonehenge, the leaning tower of Pisa, and the Statue of Liberty. There were floating restaurants, boat rides, and yet more tents offering delicious snacks.There were giant tunnels of red lanterns where couples walked hand in hand in the twilight.

20161008_175956Two floating bridges at either end of the display allowed visitors to pass from side to side without returning to the street level. The day had been rainy, but as the rain dried up, the sunset lit the clouds in shades of brilliant gold and scarlet.We crossed the river and ascended into the wooded area to be greeted with the most amazing forest of light. Unlike the Taean light festival where everything was wrapped in LEDs, the park grounds had become friezes of the battles done in light and cloth. Japanese and Korean soldiers filled the grounds attacking and defending glowing battlements. As we moved along the scenes became festivals, crowds watching bulls in an arena, people at work in the village doing daily crafts.

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There was a section of small, delicate lanterns on display like a gallery. More soldiers stood guard at every gate and wall. A landscape of giant mushrooms and insects took up one hillside. Enormous saxophones arched over a performance stage with live musicians. Glowing globes hung from the trees like ripe fruit. Overgrown flowers sprouted from the grass. Tigers wearing top-hats and smoking pipes smiled at us from behind trees. There were no gates or guardrails, and we were free to walk among the lanterns at will. There were tunnels of love and fields of snowmen. There were more lanterns than we could ever hope to see in just a few hours and we wandered back and forth through the park following winding trails and making our way from one scene to the next until we were forced to start looking for the exit in order to catch our bus home in time.

We got back down to the river and walked along more floating paths all the way to the far end of the park. My friend described it as “drunk walking” because the floating panels would occasionally shift to one side with no warning causing us all to lurch and stumble. The bamboo forest growing along the waterfront was filled with glowing cranes, frozen in the act of taking flight or catching fish. When we reached land again, we were greeted with the largest lantern structure of all: a giant castle with a dragon and phoenix on either wall and a crowd of lantern people celebrating below. Above the castle walls, large poles held LED fireworks that burst over and over again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lantern festival on such a scale.

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I feel like every time I think Korea can’t show me something even more amazing, it does, and yet before coming here I knew almost nothing about this country, it’s people or it’s culture. Plain old “weekends” become magical adventures in a land of light or a sea of flowers. Misty mountains redolent with the odor of incense and the chanting of monks are just a bus-ride away from beachfront karaoke bars. Dancing fountains are down the street from skyscrapers that hide forests of cherry trees between their towering walls. Hidden gems wait around every corner and there is always something to celebrate. Thanks for reading, I hope you’re enjoying my stories at least half as much as I enjoy making them. Don’t forget to check out the Facebook page or Instagram for updates and pictures. ❤

Chocolate & Lanterns in Seomyeon

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.

12961680_10209615823939095_1335060540656672463_nWhen 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.

edited_1461993235285The 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.20160430_134544

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!20160430_134641

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.

20160430_170926After 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.

20160430_171326Much 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!

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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.

20160430_172917We 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.

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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.

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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.20160430_195457

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.20160430_205646_Richtone(HDR)

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! 🙂

Asakusa: Temple, Shrine & Sky Tree

Asking some of the other residents here what kinds of things I should do yielded several great suggestions, the most frequent of which was Asakusa. I fell down on my research a little, because I was under the impression that the Buddhist Temple was really the main thing there, so when someone asked me if I was headed there to do shopping I was a little confused. I was planning to do some shopping, but over at the nearby landmark tower, the Tokyo Sky Tree since it was also on my list and was just one stop up the tracks from Asakusa. Hence, two hits in one day.

All Aboard

It takes about 90 minutes to get into Tokyo from where I live. It’s a little funny because that’s about the same time it took for me to get into Beijing when I was in Hebei, but for some reason the trek coming in from small town/rural areas to the big city was much more reasonable than my current commute which is all city as Yokohama and Tokyo pretty much blend directly into one another. The train system in the Tokyo area is fairly impressive, however. There are dozens of lines running all over and you can generally get anywhere if you can navigate the spiderweb of tracks and mind-boggling complexity of the transfer stations (more than one of which rank among the most crowded in the world).

The trip to Asakusa took the Den-en-toshi line to Shibuya where it becomes the Honzomon line and runs all the way to the Sky Tree. From there it got a little tricky, because I had to take the Tobu-Skytree line backwards one stop then turn around for two stops to get to the Asakusa stop. Easy, right? I took the local instead of the Express because there are usually more open seats on the local and I really don’t want to stand on the train for 90min. When I got off the train, I followed the signs to the Shrine and found myself in a huge shopping tunnel.

The Shopping Street

20150823_141638It turns out that the reason my friend asked if I was going to Asakusa to shop is that it is the Silk Market of Tokyo. Unlike Beijing’s Silk Market, the Tokyo Bazaar is not contained in a single tall building, but spread out on narrow street after narrow street.  Each stand is selling some variant of the same tourist attractions: kimonos, festival lanterns, woodcuts, fans, jewelry and handbags. The food stands are selling all the famous Japanese street/fair foods, sweets and ice cream. Inside the first gate of the temple compound is Nakamise Shopping Street or Kaminarimon, but the shopping extends well beyond the gates outside too.

It’s more than a little insane, but I can see why people who are only in Japan a short time would spend a day there shopping, since you can find a souvenir or gift for everyone on your list there. Me personally, I’m not into a lot of the mass produced tourist souvenirs, but I have the luxury of time to find more meaningful mementos. Plus, I checked the price tag on a couple items and had to work to get my eyes back in my head. The prices were nuts. And unlike the Silk Market where haggling is expected, it’s really not accepted here.

What’s more, it created a strange sense of incongruity walking through streets dedicated to materialism while on my way to the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

Senso-ji Temple

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The Senso-ji Temple was built in 645 and is dedicated to Kannon (Guanyin in China or Avalokiteśvara before he left India and had a sex change) the Bodhisattva (sometimes translated as “Goddess” although not in the Western sense) of Mercy. The first gate is actually amid the shopping area and merely delineates those copycat shops from the “true” Nakamise area.

2015-08-23 20.45.19Off to one side stands the pagoda, creating a stunning backdrop to nearly everything, and off in another direction is the looming spire of the Tokyo Sky Tree, reminding us of the fact that this temple now rests in the heart of one of the largest metropolitan areas on earth.

As we emerge from the shopping street another huge red gate looms over the crowd. I took a moment to explore the grounds around the gate before entering. There were several smaller statues and shrines tucked in around the main roadway. 20150823_143223Like so many tourist spots in Japan, taking only a step or two off the main path grants you near instant seclusion. Among the many side statues that I could not identify were two larger statues of Kannon and Seishi (mercy and wisdom respectively).

Passing through the next gate, we walk beneath a giant red and black “lantern”. When I passed beneath it, I looked up and saw the bottom of the lantern was a wooden carved 20150823_143530dragon with red painted highlights. Stalls selling tourist kitsch give way to stalls selling prayer scrolls, medallions, and beads for the supplicants of Kannon.

20150823_144155A huge incense burner squats in the middle of the road. People queued up to have a place nearby to contribute their own bundle of incense and wave the fragrant smoke over their heads for cleansing and blessing. Some did this with great reverence, and others (especially younger people) with a sort of good natured humor.

There is also a chozuya, or water purification area. It’s usually seen at Shinto Shrines, but because of the tremendous overlap in Japan between the religions, 20150823_144041it’s common to see them at Buddhist temples here. This one was quite different from the others I have seen in Japan, consisting of a statue of (what appeared to be) a historical figure. The dragon headed fountains/ faucets are pretty common, but these were quite detailed and beautiful.

The crowd huddled closer and closer together as we mounted the steps into the main temple. Another giant hanging lantern adorned the entrance. 20150823_145128I could hear the clanking of coins long before I saw the donation box at the entrance. No fee is required to enter, yet most of the people who passed by tossed some coins into the huge box. There were bars across the top that the coins bounced around before dropping causing the constant sound of tinkling metal.
The interior of the main temple was huge and dimly lit. The ceiling was painted in beautiful murals of Kannon and there were beautiful decorations on the walls. 20150823_144653The main altar was behind protective glass because it was a delicate lacework of gold and precious jewels. There was another less giant donation box as well as places to light votive candles or attach prayer scrolls. There were hundreds of people waiting to enter, so I didn’t linger too long at the front. I managed to find a side area to really scope out the room from one side. Lavish does not begin to express.

The Temple Grounds

20150823_145223As I left the temple to one side, I emerged above ground level and got a great view of two more statues below: a large seated Buddah figure and a bronze pagoda. Then, coming down from the main hall, I entered a garden that was simply stuffed full of tiny shrines. Each one looked like a small house on stilts, complete with miniature steps and doors to let the kami in and out. 20150823_145945This style of shrine is unique to Japan, representing a blend of the native Shinto practices and imported Buddhism. I often saw small shrines in China, but none with this style of architecture.

The shrine gardens also included a small waterfall that lead into a koi pond, complete with moon bridges. 20150823_152810It was quiet and peaceful in the midst of the bustling tourist crowds. When I emerged from the garden, it was stunningly obvious that I was leaving the temple grounds, so I prepared to turn around and go back in when I spotted a veritable forest of red flags. I suppose it could have been another of the many shops advertising for something, but my curiosity won and I headed over to investigate.

20150823_151115It turned out to be a shrine to Jizo, who is a Bodhisattva that helps to lessen the suffering of people in hell (e.g. speed up their next rebirth out of hell). In a very practical way, the tourist sign advised that keeping some of the powder of the Jizo image in your purse could save you a great deal of money as divine favor. I love watching the evolotion of religious figures across cultures, and the Japanese are very practical about their religion, often less concerned about the next life than what a charm or prayer can bring them in this one. (test passing charms are very popular among students!)

The temple grounds continued, full of side temples that were nearly abandoned creating a real contrast from the pressing crowds of the Nakamise and Main Hall. 20150823_151409I walked into another empty shrine area, this one dedicated to Sukunahikonao-mikoto (yeah, the Japanese kami all have really loooong names). The sign informed me that he is a protector of women, and honored by women bringing used sewing needles and sticking them into tofu as an offering.
Another side garden held statues to famous historical figures including famous Haiku poets, a philanthropic orphan, and a tanka poet. And yet one more contained at temple to Benzai-ten (goddess of fortune) and the Senso-ji bell, 20150823_160943which historically was one of the main bells that marked the time for the citizens of Edo (old Tokyo). The other bell was at Ueno, and resulted in a famous Haiku by poet Matsuo Basho: “Sounding through clouds of flowers — it is the bell of Ueno or Asakusa?”

By this time, I had circled three quarters of the way around the main hall, and found yet another gate marking the separation of temple grounds from the secular world. When I paused to buy some takoyaki and stare a map of the grounds to see where I was, I realized that I hadn’t seen the Shinto Shrine that was listed on Google Maps as being right next to the Temple.

The Shinto Shrine: Sanja-sama

20150823_153225On the fourth side, hiding behind a copse of trees and nearly blotted out by one of the side gates was a plain wooden torii of pale sunbleached wood rather than the bright laquered red. The shrine is nicknamed Sanji-sama for the three diefied spirits it is dedicated to. Inside the Shrine grounds was a small garden complete with greenhouse and scarecrow, the wooden posts for hanging prayers from, a small shop selling charms, a washing area, the shrine itself, and … a monkey show.

To be honest, I have no idea why there is a monkey show, but I found it on the “official” website, so clearly it’s a part of the Shrine’s attractions and not just some random street performer. My best guess is that it’s an older art form preserved for an old-timey authentic feeling, much like the traditional dances that are performed.

20150823_154522I wandered around for a bit, washed my hands in the cleansing fountain, offered a prayer at the shrine and decided to buy a small charm. The monks(?) manning the shrine’s charm station didn’t speak English, so I ended up helping some other tourists navigate the process of adding a prayer to the pillars placed there for that purpose. Then, after reading over the translation page (cause, my Japanese isn’t that good) I selected a small white fox charm that was listed as granting wishes. It’s really adorable, sewn from a white brocade with gold thread whiskers and happy black eyes. There is also a small golden bell and medallion with the name of the Shrine: Hikan Inari.

After some post travel translation and research, I discovered that the Hikan Inari Shrine is apparently right behind the Senji-sama shrine… and is covered in fox guardian spirits, which makes more sense as to why their charms were foxes, but less sense as to how the heck I missed a shrine covered in cute kitsune statues! I seriously thought I explored every inch of that place, I found statues and shrines tucked into side corners and entirely ignored by the other tourists/pilgrims, and yet I missed this.

*sigh.

Tokyo Skytree & Studio Ghibli

20150823_164232By this time I’d spent several hours on my feet wandering around the nooks and crannies of Asakusa and (thinking I’d seen everything) was ready to head to my next destination: The Sky Tree. I wended my way back through the obstacle course of shopping and hopped back on the train for a much more straightforward single stop ride to the second tallest structure in the world (next to the Burj Khalifa which I visited in Dubai last year).

The Skytree falls short of the Burj Khalifa by nearly 200m, but it’s still impressive. Plus there is a huge shopping district at the base of the Skytree with many handmade Japanese goods and local specialties (like the TV character store), as well as my own shopping target: Donguri Kyowakoku, a store entirely dedicated to the films of Hayao Miyazaki (and since I couldn’t get tickets to the Miyazake museum, the next best thing to walking inside the classic animations).

When I arrived at the Skytree, I got instantly lost in the mass of stores that the train stations dump travelers into. I was pretty overwhelmed and significantly more impressed by these shops than I had been at Asakusa, so pro-tip, take the train one stop over and do your souvenier shopping here if you are doing a day trip in this part of Tokyo.

I found my way to the base of the Skytree, which is actually four floors up, and also found the line for tickets to ascend the tower. It can be tricky to get tickets in advance without paying a travel agent 400% or being fluent in Japanese, and I had also read that the trip up the tower wasn’t all that great unless you went on a very clear day. As you can probably tell from my other photos, the day I went was quite cloudy and I learned a little lesson from the Burj Khalifa that standing in huge long lines to ride up an elevator is lame. The line for tickets was estimated at 30-45 minutes, it was cloudy and it was crowded. So, I opted to forgo the skyward trip in favor of more ground exploring.

I found the Skytree beer garden, which had a pretty resplendent set menu, a bar (of course) and even some special seats that were built to allow the couples seated within them to recline in comfort and view the tower looming above them. Oh, and also enjoy a bottle of champagne. 20150823_164248All around the outdoor patio were places that vented a cooling mist onto visitors to help combat the summer heat, and some that attracted scores of little kids who played in the wet fog blasting out of giant fans.

After too many photos, I set off to try to find my target shop and ended up having to ask directions because the sheer volume of stores in the area made it impossible for the map directories to do anything other than list things by category. This is just one of the many reasons why I really like to know at least a little of the language in my country of choice. Even if I sound like a toddler, I can still get my point across and roughly understand the answers.

20150823_171542When I rounded the correct corner there was no doubt in my mind. The window of the shop was dominated by a giant Totoro under an even larger tree. Tourists paused to take their pictures in front of the favorite neighbor before entering the shop. I had first discovered this chain on a totally practical shopping trip to Lalaport in Yokohama, and subsequently recieved a flood of requests for Ghibli-shwag from my friends in Seattle.  When I read that there was one at the Skytree, I was sure it had to be larger and more impressive and hence decided to do my shopping there instead of returning to Lalaport.

I was not disappointed. This shop was easily twice the size of the one at Lalaport, and although it had fewer statues on offer, those were generally too expensive and too heavy for me to be interested in bringing back. Instead, I had a massive selection of bounty to choose from including plushies, stationary, towels, dishes, keychains, hair bobbles, jewelry and prop/character replicas. Totoro featured the most heavily, followed by Kiki’s cat Jiji, but there was something from nearly ever film Miyazaki ever made.

20150823_181137One part of the store was dedicated to books and dvds, dominated by a giant catbus head and arms over the bookshelves and separated from the rest of the store by a large tree, inside of which slept Totoro with a little Mei on his belly. When onlookers pushed a button, the scene lit up and Totoro began to snore gently, his tummy going up and down with his breath. Stupidly adorable.

20150823_184651It took me a good long while to find the perfect match for everyone on my list and it was dark by the time I left the shop. This meant that the Skytree was dressed in it’s nighttime lights and I was able to get some more cool photos. I took my time wandering back toward the train station. I was on the opposite side of the whole district so I had to walk back through everything anyway.

I checked out a few more interesting shops on the way including the TV Character Store which was filled with all the famous animated characters that are aired on Japanese TV. The Skytree’s primary purpose is television broadcasting, so the stations have a strong association with the landmark. Aside from the dozens of iconic characters regular merchandise, there were special Skytree souvenirs that depicted the characters visiting or interacting with the tower.

20150823_194445When I walked through a section of food shops there were Skytree shaped treats everywhere. Bottles of soda or wine shaped like it, chocolates molded to look like it, loaves of bread braided and decorated to mimic the texture and shape, and even some fresh waffles on a stick. Seriously, the only other place I’ve seen so many different things on single theme is Disney Land, where you can buy Mickey shaped everything.

Part of the reason for this is the gift giving culture of Japan. Souvenirs aren’t purchased by the Japanese for themselves, but as omiyage which is the name for souvenir gifts. Any time a Japanese person takes a trip, they must bring back small gifts from wherever they went to the friends, family or even co-workers that they left behind. So each place has shops selling very local goods distinctive to the region or attraction for this purpose.

Continuing the endless walk of shops, I passed one making one of my favorite Japanese snacks – onigiri. These are the triangular rice “balls” often containing a nugget of fish or vegetables in the middle for flavor. My personal favorite is the salmon roe, and nothing beats freshly made, so I picked one up and headed outside to find a seat to enjoy my treat.

20150823_200510Just as I walked outside, I caught a small fountain light show. One of the ground fountains was playing away with some matching music with flashing colored lights adorning the jets of water. Small children danced and splashed in the hot night air, enjoying the freedom of the cool water and fun. In addition, the Skytree had joined in the show and put on a new multicolored light show that lasted only a few minutes longer than the fountain itself.

20150823_204753Feeling full and satisfied, it was far enough past the evening rush that I felt like it was safe to get on the train. Luckily since I got on at the end of one line and rode it all the way to the end of a second, I got a seat the whole way, and was hardly ever too crowded.
Quite often I notice Japanese people asleep on the long commutes, which is not a skill I have mastered yet. Maybe if I lived here longer or took the same routes often enough for them to feel familiar I could, but in the mean time, I occupy myself with people watching.

Wrap it Up

All in all, it was a long day, more than 10 hours away from home, 3 of it on the train and the rest spent 95% on my feet. I’m grateful to be in Japan and to have the opportunity to see these amazing things (heck even the everyday things), but wow next time I’m coming here in spring or fall and getting better shoe inserts for all the walking!

Japan is a magnificent country. It’s tiny islands are immensely dense in population, yet they are still socially conscious enough to keep things clean and whole, and to appreciate the value of efficient public transportation and public entertainment like parks, shrines, museums and gardens even in the very heart of the biggest cities. They work hard, and yet still find time to enjoy these pleasures with their friends and family. I’m sad that I have to leave so soon and know I will make an effort to return here again. Between times, I will try to carry some of their lessons with me wherever else my travels take me.


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