The Flying Lanterns of Daegu

This week was a non-stop trip planning extravaganza! Not just two regular weekends out of town (Daegu flying lanterns and Jindo Sea Parting), but also the long holiday in the first week of May (do I go to a Korean island getaway, or do a Temple stay for the Buddha’s birthday?), and bonus round I’m trying to plan for the 10 day Chuseok holiday in October NOW because all of Korea will be flying somewhere and I need to buy tix fast. PLUS I’m trying to get the summer camps blocked out not only so I know what to teach, but also so I can try to get back to America. That’s right kids, summer in America. And somehow it all has to be planned RIGHT NOW! So, while I try to get my ducks in a linear arrangement, enjoy the magic of sky lanterns.


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Samgwangsa April 2016

Last year during the lantern crazy that surrounds the Buddha’s birthday, I visited Samgwangsa, a temple near my home in Busan. It was magical, my gbff and I twirled around like school children singing the Tangled song and generally being giddy idiots. Then after all the festivities were over, I saw some photos online of an actual flying lantern festival (a la Rapunzel), but it was too late to go! I vowed to find the festival again were I to stay another year in Korea. I began to search for it in January this year, but my hunt seemed in vain since there were no websites or festival updates. Even reaching out to Koreans I knew who lived in Daegu (the home of this flying fantasy) turned up a big bubkus.

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Then, during the week while I was poking around online once more looking for ideas on how to spend my upcoming holiday, I spotted an article about the festival. Worried that I’d once more missed it, I clicked on the link and scanned eagerly for the dates. Luck and fortune were on my side and I found out the date of the festival less than 5 days before it was set to take place. Even better luck, the trains between Busan and Daegu run late into the night, so I would be able to do it as a day trip!

This also led to my first attempt to buy train tickets online, which was not as hard as I was led to believe. letskorail.com is a multi-language website that allows us poor waygookin to book tickets in advance, avoiding the long queues and potential sold out trains. You just need your passport number and credit card info (plus ARC if your card is Korean issued).

Arriving in Daegu

20170422_181014.jpgThe festivities were set to start around 6pm, so we left in the afternoon and had a lazy, but comfortable ride into Daegu where we had to relearn bus navigation. One wrong bus and two right ones later, we got off in the general vicinity of Duryu Park. The weather was fine and we dawdled our way over to the greens, stopping to snap photos and buy iced coffees. In addition to being a huge green space, and housing the baseball stadium the festival would be hosted in, Duryu Park is home to E-World, which is a sort of amusement park and gardens. Not to mention the 83 Tower, replete with gondola rides. There may be another trip to Daegu in my future.

By the time we got inside the park, we were ready to start looking for the parade. We eventually found it on a side road, holding perfectly still. I can only assume the info I’d read online was inaccurate in timing, but it was a great opportunity to get up close to the floats for pictures.

The festival limits lantern participation to 1,000 people who sign up in advance. I’m not sure there’s any way a foreigner could get in on this, since the limited number of English language websites were all mum about the festival until it was too late to sign up for that part. The tickets to sit inside the stadium are sold on a first come first serve basis, starting at 1pm that day. Not having any information to go on about the views, I figured we were safe, since flying lanterns could be seen from just about anywhere. In retrospect, I would recommend trying for stadium tickets. They are wristbands, so once you get your spot, you can still go out and check out E-World and the rest of the park while waiting. Plus, although the website I read said that everyone should be in the stadium by 5pm, there were people coming in and out of the gates much later than that. However, even if you can’t get in the stadium proper, it’s still worth going, because I watched from outside and don’t regret a minute of it.

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We meandered around the stadium toward higher ground in hopes of finding a spot with a decent view. Us and a few thousand Koreans who also couldn’t get into the stadium. We settled on a ridge overlooking a gap in the stadium seating and surrounding trees that gave us as good a view as we were going to get from outside. There was only one row of people in front of us and we jealously stood our ground over the next hour as the concert below began, and ajuma and ajoshi tried to elbow their way to the front.

Side note:

17888705_10208562203273054_1559197028_nFor those who don’t know, these words used to be terms of respect for middle aged women and men, but have come to be less flattering terms used to describe a particularly rude class/age group of Koreans. Ajuma (women) tend to shove… a lot, and cut in line. Ajoshi (men) will join in on the shoving if their wives are around, but are perceived as perverts who peer into ladies bathrooms otherwise. I know that at least some of the younger Koreans use the words this way, and definitely all the expats I’ve met do. There is a culture of respect for age, so actually old frail people are often given seats and ushered to the front for views (and are usually super sweet about it, every one I’ve given a seat to has said thank you and offered to hold my bag in her lap), but these ajuma are just bitter middle agers who don’t want to stand in line like everyone else. Think of them like the entitled soccer moms of Korea. And yeah, they pretty much all look like that picture, too.

20170422_195103.jpgLanterns Aloft

A few people jumped the gun and released lanterns a little early, causing all of us in the crowd to whip out our phones in anticipation. It was a long wait, standing in the crowd, but as the sky darkened and the sea of people inside the stadium became a sea of multi-colored light, I knew I’d made the right decision to come.

20170422_195432At long last, the moment we had waited for, the lanterns were released in earnest. They did not rise swiftly like balloons, but in a slow and drifting manner as the tiny flames inside each one warmed the air contained by the colorful paper dome. 1,000 globes of light ascended into the blue and black night sky, and I knew no matter how hard I tried, my camera could never capture that moment. It was what we were all here for. People from many cities and even many countries, gathered in the soft night air to witness the magic of fire in the night, lanterns becoming stars, and wishes rising to the heavens.

But Wait, There’s More…

20170422_195403Shortly after the main release was over, people around us began filtering back out of the park. They had seen what they’d come for and were eager to move on to the next attraction or to beat the traffic. This meant that we suddenly found ourselves at the fence with an unobstructed view of the field below, and enough elbow room to turn around and attempt selfies (which were less impressive due to the low light).

Suddenly the shrill whistle of a fireworks mortar pierced the air and brilliant red sparkles showered down. The lantern release was followed by a fireworks show, much to the delight of everyone in the park. Bursts of red, green and white, arcs and sparkles, plus a plethora of ooohs and aaaahs from the crowds took our mood from wistful to joyous before sending us off into the night.

20170423_010828.jpgFinally the last twinkling lights above became no bigger than pinpricks of stars and we joined the crowd shuffling out of the park. We had 3 hours left before our return train and sat down for a moment to check the internet for a restaurant serving anything Daegu local. While we were seated, a family carrying armloads of paper lotus lanterns came by, and the young boy gave us each one, nervously testing out his English with as few words as possible.

Parade After Dark

20170422_204729With our gifts in tow, we set off toward our restaurant of choice, but quickly became sidetracked by the parade. The floats we’d seen before were now all lit up, but the parade itself was stopped again. We dodged in and out, taking more pictures and pausing to watch a monk’s drum performance. Back in front of E-World once more, we spotted a street vendor selling flying lanterns as fast as he could light them up, and we were able to get a closer look at the lights that had filled the sky less than an hour before.

Adventures in Dinner

We were so enchanted by the parade of lantern floats and other decorations that we lost track of time and direction. We had to give up on the local specialty restaurant in favor of one that happened to be right there. While perusing the menu, the woman in charge pointed at a particular dish and recommended it in Korean. I’m sure she said something eloquent about the flavor or ingredients, but my Korean isn’t that great. My sense of food adventure is, though, and I happily agreed to her suggestion. 20170422_212942Moments later, I had a humongous bowl of seafood and spicy broth in front of me. Mussels, clams, shrimp, crab and octopus crowded the bowl and heaped up atop a generous portion of noodles. (octopus is not something I order knowingly, but I didn’t want to waste it’s life once it was on the table) The broth was rich and spicy, causing me to reach for the ice water more than once and leaving my lips pleasantly tingly by the end of the meal. I think 2 hungry people would have had trouble eating the whole thing, and my day companion was not a seafood fan, so it was all me.

Wrap up

Tired, but full and happy, we made our way to the subway network and finally the train station. While we were standing on the platform, we were spotted by some more EPIK teachers from Busan across the tracks and conducted a conversation by shouting across from our platform to theirs. I only realized later how strange this must have seemed to the Koreans watching us who are always quiet and reserved (at least outside of bars and clubs). I’ve gotten used to holding my conversations on trains and buses at a whisper so as not to disturb the silence, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that the outdoor platform might have the same etiquette. We also got solicited by a private English school manager, which just goes to show how many jobs there are out there if you’re willing to go the hagwon route.

We drowsed and scrolled through our photos of the day on the slow train ride back. In some ways it seemed ludicrous that we had spent 3 hours on trains and another 2.5 hours in buses and subways, plus stood in the crowd waiting for over an hour all just to see 15 minutes of flying lanterns. Of course we saw more than just the flying lanterns. We saw the parade and a new city, tasted new food, and met many friendly people along the way. Travel is so much more than the destination, so while the brief and fleeting moment of magical sky lanterns was the cause and certainly the highlight of the trip, I consider the day time well spent and would highly recommend this or any similar festival if you ever get the chance.

EDIT (5/1/17): Expat community is such a tiny random world. Remember that pic I used to talk about the ajuma? Funny story – the friend I went to Daegu with sent me that pic a few weeks earlier after a conversation in which we’d been sharing “worst ajuma” stories (the one that shoved you out of the way so she could stand one person closer to the subway door you are already walking out of, the one who plowed into you despite the fact that there was plenty of room on either side, or the one who shoved you while you were dripping wet from the rainstorm, then got mad you made her wet, too). I liked the pic so much, I decided to use it as my example here, relying on the artist’s signature to credit the art. Less than a week later, I found myself on a trip where I met some of this year’s crop of EPIK teachers, and as I’m exchanging FB and Instagram contact info, one of them turns out to be this very artist, @shmamee. She asks how I got introduced to her art and I explain about D. It then turns out D, as a second year EPIK, is the assigned EPIK mentor of @shmaymee, but also had no idea the art she shared was from her own mentee! The internet does a great job anonymizing us, turning each work of art or each written story into some distant and impersonal thing. However, the person who introduced me to @shmaymee was none other than Annemone, a blogger who found my page when she was planning her own move to Busan. I don’t make any money off of my content (photos or writing), in fact, I pay an annual fee for the privilege of putting it online. This got me thinking how important it is that hobby content creators support each other, and that everyone supports artist/content creators who do this for a living (ie pay them)


The party don’t stop in Korean springtime! Next weekend I’m heading off to Jindo to watch the once annual parting of the sea and walk to the island of Mordor (no really). After that, who knows? Hopefully something fun and interesting with beautiful photos to share. Wish me luck, and light a lantern for the Buddha this May 3 (lunar birthday). Thanks for reading!

Two Festivals in Japan

Recently I had the opportunity to attend two very different festivals here in Japan. On Saturday, there was a small local lantern/ancestor festival in my neighborhood, and on Tuesday I went to the largest Hanabi (fireworks) festival in all of Kanagawa prefecture. Both events had plenty to offer in their own right, but being able to compare them so close together was especially cool. Also, I figured out how to embed videos today, so you get so see and hear some of the sights, too!

Aoba-ku Matsuri 20150801_185608 My neighborhood here is Aobadai (or Aoba-ku) and matsuri is the Japanese word for festival. The manager of the share house that I live in also does lots of event planning, so there’s usually some posters up in the common room about whatever is going on locally. I won’t claim to be fluent in Japanese, but I do have a chronic reading addiction, which basically means that I’ll try to read anything I see that has letters in a language I’m familiar with. I got enough out of the poster to see it was a festival (probably put on my some local schools) and it was in my area, so I asked for more details, since the location was given as “second park” and I couldn’t find that on Google Maps, even using the Japanese.

However, I have the coolest Japanese hosts, so they arranged for all of us here to go together Saturday evening. 20150801_181747We walked up about a block and left another two or so (maybe 5 minutes?) and came across a tiny little park all decked out in fair tents and lanterns. There was a lovely entrance gate with paper flowers and many messages (prayers?) written in Japanese. The park itself was fairly small. I think we could have walked the whole thing in 3 minutes if it wasn’t so full of people, but everyone there was really enjoying themselves. There was also a tower set up in the center where a taiko drum was being played live to accompany the recorded traditional music.

There were stands for juice and beer, as well as traditional festival foods like yakitori, takoyaki, yakisoba, candy floss, and shaved ice. The lines were very long, but our hosts took turns standing in line to bring delicious goodies back to us so we could share a little bit of everything. I tried in my faltering Japanese to explain my childhood memories of the yakitori stands I had enjoyed when living at Yokosuka with my family.

Sometimes those of us who have chosen the life of travel and adventure just stop in wonder that what we are experiencing is real, and for me that moment on Saturday was standing in the sweltering heat of a Japanese summer, listening to the mingled sounds of cicadas, traditional music, and chattering attendees, holding a beer in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other, completely unable to stop grinning like an idiot.

20150801_182411We wandered around, taking pictures and (for me at least) making delighted squee sounds at the adorable little girls running around in traditional yukata (like a kimono, but lightweight for summer). I saw some kids gathered around kiddie pools of water with floating balloons. The game was a kind of fishing with a hook on a string and the object was to loop a balloon without popping it on the hook. I think the balloons were pretty tough though, because I also saw kids who had won them bouncing them on the elastic bands fairly hard and they didn’t break. There was also a local celebrity, an older lady who serenaded us with some traditional Japanese songs that we were told brought the ancestors down from heaven to celebrate with us.

At some point, some of the ladies doing traditional dancing around the taiko tower dragged us into the dance area and helped us learn the dance. 11823928_923624031042646_1655739058_nThey were so excited to have the gaijin (foreigners) dancing with them, that even though our steps were awkward and unsure, they showered us with praise when the song ended. One of them had a daughter who had studied in Canada and spoke English well, so she called her daughter up and had a couple of the group talk to her on the phone.

20150801_181445She was so excited that she wouldn’t slow down, so I couldn’t catch every thing that she said in Japanese, but when she started talking about the taiko drum, she asked one of the Brits if he knew how to play. I sort of had to translate for both of them, but the conversation basically went that no, he didn’t know how, but would love to learn. Later on, as we were getting ready to leave, she ran up to us, waving frantically and saying “taiko OK”. So it was that he got to ascend the tower and have a brief taiko lesson, playing along to the music as the dancing started up again. I have to say I was a little jealous, but mostly I felt happy that I was able to help facilitate this experience for someone who so clearly enjoyed it and would not have been able to navigate the language on his own.

Finally, as the festival was winding down, we headed toward the exit and I noticed a group of children staring intently at something on a tree so I went closer to investigate. 20150801_210423There on the tree, hanging off a small twig was a cicada emerging from it’s larval shell and drying it’s wings in the warm night air. I was no less enchanted than the children, and took my turn to get up close for some photos before backing up to let the shorter people have the view. The cicada are as much a part of Japanese summers as yukata, lanterns and fireworks, so I felt very lucky to be able to see this one emerging under the spotlight of a nearby paper lantern.

Kanagawa Hanabi

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This was the 30th annual Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival, held in the Minato Mirai harbor. It is said to be the largest fireworks festival in the region, and since Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan (next to Tokyo) that’s saying something. “15,000 bursts of fireworks, the largest of which will be 480 meters in diameter” according to the website. So, you can imagine I was excited to learn it was less than an hour by train from my home, and free to attend! (“premium seating extra”)

20150804_182930Now, going anywhere abroad without a native guide means I automatically double the amount of time I think it should take to get there. That day I learned that for festival days, it should really be more like triple. The fireworks were set to start at 7pm, so I left home around 5, thinking this would give me enough time to get to the nearest train stop and make my way to a nice viewing area. I expected it to be really crowded, but fireworks are up, so it’s hard for people to obscure your view. I also didn’t eat much before I left because I figured there would be lots of yummy festival food once I arrived.

20150804_184459_Richtone(HDR)The train ride out started smoothly enough. I noticed more and more people in yukata boarding the train heading the same way. And then just as I was thinking if I got lost I could always follow them, a whole bunch of them got off at a totally different stop than I was expecting. It’s possible they knew something that I and Google Maps did not, because when I got to my last transfer station, the train to the stop I wanted was closed! After about 10 minutes of standing in the underground, dripping with sweat, I gave up on the idea that it would be open and went back to find another route to my destination.

20150804_183945_Richtone(HDR)I made it eventually, only about 15 extra minutes, and emerged from the train station to HUGE crowds of people being herded politely by squads of police officers with glowing red batons. They herded us up an escalator and into a huge shopping mall (which was insanely obsessed with Pikachu), then through a public square and onto a skybridge and through a carnival, and over a regular bridge, 20150804_185350and… it was a really long walk, and although I enjoyed the sights, including the famous ferris wheel, I began to be concerned that I would not make it to the waterfront before the fireworks started. Additionally, there were no food stands, just the regular restaurants in the area (all of which had huge lines).

The fireworks started while we were on one of the bridges, and I personally would have been happy to stop there and watch, but the police kept shuffling the crowd along. I told myself that it was a great part of Japanese life that I was experiencing this event as part of a huge crowd. I’m still not sure if I buy that completely, but there was a nice breeze coming off the water, and everyone was very excited to applaud the fireworks, so it was hard to be unhappy.

The show would go on for about 5-10 minutes, then stop again for as long, so we had some time to keep marching toward our destination without missing too much. There was a short time where the harbor was blocked by tall buildings and I couldn’t see the fireworks at all, but I could hear them and feel them. It was a very curious sensation, being out on the streets with huge crowds of people and police cars everywhere managing the crowds while having the sensation of being in a bomb zone.

20150804_191013_LLSFinally we rounded a corner and had a clearer view of the sky over the water. And there we stopped. I was pretty confused because it was just a street full of people, many of whom were sitting on mats on the pavement, enjoying the picnics they’d brought. But everyone seemed happy enough, and the crowd had really strong reactions to each fresh burst of color. There were lots of phones held aloft to try to capture the spectacle, mine among them, although my camera work may have been a little shaky, since I held the phone up really high and watched the fireworks under it rather than on the screen.

I noticed that some people were gradually edging forward in the crowd, so on the next break in the show I slid along behind one such group, using their crowd busting to my advantage. 20150804_192753_2I gradually made it closer and closer, pausing whenever the fireworks started again to watch and enjoy. I finally emerged on another street that was far less occupied. It was the street that lined the waterfront park. And yet, not only was there a chain link fence set up to keep “non-priority” folks from sitting on the grass, they had put tarp up to keep us from even looking through the fence.

20150804_194119_2Even so, at periodic breaks in the trees, small clusters of people gathered to peek through the cracks in the tarp or watch the fireworks that could be seen over the fence. I kept wandering down the mostly empty street until it looped back around toward the carnival, and finally settled down at the gates to the park. I asked one of the staff about entrance tickets, because it would have been nice to see the show on the water as well as the one from the air, but it turned out you had to get the tickets in advance. Ah well. I still managed to see a bit (and catch some of the music) of what was happening on the lake through the gates, but I couldn’t get any decent pictures.

So, the crowds were huge, there were no food stands (although a couple enterprising folks had set up buckets of ice to sell cold drinks out of) and there were really no events aside from the fireworks. As far as festivals go, I think I preferred the smaller local one. BUT,

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The fireworks were probably some of the most impressive I have ever seen (and I’ve been to the 4th of July on USAF bases, so that’s saying something). I admit fully that my poor little phone just does not do them justice, so after you check out my Facebook page for my own pics, do yourself the favor of an image search and see what the pros have captured. It wasn’t just the sheer quantity (part of the finale actually filled the whole sky with light), but the epic size of the fiery blooms in the air. It’s so hard to portray perspective in photos, especially at night, and I know I sound like a broken record of “you have to see this for yourself” but as beautiful as the pictures are, there is no substitute for the real thing.

This video is only about 5 minutes long, and the whole show lasted over an hour. The finale is really something, so don’t skip the end!

Despite the fact that I sweated about 2 liters out, didn’t get to eat anything, and spent hours and hours crammed in trains, lines or subways to get there and back, I do not regret it for one second. The two festivals could not have been more different, and going to one was certainly not a substitute for the other. It just goes to show that big or small, every corner of the world has something to offer.