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!

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벚꽃! Cherry Blossoms in Korea

Coming back to work on a chilly and blustery Monday morning, I was greeted by the school’s flock of cherry trees, now mostly green with only a few pink petals hanging on. It’s hard to reconcile that only two days before I was basking in the warm, sunny weather of Jinhae under a veritable blizzard of blossoms. Yet, another all too brief cherry blossom season has come to an end. Let’s take a look at the haul.


Busan

20170403_075400My school is the first exposure I get to the flowers in spring since I pass by a stately line of a dozen or so trees every morning on my way in. I watched with growing anticipation in late March as the buds swelled on the branches and finally burst onto the scene on the particularly gray and chilly afternoon of March 27th.

For the next week, I tried a little photo collection of the progress while counting down until I could head out to the park on Saturday. Mother nature had other plans, and Saturday turned out to be even more cold and rainy. Paintings of cherry blossoms in the snow may be amazing, but hanging out in the park in the cold rain, not so much.

In the end, the only option was to take an after work walk in Samlak Park, a long and narrow strip of green (or in this case pink) along the riverside. Eager cherry blossom viewers can walk for kilometer after kilometer along a pathway so densely enclosed by cherry trees that it becomes a tunnel.

I went to this park last year with my school, but the day we went was after a heavy rain and late in the season so the trees were somewhat bedraggled. This time, the blossoms were still at peak snowosity, and my friend and I enjoyed a walk under the canopy and a sunset through the lace-like silhouettes of the branches. We found the posing platform that allows the hordes selfie-takers to get up to the level of the top branches for the best down angle on the background of blossoms, and we finished the whole thing off by getting some pho in a nearby Vietnamese neighborhood.

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The next two days were fraught with rain and thunderstorms, making me all the more grateful for that one 2016-04-15 15.45.30glorious afternoon in the park.

20170403_172853Food bonus: Last year I got to try the Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frapuccino, but this year I tried the McD’s cherry blossom soda and the Hoegaarden Cherry Blossom beer. I’m still not sure what cherry blossoms are supposed to taste like, but it’s fun to try all the seasonal attempts to capture such an ephemeral experience in flavor.

Jinhae by Night

20170407_213250.jpgJinhae is the country’s largest cherry blossom festival. I went last year, but was only able to stay about an hour after dark and missed several parts of the festival due to time/ distance constraints. This year I was determined to catch the bits I’d missed, including more time with the night lights. Not only are cherry blossoms naturally stunning against the backdrop of a black sky, but the Jinhae festival sets up beautiful light sculptures along the river bed.

20170407_195453We left on Friday April 7th. Knowing that the storms might have wrecked the blossoms, we still wanted to go to see the lights, shows, and food. It’s not a long bus ride from Busan and we found our Air B&B in easy walking distance of the bus terminal. After dropping off our overnight bags, we quickly headed out to catch the festivities. A military parade and marching band show was scheduled for that night and we followed a cluster of Koreans in traditional costumes into the stadium.

20160220_141948We were too late to get a seat in the stands, but we watched from the sidelines and enjoyed the music. I had spotted a group of dancers wearing the distinctive hat of my favorite style of Korean traditional dancing. I fell in love with the spinning ribbon hats the first time I watched them at my orientation and never miss a chance to watch. When they lined up on the sidelines, a lovely Korean lady in military dress began singing a slow and sad song. My Korean is not good enough to translate, but I got the emotion from her face and the melody. Then suddenly, the whole song changed, becoming upbeat and K-pop. The dancers came on to the field behind her, but it was not just the traditionally dressed dancers, there was another troupe of young men in a sort of K-pop version of punk outfits, and the two groups had a dance off as the song blended traditional Korean musical elements with modern ones. That dance number was easily one of the best I’ve seen here and I wish I’d been able to catch it on video, but alas, I was standing behind too many people.

20160401_153024Next, we headed off for dinner, where I got a repeat of my delicious meal from last year’s festival- whole pig BBQ and dong dong ju (delicious local boozy drink). Once our bellies were full, we moved on to our evening goal of night-time light displays along the river. Along the way, we found more amazing treats: fresh strawberry “latte” (made with homemade strawberry syrup and fresh strawberries in milk, it is what strawberry Nesquick becomes 17757156_10208580288885183_7244900065842656679_n (1)when it dies and goes to heaven), and “cherry blossom” fried ice cream. I think it was really vanilla ice cream, but it was shaped like a cherry blossom. When I ordered it, the man took one out of the freezer behind him and dropped it into the hot oil. A minute or so later I had the crispy desert in my hand. The outside was crunchy and a little bit salty, providing a wonderful compliment to the sweet, creamy ice cream inside.

20170407_221607.jpgThe most famous part of Jinhae is the narrow “river” that runs through town and is lined with cherry trees the same way the path at Samlak is. Mind you, just about every street in Jinhae is lined with cherry trees, and the mountains around it are dotted with fluffy pink clusters of them, but the river is famous for the density of the trees and the stunning beauty of the blossoms over the water. Plus the decorations. Last year my favorite were the beautiful red umbrellas, but this year’s decor was totally different.

Far along the river, so far we were starting to wonder if we’d missed it, the lights started with arches of white lights, followed by a stretch of glowing roses and lilies of every color. There were romantic heart shaped arches, folded paper crane shapes, and a giant “I

We took photos of the lit blooms in every color light, posed against the antique looking streetlamps or framing the full moon in the sky. It was after 11pm by the time we made it back to the room and fell gratefully into the surprisingly soft bunk-beds.

Jinhae: Trains, Planes and Turtle Boats

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The next morning we woke up early and (after breakfast) headed off in search of the famous Korail train that makes its way into nearly every photo album of Jinhae. I hadn’t been able to find it the previous year, and neither had my companions. It turns out the train is not as easy to get to as many other aspects of the festival. Nearly everything radiates out from a sort of wagon-wheel spoke at the center of town, and visitors can easily walk from the bus terminal around the festival grounds. However, a visit to the famous train requires a bus-ride.

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It wasn’t hard to tell which stop to get off. The green and white festival tents and huge crowds told us right away where to go. Here on a disused section of railway, a retired train sits in a tunnel of cherry trees. The unique landscape creates a kind of wind tunnel and petals here fly in a way that is rarely seen elsewhere. Even with a breeze, most cherry petal rains are light. Last year, I experienced only one strong gust of wind that transported us into pink snow fantasy land. At the train however, the winds were stronger than the rest of the town and more frequent. Sometimes it felt as though we were in a warm pink blizzard and I won’t recount the number of petals I found in my decolletage later that evening.

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We joined the queue to pose in front of the train and found some more treats to enjoy like cherry soda made with Monin Cherry Blossom Syrup and some fresh cut oranges. One older man selling candles and aroma therapy did not let the language barrier be an obstacle to his sales pitch; he simply switched to miming. Like a classically trained clown, he mimicked passing gas and the unpleasant smell, then the sudden delight that his aromas would refresh any room from such stenches. He was hilarious.

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After our poses, we wandered down the tracks a ways to take more photos and then came back along the other side to see the handmade crafts on offer. One little girl of kindergarten age said “hello” to us, her only English word, and was so entranced by the fact that we said “hello” back that she became our shadow. She ran back and forth from her mother to us, saying “hello” and bringing us gifts of fallen petals.

In the Navy

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After the train, we made our way over to the Naval Academy. The museum is on the military base and is only open to the public during the festival. We took the crammed shuttle bus from the base entrance down to the waterfront to have our chance to see the 400+ year old turtle boat that turned back the Japanese invasion.

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Before heading to the boat, we stepped inside the museum for a little historical perspective. The Naval Museum is small, but informative. We saw several historical weapons, including some swords actually wielded by the famous Admiral Yi. They looked like Japanese katana, but were close to 6 feet long! There was also an actual battle plan from the Korean War’s Battle of Incheon with the combined Korean and US military forces.

20170408_125822.jpgThe turtle ships were famous for their ability to deflect the arrows and flaming arrows shot by the Japanese that so easily destroyed wooden boats. The shell of the “turtle” is a spiked metal carapace at a gentle sloping angle that was fireproof and arrow shedding. Yi’s most famous battle involved the use of only 12 such ships against a fleet of 120 Japanese ships. And he won. The 2014 feature film The Admiral: Roaring Currents was about that battle. It is the most watched film in Korea. In his final battle, he was killed, but as he lay dying he told his aides not to announce his death, but to beat the drums and urge the troops to go on to win. Needless to say, the Koreans revere him and his achievements.

The ship on display in Jinhae is a restored antique. We weren’t quite sure at first because the condition is so good, but we asked one of the soldiers on duty and were told that’s not just a replica. I don’t know how much of the original is left, but it’s quite an opportunity that we got to see the real thing and not just a movie prop.

20170408_130100.jpgGuests were invited aboard to explore the ship. Inside it was warm, golden wood. The main deck, which would have been open to the sky on a regular ship, was well lit by a series of cannon ports and arrow slits that allowed the crew to point weapons out while minimizing exposure. There were two small state rooms on the main floor as well, but the captain’s quarters were clearly utilitarian and not anything like the luxury we see in replicas of British ships.  The head (toilet) was a series of holes at the aft (back) which opened over the sea for swift disposal.

20170408_131130.jpgThrough narrow openings in the deck floor we could see below to the crew quarters and galley. There was a ladder leading up to a small space storage above. Decorative spears and battle drums were dotted around the deck. Cannons pointed outward and oars the length of 2 grown men or more were shipped in racks along the ceiling.

Just as we finished our tour of the ship, we heard the loud sound of jets overhead and stepped out onto the pier in time to catch a skilled air show, reminiscent of America’s Blue Angels. The jets flew in tight formations, changing shape and leaving artistic contrails across the clear blue sky as they passed. It was a perfect ending to our military base excursion.

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What a whirlwind! in less than two weeks, the cherry trees went from rosy buds, through pink popcorn, and on to spring green leaves. There’s no time to blink if you want to get the most out of the season, but it’s worth it. This year, I saw far to many fun-shamers online poo-pooing the notion of celebrating trees, but I will look forward to the experience every spring and I hope that my photos and stories inspire some of you to hie to a cherry tree infested town next spring. Check out all the photos on the Facebook page  (Busan 2017, Jinhae Night 2017, Jinhae Day 2017, Jinhae 2016) and thanks for reading!