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!

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! 🙂