Burning in the New Year

Deaborum festival fireworks

Yesterday was the first full moon of the lunar new year, or 정월 대보금 (jeongwol daeborum – New Year Full Moon) as it’s known in Korean. The holiday has many traditions, like cracking peanut shells with your teeth and (possibly) drinking makkoli, Korean rice wine, in the morning for good health in the new year. But the best of the traditions involves a giant bonfire.

This fire, called a 달집 (dalchip – moon house), is supposed to burn away the bad luck from last year and usher in wishes for the new year. People write their wishes on paper and tie them to the firewood to be burned. Burning them sends them up into the heavens so they’ll come true.

dancing around the fire

There were several places in Ulsan holding events, and my friends and I opted to check out Ilsan Beach. Unfortunately the full moon was covered by clouds, but the festival was still on. We arrived in Ilsan to the sound of fireworks and the giant crackling bonfire. Apparently we were a little late, but we weren’t alone, as people kept charging the fire to throw in their wishes and be chased away by security.

dancing around the fire in funny white hats

After the fireworks, the drumming and dancing started. According to my friend, this was the favorite activity for many ajummas who had been drinking makkoli all day (for health). People in funny white hats led everyone dancing around the fire – including me and my friends. Some played traditional Korean drums while a group of women in hanbok sang a song praying for good fortune in the new year:

To me with my limited Korean ability, it sounded like they were singing something about potatoes (kamja, kamja!) but my native-speaking friend assured me that was not the case.

After dancing around the fire and throwing in their wishes, most people left the festival. Some stuck around to drink makkoli and eat kimchi and tofu and odeng. One guy was spinning a can full of fire around on a chain. According to wikipedia, this was originally done on farms to get rid of crop-destroying worms. On the beach, it’s done probably just to look cool. Which it really does! Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures but it looked something like this:

From Discovering Korea

The biggest celebration in the country seems to be in Jeju, where I heard they light an entire field on fire, so I suppose if you have the opportunity you’d want to be there 15 days after the lunar new year. But no matter where you are in Korea, you’re bound to be near a giant bonfire. I think it’s a pretty fun way to start the ‘new’ year – or at least far more exciting than New Year’s Resolutions.


One of my students models my Halloween costume. Can you guess what it is?

I had meant to write about Halloween before, but apparently never got around to it. Oops! Nothing like some Halloween in January though, right?

I never really liked Halloween as a kid, I think because I could never come up with good costume ideas. But then in university I discovered the amazingness that is Halloween in New York, and that I really like to make things, and since then I’ve been all about it. And as far as teaching holidays to my students goes, Halloween is definitely the most fun.

Halloween isn’t really celebrated in Korea, although it seems to be gaining popularity from all the foreign English teachers telling kids about it and throwing parties at school. All of the big supermarkets have small Halloween sections with witch hats and devil pitchforks, but it seems most kids don’t dress up unless they have a Halloween party at their private schools. Most of the kids are aware there’s a Halloween-candy connection though, which is all they really care about. Many of my students came by the English room on Halloween to say, “Teacher! Trick-or-treat! Candy, please!” Haha, nice try kids.

Some decorations from home made for a nice festive atmosphere in the classroom–





I hadn’t put little plastic spiders in cotton cobwebs in years! It’s pretty fun.

In my weekly “English Cinema” class we watched The Nightmare Before Christmas and made Halloween masks. I was a little worried about whether they’d be into the movie or not, as they don’t really celebrate Halloween or Christmas, but they seemed to like it. Especially the music.

The Halloween masks came out pretty cute, and gave me a good use for all the disposable chopsticks I’ve accumulated from over a year of take-out kimbaps and delivery.




We should’ve used some paint or something more vivid, but they were still all right. I especially liked this project because I got to spend my “deskwarming” time making samples:


The best part about teaching in a school is getting to wear my costume there, even if I am the only one.

Last year, I had had a rather raucous Halloween exploring downtown Daegu on a bar crawl with mobs of foreigners. This year, I stayed in Ulsan, where there were plenty of parties at the foreigner bars, but nothing quite like Daegu. I was really surprised to find a Korean-hosted party at one of my favorite bars, Showtime, in Ulsan’s old downtown. I was the only foreigner while I was there, and so forced to play the pass-the-paper-mouth-to-mouth game between two ajosshis, but also got a free cocktail. 아싸!

Gettin dirty at the Boryeong Mud Festival

Boryeong Mud Festival

Of all of Korea’s festivals, the most infamously famous is the Boryeong Mud Festival. For the past fourteen years on a weekend in July, foreigners from all over the country have converged in the small town of Boryeong to play in their famous skin-healing mud. But a bunch of mud + the beach + summer + cheap alcohol + no open container laws = one out-of-hand party. From what I heard, last year’s mud festival saw people getting covered in mud and drunk and deciding to rinse off in the fish tanks outside seafood restaurants. Nice. Needless to say, the festival has a certain notoriety in Korea for drunken foreigner shenanigans that generally leave the locals with a distaste for the waygook population.

Hearing all of this in the months leading up to the festival, I wasn’t really sure it was something I wanted to be a part of. But as it is the biggest festival in Korea, and an opportunity to play in the mud, it didn’t take much persuasion for me to sign up with a group of foreigners traveling there from Ulsan.

We departed Ulsan at 11pm the evening before the festivities, packed onto our private tour bus of 40-some (mostly) foreigners. It seemed to be the general consensus of those on the bus that the mudfest party started right then and there: everyone had boarded with an evening’s supply of alcohol and no plan to sleep. Luckily, the bus was equipped with a karaoke machine, complete with two microphones and a tambourine. Our poor, poor bus driver…

As I found out the next day, our journey was being paralleled by many other buses full of jovial foreigners making their way to mudfest from all across the country.

Arriving in Boryeong at 5am, we all promptly passed out into our motel rooms to catch a few hours of sleep before hitting the festival. By 11, we were out on the Daecheon beach boardwalk, and were greeted with a ridiculous rain storm! Within mere seconds, everyone was completely soaked. But playing in the rain is almost as much fun as playing in the mud, so the rain was a good warm-up to the day’s festivities.

5,000 won bought us a wrist band into the “mud experience area”, a fenced off part of the beach filled with mud-themed activities including a wrestling pit, giant slide, big inflatable tug-of-war, a mud “jail” and little mud painting stations. One trip to the mud wrestling pit was all it took to be covered in mud!

Boryeong Mud Festival!
The mud festival area was guarded by security and these gates.

With all that I had heard going into the festival, I was expecting something like this:
muddy mud festivalmuddy mud festival

But what I found was a lot of this:
waiting in line at the mud festival

which is a lot of people waiting in line. The mud area was a bit …tame. It was waiting in line for 45 minutes to go on a big inflatable slide where someone splashed you with a bucket of muddy water at the end. I was hoping for a bit more getting buried in mud, being able to pick up big glops and drop them on people… but alas, there was none of that.

After playing in the mud for a bit, we headed to the beach.

party on the beach!
Party on the beach!

It was great to jump into the ocean and rinse off all the mud. At one point, a truck pulled into the crowd to spray everyone with mud and water. Another truck discretely pulled up with big buckets of mud-filled balloons, leading to a giant mud-balloon fight. This was by far the best muddiness of the day.

After a final rinse off in the ocean, we traded our wristbands in for some Boryeong mud soap, which was awesome and smelled great and worth the trek out to Boryeong alone. In the evening, we headed to a beach-side restaurant for some seafood. A couple of my friends had the most expensive sam gyup sal in Korean history, being charged 24,000 won for three strips. Which must be 4-5x the normal price. After trying to argue in Korean and English and sign language, we managed to knock a couple thousand won off the price, which didn’t do a whole lot but was something. It was unfortunate, but nothing could damper our mud festival spirits!

In the evening, as they do at Korean festivals, there were fireworks on the beach. Most people were still hanging around the beach, despite many local clubs efforts to lure them away with their trucks-blasting-music advertisements. Being on the beach was almost like being back in the US, it was so full of foreigners. My friends and I found some people playing music out of a tent and joined them. They were US military. People passing by stopped to dance for awhile, and it was nice to be on the beach, in the open air, dancing under the stars for a while. Well, it was nice despite the not infrequent streakers streaking past… I guess mudfest isn’t mudfest without some drunken shenanigans.

The next morning, our bus left early to get back to Ulsan. It was a very quiet bus ride back, which I hope made up for the way there with our bus driver.

While it was a bit tame, and didn’t have nearly enough mud considering it was the “mud festival”, Mudfest was a pretty amazing weekend. I don’t think I’d go back, but I’m certainly glad to have had the experience. Next year, I’m already planning a mud festival comparison back in Michigan

partying in line at the boryeong mud festival
Woooo! Mudfest!

Soju Fest + DJ DOC

Ulsan University’s spring festival – nicknamed “soju fest” for obvious reasons – mostly caught my attention when I heard DJ DOC was playing. I haven’t particularly taken to K-pop in my time in Korea, although it’s always fun to dance to in the clubs, especially in comparison to techno. But there are a couple K-pop songs that I’ve really come to like, mostly because they are absolutely inescapable every time I leave my apartment. One of these songs – the most omnipresent song in the entire country for the past 8 months – is by DJ DOC. It seemed only fitting that this would be my first K-Pop concert.

The festival was mostly tents sponsored by different university groups, serving food and alcohol, crammed with as many plastic tables and chairs as could fit without entirely obstructing the walkways. By the time I got there late Friday evening, every single chair was taken – the campus was swarming with young people there to see DJ DOC (or maybe just looking to drink outside on a nice spring evening).

Maybe it’s my American background, but I would assume crowded mess of drinking college students + no open-containers-in-public laws = mass chaos, riots, fights, etc etc etc. Yet everything was completely civil and orderly. Why?? Koreans certainly know how to party – I’ve learned that from going out with my co-workers, and seeing many a Korean black-out drunk after a night at the bar. And University is the time they can finally let loose after 18 years of non-stop cramming through high school. Ulsan University also isn’t the most prestigious of universities, so I’m sure the students there are partying. And they can all legally drink, anything, where ever they please. In my mind, all of these things should add up to mass chaos. But the worst I saw was a few people who had had too much drink stumbling out with the help of some friends after the concert. Which is nothing, really. I was impressed.

As for DJ DOC – they were great fun, and I very much enjoyed boogieing to some KPop in a giant crowd of university students. The stage was set up on a big astroturf soccer field, which had been filled with plastic lawn chairs. I was stuck behind the people standing on their lawn chairs. Which was a bit unfortunate, as I couldn’t see, but DJ DOC didn’t seem like much to see – they don’t really impress me with their style or anything.

Here is the DJ DOC song. It’s pretty catchy – watch out!

The Changhaejin Back in Time Tour

In Korea, I try to be open-minded. Really, I do. But on this one point, I can not be swayed: having public holidays on a Thursday and the following Tuesday, without giving the Friday and Monday off, is just wrong. Yet this is what happened in early May with Childrens’ Day (May 5) and Buddha’s Birthday (May 10). Some people managed to get the Friday and/or Monday off, but I unfortunately was not one of them. And I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, because two holiday days are nice, but come onnnnnnn!

I, however, was not going to let this whole not-having-vacation-days-when-all-of-my-friends-do business deter me from making a rather long cross-country trek to Wando, an island in the southwest of Korea.

This picture was actually taken on Sinji, which is a smaller island connected to Wando by a bridge, but we didn’t figure that out until after this picture was taken.

Wando was a bit of a hike from Ulsan – a three hour bus ride to Gwangju, and then another 2 hour bus ride south, after which we found ourselves in a tiny dumpy bus station, full of old people eating ice creams.. We stared at the tourist map for a while, which unfortunately didn’t seem to mark the bus stop and so was entirely useless. Luckily, we were able to attract the attention of a nearby policeman and communicate through miming that we were looking for a place to sleep by the water. He then got us a taxi driver, who seemed insistent on letting us know that it would be a 12,000 won cab ride. Fine. All five of us piled into the taxi and went way out of town, over a bridge, and down to a beachy area full of pensions. It was the off season, so he had to go around a bit to find us a place that was open. We ended up at quiet pension just across the street from the beach, where an older ajumma showed us to our room and told us many things in Korean that we didn’t understand (something about eating? eating rice? and bringing us more pillows? right?).

Not quite beach season

After unwinding for a moment in our pension room (which consisted of an open floor, TV stand, and basic kitchen) we headed to the beach. The weather was nice, but as it was still early May most everything was deserted. There’s something about empty beaches I kind of like though – they’re much more interesting when they’re all deserted and run down than when they’re just all full of people.

Wando has some strange fog:

The strange mists of Wando, part 1

The strange mists of Wando, part 2
It’s a fog bubble!

The strange mists of Wando, part 3

Walking down the beach, we came across a sign for a different area of another island that we clearly weren’t on. Of interest though was a distinction in the campgrounds: one plain old “tent ground” and one “love tent ground.” Oooooooooh.

We also came across another waygooken, carrying some wood to down to a campfire at a rather well established camp on the beach. We asked her what was up in Wando, to which she replied with a northern European accent that she didn’t spend much time in town but there was some sort of festival for a sailor or something that weekend. It’s always interesting to find non-English teaching foreigners around. Especially ones that seem to be living on beaches.

After a bit of wandering, we needed to get back to Wando to pick up a friend at the bus terminal. Having to communicate this to our pension owner so we could get a taxi proved a bit tricky. While some of my friends can actually speak a good deal of Korean, the Jeolla province has a completely different dialect than we’re used to in the Gyeongsan province, which meant we understood even less than usual. The woman wanted to know what we were going to be doing, and then seemed to make us a schedule, pointing to a big clock hanging on the wall. Thus satisfied, she called us a taxi and told the driver to take us somewhere ‘fun.’ We ended up here:

The fair looked a bit run down

Right next to a mini fair happening on a tiny street. It was a bit rundown, but seemed to have attracted the whole town anyways.

This was the Chango Pog festival, honoring a sailor of some sort, who maybe became a sea God? And the guardian of Wando. Anyways, according to the festival brochure:

“After 1200 years in the Ocean, ChangoPoGo’s Time Capsule emerged in Cheonghaejin!”

So I guess that’s what we were celebrating. The town had a few rows of tents full of cultural activities like Korean cartoon making, pony riding, kiddie archery, and my personal favorite: triangle kimbap making. They also had all the usual Korean festival food tents serving pork BBQ (from an entire half of a pig on the spit), whale meat, double-fried hot dogs, dried squid, bondegi (silk worm larvae) – the usual. This was all mixed in with a market selling anything else you could need – kitchen appliances, a magic veggie chopping device, tons and tons of seaweed, funny hats…pretty much everything. It was all a bit chaotic.

Upon our arrival, a few friends wanted to grab some fried hot dogs. While they were waiting, we were swarmed by a group of middle school girls, who warmly welcomed us to Wando.

More weird mists
Paddle boats row into some more weird fog.

Making triangle kimbap
Caitlyn makes some triangle kimbap.

As the sun set, a musician took to the stage to play some acoustic folksy stuff. It was fine and rather unexciting, until she decided to do a cover of “My Heart Will Go On.” I’m not sure which was more surprising – that she had actually chosen to perform the song, or that the crowd seemed to be totally into it.


The festivities ended with a big fireworks show over the water, after which we had some super over-priced festival food before heading back to our island to turn in for the night.

Wando's Waterfalls
These weird waterfalls were full of mini animal statues, and also timed to start and stop at the most inopportune for picture-taking moments. Wando is a bit strange.

A tiny island of evergreens

The next day the plan was to take a ferry to another island, Cheongsan-do, famous for being pretty and for being in some popular K-dramas. The group was a bit slow moving in the morning however, and missed the ferries that would be early enough for me to get back in time to catch the bus home. So I spent the afternoon doing some solo wandering around the island.

overlooking Wando

It was a bit foggy, but I decided it’d still be nice to do a bit of hiking. Unfortunately it was too foggy to go all the way to the top of Wando in their tower, as it was completely consumed by fog:

The Wando Tower

With no plan and a few hours to fill, I figured I’d see if I could follow the signs point to the intriguing-sounding “drama set”. Taking a taxi was out of the question, as it’d be expensive, and I didn’t see much in the way of buses. So I started walking. I walked clear through town, past rows and rows of little old houses and a newer looking high school. Eventually the buildings thinned out and I was on a two-lane road, surrounded by hills and farmland.

Things were still a bit misty…

More mistiness in Wando

…and after about an hour and a half of walking, things were so misty I could barely make out anything beyond the road. Except that it was mostly deserted and farmland. Unable to stop thinking about Deliverance due to a conversation earlier that morning, I decided it was about time to give up and head back.

Lost amidst the mists in the Wando countryside

On my way back, I came across two adorable, fluffy puppies. Which made the trip very much worth it!

Puppy #2!

After a little bit of walking back, I figured I’d try to hail down a taxi. Stopping any random car didn’t seem like the safest bet, as I couldn’t see who was inside and was kind of in the middle of nowhere. But before I could stop a cab, a young couple pulled over in a mini-van and offered me a ride to the bus terminal. Tthe people in the Jeolla province seem to be incredibly nice and friendly. While we couldn’t communicate a whole lot, I was able to tell them what I was doing, and they seemed incredulous that I was walking to the “drama set.” Which I think they told me was another 2 hours away!

The moral of the story is: Don’t try to walk across Wando. Or at least if you do, bring a map!

And just a leftover picture:

The dolphins in Wando enjoy listening to the radio on headsets
As seen in Wando: apparently the dolphins there listen to radio headsets?

Cheers to Buddha, Children and Days Off

Tongdosa, nestled in the Yangsan mountains.

When we were little, my sister and I used to ask our mom why there wasn’t a “Children’s Day.” Mothers and fathers and grandparents all had their own holiday; it only seemed fair that children should get one as well. But (being lucky enough kids) Mom would always reply, “Every day is Children’s Day.” Little did I know, Children’s Day is actually celebrated in many countries in the world, including South Korea.

The way it’s celebrated in Korea is parents give their kids a present, and the government gives everyone a day off of work. Woo! A few friends and I decided to spend the responsibility-free, beautiful spring day at the the nearby Tongdosa for some hiking, exploring, and good beer drinking.


Children’s Day also happened to be five days before Buddha’s Birthday, and Tongdosa – being a Buddhist temple – was all decked out in paper lanterns in celebration.


Pretty pink lotus lanterns.

Some special Buddha’s Birthday lanterns. Buddha’s never looked so cute.

A lot of the lanterns had pictures on them. This guy seems to have a question.

Of the many temples I’ve visited in Korea, Tongdosa is one of my favorites. There’s something about the dustiness and wooden buildings that reminds me of an American western. Maybe that’s just me…but I like it.


The ceiling of the main gates is particularly impressive:
An elephant and tiger! There should be more ceilings like this.


A bunch of onggi pots. Do you think they’re all full of kimchi?

The area around Tongdosa is rather pretty.

We decided to hike up around the hills around the temple.

And so we embarked on a bit of an adventure:

This is a bridge. It’s the coolest. Our adventure started here.

The last time we were at Tongdosa, we remembered taking a very step and precarious route up this hill, after which we discovered a set up steps leading up. This time, we opted for the stairs.

Not long into our hike we stopped for lunch: two triangle kimbaps (sweet minced beef and tuna kimchi) and a free Pepsi next, which I discovered tastes like bubbly Splenda-water.

We hiked for quite a while – up a hill overlooking Tongdosa, down the hill and onto a road. Across the road, up another hill, and back down onto the road. Then up one more hill in what we deemed was the most interesting direction…

…where we decided we had reached the end of our hike:


Those white buildings in the distance is Tongdo, where we started. They looked quite far away and made us feel rather accomplished, so we decided it was about time to turn back and find that microbrewery.

But taking a different route down from the mountain, we came across more paper lanterns…
(According to my limited Korean ability, this rock says “death people rock.” Hmmm.)

…that led us to another temple.

Nestled quietly into the hillside behind a small pond, surrounded by beautiful flowers and trees, it was like we had stumbled onto Narnia. Or at least, it was a nice contrast to the crowds at Tongdosa.



Imagine: no sound except a small breeze gently passing through some wind chimes overhead, the hat swaying back and forth with the wind. So peaceful. I felt I could’ve have stood there for hours.



Getting back to Tongdosa turned out to be just a quick walk down the road back towards town, making our hike seem entirely un-epic. But it’s good to know that just down the road past Tongdosa are some quieter, less crowded temples – I’m sure I’ll be back for another visit.

Back at Tongdosa, we bought some ice cream, were given paper lanterns from some monks, and saw an ajumma in a sparkly dress performing some disco-y old Korean pop.

And finally, it was time for beer!

The last time I was in Tongdo, back in October, I was taken to a microbrewery way back in the hills somewhere, and was pretty determined to find it again. Luckily, there isn’t a whole lot out in Tongdo and between the memory of me and one of my friends we were able to find our way there pretty easily. The place seemed to have changed ownership, as their giant red light-up sign had been replaced by this little ginger guy. Apparently this restaurant has some very fancy ginger, which was offered on the menu, fried, for a pricey 100,000 won. 진짜??


A quick note about this microbrewery: It’s mostly a Korean restaurant, that happens to brew its own beer. And it certainly has a different vibe than what I’d expect a “microbrewery” back home to be like. While we were there, another couple of foreigners came by and seemed incredibly disappointed by the lack of microbrewery-ness. So just thought I’d clarify.

The women working there seemed very accustomed to foreigners coming by looking for beer, and quickly seated us outside with a beer for each of us before we could even get out our elementary Korean. They only brew one kind of beer: it’s on the light side, and I’m no connoisseur but to me it’s like the bitterness of a pilsner meets a bit of the fruitiness of a heffeweisen. Not usually my favorite kind of beer (I generally prefer the stouts or the reds) but after 8 months of nothing but Hite/Cass/Max/the occasional Budweiser, it tastes nothing short of absolutely wonderful.

In addition to serving this oh-so-hard-to-come-by-in-Korea delicious beer, the place has some nice outdoor picnic table seating in a beautiful garden full of flowers. And a tree swing! The inside decor reminds me a bit of a northern Michigan ski-lodge meets 70’s cruise ship. Which is a bit odd, but irrelevant because the outside is so nice.


Should anyone stumble across this post in trying to find the microbrewry in Tongdosa, and/or so I can find it again in the future, this is how to get to the brewery from the temple:

Come out of the temple and make a left, cross the gravel parking lot, and pass Tongdo Fantasia. Keep walking past some farm fields, towards the houses in the distance.

(What an odd place for an amusement park, in the middle of all these fields…)

Once you’re on the other side of the fields, make a right on the next street.


Follow the street alllll the way up the hill, and take a right at the dead-end. You’ll start to see signs for a ginger restaurant. This is the “microbrewery”.


I’m glad Tongdosa is so easy to get to from Ulsan, it’s a nice place to escape the crowdedness of the city for some peace and quiet. The microbrewery, beautiful temples and hiking make Tongdo one of my favorite spots in Ulsan.

Energetic challenge of bulls! Sparkling crash!! Shouting for joy!

(Title taken directly from the English brochure**, in case you couldn’t tell.)

Last weekend was the long-awaited Bullfighting festival in Cheongdo. It had been delayed for a month due to Hoof and Mouth Disease, which has been shutting down festivals across the country for months (including those that don’t seem to involve any hooves, like the Jindo Sea Parting Festival).

The word ‘bullfighting’ probably brings up images of Spanish matadors and a fight to the death. But Korean bullfighting is quite different – bulls fight each other, and neither one is killed or even really hurt. But animal rights groups in Korea (yes, they exist over here in the land of eating dog and whale) have been trying to shut the festival down for years, claiming animal cruelty for forcing the bulls to fight and potentially feeding them performance-enhancing drugs. Those in favor of the festival claim that this kind of fighting is something bulls have done for thousands of years in pastures across the country. Which side is right? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but here’s my account…

Getting to the tiny city of Cheongdo was a bit of a pain – although the city borders Ulsan to the west, there’s no direct route. Getting there involved taking no fewer than two buses and two trains. As we were switching to the slow train in Daegu, we found ourselves surrounded by many big groups of loud foreigners headed to the festival. The festival seems to draw a lot of waygookens, as the main promotional picture prominently features a big group of white people.

Upon arrival in Cheongdo, we were quite eagerly greeted by a very friendly festival information booth, where they provided me with the Cheongdo tourist pamphlet the title of this post came from and led us all the way down the street to the local bus station (before being pulled away to talk to a ‘big group of Americans’). The bus took us to the city’s giant bullfighting stadium, where by early afternoon many cars already lined both sides of the road.

I felt like there were some mixed signals coming into the event:

Welcome to the Bullfighting Festival!
Aww! So cute.

An angry bull
AHH! So terrifying!

The bulls were on their hour lunch break, so we headed out back to check them out.

A drunk idiot tries to fight with one of the bulls
The first thing we saw was this drunk idiot trying to aggravate one of the bulls. Lucky for him, he failed.

Bulls in waiting
We found them lounging rather lazily in the bright mid-afternoon sun. Seeing them so peaceful like this, it was hard to imagine they’d soon be tearing into each other in the ring.

This one looks sort of like a demon...
Except with this guy, who looks pretty scary.

doesn't it?
…kind of demonic with those horns, no?

Relaxing in the sun after a fight
Apparently the blue stuff is because he got hurt. 😦

Heading into the arena, we met up with some friends who had snagged front row seats. It wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t exactly crowded, either. I was expecting a bit of a better turnout.

2011 Cheongdo Bull Fighting Festival

As the fighting started back up, some ambassadors from Serbia and Nigeria were introduced. Seemed like a bit of a random selection.

Here’s how the fighting went down:

Led into the ring
The bulls are led in, one at a time.

Then the handlers try and get the two bulls to face-off, as the animals don’t seem to have any interest in each other.

But once the bulls were facing each other, they’d charge. And so (with a sparkling crash) the fighting begins!

Finally - it begins!

My tourist-y pamphlet outlined several of the techniques that these bulls are supposedly trained in:

‘Horn Hanging’
'Bull wrestling' seems more appropriate

‘Horn Striking’
Locking horns

‘Neck Striking’
Sideways push

‘The Stare Down’ (I made that one up)
Eyeing each other


This video was probably the most ‘action’ I saw in an afternoon of fighting, by the way.

The Bullfighting

This kind of wrestling would go on for anywhere from 1-30 minutes or so. Often the ‘fights’ went on for so long because the bulls would lose interest and have to be roped back in several times. Generally they were a bit slow, and so my friends and I entertained ourselves by betting on who would win and how long the fight would last. A winner wasn’t declared until this happened:

And then the next two bulls would be brought out, and this would repeat for a few hours.

So, is this ‘animal cruelty’? Are the bulls mistreated?

My feelings are still a bit mixed. So I did a bit of research

First, a bit of history: The tradition dates back 1000 years, to when the first tribes were farming on the peninsula. It evolved with farmers who used bull fights to settle land disputes. Then, the Japanese prohibited it “fearing any festival that encouraged Koreans to get together.” A gradual revival after independence brought about the Cheongdo festival in 1990.

I would imagine the nationalist roots are a part of the reason it’s stuck around.

The animal rights groups attempting to ban the festival have only succeeded in a slight delay in festivities in 2008. Their main issue seems to be the treatment of the bulls, and that they may be given performance-enhancing drugs. But while such groups have gotten the government to shut down horse fighting on Jeju island, Cheongdo has managed to hold on to its bullfighting.

There do actually seem to be some benefits for the bulls: a longer life away from the slaughterhouse during which they get special meals (boiled beans, medicinal herbs, mudfish, snake meat and octopus, apparently) and plenty of exercise. The bulls we saw looked healthy.

But the fighting didn’t seem to be very voluntary or natural. The bulls had to be pushed quite a bit to fight, sometimes over and over again. They seemed much more content to play in the dirt and ignore each other. And while they aren’t killed, they are roughed up a bit. Apparently the bulls’ horns are filed to a point before matches, and during the fighting they were obviously getting scratched up.

The article offers the opinion of a ‘rodeo expert from Nebraska,’ who apparently should be an authority on the matter of Korean wrestling bulls…anyway these are his thoughts: “When I look at a bull, I know if it has been taken care of or abused,” and also, “they are not forced to fight…they want to fight.”

I still don’t buy it, and I couldn’t feel good cheering with the rest of the crowd when the bulls really got going after each other. But whether or not they want to fight, at least they’re taken care of.

What do you think?


This was my first big, nation-wide Korean festival, which was interesting in itself.

First, the cute Cheongdo mascots:
Mascots on hand to cheer on the events

And second, the food available on-site.

The food they had far surpassed what would be available at an American festival-equivalent, which would be… hot dogs? popcorn? cardboard pizza? They had full menus of traditional Korean favorites and all kinds of barbeque, being cooked on-the-spot.

We grabbed some beef soup, in honor of seeing the cows, and some dong-dong-ju, which is a sort of rice wine served out of a bowl and drunk from littler bowls (like makkoli):
Lunch at the festival

This meat was also available:
Another lunch option:
(If you can’t tell what it is, there’s a picture in the background.)


From the festival, we headed to the other big attraction in Cheongdo: The Persimmon Wine Tunnel

On the way there, we passed some pretty flowers.
Pretty flowers

Like many other cities in Korea, Cheongdo is famous for persimmons. But Cheongdo is unique in that they turn their persimmons into a sweet white wine.
Entrance to the Cheongdo Wine Tunnel

The low-lighting and wine and cheese plates provide all the makings of a good date spot, and according to my Cheongdo tourist pamphlet “It is very popular for date course”.

'It is very popular for date course.'

At the end of the tunnel, we ran into the Siberian and Nigerian ambassadors and entourage. It kind of seemed like everyone left the festival and headed to the wine tunnel.

Wine and wine glass

I wasn’t a huge fan of the persimmon wine. It tasted good at first sip – sweet and dessert-y. But as I drank a full glass, it got worse and worse. I think other places probably do sweet wines better.


**In closing, a few more English gems from the tourist brochure, because you can’t make this up:
Incidental/Experience Events
Experience bullfighting
Cow& bunga is shooting nicely!

On stage event
Magic show of levitation
Poomba performance to crack up
Bull’s free dancing competition

Official event
Entrance of color guards composed of bull

I don’t know what this cow & bunga business is, but it showed up twice in the program. Could it be anything other than cowabunga?? As in, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s cowabunga?? Googling ‘bunga’ and ‘cow bunga’ doesn’t turn up any other results, so I think this must be so!

Come quick! People in funny hats!

After work last Tuesday, I got word that people in costumes were dancing around my neighborhood, Byeongyeong. There usually isn’t a lot happening around here, other than lots of drinking and raw-fish-eating and the occasional drunken fight, so it seemed worth a look. As I came down the hill from my apartment, I was greeted by rhythmic drumming and some kind of singing (or maybe more like chanting) being blasted over the PA. A crowd had already gathered, blocking off most of the street. On the small stage, many people in white outfits and funny hats were dancing around and beating on some traditional Korean drums. In the middle was a wizard, which was obvious because of his long white beard and light blue robe.

Byeongyeong festival
What was all the fuss about? Some holiday celebrating a ‘campaign’ against Japan was how my co-teacher explained it – something to do with independence, but not independence day. According to wikipedia, there are several Japan-related holidays.

After a little more drumming, all of the colorful floofy-hatted performers departed, only to be replaced by some all-pink floofy-hatted drummers. They were joined by three traditional Korean masks, and what seemed to be a big alter. Luckily, the wizard remained. There was plenty of more drumming and chanting and dancing, this time in a circle around the alter.

(I tried out my camera’s video for the first time to try to capture some of the music, because I thought it was kind of cool. This is a bit long and unedited. My two favorite dancers were the wizard and the incredibly happy drumming man, who didn’t stop smiling for the hour that I saw him. You can see them towards the end.)

Bowing to the alter-thing
Everyone bowing to the alter. It had some fake pears (I think they were pears?) at the base.

The Wizard-guy is my favorite
His hat is part of the traditional Korean hanbok. But the robe and beard seem all wizard to me.

I like their hats too
I would like to acquire one of these hats.

The event was watched by a sea of ajummas
Please take a moment to note that the crowd consists almost entirely of older women, all with the exact same short curly-poofy haircut. This is the ajumma.

The traditional mask takes a drink
At one point, a ‘well’ was wheeled out and all the masks and the wizard-man drank from it.

Then they made a ‘fire’, which was rather unfortunately just a smoke bomb under some dried brances.
The wizard-guy dances by the smoke

Traditional mask man in front of the fake fire

The festival kind of reminded me of the kukeri festival they do in Bulgaria, for the end of winter. The fire, dancing and drumming in a circle, and funny costumes were all rather similar.
Kukeri Festival
(from the Kukeri festival in Shiroka Laka, Bulgaria)

They went on singing and dancing for another 15 minutes or so, and some guy started giving out apples to many people in the crowd. We were just about to leave when I ran into some of my students. At first I didn’t recognize them…
A couple of my students in some crazy make-up for a dance performance
…as they were wearing this make-up that looked like a mash-up between CATS and Avatar.

A couple of my students in some crazy make-up for a dance performance

I find the way it distorts their noses and eyes a bit disturbing, but it made me want to stick around and see what kind of dance warranted such make-up.

As we waited, we watched three couples of older women dance to dated-sounding disco music. This was followed by a group of slightly younger women in mermaid-ish belly dancing outfits dancing to Shakira.

Then some women dressed like mermaids bellydanced to Shakira...

My students unfortunately were not doing a CATS or Avatar-inspired dance, just some KPop. But it was cool to see them perform, and they were awesome, and I think one of my sixth grade boys has a future as a back-up dancer. The kids dancing after them were wearing flannel shirts tied around their waists, which startled me almost as much as the cat-makeup. ’90s grungy flannel and KPop just don’t seem to go together.

The sign hung up behind the stage translated to ‘citizen bragging songs’. Whatever that means. The dancing went on for another four hours at least, so I guess they had a lot to brag about…

School Festival

This is a long over-due post from something that took place back in December, but I figured better late than never.

Most elementary, middle and high schools in Korea hold ‘school festivals’ at the end of the year, to showcase all kinds of student performances. Towards the end of November, I started to hear reports and see pictures from my friends’ schools. Many of them seemed to involve some cross dressing on the part of some of the boys in the school, which seemed rather strange, but had me eagerly awaiting what was to come with my school’s festival.

Over the course of two days, each grade, kindergarten – sixth, was given about an hour to perform. I went with my co-teachers to the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade performances. It was very cute to see the kids running around in their costumes throughout the day – first grade girls in glittery tops and fairy wings, sixth grade boys trying to dress like K-Pop stars.

The biggest surprise of the day for me was that each grade put on an English pop song performance. Where did they learn this? I asked my co-teacher, who told me they learned the song in the after school program. Our school has an after school English program I don’t know about? At first I was a bit bummed that I, the native English speaker, was not in on the after-school program that was teaching the kids fun English pop songs, but apparently it’s privately run and just rents a classroom from the school. The best English song performance was “Dancing Queen” by a group of fifth grade girls in red bow ties. For some reason, ABBA is extremely popular here.

Other highlights were a taekwondo-dance hybrid very popular with the boys, and this choreographed routine that involved a big group of students holding up many colored cards to make a big picture that changed to the beat of the music. One of these card choreography routines showed a cute love story between a boy and girl, slowly unfolding through several images. The last one featured two monkeys, butt to butt. No one else seemed to think this was the least bit outrageous. I tried to get an explanation from my co-teacher, but she didn’t seem to think it was odd either.

At one point during the fifth grade show, the lights dimmed and a few students came out dressed all in black wielding neon green glowsticks. They then proceeded to twirl them around in a rave-type show to techno music.

But the most shocking part was the K-Pop performances. Each grade had at least one. The students seemed to just copy the dance routines from the music videos, and everyone seemed to think this was ok, even though it’s fourth grade girls wearing short shorts and go-go boots doing these overtly sexual dance moves… I guess that’s a cultural difference I’ll never understand.

Side note – my favorite thing in Winter camp was to play this song in class. All of the girls would immediately stop what they were doing to sing and do the dance that goes with the chorus. “You don’t know me! You don’t know me! So shut up, boy! Shut up, boy!” So adorable.

Also adorable was a group of fifth grade boys who did a dance to another popular K-Pop song. Dressed in their fanciest, hip-hoppiest clothes, they did an obviously very well-rehearsed hip-hop-styled dance with utmost intensity and seriousness. The other students went crazy for it. It reminded me of my middle school talent show in sixth grade, when a band made up for eighth grade boys covered that Eagle Eyed Cherries song “Save Tonight” and we all thought it was the. coolest. thing. ever.

While my school festival didn’t have any cross-dressing, it had more than enough cultural oddities for me to ponder. I did ask my co-teacher about the cross-dressing, but the only explanation she gave me was “it’s funny.” These kinds of things make me feel like I could live here for years and years and years and years, but some things I would never fully understand.

Lunar New Year and other Observations in Seoul

The first week in February was the Korean Lunar New year holiday (설날). Before coming to Korea, I had only known Lunar New Year as “Chinese New Year.” But seeing as they celebrate in Korea as well, they certainly wouldn’t be calling it “Chinese” New Year over here. As it’s Korea’s most widely-celebrated holiday, we had three days off of work, and I took off to the big city (Seoul) with a couple of friends.


For those unaware, this year is the year of the rabbit. Being born in 1987, that makes it my lucky year!


Lunar New Year in NYC is always a big to-do in Chinatown, with a parade with giant dragons and all of that. So that’s what I was hoping to find in Seoul, but as it turns out most Koreans celebrate the holiday privately with their families. I was pretty disappointed that there wouldn’t be any giant dragons parading in the streets, as this is Asia, but we did manage to find some smaller festivities at one of Seoul’s tinier palaces, Unhyeongung.


They were renting out hanbok, traditional Korean dress, by the hour for only ~$3.00. As soon as we saw the sign, we automatically, unanimously decided it was a good idea.


And as soon as we were dressed and outside, regretted the decision a bit. Walking around in this traditional Korean get-up as a foreigner made me feel like a pretty big idiot. But at least it made for some good pictures. We also got the thumbs up from a few older Koreans, but mostly just lots of stares and giggles.



Hanbok is a very unflattering look for me.


This is the way it’s supposed to look:

They also had some traditional games…

…some of which were more complicated than others.

Interesting side story: a month previous to this, at my school’s “teachers’ PE day,”, we played the above game in the gym. They had that game board made up out of hula-hoops on the floor, and there seemed to be some complicated, very un-straightforward way to move around it. Because I couldn’t figure it out, I was a ‘stick’ for the entire game. This involved being blindfolded and standing at the front of the gym, jumping around in circles to flip ‘up’ or ‘down.’ To be blindfolded and completely unable to understand anything you’re hearing is an interesting experience that I hope I will not have to repeat any time soon…

There were also some crazy cool paintings depicting the transition from Year of the Tiger to Year of the Rabbit.


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On this trip I discovered how gigantic Seoul is. I thought I had already seen the main shopping areas and the touristy districts, but there are so many. A friend of a friend (and native Seoul-ite) took us to Gangnam, a neighborhood on the other side of the river. Gangnam has shopping to rival Myong-dong as well as tons of international restaurants and nightlife. He took us to a Mexican restaurant, where I had perhaps the best burrito in my entire life (not that I’ve been to Mexico, or eaten Mexican in California or anything, but it was pretty good). But venturing south of the Han made me realize there’s a whole nother half of Seoul I have yet to explore.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Bukchon Hanok Village is a neighborhood of traditional-style houses on a hill above Insa-dong.

The neighborhood is super cute, but I can only imagine how annoying it would be to live there with so many tourists constantly coming through and posing for pictures.

I’m not sure what this bench was doing in the ‘traditional’ neighborhood. But the head on the right kind of looks like JFK.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Insa-dong is the main touristy neighborhood in Seoul, where the streets are lined with vendors touting all kinds of touristy memorabilia. It’s also known for many ‘traditional’ tea houses. The best* one is called ‘old tea house’ and is tucked away off the main strip, down an alley and up a set of creaky wooden stairs. The inside is cozy and cluttered with antique-looking furniture. But the main attraction is that there are birds flying around. When I heard about this, I was kind of hoping the place would be full of birds everywhere, chirping and flying around your head. As it turned out, we only saw 4-5 while we were there. But that’s probably for the best, because nothing could ruin a cup of good tea faster than a bird pooping in it.

My friend Akosua bought a calendar of some Korean drama star who she is in love with. K-pop memorabilia of all varieties – calendars, posters, pictures, socks – is sold all over Insa-dong as well.

The bathroom floor was made of pebbles. And there were goldfish swimming in the toilet.

(*I have only ever been to one tea house in Insa-dong, but I’m pretty sure there couldn’t be a better one.)

Also in Insa-dong, we saw a small exhibit about North Korean political prisoner camps.

The stories we read were shocking. Prisoners being starved and beaten and killed in the camps was the least of it. But beyond how absolutely terrible the conditions are, I was shocked to read about how easily people can be imprisoned. People had been imprisoned because of something their grandfather or distant relative had done because of ‘association.’ Many artists and musicians had been put into the camps. One story told of a high school cheerleading team that traveled to the south and was caught saying something about the North. I hadn’t realized how bad things were, the stories were truly awful.

And speaking of the north, these are all over the Seoul subways:

That’s something you don’t see in the NYC subways. The TVs on the trains also show rather graphic, dramatic videos of what to do in the event of a gas attack. From what I remember, it goes something like this: Gas fills the trains. People panic. There’s a small explosion. The smoke clears to reveal bodies strewn across the subway platform. Those that can run for the safety of the exits. Some are wounded, and have big, bleeding gashes across their arms or foreheads. …I found it rather surprising that they would play something so dramatic in such a public place, but none of the locals seemed to pay it any mind.


— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Cheonggyecheon Park is a little creek that runs through downtown Seoul. The area had been covered by concrete and roads until about five years ago, when the city decided to renovate it. I imagine it’s a bit nicer in the summer, when there’s a bit more greenery and life around it. But it makes for a rather nice walk, even on a rather gray and dreary winter day.


— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Downtown we found some super cheap ice skating. I hadn’t been in years and year, and was a bit wary of how well I’d be able to do. As it turned out, I could hold my own on the skates, although nearly-free skating in one of the world’s most populated cities turned out to be more people-dodging than anything.

This old guy was skating in full hanbok get-up. He seemed readily willing to pose for pictures on request. It made me feel more at home, to see that Seoul apparently has its crazies as well.


We stayed at a hostel in Hongdae, which is (as far as I know) the biggest nightlife district in the country. On the night of Lunar New Year, we found a group assembled in the common area eating 떡국 (rice cake soup, traditional on Lunar New Year) and drinking soju. It was the hostel owner, a group of his friends, a French guy on a Visa run from Japan, and a couple of Dutch university students who had just gotten off the plane and were on their way to Daejon. After a bit of soju and makkoli, we all went to the fanciest noraebang I’d ever seen, and after an hour or two of singing, ended the night at a small bar singing Oasis songs with a bunch of other westerners. Oh, how I love hostels.


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