Cheers to Buddha, Children and Days Off

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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.

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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.

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Pretty pink lotus lanterns.

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

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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.

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

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

The area around Tongdosa is rather pretty.
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We decided to hike up around the hills around the temple.

And so we embarked on a bit of an adventure:

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

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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.

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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:

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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…
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(According to my limited Korean ability, this rock says “death people rock.” Hmmm.)

…that led us to another temple.
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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.

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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.

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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??

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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”.

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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.

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Ho-ho-ho-Hongdae

It wasn’t until the third or fourth night of my week-long vacation in Seoul that I made it to Hongdae, the famous university area. Almost instantly upon exiting the subway, I wished we had made it out that way sooner.

Coming from the US, I’m used to ‘college towns.’ Despite the proximity of all the universities, Hongdae does not have a ‘college town’ kind of a vibe. Hongdae is an impressive sprawl of bars, restaurants, hofs, nightclubs, shops, coffee shops, street vendors, lights, music, and general madness going on into all hours of the night. Even after three nights of exploring, it stills feels never-ending.

Hongdae

As it was a Wednesday, I wasn’t expecting much. But even early on in the evening, the streets were quite packed with university students, slipping around on the icy streets, in and out of bars.

(This obviously isn’t Hongdae on a December night – I borrowed this picture from the internet – but look at the crowds!)

Our evening started with some Hoolala chicken:
Hoolala!

I was very happy to find some street art, which I hadn’t seen any of anywhere else in Korea:

Hongdae

Hongdae

We embarked on a quest for a recommended Club FF, which proved rather difficult to find in the never-ending maze of bars and clubs (which becoming increasingly difficult to navigate as the evening wore on). Trying to find a ‘Club FF’ is especially difficult in Korea, as asking the locals about ‘FF’ is tricky in a language without an F sound.

Although our search for Club FF proved fruitless, we did find many other worthy drinking places, auch as this German-style brewery:
Good brews in Hongdae
in which we accidentally ordered that giant cask of beer. Fortunately, it was delicious and so it didn’t go to waste!

We also found a Rock’n’Roll bar playing western indie rock that was excellent because it 1.) served pretzels and 2.) let you request your own songs. We found some French study-abroad students, and I discovered my traveling companion Mark was an avid French student. Our new friends led us to an underground bar in a gigantic cellar, which we closed down and then headed to a chain called ‘Ho Bar’ which is open until 6am every day. Which seems quite ridiculous.

Our Wednesday bar crawl was enough to convince us that Hongdae was where we should be on New Years Eve. And so, two days later we headed back with a few more English-teacher friends.

Bars in Ulsan just don’t have this kind of atmosphere:

Bar Decor

…or this kind of trendy way to serve soju cocktails:
Fancy soju cocktails

This must be why they serve their soju cocktails like that

New Years Eve also unfortunately took me away from Hongdae, to a hipster party in the ritzy neighborhood of Apgujeong on the other side of the river, where a DJ wearing a giant mouse head played electronic music at a bar only that served Absolut Vodka and Budweisers for 10,000 won/~$10 a bottle. (!!!)

After spending a bit of time in Hongdae, we regretted our decision to stay in Itaewon. Luckily, we would be returning to Seoul a few weeks later to correct our mistake…

Fall in Ulsan

Fall in Ulsan

It’s a bit of a late update, but this is was I was up to all fall in Ulsan…

Onggi Pottery Festival
My first weekend: in which I am introduced to “Dynamic Korea” at the Onggi Festival

Onggi is a type of traditional Korean pottery that is commonly used to prepare and store kimchi and other fermented things (like makoli). My arrival in Ulsan coincided with a festival in honor of Onggi and fermenting in a village on the southern outskirts of the city. The Metropolitan Office of Education (my employer) organized a visit for interested native English teachers, including a special kimchi-making class that my co-teacher assured me was an important cultural experience.

Within my first few weeks of teaching, communicating with my Korean co-teacher was still rather difficult, so I never determined where exactly I was supposed to catch the bus to the festival. And so on Saturday morning, I gathered in between Ulsan’s two main bus stations with a group of 30-some other uncertain foreign teachers to find our shuttle bus. We figured a giant group of foreigners would be easy enough for our bus driver to spot (we certainly weren’t unnoticed by the other natives passing by).

Thirty minutes passed. No bus. Teachers started to grow impatient, some decided to leave. We noticed a sign across the street in Korean, that someone was able to read said ‘Onggi Festival Shuttle Bus.’ So we moved across the street. Another hour passed, and still no bus. More and more foreigners gave up and left. One Korean-American teacher with some Korean language skills finally ended up on the phone with a very concerned and upset festival organizer, who assured us a bus was on its way. And sure enough, a bus did pull up. We quickly piled on, and then someone determined the bus wasn’t going to be leaving for another two hours. Everyone off the bus. At that point, most of the rest of the group left, just as a second bus was pulling up. The bus driver was able to communicate to the girl who could speak Korean that he was here to take us to the festival. It was now about two hours after our initial point of departure. Half the group decided it wasn’t worth it and just walked away. But me, feeling guilty about leaving the bus driver without anyone to take to the festival, and still wanting to get in on my free Korean cultural experience, climbed aboard.

When we arrived at the festival, we were greeted by a couple of young Koreans in name tags. They threw some name tags at us and ran us across the festival into a tent where a bunch of foreign teachers were already making kimchi. They quickly set us up at a kimchi-making station, where an ajumma brought over a few bowls of ingredients. My appointed ajumma brusquely guided me through the process, doing most of the work herself. The entire thing was over in 10 minutes, after which they judged the best foreigner kimchi, took several pictures of us with our kimchi, and then took back our name-tags and sent us on our way.

The 10-minute whirlwind experience didn’t quite justify the 2 hour wait, but I did get a free onggi pot and enough kimchi to last me for months.

Making some kimchi
mmmmm…kimchi

Post-making some kimchi

Fall was rather pretty around Ulsan’s Taehwa River.

Ulsan's cute mascots
Ulsan’s dolphin mascots

Exercising ajumma
An exercising ajumma: one of the most common sites on the Taehwa.

More exercising ajummas
More exercising at the bamboo forest. Exercise stations are common around well-trafficked places in Ulsan.

Bamboo Forest
Inside the bamboo forest: one of the ‘twelve scenic locations of Ulsan’

My fall in Ulsan was greatly improved by the purchase of a bike.
First Day with the bike
This is my bike on it’s first day out on the town.

Ulsan is a very bike-friendly city. There’s a big bike path along all of the rivers, as well as along every major road-way. Bicycling on the sidewalks when there isn’t a bike path is completely acceptable. Actually, biking wherever you want is pretty acceptable – but it’s the same for scooters and parked cars. Traffic rules seem to be more like guidelines, especially for smaller vehicles, which makes biking around a bit chaotic, but also easier.

My first day biking, I headed with my friend Dave from Canada to the west part of the city. This is ‘Standing Rock,’ another one of Ulsan’s “Scenic Locations.”
'Standing Rock'
I imagine it must look a bit more scenic at times other than winter, when everything is not brown.

Another important discovery of the fall was that Ulsan has a micro-brewery! The Trevi Brauhaus. This is a terrible cell phone picture of their hefeweizen:
Trevi Brewery
As is the case in most of the world, German beer is very popular here. I believe all of the micro-breweries I’ve come across make German-style beers. Not that it’s anything to complain about – the Germans make some good beers.

Having a bike also makes the eastern part of the city (and the ocean!) much easier to get to. Buses go between the city center and the ocean as well, but it takes about forever with all of the stops along the way, and I always seem to end up on the wrong bus (or in some cases, multiple wrong buses).
Seuldo Lighthouse
Seuldo Lighthouse in Bangeojin

Looking south to the sea
Looking south into the East Sea

And of course, as a native English teacher, my weekends in Ulsan have had plenty of ‘going out.’ Going out in Ulsan almost always happens at one of the two downtown areas. ‘Old downtown’ is on my side of the river, and has most of the city’s foreigner bars.
Entrance to the 'Old Downtown' area
The entrance to ‘Old Downtown’

Seognam-dong (Old Downtown)
In addition to foreigner bars, Old Downtown has many, many fish restaurants. This street happens to specialize in eel restaurants. Outside of each storefront is a tank full of eels, next to which there is usually an older woman or man slicing one up for diners waiting inside. 😦

Seognam-dong (Old Downtown)
(You can also eat these fish.)

industry city
Ulsan tends to get a bad rap amongst the foreign English teachers in Korea, and is generally overlooked for it’s bigger sister city, Busan. As a city, I find it is lacking in some aspects – there isn’t really any music or art culture to speak of, and the majority of the young adult population leaves to go to university in a city with better schools. But it is very scenic, being full of mountains and rivers and coastline. While I appreciate the nightlife and culture of Busan, I do think Ulsan has a unique character and certain charm that shouldn’t go entirely overlooked.

A Day at Tongdosa: pretty views and micro brews

On Saturday, I went to a ‘meet-up’ at Tongdosa Temple. The reason ‘meet-up’ is in quotations is because this was an event planned through the website meetup.com, which makes the meeting-up-ness a bit more official and requires the use of quotations, apparently. For those unfamiliar with the website, it’s essentially a social networking site where you join groups based on mutual interests and plan events for things to do in real life. As my friends’ and my adventures with our meet-up group had more or less made my summer, I was excited to go out and meet some more people on this side of the world.

The plan for the day was to hike around the temple, eat some Korean BBQ and then head to a mountainside micro-brewery. A micro-brewery!!! After three weeks in Korea drinking the national brews (Cass, Hite, and Black Beer Stout), which are universally agreed upon to be far from spectacular, a micro-brewery sounded quite wonderful.

And so tempted by hiking in scenic mountains, and the tasty brews that would follow, I headed out of the city with three fellow native teachers from my EPIK orientation. Tongdosa was only an hour bus ride south-west of Ulsan, reachable by inner-city bus (numbers 817 and 1713, in case anyone from Ulsan stumbles across this and is curious).

The walk to the temple from town is lined with colorful paper lanterns….

Walking to Tongdosa

At a cemetery, several tombs are mounted on the backs of giant turtles. I believe turtles symbolize long life, but what about turtles with dragon heads?
Turtles and dragon-turtle hybrids

Now entering Tongdosa…
Heading into Tongdosa

Tongdosa was full of people selling things in white tents for some sort of fall festival.

Paintings for sale at Tongdosa
(pictures ‘borrowed’ from my friend Vania’s facebook)
Paintings at Tongdosa

Monks
The temple is one of the biggest in the country, and we saw many monks wandering around. Which was quite a novelty for me, quite new to the world of Buddhism.

I don’t think Buddha is usually this fat, right?
One Fat Buddha

Here are those four temple guardians again:
Tongdosa's guardians

Tongdosa's other guardians

Tongdosa

Tongdosa is a bit crowded

Stepping through the gate and into the temple feels like entering another world. Cement gives way to dirt pathways. Colorful paper lanterns are everywhere. The place is packed with tourists and monks alike. A small choir is singing (probably religious) songs accompanied by electric keyboard, creating an interesting contrast to the ancient architecture.

Tongdosa

Tongdosa

Tongdosa
In the background, of course, are beautiful mountains…

Tongdosa
Hanging out in the midst of some paper lanterns with my friend Paul

Tongdosa

In Tongdosa

Tongdosa

Paper Lanterns, Tongdosa

Paper Lanterns, Tongdosa

I was really excited to finally have an opportunity to discreetly snatch a photo of this phenomenon:
Matching couple at Tongdosa
Couples frequently dress in matching outfits around here. To me, this is kind of disgusting. But also kind of cute, I suppose.

How I'd like to redo my ceiling
Why can’t the ceiling in my apartment be like this?

After exploring the temple, we did a quick hike up a nearby hill. The view was rather magnificent…
Overlooking Tongdosa

Overlooking Tongodsa

On our way down, we came across this guy:
The coolest spider I have ever seen
The coolest spider I’ve ever seen. Decently sized (for a girl from the Michigan suburbs) – about the size of my palm with all its legs. Here’s to hoping I don’t come across any of these guys in my apartment…

Around Tongdosa
Leaving Tongdosa.

From the temple, we headed into town to get some Korean BBQ.

mmmmm! raw meat!
The scissors may make it look less fancy, but serve a very useful purpose.

Grill master

Newly reformed from 4.5 years of vegetarianism, I have to say this tastes kind of awesome.

BBQ

Korean meals generally come with a vast array of side dishes. It’s all very exciting to me, as I’m still at the point where I’ve never seen or eaten most of the things that show up. But these guys were very unexpected…
a delectable side dish
…and I just couldn’t do it. Especially after seeing other people pull them out of the shells, and how soft and squishy their little bodies looked. Maybe next time…

Proof of an awesome dinner
This what I mean by ‘vast array of side dishes.’

Finally! It was on to the micro-brewery:
The evening concludes with a visit to a local microbrewery

The place had a very ski lodge-y feel about it, and felt just like home. We were the only people there, although it was pretty early for a Saturday.

They had one beer on tap – an IPA. It was poured out of these adorable little wooden kegs…
The bartender pours our drinks out of a small keg

…and it was wonderful.

A perfect ending to a perfect day.
The best beer I've had in weeks

Gum bae!