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:
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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…

(An Irish) Christmas in Korea

Christmas isn’t a very big holiday in Korea. It’s celebrated more along the lines of Valentine’s Day: couple’s give each other gifts and go out for dinner. But the story of Santa Claus has spread to the children of Korea, as I learned from my co-teacher, who was rushing to buy her 3- and 5-year-old sons a gift from Santa on the 24th.

But the department stores in Korea would have you believe Christmas was just as big here as it is back home. Walking around downtown Ulsan almost felt like a trip back to the States, with the Lotte and Hyundai Department Stores’ competing giant Christmas trees.

Christmas Lights in Ulsan

Christmas Lights in Ulsan
Hyundai’s tree had dripping icicle lights, so I think it won.

I was in school up until the morning of the 24th, when the students were let off for their Winter vacation (which corresponds to summer vacation in the States – when they return, they’ll start a new school year). But before they left, I got a couple of Christmas cards, including this drawing of Mario and Luigi from a third grader.
A Christmas picture from a 3rd grader
I thought this was cute, because they love to play this Mario PowerPoint English game in class.

A Christmas Card from one of my 4th graders

A group of fourth grade boys even gave me a Christmas present! It’s a cup half filled with chicken, and half with soda (they’re separated by a plastic barrier, so don’t worry, your chicken doesn’t get all soggy).
Christmas present from some 4th graders

After school on the 24th, I went to an end-of-the-semester dinner with my main teacher crew – one of my co-teachers and the fifth grade home room teachers. We went to a shabu restaurant, where we cooked a bunch of red meat, seafood and vegetables together in a big soup pot. As my co-workers were cutting up a baby octopus with the traditional pair of scissors, my mind was already on the next phase of my holiday: taking the high-speed KTX train to Daegu to search for pumpkin pie at Costco.

Yes, there are Costco’s in Korea. Quite a few. Around Thanksgiving, the rumor was you could find pumpkin pie there. I missed out, and was really hoping to find one for Christmas. But first, I went out for Christmas Eve dinner with some friends at a popular foreigner restaurant, The Holy Grill.

My first hummus in months!
Christmas Eve Dinner in Korea: hummus and pita, half of a vegetarian burrito, and a pint of the locally-brewed Alley Kat Pale Ale. Yummmmmm.

Costco turned out to be a gigantic disappointment, as there were no pumpkin pies to be found. There were, however, Costco-sized apple pies, of which we bought two.

We then headed to the train station to catch a train to Gumi, where we would be celebrating Christmas in my friend Dave’s gigantic three-bedroom apartment. But the next train to Gumi wasn’t for another hour, and so we spent the rest of Christmas Eve in Daegu’s train station, watching a big group of carolers sing and dance to Koreanized versions of Christmas songs.

It was everyone’s first Christmas away from their families, and we were quite determined to prepare a good dinner. They’re not big on turkeys in Korea, but some friends in Daegu found a place that was selling them to foreigners for the holiday.

The turkey
Complete with stuffing, gravy, and a can of cranberry sauce! Just like home.

Upon the arrival of the turkey, we realized Dave only had one butter knife in his apartment. Luckily, stores are open on Christmas in Korea and so finding a knife up to the turkey-carving task wasn’t too difficult. No one had carved a turkey before, but we managed quite well.
The carving of the turkey

We also prepared a bunch of vegetables and mashed potatoes. I was quite proud of the spread we put together.
Christmas dinner

Seated on the floor around the table to enjoy Christmas dinner (this is Korea, after all).
Christmas dinner!

This was my first turkey in about five years, since I’ve opted out as a vegetarian at the past several holidays. I have to say it was pretty delicious!

As I was at my Irish friend’s apartment, Christmas was celebrated with Jameson, Guinness, Bailey’s, and Irish coffees (in addition to soju)…
Christmas in Gumi!

…as well as a ‘Christmas pudding.’ Apparently it’s tradition to light the Christmas pudding on fire. We soaked it in Jameson, but unfortunately couldn’t get it to light.
The Christmas pudding

And so I spent Christmas in Korea eating and drinking, and eating, and eating(far too much eating). And so, even with the flaming Christmas pudding instead of the pumpkin pie, and soju in place of wine, Christmas in Korea felt quite a bit like Christmas at home.

An American Halloween in Korea

My first real taste of homesickness in Korea came with Halloween. I really don’t think there is any place in the world to be on Halloween other than New York City. The parade, the mobs of people on the streets and subways in costumes, the decorations.. no one does Halloween like New York (at least, not that I know of).

Halloween isn’t really celebrated in Korea. Very few kids dress up. There is no trick-or-treating. There are no decorations. It seemed like the main reason stores sold any costumes at all (the biggest stores had a stand or two of Halloween-y things) was because English schools celebrate the holiday.

In school, being ambassador of Western culture, I took it upon myself to spread Halloween festiveness. I made a big Halloween presentation for all of my classes, showing a clip from The Nightmare Before Christmas (which never got old – not even on the 19th time). I also distributed candy corn to some of my students and some teachers, in costume. It seemed that no one had seen or really heard of candy corn before, but the verdict was that it was quite good. My co-teacher and I dressed up for the Friday before.

Halloween in School

Halloween in School
With some of my 6th graders.

On Halloween, I headed to Daegu (Korea’s 3rd biggest city) with my English-teaching friends to join a bar crawl. As Koreans don’t really celebrate Halloween, the bar crawl was pretty much entirely foreigners. Most of the locals we encountered on the streets of Daegu seemed to know what was going on with the costumes though, and seemed mostly amused.

I believe the evening is best told in pictures (which I have borrowed from my friends).

Halloween in Daegu - heading out for the evening
Headed out for the evening.

We walk the streets at night...

...we go where eagles dare...

...they pick up every movement...

Mr. Muscle on the streets of Daegu
Mark aka Mr. Muscle (some British thing)

Alan from the Hangover
Dave aka Alan from the Hangover (apparently The Hangover is quite popular even in Korea)

Firework photo op in front of Gogo Party
The first bar we went to gave us sparklers and set off fireworks while they took pictures.

Halloween in Daegu

Cocktail a bag at Gogo Party
They also served drinks in bags.

Harlem Globetrotters

Halloween in Daegu
Eddie the vampire and Ellen the fairy

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The best ajumma costume of the night.

Halloween in Daegu

Halloween in Daegu

We stayed at a ‘love motel’, popular to stay at because they are usually the cheapest option. They’re also rent-able by the hour and come ‘fully equiped’:
Love Motel - fully stocked and ready for action
Me and three of my friends decided it would be a good idea for all four of us to try to fit in one room, in one bed. This wasn’t the most comfortable decision, but it was definitely the cheapest.

The weekend ended at The Holy Grill, a western restaurant, for breakfast. Nothing beats an American diner breakfast after a night out!

So, while nothing can quite compare NYC when it comes to Halloween, celebrating in Korea can be very festive as well.