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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hanbok is a very unflattering look for me.

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This is the way it’s supposed to look:
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They also had some traditional games…
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…some of which were more complicated than others.
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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.

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Bukchon Hanok Village is a neighborhood of traditional-style houses on a hill above Insa-dong.
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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.
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I’m not sure what this bench was doing in the ‘traditional’ neighborhood. But the head on the right kind of looks like JFK.
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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.

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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.
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(*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.
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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:
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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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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