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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Sangju – a weekend in small town Korea

Thanksgiving weekend I headed out of Ulsan to visit another friend from my EPIK orientation. She was placed at an all-girls’ high school in Sangju, a rather small rural city (120,000 people) located not too far away from Andong, about three hours north of Ulsan. Rumor had it there was a restaurant that served turkey, and even though only two of us were from the US (among a Canadian, a Brit and two Irish), we were pretty determined to find some turkey for the holidays.

According to my coworkers, Sangju is famous for bicycles and persimmons. It also has some historical significance, according to Wikipedia: it was an important fortress during the Shilla dynasty, and home to some famous rebellions during the fall of the dynasty in the late 9th century.

So my visit to Sangju was in search of turkey, bicycles, and persimmons – all of which we failed rather miserably in finding. But this did not affect the awesome-ness of the weekend.

Sangju has a bike museum that provides free (!!) bike rentals. So Saturday morning, we hopped in a cab and headed to the museum on the outskirts of the city, quite a ways from my friend’s apartment. When we got there, we found the museum was closed and the entire area was deserted.

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Cute design!

But nearby were a bunch of persimmon farms, and supposedly a temple, so we decided to walk the route we had planned to bike.

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On a farm next to the bicycle museum.

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On the side of the road. Frankenstein?

Unfortunately, it was winter, and Saturday, so the farms were quite barren and deserted. We had just missed persimmon season. Had we been there a few weeks earlier, our route would have been lined by persimmons hung up to dry. Unfortunately, it was cold and everything was pretty shut down.

We did find a few:
Persimmons, hung up to dry
We bought a bag of them, and they were incredibly delicious.

Disgarded persimmon bits
Someone dumped all their peels on the side of the road.

We continued up the road, which lead up a hill to the temple. Just as we arrived at the temple, it started to rain.
A temple in Sangju

A temple in Sangju

Frozen and wanting to get into the rain, we were let into one of the temple rooms by a woman/Buddhist who worked there.

Seeking shelter from the rain in a temple

The temple smelled like incense. It had heaters, but they weren’t turned on, so it was still quite cold. But at least we were dry.
Cold feet

Left on our own in the temple, we laid down on the floor, ate more dried persimmons, and goofed around a bit. Eventually we noticed the cameras in every corner of the room. Just then, the woman who had let us into the temple came in. She asked us some questions in Korean, which none of us understood. Then she led us in some bows. I don’t know anything about Buddhism, but the bows consisted of standing with your hands pressed together in front of you, then getting down on your knees, kneeling completely forward to press your forehead onto the floor, and then standing up to repeat. We did this three times in front of the big Buddha statue, then three more times each in front of two pictures of some other guys.

After we had ‘prayed’, or whatever, the woman led is into the building next door, which seemed to be the head office. Behind her desk (which was of course on the floor – all of the tables in the rather large room were down on the floor) was a TV showing images from all of the security cameras. Oops.

We sat on the squishy floor and she gave us some coffee and extremely dry rice cake. There was another monk in the room, a Sri Lankan man visiting for a few months. He was studying Korean. Unfortunately none of us spoke enough Korean to really communicate, and so after a little while we tried to call a cab. But because of the weather, the cab company was booked. So the monk lady helped us call a cab. I tried to offer her some of our dried persimmons in thanks, but considering she lived in the land of dried persimmons she wasn’t really interested.

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Cold, waiting for the cab.

As Sangju isn’t that much bigger than the small suburban city I grew up in, I didn’t expect much for a Saturday night out. But I was pleasantly surprised.

First of all, I found this shop downtown:
New York hot dogs! and coffee!
They seem to have more hot dog options than I remember ever seeing in NYC.

Bowling!
Then we went bowling! I even managed to break 100 (barely) on my second game! Also, please note the red, white and blue banners in the background.

The other most awesome thing about Sangju: the noraebangs come with wigs! And masks! And some even have costumes! Supposedly this is pretty popular in Korea, but I have yet to find another noraebang with such accoutrements, and I would consider my self a frequent noraebang-er.

Sangju's awesome noraebangs

Sangju's awesome noraebangs
Mark channels his inner-Freddie Mercury.

Sangju's awesome noraebangs

Akosua noraes

I don’t know why noraebangs in Ulsan don’t provide you with wigs and masks and costumes, but I’m determined to find more that do.

One of the best things about all of these private room-type places (DVD Bangs, noraebangs, play rooms – which are like DVD bangs but have Nintendo Wii or Playstation and internet hook-ups) is that you can sneak in your own alcohol, and they provide you with free snacks. Which make them significantly cheaper than drinking at a bar.

Sangju was very easy to get to from Ulsan. We thought we’d have to bus to Gumi and change buses, but as it turned out the bus went all the way through to Sangju. It wasn’t that cheap, or quick, but well worth the visit! I’ll be back again in the spring to hopefully find some biking and more operational farms.