Celebrating Buddha’s Birthday with the Lotus Lantern Festival

The Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul was quite the celebration. For more than one week leading up to Buddha’s Birthday, which is a national holiday in Korea, the city hosted numerous Buddhist events and decorated its sidewalks with bright, colorful lanterns. The traditional lanterns are made with hanji, a tough, Korean paper made out of the inner bark or fiber of mulberry trees.

First, we witnessed the massive gathering in Gwanghwamun Square for the Conference for World Peace and the Reunification of Korea. It was organized by the Great Equal Assembly of Ganhwa Seon — part of the Jogye Order, the country’s largest Buddhist sect, which practices Seon (aka Zen) buddhism. If you look closely in one of the photos, you can see the large group of monks sitting right in front of the stage.

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Crossing the Border: Our Tour of the DMZ & JSA

You often hear news of foreigners being imprisoned by North Korea. But did you know there’s a place where you can safely cross the border? (Mostly safely.) I’ll get to that later.

After months of living in Seoul, I finally got to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and JSA (Joint Security Area) in Panmunjom. I shouldn’t be surprised that Koreans have made the DMZ a tourist attraction, but it’s still amusing to me that they allow steady streams of tourists into such a highly sensitive and politically charged area. In fact, our tour guide noted that, despite its name, the DMZ is the most militarized area in the country.

We booked a full-day tour that took us to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, the Dora Observatory, the Dorasan Station, the Freedom Bridge, the JSA and famous MAC Conference Room, and the Bridge of No Return. (Will had already been to the DMZ, but he hadn’t done the full tour, so some of this was new to him, too.) Here’s our spiffy tour bus.

Tour bus FTW!

The DMZ is only about an hour away from Seoul. At a certain point during the drive up, I started noticing barbed wire fencing and guard posts along the Hangang (Han) River. If you look across the river, you can see the mountains in North Korea, which our tour guide said are bare because they still use wood for a lot of construction. She also said they believe the dark green patches are places where the North Koreans are hiding weapons.

Barbed wire fencing and guard houses along the Han River

First views of North Korea

Another guard house Continue reading Crossing the Border: Our Tour of the DMZ & JSA

The Impeccable Korean Chamber Orchestra

The former band geek in me always loves going to see classical music concerts. Luckily, we were recently invited to see the Korean Chamber Orchestra perform at the Seoul Arts Center for their 50th Anniversary Special Concert III.

The Seoul Arts Center is a large, art and culture complex featuring not only the music hall, but also an opera house, museum, outdoor event spaces and more. The concert hall where the orchestra performed was interesting — it had seating behind the stage, which I’ve never seen before.

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Seoul Arts Center

Plaza at the Seoul Arts Center

Inside the Music Hall building.

Concert Hall Continue reading The Impeccable Korean Chamber Orchestra

Korean Baseball – A Whole Other Ball Game

One of Will’s coworkers was nice enough to invite us to a baseball game recently. Of all the things I’d planned to do during our time in Korea — visit historic sites, see traditional arts performances, etc. — I hadn’t thought to do something as ordinary as go to a sports game. But I am SO glad we did! ‘Cause it’s a whole other game here in Korea.

When we arrived at Jamsil Baseball Stadium, one of the first things I noticed was all the vendors outside, selling everything from food (dried squid, to-go boxes of fried chicken & more) to thundersticks/bambams and other fan gear. It seemed very convenient, just grab and go in. There were also many eateries and food stands, including western fast food joints like Burger King and KFC, dessert places like Street Churros and beer stands of course. You can bring your own food into the stadium if you prefer, too.

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The game was between the Doosan Bears from Seoul and the Hanwha Eagles from Daejeon. Naturally, we sat with the Bears fans. Continue reading Korean Baseball – A Whole Other Ball Game

Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain

I read about the Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain months ago, when we first got to Seoul. Just hadn’t made my way out there. The same day we returned from Busan, we headed out in the evening to go see it. It’s located at the Banpodaegyo (Banpo) Bridge over the Han River, and it’s pretty much what it sounds like. A large fountain shooting out the side of the bridge with different colored lights. At night, the fountain moves and sways to the music.

I was surprised to see several food trucks in the little park area there when we arrived (I think they’re the only food trucks I’ve seen in Seoul), and there’s a small promenade where you can sit on the steps and enjoy the water and light “show.” Other than that, there’s not much else to see and do here. You can cross under the bridge and check out the cool-looking glass buildings that appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron (remember the Korean scientist’s lab?), but there’s not much there, either, except for some cafes and shopping. Someone told us the buildings house event spaces? Not sure.

It was drizzling that night, but still enjoyable.

Food trucks!

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Discovering Busan’s beaches and local eats

As our time in Seoul winds down, I find myself busier than ever! I’ve been meaning to blog about our trip to Busan for a couple weeks now. But, I’m thankful we’re still getting to explore new places and see new things, six months in.

Busan is the second largest city in South Korea, as well as a major port city. We took the KTX high-speed train down there, about a three-hour journey, and got to see just how green and mountainous this country is.

View of the Korean countryside from the train

Countryside views on our way back to Seoul

Inside the KTX high-speed train

Busan Station Continue reading Discovering Busan’s beaches and local eats

The Natural Wonders of Jeju Island

Mandarin oranges, Jeju black pig, Hallasan Mountain, huge lava tubes, majestic waterfalls, beautiful beaches…. Those are just some of the things I’ll remember Jeju for.

For those of you who’ve never heard of Jeju (I hadn’t heard of it until we came to Korea), it’s a volcanic island off the southern coast of Korea. It’s fairly small, oval-shaped, with a population of roughly 600,000, the dormant Hallasan Mountain volcano rising at its center and hundreds of “oreums,” or volcanic cones, scattered all over the island that basically look like small mountains.

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It rained for half of our time on the island, but I have to say, it didn’t ruin things one bit. In fact, the rain somewhat added to the “tropical” feel of the island (and kept away many tourists).

First, we checked out Jeongbang Waterfall, one of the three major falls on the island. Continue reading The Natural Wonders of Jeju Island