Tag Archives: korea

Frozen at the Sancheoneo Ice Festival

For those who enjoy the cold and freezing their bums off, why not check out the Hwacheon Sancheoneo (Mountain Trout) Ice Festival in the Gangwon-Do province of South Korea. While I wasn’t a fan of the sub-zero temperatures and my initial hours of bad luck, I did enjoy some success and loved the overall atmosphere of the festival. What’s more, there are numerous activities to do beyond the ice fishing these include snow sledding, ice sledding, ice football, curling, and polar plunges to name a few. If you’re interested in checking the festival out yourself, the 2017 Sancheoneo (Mountain Trout) Ice Festival is quickly approaching and will be held from Saturday, January 7th to Sunday, January 29th.


During my trip to the festival, I remember standing and shivering, unable to move my extremities. I had never experienced cold like it before. All the while, I was trying to figure out what made me decide to spend my weekend in the region of Korea that is known as the first area to freeze over in the winter. I’m much more of a palm tree and beach kind of guy. I’ve never been a big enthusiast of the cold or even winter for that matter. It was something I was pushing off for a couple weeks, but since I was living in Korea, I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to check out the country’s biggest winter festival.


After three hours of waiting for a bite, my anger and frustration grew as I watched all the giddy looking Koreans around me catching fish after fish as if it was the easiest thing in the world. In contrast, I wasn’t experiencing any success at all, even after receiving a few helpful pointers from some of the friendly fishermen (who were almost definitely laughing at me internally). While I was considering giving up, I was approached by an older lady who suggested I head to the “Foreigners Section” to give it a go.

I was highly doubtful that being along another part of the river would make any difference. Nonetheless, I took her advice and found the “Foreigners Section.” This area was less crowded and further away from the hustle and bustle of the main festival area. I still remained doubtful, but within two minutes of being there I finally caught my first trout of the day. I finally caught a freaking fish! Within thirty minutes I had another another six fish!


I was a bit dumbfounded as to why it was so much easier to catch the trout in the “Foreigners Section.” Regardless, I was too relieved to question it for too long. One amazing aspect of the festival is that after all the hard work, fishermen can take their catches to a nearby grill and have the fish grilled and prepared on the spot. I ended up sharing my catch with a local family as we tried our best to converse with one another through my broken Korean and their limited English.


Overall, it was a truly unique and enjoyable experience, and not to mention, the trout was the freshest fish I had ever had. If you happen to find yourself in Korea during the month January, I definitely recommend making your to the festival. For more information please visit the Sancheoneo Festival Website.


Falling for Seoraksan National Park

With Autumn upon us and the lack of changing leaves here in Hong Kong, I’m beginning to long for the fall colors that can be experienced in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere. While living in South Korea, my friend and I ventured the 6 hour bus ride from our home town of Daegu to Sokcho for some fall foliage. Sokcho is a city located on the northeastern coast of Korea, not far from the North Korean border. The city is known as a gateway to nearby Seoraksan National Park, where we spent most of our weekend.


Seoraksan is one of Korea’s most popular National Parks and is listed as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is known for its stunning natural beauty, rare flora and fauna, and Buddhist temples. From the park’s main entrance there are many trails, with some peaks measuring over 1,200 meters above sea level, as well as access to a cable car. We decided to hike the Biryong Falls and Ulsanbawi courses.


The Biryong Falls course is a short hike from the main entrance of the park. “Biryong” which literally means flying dragon is an easy hike which leads visitors to a serene waterfall that is hidden deep within the forest. As with most things in Korea, Biryong has a unique back story. It is believed that “long ago, the villagers suffered from a dire drought. The villagers found that a dragon had stopped the flow of the stream from the fall. They offered a maid as a sacrifice and the dragon disappeared into the sky, thus letting the stream flow once again.”


This is great trail for anyone who wants a simple and easy hike. The course is quite flat and well maintained except for a bit at the end that involves some rock scrambling. The trail passes a thick bamboo forest, various sheer cliffs, and three waterfalls, making it a unique trekking experience. I really enjoyed taking in all the fall foliage along the path. The leaves here appeared to be deeper and brighter in color as the trail wandered along the lower elevations of the park.


The Ulsanbawi course is a longer hike and known as one of the park’s more difficult hikes. The top is 876 meters above sea level, here you can enjoy panoramic views of Daecheongbong (the highest peak), Sokcho, and the East Sea. According to legend, Ulsanbawi comes from the city of Ulsan in South-Eastern Korea. It is said that on its way to the making of Kumgangsan (one of the best-known mountains in North Korea), the rock fell in love with Seorak and decided to stay here for good.


The fairly arduous 4km hike takes roughly two hours to reach the peak is well worth the effort. The views from the top are simply breathtaking. I really enjoyed all the rock scrambling and climbing the 888 steps to the top. Although it was a bit crowded, it was still a peaceful experience. It’s easy to see why Ulsanbawi is one of park’s most popular hikes.


If you have the time, I highly recommend adding Seoraksan National Park to your Korean itinerary. Only two and half hours by bus from Seoul, the park can be easily visited in one day. It’s a beautiful place to explore during any season and the nearby city of Sokcho is a quaint little coastal town that is an added bonus.


For more information be sure to visit the Korea National Park Service Website.

The Jinju Namgang Lantern Festival

The arrival of autumn in South Korea brings a plethora of joyful festivals to the ‘Land of the Morning Calm.’ From the Andong Mask Dance Festival to the Busan World Fireworks Festival, there is something unique for just about everyone. One festival that is definitely worth adding to your Korean itinerary during this time of year is the Jinju Namgang Lantern Festival.


Home to more than 50,000 lanterns, the Jinju Namgang Lantern Festival is held each October over a two week period along the Namgang River in the southern city of Jinju. During this time, the city is transformed into an illuminated playground housing lanterns of every shape, size, and color. From modern day superhero shaped lanterns to more traditional representations of Korea’s historic past, the festival is a unique mix of old and new.


While it appears like a modern day event to most outsiders, the festival is steeped in history and originated during the Japanese invasion of Korea. It all began as a military strategy when Korean soldiers placed many lanterns on the Namgang River to prevent Japanese troops from wading across it. Their tactic proved to be successful and It has since become an annual tradition and one of the largest lantern festivals in Korea.


The highlights of the festival include wishing on lanterns, traditional lantern making, and a fireworks display over the river. It’s amazing how lanterns can be used in so many different ways.


The Jinju Lantern Festival is the perfect place to spend an evening. From watching the colorful lanterns float down the river to wandering through the enchanted forest of lanterns that fill the city’s old fortress walls, it’s a beautiful experience. The festival’s surroundings create a peaceful atmosphere for all those who attend.


Easily accessible by bus from both Busan and Daegu, the festival is certainly worth traveling to if you’re in the area. This year’s festivities will take place from October 1st to the 11th. For more information check out the Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival Website.

Lost in Translation at the Andong Mask Dance Festival

If you’re looking for a unique Korean experience, there’s no better place to start than the Andong Mask Dance Festival. Andong is home to the largest number of cultural artifacts in Korea which help paint a vivid picture of the peninsula’s storied past. Famous for its traditional folk village and annual Mask Dance Festival, Andong is an interesting place to explore Korea’s rich history.


Masks have long played an integral part in Korean cultural, with natives believing they ward off evil spirits. Once a year, Andong preserves this tradition by celebrating the historic masks through exhibition and folk dance. Visitors to the festival can enjoy various traditional mask dances, folk performances, and hands-on experiences, including conventional mask making and mask dance learning.


Our visit to the festival began with an early morning bus ride to the festive grounds where various cultural activities could be experienced. We started off with mask making and chose traditional designs to decorate our twenty-first century cardboard cutouts. We felt almost childlike as we shaped our masks with floam (brightly-colored, sticky foam balls). While it was a bit too crafty for my taste, I have to admit it was enjoyable.


We spent our afternoon exploring the Hahoe folk village, a beautiful place to wander as it is nestled in a lush valley between the Taebaek mountains. From here, various traditional dwellings can be explored. It’s easy to see why this quaint little village was recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


After wandering around the village, the late afternoon was spent watching various traditional mask dances. The performances were an interesting sight to witness. The choreography mostly involved various men strutting and prancing around the stage. I personally found it quite comical, yet a bit baffling when a man dressed as a woman squatted mid-stage and “peed” and then one of the other characters proceeded to scoop it up and smell it. It was definitely lost in translation as the story was told in Korean which is a language I’m still not very familiar with.


The festivities concluded with with a traditional fireworks display along the river, one of the most unique displays I have ever seen. It was more of a fireshow than a fireworks display as flaming bushes were thrown off the cliff’s edge into the river below and lit charcoals were strung across the river creating a rainstorm of sparkling embers.

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For those interested in checking out this year’s festivities, the Andong Mask Dance Festival will take place in late September, Friday 25th to Sunday, October 4th. If you’re in Korea during this time of the year, a jaunt to the festival is well worth the journey. For more information please visit the official Mask Dance Festival Website.

Exploring the Ancient City of Gyeongju

South Korea is a country defined by its rich and storied history. As a result, the country is home to several unique and intriguing UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Some of my favorites can be found in the ancient city of Gyeongju which is located in the far southeastern corner of North Gyeongsang Province, just a four hour train ride from Seoul.


Gyeongju is a beautiful coastal city surrounded by low mountains and various historical treasures. It is often referred to as “a museum without walls” because most of the city is designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The city was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla which ruled the peninsula from the 7th to the 9th century.


A vast number of archaeological and cultural sites from this period can still be found in the city today. Among these sites are Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto, and the Gyeongju Historic Areas which are all designated as World Heritage Sites. It is easy to see all the sights in one day, but I highly recommend staying overnight to fully experience the area.


I began my day at Bulguksa Temple which is only a short bus ride from the center of the city. Bulguksa Temple is considered to be one of Korea’s most famous temples. Built between 751 and 774, it is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the golden age of Buddhist art in the Silla kingdom. It is easily one of my favorite temples in Korea. Located on the outskirts of town and on the slopes of Mount Toham, the views from the temple are quite impressive.


The structures at Bulguksa are grand and intricate. The temple itself seems to blend naturally with surrounding landscape. The grounds and gardens in and around the temple are well maintained, lush, and peaceful, making it the perfect setting for such a spiritual place.


After some time at Bulguksa Temple, I traveled 20 minutes by bus to the Seokguram Grotto. The bus takes you higher up the mountain and drops you off near the summit (close to the Grotto). From here, you can explore the grotto and surrounding area.


The sculpture hidden within the Seokguram Grotto is often considered to be one of the highest quality Buddha sculptures in the world. Construction of statue began in 742 and was completed in 774. The stonework and detail is highly prized and intricate. Pictures are not allowed inside, but there are plenty of beautiful shots that can be taken around the Grotto. I really enjoyed wandering under the colorful lanterns and taking in the views of the surrounding landscapes.


After exploring the Seokguram Grotto, I hopped back on a bus and made my way back to the city center. From here, many more historical treasures can be found, all of which are within an easy walking distance from one another. This area is home to numerous temple and palace ruins, outdoor pagodas, statuary, and other cultural artifacts. This is a beautiful area to explore during any season.


From here, the Daereungwon Tomb Complex can be explored. This complex is home to a vast arrangement of towering green hills that house the royal tombs of the Silla Dynasty. Dating back some 1500 years, these hills are a unique sight to behold.


After exploring the center of the city, I made my way to Anapji Pond. I highly recommend visiting this area during sunset. It’s a perfect picturesque setting to wind down after a whole day of touring. As the sun begins to set the former meeting halls light up casting a luminescent glow upon the pond.


I really enjoyed Gyeongju; it’s an amazing city with lots of history and greenery. I highly recommend adding this Ancient city to your travel itinerary. It’s one of my favorite Korean destinations and the perfect place to learn more about the rich history of the country.

All Aglow at Seoul’s Lotus Lantern Festival

Every year, one of Asia’s biggest celebrations takes place in the months of April and May. This major celebration is known as Buddha’s birthday. Buddhism plays a dominant role in many Asian countries including Korea, where every spring the country turns aglow in honor of the birth of Buddha. This also happens to be one of my favorite festivals.


There are few places in the world that can match Korea’s love for Buddhism and bright lanterns. Nearly fifteen percent of the Korean population practices Buddhism which makes up the largest spiritual group in the Land of the Morning Calm. The celebration is one of the biggest of its kind in the world and they call it the Lotus Lantern Festival.


Depending on the time of year, Buddha’s birthday can fall any time between the beginning of April to the end of May. At this time, the Korean peninsula magically transforms as it prepares for the celebration. From city streets to mountaintop temples, lanterns begin to appear just about everywhere. The displays are charming and intriguing and the capital city of Seoul pulls out all the stops to make sure it’s a celebration Buddha would surely approve of. For two weeks, the city becomes a mecca of everything Buddhist. The city’s streets, parks, and temples become even more special during this time of year as hundreds upon hundreds of lanterns are hung throughout the city.


According to Buddhist beliefs, lanterns symbolize wisdom and light in the world. The hope is to bring more prosperity and peace to the world. It is an important ritual in Buddhism that honors the founder of the spiritual teachings. The lantern lighting in Korea began more than a thousand years ago and still continues to this day. The festival attracts people from all over Korea and the world. There are an array of festive programs scheduled throughout this two week period, everything from a luminous parade to traditional lantern making.


The festival begins with the Lighting Ceremony on the first day in Gwanghwamun Square where various large sized lanterns are lit. The next major event is the Buddhist Cheer Rally which take takes place at Dongguk University. This event is an exciting celebration that is full of songs and rhythmic beats. Later that day, the main thoroughfare of Seoul is shut down to make way for the festival’s oldest and largest event, the Lotus Lantern Parade.


The parade is considered by many to be the highlight of the celebration as tens of thousands of lanterns are carried by various Buddhist congregations. It is truly a magical thing to witness as all the lanterns are being paraded down the streets of Seoul. You can expect to see brightly lit lanterns in the shape of dragons, pagodas, white elephants, lotus flowers, and more. All this lasts for nearly three hours and concludes with a festive celebration on the streets which I found to be inspirational and a lot of fun.


The following day, various traditional and cultural events take place along the main street in front of Jogyesa Temple. Here visitors can learn more about Buddhism by participating in an endless amount of cultural experiences. With more than one-hundred booths set up by Buddhist Monks and Nuns; there is something for everyone, whether it be traditional lantern making or learning proper meditation techniques. My friend and I really enjoyed crafting traditional lanterns of our own.


Seoul’s Lotus Lantern Festival is a unique cultural experience and one of the most beautiful festivals I have witnessed yet. I highly recommend visiting Seoul during this magical time, you’ll surely enjoy taking in all the whimsical sights and sounds that the celebration has to offer. For those interested in checking out the festival, this year’s festivities will take place from May 15th to the 17th. The festival’s program can be found at Korea’s Official Tourism Website.

All Abloom at the Jinhae Gunhangje Festival

Spring has officially arrived in the Northern Hemisphere which means temperatures are warming up. Trees and flowers are beginning to bloom and landscapes are waking up all over the region, giving travelers the opportunity to see the vibrant delights that nature has to offer. When you think of Japan at this time, you may think of the famous Cherry Blossoms that people in the masses travel too see. What many are not aware of however, is the popularity of the Cherry Blossom festivals in South Korea, with the largest of these festivals being the Jinhae Gunhangje Festival.


Every year between late March and early April, thousands of visitors travel to the southern port of city of Jinhae to witness the beautiful pink blooms that envelop the entire town. Jinhae is home to thousands of cherry blossom trees that can be found in nearly every nook and cranny of this tranquil little place. I loved strolling through the town and taking in all its beautiful scenes.


It’s possible for travelers to walk around for hours and see the blossoms from many different locations, for example the view from Jehwangsan Park allows visitors to enjoy panoramic views of the town and allows you to witness some of the tallest trees in the area. Located in the center of Jinhae atop Jehwangsan Mountain, the 365 step climb to the top is well worth it. I really enjoyed the views from here and was quite impressed by how tall some of the cherry blossom trees were.


Another popular spot is Gyeonghwa Station. This 800 meter-long stretch of railway is considered one of the best places to witness the cherry blossoms in Jinhae. The area has been featured in various Korean movies and TV shows. Walking along the tracks and watching couples taking their wedding pictures under the backdrop of the trees was a unique experience.


While I found both Jehwangsan Park and Gyeonghwa Station to be beautiful locales, I favoured the Yeojwacheon Stream. The path along the stream measures nearly one mile long and is covered by an extensive canopy of cherry blossom trees from beginning to end. I found this area to be quite magical with the water rushing down the stream as the pink petals fell gently from the leaves.


The cherry blossom festival is an all day and all night sort of event with the trees transformed and illuminated with the use of various colored lights that only further the beauty of the blossoms. The festival becomes even more romantic at this time as couples wander hand in hand amongst the beautiful trees and the moonlit sky.


Besides relishing in all the cherry blossom trees, the Festival offers a plethora of events and activities, including an extensive market, a cultural parade, and various art and traditional performances. I really enjoyed wandering around the market and savoring the vast array of traditional Korean dishes and teas.


If you’re a fan of springtime and cherry blossom trees, I highly recommend visiting the Jinhae Gunhangje Festival. It was a beautiful and tranquil trip. This year’s festival will take place from April 1st to the 10th. Jinhae is located in Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do which is only a short bus ride away from Busan.


For more information regarding this year’s festivities please visit Korea’s Official Tourism Website.