The eighth day of the fourth lunar month was Buddha’s Birthday, a national holiday in Korea (May 14 this year). It’s such a big deal that Seoul had a ten-day celebration of the event. Last weekend we (and all our American coworkers) hopped on a bus and drove up to Seoul to see the parade.
We arrived on Friday around 2:30 pm and spent the evening eating at Gusto’s Tacos (the top-rated restaurant in Seoul–highly recommend it) and bar hopping for a bit. We stayed in Insadong, which was a fun, touristy little place. We all loved how near it was to three subway lines and how there were fantastic souvenir shops down the road from our hotel.
Saturday night was the main event for us: the parade to Jogyesa Temple. Called the Lotus Lantern Festival, it kicked off Seoul’s celebration of Buddha. But before that happened, we had some sightseeing to do!
Jordan and I walked to Gyeongbukgung Palace. I had been at the gate previously, but this time we toured the place. There are multiple changing of the guard ceremonies, but the biggest one was at 10 am, which we arrived just in time for.
Gyeongbukgung is also known as “the Northern palace” because it the most northern of all the Seoul-area palaces. Behind the palace is Bukhansan Mountain. Surrounding the palace today is the City Hall area. One of the things Seoul does best, I think, is the incorporation of new and old.
There were many tourists today. I’m so used to be the only white person/foreigner around, it was strange to see Southeast Asian women in hijabs, Chinese tourists, and a few other Westerners. I’m in such a rural area of Korea that I forget how good it feels to be mixed together with different ethnicities.
Gyeongbokgung Palace was originally built in 1395, and were later destroyed by the Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-1598). It was mostly left in ruins until the late 1800s, when the current king renovated and restored the premises. He built a beautiful pavilion on the edge of the property, surrounded by a pond that nobles and courtiers could boat in during lazy summer days.
Because it was Children’s Day/Parents’ Day weekend the entrance to the palace was free (though normally it costs about 3,000 won a person). Swarms of tourists crowded the areas. I can be a little grouchy when surrounded by Chinese tour groups (because honestly, any tour group is a little frustrating to navigate around). But this sweet woman came up to us and asked for a photo. She was very shy, and it was clear that we were some of the first white people she’d ever seen. After complicated hand gestures, she got a photo with me, then a photo with both of us. “Thank you,” she got out in stilted English, probabl ythe only words she knew. “Xie-xie,” I replied.
The palace grounds were only interesting for so long without a guide, so we moved on to the National Folk Museum. This was a really nice, free museum. Audio guides were only 1,000 won apiece, so we got English guides and headphones. I recommend it.
The first exhibit started with prehistoric times, then moved on to the bronze age and iron age. They showed ancient text and models of iron age villages. According to myth, the first kingdom was Gojoseon (Old Joseon) kingdom in what is now North Korea. After that, during the European Dark Ages, there were three kingdoms: Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo. They were all united under Silla in 676 AD. Then the Silla kingdom crumbled in the late 9th century. The penninsula was (mostly) united under the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. This, in some ways, was Korea’s golden age. They did, however, have to fight internal coups, fend off the Japanese in 1592, and content with Western powers. The Japanese invaded again in 1910, which ended the Joseon Dynasty.
The later half of the folk museum was about life in rural Korea. this is probably new and interesting information to most Korean children and tourists, but we breezed through because we already know a lot about it. For example, this is a model of an old Korean farmhouse. We’d find it interesting, except most of the houses in our small village look like this.
These faces-in-posts are found in rural villages throughout Korea. Though not really used anymore, they were at the crossroads of villages or at the entrance. The faces would ward off evil spirits. There are several of these old wooden posts in the middle of Changnyeong, actually, so it was nice to learn what these were.
The afternoon was wearing on, so we went in search of a cafe for a smoothie and lemonade. I really wanted to check out a raccoon cafe, so we went to Blind Alley, which is near the Sookmyung Women’s University. There’s a subway stop named after the university. We took exit ten, walked through a tunnel, and then cross a large intersection. We walked about seven more minutes, passing a Subway and Baskin’ Robbins. Blind Alley was on our right, tucked away.
The cheeky, fat little guy wouldn’t sit still long enough to get good photos!
The cafe was reasonably priced (for an animal attraction cafe), and we ordered our drinks. The raccoons are kept in a separate area, away from the food and kitchen. We sipped on our drinks, then slipped onto the back patio to check out the raccoons.
There was only one, the white one, today, but he was pretty interested in Jordan. He sniffed his hand and pawed at his jeans, which was fun to watch. We didn’t want to wear the guy out, though, because everyone comes to play with the raccoon. Still, it was fun to watch him waddle around for a while.
That night was the parade! We were pretty excited. Our coworker/friend, Rachel, had suggested our hotel to be in Insadong, only a few moments’ walk from where the parade would walk by.
Delegations from different countries, sects, and traditions of Buddhism streamed past. People danced, dressed in traditional hanbok garb, and sang at the top of their lungs as they marched toward Jogyesa Temple.
Most of the floats were images of Buddha in various stages of his life, but we say a long dragon float go by with about twenty people inside! Later we saw the float resting on a side street and snagged a photo:
At this point, we couldn’t help ourselves. We bought an electronic and plastic lotus lantern.
The march to the temple was only a block longer, and we followed the path of countless others. The temple was small but breathtaking. Everything was covered in paper lanterns. The effect was so beautiful it was dizzying. In the courtyard stood a tree, holding many of the lanterns. We made that our gathering point, then the couples branched out to explore all the parts of the temple.
Many people were worshiping inside the actual temple building, bowing to a Buddha statue. We didn’t go inside, out of respect, but enjoyed the artwork surrounding the courtyard. Jogyesa is the chief temple if Korean Zen Buddhism, and considered a very important cultural/religious landmark in Korea.
In one corner we found a tunnel of lights! It was magical.
By the time it was all over, we were starving, tired from walking 15 miles that day, and ready for sleep. We grabbed some finger food near the center of the celebration and listened to Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”
We slept in, but the next morning we strolled along Insadong street. They have the only Hangul Starbucks sign in all of Korea!
If interested in souvenirs, this is the place to shop. It’s a good mix between touristy and uptown style. We saw Koreans shopping here as well as English teachers like us. Jordan and I plan to go back, maybe in October, and by souvenirs for family members. There’s a discount pottery shop with the most beautiful shades of jade I’ve ever seen. Although the pottery might have a few flaws from the kiln, they’re the only pieces I’d be able to afford in Korea. We can’t wait to return.