Seoul Grand Park Rose Festival 2013

Rose Festival Seoul Grand Park sign

The month of June produces many different rose festivals across Korea. The one I visited this past weekend is hosted at Seoul Grand Park Rose Garden. It’s only a 2o minute subway ride on Line 4 from central Seoul, and about a 10 minute walk from the subway stop.

Since the month of June is winding down, peak rose blossoming had already hit, and the roses were slowly dying. However, there were still plenty of beautiful roses to be enjoyed in their bright, delicate, fragrant beauty.

Rose Festival flower tunnels

Rose Festival tunnel flower closeup

Rose Festival rows of red roses

I was at the garden right when it opened, so there was plenty of peace and quiet to enjoy the utter beauty of all the roses. Plus a soft rain had fallen earlier in the morning, so all the roses were sprinkled with delicate water droplets. All of the roses were very fragrant, but it was interesting to notice all the different fragrances. Many of them were the traditional rose scent, but I was very fascinated by the roses that had a sweet, lemon scent to it, because I had never encountered roses like that. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of flower closeups. I kept imagining turning these pictures into beautiful, closeup flower paintings. Let’s see how well they turn out when I finally get my art supplies into these projects.

Rose Festival pink and orange rose closeup

Rose Festival bunches of red roses

Rose Festival orange and pink rose closeup

Rose Festival perfect red rose

Rose Festival fluffy pink and orange rose closeup

Rose Festival bunches of pretty pink roses

Rose Festival closeup of perfect pink rose

Rose Festival bunches of orange roses

Rose Festival bunches of light pink roses

Rose Festival bunches of bright pink roses

Rose Festival bright orange roses

Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival 2013 Cultural Experiences

me at Lotus Lantern Festival


Sunday was the third day of the Lotus Lantern Festival, and that day is all about cultural experiences. The street in front of Jogyesa Temple is turned into a street fair dedicated to all things Buddhism. Over 100 different booths are set up enabling participants to learn many different things.

Lotus Lantern Festival crowd


Examples: different forms of Buddhism in different countries.

Lotus Lantern Festival Cambodian Buddhism


Lotus Lantern Festival Thai Buddhism


Try different tasty Buddhist foods, like Mongolian cookies and rice dishes:

Lotus Lantern Festival Mongolian Buddhism


There are also many opportunities to try a wide variety of crafts. There are more crafts than one can do in one day. Participants can make paper lotus flowers. They can craft a bracelet of Buddhist prayer beads. You can make Korean paper or lotus shaped candles. You can decorate masks or make clay objects.

Lotus Lantern Festival candle making

But my absolutely favorite activity at this festival was making a full size paper lotus lantern. The festival as an area marked off for foreigners to make lotus lanterns.

Lotus Lantern Festival lantern making


The activity is completely free and you are given all the materials you need to make a lotus lantern in a variety of colors. Some people made unicolor lanterns that resembled a real life lotus flower. And other lanterns were a rainbow of bright colors. Making a lantern is rather time consuming, but pleasantly contemplative.

Lotus Lantern Festival lantern instructions

It’s actually a bit more involved than you might think having to twist and glue every sheet of paper onto the lantern.

Lotus Lantern Festival lantern in progress


But it’s all worth it at the end when you have your very own colorful lotus lantern to take home with you.

Lotus Lantern Festival lantern complete


Overall the Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival is one of the best festivals I’ve ever been to. The setting in Jogyesa Temple, decked out with thousands of colorful lotus lanterns is beautiful. The parade is quite a sight to behold. And the cultural experiences day is an enjoyable learning experience.

Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival Parade 2013 part 2

Lotus Lantern float (3)My favorite part of the Lotus Lantern Festival was the abundance of lantern floats that look absolutely amazing at night.  These floats ranged from traditional images like dragons and tigers to more contemporary images of children’s cartoons. These floats are just a select few that I particularly loved.

Lotus Lantern float (2)

Lotus Lantern float

Lotus Lantern float (7)What was interesting about so many of these floats is that they were pushed by hand for the entire parade route. There were some outsize floats that were driven by a vehicle, but more often than not, you would see a group of individuals pushing the float.

Lotus Lantern float (5)

Lotus Lantern float (6)My favorite floats were the abundance of dragons. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for dragons. Partly because they are just so exotic and beautiful looking (especially Asian dragons), but also because I am a Dragon in Chinese astrology

Lotus Lantern floats

Lotus Lantern float (9)Capturing these floats at night was an interesting challenge. I have a pretty good camera with an excellent night landscape setting. What it doesn’t do as well (or should I say I haven’t found the right settings) is capturing images at night in motion. More than once, my camera would take too long to focus and either the float passed me by, or the image was blurry. The amount of ambient light from surrounding businesses didn’t help either.

Lotus Lantern float (4)

Lotus Lantern float (8)I would highly recommend the Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival Parade (well, the entire festival, but more on that in a follow on post). As I mentioned before, this is probably the longest parade I have witnessed, and there are so many beautiful floats to marvel and enjoy.

Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival Parade 2013 part 1

Parade marchers (6)

Saturday, May 11th 2013 was the annual Lotus Lantern Festival Parade held in conjunction with the Lotus Lantern Festival. The festival is to honor Buddha’s Birthday and this year the main festival was held May 10-12. The weekend is packed with a variety of religious and cultural experiences that are a lot of fun and informative. The highlight of the festival is the parade held on Saturday night. This parade is one of the best and the longest I have seen. The parade starts at Dongdaemun, the old east gate of Seoul and current home to a large market. It continues west down Jongno Street to the final destination of Jogyesa Temple, the center of the Lotus Lantern Festival. The parade lasts about two hours and consists of a wide variety of lighted lantern floats and marching groups carrying many different types of lanterns.

Parade marchers (4)

I decided to view the parade closer to the ending point about a 10 minute walk from Jogyesa Temple. When you’re short like I am, it is highly critical to get a good vantage spot to view a parade. The city actually sets up a couple rows of seats for people to sit in and watch the parade along parts of the parade route. I initially assumed that they were reserved for tour groups who paid for them, only to discover (a bit too late) that anyone can sit in them. Even when I get higher up, it seems to happen that someone much taller than me stands right in front of me, so I spend the entire parade jockeying my camera for a good position.

Parade marchers (5)

It was interesting to contrast the traditional beauty, meaning and celebration of the parade with the neon signs for modern businesses like Starbucks Coffee and Dunkin Donuts right in the background. Seoul is a very modern city with pockets of traditionalism tucked within it.

Parade marchers (3)

Parade marchers (2)

Tourists even have the opportunity to participate in the Lotus Lantern Parade through a special program that consists of lantern making, dinner, walking the actual parade, and the after parade festivities. The catch is that you have to register for it in advance. I didn’t do it this time, but next year I want to experience the Lotus Lantern Parade as fully as I can.

Parade marchers

Bukhansan National Park Red Autumn painting

my painting of Bukhansan National park sunny red trees


Autumn in Korea is my favorite time in the country. The weather is cooler and less humid, which makes hiking so much more pleasant than during parts of the Korean summer when the humidity makes you feel like you just took a shower after stepping outside, and sometimes the monsoon rains gives you a real shower. But most of all, the reason I love Korean autumns is that the landscape come alive with bright, beautiful colors. Korea is a very mountainous country and there are numerous forests populated with trees that change color and foliage for the seasons. These bright colors of nature inspire me to create art.

The art my eye is drawn to, either as a viewer of art or as a creator of art, is bright and colorful paintings. I’ve never been a fan of dark, dreary realist paintings and preferred paintings that pop with color. Likewise the art I want to make is the colorful world around me. This makes autumns the perfect time to capture images to create paintings later.

The mediums I used for this painting were a watercolor under painting in greens and browns, watercolor pencil for the trees, and hard pastels for the foliage. I felt the combination of  mediums would be ideal to achieve the effects I wanted. This was the first time I used an under painting, and I was really pleased with the result for the most part, though next time I should fade out the colors of the under painting more to make the colorful leaves pop to a greater degree. In the past, one of the frustrating things about using white paper for paintings is that the teeth of the paper showed through  and marred the overall effect I was trying to achieve. Putting down the green/brown under painting enabled me to build the trees and leaves on top of the under painting and thus achieve a greater illusion of depth. The viewer can see the green poking through in parts of the painting to look like real nature. The big lesson I did learn for improvement with this painting, is that I should use an under painting for the leaves as well. This became readily apparent when I started to apply the pastels for the leaves. I prefer hard pastels, because I personally find soft pastels to be rather messy. Even though the pastels are hard, they have varying degrees of hardness and softness. The whites, yellows, and even the oranges to a certain degree were reasonably soft and therefore easy to build up layers of color to produce realistic-looking leaves. I ran into trouble with the red pastels though. That color was substantially harder and it was more difficult to apply the red color to the existing under painting. The reds didn’t pop the way I wanted them to, unlike the yellows and oranges, because they didn’t layer well. It was also more apparent for parts of the painting where the leaves overlaid branches. I initially used masking fluid to block out the tree branches before applying the under painting, so when the fluid was removed, the paper was white. Due to the hardness of the pastels, it didn’t build up layers of color easily and the whiteness of the paper can be seen behind parts of the painting. Overall though, I was rather pleased with this effort, since it was the first one like it that I painted. I think I mirrored the reference photo well enough (though it wasn’t a complete duplication), and captured the brilliant reds, oranges and yellows of this landscape.

Bukhansan National Park sunny red trees


This is the reference photo used for the painting. It was taken in Bukhansan National Park on a fine sunny October afternoon. The park is located within the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area, which makes it readily accessible for urban hikers. Visitors can easily reach the park by taking subway Line 3 to Gupabal station, exit 1 and then Bus 704 or 34 to Bukhansan National Park. Just follow the hordes of people in hiking gear to the trailhead and follow the signs for the trails from there. The park’s location within Seoul means that this park is convenient not just to you, but to everyone (approximately 25 million people) in the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area. While beautiful, particularly during autumn, this is not a place for solitary hiking, so know before you go. Crowds are numerous on the weekends, though if you want to beat them as much as possible, start very early. Yes, there will be early hikers, but they are the serious hikers and not the slow family walkers. You can walk as much as you want and turn around at any point, since the trail is well marked with signs and distances. The trail can be a bit uneven and steep in places, but for the most part, the trail is suitable to regular hikers. One word of advice though. Since this park is reached via a bus and not a direct subway stop, there is a high potential for running into long lines at the main bus stop for the park. When I went, I made it to the bus stop not long after sunset, and it took me an hour to get on a bus to go to back to the subway. The smart hikers in the know walked further up the road to catch an earlier bus stop and avoid the main bus stop with the very long lines. After all, once a bus was full of people from the early stops, it would just drive by the main stop. If you like hiking and love beautiful nature (particularly in autumn), Bukhansan National Park has much to offer for hikers, nature enthusiasts and landscape artists to be inspired.

Seoul Cherry Blossoms 2013


Springtime in Korea means many things. It means longer days, bright sunshine, an end to bitterly cold winters. And my favorite thing- the blossoming of Korean flowers. All throughout the countryside different flowers start to bloom beginning in March and continuing throughout spring. Among my favorite flowers are the numerous cherry blossoms that are spread throughout the city. This year I went to two different areas of Seoul to partake in the amazing beauty of the cherry blossom trees- Yongsan and Yeouido. What I love about Yongsan is the view of the urban landscape surrounding the area of the city broken up by bright, beautiful cherry trees lining the roadways.Image

I think this photos sums up the contradictions that is South Korea at the moment. It is a very beautiful country, with a rich history, fabulous temples and palaces and ancient ruins, gorgeous nature, mountain views and colorful trees and flowers. But it is also undeniable that just to the north lies their sister Korea, separated by the Demilitarized Zone since 1953 and technically still in a state of war, though there is an armistice in place (now whether or not North Korea REALLY abides by that now remains to be seen). The greater metropolitan area of Seoul is well within the range of North Korean long range artillery, and security is often in the back of your mind (particularly nowadays with North Korean rhetoric at a particular fever pitch). This picture juxtaposes the delicate, ephemeral beauty that is the Korean cherry blossoms against the cold, hard concertina wire designed to protect both military and civilian alike and provide security.

It’s hard not to delight in the innocent wonder of the massive amounts of cherry tree blossoms. I wanted to capture all the images to create paintings from them later.


Cherry Blossoms Yongsan 2013



What I like about Yongsan is that it is comparatively empty. It’s easier to get up close and personal with the cherry trees in relative peace, quiet and solitude. For a different experience, I recommend attending the Yeouio Cherry Blossom Festival. Yeouido Island is another excellent location for cherry tree-lined streets in Seoul, just south of the Han River. In fact, part of the Hangang park runs along the northern area of Yeouido Island, and is an excellent area to enjoy a picnic, walk, run or bike along the Han River, and enjoy the gorgeous views of Seoul. Every year the Yeouido Cherry Blossom Festival is held-this year from 12-21 April 2013. The bulk of the festival is held around the road surrounding the National Assembly on Yeouido Island. It is easily reached by taking the Seoul subway, Line 9 to National Assembly stop. During the festival, the road is blocked off from traffic, which makes it easier for the thousands of visitors to enjoy the cherry trees, take pictures, enjoy musical performances and just relax with the sunny beauty of a Seoul springtime. This is a beautiful area, though it is definitely not for those who don’t particularly like crowds, since the festival is full of them.

me at Yeouido Cherry Blossom Festival 2013

ImageCherry Blossoms Yeouido sunny trees 2013


You have to take advantage of the cherry blossom season, because it certainly isn’t long. Cherry trees blossoms last about 7-10 days and then they are gone. Already, the cherry trees are shedding, spreading their delicate petals in the wind like pink-white snowflakes along the sidewalks. Soon all the branches will be bare, and you must another year for spring.

Next year, I want to get farther afield to enjoy different cherry tree festivals, particularly the one held in Hwagae near Jirisan National Park. But if you live in Seoul and just want to see some cherry trees, it is very easy to do so without ever leaving the city.

McDonalds of the World

Shanghai McDonalds traditional looking

I have a “guilty pleasure” while traveling. I say guilty pleasure facetiously, because in reality I don’t feel guilty at all, because it’s just my thing when I travel. Though I have run into fellow travelers who try to make me feel guilty for this particular thing, like I am some sort of ugly American. Ironically enough, one of those same travelers chastising me for this in Egypt was the same one who couldn’t stop moaning for a Starbucks. She completely failed to see the irony in her stance on that one.  That guilty pleasure happens to be eating at a McDonald’s in every country I can. I make it a point to eat at a McDonald’s once during every vacation, even if the only one I can find is at the airport. That means everything from long weekends all the way up to month-long vacations. That adds up to be dozens of McDonald’s in dozens of countries. I certainly haven’t eaten in one for EVERY country I have visited. In those cases,  the countries typically didn’t have a McDonald’s. It may be one of the biggest global brands, but it still hasn’t made inroads into every country as of yet. The biggest global brand I have ever seen is Coca Cola products. I have NEVER been to one country that doesn’t have a plethora of Coca Cola products, but that is probably the penchant for the country to establish local bottling plants to spread the beverages as far as possible. There is only one country that has McDonald’s that I haven’t been able to visit, and that was Iceland. It certainly wasn’t for lack of desire, but this was the one developed country that didn’t have a McDonald’s that was centrally located downtown near the tourist areas. I kept seeing one on the outskirts of Reykjavik  when I was on bus tours [right next to a Taco Bell- which is extremely rare to find outside of the United States], but was never able to find it in my rental car.

Bergen McDonalds


What I have found in all these McDonald’s is that there are some interesting similarities and interesting differences. Many of the restaurants were located in actually beautiful and historic places. One in Bergen, Norway was in this beautiful , 19th century clapboard building (see above). I’ve eaten at a McDonald’s next to the Spanish Steps in Rome (though it wasn’t there anymore my last visit), and I’ve eaten in one right across from the Pantheon in Rome. You could eat your American fast food burger and fries outside al fresco and take in the view of the piazza and the ancient building. Talk about a clash of cultures.

Shanghai McDonalds


 In all these multitude of McDonald’s the only things standard to all of them are the fries, Big Macs, and some sort of McChicken sandwich. EVERY SINGLE McDONALD’S in every single country has their value meal number one as the Big Mac value meal, just like the United States. After that, it’s all up to regional tastes. I have seen things at McDonald’s you would never find in the States. Stuff like bulgogi burgers in Korea, calamari wraps in Germany (among a multitude of other regional items), and other things. Names might be different for even the same item. For those who have watched the movie “Pulp Fiction” , you are undoubtedly familiar with Quarter Pounders renamed Royales. In most McDonald’s in Europe you can get mayo instead of ketchup, which is a taste I acquired and continue to this day. U.S McDonald’s deliberately fill the cups with ice so you get less soda and they pocket more profit, but you are pretty lucky to find many ice cubes in McDonald’s in other countries (or in other restaurants for that matter, but that’s a post for another time).

My American traveling friends and I sometimes joke that McDonald’s is the “American embassy” just because it is so prevalent in many countries. I can’t really say I eat there because of any great need to maintain some sort of American touchstone. I guess I do it, just to compare the different experiences around the world.

Maryan-ri Sunrise Festival New Years 2013


I always have been ambivalent about New Years celebrations as an adult. Part of me wants to go out and party, but that is something I don’t really like to do alone, and being at a raucous party alone on NYE makes me feel extra lonely. I have been lucky that since I graduated from university in 1998, 13 out of the last 15 New Years Eve have been spent overseas. You would think that I would have amazing experiences in foreign countries, and there have been some fun ones (which will be addressed in a future post), but for the most part, I’ve celebrated NYE alone and in my room drinking (it’s really not as sad and pathetic as it sounds). But I am always on the lookout for something new and different.

In the spirit of that, I searched all over the Internet to see what sort of NYE activities Seoul offers. Not surprisingly, there were a number of clubs and parties, but that just wasn’t what I wanted to do. During that search, I stumbled upon the concept of sunrise festivals. While the stroke of midnight is widely celebrated in Korea just like in the rest of the world, there is also a special emphasis on experiencing the first sunrise of the new year. Understandably, most of the sunrise festivals occur on Korea’s east coast and the island of Jeju-do, since that part of Korea is the first to see the sunrise. However, there is one festival at a place called Maryang-ri near the town of Seocheon. It’s located on the west coast about a three hour train ride south of Seoul. For 60 days surrounding December 22, the sun rises and sets in the same location, which has made this a popular spot for a sunrise festival.


The festival begins right before sunset with a ceremonial drumming performance and enjoying the last sunset of the current year. This particular sunset was rife with beautiful cloud formations and intense colors. Once the sun set, there was an array of musical performances up until midnight, while several bonfires were lit around the port. The bonfires provided warmth and heat, and also a sense of community.

ImageAround the bonfires, family and friends congregate, keep warm and grill up a variety of foods, such as rice cakes, chestnuts and sweet potatoes. I don’t speak Korean, and I’m very introverted, so I didn’t make much attempt at conversation, but rather just observed the activities going on around me. However as a Western woman traveling alone, I was treated as somewhat of an odd duck (other experiences as a woman traveling solo will also be explored in a future post). There was much astonishment at the fact that I was a woman alone, and I heard the terms “brave” and “dragon” more than once. In a country where solitary activity is not very common, particularly among females, it made me stand out even more, but not in a bad way. I find the Korean people are very generous and love to share, particularly their food and beverages. So I got to experience a never ending supply of treats and sparklers that evening.

I usually love long, cold winter nights, but you get a different perspective when you are outside from sunset until midnight, and then midnight until sunrise. There was approximately six and a half hours from sunset to the stroke of midnight and that is plenty of time to enjoy the bonfires, listen to the music, take in the near full moon, all under a very cold winter’s night. Once midnight struck, there was the typical jubilation (though not the mass of kissing you see at some western NYE parties) and celebration with fireworks.

What was interesting was what to do with myself after midnight. Sunrise wasn’t until 7:44 am, so that is nearly eight hours of time to kill. Thankfully I brought some reading material to help pass the time. For future sunrise festivals, I will be sure to go to one with a hotel room nearby, so I can go to sleep and stay warm. As it was, there were still people like me who traveled via public transportation and elected to stay until sunrise, and also had no place to go. Movies were played on the large screen, bonfires were kept active, and the food vendors were still selling their wares. Thankfully there were also large space heaters in tents, but they were partially offset by the growing chilly breeze and ensuing snowfall. When the sun set, it was clear and cold, and I anticipated an equally cold and clear sunrise, but Mother Nature had other plans. It started snowing around 2 am, and at first it was just flurries. But as sunrise approached, the snow came down harder and harder, and with the blowing wind, it felt like it was pouring snow instead of rain.

Then the time came to shuffle from our tents and heaters to take in the majesty of a winter’s morn on this first sunrise of the new year. Amazingly enough, the snow stopped right as official sunrise hit. Since this was a sunrise festival, there was another countdown to sunrise culminating in a massive balloon release to celebrate the dawning of a new day in a new year. While the sunrise wasn’t nearly as colorful as the sunset, the growing light was welcome upon the new fallen snow and the calm sea.

ImageI will admit to being cold, wet and tired by the end of it, and I felt I rushed through the appreciation of the sunrise. But it still was a different sort of New Years celebration. I very much enjoy communing with nature, and this festival is a way for me to appreciate the beauty of this world and the beauty of a new year, without the pain of a massive hangover.