Holiday Decoration Fun in Korea and New Zealand

Holidays Seoul Christmas trees lighted

From a decoration standpoint, Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. I adore the gorgeous lights that adorn the cities. It makes everything so beautiful. I had time to enjoy holiday decorations in Seoul before I went to New Zealand for the actual holidays. One evening was spent touring the downtown area and got quite an eyeful. Many parts of the city, particularly major department stores, had a wide variety of holiday decorations and illuminations, plus there were the Christmas street stores at local markets, like Namdaemun.

Holidays Seoul Christmas market

Holidays Seoul Christmas tree closeup

The department stores were bright with exterior illumination and both real and fake trees were lit up.

Holidays Seoul Christmas tree lights

Holidays Seoul Shinsegae lights

The nearby Hilton Hotel also had plenty of beautiful interior decorations of trees and one of the biggest holiday train sets I’ve seen.

Holidays Seoul Hilton Hotel Christmas tree

Holidays Seoul Hilton Christmas train 2

Holidays Seoul Hilton Christmas train 1

I got to New Zealand a little over a week before Christmas. While I was out on the hiking trail for actual Christmas day, the decorations were still up for everyone to enjoy later in the month.

Holidays Auckland department store decorations

Holidays Christchurch Re Start mall

The storefront decorations at the Christchurch department store, Ballantynes, were particularly interesting. It was like a cross between Candyland and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory. They were kind of odd in a pleasing way. It was nice to see decorations that were sort of fantasical, with a hint of creepy, instead of gooey sweet decorations.

Holidays Christchurch Ballantynes 4

Holidays Christchurch Ballantynes 3

Holidays Christchurch Ballantynes 2

Holidays Christchurch Ballantynes 1

I spent New Year’s Eve in Christchurch. I had hoped to do it in Queenstown, because I heard their NYE celebrations were insane (though some of that insanity was mitigated by the ban on alcohol in public places), but my vacation schedule didn’t really work out that way. I arrived back in Christchurch from Arthur’s Pass in the early evening and enjoyed my final meal of 2013 at a local Korean restaurant (though the Korean food seemed a bit New Zealandized).

Holidays Christchurch NYE fireworks 3

Holidays Christchurch NYE fireworks 2

Holidays Christchurch NYE fireworks 1

If you want to have a crazy New Years celebration, Christchurch isn’t the best place to do it. The public celebration in Hanley Park was specifically designated alcohol free, and there was a city-wide liquor ban on walking around with booze outside. So I hung out in my hostel room enjoying my bottle of sparkling wine until shortly before midnight. I didn’t really care to sit in a park listening to bands I didn’t know. But I was interested in the fireworks display (fireworks pretty!), so I showed up shortly before midnight. Fireworks went off, people scattered and I went back to my hostel. It was very sedate NYE, and once again, it was a NYE on my own in a foreign country.

New Years Eve celebrations of years past

Like I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve spent 13 out of the last 15 New Year’s Eves in foreign countries. So you would think I would have some wild stories to tell. Sadly you would be wrong. But nevertheless, there were a few very fun evenings over the years.

The first of those was NYE 2000 and I was in Frankfurt, Germany. I had just moved to Germany about 10 days prior. I was armed with a tour book and a better than working knowledge of German (I studied it in college, because I knew that I wanted to live in Germany one day). I knew one person at that point, and she was away skiing for the weekend. This was supposed to be the big New Years Eve. I mean we were heading into the year 2000 and the Y2K bug was supposed to crash everything at midnight. The doomsday pessimists predicted the end of the world as we knew it, so I felt compelled to go out and do SOMETHING to commemorate it and experience it for myself. Lucky for me, I was reading our local paper and saw all the different New Years celebrations that were taking place across Europe. Frankfurt was only a 20 minute train ride from the city I lived in (Darmstadt), and it was a simple matter of taking the streetcar to the train station and getting on a train to Frankfurt. Simple matter yes, but this was my first outing in Germany, so of course I was a bit nervous. I mean I was only 23 at this point, and while I had lived for a year in Korea, I hadn’t gotten out THAT much (in comparison to what I do now), and I hadn’t gained my full travel confidence yet. But with no issues whatsoever, I got myself on a train to Frankfurt for my first adventure. I spent the entire day just doing a walking tour of Frankfurt and taking it all in. The city was decked out for all the NYE festivities later that evening. They had carnival rides, different music and dancing booths, food vendors, booze vendors. As the night got later and the later, the crowd got bigger and drunker. At this point I wanted to make my way across the Main River to see the fireworks. The polizei tried to contain the crowd, but couldn’t hold back the sheer force of all that drunken happiness. I will confess to feeling crushed for a brief moment and thought that there was no way I could die in a crowd on NYE 2000. When midnight actually struck, the sky lit for several minutes with the intense amount of fireworks. It was pretty overwhelming, but in a good way. I didn’t actually get back to my quarters until around 5 am and couldn’t help but notice that the trains were still running and the world hadn’t stopped. Whew! That one evening not only gave me something fun to do for a big NYE, but also gave me the confidence to continue exploring Europe.

My next fun New Years Eve wasn’t until NYE 2007, and I was back again in Germany. I had moved back to Germany in June 2006. I also had recently become obsessed with a band, Scissor Sisters, because their second album had been released a few months prior. It was one of those deals where I just fell hardcore in love with something. It’s happened before, and it’s happened since with some pop culture things. As luck would have it, Scissor Sisters’ popularity was expanding out of the UK where they first started, and was spreading across Europe. I hadn’t seen them in concert yet, but kept hearing what an amazing live show they put on. So imagine my delight when I saw that they were headlining the New Years Eve festival in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate. I had been to Berlin before when I was living in Germany a few years prior, but this was a bit different. As you can imagine, the NYE celebration in Berlin is HUGE filled with so many people and so much booze. The crowd at Brandenburg Gate was enormous, but through some calculated and careful maneuvering, I made it to the barrier gate by the time Scissor Sisters was due to perform. It was cold as all get out that night, but I was giddy with anticipation. They performed as well as I had hoped, but I have to say the audience themselves just wasn’t giving them the sort of love they had hoped and were used to experiencing with smaller crowds. They tried admirably, but by that point…*shrugs*. ¬†Anyway, I had a great time and it was amazing to see them perform (though for the most part I prefer seeing them in smaller venues). Walking back to my hostel was like negotiating an obstacle course of drunk people falling down, trash, and an amazing amounts of broken glass. What was even more amazing, is that a few hours later in daylight, the mountain of trash had been cleared from the street like it was never there. You have to admire the German efficiency.

The next years NYE was not memorable for the actual party around midnight, because by that point I was dead asleep. It was what came before it that was so great. That year, 2007, I decided to take a group trip to Egypt over the holidays. I always wanted to see the pyramids and the other historical sites of Egypt, and figured the temperatures would be much cooler than the beastly heat in the dead of summer (and they were). By New Years Eve, my group was on the Sinai Peninsula and we were headed toward St. Katherine’s Monastery. We had a choice of walking up Mt. Sinai for the sunset that evening, or getting up at 2 am for the walk up for sunrise 1 January. We elected to go for the sunset. Walking up Mt. Sinai isn’t difficult in the sense that it requires any sort of mountain climbing ability. It just get steep at parts, particularly the final stairs to the peak. But it was worth it to stand up there and take the full view of the Sinai desert around me and watch as the last sunset of 2007 slipped below the horizon.

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After that though, we still had to get DOWN the mountain, and it was pitch dark at this point. We agreed to take the Steps of Penitence down, because it was quicker, though substantially steeper, and all we were armed with was our own personal flashlights. I had seen these steps enough in daylight to know that it was probably best that I could only see right in front of me, so I just had to take the necessary steps and put one foot in front of the other. I am very clumsy, lack sure-footedness, and tend to trip and fall very easily, and if I could have fully seen how uneven these steps were, I probably would have fallen many times. By the time we descended the mountain, it was around 7pm and we headed out to a very scrumptious buffet at our hotel. It was a nice, relaxing evening, but I was so tired from all the walking, I was probably asleep by 10 pm and didn’t wake up until New Years Day. That was some of the deepest sleep I ever had on vacation.

The final NYE that was anything memorable was NYE 2010. That year I elected to take a holiday trip to Peru, and made sure I was in Cuzco for NYE, because I had heard many good things about it for the NYE celebration in town. It wasn’t any one thing that was fun, but it was a large group of people completely drunk, singing and dancing in the streets and just having a good time. As midnight approached and passed, the crowds in the main square swelled until it was full of people. I extricated myself from it so I could watch it from above and take it all in. I liken the whole experience to a rave in a combat zone. There was loud music, wild dancing, groups of friends carousing, and there were so many pyrotechnics the air started to get thick with smoke. I had to get up the next morning fairly early to catch my flight back to Lima to return home, and by that point, the streets were almost eerily silent and empty. It was a good end to a really great vacation.

I guess the themes for most of those fun NYE, is not so much that I personally was doing something amazing and cool, but I was a part of something amazing and cool going on around me. Since I was alone for all of these events (I may have been part of a tour group in Egypt, but I wasn’t friends with anyone there), I enjoyed these experiences, but at a sort of remove, like I was simultaneously enjoying everything, but also observing everything. While I can’t ever say I have ever had a completely wild, off the chain, NYE, I am always on the lookout for something fun and unique to do to celebrate the new year.

Maryan-ri Sunrise Festival New Years 2013

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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.

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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.