Under a Moonlit Sky: A Night Tour of Changdeokgung Palace

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-30

About a week ago, I had the opportunity to do a moonlit tour of Changdeokgung Palace. I had visited the palace the past fall, but this was an opportunity to see the palace in a new light (literally). During this year from April to November, the palace offers up moonlit tours twice a month, on the full moon and one day next to it.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-25

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-35

I love evening tours, and figured this would be a good opportunity to do some night photo shooting as well. The tour started at the main gate at 2000, at which point, it was almost completely dark. Luckily for us, the weather was good, though a tiny bit hazy, so it wasn’t a perfectly clear moonlit night.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-20

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-21

At least it didn’t rain though. We were taken through parts of the palace grounds, from the main hall, to different out buildings. We didn’t actually enter any of the buildings, but we were able to look inside. We had lanterns to guide us on the trail, which was convenient for some of the stairs.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-22

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-23

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-27

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-26

After seeing some of the buildings, we were taken back to the Secret Garden. We didn’t see the full tour of the Secret Garden like I did during a day tour, but the most scenic places of the garden, like the Buyongjeong Pavilion were shown. All the buildings were very lushly lit and it was made for some nice photography.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-34

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-33

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-32

The actual walking tour of the grounds took about 90 minutes, and the last 30 minutes was a sampling of cultural performances. We were treated to a variety of Korean dance, opera and traditional music in an open air setting, so it was pleasantly cool by this point in the evening. It was a good opportunity to see different aspects of Korean culture you might not be able to see. We were also given some traditional Korean tea and sweets to enjoy the performance.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-37

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-38

This tour is geared more toward cultural awareness rather than photography, which is why tripods are specifically banned in the advertisement for the tour. However, in my group there were numerous people who brought and used tripods and the tour guides did not prevent anyone from using them. I know my pictures would have turned out better if I had brought my tripod.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-36

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-31

This is not a tour open to just anyone. This is a tour just for foreigners, so no Koreans are allowed to attend. Three languages are offered for the tours: English, Japanese and Chinese. The tickets are easy to buy online through Interpark, and you pick up your ticket at the venue after 1930 the day of the event. Tickets cost 30,000 won per person, and I believe one person can reserve two tickets at a time. Make sure you bring some form of an ID, such as a passport to prove your identity when you check in at the palace. The total tour lasts around two hours, so figure you will spend 2000-2200 in the evening there. Changdeokgung Palace is easily reached from metro line 3 (Anguk stop, exit 3), and it is a few hundred meters up the road, or you can walk to the palace from metro stop Jongno-3(sam)-ga (Lines 1,3,5, exit 7).

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-28

If you like moonlit tours, particularly of palaces, and would like to see a different aspect of Korean culture, I highly recommend the tour.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-29

Luscious Fall Colors at Changdeokgung Palace and the Secret Garden

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-13

Last fall I took my mom to visit Changdeokgung Palace when she came to visit Korea. I had visited the palace on a previous tour, but not during fall. At the time, the fall leaves were just a bit past peak color, but they were still vibrant enough to make you stop and stare.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-14

 

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-9

We got to the palace relatively early, because we had a full day planned of palace visiting and walking around Seoul. We first did the Secret Garden tour, which is to the rear of Changdeokgung Palace, and actually makes up the bulk of the complex.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-8

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-3

You can only access the garden via a guided tour, of which there are multiple ones throughout the day, in both Korean and English. However there are only two tours in English, at 1130 and 1430.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-2

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-7

The garden was designed for the private pleasure of the king and his family. It has a wide variety of buildings, gardens, ponds, flowers, and trees, some of which are hundreds of years old.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-15

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-16

The highlight of the Secret Garden tour is the Buyongjeong Pavilion on the Buyongjeong Pond, which was restored a couple of years ago.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-6

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-5

The tour of the Secret Garden lasts about two hours, and it moves at a leisurely pace. You definitely have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, listen to the tour guide and take pictures.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-11

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-12

This was definitely one of the most beautiful places to see in Seoul in the fall. There are many places that have colorful leaves, but the Secret Garden has some of the greatest concentration of fall beauty.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-10

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-4

Changdeokgung Palace is easy to get to, since it is centrally located in Seoul. You can reach it via metro line 3 (Anguk stop, exit 3), and it is a few hundred meters up the road, or you can walk to the palace from metro stop Jongno-3(sam)-ga (Lines 1,3,5, exit 7). There are separate English language tours for the palace (though you can walk through most of the palace grounds on your own) and the garden (guided tour required). It is open from 0900-1700 (winter) or 1830 (summer).

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-1

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-17

If you like palaces, and especially if you love beautiful gardens, this is definitely a palace to visit. And if you have the opportunity to visit it in the fall, that is even better.

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-18

Changdeokgung Palace by day and night-19

Everland Snow and Romantic Illumination Festival

Everland Romantic Illumination castle fountain wide view

There are a couple things I love about winter. I love the cold weather, the clear days when I can feel the winter chill and see the cool tint of the full winter sun. Even though I don’t get the opportunity all that often, I love snow tubing. When I was a kid I used to ski on occasion, but I don’t do that now, and I never learned to snowboard. However, sledding/snow tubing is a lot of fun, and I like speeding down the mountain in a rubber tube. Korea does have its ski resorts, but I’ve never been THAT motivated to go deep into the mountains to get my sledding fix.

Everland Romantic Illumination castle close view

However at some of the Seoul amusement parks, they set up small sledding parks for fun. It’s nothing like black diamond sled runs or anything like that, but it allows you to get your winter play fix conveniently. I chose to go to Everland, which is the same amusement park I went to for my Halloween jollies back in the fall. Everland was a good choice, because they simultaneously had their Snow Festival and their Romantic Illumination Festival. And since night illuminations are another thing I love about winter, I couldn’t pass it up.

Everland Romantic Illumination garden panorama

I had the opportunity to go to Everland on a Monday, which proved to be a very fortuitous choice. I figured there wouldn’t be THAT many people there, because most people would be at work or school. I was definitely right, because compared to what I’ve seen on the weekend, the park was practically deserted. Most of the rides were open (though not their biggest thrill rides, because it was winter), but I was only there for two reasons: to sled as much as possible, and to enjoy night illuminations after darkness fell.

Everland Romantic Illumination garden wide view

There were three sledding runs available: the Snow Buster for little kids only, the Jungfrau a gentler sled run, and the Eiger, which is for older kids/adults. Yes, there were height requirements to go sledding here, and attendants actually had a measuring stick to ensure little kids were tall enough. The sled runs are very straightforward. You get towed up to the top of the hill in your tube, and then you slide down, turn in your tube, get in line to get another one, and do it again. The only difference between the Jungfrau and the Eiger sled runs, is that the Eiger is a bit steeper and longer, so you get more speed and the thrill is a bit greater.

Everland Jungfrau sled run

Everland Jungfrau sled runs

I did a few runs on the Jungfrau just to warm up. This sled run had more people, because it was easier and little kids could ride it. I have a feeling that the line to get a tube and up the hill on the weekend can get rather long, but since this was a Monday, it only took about 10-15 minutes to wait.

Everland Eiger rope tow

Everland Eiger sled run

Afterward, I moved up the hill to the Eiger sled run, where I could get much more speed. This was where the sparse attendance really paid off. Basically there was no line to get a tube. It took longer to be towed to the top, than to get an inner tube. I was able to be towed up to the top, slide down, and immediately get a new tube to go back up again. I took advantage of all this to just continually do sled runs until I got too hungry.

After dinner, the sun was setting, so it was just a matter of time before it got dark enough to really enjoy the night illuminations at their gardens. Since it is the middle of winter, there were no actual flowers in the garden, and all the delicate plants were wrapped in thick straw to protect them from the weather. This was a good opportunity to take some beautiful low light pictures. I particularly enjoyed all the different gardens around Seoul that offer night illuminations during the winter. It may be very cold at night, but it just adds to the beauty of the setting.

Everland Romantic Illumination colorful reed garden

Everland Romantic Illumination fairytale carriage

The illuminated gardens offered up a castle fountain, a fairy tale carriage, wide variety of trees, faux marble columns, and the like. Because it was a weekday, the park closed earlier than it does on weekends, but it was more than enough time to see everything and take it all in. And since it was a weekday, I didn’t have to fight hordes of people to take pictures.

Everland Romantic Illumination columns

Everland Romantic Illumination framed columns

I recently started working with the manual settings on my DSLR, because I’m taking a digital photography class to improve my skills. Up until now, I’ve only used the automatic settings on my camera, but this trip was a good opportunity to try the manual settings to experiment with ISO, shutter speed and f/stop.

Everland Romantic Illumination blue fountain

Everland Romantic Illumination blue hedges

I decided to take pictures on my night landscape setting and then experiment with manual settings to see the difference. Since this was a low light setting, it was critically important that manual settings allowed for the camera to capture enough light. This was my first go at it, and it was OKAY. I quickly discovered that using an ISO setting of 800 with my other manual settings wasn’t getting the job done, so I bumped it up to ISO 3200. I knew this wasn’t ideal, because the higher the ISO setting, the more grain in the picture. I ended up adjusting the f/stop down as low as my camera lens would allow (f3.8), which certainly did have a noticeable positive difference.

Everland Romantic Illumination silver tree

Everland Romantic Illumination music decorations

I didn’t realize my biggest mistake until later when I was able to examine the settings on my pictures taken with the night landscape setting and compare them to what I had for my manual setting pictures. I knew that my ISO was higher than desirable, but I had the f/stop correct. However, I was WAAAY off with the selected shutter speed. I had my camera set for 1/125, which is way too fast for a low light setting. My night landscape setting photos had a shutter speed of 1/8, which is much slower to allow more light in.

Everland Romantic Illumination garden

Everland Romantic Illumination colorful arch

So the day was a productive one. I got all my snow tubing jollies out of my system. I got to enjoy the delightful night illuminations that make me feel that I was walking in a winter fantasy land. And it was a good opportunity to learn more about what my camera is capable of, and what I need to do to take beautiful night photos.

Everland Romantic Illumination colorful reeds and columns

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.

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.