Seoul Sonnet

How do I love Seoul? Let me count the ways.
I love the smell, the sight, the touch, the sound,
Of subways and shopping malls kept underground;
A fun way to spend time during commute delays.

Up above ground, under a clear blue sky,
I love the city parks in which to play,
Where Seoulites can relax and spend the day
In nature, away from traffic nearby.

A love the combination of old and new,
Aged palaces and temples sharing space
With modern high rises in the same place.
And I love the Han River flowing though.

I love the parties in the streets of Seoul,
The many festivals and fun celebrations
That unite people from different nations.
It's these occasions that make a city whole.

There's so much more that can't be counted in lists,
Like the joy in finding new places to explore,
Or the change in oneself that can't be ignored.
But perhaps what's most important is this:
No matter what I do or where I roam,
I love how this city always feels like home.

My Good Fortune at Sensoji

I arrived in the land of the rising sun after the sun had set, so I had to wait until morning before I could take a look at the city sights.

scaffolding at Sensoji

scaffolding at Sensoji

My first stop was Sensoji, a famous temple that happened to be a short walk from my hostel. Right away I could see that Japanese temples are much different from those in Korea. The main gate was mostly a red colour, unlike the colourful mix of reds, yellows, greens, blues, yellows and pinks in Korea. Through the gate, the main temple seemed to have been replaced with an arena; it was covered in big, white sheets, making it look like a new hockey rink instead of an ancient place of worship. I went inside anyways, just to make sure that there was, in fact, a temple underneath it all.

Inside was a slow-moving crowd of people, some were peering into a kind of prayer room behind a sheet of glass. I wondered if always looked like that, or if the Buddha statue and prayer area was being protected from construction. After bowing towards the Buddha, visitors tossed coins into a grate placed in front of the screen. I had never seen a grate system quite like this one before. Was it there to prevent theft, or just because the sound of clinging coins falling through the grate and into the waiting treasure box below was just so exciting and fun?


To the left was a stack of thin wooden drawers. I watched as a few people opened a drawer, took out a sheet of paper, and walked away reading it. Overhearing a family say something about a "fortune," I realized that the papers must, in fact, be fortunes.

Even though I had never been interested in fortune-telling, I decided to give it a try anyways. I watched some more visitors. Put a coin in the slot and shake the silver cylindrical container. And then, okay, so a stick comes out of the container after you shake it. Open a drawer and take a paper. Money, shake, stick, fortune. Got it.But wait---what drawer? I decided I'd better ask someone.

I approached a family who I overheard speaking English.

"Excuse me, can you help me? How do I---"

"Put one hundred yen in here," the woman said, "shake, and a stick will come out. Choose a drawer."

"Any drawer?"

"No, the one that matches the stick."

I went to pay my hundred yen, but the woman stopped me. "No, pray first," she said. "Pray first."

So I prayed. "Dear God," I said. "I am very curious to get a fortune. I don't really like praying with my hands together or anything because this is a Buddhist place and it would feel wrong. I just want you to know that I'm curious about this. Please let me get a fortune."

Then I shook and got my stick. I saw there wasn't a number, but a Japanese character. Matching the characters on the stick and drawer was easier than I thought and soon I found my drawer. As I opened it, the woman came over again to inspect my work.

"Nineteen," she said. Oh, so they are numbers, I thought.

I showed her the drawer and she said it was right, then turned and left me alone with my fortune.


Good start, I thought.

So many troubles and problems invade your family business, everything does not go so smoothly. A tiger demonstrates his spirit too much, then you should be more modest defending its dashing, then you will be safe.

Do believe in gods earnestly, do your best, then everything will be fine in the end.

Getting wealth and happiness, you may remain with them.

*Your hopes and desire turn our to be real by half. *Take long time to recover from sickness, but life will be safe. *Most of your lost articles will not be found. *Take long time to show around the man you wait for. *Building and moving your home will be good by half. *There is no problem of travelling. *Marriage will be good by half. *There is no worry about employment.

There were some concerns---my marriage, home, and hopes and desires will be real and good "by half"? What does that mean?---but I decided to focus on the positive predictions. Steady employment is always good. Remaining in wealth and happiness sounds excellent. And problem-less travelling is a plus for a wanderer like myself. I was especially pleased to see my travel/life motto was even represented with a solid "everything will be fine in the end."

With my fortune safe in my pocket, I left the scaffolding-clad temple and hopped on the subway to explore more of the city.

Finding My Way in Tokyo
Saying a Prayer at Meiji Jingu Shrine 
Geeking Out in Tokyo

Van Gogh in Seoul

Since November, the Seoul Museum of Art has been hosting a collection of the vibrant and dynamic works of Vincent van Gogh in an exhibit called "Van Gogh: Voyage into the myth". This is the largest display of his works since 1990, when the Van Gogh Museum of Art in Amsterdam celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the artist’s life, so it's a special opportunity for everyone here in Korea.

I went to visit the exhibit with a few friends of mine one Saturday afternoon a couple weeks ago. We had to wait in a long line that wrapped around the courtyard outside the museum before we could warm our toes inside. But the sight of the bright colours on the canvases instantly made me forget about the chilly grey day outside. The long line-up outside translated to a slow-moving crowd inside, but we had fun guessing the titles to each work before we could wade through the crowd to see the painting up-close.

Walking through the exhibit, we followed van Gogh from The Netherlands to France. We saw his first major work, The Potato Eaters, a dark oil painting that was finished in 1885 while he was in Nuenen, The Netherlands. The following year, he moved to Paris, France, where he studied Impressionism and began to experiment with colour.

In the museum, Self-Portrait hung quietly on a wall all to itself, watching the chaos that surrounded the other paintings. We also saw Irises, which was painted in Arles after van Gogh moved there in 1888. He captured the landscapes around Saint-Rémy, with his characteristic swirls and spirals in the brushstrokes, during his year-long hospitalization there. The last three months of his increasingly troubled life were spent painting in Auvers-sur-Oise until he took his own life in July 1890.

Van Gogh has always been one of my favourite artists, something to do with our mutual adoration of colour, and he's always a source of inspiration for my own paintings. It was amazing to see so many of his paintings all together. Now that the exhibit is over, the paintings have to go back home to Amsterdam, but the colours will always remain here in Seoul.

How to Use an Umbrella in Seoul

Rainy season in Seoul is an adventure. From June to September, don’t leave home without an umbrella in your purse or bag, as heavy rains can erupt at any time. The maze of umbrellas on the sidewalks is a beautiful, colourful scene. But walking through them is a potentially dangerous task. You have to be attentive to your own umbrella’s whereabouts, as well as the whereabouts of the thousands of other umbrellas around you. For your safety and the safety of others, there are two good umbrella manoeuvres that can help keep the sidewalks injury-free during the rainy season: The Lift and The Tilt.

The Tilt is a popular technique because it’s simple and quick. A tilted umbrella takes up less space, creating a bigger path for a person to pass. Also, the pointy tips of the umbrella are further away from people’s faces, so there’s less potential for an accidental poking.

The Lift is my preferred method, simply because I’m in the taller half of the population. I just lift my umbrella above all the umbrellas around me, thus space is created yet I’m still fully covered by my umbrella. It works well if you’re one of the taller ones in the bunch because you don’t have to lift the umbrella very high. This method is not widely used, which is a good thing. Overuse will significantly lower its success rate.

But now it’s autumnmost Koreans favourite season. The skies are blue, the temperature is moderate, the leaves are colourful. I still carry my umbrella in my purse every day, just in case, but it’s rarely used. On my walks these days, I’m admiring the golden yellow and fiery red leaves on the trees all around me instead of watching for a wayward umbrella. Sometimes I miss the chaos of the rain, but I prefer the serenity of a sunny autumn day.

Jinju Lantern Festival

13-14 October 2007

For my first weekend out of the big city of Seoul, some friends and I decided to check out a lantern festival. After all, what do you think of when you think ‘Asia’? Paper lanterns. Well, paper lanterns, Chinese food, pandas, Buddha, crazy cool fashion, and anime. Or is that just me?

Jinju, which is as far south as Busan, was a 4 hour bus ride away. We splurged on the “deluxe" bus and were rewarded with reclining seats, so I was able to sleep for most of the ride. When we arrived in the early afternoon, we realized we didn’t have much of a plan. What’s there to see in Jinju?

If we had actually done some research, we would have known about the Jinju Fortress, where less than 4000 Korean soldiers stopped 20 000 invading Japanese during the Imjin War in 1592. But instead we spent our time wandering the streets looking for a cheap place to spend the night.

According to the lantern festival brochure I was handed outside the bus terminal, this festival originated from that same battle. Lanterns, floating along the river and flying high in the sky, were used during the invasion here to send signals to troops.

After the beondegi experience livened up our afternoon, we finally headed to the festival. We passed by a few roasting pigs lining the fairway before the crew decided to indulge on a classy pork dinner under a yellow and red striped tent. My stomach refused to accept anything else from me for the rest of the night, so I instead admired the distant lanterns I could faintly see floating on the river. There were the traditional North American fairway games, too, like balloon darts, basketball, shooting practice, and knocking down bottles with a ball. We even spotted a traditional carny with a long ponytail!

thousands of prayer lanterns along the river

thousands of prayer lanterns along the river

A glowing long wall of red lanterns reading “Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival” officially welcomed us to the festival. There was wall after wall, tunnel after tunnel of these red, rectangular lanterns, which I assume are the “prayer lanterns” the festival brochure describes. These prayer lanterns are supported by the citizens of Jinju, and are silent, glowing prayers for things such as “parents’ long lives” and “students’ exams”.

On the river were huge floating lanterns, colourful and bright. Some depicted scenes from what I can only assume are Korean fairytales or folk stories.There were lotus flowers, men with devil faces, dragons, Dalmatian dogs, men with giant earlobes, soldiers, wagons, children, turtles, women with fans, snails, drums, elves, houses, families sitting down to eat, the Statue of Liberty, and seemingly everything else under the sun. We wanted to take a boat cruise down the river to get a closer look, but they were already booked hours in advance. I wished the buildings along the river would turn out their lights so that just the glow of the lanterns would radiate into the night sky.

In addition to the shining lanterns, fireworks suddenly shot up into the sky while we were admiring the view. The show was amazing. Five locations in the middle of the river simultaneously exploded with fireworks in an incredible display that seemed like the finale the entire time.

After the fireworks ended, we finished our walk along the shore and crossed a bridge. I stopped dozens of times in an attempt to capture a photo that would properly showcase the amazing display of lanterns, but finally I realized I just needed to enjoy it with my own eyes. We happened upon a stage with taekwondo performers, who, to our enjoyment, added nunchaku (nunchucks) to their performance. The grand finale of the festival was a water fountain light show, Vegas style.

The cold air turned us in the direction of our hotel for the night. The festival was over for us, this year.

Van Gogh once said, “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” After visiting the Jinju Lantern Festival, I now know he’s right.

How I Accepted a Dare and Won the Title 'Princess Beondegi'

Gyeongbok Palace

With a weekday off during the Chuseok long weekend, I decided to take some time for myself and do some touristy sightseeing of the city I now call home. I rode the subway to Gyeongbok Palace (the “Palace of Shining Happiness”) in the Jongno-Gu area of Seoul. The only palaces I'd been to before were those in Europe, usually involving the British Royal family. How would they compare to their older, Asian equivalents?

Just outside the Palace gates, I spotted some friends of mine who apparently had the same idea. We bought our tickets and some audio tour guides (a personal favourite) and headed inside. Unfortunately the audio tours weren’t as interesting or as informative as I had hoped. I often left it playing quietly, earphones dangling around my neck, while I chatted with my friends. Instead, we just walked around and I let my imagination roam.

According to my guidebooks, this palace was built in 1394 by King Taejo during the Joseon Dynasty, and it’s rumoured it contained about 500 buildings at that time. During the Japanese invasions, Gyeongbuk Palace was burnt down by palace slaves upset about their working conditions, instead of the Japanese army as one might have imagined. Heungseon Daewongun started rebuilding it in 1865 after resting in ruins for almost 300 years. Modern restoration didn’t begin until the 1990s, well after any Japanese invasions and slave uprisings. Even though restorations are still in progress, the remaining buildings hint at its past grandeur.

It was the colours that impressed me the most. There were bright reds, blues, greens, yellows, and oranges everywhere. Intricate patterns were produced on the undersides of the roofs. I hadn’t experienced any roofs like the ones I saw at the palace. Sure, I knew what a traditional Asian roof looked like, but there aren’t too many around the city anymore. Their tiled tops and colourful bottoms are truly beautiful.

The various palace buildings were amply isolated from each other with expansive stone walkways. There was a beautiful fish pond with a small pavilion in the middle, connected with a bridge that was closed to visitors.

The sun was hot, so we stopped into the National Folk Museum, which is connected to the palace, for a drink. I noticed some traditional hanbok costumes were available to play dress-up and take pictures in... How could I refuse? I convinced my friends to join me and we modelled the colourful attire in celebration of the national holidays. I, of course, wore the queen’s outfit. In their temples and their clothes, Koreans certainly were never (and still aren’t) afraid of colour.

The only appropriate thing to do after a very traditional day is to exit into the urban streets and enjoy a very modern evening under the city lights.


Riding a Boat Down the Han River
Seoul's Top 10