I've been to quite a few temples since I've come to Korea. There are similarities between them all, most notably in how beautiful they are. Another thing many temples have in common is that they offer Templestay programs. Templestays are an overnight look into Buddhist life. The activities depend on the sect of the temple, but they're all an excellent look at the strands of Korean Buddhism. They can be longer with a bit more free style structure or done in a two day program. That was the program that my friend and I attended one beautiful weekend at Seonunsa Temple.

Seonunsa Temple dates back to the Baekje Kingdom (before the unification of Korea, when the Silla Kingdom conquered them). It was built around 577 C.E, during the reign of one King Wideok. Like every major religion, Buddhism has many, many different sects, and Seonunsa is the temple of the Jogye Order. Master Geomdan was the builder of the temple, and he brought Buddhist teachings to the surrounding area's residents. They were people who weren't exactly making an honest living, and Geomdan brought some practical advice with him as well. He helped the locals cultivate salt, which gave them a way to survive honestly. It was an on-the-ground method to help, and the people are still grateful for it to this day. The temple is not only well known for its Templestay, but also a camellia (a beautiful bright pink flower) forest, which has trees that are around five hundred years old. I didn't get a chance to see the forest in its complete glory, because I went down on a brisk, colourful fall weekend (more on that later).

The journey to the temple was quite an interesting, and not exactly the easiest to find. After an extra detour to meet my friend down in her city, we took a bus to a terminal about an hour away. We then waited there for awhile, before taking yet another bus for a half an hour to the temple(ish) area. It dropped us off at the end of the road that led to the temple, where we needed to walk through a small residential area in order to get to the temple entrance. After signing in, it was then another ten-fifteen minute walk to the temple itself, where we would be spending the majority of our time. All in all, we were roughly an hour later than we were supposed to be, and worried that we would be missing out on the introduction about the Templestay.

As it turns out, that didn’t actually need to be a concern to us. While it was a tad embarrassing to show up later, rushing and out of breath from speed walking for half an hour, we didn’t actually miss much. Despite being marketed as one of the foreigner friendly Templestays, the guide that weekend spoke very limited English. While he was able to give some comments and descriptions throughout the weekend, he wasn’t comfortable enough acting as a full translator. That meant that we weren’t really going to be able to follow along with the presentation about the temple and tour of it after that. While it was a bit disappointing, we were encouraged to do our own tour around the temple, and I was actually okay with that. While I would have liked to have someone there to give some brief information about what I was seeing (I am a big fan of tours, especially working as a tour guide for so many summers), being able to explore at our own pace was appealing as well. So my friend and I got our temple clothes (temple clothes, made of cotton, are provided to be worn over your normal clothes) and off we went.
The temple complex itself isn’t all that big. In fact, it’s easy to do a quick exploration in about twenty minutes, if you’re in some sort of hurry. Thankfully, we weren’t, so we were able to take our time. It was calm and it was quiet, with only a few people milling around as we explored. It was an overcast day, giving everything a kind dulled feel when it came to the overall atmosphere. That wasn't bad, and in fact kind of added to the more serious, somewhat somber feel that I felt about the whole weekend. I was excited, don't get me wrong, but I was also pretty serious about it. This wasn't just a walk through a temple and then I went home. This was me stepping into the world of those Monks who lived and practiced in the temple. Being welcomed into it to learn shouldn't be taken lightly, not when you only plan to be a visitor. So our first day being more subdued than most was actually pretty atmospherically appropriate.

The temple had all the usual trappings- the main worship hall, pagodas, the works. There are also a pretty unique feature, but that's due to the equivalent of audience participation opposed to the temple itself. There are hundreds of small rock piles, small stones stacked precariously on top of another. They seems to look like little almost-pagodas themselves. They are everywhere, in empty spaces. I've heard two stories about these things, and I've had people swear up and down that one over the other is correct. The first story is that if you build one that stays up by itself, you get a wish. The second is that they're meant to attract a mountain god/spirit. This makes a lot of sense, since mountains have always played a huge part in Korean spirtiual histor. Both stories are equally cool, so in my (not expert) mind, I've just decided to combine the two. I mean, asking mountain gods/spirits for wishes makes sense, right?

We finally got to join in with the group come supper time, which was (obviously) a wide array of temple food. A word of warning, though I think it's a fairly well known fact. Buddhist monks don't eat meat of any kind, so anything served in the temple dining hall is vegetarian. This isn't a bad thing, not by far, but the food is also the same fare at all means (breakfast and supper). While I don't mind eating Korean food during the day, I'll admit that my stomach couldn't take the spice early in the morning, so I stuck to the rice. It's also a place where you need to be respectful, because this isn't just for the tourists. This is the temple's dining hall, which means all the people who work at the temple, especially the monks, eat here with you. You don't want to be the jerky, loud visitors, so you talk quietly and pay respect to any monks who happen to pass by. You also have to do your own dishes, which is unfortunate from a I-hate-doing-dishes standpoint, but it really does help you begin to feel the sense of community that living in a communal temple would create.

After supper, the first truly Buddhist temple experience we were able to observe was the evening bell ringing ceremony. The Korean Buddhist bell actually has its own name, and it's called beomjong, and it's considered a wonder of acoustic science. The shape of the bell lets the sound carry for a long ways, leaving it echoing in the silence. The sound it makes is haunting peace, and that's the only word I can think of to describe it. You here this sound, and you know it's something you should stop for. Hearing it be rung in the gathering dusk, with the sky darkening and the sounds disappearing even more into the background, is mesmerizing. This isn't the only time you hear the bell. It's this bell that wakes you up, that calls you to morning ceremonies. It breaks out through the crisp morning air, a deep beat that you'd be able to hear for kilometres. It's the only sound in the stark silence, until you're called close enough to hear the monk chanting with every hit. They strike the bell twenty-eight times, meant to add light into the darkness of the human existence. Listening to it, it almost seems possible that it does open the world for a bit more enlightenment. It's a beautiful sound and a beautiful feeling to stand there around it.

After the bell ringing, it is time for the monks to have their evening chanting ceremony. Since we were there to experience Buddhist life, we joined them. The chanting ceremony takes place in the main hall, which was new and a bit nerve wracking for me. I've never actually gone into the main hall, not when it's so open that you can peek inside without. It always feels weird to me, wandering into somewhere someone is actively worshiping, so I usually just avoid it. This time, however, I wasn't going to stand there like a spectator. I was going to join in. Chanting ceremonies are not just all about the chanting. You don't just sit there, still as a statue, for the whole time. There are certain ways to sit, times when you have to bow in different ways. It's certainly an active ceremony, and we were all given a crash course in the appropriate timing and movements. A lot of it came from trial and error and following along, but I eventually got the hang of it. I'll admit that I worried about not doing it right, but then the chanting started, and it didn't bother me as much. The movements are important, don't let me convince you otherwise, but in my heart of hearts, I'll always believe that it's the heart that needs to follow along attentively, but the body is allowed a few screw up (like not being able to sit in Lotus Position, in my case). It doesn't matter if you don't understand what's being said. It doesn't even matter if you truly believe what it being said. Regardless, you feel it in you, all the way down to your soul. The heavy voice leads the chant, wooden drum keeping time, and you move with it. The rhythm gets into you, and you no longer need to focus completely on your movements. The bows seem to flow easier, even if you're far from mastering how to do them correctly. The ceremony lasted for half an hour, but it didn't feel like it. I got so caught up in following along, that I didn't even realize that that much time had passed. The ceremony the next morning, an exact replica as the one at night, this time it's a bit more surreal, being sleep deprived as well as serene.

Next was probably the psychically hardest I did all weekend (and possibly up there in my whole life, quite frankly). This was the 108 bows. This is pretty big in Korean Buddhism, and is exactly how it sounds: There are 108 bows, and they are not just a simple bending in the middle. You need to bow standing, go to the ground and prostrate yourself, and then start over. It's exhausting, but an important part. It encourages reflection and concentration for the ones doing them (though for me it most encouraged 'Oh please don't give out legs. Breath Nicole' being thought over and over, but I am a novice). It's 108 bows because of the importance of the number (six bodily paths, six ways to suffer, three times to suffer). A monk explained all this to us, but there was a lack of a translator (though my friend spoke enough Korean to at least get the jist of it and whisper it to me). There is chanting in the background, words specifically for the 108 Bows. You're meant to think about the ways you want to change yourself. It was hard, and I am not going to understate that. Something I never need to do again, but I'm so very proud that I managed to finish all 108, no matter how terribly the last twenty or so were done.

The Templestay ends with a hike, which makes sense for a temple in the mountains. It's an easy path, most of it paved and running along a beautiful stream. It was an easy walk, and it only took roughly half an hour to get up, and maybe another twenty minutes to get back down. At the top there's a hermitage (a place for monks to pray), and something even more interesting than that. After taking a relaxing, beautiful walk, you get to see something pretty spectacular at the top. Carved into a cliff face near the hermitage, is a massive Buddha image. It dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty, and it thought to be the Maitreya (Indian) Buddha. It's huge, with elegantly curved outlines and amazing details for something so old. You can see places where it's been worn down by weather, but it's still amazingly preserved. You can make specific features, like the curls that make up the Buddha's hair. It the coolest thing I've seen at a temple here in Korea, and it was a first for me. Statues are awesome, but there was just something about this work of religious reverence that wasn't made to stand outside of natural, but was combined with it. Instead of forcing nature into a design they wanted, they look what nature had left them and worked with that. It's spectacular.

One last detail to leave you with. The Templestay was amazing, the experience wonderful, but that's not what's the thing that stuck in my head and never left, even over a year later. The colours...I'm still a little speechless to describe the fall colours. Never in my life have I seen such vivid oranges, reds and yellows gracing the trees. When the wind picked up and blew leaves off the trees, it was like it was raining large specks of paint. For all that the rest was amazing -the bell ringing in the darkness, the carvings in stone, getting lost in meditation and chants-, it's the memory of standing looking over a stone tiled wall, with the orange leaves falling down around me, lighting up the otherwise dull grey of the sky, that I see when I close my eyes. So I'll leave you with this bit of advice- if you're going to do a Templestay at any mountain temple in Korea, do it in the fall. Go when you can see the colours.
I love traditional Korean architecture. It is, hands down, one of my favourite things in Korea. I don't just mean the big, fancy designs, like you see on temples and palaces. I love the simple, common buildings as well, with their black and white tiles that look piled onto one another and that curve up into a wide arch, and their wooden chestnut brown base. They're almost elegant in their simplicity, and I love looking at them. That's why, of course, I was all over Bukchon Hanok Village.

Hanok village is an area of a community that is made up of traditional buildings. A While that's actually not all that uncommon, these are specifically named and cared for as such, just like the way Canada markets historic communities and areas of town. There are hundreds of hanok buildings here, and some of them date back to the Joseon dynasty. They're maintained and kept this way for tourists, but people do live here. It's a fully functioning area of the city, though a number of the buildings have been made into teahouses, guest houses, and places to create traditional Korean crafts. It depends on the day and the time (which meant that going on a Sunday when there's only ah hour and a half of daylight left, like I did, means you're not going to be able to do any of them), but there are plenty of experiences you can choose from. You can learn flower pocket making, how to naturally dye a handkerchief, make a paper jewellery box, make a paper doll, paint a folk scene on a fan, make a traditional frame for latticework, gilded bookmarks, a mother of pearl inlaid key chain, and bracelets. There's even a soju (the most famous alcohol in Korea) experience, though I'd urge a bit more caution on that one, just in case.

Another wonderful thing about Bukchon Hanok Village is the location. It slants up on a hill, so expect to get a workout while you explore. The streets twist and turn, and I know I got lost a number of times (to be sure to pick up a map from one of the tourist information centres). Wandering down narrow roads and alleys might be getting lost, but it's a good getting lost. There were wonderful buildings all around me, though you could only see the roof of most, because brick walls taller than me surrounded the houses themselves, giving the residents privacy. If you found yourself on the top of a high point however, you could look down and see those buildings laid out, one after one. The maze like pathways were not the only interesting thing about the location. Bukchon Hanok Village is located just north of the palace district, and since it's up so high, you're granted an amazing view of Gyeongbokgung Palace (more on that next month) on the west end of the village, and Changdeokgung Palace on the other. The views are stunning, where you can see the entire complex sprawled out behind the gate at the front. On the west side you can see the National Folk Museum of Korea, which is shaped differently than all the others I've seen in Korea. It goes up in stone layers, stairs leading up to three stone terraces, with a towering, colourful temple like pagoda at the top. They look as amazing from a distance as they do up close.
The Bukchon Hanok Village isn't the only place great for an afternoon/early evening stroll.
If you're more in the mood for a calming walk down a river or a lovely picnic, Hangang Park in the place for you. Hangang Park stretches down the bank of Seoul's famous Han River. It's a long park, if not a very big one. There are many things to offer at each part, most importantly the lovely walk, but I'm going to narrow it down to one section specifically. That section is where the Han meets Yeouido, which is generally accepted as the best. If you're wondering where you've heard the place name 'Yeouido' before, that would be because I visited Hangang Park just after seeing another Seoul landmark, Building 63. The park is less than a ten minute walk from the building, so I decided to take a stroll before heading home. To get down to the river itself, you have to pass through an open, grassy area. It's a place that's just perfect for a picnic. There were people everywhere, families and couples spread out on blankets, kids paying ball or flying kites, basically every park activity you could think of, happening right there. Once you pass through the picnic area, you find yourself down at the river banks. I'll admit that it's not the prettiest waterfront I've ever seen, at least in the day light. It's not ugly, by any means, but it doesn't seem to be anything special...until the sun sets. Then, the buildings on all sides of the Han turn on their lights, and the river lights up with the reflection of them. The water shimmers as mirrors the nightlights of the hundreds of tall buildings that tower over it. It's a beautiful sight, which is probably why so many dramas (Korean TV shows) are filmed here. If you need a romantic moment by the Han for your show, Hangang Park on Yeouido is the place to go.

Another great thing is that you don't need to stay landlocked. Ferry cruises leave from this area of Hangang Park, ones that take you up and down the Han. There's a ton of them to choose from- some are just a trip up the river, others provide dinner and a show. Depending on your price range, you can go simple or elegant. They also run throughout the day, and I've been told a night time cruise on the Han is a beautiful thing, even if I've never gotten to go on one myself. Given how pretty night on the Han is from the shore, I can just imagine how beautiful it would be from the middle.

It's Hangang Park that brings us to the last part of today's travel guide, because this is the location where it happens. Instead of a place this time, I'm going to talk about an event. That is the Seoul International Fireworks Festival. I've probably mentioned it before, but there seems to be a festival for everything here in Korea. I'm not even surprised to hear about festivals anymore, so of course I didn't even raise my eyebrows at the mention of one for fireworks (there's actually another one, down in the city of Busan in the fall). It happens annually in the summerish months, and it's a festival not to miss. Surprisingly enough, I didn't actually go to this my first year in Korea. I can't remember why, exactly, only that it didn't sound all the impressive. I mean, once you've seen one fireworks show, you've seen them all, right? Wrong.

The festival takes place over the Han, with boat in the middle where the fireworks go off from. Before the fireworks begin, there's performances and shows at the park. That said, I highly caution against trying to take in the show at Hangang Park itself. The crowds are insane, and I mean that in a you can't even move your arms you're packed in so tight, crowd. Being forewarned of this, I decided to watch the fireworks from a distance. There's quite a few bridges that cross over the Han, and I (along with many others) decided to watch the show from one of them. In the end, it's a choice I was very happy with. Not only was it less crowded, but fireworks look better from far away, where you don't have to crane your neck to watch them light up the sky. You can see them all go off in your field of vision, and don't have to take your eyes off them to catch it all. Also, I got treated to a beautiful sunset from the bridge. I slowly watched the sky go orange to black over Building 63, making it shine gold for a brief time, and watched the sides of the river light up. So take my advice- watch from one of the bridges, not the park where the festival technically takes place. Oh, and no matter where you go, get there early if you want to stand somewhere with a clear view.

I didn't expect the variety of fireworks that were sent up into the sky. There were the pretty basic ones, white, green, blue, and red light exploding into pretty balls, and then there were the more elaborate ones. There were fireworks that turned into smiley faces, and that looked like Saturn, a planet with rings around it. There were multi-coloured ones, and ones that were shaped like the infinity symbol. Some changed colour after exploding, and some that moved around like something out of Harry Potter. The end, where at least fifty fireworks went off one right after the other, lit up the sky like it was daytime. Some were types I'd seen before, but others were completely different and far more interesting than I'd ever seen. They would go for twenty minutes, stop for ten, and then repeat. It lasted for a little over an hour over all, another thing that surprised me. It was a pretty spectacular night. While the Seoul International Fireworks Festival might not necessarily best in the world (not that I've seen many to compare it to, quite frankly), but it is a great fireworks display, and I recommend it if you're in Seoul the night it's happening.

So there you have it- three more things that you can do in Seoul. One traditional, one relaxing, and one exciting. Three different experiences, something for everyone, and each a great time.
When it comes to art galleries, I'll admit that I'm more of a museum girl. Don't get me wrong- I quite like going to art galleries, especially when they have interesting shows going on. It's just that I never seem to think of them off the bat when I'm looking for something to do. Like any big city, there are many, many art galleries in Seoul. Some are big, some are small, and they showcase a variety of different arts. There are three in particular that I have a tendency to frequent, and they are three of the biggest ones: Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul Arts Center and Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Those are the three that I'm going to regale you with, starting with Seoul Museum of Art.

Seoul Museum of Art (SEMA) was actually the first art gallery I ever went to while in Seoul, way back in my first few month living in Korea, and I've been there on two separate occasions. It's a three story building a ten minute walk away from Seoul City Hall and Deoksungung Palace. It has six exhibition halls (plus a library for art related writings), one of which is a permanent and the rest of the halls are for temporary exhibits, which switch out twice a year. These traveling exhibits are from around the world, and they come in a wide variety of subjects. There are the classic art shows, like Van Gough (which I didn't see, sadly), to more quirky themes. It was two of those exhibits that I went to SEMA to see. The first of those exhibits was one of the quirky ones, and it was the Tim Burton exhibit. I am a huge Tim Burton fan, have been since I first saw The Nightmare Before Christmas when I was a little kid. I love the dark aesthetic and the dark humour of Burton's work, and was really excited to go see the exhibition of his work. I wasn't completely sure what to expect, since 'art exhibit' in my mind equalled famous paintings on walls (or maybe some sculptures), but I have to give it to SEMA- they sure know how to design an exhibit. They turned a good chunk of the museum into a look that would fit into Burton's work, starting with the front gate. The arch that led up to the gallery had parts of a bronze cast iron fence on the regular stone pillars, and looked to be covered with thorny steel vines, and odd looking things throughout all of that. When you finally got into the museum, there was even more to the design. The first thing you saw when you walked in the building was a giant balloon thing, that was meant to look like some nightmare character out of a Burton film (blue skin, massive head, one eye, no other facial features to speak of). That, more than anything else, set the tone of what I was going to see. It just screams 'brace yourself- this is going to be weird'. The hallways leading to the exhibits were just as awesome, one of them designed to look like you were walking into the mouth of a crazy, Nightmare Before Christmas-esque monster. It's intense.

The exhibit itself was divided into three different sections, taking up three different rooms. There are some examples of his earliest works, drawings that let you show how he has evolved as an artist and a film maker. There is an amazing amount of artwork, both done by Burton and those involved in his films. There are examples of story concepts that never came to fruition , only known in the art drawn for it. A favourite of mine was a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet with long legged, colourful monsters that looked like something out of a cheerful Salvador Dali painting. The picture used actually managed to look romantically adorable, which really says something. There are also props and pieces from the various movies, including the famous ones: Alice in Wonderland, Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sleepy Hallow, Batman Returns, and many more. The best, in my opinion, was (of course) The Nightmare Before Christmas. You could actually see the original stop motion dolls used in the film (fun fact- those are much bigger than I anticipated). It was all very exciting for a Burton fan.
The second exhibit I went to SEMA was far more traditional. It was an exhibit dedicated to the work of Paul Gauguin. While there were other works, much of the focus was Gauguin's Polynesian period and the period just before, where he painted many a religious scene. Gauguin was born in Paris who started painting with Impressionism. His use of colour eventually took him beyond that style, and he began to paint based on his own experience with his own imagination added in. Opposed to industrialization, Gauguin eventually moved to Tahiti, a place with little of what he considered civilization.

From here is where some of his most famous works come from. The highlight of the show was Gauguin's most famous work, a massive painting called Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going. It shows Tahitian people relaxing in nature, painting with a mixture of browns, greens and other more muted colours. It's a beautiful piece. It's not the only famous work there, and they were all lovely to see. The paintings for the Polynesian are wonderful, capturing the causal moments of the Tahitian people. While there is absolutely some othering in the paintings, and you get a sense of Gauguin painting these subjects as an exotic idealism, they are still great works, and I recommend seeing them if you ever get the chance.

While I attended two shows at SEMA, I've only seen one at Seoul Arts Center, and that was the Studio Ghibli exhibit. Studio Ghibli is an animation studio out of Japan, and I'd wager that it's one of the most famous studios outside the ones that dominate Hollywood. The work that comes out of Studio Ghibli is award winning for the beautiful animation, and has been released and translated in many countries, including Canada. While it might not have gained as much widespread popularity in mainstream North America, is truly is a world renowned studio. In Japan itself, Studio Ghibli has five of the highest grossing movies. Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke are only some of the most populr films to come out of the studio. I am a huge fan of the movies, both the amazing animation and the truly deep, thought provoking plots and themes that go with them.
When it comes to space, Seoul Arts Center (SAC) is actually better than SEMA. SEMA is incredibly crowded and close together, which can be stifling if there's a crowd.

While SEMA uses three galleries, SAC uses six, which gives you a lot more room to move. Those exhibits showcase the best work of the creator of the studio (Isao Takahata) and the studio itself great works, including the ones I listed above. Of course, this is mostly done through artwork. Not only drawings, but paintings and models as well. I love the style of Studio Ghibli, and getting to see all the art up close was spectacular. There was also a section devoted to the art style that the studio works with, called the Layout System. It's technical knowledge that helps you get a deeper look at how the movies come to life, and it's interesting. The amount of work that went into it is obvious. It was a beautiful exhibit, one that anyone who loves animation would be thrilled to see. The design was amazing as well, with the corridors looking as though they were scenes out of one of the films themselves.

Last, but not least, Dongdaemun Design Plaza. This is actually a massive, oddly shaped dome building that only opened in the past couple of years. There are always multiple exhibits going on, with one big one (usually). There's also been a festival or two hosted here, including a Pikachu Festival, held after a Korean won the world Pokemon card tournament (that festival, however, was poorly planned -though getting my picture with a Nicole sized Pikachu was awesome-, and thankfully the exhibitions are much better). Now, I'm going to wax poetic, because they had a WETA Workshop show. WETA Workshop is the New Zealand based company that did the conceptual design (armour, creatures, props, costumes, etc) for Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit. This is the company that helped bring Middle Earth to life. The joy I felt when I found out this was coming to Seoul cannot be explained. There were life sized statues of different characters (the trolls, Azog, a Nazgul and Gandalf), and I gleefully skipped among them. There was a beautiful set piece in bronze that showed Gollum in his cave in the Misty Mountains. There were small models of the locations and characters. There were smaller props and concept design drawings, and it was all very, very glorious.

Suffice to say, it was a day where everything was right in the World of Nicole. Now, WETA hasn't just done Lord of the Rings. It's worked in a number of other films, and those are showcased there. They also had two original concepts as well, both fascinating (though sadly none seemed to be anything more than just an exhibit). The storyline and art were stunning, especially for The Gloaming Trilogy, the story of a human who gets dropped into a magical world and a troll has to go on a journey to get them back. The creature design is some of the most unique and fascinating I've ever seen, and I got to see it in sculptures and art. The fact that this doesn't actually exist as a piece of fiction is a tragic thing for me.

It goes without saying that, obvious, these are no longer the shows that are on at any of the three galleries. They've all been changed out by now, multiple times. I'm sure you're wondering why I'd go into such detail about exhibits that are temporary, and here's my answer (it's a two-fold one). First, these are exhibits that travel all over the world, so there is actually a chance that you'll run into it somewhere, someday. When that day comes, you'll think back an go 'hmmm....Nicole did mention how wonderful this was!'. Secondly, it's to give you an idea of what those three art galleries have to offer, in a more general sense. One (or two) well put together exhibits speaks volumes of the quality of the gallery, and whether or not it's a place you should keep an update notice on. of Because of these handful of shows, these are the places that I do, in fact, keep an eye out for.
There are a ton of ways to cross the Han River, which cuts Seoul in two. Most of those ways are bridges (for both cars and the subway lines), and crossing them is a lovely view. While not visible in every place crossing the Han (it's a long river), in a number of places, if you look out, you'll see an island out near the middle, with a very large building on it. The building looks a little curved, and shines gold under the sun. It's big, it's splashy, and it's called Building 63. The name comes from the sixty-three floors, which makes one of the tallest buildings in Korea (number three, though that might not last that much longer, with a new tower being built near Lotte World). It does have the honour of being the tallest gold clad building in the world (remember when I said flashy?). It's not just a tall building, of course, because why would I be writing about it if there wasn't something to do there? Rest assured, there is something to do.

Building 63 sits on the small, man-made island of Yeoido, which itself sits in the middle of the Han river. The area it's built is a nice one, where a five minute walk will bring you down to a section of Hanyang Park, which is the park area along the river. Inside Building 63, there's a number of things to do. There is an aquarium, an art gallery, two different theatres (one an Imax -the first one opened in Korea- and the other for stage performances), a wax museum and even a buffet restaurant that claims to be the best in Korea. I can't comment on the buffet (or any of the other smaller restaurants in the building), but I can assure you that the lines were long, so they had to be doing something right. On a similar note, I can't give you a personal opinion on either of the theatres. This, again, goes back to long lines and a lack of reservation for the theatre production. While I was there, it was a masked dance performance and a dinosaur short in the Imax (obviously, the shows change periodically). Both looked incredibly interesting, and I wish I could have caught them.
Now, onto what I can tell you about. During my day in Building 63, I took the time to visit the wax museum, aquarium and art gallery. The first of these attractions I went to was the 63 Wax Museum. I'm going to come right out and say it- this wasn't the best wax museum I've ever been to, not by a long shot. It was small, and some of the wax figures looked a little shoddy. The Chamber of Horror section wasn't all that scary, though there were some great figures of the classic horror movie monsters (and the witch there, clearly based off the one from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was great in a creepy way). All of that said, it was still worth a wander through. The main figures here are historical ones (of all forms, which was nice) and some pop culture related ones (musicians, athletes and even a superhero or two). For the historical figures, there's a huge array, from composers such as Beethoven, to painters like Van Gough, to politicians galore (a personal favourite was the very well done King Sejong the Great, who I've spoken about many a time before. This was an excellent statue, and the detail was superb). A personal hero of mine, Mahatma Gandhi, also made an appearance, sitting crossed legged in his traditional white garments and with his walking stick. While his statue wasn't as great as Sejong's, it still made me happy to see him there (fun fact- whenever someone asks those 'if you could meet anyone, who would it be?' questions, Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth I are always my go to people). For the figures of pop culture, the winner for me was Spiderman (you can never go wrong with Spiderman). He's there in his blue and red glory, just waiting for you to wander up beside him and take a picture. Besides him, there are also athletes (David Beckham), politicians of a more modern nature (Obama), musicians (Michael Jackson) and some other random ones (giant teddy bears dressed up to look like Harry Potter or Wonder Woman). The best one, however, for both size and detail, is the figure set designed to recreate Da Vinci's The Last Supper. It takes up nearly an entire room, with a long table going from one end to the other. It took three years to completely put together, and it's clear why- the details on each of the disciples is spectacular, and not only in the wax figure itself. They're arranged just as the painting depicts, and the table matches as well. A lot of thought went into creating this exhibit, and it worked out well. The minute you walked into the room, you knew you were looking at Da Vinci's The Last Supper.
Wax museums, in general, are rather silly things, if you think about it. The main purpose, in my mind, is photo opportunities. You get to stand beside all these famous figures and take pictures, be they serious or silly ones. This wax museum was no different, and people looked to be having a great time of it (myself included). They were posing beside the figures, trying to make themselves fit in or to look like they were doing something crazy. It was fun, and that's why I really recommend a visit to the wax museum.

There's another reason I suggest it as well. Just before you leave the museum, there is a small workshop area. That area is where you can get your hands immortalized in multi-coloured wax. There are vats of different coloured waxes and cold water, and a staff member takes your hand (positioned however you want, from splayed fingers to peace signs. There are even couples who got their entwined hands, which was adorable) and dips it in for the process. It's uncomfortable, of course (hot wax is, you guessed it, hot), but not particularly painful. You can either get a multi-coloured rainbow design, or get a colour that fades into white. It only takes about ten minutes for the whole thing to finish, so it's a quick and really cool way to memorialize your visit.

Next up was 63 Sea World. I'll admit that the Coex Aquarium spoiled me when it comes to aquariums. Because of the location, the aquarium in Building 63 can't be as big or elaborate as that in Coex (Coex has much more space to play with). While it was impossible to measure up to Coex, it was still a nice, medium sized aquarium that had lots to see. There are the basics that you will see at nearly every aquarium you'll ever visit- seals, fish from all over the world, a section devoted to marine animals that spend at least a fraction of their time on land (otters, frogs, etc), and the giant tanks filled with sharks, rays, big fish and some other things I couldn't even begin to classify. There are a few highlights that I'd recommend, of course. There are penguins, which I will always love to see. This time, however, there were not just the small penguins, but an emperor one as well! Granted, it wasn't all that big, but it was still a new kind of penguin for me to see! The most interesting thing to see was the coelacanth. This is a fish you might have heard of before, since it was in the news within the last decade or so. For a very long time, the coelacanth was thought to be extinct. It wasn't until one was caught that scientists realized that this was not the case. It's very cool to see, a fish that dates back to the dinosaurs, and is rightfully hailed as a 'living fossil'. There are a number of feeding shows as well (penguins, seals) and even a synchronized swimming show where swimmers perform in the big pool with sharks, fish and other sea creatures create the background. There is lots to see in 63 Sea World, and for all it's smaller, it's not a disappointment.

Finally, the highlight of Building 63. Both the wax museum and the aquarium are fun, but they're not what you're there to see. If you're visiting one of the tallest buildings in Seoul, than you're there for one thing: the view. That is where 63 Sky Art Gallery comes in. On the 60th floor of the building, there is the highest art gallery in the world. Getting to this gallery is a harrowing experience for those of us scared of heights. Since the elevator is clear glass that runs along the side of the building, it makes sure you see everything outside as you go up and up and up. I maybe got to floor twenty (if that) before I had to close my eyes and wait for it to be over. Slight height induced panic aside, it was worth the trip up. The art that was displayed when I was there was a mixture of traditional and modern. There were paintings and sketches, along with photographs and more abstract pieces. The works are all done by Korean artists, and are interesting to see, especially since there is such variety to look at. There are plenty of places to sit to take it all in, and a cafe if you want to contemplate the art (or take in the view) longer over a hot coffee. The art is lovely, but the view is even better. Much like Seoul Tower, the walls of the floor mainly consist of picture windows that peer out over the city. On a very clear day, you can see all the way to Incheon (it's roughly an hour and a half drive), and even on not-so-clear days, you get a beautiful view of Seoul Tower itself. You tower over the city of Seoul, and when you look down, everything else seems so small. You can see the length of the Han River, and it's a stunning view. For all that I'm afraid of heights, I'll be the first to tell you that a view from the top is the best thing you're ever going to see, and Building 63 proves that all over again.

I left just after watching the sun beginning to set over the city of Seoul from the 63 Sky Art Gallery. It was spectacular, and a view I wouldn't have missed for the world. Building 63 might not have been the most exciting thing I've done during my stay in Korea, but it was an excellent way to spend the day, and a utterly fantastic way to end. If you listen to nothing else, remember this- sunset over looking Seoul is amazing, and Building 63 is one of the best places you're going to get to see it.
One thing I love about Korea is that you can be in a big city (Seoul, in this case). and then BAM! You've stumbled across history. Not just history as in a museum, but real life, breathing (in a manner of speaking), been there for centuries history. It's something that happens so wonderfully often, and a former history major can find bliss. Bliss, in this instance, came in the form of the Seolleung and Jeongneung royal tombs. Old school tombs in Korea aren't stone mausoleums or elaborate buildings. At their core, they're mounds.
You'll find the remains of Korean royalty buried beneath grassy mounds. While these tombs vary based on the time period, the mound part generally stays the same. For the tombs here, they are smaller mounds on top of a tall, flat at the top hill, all of those things covered in grass (incredibly green grass, when I was there). The burial mounds are fairly small, surrounded by a stone fence and guarded by large stone statues all around it. These are the tombs of the Joseon Dynasty.

There are three tombs in this nice little park, located not too far from Gangnam. But before I get into the main attractions, there's another thing or two that deserve a mention. One, of course, is the park I just spoke about. When I say it's nice, I really do mean it. There are a few well trod dirt paths you can take. It's hilly in a number of areas, and there are trees everywhere. It takes maybe an hour (or two, depending on your walking speed) to walk around the park (and I recommend going around, since the tomb structures are at opposite ends of the park). I went in the summer, and everything was wonderfully green (something I really miss, living in a city). I went at a nice, leisurely pace, and tombs aside, it's a great place for a stroll.

On top of the park itself, there's also a smattering of buildings to present how the tombs were run, once upon a time. There's the tomb keepers house, with a 500 year old, beautiful in the summer/spring gingko tree beside it. There's the guard house, because grave robbing is something that happens all over the world and throughout history (and something that fills me with anger and sadness). There's also few other shrines, housing memorial tablet, just outside the tombs themselves. While not a representation of anything ancient, there is a really great history centre right near the entrance. The information is provided in English as well as Korean, and there you can get an excellent English brochure. I really recommend picking one up, since it's always a plus to have historical context when visiting somewhere, partially a UNESCO World Heritage site (which these tombs are).
Now, onto the tombs. There are two tomb areas, though three tombs. In one area is the solitary tomb of a king (and it's an interesting story how he got there, but more on that in a bit), and the other are the tombs of a king and a queen. The first I'm going to talk about is Jeongneung. This is the tomb of King Jungjong, the 11th ruler of the Joseon dynasty. He was a king who ascended to the throne after his older brother was deposed in a coup and one who attempted to bring about reforms in his kingdom based in his belief in Neo-Confucian thought. It didn't end so well, since his top advisors were particularly radical and people don't tend to like radical reforms thrust on them. After his death, Jungjong was buried beside the grave of his second consort, Queen Janggyeong. His third consort Queen Munjeong, however, wasn't going to let that stand, and had his tomb moved to the present day location. Unfortunately for her, this area proved to be a bad choice, given that it had a tendency to flood, and she didn't even get buried beside him after her own death.

There are two main areas for the tomb. The first is the ceremonial area. This is a wide open area, a large field. Like the name implies, this is the area where any ancestral memorial rites (and they are performed, to this day) happen. The area beings with a small stone bridge passing over a small stream. This is the Forbidden Stream Bridge. This bridge is where our world and the spirit meet. It's only natural that the spirit world is important to the area where dead royals are laid to rest and honoured. The stone leads up to a tall, free standing gate. It is two red poles with an almost fence-like top, where the symbol of swirling red, yellow and blue circle graces the top. Passing the bridge means you have entered a place close to the spirit realm, but walking through the gate means you have entered a scared space. When you walk through it, you can almost understand why. There's a feeling, knowing that you have passed into the space of the dead. In a country that honours the dead so thoroughly, that truly means something. Whether the feeling is nothing more than that knowledge, or a bit of spiritual history passing over you, I'll let you decide when you visit yourself.

Once you pass through the gate, there is a long stone path that leads up to the shrine where the actual ceremonies are performed. It's the Worship Road. There are two parts to this road, one slightly higher than the other. There is a reason for this, and for all these two parts serve the same purpose, they are different. The taller of the two paths is for the spirits, and no person was able to take it (to this day, there is a sign telling you to stay off because this is only for the sprits. Why take chances, right?). The lower path was reserved for the king. It's an interesting thing, I think. Most of us think that, in the minds of many people (and in their minds as well, which usually leads to bad things, quite frankly) think that the king is the most important person in any kingdom. We'd assume that he would have the highest honour, that his pathway would be above all the rest. Yet here we see that it's not. For all that he might be highest in the kingdom, the ghosts of the dead and any other spirits that tread there are still given the higher honour. There is one more thing for the spirits, past the stone walkway. At the base of the hill there is a ritual table for the mountain spirit. Mountains are incredibly important for Korea, and part of what determines where things are built is based on mountains. Trying to appease those mountain spirits is also something that is important in Korean history.

Then, you come to the hill that houses the tomb of the king. You can't get to the top of this hill, and actually can't get very close to the hill. This is a tomb you can only see from a distance, which was a bit of a let down, to be honest (the other ones don't have this problem). It's a great view from way back, when you stand back behind the red gate and look out. You see the mound and stone around it, but you can't really make the statues that surround it. They are stone statues of tigers, sheep, military officials and civil officials. Thankfully, this isn't the case of the other tombs.

The Seolleung area is home to two different tombs, one for a queen and one for a king. The first one I got to see was the one for Queen Jeonghyeon. She was this king's third consort (the first one died, the second one was deposed), promoted from concubine and outliving her husband for quite a long time. Sadly, they don't really give a lot of information about the queen at the site, focusing more on the two kings. While this gets an unimpressed look from me (because, argh), there's really not that much written on her, at least that I could find. After visiting and being left unsatisfied, I tried to do my own research, and it was hard to find more than a few basic facts (she is, however, a character in a Korean drama called 'King and I'. It looks a lot like a Korean version of the Tudors, and the focus is more on his second wife. Think of it as Jeonghyeon as Jane Seymour to the second wife's (Lady Yun) Anne Boleyn). Thankfully, you can climb up to this tomb. There is a path up one side, where you can see the burial area. The burial area itself is (obviously) closed off by a fence, because they don't want anyone wandering around. While the angle is a bit awkward (you're looking from a bit of a slant), you can see everything at this tomb. The statues (animals and officials once again) are quite large and weathered with time. The features you can still make out, though some are better preserved than others. You can still see the wear that comes with rock standing outside guarding a queen through the years. Interestingly enough, there is no shrine, gate or walkway here. It doesn't really say anything about it, but I'm left to assume
that those that lead to her husband's counted for her as well. Her mound is smaller as well. Cue another sigh.
Finally, the last tomb belongs to King Seongjong, the 9th ruler of the Joseon Dynasty. Seongjong took the throne at age twelve, and he was not trained to be a king. He was the second son of the crown prince, who died. Thanks to some scheming relatives (of course), he ended up taking the throne woefully unprepared. Seongjong couldn't start ruling on his own until he was twenty, so he devoted that time to learning how to be a king. He was a spectacular student, causing some to worry he studied too much and it was going to effect his health. He also came to love poetry, and was quite the poet himself. It all worked out in the end, because Korea enjoyed prosperity and peace under his rule. The Grand Code of State Administration (Gyeonggukdaejeon) was completed under him, and it became the main statute of the dynasty. Seongjong was a great king, and remained one until his death at age thirty-seven.

Like the queen, you can climb up to the side of the burial area. It's still cordoned off, but you can get closer than the other tomb, and it's at a better angle to see. The fence around the area is taller and in the traditional Korean style, and there seem to be more statues here. It looks much the same as the tomb of the other king, though it's still very cool to see. Another plus is the wonderful view. You turn around, and you're looking out towards the city. Over the tops of green trees, you see tall silver and black building rising into the sky. It's one of the juxtapositions that I love so much about Seoul- the way the natural and the city smooshed together. That was the last look I really had of the park, before I went home. It was an awesome look to end the day with.
When it comes to straight up theme parks, Korea isn't exactly bursting with options. While there are a handful of fairly big ones, none quite reach what we in North America would consider a top of the line, Canada's Wonderland-like, place. That said, the country does have quite a few excellent ones, three large ones in particular. The one I'm going to talk about today (and the one I went to first) is Lotte World. Now, when I say that the amusement parks here don't feel very big, I don't necessarily area wise.

Lotte World, far all that it feels like a Crystal Palace on steroids, is actually the world's largest indoor amusement park. Not only is it a multi-floor indoor theme park, but also an outside area, built on an artificial island in the middle of a lake. On top of that, it's located right in the heart of Seoul, which makes it easy to get to (it's right on a subway stop) and also incredibly busy.

I'll admit that I'm not really much of an amusement park person (theme parks -a la Disney- are a different story), but it was a rainy day and my friend had two free tickets. It wasn't a wasted trip, and I had a blast.

Since it was pouring rain, my friend and I were mostly limited to the indoor section of the park. The inside of the park is designed with a very quaint, old European feel. The buildings are light pastel colours, built to look like they belong in a quaint little fairy tale (complete with a small castle, a windmill and a traditional, with white, pretty horses carousel ). There's an adorable hot air balloon ride (the basket and top is made to look like a hot air balloon, and you ride it on a track above the whole indoor part of the park). Being more than a little scared of heights kept me off that one, but it's perfect for anyone who likes having a bird's eye view.

There's also a great mix of rides there, one for everyone. There are the thrill rides, adventure rides and kid friendly rides in the indoor area of the park. I myself am more partial to adventure rides (I'll do thrill rides, but they're not my cup of tea), and there were a number of them to amuse and entertain me.

The first of those rides was the Jungle Adventure. This is one of the three water rides that snake through the park (again proving how psychically large Lotte World is). As the name implies, it's jungle themed. The water is a raging river through a dense jungle, one that you ride down in a giant, round inflatable raft. You spin, bump into things and get soaked by splashing water. I'll admit that the effects and decorations are incredibly cheesy (an ongoing theme), but it was still a lot of fun.

The second water ride I went on was called The Adventure of Sindbad. It was much like Jungle Adventure in terms of set up (you float down an underground river, albeit in a boat this time), but it follows an entirely different theme. The ride takes you through Sindbad's (the mythical hero from the Middle East who was basically the Arab version of Odysseus, in that he sails the seven seas fighting monsters, going to magical places and being all heroic. If you haven't heard these tales, I highly recommend going and reading them. They're quite fun). This ride tells one of those stories- one where Sindbad has to save his fair damsel (cliché, I know) from the evil magician who kidnapped her. All the dialogue (on TV screens and blasted over loud speakers) is in Korean, but you don't need to know what's being said in order to understand what's happening (one of the blessings of overacting). The scenes set themselves up quite well, and you follow Sindbad's journey through dangerous, magical caverns as he faces off with his enemy in the magician's evil palace. The scenes are full of goofiness and good effects (including ones that surprised you and made you jump, myself included), and pretty good animatronics. If you have to pick between this one and the Jungle Adventure, go with this one. The story aspect makes it more entertaining, at least in my storyteller opinion.

There were other adventure rides, but we weren't able to go on because of long lines. The two big ones were the log fume (dinosaur themed, which still makes me sad I didn't get to go on) and Pharaoh's Fury, where an automatic jeep ride takes you into the heard of a cursed Egyptian tomb to find the pharaoh's great treasure (another ride I was sad not to go on, being a history geek and all).

A word on the rides and those long lines. A number of the bigger rides off fast pass tickets. There's a ticket machine just outside the entrance. You pull one of those tickets and it gives you a time. That is the time (ours was roughly an hour or so later) when you're guaranteed a spot on the ride. They're incredibly handy, because it means you're getting on the rides you want, but you're also free to do something else as you wait, instead of just standing in line. I highly recommend using the Magic Pass. It will seriously let you see more of the park than if you just decide to wait the old fashioned way.

Now, I know what a lot of people go to amusement parks for. Most people go for the thrill rides. You'll be happy to know that there are plenty of those. Most are in the outside area (I'll get to that later), but there are some inside as well. There's a swinging ship and 360 degree drop ride, but it's the French Revolution that the biggest line was for. That is Lotte World's indoor medium sized roller coaster. While the coaster may not be large, it is still exciting. The ride begins with a sheer, stomach dropping out from you, drop. It only gets more dizzying from there. There's more than one loop upside down and there is more than one time where you're completely sideways and you feel like you're legitimately going to fall off. It's probably not even a minute long, but it's a minute where I kept my eyes slammed shut and practically screamed my throat raw.

There's also more than enough child friendly things to keep any kid entertained as well. The bottom floor of the park is a complete kids' zone. There's an Alice in Wonderland themed playground, so 3D theatres -one a beluga and the other a miner ride-, some bumper cars, spinning baskets and some cute cars you can ride in a circle. There's also a stage where you can catch a puppet or magic show, if you or the children get sick of rides.
Now that I've covered all the rides the interior of Lotte World has to offer, it's time to talk about what else it has. Like any good park, it has an equally good theme. The theme changes at Lotte World, but when I went, it was Carnaval (the celebration in Rio, not the traveling fair).

There were, of course, decorations -bright, shiny and over the top-, but that not where the Carnaval theme really shone. It shone in the parade. Twice a day, there is a parade around the centre of the main floor, and that is spectacualr (I only saw Carnaval, but I'm sure the other themes are equally impressive). It starts with the blaring of music, rythmic and exciting. It makes you want to dance, to move your hips to the beat and just let loose. Then the parade itself starts, with a double decker bus -excited children below, dancers and mascots above- leading the way. Then the dancers come. It's obvious they're from all over the world, and that all of them are incredably talented. They could move in more ways and with more grace than most of us (myself included) could only ever dream of doing. They danced with the music, some of them on the floor and others on numerous floats (my favourite being the throne made of peacock feathers). Their costumes were absolutely beautiful. They were amazing colours- bright yellow, blue, pink and purple. They shone, with rhinestones covering so much of them and making them sparkle. They were adorned with giant feathers, some used to make it look like wings and others used to give the appearence of wearing a helmet or a headress. They were elobrate and beautiful. That also describes the parade in its entirety.

While I wouldn't say it makes you feel like you're in the heart of the real Carnaval, it might just be one of the places that come at least a little close while outside of Brazil. The parade isn't the only thing that stands out besides the rides. It's probably something that will have more appeal to the adults in the party (unless you have a kid who was just like me). On the upper floor of the park, there is a folk museum (yes- Korea has a museum in an amusement park. It's one of the reasons I love this country). It's a fairly large one, and some areas are quite elobrate. There are the usual (though no less exciting to see) artifacts- weapons, pottery, tools and various outfits. They're interesting, but also varations of what you've seen in any half decent museum in Korea. The best part are the minitures. Now, I know dioramas aren't everyone's thing. These, however, are detailed beyond belief, bigger than pool tables (per) and there's enough of them to fill a room that is basically the size of a gymnasium. There are so many different scenes -a royal wedding, greeting foregin dignataries, ancestor ceremonies, villagers celebrating a harvest festival...if there was an everyday/regualr event in Koran history that you can think of, it was there. It wasn't only there, but moving, lit up and in perfect detail. How amazing they are only becomes more impressive when you climb up the quite big fortess wall and see them all laid out below you. It was pretty mind blowing.

Of course, there's more to offer inside. Sores selling various souviners (mostly related to the park mascots, which are Lotty and Lorry, cartoon raccoons), resturants (a food court featuring delicious Korean food -I reccomend the dunkas- more traditional Korean resturants in the folk museum, and if you're craving some western food, a T.G.I Fridays. There's laser tag, a small haunted house and an arcade). If you want a little taste of a Canadian pasttime, the world's largest indoor ice rink is also located in Lotte World.

I've given you the run down of all that Lotte World interiour has to offer, but we're not quite done. For all that I spent very little time there, Magic Island (exteriour) still deserves a nod. Magic Island continues the European fairy tale feel. The buildings still have to old European look, and there's even a big fairy tale castle (think a smaller version of Disney World's Cinderella's Castle). It was a nice set up that contrasted nicely with the rides. This is the place where the extreme rides are, though I didn't get on any (I just ate before going out and I'm uncomfortable getting on park rides when they're wet).

There's a secondary roller coaster called Atlantis that loops around the whole area. The gyro swing, which is a monsterous cross between the merry-go-round and swining ship (you're strapped into a circle that spins while simoltaniously swings back and forth- my stomach turns just turns thinking about it), the gyro drop (guarnteed to introduce your stomach to your throat during a freefall), a bungee drop (giving you three drops, not just one a la the gyro drop) and the Comet Express (much like the swings, where your seat spins freely...prepare to be dizzy).

There's other rides of course, ones that won't make you potentially throw up. Some laid back rides (monorail around the park, a classic European car rides for kids, a swan ride tunnel of love). There's a few rides inside buildings, and since it was still drizzling, one of those is what we chose.

Fantasy Dream is definetely geared more towards kids, but the line was short (and we weren't the only adults) and it was dry. It's basically Lotte World's version of It's a Small World, complete with cheerful, moving/singing dolls and animals. It's set up along a track that you slowly ride on. You pass through different areas/rooms, each with a different theme going on. Candyland, Santa's Workshop, Magical Forest...it's got it all. There's also a section for dolls/bears of the world, where different countries are represented in rather cliche ways. America has a football game going on, Korea has the traditional wedding, amd Brazil Carnaval. It was amusing, though a little creepy. It was also a good way to kill twenty minutes or so.

Amusement parks may not be my thing in general, but Lotte World was a good time. I enjoyed going, and would go back if the oppertunity came up...but hopefully one with better weather.


Apr. 15th, 2017 03:56 am
Every year, something crazy goes down in Boryeong, South Korea. That something is dirty...so very, very dirty. Before you go and take that in the wrong way, I mean dirty in the literal sense. It's all about the mud down in Boryeong. For a week every mid- July, it's all about Mudfest. Mudfest is exactly what it sounds like. It's a festival completely and utterly devoted to the mud that comes from the mud flats all around the area. It's not ordinary mud, of course, because where is the fun in that? The mud is said to be rich in minerals and great for the skin (I can attest to that, having had the mud smeared all over me, and felt how soft my skin was afterwards. Also, it works as excellent sunscreen). It's been made into a wide range of cosmetics and beauty products. In fact, Mudfest was originally dreamed up as a publicity stunt for those cosmetics. It didn't take long for it to morph into the beach party to end all beach parties. I've been to two Mudfests, both the 16th and 17th annuals. I had a blast both years (though I managed to hurt myself the first year, which put a damper on things), and for a few reasons. There's a lot more to Boryeong than just the mud.

The festival takes place in two different areas- the mudflats and Daecheon Beach. First up, I'll go over the mudflats and the activities there. The mudflats are where they get the actual mud for the festival. It's taken from the mudflats and shipped over to the main festival site at Daecheon Beach. This is the source, so obviously the festival organizers had something set up there.

The mudflat experience began with everyone changing into ridiculously oversized old army fatigues. Given the fact that the whole experience is marketed as mud boot camp, the fashion seems quite appropriate. There was a mudflat military experience (complete with crawling around in the mud and covering our faces to work as camouflage), an obstacle course, some mud wrestling in these giant tube things and even a game of mud soccer.
It was a good hour of playing in the mud like we were a bunch of wild kindergartners who snuck outside on a rainy day. It was fun and silly...and a little dangerous. I actually ended up hurting myself pretty badly while at the mudflats that first year (I limped for over a month). Because of that, I ended up sitting out on the mudflat experience this year (once bitten, twice shy and all that). Ever with the unfortunate injury, I'd still recommend the mudflat experience so very much.

A note on that, however. You can't just show up at the mudflats and participate. Only certain groups are able to get permission (they want to protect the source of the mud, of course) to go. So, if you're at Mudfest and want to do the experience (and you should!), it's something you'll have to look into and do some research on before hand. It's completely worth it...just be careful!

After the mudflats, it was onto the beach. First up, a word on the beach itself- it's beautiful, absolutely beautiful. It's a long stretch of golden sand that leads down to cool blue water. The beach is lovely, and I spent as much time on it as I did in the mud. It was an amazing place to just sit down and read a book or bask in the sun. A lot of people had pitched tents for some shade for their beach day, and some had huge umbrellas they had staked into the ground. There were also a number of long beach chairs with umbrellas providing shade that you could rent. I don't recommend it, since they a extremely overpriced.

Chairs aren't the only thing you can rent. Going to the beach doesn't only mean sitting there. It can also mean taking a dip in chilly water to get out of the sweltering Korean summer heat. You can rent tubes to go out and enjoy the water. Personally, I think it's pointless to rent one. Lifeguarding is serious business in Korea. There are literally lifeguards every few metres, their whistles at the ready. Depending on how rough the water is, you can only do in a few metres. That's not a suggestion- they literally stop you from going any further. One of the days I couldn't even go over my head. It cooled me down wonderfully, but there was no swimming. It seemed a bit of a waste.

Not only is the beach a great place to relax and swim, it's also an excellent place to have a party. One end of the beach is completely devoted to it, in fact. Boryeong Mudfest, for all it's supposed to promote mud products, is marketed as a huge, week long party. There's a giant stage on the beach, and it blasts out music, both DJ and live, through the day and into the night. There's dancing there, and people laughing and playing in the surf. There were food stands and cheap drink stands all around the area. There was a giant 'mud machine' that sprayed out a thin mist of liquid mud over the party goers. It provided a nice way to cool off. It was, as I said earlier, the beach party to end all beach parties.

The party continues into the night where there's a live performance (featuring everything from classical music to hip hop, depending on the night). After the performance, around ten on the first weekend, there's a great fireworks show. It lasts about half an hour, and there were some truly epic fireworks. There were bright explosions of colourful sparkles that lit up the sky, and booms so loud they echoed so much that you could almost feel the vibrations. There were some especially neat ones too, like the one that exploded into a red and blue smiley face. I love fireworks, have since I was a child going to the last Saturday of Old Home Week. They're exciting for me, some of the prettiest lights I've ever seen. Because of that, I hold the bar pretty high for a fireworks show. It's pretty easy to disappoint me...and this one didn't. In fact, it set the bar there for awhile (until a fireworks festival, which you'll learn about someday). That's just how amazing it was.

Now, we come to what the festival is really about. It's all about the mud, and on the plaza above the beach, they set up a mud playground. There are fountains of mud, where you can get yourself filthy before even going into the main area. There is even more mud wrestling in that raft, a mud bath, a mud prison (you go in behind bars and get mud thrown at you) and even a special area for kids. Best of all, in my opinion, is all the bouncy things. By bouncy things, I mean structures that are made out of the same materials as the famous bouncy houses of carnivals gone by. There's two giant slides, where you race up one end (and the stairs up are both steep and slippery) and slide down the other end. There's a long almost obstacle course, where you need to climb, squeeze through small openings and slip and slide your way over flat surfaces before you get to the end. Oh, and it's totally a four person race as well. Volunteers even throw the liquid mud as you go, adding another level to the course (be careful with that- the mud stings when you get it in your eyes, and the volunteers seem a little extra enthusiastic when it comes to splashing foreigners).

Another word of advice (hopefully you're not tired of hearing them yet)- if you're going to go do the mud plaza, go early. Early as in when it opens. It's pretty empty then, but it doesn't take long for a huge crowd to gather, and then there are long lines ahead.

It was glorious and silly. It was a free for all for your inner child, was a blast to let it out to play. It was like we all had permission to pretend we were still children, having fun at a local carnival or theme park. No one was judging or sticking their nose up at the child-like behaviour...in fact, it was celebrated. I loved it, because who doesn't want to recapture a slice of childhood every once and awhile? It brought memories I hadn't thought about in years, of playing in Rainbow Valley or even at the Balloon Festiva rides. They were fun memories to bring up. I couldn't stop laughing the whole time I was there.

Remember when I told you that Mudfest was originally created to advertise mud products? Well it'd be pretty pointless if they didn't have a spot for that, am I right? That's why, on the beach front beside the festival area, there are a ton of tents set up. Like every Korean festival I have ever been to, those tents had things to buy, things to make and even one that gave a whole lot of information about Boryeong mud. I suggest checking them out, since it's quite interesting, and technically the reason you're there in the first place. Another one of my absolute favourites was the coloured mud. The mud is dyed to blue, green, red, yellow and grey, and you can get it painted on you in whatever design you want, basically anywhere you want. I went with a multicoloured upper body design myself, but there were endless possibilities. It was so much fun to walk around so colourfully. Nobody stared, because so many people got it done. A lot of people commented on awesome designs, or asked excitedly where they could get it done. It's a friendly atmosphere, one where it's easy to just start a conversation with someone and join a group to hang out. It's another reason Mudfest is so much fun.
There was also booth after booth selling mud products -make up, skin care, soap and everything in between. Some were elaborate, with designs carved like hanboks or other symbols, and some very simple, just ordinary squares. I bought some, soap to be precise, and I love it. I'm not completely sure if the claims they make about the mud are true, but I do know that it makes my skin feel wonderful. It is completely Nicole approved.

All of those tents are amongst a waterfront devoted to sea and mud. There are huge statues of seashells and even more of massive sea creatures. Then there are statues of little people mascots (including Ariel and Eric from The Little Mermaid) with a mask of mud on their faces. It was a cute area, with even more adorable statues. It was great for photo opportunities and a nice stroll. The giant statue that says 'mud' really proves that this place really is all about mud.

Mudfest is probably the most fun thing I've done in Korea. That's what it was- sheer unadulterated fun. Unlike many places I've been to -historical and cultural-, this is an event dedicated to having fun. It's one big party, and that's what makes Mudfest unique amongst Korean festivals.
As much as I love fantasy, it seems that I don’t read nearly enough books that take place in (to quote Star Wars) a galaxy (or realm/world/dimension/land) far, far away. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I read quite a lot (you’ve seen me gush about Tolkien already), it’s just disproportionate to the rest. That said, this month’s review, ‘Silver’s Edge’ by Anne Kelleher, does indeed take place in a land far, far away.

The land that Kelleher creates is a dual one, with the mortals on one side and the Sidhe (a fancy term for elves, fairies and other Fair Folk) on the other, the two of them separated by a magical boarder that is supposed to keep both sides separate (and it does, for the most part). That boarder is now failing, with goblins spilling out into the mortal realm and war breaking out in both worlds (rebellion of course, because what’s a fantasy story without a good rebellion?). It all comes down to the Silver Caul, which is a magical item that was made by both mortals and Sidhe a few centuries ago to keep the boarder intact and separate. There’s something wrong with it, and it’s leaking the fantasy-type equivalent of toxic radiation that is having an adverse affect on both realms, and the bad guys are using it for war.

The book is written with the old interpretation of the world in mind, where people of the past truly believed that the realm of fairy existed right alongside ours, and the fairy played roles in the lives of the average mortal, usually not for the better. It’s fun to read with this in mind. The fantasy aspects are extremely well written, especially when dealing with the Sidhe. While Kelleher’s take on the Fair Folk is nothing new, that doesn’t take away from how interesting she makes them. The intrigue going on in the Sidhe court is of the very best kind, and it is so very wonderfully written. The characters are also strong points of the story, especially the three lead females. With them, you seem to get examples of the token female characters that make an appearance in most fantasy books/movies/video games/etc. First there’s Nessa, the mortal blacksmith who’s a tomboy and the one driven into action. Then there’s Delphinea, the elf maiden who is all elegance, beauty poise and strength. Finally, there’s Celicy, the mortal queen who has a Guinevere-Lancelot type forbidden romance while trying to protect her land/people. Those three characters fill cliché spots, but they are written without being cliché themselves.

All in all, ‘Silver’s Edge’ is a well-written, otherworldly fantasy novel. It’s a bit of a dark read, but it’s still a fairly easy one with an intriguing plot, characters and world building. If you ever feel like stepping into a realm/land/dimension/etc far, far away, I’d recommend Silver’s Edge to do it.
Before a friend suggested it to me, I had never heard of Richard Marsh’s “The Beetle”. It came out about the same time as Stoker’s “Dracula” (it was actually initially successful than “Dracula”) and gad many of the same horror elements. After reading it, I not only understood why it was so popular, but why my friend would recommend it.

“The Beetle” is all about revenge. The novel is set in Victorian era London, and though none of the actual actions (with the exception of a few flashbacks) takes place there, the shadow of Egypt plays a large part in the story. Politician Paul Lessingham came back from Egypt with a curse on his shoulders. He went and desecrated a tomb (never a good idea) and now a follower of an (highly fictionalized) ancient Egyptian religious cult, has come a calling. The story is the account of the terrorization of Lessingham, told from the point of view of multiple narrators, who all get caught up in the revenge plot through different means.

This book, without a doubt, is one of the creepiest things I have ever read. The mysterious bad guy (The Beetle- and wow is that ever loaded with symbolism) is creepy. The reader doesn’t even know if he’s actually human, because he does some very, very inhuman things. The creepiest part is the flashback descriptions of what happened to Lessingham back in Egypt. I take it back- it’s not creepy, it’s down right terrifying! After reading that, I can understand why there were some people (or so my friend told me) were way too freaked out to finish the book.

For those of you who aren’t too keen on non-stop horror, there’s also some mystery (a la detective story), romance and action to get you through. Each of those elements adds a little something to the plot. The plot can drag sometimes, but once the action gets going, it really gets going. Last summer, a good friend recommended “The Beetle” to me. This summer, I’m recommending it to you. Enjoy.
It was a few years ago now that my best friend told me that I just had to read Christopher Moore’s “A Dirty Job”. Not only because it was a good book, but because it was also a hilarious book. Now, I was a little sceptical- how could a book about the Angel of Death be hilarious (I had no doubt that it was good, because Courtney has impeccable taste in literature)?

“A Dirty Job” begins with Charlie Asher, a ‘beta-male’ who runs a second hand store and is pretty happy with his life. Then, his wife suddenly dies after giving birth to their newborn daughter Sophie. So far, a complete tragedy, am I right? Basically, things get strange from that point on. There’s a man at his wife’s bedside, and Charlie really shouldn’t be able to see him. Why? It turns out the man is a quasi-Angel of Death, and it turns out that Charlie has just been recruited for the job.

The best part of the book, for me, was Moore’s take on Death. Unlike most interpretations, Charlie here is not Death per say. Instead, it’s Charlie’s job to collect items which contain a newly dead person’s essence, and protect it from the forces of evil (who show up and cause trouble for everyone with a great deal of frequency) and make sure those items get where they need to go. Charlie doesn’t cause death, but merely picks up afterwards. It’s a different take on the Angel of Death character, and it’s a well done one at that.

The shenanigans that these characters get into, especially when it comes to gathering items and raising Sophie (who, in fact, does have the powers of a true Angel of Death, showing that Moore hasn’t completely done away with the traditional image), really are hilarious. That is the strong point of the book. There is conflict, drama, bitter sweetness and a touch of heart warming, but the strongest selling factor of the book is still the humour. Even scenes that have no business being funny, are hilarious. So, to sum it up, Courtney was right- I loved the book
Like many people out there, I have a list. It's a list of things to do before I die (a whooping ninety-nine, with sixteen crossed off). Like many people out there, bungee jumping is on there. Another item on there is white water rafting. So when the opportunity to do both came up, I took it.

Interestingly enough, this particular adventure had me backtracking into previous territory. The area where we did it the rafting and bungee jumping is actually in the non- militarized areas of the DMZ. The first thing we did on that half bright, half overcast morning was meet up in Seoul and make the drive to the DMZ. The first stop was the rafting. We drove up to another end of the canyon I visited during my first DMZ trip (for a refresher, go back and read the DMZ part two). It was a wide canyon with a river running through it, and we got onto these big yellow raft on the big, lake-like shore.

Before I begin, let me give you a word of advice- bring a change of clothes...preferably one you're comfortable being wet in. I was an idiot and made that mistake. My rafting trip was spent in wet, heavy jeans ( I at least had enough sense to buy water shoes- another must). I attempted to roll them up, but it was a pointless endeavour. I ended up drenched, and that was before I decided to go for a swim.

So we got ourselves into our rafts, paddles at the ready, and pushed off. In the face of full disclosure, I have to admit that the rafting wasn't what I expected, and thus was a little disappointing. My version of white water rafting and the Korean version of white water rafting are very different. I still had a blast, but it wasn't white water rafting, more like rafting lite. It wasn't enough to make me cross that item off my list.

My favourite part was the river itself. It was absolutely stunning. Green -trees, grass, flowers- not only the banks high above us, but creeping down the side like wallpaper as well. The water was calm in some places and rougher in other, and it made for a less than smooth journey...which was just the way I liked it. Despite the crazy uncomfortable life jacket, helmet that didn't fit at all, and the very not a boat, I still closed my eyes and pictured myself elsewhere. I pictured myself sailing down the Anduin in a boat of Elvish make. I pictured myself on a boat to Hogwarts, excited for my sorting. I pictured myself on a river heading to a mysterious plateau to explore rumours of prehistoric monsters. Basically, I let my imagination run wild. I put myself in my favourite things.

Besides my journey into dream land, there were quite a few other things I enjoyed. A raft full of cool people, where we just chilled and got to know each other in a healed atmosphere. We weren't the only raft, and not the only group. It was a bust place, with a ton of Korean groups as well. With that many people, a water fight was inevitable. It started between using our paddles against another raft in our group. It was only a matter of time before we drew some Koreans in. Let me tell you- middle aged Korean women are fierce.

Remember when I said I was drenched? That's where it all began. It came next when we beached ourselves for a bit of a rest. Rest or not, it wasn't just ten minutes of just lounging around. There was a rock over cropping that went over the water far enough it was safe to jump off. It was about three metres high...which doesn't look all that high from down below, but a hellva lot higher looking down. That said, I called it practice for what was going to come later, and took the plunge.

Before then, it had probably been at least a year since I had gone swimming. It was very hot out (as Korean summers are wont to be) and a beautiful day. The unexpected swim was lovely, jeans and all.

It wasn't the only time I went swimming. Later on, as I'm pretty sure is tradition with boat excursions every where, we rocked back and forth to flip the raft over. Good news- it was freaking hard, so let's congratulate the makers on their safety standards. Eventually, after some serious rocking (I was one of the last ones who managed to hold on!), we got the thing tipped. Tipping into the water really shouldn't have been that fun, but it was.
For all that it was a rain to overturn the thing, getting back into the raft while still in the water was surprisingly easy. All you had to do was grab the rope on the side and pull yourself up, little upper body strength required. Thank God for that, because it would have looked terrible if I was caught floundering like an idiot.

It was a pretty long time before we made another stop, but that was okay. I talked about the beauty of the river already, but I should really mention the water itself as well. It was mostly calm, with a steady but not particularly strong current. It wasn't even necessary for us to paddle most of the time, only when we wanted to go anywhere but straight, or if we hit a rough spot. There were a number of rough spots, definitely white rapids, just not as many as I was expecting...or as rough as I was expecting. While I wish it had been more of a white rapid variety, it was still a great cruise.

Our last stop was on the rocky shore line near the end of the river trail. Koreans are big on their mountains and all the freshness that tends to go with them. Especially the water that comes from a fresh mountain stream. I myself love water from fresh mountain streams. Coming down from a close by mountain, was water from a spring. We stopped to sample it. It might sound cliché, but it was truly cool and refreshing. The water tasted, for a lack of a better word, what I imagine clean to taste. It was freezing, which was great on a hot day (not so much when I got splashed with it).

After a refreshing drink, it was a race to the finish. I mean that literally. The three rafts from our group got back onto the water and lined up side by side. Then, when a whistle went, we all took off. The first group to reach the end won (though there were no prizes to be had, expect gloating rights). We all paddled hard as we could, yelling encouragement. I put my Cadet drill expertise to keep everyone in time. It helped, but heavy paddling for a continued amount of time is no small feat. While we led for a good long time, but alas, we eventually fell behind. All was not lost, for our valiant efforts still brought us in at second place (and a close one, too).

As we hauled the raft out of the water, and up the gangplank and onto a truck (and damn if the thing wasn't heavy), our rafting adventure came to an end. Now came part two of the adventure, and this one, I'm glad to say, didn't disappoint. At all.

Not that far away, there was a bridge over looking a river (possibly the same I was just on). On the side of the bridge, there was a two story building/tower. On top of that tower was a platform. That platform was for bungee jumping.

I steeled myself as I climbed up the twisting metal staircase. I kept telling myself to just keep walking, to take one step at a time. I'm terrified of heights. The entire thing was almost petrifying me, but I kept going. I couldn't turn back, not when there were other people there to do the same. I couldn't stand thinking of myself as a coward, let alone others thinking it. So that, along with my innate badassness, kept me going.

We reached the top, and the first step was getting all the harness equipment on. That made it real, and even more terrifying. The equipment was uncomfortably tight and in the most awkward places. The guy double checked, then triple checked, everything (which I am so very grateful for, since it gave me a little more peace of mind), and then I got in line.

There were about seven of us who were going to do it (and all seven of us did), and I ended up last in line (which was purely coincidental). We all stood there, nervously shuffling and trying to pump ourselves up. We laughed and joked, dealing with the fact we were all nervous as hell. Then, when the first person was up, we fell silent for one moment, before we began cheering her on. It took her awhile, and I don't blame her at all, so we counted down to five for her. When she kept putting off the jump, the guy eventually gave her a push.

The tradition of counting down continued for each jumper. It was a great way to psych yourself up, and no one paused after that first girl. One by one, they went. Being last was both a blessing and a curse. I salute the girl who went first, because I couldn't have done it. With each new person, I was shown 'This is safe!' ... but with each new person, the rope got a little more worn. It was a nerve wracking contradiction.

Then, something happened. When there were maybe three people left in front of me, I stopped shaking. All the nerves, all the worry, faded away. A sense of calm came over me, and I wasn't scared anymore. I guess everything in my just admitted that this was going to happen, so there was no point in stressing over it.

Then, it was my turn. My anxiety was gone, even as I stepped up to the platform. I didn't look down, knowing that that would end me. I put my toes right to the edge, and looked out at the expanse of empty of air I was about to throw myself into. There was only one person left to cheer for me, one of the group guides who wasn't jumping, and she diligently did the countdown for me. I wasn't actually listening, since I needed to prepare on my own.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I told myself if was time to pull a Niori (my alter ego, who is everything I want to be) and face my fear. I was doing this because I was afraid, because courage is doing something despite fear. I counted down from three, only calming breath matched with my heartbeat, and then I jumped.

I'd like to say I was graceful, that I went with a quip or some epic stunt. That would be a lie. I made what had to be the most embarrassing sound I have ever made. Then I wasn't able to make a sound, because after a split second, I was in a free fall. I fell so fast it felt like I was in a hurricane, with the wind roaring in my ears. It felt terrifying and exhilarating all at once.

Then the bungee chord snapped back, and I hated that part. It made my stomach lurch, and it was horrible. The first snap was the worst and the biggest, and that was the part of the experience I despised. Then, after two more smaller jerks, and I was hanging upside down, swaying from side to side, over the river.

Then the laughter started. Full stop, hysterical laughter, brought on by a mix of adrenaline and sheer disbelief that I had just dived into nothing but air with only a rope tied around my waist. I kept laughing, even when the man came out on a boat and got me down. I kept laughing all the was to the bus.

All I could think was 'I did it...I actually did it'. The adrenaline rush from that thought was amazing, let alone when it was added on top of the one from the sheer physicalness. I've never felt that revved up before, so I can completely understand why people become adrenaline junkies. I can't say I blame them.

I stopped giggling, eventually, but kept smiling like a loon basically the whole way home. Why?

One more down. Only eighty-three more to go.
I've mentioned it before, but in case the little factoid didn't stick in your mind, Seoul has five different major palaces. The first one of them I ever got to see was Changdeokgung Palace, which I devoted two travel guides to a few months back. The second of Seoul's palaces that I was able to spend a day at was Deoksungung Palace. You'd think that, once you've seen one Korean palace, you've seen them all. You would, of course, be so very wrong. Each of the five palaces has one special thing that sets them apart, one thing that makes them different, and Deoksungung Palaces is no exception. In fact, the thing it has that's unique is something I haven't seen anywhere else in Korea.

Deoksugung began its life as Gyeongungung Palace and the residence of one Prince Wolsan, older brother of King Seongjong of the Joseon Dynasty. It wasn't until the palaces were destroyed by fire during the 1592 Japanese invasion, that Gyeongungung became an official royal palace. It was the temporary palace for King Seonjo and then a secondary palace for King Gwanghaegun after Changdeokgung Palace was finally rebuilt in 1615.

Deoksugung was the interesting scene in history, where Korean King Gojong decided to establish his own empire, the Great Han Empire, in 1897. It was Gyeongungung this self crowned emperor took as his primary residence...and it was Gyeongungung that was downgraded to a mere residence once Gojong was forced to relinquish his throne in 1907. There's more to that story of course, filled with intrigue and political manoeuvring . His forced abdication came in the wake of Gojong secretly sending a message to the Hague Peace Conference in 1907, asking the international community to help restore Korea's sovereignty (they weren't interested). When the Japanese found out, they forced Gojong to abdicate, and basically exiled him to Gyeongungung to keep him from having any influence on his son, the new king. It's at this point in time that the palace was renamed Deoksugung.

When I first visited Deoksugung, I very unexpectedly came at a wonderful time. I know it sounds funny, but I actually stumbled across Deoksugung. I was walking down the street, and then all of the sudden, there was the front gate. It was pushed back from the road, on a corner and hidden behind trees. It's not a lie to say I was legitimately surprised to see it there. It was about as understated and unobtrusive as a Korean palace complex can be. I stumbled across Deoksugung on the way to an art exhibit, and didn't have time to explore. I did, however, have time to stop and watch the changing of the guard ceremony I came across.

Changing of the guards, both re-enactments at historical sites or actual military, is a pretty common thing. Interesting, of course, but not exactly rare. While the re-enactment of the Joseon changing of the guards may not be unique in the history of the world, it is absolutely stunning. It was absolutely beautiful to watch, all because of the colours.

Bright reds. Deeps blues. Vibrant yellows. Deep purples. Midnight blacks. Neon greens. Shiny golds. Those are all the colours moving around in precise military formation. The colours were on bright banners, and mixed together into uniforms to separate soldiers into roles and ranks. The uniforms were not only made up of spectacular colours, but patterns as well. There were designs in the fabric, multi coloured rope and feathers on hats and a variety of weapons -bows, arrows, staffs, swords and these long pike-like things- all made this changing of the guards a visual feast for the eyes.

On top of the uniforms, there was the military ceremony of it. There was the banging of the ceremonial (and gigantic) drum, the music of other instruments, marching, inspection and other orders. Each member played their part perfectly, and for a moment, it was possible to believe that you had taken a step back in time.

That was the first time I came to Deoksugung. The second time, probably a month or so later, I made sure to give myself time to explore. I didn't catch the changing of the guards again, but I did get to see the rest of Deoksugung.

Like all Korean palaces, there is a main throne room, where ceremonies and other official events were held. This throne room is Junghwajeon. Tragically enough, it was this very throne room and courtyard where, after Gojong was tricked and forced to abdicate, his son was coroneted. It's the definition of adding insult to injury.

An interesting feature at Junghwajeon (and other versions scattered through the rest of the palace) is a very inconspicuous pot. It's a flat bottomed jar, not even all that decorative. It's called a deumu. It's interesting for two reasons. The first is its purpose. Its purpose was to chase away any evil fire spirit that was looking to burn the palace down. If a fire spirit was to see itself in the water, it would run scared (on a more practical matter, a big jar full of water would be very useful if a fire did break out amongst the wooden buildings).

The second interesting feature is the inscription. The inscription is Chinese, and it means 'ten thousand years'. This inscription wasn't allowed to be used by anyone but the Chinese emperor during the Joseon Dynasty. When the Great Han Empire was declared, that rule went right out the window- since the Korean king was now an emperor in his own right, he decided he was just as entitled to it.

Next up, we have Jeukodang, where the only (traditional) two story building in the whole of Deoksugung. That neat architectural feature is interesting, but basically bringing up Jeukjodang in a way for me to introduce an awesome historical woman. Let me introduce you to Queen Inmok. Queen Inmok was the wife of King Seonjo (14th king of Joseon), and after her stepson Gwanghaegun took the throne (after removing the brothers he thought were a political threat to him, he deposed the dowager queen and put her under house arrest in Seogeodang, the building beside Jeukhodang. Nothing says influence like being put under house arrest by someone so you can't be a political threat. Ten years of house arrest later, Inmok had the last laugh: When he was dethroned (by Prince Neungyang, who actually went to get Inmok's approval to ascend the throne), Gwanghaegun was forced to kneel before the dowager queen as he was question about his crimes...just before the royal seal was given to the new queen.

Told you she was awesome.

Now, onto what makes Deoksugung noteworthy (besides being a palace that housed royalty, was home to politicking, attempted assassinations - more on that later- and historical upsets). The particularly interesting parts are the way the modern west and the traditional Korean mixed. There are three buildings that show just how interesting that is. The first building mixes Korean and western perfectly, and that is Jeonggwanheon. It was designed by Russian architect A. I. Sabatin back in 1900. The foundation has roman-like pillars, but on top of those pillars are traditional Korean designs. It's on the veranda that Gojong enjoyed a nice cup of coffee. Which brings me to that assassination attempt.

While staying at the Russian legation (at this point Korea was attempting to open up to the world), Gojong had his first cup of coffee. Like many others before and after him, it was love at first cup. From then on, the coffee just kept coming. That love of coffee made it a perfect drink to put some poison in. Gojong's former interpreter - who was misused his power and was banished for it- cooked up his revenge plot, putting posdon in the coffee of Gojong and the crown prince. Gojong didn't swallow, but the prince did, and he suffered the effects for the rest of his life. They did, however, survive.

Jeonggwanheon is a mix of western and Korean, but there are buildings that take it a step further. Seokjojeon and the area around it are western style buildings through and through. It's a sheer symbol of a Korea that wanted to modernize. The two buildings are straight up neo-classic architecture, looking like political buildings in the US. There are huge pillars, multiple floors, massive staircases and white marble. Gojong and his wife lived here, and there was a reception and audience hall. It was a building fit for a president or prime minister, a far cry from the traditional palaces of a Korean royal couple. At the time of my visit, Seokjojeon was under repair/renovation, so I wasn't able to go inside and look around. It was a shame, but luck wasn't completely against me. While I wasn't able to go inside one modern style building, I was able to go into the other.

The other has actually been turned into the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. I'll be the first to admit that contemporary art is not my favourite. Unlike other art forms, I like them on a piece by piece basis, not as a complete movement. There were some spectacular pieces in the spacious, two story and gorgeous building, and there were some I wasn't particularly fond of. My personal enjoyment aside, it was an excellent collection, all done by various Korean artists. If you're already in Deoksugung, it's worth taking a look.

Outside, on a beautiful, grassy lawn, there is one more uniquely un-Korean feature. That feature is something as simple as a fountain. Granted, it's a well crafted, detailed and elaborate fountain, but still a fountain. Unlike traditional Korean fountains, this was an actual fountain, not a waterfall feature. Koreans believed that water, by the laws of nature, is meant to flow down. For all that water sprays up in a fountain, it falling back down isn't the same as flowing. It's also different because it's located in the front of the building, not the rear.

For the most part, that is the palace of Deoksugung, but for full disclosure, it's not technically all of it. While what I've described is located within the palace walls, there are a few remains found outside. The palace used to be bigger than it is now, extending into the current city hall and Seoul Plaza area. While there's only a few things to see outside the walls, if you have the time (I didn't), you should go check them out.

Deoksugung is an interesting place, a mix of old Korea and the modern west. It was a sign of an attempt to modernize, to open to the world at large. To me, it actually perfectly symbolizes the Korea I've come to love -an ancient country full of vibrant tradition and beauty, while still offering everything I could ever want from to world outside, from the land I still call home. It's a meeting of two different worlds, and as someone who's currently living in both, it felt quite welcoming.
If there's one Korea is good for (and believe me, it's good for many things), it's the shopping. Shopping in Korea is spectacular, though it can sometimes be difficult to find clothes and shoes that fit. The fashion in Korea is interesting, and the shopping experience reflects that (a warning- on many stores, the sales clerks will follow you around, so close they're basically touching you. It's not out of suspicion, but to be there the minute you need (or they think you need) help. It can be flustering, and more than a little uncomfortable). There are shopping areas everywhere, and I've briefly mentioned a few in Seoul in previous travel guides. For now, I'm going to narrow it down, and tell you all about my three favourite areas for shopping: Itaewon, Myeongdong and Insadong.

First up, Itaewon. Itaewon is, not to put too fine a point on it, the foreigner district of Seoul. An American military base is located very close by, so a foreigner rich and friendly environment eventually popped up right alongside the base. It's not only foreigner friendly for North Americans, but other nationalities as well. If you're in Korea and desperately need to hear some English, Itaewon is the place for you. Most of the people who work in the area of the special tourism zone speak English. There's even a big arch at the beginning of the street that welcomes you to Korea, and blocks on the sidewalk that gives a country's name (in Korea, English and the language of that respective country), capital and flag. There's an international feeling in this area that you just can't ignore.

There are three major things that make me enjoy Itaewon, and two of them have to do with food. If you're craving some goodies from back home, you're in luck- Itaewon has a ton of international food markets. These markets have anything from soup, to baking packets, to chocolate bars. There's even non-food products, such as deodorant, that are hard to find in Korea. There are a lot of simple things from back home that you just can't get in Korea. For me, it's the sweets. I love sweets, and the selection of them available in Korea is limited. In Itaewon, I can get some of my favourites, from peanut butter cups to Starburst. Out of all the international markets, it's Highstreet Market that I'd recommend the most. One word of warning however- because these things have to be specially imported, they are pretty expensive (in both Korean and Canadian terms). That said, it's more than worth it, for a little taste of home every once and awhile.

On the topic of food, if there's one place in Korea that I love to eat out in, it's Itaewon. Not only is there the usual western food (including fast food like McDonalds), but restaurants from every country you can imagine. On one wonderful Sunday last October, I took part in a food scavenger hunt, and my team found food and drink from no less than twenty-three countries in only four hours, and we didn't even begin to scratch the surface of what's available. There's even a poutine place somewhere in Itaewon, though I have yet to find it. In Itaewon, I've tried food I never would have dreamed of trying before, and it was wonderful.

Lastly, something that is pretty dear to me. That something is reading, and I bring it up because of the English bookstore, What the Book? While regular chain bookstores normally have an English section, What the Book? is completely English. It is both a new and used bookstore, which is superb for someone like me, who reads so many books and needs a place to bring them afterwards. The selection is amazing, and there is every type of book imaginable, both fiction and non-fiction. It's also possible to order books from them, both in the sore and online. Those books can be picked up at the store or delivered right to your address. Basically, it's all very simple. If you're a reader and in Korea for a significant amount of time, What the Book? is a place you need to get to. It is, without a doubt, my favourite spot in Itaewon.

Second in our tour of the best shopping areas in Seoul, is Myeongdong. Myeongdong is great for a number of reasons, one of them being the stores that are there. There are a lot of western brand stores that are there, such as H&M and Payless Shoes. The western brand stores? They carry western sizes. If you're in Seoul and need new clothes, Myeongdong is one of the few places that you're guaranteed to find something you can work with. For a shopper who isn't the average Korean size, Myeongdong is the place for you.

For all that the western stores are nice (and can be a God send), they're not the reason I love shopping in Myeongdong. I love shopping in Myeongdong for the stands. Lining the street, there are stands set up, selling a wide range of merchandise. Anything from K-Pop (Korean pop music) memorabilia, phone cases, scarves and cute socks. Cute socks are a weakness of mine, and the stands of Myeongdong are where I buy them. They're cheap, they're cute (I have nearly all the Avengers, Batman, Mario and some Disney Princesses) and they don't take up a lot of space. For the socks alone I would recommend Myeongdong to you.

Myeongdong also ranks in the top three because, once you're finished your shopping, there's a place of historical significance right there that you can go and see. That something is the Myeongdong Cathedral. The cathedral is small compared to some I've seen, but it's no less imposing with its tall steeple and brick exterior. It was the first brick church built in the gothic style in Korea, back in 1898 (construction began in 1892, and the site was used for worship from about 1784). The crypt in the cathedral holds the relics of martyrs who died in the widespread persecution of Christians in 1839 and 1866. The first Korean parish priest was appointed pastor in 1942, and in the 70s and 80s, Myeongdong Cathedral was a focal point for the movement to democratize Korea and to improve human rights in the country. Myeongdong Cathedral is like a glimpse of the evolution of the Catholic church in Korea, and the impact it had in shaping the country.

In the daytime, the Cathedral is an imposing sight. At night time, it's serene. Despite the fact that it's right beside a busy shopping area that comes alive once the sun goes down, it's silent near the cathedral, but for the faint hum of hymns being sung inside (if you come at the right time). The area behind the cathedral is a small pavilion area, where the Grotto of the Blessed Mother holds a statue of Out Lady of the Immaculate Conception, who the cathedral is named after. One doesn't have to be Catholic to see the beauty here, or to feel the peace. And it was a peaceful place. Sitting there in the near dark, with the only the sound being muffled by the church walls, I felt serenity. I felt the same calmness that I felt that day I sat down in Bongeunsa Temple. For all that the two places represent two different religions, the beautiful feeling they left you with is very much the same.

Services were going on at the time of my visit, so I wasn't comfortable going inside (that last thing I wanted was to disturb anyone worshipping) to see the interior of the cathedral. It felt like an intrusion, no matter how much I would have loved to see the beautiful stain glass windows that I've heard are inside. In the end, that's alright. I got more from visiting the outside of the cathedral than I ever would have expected.

On that rather spiritual note, it's time onto our third and final shopping area. That area is Insadong, and it is, by far, my favourite. If you want to buy anything even remotely touristy, Insadong is the place for you. Insadong's main street, Insadong-gil, has everything and anything that you could possibly imagine, and all of it is at a good price. From post cards, to magnets, to handcrafted traditional paper and clothes (called hanboks), Insadong has it. Not only does Insadong have it, but it's very often that you'll see a lot of it being made right in front of you. You'll walk into a store and see the owner, bent over and creating what it is they sell. Sometimes it's not even in a store, but a painter sitting on the sidewalk and painting a paper scroll or fan. The artwork is stunning in Insadong, and the pottery, mostly celadon but other kinds as well, is absolutely wonderful.

There's one store in particular that I need to tell you about, because I think it's the coolest thing ever. In Insadong, there are a number of shops where you can get a name stamp, which is where you get your name translated into Hangeul (Korean writing system) and carved into the bottom of a stone stamp. It's so interesting and a really unique thing to have (or give as a gift). While there's a number of places to get them, there's one store in particular that I'd recommend.

Myun Sin Dang Pil Bang (art shop) is managed by a married couple who are pretty famous artists in Korea when it comes to traditional Korean art. It's a store that's been passed through generations, and the quality shows. Not only are name stamps made here, but it's also a calligraphy shop. The shop is also of note because a number of famous people have gotten art from the shop. The most notable is Queen Elizabeth II, but Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, a queen consort of Spain, a prince of the Netherlands and a Costa Rican president have all stopped at the shop over the years. On top of the famous people who stood in the shop before you, there is an excellent and large collection of rock stamp designs to choose from, and the owners always do amazing and timely work.

It's not only the stores that make Insadong such a great place, but the atmosphere. It's the atmosphere that makes it one of my favourite places in Seoul to visit. There's always performers -singers, dancers, instrument players- on the street. Street food is sold from little carts and stands, and more than a few of the workers sing and dance as they do it. Parades march through Insadong, from the lantern floats in the Lotus Lantern Festival to a small parade to advertise a bamboo festival. There are even small demonstrations or booths set up around social issues, from raising awareness to the importance of schools in South East Asia, to ending racism and even China's policy of returning North Korean refugees to North Korea. I've learned a lot about issues important to Koreans, and best of all? No one is pushy, be it protestors, street musicians or store keepers. Insadong is fun and relaxing, and a great place to just take a walk in (if you're up to handling the crowds).

So there you have it! Three shopping areas that are a must visit if you ever find yourself in the Seoul area. Happy travels!
It seems to me that towers are a big part of the tourism industry. I draw that conclusion because there are quite a few big cities in the world that boast one. Off the top of my head, I can think of Toronto's CN Tower and the Calgary Tower, and those are only in Canada. Given this trend, it's no surprise that Seoul, Korea's capital city, has a tower of its own. The name of said tower, simply enough, is N Seoul Tower. N Seoul Tower has been called one of the best towers in Asia, and after being there, I can understand why.

The tower itself is 236.7 m high, and it stands on top of Namsan Mountain, which is another 243 m. You can see N Seoul Tower from almost anywhere in Seoul, and it's a great addition to the wonderful skyline. The tower itself has an observatory that has a 360 degree panoramic view, and you can see all of Seoul from it. The view is spectacular and breath taking, and more than worth the trip up (especially for someone afraid of heights, like me). Even the bathroom has a floor to ceiling window to show off the view (though the stalls themselves are behind a solid wall). Being that high, looking over Seoul - I could see the Han River, Building 63...so many wonderful spots that I got to visit in my first year there-, was awesome. It was one of the best high views I've ever seen, and I've seen quite a few in my time.

The observation tower isn't the only amazing view that N Seoul Tower has to offer. In order to get up to the tower, you have to pass through another view. In fact, you have to go right through it. To get up to the tower, you need to take a glass walled gondola for a minute or so ride. I will admit that I couldn't look out the whole time, but raising higher and higher and then passing above the green trees that covered the mountain side, was the perfect was to being the N Seoul Tower experience.

When you reach the top, there's still a bit of a climb to get to the tower. There's stairs, but it's still a bit steep. Going up, you pass by a reminder that, no matter where you go, you're close to history in Seoul. Mt. Namsan is also a beacon hill site. On top of an old wall, there are five brick, tall and hollow cone shaped structures. Those structures are beacons that date back to medieval times. These beacons were lit to warn of raids or other disasters, so that word could be sent quickly to the rest of Korea. I'm sure you've seen it in the movies, so yes, this did happen in real life. Once one beacon was lit, the next set of beacons (miles and miles away) would see the fire and, in response, light their own, and so on and so fourth. In the age before instant communication, it was an effective way to get an emergency message out. It was also an interesting side note to my day at N Seoul Tower.

At the top, there us a huge plaza with many outlooks. There's a big open square, where the tower sometimes hosts events and celebrations (thought none while I was there, unfortunately). Besides the plaza, there is also what I'd describe as a huge deck nearly all the way around the base of the tower. On that deck, there's something very odd and a little bewildering to see. There is a fence all around the deck and shapes that look like weirdly shaped trees. That fence and those trees are covered in layer after layer in the strangest things ever- locks. They're old fashioned key locks, and at first I had no idea what was going on. I wandered around, head tilted to the side, trying to figure out what all those locks were about. It wasn't until I reached a cart selling locks that I found out what it was about: you buy a lock, write a wish on it and then lock it on one of the trees or the fence. Of course, after realizing that, I just had to buy a lock and make a wish of my own. You never know- maybe, if you buy a lock and make a wish of your own one day when you visit N Seoul Tower, you'll end up locking it close to mine. Just imagine- two St. Martins wishes, locked on a fence continents away.

The locks aren't the only place in N Seoul Tower where wishes are meant to be made. Up in the observation tower is the wishing pond. You get a coin, stand behind a line and try to toss the coin into the raised bowl in the middle of an artfully designed and illumined water feature. The best part? When you buy one of these coins, the money goes to support schools in China and South East Asia. So not only do you get to make a wish, but you get to help a good cause while doing it.

Right beside the wishing pond there is another fun, quirky part of N Seoul Tower. There's a mail box, where you can by a post card and get it mailed from the highest post office in Korea.
There is one final, random thing in the tower that needs to be talked about. That thing is both adorable and silly, and so very cute. That something in The Teddy Bear Museum. Yes, N Seoul Tower as a teddy bear museum, and I loved it a lot more than I expected to. I loved it not only as someone who adores stuffed animals, but as a former history major as well.

The Teddy Bear Museum tells the history of Seoul with, you guessed it, teddy bears. It's divided into two different halls, one that covers Seoul's past, and the other that covers its present. There are human sized teddy bears dressed up as important Korean figures, both ancient (Seong Seok-lin, who was one of the founding fathers of Seoul) and modern (two of K-Pop star Psy, one Gangnam Style version and one Gentleman version). There are Korean paintings recreated in 3D by using teddy bears. They're traditional scenes, of course, featuring dramatic Korean images, in frames, just like if they were the originals. They were certainly the most random part of The Teddy Bear Museum, but it was actually the most unique feature of all.

The biggest exhibits are the scenes from life in Korea, both modern and medieval. Teddy bears in traditional clothing show dioramas of the building of Gyeongbokgung Palace, memorial services at Jongmyo Shrine, a royal wedding and even a traditional open market place. There are then those that show how Seoul has changed, such as Geoncheong Palace being the first palace lit by electricity in 1887, the modernizing of the military by introducing firearms and the first tram that came to Seoul in 1899. Finally, there are scenes of modern Seoul. There are teddy bears shopping in Meongdong and Dongdaemun, teddy bears roaming the zoo in Seoul Grand Park, cultural demonstrations in Insadong, teddy bears strolling along Cheonggyecheon Stream, a demonstration at Seoul City Hall Plaza and a limo pulling up and surrounded by a protection detail at Cheongwdae, the presidential house.

The dioramas are functioning ones. They move, they light up and they make sounds. They're scenes, and the details incredible. They're so intricate, and it's amazing because they're quite small. It was cool, seeing these scenes of places where I've gotten to visit in person through my first year in Korea. I was surprised and delighted at how much I loved The Teddy Bear Museum.

There's one other thing I have to tell you about N Seoul Tower, and that's about when you should go see it. I've already told you about the amazing view during the day, but I also have to tell you about the amazing night view as well. The view from the plaza (I was out of the tower by that time) after the sun went down was spectacular. The sky stayed midnight blue for a long time before it finally went black, and the million different lights of Seoul twinkled and sparkled below us. From where I stood, I watched the sky go dark and the lights all pop on through Seoul, and it was beautiful. The view wasn't the only bright thing. Once the sun goes down, the tower lights up. At first, it's a show. The lights flash different colours, lighting up the length of the tower. Animation is projected onto the tower, such as cherry blossoms falling down it. Finally, after five or so minutes, the show stops and the tower is lit up in a solid blue lights, and stays that way until the tower closes at midnight.

If you're going to go to N Seoul Tower, then make sure you go later in the day. Go when you can experience both sides of N Seoul Tower, both the day and the night. Skipping one of them, not being able to see one of these beautiful scenes, would be a shame.
Last article, I told you all about the wonderful Changdeokgung Palace. I wrote all about the palace proper, and I didn't have the space to tell you all about the second part of Changdeokgung, which I consider the most amazing part. The second part of the palace is The Secret Garden, and with this review, I am going to tell you all about it. The Secret Garden isn't what I'd consider an accurate name (not only because it's not actually a secret). It's not really a garden, but instead a very big park. It was a park used as a retreat for the royal family, with very select outside people also being granted permission to enter on occasion.

The first part of the garden you come to is actually my favourite. This area is considered the heart of the garden, and it's easy to tell why. There are a number of buildings in the area, and each has an interesting function. The first one is a raised, pagoda style, open room. This was the building where, on special occasions, aspiring scholars took their final exams in the presence of the king himself. This was a huge deal, and passing those exams would make or break a would-be scholar. That was their goal- to pass those exams and become an official to the king. I can't imagine the pressure that was on them, especially when said king was sitting there watching them.
Right across from the building is Byongji Pond. It's a medium sized pond, full of coy fish and with a small 'island' with a twisty, bonsai looking tree in the middle. This pond was the location of many a poetry contest, and the losers were 'exiled' to the island.

Right beside the pond (built partially over it actually) is another pagoda, though this one is different than any of the others I've described. It's designed to look like a lotus flower in bloom, which means the tips of the roof tilt upwards at interesting angles. It's a really cool, geometrically interesting building.

The last building in the area is the one that I liked the most. Up on a hill, at the top of a tall staircase, is the royal library. It's a massive building, two stories, and was, at one time, so full of knowledge that it makes me jealous. This was only used by the royal family, though councillors had access to the building beside the library for meetings with the king. This separation between the two is very apparent from the very beginning. There are three gates to get to the library. There is a more eloberate, normal sized gate in the middle, and two smaller gates on eith side. The main gate is for the king, and the two smaller ones for his councillors. It's a very big reminder that he is better than them: not only did they have to use a different door, they had to bow over to even pass through it. It was the king's way of keeping his underlings humble, and keeping them in their place.

Before entering the next part of the garden, you need to pass through a stone doorway with Chinese characters engraved across the top. This is the Eternity Gate. Legend has it that, if you pass through this gate and are a good person, you'll be granted eternal life. I can't offer any concrete proof of that yet, but I'll get back to you in the future if my life is apparently stretching on into eternity.

Through the Eternity Gate, you pass by the set of simple, plain buildings where the crown prince was put through very, very intensive study. So intensive that it's a wonder the poor boy didn't burn out early on. Past these simple buildings, the gardens get beautiful again with Aeryeon Pond. The name means 'Loving the Lotus Flowers' because beautiful lotus flowers grow in the dirty water (there were only a few in bloom during my visit, but the water was covered in lily pads, and looked lovely anyway). They mean purity, and King Sukjong thought that they also symbolized the virtue of true gentlemen, and that's why he named the pond like he did. Interestingly, this is also a pond said to have two pagodas, despite having only one small one built. Can you guess where the other one is? If you guessed the pagoda's reflection in the water, then you'd be right.

After the pond, there's what legitimately looks like a noble family's home complex. In fact, Yeongyeongdang is an audience hall modeled after a typical literati (a scholarly noble) house, so that was the whole point. Crown Prince Hyomyeong built this complex to hold the Jnjakrye Ceremony for his mother's 40th birthday, and to also give a title to his father. It was certainly a different kind of gift, that's for sure.

I'm sure by now you've noticed a trend- pagodas play a huge part in the design of the garden. This next area, which has four different pagodas, many of them in different shapes, proves it further. The one I liked best sat on a pond in the shape of the Korean peninsula itself. The pagoda was shaped like a fan, and it's the only one like it in Korea. It was so pretty to look at, and it was on the side of a pond, surrounded by so much vibrant green, it was completely stunning.

Like pagodas, you may have noticed that water also played a big role in the design of the garden. In the Ongnyucheon Area, the entire area was built around a brook of the same name that ran through it (there wasn't actually any water in it while I was there, since it hadn't rained in quite awhile). Because of this brook, the classiest drinking game ever was played. This was how it went: a cup of wine was floated down the water. Whoever the wine came to had to drink the cup and then compose and recite a poem on the spot. If they couldn't, they had to drink three cups of wine. If anything, that just shows the emphasis and importance the upper class put on their abilities in personal artistic, cultural and intellectual pursuits.

There's also another unique pagoda here, and it is so because it has a thatched roof. Around the pagoda is the most interesting thing. The pagoda is in the middle of a fully functioning rice paddy. The story of why this is there is an odd one, at least from my perspective. This rice paddy was attended by the king himself, in order for him to know what toil his people went through. It was also a way for him to pray for a good harvest. I feel it falls under it's the thought that counts, since that little rice paddy came no where close to what Korean rice farmers had to deal with everyday.

One final thing to see isn't in The Secret Garden itself, but on the path that leads out. To leave The Secret Garden, you have to walk beside the palace grounds. On the way down, you pass by a gnarled, twisted and bent juniper tree. It's an ancient tree, and is in the shape of a dragon taking off. It's said to be an important, magical tree (dragons symbolize the king), made even more so because you can see the other animals of the Chinese zodiac in the trunk and limbs. I didn't see all twelve, but I was able to pick out a monkey without help. It was a different thing to end with, that's for sure.

One note about The Secret Garden- it's not a place where you're free to wander at your leisure. The Secret Garden can only be done on a guided tour. English tours are only at selected times a few times a day. You need to plan your time exactly if you want to see The Secret Garden. A bit of an inconvenience perhaps, but believe me when I tell you it's worth it. Changdeokgung's Secret Garden is absolutely beautiful, and one of the things you need to see while in Seoul.
In it, there are the five major palaces. The first of those palaces that I got to visit was Changdeokgung Palace. It's a huge living complex that was built to house the kinds of the Joseon Dynasty, and it's pretty spectacular. Changdeokgung is actually divided into two sections: the palace proper, and the Secret Garden. One article isn't enough to do them justice, so I'll be cutting them into their own separate reviews. This article I'll write about the palace itself, and next the Secret Garden.

Changdeokgung Palace was built as a secondary palace for the Joseon Dynasty in 1405 (under King Taejong). While it began as a second palace, Changdeokgung became the main palace in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of the 1500s, and stayed so for about 270 years (1868). Changdeokgung is considered a uniquely Korean palace because it was designed in harmony with the area's topography. This was possible because it was built on the base of a mountain, and thus the buildings could be constructed with the geographical features of the natural slopes in mind (in fact, Changdeokgung was built because King Taejong thought the topography of the primary palace wasn't auspicious enough...of course, it might have had something to do with the fact Taejong assassinated his way to the throne, killing his brothers at the very palace he was replacing).

The main gate of Changdeokgung is an imposing structure. Like most other gates I've seen in Korea, it's in the form of a pagoda, and it's a massive. Once inside the gate, there's a small stone bridge in a huge courtyard surrounded by traditional buildings. It's a simple bridge, but Geumcheongyo Bridge is the oldest structure in the palace. Not only that, but it's the oldest stone bridge left in all of Seoul.

This courtyard is also where the Jnseonmun Gate is, and that's where the king would address his subjects. In theory, all subject had to do was bang a special drum to gain an audience with the king, but that rarely managed to happen (many an official, after all, has been self serving and corrupt since politics were invented, and Joseon Dynasty Korea was no exception).

The second area of the palace is what I'd consider the main part. It's big, it's flashy and it's certainly majestic. All of that is because this is where Injeongjeon, the main throne room, is located. The square outside it the building was where all ceremonies and state affairs took place, such as coronations, royal marriages and the receiving of foreign dignitaries. The throne room itself is huge and elaborate, and that's both inside and out. The inside is set up as it would have been during the Joseon Dynasty. There's exquisite, highly symbolic art painted on the walls and beautifully designed furniture. It all screamed royalty, and it was so obvious why a king could sit in that room and think he truly did rule the world. In that atmosphere, who wouldn't?

Off the throne room area, the buildings get a tad simpler (but not by too much). These areas were for the day to day affairs of running the kingdom, living residences for the king, queen and crown prince, and a site for government offices. Seonjeongjeon was officially the work place of the king (of note because it's the only building in the palace with a blue titled roof, though it's not something you notice at first, since you're too busy admiring the rest of the building), but that wasn't big enough for him, so he moved his work station to his bedchamber, Huijepngdang. Once, Huijeongdang was one of the most elegant buildings in the palace, but it was destroyed in a fire (actually, at some point in history, nearly all the palace was destroyed by fire. It is a curse of wooden buildings in countries at war). When it was rebuilt, it was in a simpler, and interestingly more western style.

Another area worthy of note is in the residence of the queen, Heungbokheon building in particualr. This building is interesting not for its look or design, but because of the history that happened in it. This building is where the last cabinet meeting of the Joseon Dynasty was held. This was the building where they deliberated over the Japanese annexation of Joseon Korea. This building was where a tragic moment in Korea's history took place.
The Daejojeon area also has the last king and queen of Korea's bedchamber standing, another final note in Korean history. There's a sadness in this area, were such a vibrant part of Korea came to an end. This was, for all intents and purposes, a place of the last of the Joseon Dynasty, which spanned centuries. It was an ending, and not one that led to better things- the Japanese colonization of Korea was brutal.

The old Seonwonjeon site is the part of the palace where the royal ancestral rites were once performed. Like many Asian cultures, Korea has a great emphasis on honouring your ancestors (a practiced enforced in two of the most historically prominent religions, Buddhism and especially Confucianism). In the time of the Joseon Dynasty, there was great elaborateness in these rituals. This area was the royal shrine of Changdeokgung Palace. Ancestral tablets of dead kings and queens (which were supposed to hold the spirit after death) were housed here for three years, before they were moved to the official royal shrine, and the coffin was displayed in a special hall for five months, before being moved to the official royal tombs. When the yearly ancestral rituals were done, they were done here...at least for a time. This building is called 'old' for a reason. During the Japanese occupation, the shrine was moved deep into the garden area in order to keep it from Japanese eyes (at least as much as possible, and that was a struggle, since Japan was determined to stamp out all traces of the Korean national identity). This place was just left, and eventually it became little more than a ruin that was eventually restored when Changdeokgung was to be opened to the public.

One final area of note it one that proves that not all kings are given to excess. Compared to the rest of the buildings in the palace, Nakseonjae Complex is kind of boring. It's small, pretty plain and lacks any of the beautiful decorations found on other buildings. There's a reason for this. This complex was built very specifically for King Heonjong's use, and he was a man with simple tastes. This was his quarters, and he didn't need it flashy. This was the place where he came to relax, and he didn't want it flashy. When all we expect from royalty is the flamboyant, it's nice when they surprise us with simplicity. For all the rest of the palace was magnificent, this little corner of it was quite refreshing. Out of all the areas of the palace, this was the only one I'd actually want to live in.

Much like the Daejojeon Area, the Nakseonjae Complex is a place where an end came to history. This was where the wife of the last crown prince, Bangja Lee, lived until 1989. The year I was born, another piece of Korean history closed, and this too made me sad.

There was another special feature about my trip to Changdeokgung, which had nothing to do with the palace itself. I visited just as the cherry blossoms came out, and it was beautiful. I'd never really seen cherry blossoms before, and they took my breath away. Some of them were vibrant pink, so pink it was almost too hard to believe that it was a natural colour. Others were such a light pink that they looked white until you got close to them. Others were many shades of pink between those two extremes. Roughly a quarter of the trees on the palace grounds were cherry blossoms in bloom. It added a shine onto the wonderfulness that was Changdeokgung Palace.
I’m a sucker for a book that takes a well known, black and white story and turns it on its head. One of the best examples is ‘Wicked’ by Gregory Maguire. ‘Wicked’ tells the story of Elphaba, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West, featured in ‘The Wizard of Oz’. The story follows from her birth all the way to that fateful say that Dorothy drops a house on her sister. Despite the conflicting emotions about her character as a whole, most of the book we’re meant to, in a way feel sorry for her; the story touches on how hard it is to be different from everyone else. One of its most poignant and yet so simple moments is Galinda’s (the good witch) initial reaction –which is horror- at being forced to share a room with Elphaba at a boarding school…just because the other girl was born green. Elphaba is far from an average hero, but she isn’t a complete villain either; at times we hate her and at times we love her. That’s where the beauty of this story lies; it makes the reader question what makes a person evil and what makes them good. More importantly, can a person be born evil? Through out the book Elphaba states that she has no soul, and what makes Maguire’s writing spectacular is that instead of telling us if she speaks the truth or not, he leaves it up to us to decide.
We had to read this book for English so I assumed, along with the rest of my classmates, that it would be as boring as most of the pervious school novels had been. I complained along with the rest of the class (this book is huge), but in the end the book delivered just what the teacher said it would; a powerful story of suffering, joy and love that can touch even the hardest of hearts. Set in poverty stricken India, ‘A Fine Balance’ focuses on four different people who are brought together through drastic circumstances. Never before have I read a book that has documented such pain and suffering that has affected me so much. What makes this such a masterpiece is how Mistry is able to show that amid all of the extreme suffering there are moments of simple and yet great joy that can be found. Even in his writing style he emphasis the joyful moments; when something gut wrenchingly horrible happens he writes it as a simple fact, and saves the greatest detail to the happy moments. ‘A Fine Balance’ really hits hard for someone in our part of the world, who can’t help but find it impossible to understand that this kind of suffering actually does happen in other parts of the world; it’s almost like a slap in the face with a dose of reality that just can’t be ignored. Mistry makes us see just how real it is. One word of advice; don’t read ‘A Fine Balance’ if you’re in a mood to be cheered up, because it will do the complete opposite. But if you want to read something that will open your eyes and make you feel, this book is for you.
For the most part, Philippa Gregory's books are told from the perspective pf the big historical characters- Mary Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, etc. The main characters are true characters, which is part of the appeal of her books. That, however, is not always the case. Gregory's "The Queen's Fool" is that exception.

"The Queen's Fool" chronologically takes place after "The Boleyn Inheritance". While the book deals with the Tudor children, it's told through the eyes if the completely fictional Hannah Green. Years before the book began, Hannah and her father fled Spain in the wake of her mother's burning at the sake by the Inquisition (they're Jews). They run all the way to England, where they open a bookshop, and Hannah has the 'Sight', which allows her to see things- a scaffold behind a man who would hang a year later. On business, Lord Robert Dudley and John Dee (real people) see her, find out about her and recruit her to be their own spy. They send her into the court of Edward VI (Henry VIII's son with Jane Seymour) to spy on the Princess Mary (yep- that Mary). Hannah, while watching the historical events pass by - Edward's death, the nine days queen, Elizabeth's potential betrayal, Mary's cruelty- develops a close bond with Mary, and has a number of complicated relationships with Princess Elizabeth, Robert Dudley and even her own faith. The book follows the near end of Edward's reign to the fall of Calais, and all the world changing politics in between.

Hannah as a main character is interesting. She's a mass of contradictions, both rebelling and obey at different points. Hannah's mother was burned at the stake by religious fanatics, and yet she stands by Mary's side when she goes on her own inquisition. She's interesting because Gregory has so much leeway with her. She's not real, and neither were her family members, so there could be more creative licence taken. The love story she also finds herself in is also an interesting one, and it more than anything shows Hannah's character growth.

I liked Hannah and I liked the plot, but Gregory's crowning achievement with "The Queen's Fool" is the fact she managed to make the woman who went down in history as 'Bloody Mary' sympathetic. She makes you like Mary, even as you're horrified about what she's doing. Gregory portrays Mary as a fanatic and a woman drowning, a woman who's still suffering from what she went through as a child...a woman whose whole reign is a reaction to what was done to England because of Anne Boleyn. Mary is still a bad guy, but she's a sympathetic bad guy nonetheless. "The Queen's Fool" isn't my favourite Philippa Gregory novel, but I will agree that, for the sheer fact that an original character is in the lead, it makes it stand out from the rest.
Here we come to the last day of the Buddha's birthday long weekend trip to Namhae. Day three, as it turned out, managed to be the best and the worst day of them all. Day three, once again, started off behind schedule, which led to some of the worst frustrations of the day.. We left the hotel a good half an hour than we were supposed to, which is never a good way to start the day. Despite all that, we finally got on our way.

The first place we went to was the last of the beaches that were promised to us. This beach was an interesting mix of the first two we went to. It was the smallest one, and had a mix of sand and rocks, depending on what part of the beach you were standing on. It did, however, have the cliffs right to the water's edge, and the surf was rough that say, so it was awesome to watch the white caps hit the rocks, and the spray to go up so high in the air.

We weren't actually there for the beach. We were there for the zip lining. It ran the length of the beach (granted, that wasn't all that large) and over the waves. I'm scared of heights, so of course that meant I just had to do the zip line. I got to the edge of the platform, and they strapped me in. It actually wasn't all that high, especially for a girl that few up climbing around sea caves. Looking down, it was even like that, what with the churning waves, damp air and grey sky. They pushed me, and there I went, angling down towards the other side of the beach. I spun around a couple times, and my laughter might have gone a little bit hysterical (not from fear, but it tends to do it when adrenaline is involved). It was only (maybe) ten seconds until I reached the platform on the other side, and I kept laughing after I landed. It might not be the most exciting thing I've ever done, but it was still one of the most fun moments the trip.

From there, we had some free time on the beach. I had the best Korean barbeque I have had to date for lunch, and then the moment I had truly been waiting for came. When first looking into trips to take for the long weekend, Namhae had only vaguely interested me at first. All the things I've written about so far sounded great, but it hadn't stood out to me as a 'must do this!'. Then, I got to the last of the activities- a dinosaur museum. There would be a visit to a dinosaur museum, and from that moment, I was sold. As I've said before, I really love dinosaurs.

This is where the best/worst part of the trip comes in. A number of people wanted to stay at the beach. Of course, it took a good ten minutes for them to decide to do it, and another ten to figure out who was going there. Because of all that time wasted, we only had an hour to get there, see the museum and get back (why we had to get back to them at the leaving time, instead of them having to wait until we were done at the museum at the allotted time, I don't understand- especially since they're the ones that screwed up the plan. Yes, I'm bitter). By the time we arrived at the museum, we only had about forty minutes to see it. That is why it was the worst part of the trip. It was the best part of the trip because the Goseong Dinosaur Museum was completely awesome.

The Goseong Dinosaur Museum was the first dinosaur museum in Korea. It's located in the middle of Hallyeosudo National Park and close to Sangjogam County Park (famous for the rocks on the beach, called 'ssangjog' or 'sgangbal' -which means 'two-legged rock' because they look like dinner table leg-shaped stone caves). The museum is divided into two parts: The Dinosaur Museum, which is inside a giant, interestingly designed dome shaped building, and The Dinosaur Park, which is the outdoor museum.

Since there was a ridiculous amount of time restraint, the majority of my time was spent in the indoor section of the museum. The inside section of the museum is divided into seven sections. The first exhibition hall is Capital of the Dinosaurs. This is just like rooms you find in dinosaur museums around the world. It's full of dinosaur bones of all types, big and small. There's full skeletons, which are always fun to see. There's information signs in both Korean and English, so that's always helpful. In this section there is also a video room, but this is solely in Korean, so it was of no use to me.

Exhibit hall two is dedicated to dinosaur footprints (the inclusion of this room will make sense later). Like the skeletons, there were a number of different types. Pictures are above each fossil, showing where the fossils were found. That was a nice touch, and places the fossils in a context of the world, not just as cool looking stones.

One of the coolest rooms in the museum was the Cretaceous Dinosaur Room. First off, in order to enter the room, you need to pass through a door that is a giant T-Rex with a wide open mouth. That's right- you have to act like you're being eaten by a T-Rex to get into the next room. That was the coolest thing I did all weekend. Inside the room is just as cool. It was designed like a jungle in the cretaceous period, complete with animatronics dinosaurs. I love moving dinosaurs, and was as excited as a five year old as I followed the brilliantly designed path.
Next up was the most interactive room in the whole museum. There are a bunch of things you can touch, including some fossils. You can stand next to a huge bone from a sauropod dinosaur leg and see how your height compares (spoiler alert: a person is very, very small next to one). Another fun part was there was an area where you could run as fast as you can to see if you could outrun specific species of dinosaurs (another spoiler alert: you really can't, so prepare to be lunch).

Exhibition hall five was a bit of a rehash of the first, though it was organized differently. This time it was in chronological order: Precambrian Era, Palaeozoic Era and Cainozoic Era. For those of you not well versed in palaeontology, those eras are, in order, from the formation of the Earth to about 4600 million years ago, 541 to 252.5 million years ago (and the era where most of the dinosaurs we know lived) and 66 million years ago until the present day. Basically, all of Earth's history is covered from the very beginning.

There's also a special exhibition room, which rotates art not related to dinosaurs. I didn't get a chance to see the room, but it's filled with art from various in Goseong itself. The main hall is also great, because it features the most impressive fossils in the museum. There is a standing on two legs, neck held all the way up, pterosaurs. Pterosaurs is a huge long neck, and it's glorious to behold the skeleton. There are also skeletons of carnivores and herbivores that lived in Asia during the Mesozoic Era (252 to 66 million years ago). There's flying dinosaurs hanging from the ceiling, predators looking like they're roaring, herbivores looking like they're graving, and so much more.

That was it for inside dinosaur museum. While I didn't get a chance to see much of it, there was still Dinosaur Park to explore. Most of what I saw was the sculptures that were all over the place. The first sculpture is actually at the entrance to the museum. There's a rather gruesome statue of an unfortunate herbivore being taken down by a pack of raptors, in all its bloody glory. There are more sculptures, and most of them were extremely life like. On top of the statues, there are some massive dinosaur art outside, including a massive metal statue that forms a huge long necked dinosaur and an interesting grip triceratops.

The Dinosaur Park also has a dinosaur playground (which is really cool, since the rides were basically designed as dinosaurs), Japanese cypress forest, Rabbit and White Deer Hill, topiary garden (the bushes, of course, shaped like cutesy dinosaurs) and Flower Hill. With time restraints in mind, I had to skip on seeing most of these.

There is a crowning jewel of the dinosaur museum, one that I didn't get a chance to see (making it the most disappointing part of the trip). It was the dinosaur and bird fossil site. Down on the beach, there are fossilized dinosaur (amongst other creatures) footprints from the Cretaceous period. They go on for miles, and a visitor can literally walk in the footprints of dinosaurs, on the path they walked millions of years ago. It still disappoints me that I didn't get to experience that. It would have been amazing, knowing you were walking in the same place as a dinosaur, with actual evidence right at your feet. Especially in a place that's one of the top three dinosaur footprint fossil sites in the world.

There is only one thing left to talk about at the Goseong Dinosaur Museum, and it has nothing to do with dinosaurs. It actually has to do with the path down to the parking lot. It seems an odd thing to mention, but trust me, it was epic. You don't walk down to the parking lot. Oh no, you slide down. Yes, you read that right- you sit down on a slide of those little rolls you see on shelves to move boxes, and then slide right down through the tube to where your car awaits. It was the most random, ridiculous thing I have ever seen...and it was one of the silliest, most fun thing I did in Korea. I'd recommend the museum just to do that!

After rushing back to the beach to pick up the rest of the group, there was nothing more for us to do than start the long ride home. With that, my Buddha's birthday long weekend to Namhae came to a close.
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