South Korea‘s second city, Busan, has become the county’s gate to the ocean, known for beaches, an extremely busy port and rich seafood culture. Located on the exact opposite end of the country from Seoul, it’s unique from the capital in more than just location. It offers more open space, a distinct dialect and a much more laid back atmosphere.
Gwangan Bridge with ships passing by makes for romantic views.
Many of the beaches on the western coast of Korea have muddy sand and murky water caused by sand storms coming from China’s Gobi Desert. However, Busan has earned a reputation for having the best beaches in Korea, with golden sand and rich, blue-green water, often drawing comparisons to Miami.
Korea’s mountainous landscape is present down by the sea.
Shopkeepers at an outdoor market prepare eomuk, a famous fishcake skewer.
Fresh seafood comes into the city’s harbours everyday and most often finds its way into eomuk (often referred to as odeng), a skewered fish cake and one of Busan’s most famous dishes, which is cheap and can be purchased virtually anywhere.
Busan Tower stands as one of the city’s unique landmarks.
Busan is a great jumping off point for getting to other parts of Korea, such as Jeju Island, as well as international destinations, such as cheap ferries to Japan and affordable flights throughout the rest of Asia.
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Down in Busan, South Korea’s seaside second city, one of the greatest temples on the peninsula quietly sits. Samgwang Temple is large, imposing and beautiful on any typical day, but becomes a new spectacle altogether for Buddha’s Birthday; for the holiday, it suddenly blossoms with the soft glow of 10,000 lanterns.
It’s absolutely a sight worth seeing, and taking your time to get lost amongst the lanterns in such bright and colorful lights, can be pleasantly disorienting. Each individual lantern is sponsored and paid for by a follower of the temple, an obvious, visible sign of its influence.
There are quite a few lantern festivals throughout Korea and Asia, but this is certainly the largest density of lanterns that I have ever seen.
To get to Samgwang Temple, go to Seomyeon Station on Busan Subway Line 1, where buses 63, 54 and 133 will take you to “Samgwansa Entrance;” unfortunately this is a misnomer and not the actual entrance to the temple. From the bus stop, cross the street and walk up the narrow road before you. From there, make your first left and then your first right. Finally, follow the road and the enormous temple will be at the top of the hill.
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AKA: Vesakha, Vesak, Wesak, Visak, Vixakha and many more derivatives.
When? The second Sunday in May OR the day of the full moon in May OR the Sunday nearest to the day of the full moon in May OR the eighth day of the fourth lunar month OR if you’ve decided all that calendric work is too much hassle, like the Japanese, April 8.
Reason for celebration, then? The birth of the Buddha, of course. Though for many, the Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment are lumped together in one big holiday. So …
Who died? The Buddha.
Origins: Some 2,500 years ago, Queen Mahamaya of the Shakya Kingdom in modern-day Nepal gave birth in a grove of blossoming trees. As the blossoms fell around mother and child, they were cleansed by two streams of water from the sky. Then the baby stood up and walked seven steps, pointed up with one hand and down with the other – not unlike a Disco Fever John Travolta – and declared that he alone was “the World-Honored One.”
The rest is Buddhist history. The toddler, named Siddhartha Gautama, grew up to become the Buddha and the founder of one of the world’s major religions. He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in what is now Bodhgaya, India. Later, after amassing many followers, he died, either of food poisoning or mesenteric infarction, depending who you ask, and reached Parinirvana, the final deathless state of Buddhism.
How is it celebrated now? Bathing little statues of the baby Buddha with tea or water, hanging lanterns, extended temple services.
Other ways to celebrate: Freeing caged birds, parades with dancers and illuminated lantern floats, temple offerings.
Concurrent festivals: The Flower Festival in Japan, the Bun Festival in Hong Kong.
Associated food: In many places, varieties of porridge, which commemorate the dish that Buddha received that ended his asceticism phase.
Associated commercialism: Certain companies like McDonald’s will even offer solely vegetarian options on Buddha’s birthday to stick with the spirit of the festival. Precious little, in fact. Though sales of lotus lanterns and baby Buddha statues rocket during this time, the celebrations are remarkably uncommercial.
Associated confusion: There is no reliable record for when the Buddha was actually born, thus the wide range of celebratory dates. This in no way puts a damper on festivities, but does result in a bit of awkwardness when there are two full moons in May, which happens regularly enough. Most recently it occurred in 2007, and Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia decided to celebrate during the first full moon of the month, while Singapore and Thailand celebrated at the end of May.
Best place to enjoy the festivities: Seoul really takes it up a notch, planning a week of events and celebrations in the lead-up. It kicks off with the Lotus Lantern Festival the weekend prior to Buddha’s birthday, when tens of thousands of Korean Buddhists parade through Seoul’s main roads under colorful lanterns, bringing the city to a standstill. The municipal government really pulls out all the stops, offering music, dance and theater performances in public places that are jammed with revelers. Take a look at the celebrations in Seoul and elsewhere around the world in this gallery:
Every year, Buddha’s Birthday is marked in Korea by a sea of draped lanterns. The holiday itself is not until May 17 this year, but that has not stopped the festivities from starting early. Most streets surrounding Buddhist temples have a colorful array of lanterns strung from their lampposts. The temples themselves often feature an entire canopy created by a rainbow of lanterns. And as part of the festivities, a parade featured tens of thousands of lanterns in the shape of a lotus flower, an important symbol in Buddhism.
Seoul’s weather is now finally reaching that perfect equilibrium of sunshine and cool breezes, and the best place to see some of the city’s lanterns is at an outdoor exhibition on Cheonggye Stream.
The lanterns turn the already beautiful Cheonggye Stream into an absolutely dreamlike landscape. Skyscrapers dressed in flashing lights tower above as you walk along a tree-lined bubbling stream underneath a rainbow of paper lanterns. Couples and families walk around with nothing but smiles on their faces. There are no gimmicks here, no entrance fees and no celebrity appearances, just wonderful paper lanterns.
The wealth of colors of the paper lanterns play beautifully well off of the stream.
In the middle of the stream lie elaborate lanterns made of traditional Korean hanji paper that depict various aspects of Korean life, history and culture – including dragons, pagodas, wildlife, Buddhist ceremonies and traditional dances.
Located right in the heart of the city, Cheonggye Stream is one of the best places to visit in Seoul, with or without lanterns.
The lanterns depict various aspects of Korean and Buddhist culture.
Buddhism is an important aspect of Korea culture and is widely practiced throughout the peninsula.
Cheonggye Stream is an incredible place to just relax and hang out, with or without a festival.
Cheonggye Stream is one of the best places to visit in Seoul. Formerly a highway overpass, it was reconstructed into a stream in 2005 and has been wildly popular with locals and visitors ever since. It’s a truly unique place, similar in concept to the highline in New York, that cities across the world should take note of – a peaceful oasis in one of the world’s busiest cities that is also just around the corner from a 600-year-old palace, a neighborhood of traditional hanoks, the best book stores in Korea, an impressive arts center as well as the president’s residence.
Smaller lanterns depicting wildlife are scattered around the stream and represent more traditional lanterns.
While the Lotus Lantern Festival is definitely not to be missed, there is also another lantern festival on Cheonggye Stream of equal beauty, the Seoul Lantern Festival, which will be held in November this year.
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In early 2008, Sungnye-mun (commonly referred to as Namdae-mun), one of Korea’s most important cultural landmarks, was destroyed in a devastating arson attack. The shocking event was a national tragedy and has been engraved into the collective Korean consciousness. Today, people are able to immediately remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that the gate, which is very much linked to Korea’s identity, had been destroyed. The attack ultimately destroyed much of the gate’s wooden roof, which at the time was the oldest wooden structure in Korea.Now, after more than 5 years of extensive restoration, the iconic Sungnye-mun, meaning “Gate of Exalted Ceremonies,” has reopened to great fanfare with a visit from South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. During much of its restoration, the gate remained behind scaffolding, which intentionally obscured it from view, making its return to the Seoul landscape all the more welcome.
Originally built in 1398, its intended purpose was to control access to the capital, welcome foreign diplomats and protect the city from Siberian Tigers. During Japanese occupation, from which the gate received its controversial “Dongdae-mun” name, the surrounding walls were destroyed as the Crown Prince of Japan saw himself as too honorable to pass under the gate. Today, it sits in the middle of a grand intersection in the heart of the metropolis, dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers, symbolic of South Korea’s constant struggle between its modern aspirations and ties to tradition.
Getting to Singnye-mun is incredibly easy, just get to either City Hall subway station and go straight out exit 8 or to Seoul Station and go straight out of exit 3 or 4. The gate is roughly a 10 – 15 minute walk from any of those locations.
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