The Lunar New Year (known as Seolnal in Korea) is more celebrated than the Western Solar New Year occurring annually on January 1st. This year the holiday fell at the beginning of February, leaving everyone with a five day vacation. We started celebrating early at my school, and as I stepped out of the elevator one morning I was greeted by shocks of color and the wooshing of silk as all the students and teachers were dressed in their traditional Korean hanboks. I was not expecting this, and I reacted like a typical foreign girl by squealing and running around snapping pictures of all the cute little kids with my cell phone (still no camera after the incident in Seoul). Throughout the day we made little crafts and played traditional games, and at the end of the day every child went to our Esanim (school owner), bowed deeply with their heads pressed to the floor and listened to her explain the significance of this celebration. She handed each of them 1,000 won (about $1), good luck money for the upcoming year.
With our vacation time my friends Renee, Soona, Anne and I decided to take a trip a few hours Northeast to a town called Sokcho. This town is a great destination because it lies on the East Sea, is a short bus ride to the Seorakson Mountains and National Park, and is also near Naksansa Temple, a famous temple in Korea featuring the goddess of mercy, Gwanseum Bosal. We arrived late Thursday afternoon and checked into The House hostel, a great little place ran by Mr. Yoo and his mother, which is filled with works of art, post cards and other decorative ornaments that people have sent them throughout the years. After we dropped our bags in our rooms we set out to find an early dinner. Renee had been to Sokcho before and remembered a great little “Italian” place, so we went there and ate everything from rice to pasta, bread, french fries, and finally ended with an affogato.
After dinner we set out to find the nightlife of Sokcho and didn’t understand why the town wasn’t in full swing at 7p.m. on a Thursday night (go figure); however, we discovered the Manhattan Bar and found great ways to entertain ourselves with long islands, martinis and a black magic marker.
We eventually made our way to a bar which we just ended up calling the “seventh floor bar” because none of us could either remember the name, or we just didn’t know it to begin with (still remains a mystery). Although we heard that this was the place to go if you wanted to dance, the four or so other tables there didn’t seem all that interested; however, the DJ booth was open and we had our pick of music so we danced anyway.
The next day, after a bit of a late start, we headed to Naksansa Temple. Renee, who is Chinese/Jamaican/American, and her family have a special connection with the goddess of this temple, Gwanseum Bosal (known as Pohsat in Cantonese). Being there with her and listening to her explain the history and significance of the deity added a new level of understanding different than I have experienced at other temples before. The land lies on the slopes of the Seorakson Mountains and overlooks the East Sea with a towering, white granite statue of the goddess overlooking the property. There are quite a few twists and turns on stone pathways that lead to different temple areas and statues, and as usual when I visit a temple, I remained pretty quiet throughout our visit. I love being an observer in a culture where I really have no place, and while those there pay homage to the goddess and family members who have already passed, I lift my own prayers of peace and thanks. Just beyond the statue I walked down to an area that overlooked the sea and saw a pier and lighthouse extending from the shore, reminding me of Michigan and home. On the way out I bought an off-white speckled strand of japa mala beads that reminded me of Gwanseum Bosal and my visit there, and with that we headed back into town to catch our bus.
After the temple we headed to the Seorakson National Park where we hoped to ride a cable car to the top of one of the mountains; unfortunately, everyone there seemed to have the same idea and all the tickets were sold out.
We walked around as the sun was setting and ate some Oningeo Buchimgae (Korean squid pancakes) and warmed up with some Makkoli (Korean rice wine). By the time the sun had set it was cold and we were worn out from walking all day, so we ditched our glorious plans of being bar stars and instead ordered pizza and watched Work of Art on Bravo until we fell asleep.
The next day after checking out of the hostel we went in search of ojingeo soondae (basically blood sausage wrapped in octopus). We headed to the docks and Soona and I took a little river boat that was connected to either side of the harbor with a steel cord running through the ferry. There was no motor, but instead one worker and anyone else who wanted to join in would hook a rod to the cord and pull, walking the length of the boat and repeating that action until we were to the other side.
Being at the small port with all the local fishing boats and the smell of motor oil mixed with the fresh catches of the day brought back memories of Semester at Sea. It had been three years since I had wandered the docks of a foreign city, and it felt good to be in that environment again.
That afternoon we indulged in an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet (about $7 a person) then headed to the bus station to catch a ride back to Seoul, then a subway to the other side of the city, then a bus back to Dongtan.
Being in Sokcho felt more foreign than being in Dongtan or Seoul because the town is older and seemingly more established. Buildings there aren’t all shiny and new, and there’s a certain grit and wear from the winds that whip up the salt from the seaside. Needless to say it was a great vacation in a beautiful, diverse location with wonderful friends.