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Autumn Cherry Blossom and Maple Leaves Hunting

IMG_8409.JPGAutumn is here! The weather has cooled and the leaves are changing to a wonderful array of browns, oranges, reds and golds.

In Japan people flock to the countryside to enjoy the splendid selection of autumn foliage. This is called ‘momijigari’ which basically means red leaves hunting. I love autumn and adore red maple leaves so it’s an exciting time for me!

I’d read about a very unusual autumn phenomenon close-by in a place called Obara. It’s famous for Obara Shikizakura cherry trees. Whilst standard cherry trees only bloom in the Spring the Obara Shikizakura also bloom in autumn and are at their best at the end of November and start of December.

The cherry blossoms are interspersed with other trees including maples. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see something so rare, so despite being full of a cold, Ash and I got up early and set off on an autumn leaves and cherry blossom hunt!

We went to Toyotashi station to catch a bus (outside the front of the station by the roundabout) and found that lots of other people had had the same idea as us. We managed to squeeze ourselves on to the jam-packed bus and an hour and a half later (due to traffic) arrived in the scenic village of Obara Okusa.

There are a few different areas dotted around for viewing the sakura (cherry blossoms) and maples together and you can walk at your leisure, drive between the spots or catch a shuttle bus.

Here is a map for anyone interested in going (you can also pick these up at the site):We started at Fureai park, which was host to lots of food stalls and a woman singing in a Kimono, and quickly met up with our friend Alison who had already driven around the site. We got our first taste of Autumn Sakura and found a pretty shrine.IMG_8408.JPGIMG_8407.JPG

Being bunged up with a cold I wasn’t feeling too hot, so from the park we caught the tiny but extremely busy old fashioned shuttle bus up to Senmi Shikizakura no sato, which boasts some of the most spectacular displays. There were two pretty bridges, a temple nestled in the trees and some traditional food stalls. The main feature was the hillside covered in cherry blossoms and maples. It was breathtakingly beautiful so I took lots of pictures:

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As well as Sakura (cherry blossoms) we saw lots of other vivid coloured leaves on the surrounding trees.IMG_8429.JPGIMG_8428.JPGWe decided to follow the map and walk the scenic one hour journey back to the bus stop.  We followed the road and walked past farms and small roadside shops. At one point the roadside was covered in lots of cool scarecrows whose job it seemed to be to attract passersby in to a road side stall.IMG_8436.JPG

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IMG_8441.JPGWe got back to the bus stop with plenty of time to spare so sat outside eating cup ramens and then caught the bus back in to town. It was a really beautiful area and I’d highly recommend anyone in the Aichi area to visit Obara and enjoy the Autumn Sakura phenomenon.

Moving to Japan – Tokyo

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Finally! Three months after leaving Korea I have home internet and am able to update this blog!

In that time a lot has happened including a lovely relaxing holiday in The Phillipines and relocating to Japan to start the latest chapter of our teaching and travelling adventure.

We arrived in Japan on Friday evening March 14th and flew in to Osaka. We needed to travel to Tokyo and we’d found flying to Osaka and then catching an overnight bus to be the cheapest option. This had seemed like a great idea at the time but when actually put in to practice it was a nightmare. We had almost 100kg of luggage between us and had bought a large pull along holdall that wouldn’t move properly (and ended up taking a chunk of Ash’s leg off!). So yeah travelling across Osaka city centre was pretty stressful.

We caught an overnight bus from Osaka to Tokyo that arrived at 7am and then tried to traverse Tokyo’s confusing subway network at rush hour to find our hotel (with the luggage from hell).

The hostel was the cheapest in Tokyo (there is a money saving theme going on here) and was a nice tiny traditional Japanese house. Again we hadn’t thought about the volume of luggage we had when booking and weren’t expecting to find so many other travellers in such a tiny space! Our room was literally like a cupboard with two bunk beds in it! It’s hard to actually describe how small it was but basically only one of us could be getting changed in there at a time and if both of us were in there stood up we couldn’t move!

We wandered around the area, did some laundry, drank coffee and ended up snoozing in the afternoon because we were so tired. In the evening we visited Shinjuku and ate a delicious dumpling ramen before wandering the streets aimlessly for a while.

Day 2 – Sightseeing mission

Yanaka

After an exhausting first day in Tokyo we decided to make the most of our time before starting our new job orientation the next day.

Our first sight for the day was Yanaka, a residential area which has kept an old town traditional ambience in modern day Tokyo. We walked up narrow roads lined with traditional Japanese houses and shops, as well as visiting small temples, shrines and traditional graveyards. It was a really relaxing way to spend the first part of the day and was in total contrast to what we were  to experience next!

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Akihabara

Our next destination was Akihabara, famous for being an area full of electronics shops, game arcades, comic shops and maid cafes. It is renowned as the center of Japanese Otaku (diehard fans/geek) culture. It was absolutely rammed (mostly with men), full of tall brightly coloured buildings decorated with lots of signage, neon and animations. Here are some pictures as they can do a better job of describing it than me.

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We spent ages wandering around the buzzing streets taking in the atmosphere. It was so different to anything you’d encounter in England so was a great experience!

We were pretty hungry after hours of walking around so went for a sushi dinner and then sat in Ueno Park to watch the sunset.

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Job Orientation

The next day we had to spend at the office of our recruiter signing documents and getting registered at City Hall so nothing of much note happened then.

The following day we left our hostel and lugged our bags out of Tokyo to our orientation. It was held in the middle of nowhere in a teacher training centre which was also being used by a university band camp for rehearsals.

Okay so I won’t write much about the orientation because although we met some very nice people it was all quite tame due to be being out in the sticks and having a 9:30pm curfew! Also Ash and I had to share dorm style with other teachers and weren’t allowed to share a room. Something which made me feel distinctly like an untrusted teenager, not a thirty year old woman!

Anyway, we  basically spent the next few days waiting to find out whereabouts we were going to be placed. Our company owned contracts to place ALT’s (Assistant Language Teachers) in schools in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area,  Kanto and Chiba Region so we had no idea where we were going to be (but were really really hoping for Tokyo!)

On the third evening we were all summoned and told our placements. Ash and I had been placed in Futtsu City. A tiny super super rural area at the bottom of Chiba prefecture. This meant that we would be quite isolated and not easily able to travel around. In addition our Japanese language skills were probably the lowest in the group so the prospect of living somewhere so rural was daunting. I wasn’t very happy but went to bed trying to be positive and accept things.

The next day got worse! We found out that between us we were working at 16 schools and would be working across elementary and junior high which would mean a lot more lesson planning.  On top of this we were expected to use our travel expenses which were actually part of our rather low wage on one car and car pool to work each day. Our schools weren’t always near each other and some days we had to attend two schools. Upon hearing this news I got a bit upset and felt that we were being taken the piss out of a bit in expecting to accept the placement. It hit home that we were in Japan in a bit of a weird situation.

We spent the next couple of days avoiding signing any contracts whilst staying in this weird place and being put under a bit of pressure so it was quite stressful.

A change of plans

Luckily once we left the orientation (promising to go back to the office and discuss our placement again) we managed to get in touch with another recruiter we’d previously interviewed with and they told us they still had positions in another part of Japan and offered us a job! We were over the moon! We went back to our previous recruiter and broke the news and it actually went as well as could be expected because they appreciated that we didn’t just do a runner and came in to explain our situation to them.

We now had to move across the country in time to start ANOTHER orientation the following week and would then be living in Toyota City (yup, where the car originated!) near to Nagoya. We decided in the meantime to enjoy more of Tokyo’s sights for a few more days. This was easier said than done!

No room at any of the inns

We began searching for hostels and guesthouses to stay in for the rest of our time in Tokyo and to our surprise it was impossible to find one place to stay for the rest of our journey.  Cherry Blossom season was looming in Tokyo, which brought tourists from all over Japan and the world wanting to experience the beautiful blossoms. This meant that most hotels were booked.

We ended up in four different places:

  1. Going back to the smallest hostel in the world for one night.
  2. Staying a night in a dodgy AirBNB in a totally different part of Tokyo and having to leave at 7am in the morning because the guy who owned the apartment was going to work
  3. Staying two nights in a boarding house in an area full of day labourer boarding houses
  4. Visiting all boarding houses and hotels in the area to try to find somewhere for our last night. Finally we found a hotel near to our previous one.

I couldn’t believe that in such an enormous city it would be so hard to find accommodation. I’ve since been warned that during peak festival seasons this is common.

We spent the next few days:

Eating lots of yummy food.

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Visiting temples and the Tokyo Sky Tree in Asakusa (which is pretty amazing to look at!).ImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Enjoying an Andy Warhol exhibition and magnificent city scape views in an art gallery on the 50th floor in Roppongi Hills.

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Shopping in Shibuya and watching the infamous Shibuya Station crossing.

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After a few days it was time to catch another cross country bus to Nagoya to start our new job!

Since then we’ve been settling in to Japanese life and adjusting to the differences between the UK and Korea. But that’s a whole new post!

 

 

Seokbulsa temple in Busan

On the first Sunday of December Ash, Keir , Emily and I decided to visit Seokbulsa temple in Busan. It’s been on our to do lists since arriving in Korea and time is running out to do and see everything.

We met Keir and Emily at the bus station at about 6am, hopped on a bus and snoozed our way to Busan.  Seokbulsa temple is situated on Geumjeong mountain so we began by walking through the park at the foot of the mountain. Although it was December it seemed that winter still hadn’t quite reached Busan and the trees in the park were covered in bright red and yellow Autumn leaves. Because it was early the park was quiet so we could enjoy the scenery in relative peace which was lovely!

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It’s possible and faster to catch the cable car that up the side of the mountain but we decided to go on foot and reached the top after about 30 minutes.

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The next part of the walk involved passing through a rather strange place called Namman village which also sat up in the mountain.  It was only tiny and was pretty much deserted apart from a pair of ajummas sat outside their restaurant. After that we followed a path a little way down the mountain until we came to a steep road. We followed the road uphill until we reached the temple. All in all it was an easy walk.

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Seokbulsa differs from most other temples in Korea because the mountain itself has been turned in to a shrine and there are beautiful Buddhist carvings in the surrounding rock walls.  Pictures will do better at describing than I can:

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After taking lots of pictures we walked down the other side of the mountain a short way and stopped for some squid pajeon (Korean pancake) and macheolli rice wine at a roadside stall. As we left the stall we saw a couple of cute dogs on the road. One of them came over and kept following Keir, jumping up at him. We were all awwwing when he started pulling Keir’s glove off. He managed to pull it off his hand and then to our surprise legged it off down the road and up the mountain whilst Keir ran after him and we all stood bent over with laughter at his cheeky behaviour. I jokingly said I bet he does that to loads of passers by and has a collection of gloves in a little hide out! Keir chased him up the hill behind a house and then shouted down that there was indeed another glove up there! I suppose it was one of those situations where you had to be there to fully appreciate how funny it was. Anyway here are some of Emily’s pictures catching the moments scene by scene!

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awww hello cute dog do you like my glove?

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Oh you want to hold it in your mouth…

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Hey come back here with my glove!

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proof that the dog was a weird glove thief and hoarder

I’d highly recommend a visit to Seokbulsa especially because it’s only a short walk and can be done in a morning or afternoon.

Fear and Tribulation on the Yeungnam Alps

A little while back when it was still warm enough to do a weekend’s worth of outdoor activities Ash, Keir, Emily, Sam and I planned two days of hiking in the Yeungnam Alps near Ulsan. Keir and Emily had done one half of the walk before, enjoyed it and recommended it.

After an early train and two bus journeys we started the trail at 9:30am. This was planned to be a two day circular hike, with the first taking us over three peaks in approximately six hours.

After climbing steps for about twenty minutes (I hate steps) we were rewarded with our first view of the day and what a view! There were beautiful mist covered mountains as far as the eye could see.Image

The views were stunning as we made our way across the route and everything was going as planned. The scenery was very different to what we’d experience on Saryangdo a few weeks before but was still breath-taking and had a bleak beauty reminiscent of the Peak District or Yorkshire moors, but obviously somewhat different because this is Korea!ImageImage

We ate lunch at the second peak and continued to our final peak of the day. We would then be following a route down in to the valley to stay in a village called Jukjeon Mal and rest up to complete the second day of the circuit. We arrived at the third peak at 3pm feeling victorious, and took some obligatory victory pictures. Our next challenge was to get down in to the valley and then we could relax.

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This however is when things started to go wrong. Whilst atop the third peak we noticed dark clouds had started to form and it looked like it was going to rain.

We decided to get our skates on in order to get down off the mountain as the weather took a turn for the worse. We headed down and surprisingly Ash and I saw the owner of our local chicken restaurant which was bizarre! We showed him our map in order to check the route down and he gave us some directions and told us our map was wrong. Uh oh…

A little further along we came to a fork in the path and weren’t totally sure which way to go. By this time the sky was black and it was raining. There were two separate groups of Korean hikers discussing which way to go. When we asked them how to get to Jukjeon Mal they all seemed surprised we wanted to go there but proceeded to give us instructions which we thought we understood. They then walked off in the opposite direction. We continued, feeling progressively more and more worried as mist appeared and swallowed us up so we could no longer see down in to the valley below.

Here are a few pictures to show you exactly how wet and foggy it got but they don’t do it justice.

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Earlier in the day I had commented on how much I enjoyed this sloping undulating hike. There had been no real climbing and it had felt much more ambly. That was about to change. We had to climb over a small peak and lower ourselves down on a rope. Not usually a difficult task but it was slippy and the mist encircling us had put us a little on edge.

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We also wondered where everyone else had gone as we hadn’t seen another Korean hiker for a while (and anyone hiking on a well-known route in Korea will know the routes are usually packed with neon clad hikers).

We came to a standstill when we realised that we needed to choose between two routes. We could continue up over another peak, which felt very much NOT like going down in to the valley, or we could follow a route downwards. This route however was cordoned off with a big closed barrier and warning signs. Luckily at that moment two Korean men appeared out of nowhere and advised us that the former route would take us a long time and the latter route would be much faster but maybe a little dangerous. We had a quick team talk and agreed that both weather and time were against us, it was now 3:40 and in a couple of hours it would be pitch black. Therefore we decided to take the closed and ‘slightly dangerous’ route.

At this point I started to freak out internally. None of us had network on our phone and I really didn’t like the thought of taking a closed off hiking route in the late afternoon all on our own with no one else around, but we didn’t really have a choice.

The closed route was extremely closed. The bushes had grown over on to what there was of the path. By the way the ‘path’ felt a lot more like carefully locating and jumping over very big unstable stepping stones covered in leaves. Most of us lost our footing at some point (Sam had a nasty fall) and as the light dimmed my recently lasered eyes found it hard to see (an initial side effect of LASIK can be reduced vision at night) so I was being a right slow coach.

The route continued down in to the valley and was exceptionally beautiful. We walked through trees with vibrant red leaves, a small rock pool and a rocky stream. Unfortunately we couldn’t appreciate them because we were wet and becoming extremely concerned about getting down off the mountain before the light was completely gone. We all trudged, jumped and slipped along in relative silence focussing on one thing – getting out of there before nightfall.

We could tell we were working our way down but it was getting darker and darker and the freak out factor was increasing significantly! By now we’d been descended for almost two hours, it was pretty blooming dark and we were still walking. Would we have to spend a night huddled together for warmth on the mountain with no food or shelter? Suddenly when we saw some lights in the distance! They were coming from a hermitage; this meant we must at least be near a road if not a village! We all gave a cheer and then realised we had to cross a big section of stream. It was now dark and the rocks were really slippy so I had to hold Ash’s hands as I blindly felt my way across the stepping stones. Once on the other side we were safe and within two minutes we were on the road, relief flooded in to our adrenaline filled bodies and we began talking again!

We hadn’t come down in to Jukjeon Mal but we weren’t far and were able to walk there in about fifteen minutes. Keir had booked us in to a youth hostel shaped like a boat but we ended up in our own little chalet. We were all starving so dropped off our stuff and headed to a duck restaurant nearby to refuel and recover from our experience. We worked out that in fact the route down in to Jukjeon Mal is now closed so hikers don’t use it anymore. This explained why everyone disappeared!Image

That evening we decided that we probably weren’t going to do the second half of the walk the following day because of our ordeal, but we’d see how we felt after a good night’s sleep. We slept in too late to start the walk in the morning but had heard that there was a waterfall nearby so decided to visit that instead. We ate a breakfast of kimchi jjigae (stew) and rice and walked two kilometres to the waterfall. It was still autumn down in the valley so we marveled at all the beautiful colours (and took lots of pictures of course!).ImageImage

What a weekend eh!? We can look back on it now, laugh our heads off and congratulate ourselves but at the time I’m pretty sure we were all feeling scared! Still it’s a good story to tell eh?

Autumn Hiking Adventures in Korea – Part 1 – Saryangdo Island

Once the heat and humidity of summer had passed I was keen to start hiking again. However, we don’t have long before the siberian winter draws over South Korea so we have tried to fit in our final must-do Korean hikes before the weather gets too cold.

October – Hiking in paradise on Saryangdo Island

Recently Ash, Keir, Emily and I went on a stunning overnight trip to an island called Saryangdo just of the south coast of Korea. I’d read that there was a brilliant ridge hike that was well known amongst Koreans but not as much amongst us waygookin foreigners. The pictures looked beautiful and the idea of doing a mountain hike on an tiny island had me sold on the idea.

We planned to travel to and arrive on the island on the Saturday and find somewhere to stay in the village at the start of the trail. Then we’d get up early the next day and hike the 6km ridge trail before heading home.

We caught the 7:30am bus to Tongyeong from Daegu Seobu (west) bus station on the Saturday morning, then another bus from the bus terminal to a quiet ferry terminal on the other side of Tongyeong. The terminal was packed with lots of ajummas (middle aged married women) and ajussi’s (middle aged married men) decked out in neon hiking gear so we knew we were in the right place.

The ferry took about 45 minutes and the views along the way were beautiful.Image

Once there, we found a map and worked out that we needed to stay in the village on the opposite end of the island in order to hike back over the ridge trail to the harbour the next day. The sun was shining, we were all feeling pretty energised and the low key atmosphere of the island made us certain we wouldn’t be rushed off our feet with activities when we got to our destination, so we decided to walk the 6 or so kilometres around the island.

About 10 minutes in to the walk a big group of men and women started shouting us to join them. Because we had a fair way to walk we couldn’t stop but Ash went to investigate and came back with a bag of freshly cooked crabs. He was in heaven but the rest of us weren’t really up for walking and eating crab at the same time, especially after looking at the crab guts all over Ash’s hands as he ate the first one! Therefore Ash ate ALL of the crabs himself in quick succession.

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The island was beautiful and the scenery surrounding us was breathtaking. Dotted all over the ocean were tiny islands. It was exactly how I had imagined coastlines in east Asia before I moved here.

It took us about an hour and a half to walk around to the village. I say village, but it was more like a hamlet because it was so small. It was very picturesque and was nestled in a cove beneath the mighty ridged mountains we would be climbing the next day. There were only a handful of minbaks (guesthouses), one restaurant and a few convenience stores/people’s houses. and it took us about 10 minutes to walk around the whole place!IMG_5516

We went to the only restaurant to get lunch and thought it was closed. However a very old woman started shouting and calling to her friend who owned it! She came with a big basket of cabbage (she’d obviously been off doing other things because no one hardly goes there!) opened up, suggested we have some doenjang jjigae (fermented soybean stew) and began cooking for us in the tiny empty restaurant.

We spent the rest of the day playing cards in our shared room and took a quick early evening stroll. We didn’t really mind having a quiet day and an early night because we planned to get up early the following morning to begin our hike.IMG_5524

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Four of us shared this room sleeping on the floor Korean style.

We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning, quite literally, and were sat up on the side of the mountain by 7:30 eating breakfast and enjoying the tranquil quiet atmosphere and breathtaking scenery.

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We knew the crowds of hikers would turn up soon as we’d seen lots of people on the ferry the day before and sure enough as we headed up to the first peak we heard lots of jovial shouting and were soon surrounded by extremely agile ajummas and ajussi’s chattering away as they charged ahead! At one point it was ridiculous how busy the hike became! This picture just about does it justice.

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The walk took us 6 hours and there were some rather hairy sections for someone like myself with leg trembling vertigo issues, but it was really exciting! We had to pull our bodies up over rocks, flatten ourselves and slide along precarious looking edges and watch our feet. There were also some bridges connecting peaks and ropes to guide climbers down sheer rock faces. The sun was shining the whole time and the view just got more and more impressive.IMG_5558 IMG_5555 IMG_5564

When we finished we had to wait a little while for the ferry so went to a sea front restaurant for lunch. We were all totally shattered on the way back so lay down on the back of the ferry and snoozed in the shade.IMG_5566

I actually think this was the most breathtaking and challenging hike that I’ve done in Korea. I’m so glad that I got the chance to experience Saryangdo before leaving Korea as it is truly a hidden gem!

Haeinsa temple and Jinju lantern festival in one day!

I’ve been really busy at school and have been doing lots of volunteering so updating this blog has become less of a priority. However I’m determined to pull my socks up and document my last 4 and a bit months in Korea before our next adventure begins! I also plan to do lots of stuff in the next month or so now that the sweltering summer heat has gone and before the bitter winter arrives!

Ash’s parents came to visit a couple of weeks ago. The first weekend we met them in Gyeongju but I didn’t take many pictures then as we’ve been before. Their second weekend in Korea we all went to Haeinsa Temple and to the Jinju lantern festival, so it was a weekend of firsts for me (Ash had been to Haeinsa).

Haeinsa Temple

We caught an 8:30am bus to Haeinsa on the Saturday morning and it took approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes to get there from Seobu Bus Station in West Daegu. The complex is really big and stretches across the hills for a few miles, but we had limited time there so just visited the main complex.

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Entrance to Haeinsa

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The monks were mean drummers!

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The red bags on the floor were part of an art installation. People were asked to fill the bags with rocks to symbolise how much pain was in their lives. Depressing but pretty

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This would have been nice if it wasnt for that horrible plastic sheeting in the background! Screw you temple maintenance!

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Prayer time

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Gorgeous view of the courtyard and the surrounding mountains

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Haeinsa is famous for housing the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of Buddhist scriptures carved onto 81,258 wooden printing blocks in the 13th century. It is the world’s most comprehensive and oldest intact version of Buddhist scripture in Hanja (chinese) script. Unfortunately to protect it the blocks are kept stored in buildings at the back of the temple. It’s possible to view at the rooms they are in and get a glimpse of them from outside but you can’t reach out and touch them (obviously). Still, the sheer number of scriptures was pretty impressive!

On the way out of the temple we decided to share this stuffed squid between us. Ash’s parents and Ash loved it but I wasn’t so keen on the filling.

IMG_5382When planning the trip we had worried that we’d need to get the bus back to Daegu and out to Jinju again but as luck would have it we were able to get a bus to Jinju from right outside the temple! We thought this was quite weird as there were only two bus services available, one to Daegu and one to Jinju. We bought our ticket and then settled in for another 2 hour bus journey. The route from Haeinsa to Jinju is really beautiful so it was an enjoyable ride and the time passed quickly!

Jinju Lantern Festival

We arrived in to Jinju at about 3pm and Ash’s parents dropped their luggage at their hotel. We hadn’t booked anything ourselves and just planned to stay in a jimjilbang (public bath house with sleeping area) or a guesthouse.

It was still light when we arrived but we could see the river full of different styles of lanterns and were excited at how busy the festival promised to be. The river was also overlooked by the scenic Jinju fortress and a pretty park which had also been set up for the lantern festival.

We watched some traditional Korean music performances and then followed the steps down to the river where we paid 1000won to walk on a very strange bridge made out of bobbing plastic blocks across the river. As the sun went down the lanterns began glowing and looked beautiful. They were dotted all over the water and there were lots of different types!

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We ate an expensive but tasty pork BBQ next to the river, wandered around for a while longer and then walked Ash’s parents to their hotel. We managed to find a very reasonable guesthouse for 40,000 around the corner and was also showing British football which pleased Ash no end!

All in all it was a very pleasant weekend and I’m surprised how much we actually managed to fit in to one day!

Japan 2013 – Osaka, Nara and Kyoto

In Korea your school’s birthday is a big deal and all students and teachers have a day off to celebrate (if it falls on a week day). My friend Claire and I were lucky enough to have the same school birthday and this year it fell the day before the Korean thanksgiving holiday of Chuseok. A few friends and I had decided to visit Osaka during the holiday this year, so we decided to go out a day earlier together. We caught the train to Seoul on Monday evening and stayed at my favourite place ever – Siloam jimjilbang. We were up very early the next morning to catch the airport railroad to Incheon airport.

Our plane arrived in Japan mid-morning and we mistakenly got on the slowest train ever from Kansai airport to Osaka. Luckily about 40 minutes in to our journey at one of the millions of stations our train stopped at, one of the station conductors told us to get on a faster train and we got there in quick flash time.Image

Upon arrival our first task was to find our accommodation for that night.  We caught the subway (which was really retro and I loved it – apart from the price) to Shinsaibashi train station and then walked around the streets. On the first night we were staying in a capsule hotel, something I have always wanted to do so was pretty blooming excited about!Image

For the rest of the day we wandered around Amerikamura, an area with a lot of independent and vintage shops and a very relaxed feel. We also had a little walk around Namba which was close by and found lots of interesting streets and shops, saw a shrine down a tiny back alley with a moss covered Buddha and walked down tiny traditional streets.  It felt quite unnerving to not be able to understand any Japanese writing as I’m so used to at least being able to phonetically read Korean even if I don’t always know the meaning! With this in mind we went in to the first restaurant with a picture menu and ate there. In the evening we sat in the main square in Amerikamura for a while chatting before heading back for a night in our capsules.Image

1236669_10151886515543633_51023041_nIMG_5475IMG_5486 IMG_5488The capsule hotel wasn’t actually that far removed from a jimjilbang in that there was a shared locker room, changing room, toilets and sauna area for all the women. I found out afterwards that these actually usually just cater to business men and it can be difficult to find women’s capsules. Our actual sleeping areas were compartments with a pull down blind. I thought they were pretty comfortable although I did feel like I was in a space ship.IMG_5481

The next morning we were up and out early for a western breakfast (this doesn’t really happen in Korea much!) and to find our hostel where the others would be joining us later. We then caught the JR line (which is like an overland loop train) to Tennoji and visited Shitennoji temple. It was really beautiful and because it was a weekday was fairly quiet.  There was a lovely view across the graveyard of the skyline and Osaka’s famous Hitachi tower.IMG_5472

Next we headed back to Namba to meet my UK friend Mitch who now lives in Matsumoto and had come to catch up for a day or two. The three of us then went to Osaka castle, which is very pretty on the outside but not that thrilling inside. Afterwards we went back to our hostel to meet everyone, get changed, have a quick beer in the bonsai garden on the roof and then went out to meet Mitch in Namba again. He wanted to show us around Ebisu bridge and Dotombori, two of Osaka’s most famous sights.

The neon lights on Ebisu bridge were pretty amazing! The area was jam-packed and the streets behind the river featured lots of animatronic animals hanging above restaurants in the area. We were starving so decided on a restaurant and ordered lots of delicious Okonomiyaki, delicious pancakes with lots of fillings and cheese. We spent the rest of the night drinking beer in a tiny corridor bar and a rather strange shisha bar before heading home in the wee hours.IMG_5489

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Wonderful Nara

We had a bit of a lie in the next day as we were feeling a little delicate and had already decided to spend a chilled out day in Nara, about an hour away by train. Nara used to be a historic capital in Japan so features lots of famous sights. It is also famous for the tame deer that wander around the park and temple areas of the city.

The first sight we encountered as we entered the historic area was a picturesque pond with lots of turtles swimming in it. There was to be a lake-side festival taking place that evening so lanterns were being set up on the water. We saw our first of many deer here! She came over and nabbed Emily’s (unwanted) sandwich out of its wrapper and wandered off whilst we all squealed (and Keir WWOOOOOYYYEEEDD) and tried to stroke her.1378606_10153297698590343_359487124_n

The next hour or so was spent buying special biscuits and feeding them to lots of quite brazen deer as we walked through Nara Park.1379730_10153297697700343_297928006_n1255171_10153297697040343_1188406670_n 1375762_10153297696800343_59536414_nWe visited a couple more shrines, had coffee and then headed off for one of the main sights. Todaji temple holds claim to being the world’s biggest wooden building and oh my goodness it was absolutely enormous! The pictures unfortunately don’t do it justice. It took my breath away. What’s even crazier is that this temple had to be rebuilt after a fire and is apparently 1/3 smaller than the original! Inside the building is an enormous gorgeous bronze Buddha.IMG_41

After staring at the Buddha (mouth open in awe) for a while, we followed Keir on his mission to find a geocache. Up a hill nestled amongst the trees behind Todaji temple we found another hillside temple with stunning views of the sunset. There was hardly anyone around so the atmosphere was lovely and serene.

We were pretty tired after sightseeing but we wanted to see the lantern festival by the water so went and sat on the grass for a little while as it was really beautiful. After maybe half an hour nothing happened so we went in search of dinner.IMG_47 IMG_48 IMG_49We decided upon a restaurant which served a traditional set meal. Lots of small courses were delivered after each other. We weren’t entirely sure how we were supposed to eat it but an old couple opposite us had the same set so we copied them. It was yummy and included raw fish, miso soup, variations of tofu dishes and rice.

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Full of food and worn out, we headed back to Osaka on an evening train and chilled out in the hostel.

Kyoto – a glance in to the past

We woke up early the next morning to catch a train to Kyoto for another busy day. Not far from the train station we found a bike rental shop and decided to travel around by bike all day. Our first destination was Kiyomizudera temple. We had to walk our bikes up a really steep alleyway to get to the temple. There were beautiful women walking around the temple grounds in gorgeous kimonos and the temple itself which was stunning, was situated up on the hill amongst trees and overlooked the city.

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Next we cycled down to Gion, in the vague hope of finding a geisha. However it was blisteringly hot and we didn’t go to a teahouse, so we were obviously unsuccessful. We didn’t mind though because this area was very pretty, traditional and filled with kimono and souvenir shops. The buildings were all really narrow and made of dark wood.  We decided to splurge and eat a traditional lunch in this area. This time the food was served up almost like a bento box but inside a beautifully intricate bowl. Cue all of us taking pictures of our food!ImageImage

After lunch we cycled around a little and visited a few more vibrant red shrines and temples on our travels. We cycled up the philosophers’ path, a pretty cherry tree lined path and found a really cute café so sat with coffee and cakes soaking up the nice relaxed atmosphere. We were heading for another temple but by the time we had cycled there it was unfortunately closed. We started making our way back to the station, riding our pretty bikes along the riverside looking at all the attractive riverside restaurants and bars. I felt like I never wanted to leave Kyoto but it was getting dark, all the temples were closed and we were staying in Osaka so caught the train back.1382208_10153297691915343_1108613416_n

Once in Osaka we tried to decide where to spend the next few hours before bed and randomly ended up getting off the JR at Kyobashi, a random stop, because everyone thought it looked ‘fun’! The streets around the station were full of neon lights and it was pretty busy (it was Friday evening). There were row upon row of tiny bar/restaurants known as Izakaya, full to the brim with suited and booted Japanese businessmen letting their hair down. We chose a bar and ordered LOADS of side dishes. I can safely say that every single thing they put down in front of us (apart from the mushrooms because I don’t like them) was mouth-wateringly delicious! There were 5 of us and usually the plate had 6 pieces of whatever dish we’d ordered on it. We all loved them so much that we had to pay ‘rock, scissors, paper’ to choose who got the extra piece. I never won!

A day in Osaka

Our final day was spent in Osaka so we took our time having breakfast. Claire had read about a bakery which apparently sold British style cakes only one JR stop away so we decided to walk and follow the train line because it was a lovely day.IMG_5468This wander gave us a chance to see everyday Osaka life. We saw lots of very nice bikes, a variety of different shops, people’s houses (most of which were decorated with plant pots outside) and more ornate looking food and drink establishments. The area leading up to and around Tsuruhashi station was really interesting and full of exciting looking alleyways. The bakery was in an upmarket area and the owner was from Leicester. He’d designed it with a mod theme which we weren’t too sure about. We weren’t too sure about the cakes either, apart from an amazing apple pie.IMG_5487

Afterwards we caught the subway to Namba AGAIN as Keir had read about a craft beer festival being held in the area, which we quite frankly couldn’t resist (apart from poor Claire who doesn’t drink any beer whatsoever)!

After a lot of searching we found the festival being held by the river and boy were there lots of tasty beer selections from all over the world, including the UK.  I thought my holiday couldn’t get any better when Ash noticed someone eating blue cheese! After a short search we discovered a stall selling LOTS of cheese so bought some brie and some stilton with crackers and sat nomming them and drinking tasty ale with grins on our faces.

We split up for dinner that day because Ash, Emily and I wanted sushi, Keir wanted Octopus balls and to find a geocache and Claire wanted a bento box. Emily and I had seen a sushi restaurant nearby earlier in the day so went there. It was reasonably priced and we got to watch the sushi chef make our masterpiece of a dinner. The fish melted in our mouths and we all sat pulling faces and making noises of joy whilst eating.IMG_5294 1376535_10153297690160343_73898469_n

We went back to the hostel and Keir, Emily, Ash and I decided to pay one of the local tiny cupboard bars a visit for a final drink in Osaka. We had a lovely evening with a very hospitable barman before returning to our hostel to get some sleep in preparation for our flights home to Korea the next day.

Needless to say, this trip to Japan further cemented my love for this amazing and vibrant country.  So much so that Ash and I are now looking for employment in Japan when we leave Korea at the end of February. Fingers crossed eh!?

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Becky and Scott do Korea part 2 – Seoul

The following Friday was Buddha’s birthday weekend and a national holiday so we had a 3 day weekend. What better way to spend it than living it up in South Korea’s capital and my favourite place in the country, Seoul.

We caught the long train to Seoul on Thursday evening and waited around in the station for Ash who had to catch a later train because of dropping Betty at the pet sitter’s again! We met at about midnight. We were going to stay at Siloam jimjilbang again! I think Becky and Scott may have been a little anxious about getting sleep because we had lots planned for the next day and we hadn’t got much rest in a jimjilbang the week before! Luckily, Siloam is in a league of its own when it comes to sleeping areas. It’s definitely the best jimjilbang I’ve stayed in so far. There are separate quiet dark rooms with little individual bunks which allow for a perfect sleep! Well rested, we woke up the next morning to meet Claire who was staying in a hostel for the weekend.

Friday – Palaces, teahouses and Seoul cityscape views

Friday was a day jam-packed full of sights! First on the agenda was Gyeongbukgung palace, the most famous in Seoul. Because most people had the day off it was absolutely rammed and roasting hot (we are so English!), so it was pretty tiring walking around the grounds because it was huge. The really nice thing about the palace was the number of different sections to it. We would walk around a corner expecting a narrow passageway of traditional Korean architecture to find a lake and a gorgeous enormous building. I would say this is definitely a must-see sight in Seoul.

Gyeongbukgong palace entrance

Gyeongbukgong palace entrance

A very lovely and very very blue pool in the palace grounds

A very lovely and very very blue pool in the palace grounds

Brits abroad! Wandering through the palace grounds579347_10100507271566122_1415820917_n

The palace is very close to two other spots on the sightseeing map, Bukchon and Insadong so it made sense to take Botty (Claire’s nickname for Scott and Becky) there. Bukchon is a hanok (traditional Korean house) village with lots of pretty buildings and shops. It was quite impressive to stand at the top of one of the many sloping streets and watch old Korea meet new, with traditional houses nestled tightly together in front of giant modern sky scrapers.

Old Seoul meets new Seoul

Old Seoul meets new Seoul

It was mid-afternoon by now and we were all feeling weary, but Insadong was close by and is an area famous for old style teahouses and Korean arts and crafts so we didn’t want to miss it. We walked for a short time and then found, hidden away down a back street (obviously I asked tourist Information for a map!) a wonderfully cool and cosy teahouse, where we all ordered different types of fruit teas. Ash’s was by far the tastiest! Slightly rejuvenated, Claire was heading off to her hostel for a rest but we had other plans.

The lovely traditional teahouse in Insadong

The lovely traditional teahouse in Insadong

Becky njoying her persimmon and cinnamon tea

Becky enjoying her persimmon and cinnamon tea

Although we were really tired I felt that a trip to Seoul wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Namsan tower to watch the sun set over the city skyline. I obviously had some kind of romanticised image of what this would be like, because in reality it was CHAOS. We realised that we needed to hurry if we were going to make it before sunset, so we caught the subway and then walked at a fast pace to where we would catch the cable car and found the BIGGEST QUEUE EVER!!!!!! My heart sank. Ash and I had walked up the hill before (it’s quite an easy walk usually) and figured we could all make it if we hurried. Now I say that it’s an easy walk, but that is only if you go at a leisurely pace! It is still a blooming big hill! With time running out we had to run up the hill with no water. I’m sure Triathalon man Scott and naturally fit Ash were fine, but Becky and myself (Becky is much fitter than me!) were not happy! We got to the top and I was a sweaty, dehydrated, panting mess. To top it off at the top there were HUGE CROWDS EVERYWHERE! It was hardly the relaxing experience I’d had in mind, or experienced before! But nevertheless Becky, got some lovely photos of the skyline and we had a beer and some Oreos whilst watching a music and light show projected on to the tower.Seoul at sunset Seoul by night

Next we had to find a love motel to drop our luggage off. We went to Sincheon, which is close to Hongdae and has streets full of love motels. These motels are usually rented by the hour or the night for romantic liaisons, so it was difficult and expensive finding one that would put us up for two nights. Our rooms were lovely though! Ours had a bath in the corner and Scott and Becky’s had a tree in it! We were exhausted by the time our rooms were sorted, so quickly ate and then went to bed ready for an early start on Saturday.

The Demilitarised Zone

A few weeks previously we had booked places on a full DMZ tour and had to be at USO Camp Kim by 8am. We were feeling really excited and nervous about the tour because North Korea had been in the world media a lot and tensions between South and North had increased. The tour was split in to four sections:

The third tunnel – The 3rd tunnel is a tunnel 52km from Seoul that was built by North Korea and discovered on October 17, 1978. Other similar tunnels have been found along the border. Approximately 10,000 soldiers can move through this tunnel in 1 hour. When the tunnel was discovered, North Koreans insisted that it was made by South Koreans to invade North Korea! It was really cold and damp as we walked in to the tunnel. After maybe 100m it was sealed off, but we could feel how claustrophobic the space was. We had laughed about wearing construction helmets to go in but most of us banged our heads at least once!

We totally think we're in a band.

We totally think we’re in a band.

Mt. Dora Observation platform – This is close to the 3rd tunnel. Tour groups all hustled around telescopes to get a glimpse of the North Korean propaganda village and Gaesong business complex. It felt strange looking through the eye of the telescope and seeing this place that is so alien to South Korea yet so close.

Dorasan Station – Located 30 meters from the South Korean boundary fence, Dora Mountain Train Station is the northernmost train station in South Korea. Obviously, apart from coach tours the station doesn’t deal with too many arrivals. We bought a ticket to go on to the platform and had our photos taken underneath the sign and with the solitary South Korean soldier on guard there.photo(2) photo(1)

JSA (Joint Security Area) – This was the highlight of the tour and is the most famous part of the DMZ. The Joint Security Area is the only area where the North and South Korean military stand face to face and was the most nervewrecking part of the tour. Before entering the JSA we were given a presentation by the US army, there they warned us not to wave or point or use sudden movements when we got to the main area. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife as we walked out on to the steps in front of the borderline. Because tensions were high at that time we weren’t allowed to go in to the bunker which sat across the borderline, but were able to take pictures.

Tense times

Tense times

What you lookin at?

What you lookin at?

On the steps on the North Korean side of the border there was a soldier stood looking at us through binoculars which was really intimidating. At one point someone in our group made a sudden arm movement and some soldiers came over and warned them to stop! Finally something happened that helped to ease the tension. Bizarrely, a bright yellow steam roller began driving forwards and backwards across the top of the steps on the North Korean side, which was pretty funny!

A nice sunny yellow steam roller came along to lighten the mood.

A nice sunny yellow steam roller came along to lighten the mood.

After this we were taken on the coach to another viewing platform where we could see the North Korean propaganda village more clearly. Most of the tower blocks looked like shells and there are never lights at night, apparently not unusual in NK but our tour guide told us that they don’t think it’s properly inhabited. People do work on the farms there though, we could see people in the fields and even someone cycling along the road!

We got a glimpse of the peace/propaganda village in to North Korea.

We got a glimpse of the peace/propaganda village in to North Korea.

Once the DMZ tour was over the coach took us back to central Seoul and we went to the Bauhaus dog café in Hapjeong. Dog cafes are a very unique part of Korean culture. You arrive, buy a drink and some dog treats and then pet LOADS of dogs! We had a beer there and played with the dogs for a little while before going back to our motel to change and get ready for the evening’s festivities.

Mans best friend, as long as you're feeding them treats.

Man’s best friend, as long as you’re feeding them treats.

This is one of the funniest things I've ever seen! I think he looks like an old man!

This is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen! I think he looks like an old man!

Av’in it large in Hongdae

It decided to start torrential raining just as we left our motel to meet Claire and our other friends Keir and Emily (who were in Seoul for a gig) for dinner. We were also meeting Seulgi and Julia, Becky’s Korean friends who had homestayed with her parents. After dinner we went to a macheolli bar, drank lots of rice wine and then walked around for ages until we found another bar. After a while Keir, Emily and Claire went back to their hostels but the rest of us stayed out. The next stop was a luxury noraebang where we made boozy slushes with soju in them. After that we were pretty pissed and in the mood for silly dancing so went to a club called I love KPOP and got even more drunk, danced around like crazy and had a great time! Not sure I would ever be able to find it again thought which is a shame!

Started out fairly civilised

Started out fairly civilised

Then started getting a littttllleee biiittt drrrunnkk

Then started getting a littttllleee biiittt drrrunnkk

and ended up like this!

and ended up like this!

When we left the club it was daybreak and in true Korean style we went to a 24 hour Gamjatang restaurant and ate delicious pork spine soup before returning to our motel for about 4 hours sleep.

We had to check out of the motel at midday and although feeling pretty rough and tired we managed to get back to Hongdae to look around, get some funny photos taken and eat before saying our farewells to Becky and Scott. They still had four days of travelling around but we wouldn’t be seeing them again. I’d not thought about this fact until the last minute and as they sped away in their taxi I felt really sad. We had the BEST time with them visiting! I hope that when we’re teaching in South East Asia we can do it all over again!

Thanks again for some of the pics guys!

Becky and Scott do Korea – Part 1 Daegu and Busan

I’m really sorry for the super lateness of this post and my general lack of posting. I’ve been so busy with volunteering, extra-curricular opportunities and fostering ANOTHER beagle (but more about that later!), I’ve not had any time to write on here. At last the first semester is over and I have no classes to keep me occupied so here goes.

In May my friends Becky and Scott flew in to Korea for two weeks of sightseeing and yummy food shaped fun with us and our friends.

After a mammoth flight and a four hour train journey a very tired Scott and Becky arrived in Daegu. I met them at the train station and escorted them back to my flat which would be their base for a few days. That evening Scott, Becky, Ash and I met up for the first of what would be many Korean barbecues. It was, of course, a hit!

Friday night fun in Daegu

We were at school on Friday and Becky and Scott needed their rest so in the evening we went out with some friends for food. However, after facing an extremely busy restaurant we decided to wait for a while in a bar in the same block on the top floor and got stuck in the lift for 30 minutes! It was quite distressing towards the end, with friends passing a straw through for us to drink water, but we were finally freed and given a free drink each and some complimentary snacks by the bar! Fortunately we managed to get seats in our desired restaurant, then went to Gogo Bar to drink lots of lethal cocktails in a bag, sang our hearts out at Noraebang and went home about 2am after a kebab! These pictures speak for themselves (and our state).ImageImageImageImageImageImage

Hungover in Busan

We were supposed to get a 7:30am train to Busan on the Saturday morning, but were all feeling very delicate from the night before so rearranged our tickets for a more reasonable 10am.  We headed straight to Haeundae beach. It was roasting so we walked in the freezing surf before deciding that we needed hair of the dog and sat nursing a beer. We waited for our friend Claire who was coming to meet us, then went to a traditional restaurant in the market behind the beach for a huge and very tasty, huge and reasonably priced lunch.Haeundae beachHaeundae markettasty lunch in Haeundae market

We spent the afternoon taking a wander up Dalmaji Hill which sits above Haeundae beach and offers amazing views of the coast, with giant sky scrapers jutting out into the sea. It’s a nice easy stroll and the road actually leads around to another quieter beach which would be a nice hike.

aeundae from Dalmaji Hill. You can even see the awesome Gwangalli bridge in the distance

Haeundae beach from Dalmaji Hill. You can even see the awesome Gwangalli bridge in the distance

In the evening we caught the subway over to Gwangalli beach to see the famous Gwangalli bridge, eat and stay in a jimjilbang close by called Gwangan Haesu World so that Scott, Becky and Claire could have their first overnight Korean jimjilbang experience!

Everyone was totally exhausted by this point and ready for bed but first we had to use the gender separated public baths. It’s always a strange experience being naked in front of friends (and lots of Koreans) for the first time but Becky took it in her stride! Unfortunately the sleeping area was SOOOOOO HOT and stuffy we didn’t manage to get a great night’s sleep, although we did realise in the morning that it had a gorgeous view of the bridge.

A Sunday packed to the seams

We had lots planned on Sunday and our first stop was a small very retro fairground close by, where the rides overlooked the sea. It was very old-school but a nice experience.

Afterwards we caught a a taxi to Yongugsa temple, which is near to Songjeong beach about 30 minutes away. This temple is unique in Korea because  usually they are found in the mountains, but Yongungsa (the water temple) sits on the rocks next to the ocean. It was really busy but very scenic and pretty, even more so because there were hundreds (if not thousands) of brightly coloured lanterns hung around in preparation for Buddha’s birthday the following week. Yongugsa temple gorgeous lanterns ready for Buddha's birthday More lovely lanterns People praying at Yongugsa temple

Ash had to leave early to collect Betty from her pet sitter’s and Claire was going to join him, however the traffic coming back from the temple was total gridlock. They had to hop off our bus and race for the subway, but still missed their train!

Becky, Scott and I had decided to stay a little longer to visit Jagalchi fish market and Nampo Dong international market. We spent an extra couple of hours feeling sorry for the poor fish in the market but happy that a place like this was thriving, then wandering around the many tiny congested alleys of the market before catching a train back to Daegu. We were totally shattered but satisfied after an action-packed weekend.

The following week we went to Seoul! I’ll try to get a post about that up in the next couple of days. Thanks to Becky and Scott for letting me nab their pictures!

Jagalchi fish market, Busan Jagalchi fish market, Busan Street noodle stalls in Nampo Dong, Busan

Spring is here! Cherry Blossom pictures

Finally the bitterly cold Korean winter has come to an end! Luckily it was mostly sunny when it wasnt snowing (which is better than UK winter), but it wasn’t half blooming cold! So I was as happy as everyone else in Korea when the first blossoms started appearing on the trees.

The cherry blossom season only lasts for two weeks in Korea. I didn’t realise this last year and so missed lots of opportunities to get out and enjoy it. This year though, I was ready and waiting for the blossoms to bloom, with IPhone in hand of course. Korean people love cherry blossom season too and there are festivals all over the country celebrating it. Unfortunately because we’re fostering Betty we couldn’t travel too far, so made do with Duryu Park which is really near to our house and is our regular walking route for Betty.

Here are some pictures I took:ImageImageImageImageImageImageImage