Blog

A Day at Donghwasa

You can’t visit any country in Asia without going to at least one temple. In my case, many. I’m a fan. I love seeing the architecture, history, and customs. During a recent trip to Daegu, South Korea I had the chance to visit Donghwasa, and it was truly AWESOME!

Donghwasa is situated on the south side of Mt. Palgongsan, about 20 kilometers (an hour-long bus ride) from downtown Daegu. It’s surrounded by trees, hills, and a few parks and recreation areas. It’s hard to believe all this nature and serenity is just a few miles away from the crowds and lights of downtown Daegu.

17438096_1800822720244580_8458945824708100096_n

The temple grounds are pretty big. Monks live and work there, and Donghwasa also offers Temple Stay, where visitors can really experience Buddhist life and learn more about the Korean Buddhist culture by staying at the temple and interacting with the monks (for reservations and details check out  donghwasa.templestay.com – unfortunately the site is only in Korean). Things are pretty spread out. The temple itself is about a seven-minute walk from the property’s entrance gate. And there are hiking paths inside the grounds, which I think is pretty cool.

Colorful lanterns hang from cables in the temple courtyard and line the paths to other sections of the premises that are open to visitors. During my visit, I really wanted to see the big standing Buddha statue. There’s just something about Buddha statues that fascinate me and bring me peace. So I followed the trail of lanterns for about ten-ish minutes until I found it.

62950FAD-8901-4BF0-89C6-C34B29BE0F24

The Buddha stands about a hundred feet tall. He’s Yakasayore-bul, the Buddha of medicine, and he’s magnificent. When I walked up, visitors gathered at his feet. They lit incense and got on their knees to pray to him. It feels very personal, almost intrusive, to hear someone’s prayers. But also, it feels uplifting to see people completely give into their faith.

D0F801B3-EB2C-4334-B306-5B233C164672

The statue is surrounded by a semi-circle of guardians and other Buddhas carved into a stone building. You can go inside it and visit the underground meditation center. There’s also a temple directly in front of Yakasayore-bul that you can check out.

There are a variety of other historic buildings on the grounds that you can visit. I wasn’t part of a tour group when I visited, and I was unable to locate any brochures in English. I  don’t know the purpose or use of the buildings, but they were very interesting. The detail in and on all the buildings is stunning.

01EB738B-3CC0-4A75-BBC7-6F5ED70B58D7 2

This is by far one of my favorite temples. And I absolutely recommend it to anyone who is going to be in Daegu for a few days. It’s worth the trip. Just make sure you wear comfortable shoes.

Adult admission to the temple will cost you 2,500 won ($2.25). The temple has a small drink and snack stand, but no restaurant. There are a few restaurants between the bus stop and the temple. There are also several restaurants a few kilometers down the road the opposite way from the temple.

To get there:

Take the Number 1 bus from the Daegu City Center Square (it’s the park across the street from the Novotel Hotel. You buy your ticket on the bus (cash only); it’s only 1500 won ($1.35). You can also catch this bus from Dondaegu station, but the stop for the bus a little harder to find because there are several buses that leave from there. From the City Center Square, the bus ride is about an hour long, give or take about 10 minutes based on traffic. The stop to get off at is called Donghwasa, and the bus does display the upcoming stops in both Hangeul and English.  You can get back downtown the exact same way. The stop is across the street from where you get off at Donghwas. You can take a cab if you prefer, it’s faster but more expensive. Just keep in mind that finding a taxi to take you back to Daegu may be a little challenging; sometimes they aren’t available and you have to wait.

You can take a cab if you prefer, it’s faster but more expensive. Just keep in mind that finding a taxi to take you back to Daegu may be a little challenging; sometimes they aren’t available and you have to wait.

Advertisements

A Forest in the Clouds

 

Wouldn’t it be wondrous to explore a forest in the clouds? Well, you can. Sort of. Cloud forests exist in humid tropical and sub-tropical areas that have persistent low-level clouds. There are only a few places in the world where you can experience them. In Singapore, the Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay is inside a glass dome. They’ve created an environment that mirrors what you would encounter if you were high in the mountains of the tropics, in the middle of the city.

 

As soon as you walk through the doors, the cold air and heavy mist make you feel like you’ve been transported to a different part of the Earth. Right in front of you, a mountain and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall (man-made, of course). It’s green and cold and beautiful. Inside the dome, you’ll find a huge variety of plant-life. Flowers and greenery line the path to the elevator that takes you to the top of the mountain. The line was a little long, and the dome a little crowded, which made getting a closer look at some things difficult (patience is key).

IMG_1706

At the top of the mountain, there’s a stunning garden that reminded me of the movie Fern Gully (minus the fairy). It’s covered with flowers and moss, with a pond in the center. This is a very popular photo spot, so you’ll have to fight your way to edge for a picture if you want one. From there, you’ll begin your descent to the bottom through these incredible skyways that circle outside the mountain. The views are marvelous. Not only do you get to see the beauty of the plant-life on the sides of the mountain, but you get a complete view of the city through the dome’s glass. Pictures don’t do it justice. And even on a cloudy day, it’s breathtaking.

IMG_1718

Inside the middle of the mountain, there’s a smallish mineral cave that displays a number of crystal formations. There’s also a video that shows how climate change and an increase in temperature could affect cloud forests and similar environments in the future.

IMG_1719

Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay was a very fun place to visit. If you like nature and gardens, you won’t regret going. Adult tickets will cost you $28 (Singaporean dollars). Totally worth it!

Sea of Fire

If you’ve ever been to a festival in Japan, you know they’re different from festivals in other parts of the world. The Japanese host festivals to celebrate religion, dance, snow, fertility, food and so much more. I’ve been to many, and just the other day I experienced a fire festival for the very first time.

IMG_0543

Every year, to celebrate the end of Mount Fuji’s climbing season, the city of Fujiyoshida throws a fire festival. This festival, called Yoshida no Himatsuri, happens on August 26th and 27th. The story behind this celebration stems from Japanese mythology and the tale of Konohana-Sakuya Hime, blossom-princess and goddess of Mount Fuji. Legend has it that her deity husband accused her of cheating because she became pregnant too quickly. To prove her fidelity, she set her room on fire while giving birth. The goddess proclaimed that the child would not be hurt if it was truly his. She then gave birth to THREE bouncing baby boys. The flames of the festival are said to represent the fire Konohana-Sakuya Hime set to prove her innocence.

shrine

The goddess is revered at the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen shrine. For the first day of the festival, residents line a two-kilometer stretch of road from the shrine to the city center with more than 70 nine-foot torches. In the late afternoon, a portable shrine that contains the goddess’s soul, along with a shrine the replicates Mount Fuji, are carried from the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen to the Kamiyoshida Community Center. After the shrines reach the city, the torches are lit and the street becomes a sea of fire. It’s beautiful. And very hot.

octopusballs

Like all Japanese festivals, this one features an abundance of food booths. Just picture a mile-long stretch of road lined with stall after stall of tasty edibles, from traditional yakisoba (Japanese fried noodles) to Turkish kebabs. Food is one of my favorite things, and in my opinion, the best part of any festival. The options at this one did NOT disappoint. Everything I tasted was incredible. The Brazilian pastel de carne was crispy and savory and delicious. The beef skewers were juicy and well seasoned. But my absolute favorite was the takoyaki (octopus balls). I’m particular about this dish because not all takoyaki is created equal. Some can be soggy and octopus-lite. But the ones from the stand I chose… heavenly! He used fresh octopus and did not overcompensate with too many fish flakes. The frozen strawberry concoction I ordered was also a highlight.

IMG_0564

Food is not the only cool thing about this festival. There are also a few carnival games along the street and little square with entertainment.  I really enjoyed watching the taiko drummers. The ones who played when I went were particularly fun to watch because so many of them were kids. Seeing little humans bang on those big drums with such enthusiasm is fun.

While my friends and I had a great time at this festival, we did learn a few things. First, don’t get there too early.  Unless you want to walk all the way up to the shrine and walk back as they bring it in, you don’t need to get there earlier than 4 pm (1600). Even 5 pm (1700) is early enough. We wanted to see the shrine get carried into the community center, and that didn’t happen until about 6:20 pm (1820). We got there at about 2:30 pm (1430) and felt like it was way too early (unless you want to check out other sites in Fujiyoshida).  The festival doesn’t really start until after the shrine is carried in. Second, the community center is about halfway between the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen shrine and the Torii gate, which is actually where the festival ends. If you wait by the Torii gate, you will not see the portable shrine get carried through the city. And third, you can park for free (something incredibly rare in Japan) at the pachinko parlor parking lot, just make you access it before the main road closes, or from the tiny side streets in the back.

Venice in Japan?

 

For quite a while now, I’ve heard people talk about Hakone–a “small” town near Mt. Fuji, Japan.  I put small in quotation marks because I thought a weekend was enough time to check it out… and it wasn’t.  But during my time there, I accidentally found a really fun way to spend an afternoon.  We stumbled upon it trying to use the parking lot as a turnaround point but decided to go in and see what it was all about after one taking one look at the stunning crystal tree out front.

18879660_423835024664781_5823170080720027648_n

The Hakone Venetian Glass Museum and Forest is scenic and whimsical.  I wasn’t sure what expect initially.  But the museum has a beautiful collection of ancient and modern Venetian glass.  If you’re interested in learning about the history of Venetian glass, this is a great place for that.  If you just like looking at pretty things, this checks that box as well. If the art doesn’t appeal to you though, this place offers more than that.

18812412_837962369713740_8066284783337996288_n

The grounds of the museum are exceptionally well-kept and include a cafe, restaurant, shops and gelato stand.  I had the blood orange gelato and it was AMAZING!!! And very comparable to the gelato in Italy.  The museum also includes a walking path through the forest that’s decorated with glass sculptures.  The day we went, there was a lively and talented Italian opera singer that serenaded visitors.  He sang a variety of songs from serious and romantic to light and cheerful.  It really added to the experience.

18812753_1417536181641412_5502295187159777280_n.jpg

Dry weather is ideal.  The best parts of this hidden gem are outside.  The garden is lovely.  The hydrangeas were in bloom during my visit, which made it all the more beautiful.  And all the crystals really make it sparkle.  Overall, it was a really pleasant way to spend a few hours.  This place felt like a little piece of Italy in the middle of Japan.

 

Taiwan: Five in Days Paradise

When you look up the word paradise, images of palm trees, beaches and waterfalls populate your page. For many, that is the epitome of paradise. And it is for me too… kind of. But really, my paradise lives in the undiscovered. Experiencing new things, meeting new people, and seeing new places.

So far, I’ve been lucky. I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve seen so many awe-inspiring places, met plenty of fun and friendly people and eaten plateful after plateful of exotic (at least to me) foods. One of the places I’ve enjoyed the most is Taipei.

Taipei 101.jpgIt’s the kind of place that has something for everyone. If you like shopping, history, the arts, culture, nightlife, food or the great outdoors, you can find it in Taipei.  And its easy-to-navigate public transportation system makes it easy, and cheap, to see and do it all.

IMG_5356

We stayed at City Suites Taipei Nandong, which is in the Songshan district. The hotel was great! The rooms were spacious, modern and clean. The staff was friendly, the price was reasonable, especially with breakfast included, and the location was quiet. But aside from a night market a few blocks away, there weren’t very many attractions nearby. The metro station wasn’t far though, and it didn’t take long to get from one place to another. Cabs are fairly cheap too.

IMG_5073

We only had five days to get in as much of Taipei as we could, and there’s so much to see and do, so sleep was on the backburner for the week. As usual, my first priority was food—spicy beef noodles in particular. After a little research, I set my sights on Yong Kang. We arrived to find a line half a block long of locals and foreigners alike waiting to get their serving of noodles. I was certain this meal would be legendary, and it did not disappoint. The noodles were spicy and flavorful, the beef tender and well-seasoned and the side dishes… well, there are no words.  It only took one meal to know that Taipei would be everything I hoped for and more.

IMG_5077

After dinner, we went for dessert and city views at Taipei 101—the tallest building in the city. Seeing how big Taipei is from up high inspired me to set a rough itinerary of how to spend the remaining four days. I’m the wing-it type, so I didn’t have anything planned. I like to do things based on my mood, and I hate rushing. But time was limited.

We spent the remaining time visiting parks, hiking hills, and mountains, checking out monuments and museums, exploring nearby cities, feasting on street foods, navigating through night markets and frequenting temples and art galleries. It was incredible. Taipei is clean and vibrant. The people are kind and warm. The food is unique and gratifying. And the fact that nearly everyone speaks or understands enough English to assist in getting around, made the experience that much better.

jiufen2

My favorite part of the trip was our excursion to Jiufen, an old mountain town about an hour from Taipei. We got there by bus and explored the area on foot. If you’re like me and like to walk everywhere, wear REALLY comfortable shoes. This isn’t a great place for those who struggle with stairs and hills; there are lots of both. This little city is totally a tourist attraction, but still very cool. Jiufen’s little alleys are crowded with tea houses, food stands, and gift shops. I devoured one of the tastiest cakes I’ve ever had and an amazing passion fruit drink that I will never forget. The views from the town are stunning. The temples, old theater, and gold-mine museum were fun to explore. But my favorite part of this day trip was going to Golden Waterfall and Ying-Yang Sea. The walk was long but worth it (you can cab it there if you’re not up for the walk). They are both just beautiful.

chifen

Shifen Old Street in Xinbei is another fun little place if you want to see more of Taiwan than just Taipei. It’s also very much a tourist spot, but creating and launching your own paper lantern is a great experience. I tried the traditional Taiwanese ice cream roll there. It was surprisingly good, cilantro and all. There isn’t quite as much to do here as Jiufen, but it’s very picturesque and enjoyable.

I could go on and on about how phenomenal this trip was and city is. Take my word for it, it’s worth the visit… even if only for the food.

Hello. It’s me.

So after months of contemplating this, I’m doing it. Finally. I’ve been talking about starting a blog to share my adventures and travels around the world for what seems like forever, but could never figure out how to get started. It turns out, I just had to start writing. So here I am. Ready to show you the places I’ve been and tell you about my experiences, perspective, and lessons learned. I hope you enjoy it!