Korean Thanksgiving and Our Second Trip to Sokcho

We are just finishing up our much appreciated five-day weekend for Chuseok aka Korean Thanksgiving. Chuseok is a holiday where families gather together, eat good food, honor their ancestors, and give thanks for the plentiful harvest. Gifts are exchanged on this holiday and the grocery stores are stocked with large gift set boxes of whatever you can imagine. One teacher recieved a gift set of shampoo. Eight bottles of shampoo is more of burden to me than a gift, but I’m guessing the idea is that you can share with friends. A very popular gift set is the spam and oil set. Yum. In case you don’t believe me I have some photographic evidence.

On Friday we celebrated the holiday with our kindergarten students by learning how to make songpyeon. Songpyeon is a glutinous rice cake dough filled with various pastes and in my previous experience has been rather bland. It’s not something I would say I love or will miss. The songpyeon I made with my students though was sweet and quite delicious.

My four cute little four-year-old kindergarten students dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean clothes), my Korean helper teacher, and I sat around in a circle in the library with the rest of the school to make songpyeon. First we pounded the balls of rice cake into little pancakes and filled them with balls of sesame paste. We then folded the pancakes, pinched them closed and lightly coated them with sesame oil. My Korean helper teacher made sure the students and I tasted plenty of the songpyeon by hand feeding us the bite-sized pieces.

Making songpyeon was the extent of our traditional Chuseok festivities. Ever since my birthday trip in June, Dave and I had been planning to go back to Sokcho during Chuseok. We didn’t feel satisfied with our June visit because we experienced a torrential downpour the entire time we were there forcing us to leave early. The weather was supposed to be better in September, so we planned a trip for Chuseok. Unfortunately the weather was disagreeable yet again, but this time we could at least see the horizon.

The weather forecast for the rest of the weekend wasn’t promising, so we decided to leave the hostel bright and early on Saturday morning for Seoraksan to get a little hiking in. It started raining while we were on the bus, which brought my spirits down a little. Once we started hiking into the park the rain stopped and started up again on our way down the mountain. We hiked to the main attraction this time and found the climax of the hike very disappointing. We basically hiked into a big cloud filled with wind. No stunning views. We couldn’t even see the rocks that were a few feet away from the viewpoint. Very disappointing and to be honest I started to feel a bit grumpy. Why were we doing this in crappy weather again?!

It was raining again on Sunday, but we didn’t let it stop us from seeing the rest of Sokcho. We walked around the port and watched the turbulent waves crash into the rocks for a while before grabbing some dalk galbi. After we refueled, we took the bus to visit Naksansa, a seaside temple. The bus dropped off across from an Insectarium which cost a buck to visit. Of course, we had to check it out. There were a few live specimens, including some crazy aquatic bugs that looked like speedy mini turtles, and there were some disappointing cases that housed plastic displays. The insectarium turned out to be a pleasant surprise detour.

The weather was still crappy and it was starting to crush our spirits a bit. It was really starting to feel like the weather gods were trying to punish us. Naksansa temple turned out to be one of those amazing places that is enjoyable to visit despite poor weather conditions. There was a significant amount of area to cover and each building or viewpoint was better than the last. It was bigger and more stunning than Haedong Yonggungsa (the seaside temple in Busan). Sure Haedong Yonggungsa has a great seaside shot, but Naksansa has lots of nooks and crannies to visit. I’m certainly not an expert on Korean temple architecture and painting styles, but I noticed a bit of a difference in the style at Naksansa compared to other temples we’ve visited. Doorways were more interesting and there were little accents in the painting style that set itself apart from other places we’ve seen.

We were scheduled to leave the next day and of course with our luck it wasn’t raining. Go figure! It was still cloudy, which was comforting because had the sun been out we would have been cursing the sky for bringing out the good weather on the day we were leaving. The upside to all the rain was that it deterred large crowds from hiking and visiting the temple which made for a much more comfortable atmosphere.

Our bus ride back to Seoul took an hour longer than expected and included a very long detour through the backcountry. I think we were trying to avoid traffic, but there’s no way to know. On our way home on the subway we sat and watched families carrying their large rectangular bags filled with gift sets of Spam, oranges, shampoo, etc. and I couldn’t help but get that holiday feeling you start to get around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

It was a bit of a let down to realize that none of our big holidays are happening any time soon. I wanted to go home, cook a turkey in our non-existent oven and open presents. Thanksgiving will be spent in Nepal this year eating dal bhat and ramen in the mountains. Christmas and Hanukkah might be celebrated in India and New Years in Thailand. It will certianly be an adventure, but holidays abroad tend not to feel like they’re supposed to. I’m looking forward to the holiday season in 2012 when we can see the decorations go up, get sick of Christmas music, and eat way too much delicious food. Oh the holidays.


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