Lotus Lantern Festival 2012

According to Buddhist tradition, lighting a lotus lantern represents a devotion to performing good deeds and lighting up the dark parts of the world that are filled with agony.

Lanterns outside Jogye-sa Temple, Seoul

Every year hundreds of people take to the streets of Seoul dancing, singing, and carrying lanterns in celebration of Buddha’s birthday. This annual Lotus Lantern Festival took place on May 19th this year.

Lanterns at Jogye-sa Temple

The procession starts at Dongdaemun Gate in the north of Seoul and proceeds through the streets of Insadong before finishing at Jogye-sa Temple.

A coloured lantern is lit for a living person, and a white lantern is for someone who has passed away.

Dragon lantern

White lanterns

Jogye-sa Temple

Roses at Jogye-sa Temple

Incense burning

Putting the finishing touches to a lantern

Bosingak Belfry

Lotus Lantern Festival

Lotus Lantern Festival 2012

Lotus Lantern Festival 2012

번데기 – Silkworm pupae


Continuing my Korean culinary bucket list, today I tried 번데기 (beondegi), also known as steamed silkworm pupae. I have to be honest and admit that I don’t know what possessed me to try them, there wasn’t even alcohol involved. The stench alone, usually detectable from half a mile away, has made me retch in the past. All I can say is, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We tried them in Insadong, from a street vendor. I’d heard that they taste like peanuts, but if that’s true then I’ve clearly been eating the wrong peanuts. There is one word, and one word alone to describe 번데기, and that is ‘nasty’. They tasted like they smelled; musty, fleshy and like burned nail clippings. Quite possibly how you’d imagine bugs boiled in their own juices to smell.

Having bit down on it it popped with a squelchy crunch, which can only have been the softened shell. The out-pour of insect guts was enough to have me reaching for the bottle of water that I’d bought from Starbucks in anticipation.

Another thing off the list, but I can safely say never again.

Insadong 인사동

Insadong 인사동 is a neighbourhood in the Jongo-gu district of Seoul. It is one of my favourite places in Seoul and sometimes there is nothing better than a lazy afternoon browsing and people watching over a mug of plum tea in Insadong.

Two old men whiling away the time between customers

Insadong originated as a residential area for government officials around 500 years ago, during the early period of the Joseon dynasty. However, during the Japanese occupation many wealthy residents had to move and sell their precious belongings, causing it to become a popular place for trading antiques.

A more unusual find!

During the Joseon dynasty Confucian scholars used to buy their paper, ink and brushes from Insadong and many of the old shops are still standing and still selling these things.

A shop selling hand-made paintbrushes and pressed paper

Once the largest market for antiques and artworks in Korea, it has now become a hotspot for tourists and ex-pats. A mishmash of shops, stalls and street vendors, it is possible to find some real gems in Insadong but you may have to wade through a fair amount of tat first.

A traditional teahouse

Insadong is especially well known for its traditional stationery, porcelain, pottery, hand pressed paper, and antiques. Many stores also specialise in jewellery boxes, mirrors and furniture decorated with mother-of-pearl inlaying.

Delicious plum tea

The area is also famous for it’s teahouses. There are dozens of teashops on the main street, but if you branch off and explore the backstreets that’s where you’ll find the real traditional Korean restaurants and teahouses. You can sample almost every flavour of tea imaginable but a personal favourite is plum tea, yum yum.

A street vendor selling Buddhist trinkets

The main street, Insadong-gil, is a true blend of old and new. Elderly men sell hand-carved Buddhas outside video arcades, and the oldest bookstores and teahouses in Seoul sit alongside candy-coloured cosmetic shops.

More paintbrushes

After the Korean war, Insadong became a haven for artists and even today the area remains a place for art lovers. There are over 100 art galleries in the neighbourhood, displaying everything from traditional fine art to quirky modern sculptures.

A street vendor selling hand-carved wooden items

One of the best places to browse and shop in Insadong is Ssamziegil. It is a five-storey shopping centre and the name comes from the slightly slanted paths which creates a kind of spiral. Built in 2004, Ssamziegil is home to several small galleries, workshops, and dozens of stores selling jewellery, tea and hanbok among many other things.

Ssamziegil shopping area

Insadong is a truely unique place and no trip to Seoul would be complete without a visit here.

Graffiti at Ssamziegil