I was just part of a wonderful new years celebration with family in the US. We had a Great time together–movies; watched the ball drop, and saw Robby Kenevil’s crazy jump over an artificial volcano in Las Vegas (all on TV of course). Then it was time for bed around 2:00 a.m. The next day we had an awesome party with the other side of the family–good food, good company, and great games. However, this New Years has reminded me of how different my celebration was last year, when I was in Korea.
I remember one of the men at my church in Seoul explaining to me that we had an activity coming up. It turned out we were going to all meet (that is, those who were extremely dedicated) at around 5:30 a.m. on New Years Day at the start of Gwanak trail, leading up to Gwanak mountain, which overlooks the city of Seoul from the south. New Years Day! 5:30 in the morning!
I remember thinking: “who’s crazy idea was this? How am I going to stay up till 12:00 on New Years Eve, and then get up early enough to get ready and take a bus to the trail head? And why are we going hiking on a FREEZING winter morning?”
I considered not going. There were plenty of excuses I could think of. However, I really wanted to get to know people from my church better, and my curiosity concerning what this was all about got the best of me in the end.
On the last day of 2007, I went to bed early–a dramatic break with traditions of my past. I got up at around 4:00 a.m. got dressed in the warmest close possible, ate a quick breakfast, and took the bus. When I got to the trail head it was still pitch dark, but to my surprise, the place was bustling. The thought crossed my mind: “the people from my church aren’t the only ones that are crazy. What is going on?” I started to worry that I wouldn’t be able to find my group. After wandering a bit I saw a familiar face–a young man from my church. We teamed up and it wasn’t long before we found a larger group of our own, who were waiting for the rest. A few minutes wait, and we started up the trail, following groups of other people who were anxious and in a hurry to get up the mountainside. I think I just assumed they were cold and either wanted to get it over with, or needed to keep moving to keep from freezing.
Somewhere along the hike someone explained to me that some Koreans have a tradition of watching the sun rise on the first day of the year. Thus, instead of waiting up late, they wanted to get up early at the dawn of the new year, hike to the top of some mountain peak, and watch the day break.
Well, we didn’t end up making it to the top, but we found a clearing that pointed to the east. Then we waited on the cold hard stone for the sun. Luckily there was no breeze, but it was freezing still. While the sky was brighter by the minute, I realized it would take longer than I wanted to sit. I took a short walk to see a if I could get a different view, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. All the clearings in view were full of people (mostly ajumas and ajoshis in their classic mountain attire).
Only then did I realize that this wasn’t just the crazy idea of someone at my church, but a lot of Koreans have this as a tradition in their homes.
I got back to my group, and the sun finally did come up. We cheered as we saw it. I have to admit it felt exhilarating to be there, and I actually forgot how cold it was for a short time. After a short meeting with our group to say goodbye to the old year and set some goals for the new, we headed back down the mountain.
Since we got up so freeking early, the morning was still new, so we had a get together at the apartment of one of our church members. That too was fun, but I was starting to feel tired due to the earlier activities. Once I got back to my apartment, I kissed my wife and daughter who waited for me at home. A little later in the day we turned on the TV to see the partying that was just beginning in the West. We also made calls to family to wish them a happy new year.
Reflecting back on the experience, I think I would do it again, and I actually hope I get the chance sometime in the future. It was a break with my traditions that was both exciting and pleasant. I know, the fact that I think that way is sick and wrong to some of you. However, if you are ever bored with the same old routine every New Years, try it. Provided there will be a sunrise (check the weather ahead, and don’t go alone) it can make for a very memorable and fun experience. In the US you are likely to have plenty of space on any mountain or hill that you choose to visit (unlike the pictures above), as most people will be sound asleep. Happy future celebrations.