Hanging out with meerkats in Seoul

Hanging out with meerkats in Seoul

On my recent trip to Seoul, we noticed the sudden proliferation of “pet” cafés. Even when we were strolling through the shopping district of Myeong-dong, we noticed cat mascots advertising the cafés.

Now, in Seoul, you can find not only cat and dog cafés, but ones with sheep, raccoons, and more exotic fare . . . such as meerkats. Well, that’s the one we really wanted to visit, so one drippy morning, we set out for the Hondae area.

In my imagination, the sheep café was a place where you sipped coffee and pet wooly lambs as they wandered around. As it turned out, the sheep were kept in an enclosure outside of the cafe. In other words, it was like a petting zoo. Better for the sheep, of course, and probably the customers, but there went my pastoral imaginings!

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We knew the café didn’t open until noon, so arrived just about that time. However, the one thing we didn’t realize is that you can’t actually interact with any of the animals until about 1pm because the staff take the first or so to feed all the animals.

This wasn’t a complete loss, because as any pet owner knows, animals are most active when they know their tea is coming. We enjoyed watching the meerkats scramble around, campaigning for their breakfast, and then eating once their kibble was sprinkled into their pen.

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There are many other animals at this particular café as well: cats, foxes, genets (a slender, sort of cat-like animal), a raccoon (for some reason, tailless), and a wallaby. Most of the animals were in pens or enclosures, though the wallaby was hopping around the entire time and we were allowed to hand-feed it.

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Eventually, we were allowed to enter the meerkat enclosure. There were a lot of (understandably) rules for this. We had to empty our pockets of all items—food, coins, anything that might cause grief to the meerkats.

Then, it was just a matter of going inside the enclosure, sitting down and let the meerkats come introduce themselves!

Myself, Marcie, and our friend author Stacey Matson were the first ones allowed in for the day, along with two other visitors. The meerkats swarmed us! So much so, in fact, that Marcie only lasted a few minutes before asking to leave. The meerkats were scrambling up the backside of her dress and some were tugging at her diabetes pump, so she figured it better to get out.

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Eventually, the meerkats settled down and even began to nap on some our laps. Stacey, in particular, had one meerkat go completely comatose on her lap!

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As for me, I turned out to be a meerkat lookout point!

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By the way, can you see the sweat dripping off my forehead? It’s not from nerves of dealing with meerkat’s—that’s just Seoul’s famous humidity!

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Raccoon dogs and romantic vistas at the Palace of Prospering Virtue

Raccoon dogs and romantic vistas at the Palace of Prospering Virtue

One of my favorite experiences on my recent trip to Korea was a visit to Changdeokgung, otherwise known as the Palace of Prospering Virtue. Changdeok is one of the five grand palaces in Korea, the others being Gyeongbokgung, Deoksugung, Changguyunggung, and Gyeonghuigung.

I had actually been to Changdeokgung many years ago, but that was a rain-plagued visit, so I was looking forward to a more thorough visit.

If you’re looking for big and expansive, then I highly recommend heading up the road to Gyeongbokgung. However, in my opinion, what Changdeokgung offers is a more intimate and romantic experience. The fee is only 3,000 won (less than three US dollars).

Some history

Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Changdeokgung was originally built in the 1400s by King Taejong, during the Joseon dynasty. It was the site where rulers and ministers hammered out affairs of state, and where the royal family lived. Changdeokgung was burnt down, like all palaces in Seoul, during the Japanese invasion of 1592, but was rebuilt in the 1600s.

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Go early!

Changdeokgung features a “secret garden” tour, so we booked spots for the first English version tour of the day, which was around 10:30 am. We arrived in advance of that to do some exploring of the rest of the grounds and that was definitely the right decision; there were hardly any visitors at the palace, which gave us beautiful views, uninterrupted by the hordes of people you usually find at tourist sites.

Take water

You’ll know this anyway if you visit Korea in the summer, but definitely make sure you buy a bottle (or two) from the onsite store before you embark on the Secret Garden tour. You’ll need it!

An impressive main gate

This is Donhwamun Gate, the main palace gate. It’s a two-story structure and is the largest of all palace gates in Korea. It once houses a giant bell and drum. The gate was destroyed in the 16th-century Japanese invasion.

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Below, are pictures of the main courtyard and Injeongjeon, the main hall. As I mentioned above, the courtyard was mostly empty and we were treated to one of those awe-inspiring moments where you can slip into your imagination and wonder what it might have been like to tread these stones in a bygone era.

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You can also get photo-bombed by your own wife!

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So many doorways

As my friends and students know, I love doors and details—and there’s no shortage of them to be found at Changdeokgung.

An ornate access panel to a chimney:

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Decorate roof tile:

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I loved coming across doorway views like this during my maundering:

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Traditional (and weathered) door:

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Happy tiger sculpture:

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The traditional Korean buildings were heated from underneath. This opening shows where servants would have placed fuel below the floor, accessed from the outside of the quarters:

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I adored the many shapes, patterns, and colors that could be found as we explored the labyrinthian network of buildings:

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I never tire of the swooping rooflines you see at the Korean palaces:

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Doorway with sign written in traditional Chinese characters above (can you see the sweat dripping off of me?):

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Another doorway:

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Stunning detail and color on the roof beams:

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Window shutters:

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Magnificent doorways:

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Not that secret garden

After exploring the main grounds, we headed to the starting point of our tour of the Secret Garden. Obviously, it is a very evocative name, reminiscent of the famous children’s book, but the true explanation of why the garden has that name is far less magical. As our tour guide explained, the name in Korean is “Biwon” and comes from the office of the same name that existed in the 1800s.

The garden has actually had many names, but during the Joseon period, was mostly called “Huwon.” The garden was originally developed for use by the royal family. It offers stunning views, featuring a lotus pond, pavilions, and meandering pathways.

The Lotus Pond

The first place we arrived at on the tour was the gorgeous Lotus Pond. You can see the gate on the far side of the pond. The main doorway is for the king; the two flanking it are for his ministers. These doors are lower, forcing the ministers to crouch (bow) as they enter, emphasizing their servitude to the king.

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I loved this face peering over the water. The last time I visited the garden, water was streaming out of its mouth.

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Raccoon Dog

While I was off taking photos of the pond, my friend Stacey was at the other end and got to see an animal I’ve never heard of: a raccoon dog. Here’s her photo:

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The tour guide told her that the animal is “not cute” and that she preferred cats. She also warned Stacey to keep her distance; the raccoon dog is wild and could have rabies. It seems to resemble a fox more than a dog, but gets its name from the distinctive mask.

Nature by design

The rest of the tour took us through different portions of the garden, though some areas were closed. Along the way, we were treated to many scenic views, all purposely designed.

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And I thought I was old

The tour ended with a stop by the Hyangnamu (aromatic) tree, which is believed to be over 700 years old. As you can see in the photo, it is propped up in places, but you certainly can’t blame it. Many visitors see different shapes and creatures in the curving branches of the tree, the most common being an elephant.

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As I mentioned off the top, Changdeokgung is well worth the visit. It may hover in the shadow of Gyeokbokgung, but you can easily see both palaces, as they are within walking distance of each other.

Inspiring young imaginations in Korea

Inspiring young imaginations in Korea

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I recently returned from Korea, where I taught a creative writing camp for kids and presented at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul.

creativewritingcontest_poster.jpgA contest to celebrate Canada150

The event at the embassy was an award ceremony for a creative writing competition that was held in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday. The contest was sponsored by The Korea Herald, Air Canada, the Seoul Metropolitan Government and CWC (the Creative Writing for Children Society of Vancouver, a company I co-founded in 2004).

Contest judged by Canadian authors

Over 200 students from elementary, middle, and high schools across Korea entered the contest and were reviewed and judged by three Canadian authors: myself, Stacey Matson, and Kallie George.

It was a great honour to be a judge and to read through all the diverse entries. The theme was a difficult one; in some way, the entrants had to incorporate the idea of “150.” It was quite entertaining to see how the kids wove this theme into their short stories!

A ceremony at the Canadian embassy

The award winners were announced on July 1 (Canada Day) and the ceremony was held on July 22nd at the Canadian embassy in Seoul. Joon Park, who is the CWC co-founder, Stacey Matson, Marcie Nestman, and I attended the ceremony on behalf of CWC. Unfortunately, Kallie George could not accompany us, but she was there in spirit.

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During the ceremony, we were privleged to meet the contestants and award them their prizes. There were 30 winners in various categories, with the top winner receiving a free round-trip ticket on Air Canada to travel to anywhere in Canada.

After the ceremony, Stacey and I held a Q&A session with the young writers. We were so impressed by their thoughtful and in-depth questions. I’m so proud of all the kids who entered and of their beautiful words that they dared to share.

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All contest winners will have their stories published in an anthology.

For more information, check out the article on The Korea Herald website.

About the Creative Writing for Children Society

CWC is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the creativity, confidence and writing capacity of children through tailored writing programs. In CWC’s programs, students are guided by professional authors, illustrators, editors, and actors to write and illustrate their own books, which are professionally desktop published. Founded in 2004, CWC is based in Vancouver, BC.

 

 

Exploring all the nooks and crannies

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Whew! Yesterday, I wrapped up my last school visit of the year. While I still have some camps and conferences coming up in the summer, I get a little break in my schedule.

It was one of my most hectic seasons in recent memory and, as I reflect, I’m very thankful that I have been given the opportunity to work with so many kids and to explore so many different parts of the world—both close to home and afar—that I may not otherwise visit.

In my home province of British Columbia, I worked as a writer-in-residence at schools in Sechelt and in Surrey, and as an artist-in-residence in Coquitlam—where we built a hatchery’s worth of dragon eggs.

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I visited many schools in my home city of Vancouver, including one where many of the students dressed up as Kendra Kandlestar . . . check out all those braids!

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At another school in West Vancouver, the classroom produced an entire “EENcyclopedia” board and booklet, build off the characters, creatures, and settings in the Kendra Kandlestar books.

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I also participated in two separate school tours this spring. The first took place in the central Okanagan Valley, with schools in Kelowna and West Kelowna. It was nine schools and a bookstore in one week! The second tour was built around my appearance at the the Vancouver Island Children’s Bookfest, which entailed visiting many different schools in the city of Nanaimo and its neighboring communities. During that trip, I was taken to the hidden gem known as Protection Island.

There are no stores or businesses on the island, except for a pub situated on the docks. I had never even heard of the island and, if not for the festival, probably never would have. It is a charming place . . . sort of reminding me of Tom Sawyer’s Island. In particular, I loved seeing the heron nesting site.

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Recently, I was also given the opportunity to present at the school in Stewart, BC. This is a very remote community on the border of the Alaskan panhandle. It’s small—in fact, I’ve presented at schools that have more people than the entire town of Stewart. But it is a gorgeous place. Getting there involved a 1.5-hour flight, followed by a four-hour drive through beautiful scenery. It was during this trip that I got to see my very first glacier.

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A big highlight of the fall was presenting at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. This is an event of rare characteristic. Where else do you get to hang out for three solid days with so many creative people in the same hotel. A sort of culture sinks into that place. It’s exhilarating and exhausting all at once. Especially, when they introduce costume events . . . because I’m just not the sort of person who can mail it in!

Here’s a photo of myself and my buddy, kc dyer, as steampunk fairytale characters!

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As for out-of-province, I had the opportunity to speak at the Package Your Imagination conference in Toronto, which also involved doing some library visits, including at the beautiful and historic Wychwood Library. That’s my bag and coat sitting on the ledge in the photo. And, of course, in the bag, is one of my dragon eggs. In retrospect, I can’t believe I left it that far out of reach—even for a moment!

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And here’s me doing actual work at the conference itself, where I discussed world-building for the middle-grade novel:

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I also had the opportunity to teach a creative writing camp with my wife, Marcie Nestman, in Korea just after Christmas. One of our favorite moments was waking up on New Year’s Day in Seoul and going to explore the Bongeunsa Buddhist Temple, which was only a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. It was a very spiritual way to begin the year.

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I really want to thank all the people who hosted me: the teacher-librarians, the public librarians, the classroom teachers, the festival and conference organizers, the billets, the volunteers, . . . wow! Without all of you, I’d never get anything done. And, also, there are the PACs and the Canadian Council for the Arts that helps to fund all of these endeavors. I really hope I could help inspire and invigorate our children this past year.

Now, for a bit of R&R before it all starts up again in September!

 

In which I survive my most recent tour and visit a magical island

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I recently  made it back from a second tour in three weeks, in which I visited eight schools in four days, followed by a day of presentations at the Vancouver Island Children’s Bookfest. You can only get to Vancouver Island by ferry, so I opted to drive over with my car so that I could cart all my various props and supplies.

What supplies? Well, for one, that included my Tour Survival Kit. I knew it was going to be a tough slog, energy-wise, just because I had come off another recent (and hectic) tour of schools, so I prepped a kit that included:
~ throat tea
~ vitamins (echinacea, golden seal extract, vitamin C)
~ coffee
~ cereal bars
~ hand sanitizer
~ more coffee

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Unfortunately, just before heading out, I caught a bug and that really played havoc with my voice. Without the benefit of days off or rest, I had no choice but to just plow straight ahead and squeak like a teenager going through puberty.

Thankfully, I was billeted for the week with one of the festival volunteers. Laurie tended to me like a nurse, which helped me make it through all those school visits. One day, I headed off to my school without my thermos of tea and when I came out into the parking lot, there she was, waiting with it! Now, that’s dedication!

It’s a challenge doing this kind of tour because it not only involves during several presentations in one week, but doing them at several different schools a day. For an author such as myself, who loves his props, that means a lot of quick set up and tear down, not to mention all the driving in between. Luckily, I have all of this down to a fine art.

Throughout the week, I did a variety of brainstorming activities at the schools. We often brainstormed doors, but we also did creatures and entire worlds. I even got to spend a couple hours talking archetypes with Grade 6s and 7s at Queen Margaret School in Duncan.

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Doing so many presentations in a condensed period of time takes its toll on me physically, but mentally as well. It’s fun brainstorming with kids, but it fires up my imagination. By the time I am finished for the day, my brain is percolating like a pot on the stove and I feel the urge, despite my exhaustion, to create.

One way I tried to purge my brain of all the creative clutter was to do some character naming. I ended up generating a long list of names for background characters in a world I’m building. That seemed to be able to settle my mind down enough to get some sleep.

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By the time Saturday rolled around, the day of the Book Festival, I felt I had made it over the hump. My voice was holding out, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I did two presentation/workshops at the festival, and was delighted to have my room teeming with kids and parents. For the festival day, I decided to try something I hadn’t quite done before, and that was brainstorming a magical market with the kids. I’ve done this sort of workshop before, but it’s usually with more time, and in a more classroom-style setting. This was the first time I did it with the sort of raw brainstorming approach. Thankfully, the kids (and parents) embraced the activity and we ended up with many fun and lively shelves full of all sorts of magical items, strange foods, and bizarre curios.

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One of the most fun things about going on this sort of tour is all the people you get to meet. I really enjoyed meeting my billet, Lauri. Her home has a very cool vibe to it, for it is full of treasures such as old-fashioned school desks, antique cameras, and typewriters. Laurie saw how enamored I was with her collection so bequeathed to me one of her typewriters.

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Of course, there were many other people to meet: all the librarians, book vendors, and other volunteers who helped make the festival a possibility. There were many other authors and artists to meet as well. This year’s presenters were Celestine Aleck, Scott Chandler, Eugenie Fernandes, Suzanne de Montigny, Ruth Ohi, Chieri Uegaki, Richard Van Camp,  and Cybèle Young.

I had met some of these creators at past festivals and events, so it was great to see old acquaintances again. (If you have ever met Ruth Ohi, then you know she pretty much takes the party with her. There’s a certain shake in her soda).

As a special treat, we were taken out to nearby Protection Island, which is a short ferry ride from Nanaimo. Protection Island is a real treat. I’m pretty sure it’s enchanted.

First of all, the ferry is for passengers only; no cars. So any cars on the island itself had, at one time, to be barged over. In fact, there are no stores on the island, not even a small one. The only business at all is a pub (well, I guess they got their priorities right). So, the people who live there have to bring everything over on the passenger ferry (that includes canisters of petrol for their cars).

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That means the island is quiet and peaceful; no urban noise, no cutter for the ears. The island and its views are stunning, and we had a wonderful dinner hosted by residents Dora and Jerry who founded the Children’s Book Festival many moons ago. As I said, I feel like there’s a rumbling of magic on this island. It also sort of reminded me of Tom Sawyer’s island; it just had that sort of vibe.

I especially enjoyed seeing the heron nesting site. Apparently, the herons themselves have moved on, but you can still see the evidence of their habitation.

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My deepest thanks to all the organizers, volunteers, and administrators who helped make Bookfest Nanaimo 2017 such a success. Also, my thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts, whose funding helped make my participation possible. It was a rewarding week full of adventure and inspiration!

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Favorite doors of Shanghai

During my trip to Shanghai, I was able to find a lot of inspiration from the gardens, the architecture, and the overall sights and sounds of the city. Most of all, I found many wonderful doors!

Students, friends, and colleagues know I have a bit of a door obsession. I photograph them, write about them, and collect door knockers. I even have a trunk that is made out of an old door.

Here are some of my favorite doors and details that I was able to find during my recent trip to storied and exotic city of Shanghai. These come from Old Shanghai, Ancient Town in Qibao and the French Confession . . . or, otherwise, just here and there throughout the city.

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A Magical Morning in Old Shanghai

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After spending a week in Korea to teach a creative writing camp, my wife Marcie and I have arrived in Shanghai for a bit of R&R.

The_Adventures_of_Tintin_-_05_-_The_Blue_Lotus.jpgThis is our first time in this city, but it’s a place I’ve long wanted to visit. I’ve associated Shanghai with adventure since I was kid, which I think is largely thanks to Hergé’s graphic novel, Tintin and the Blue Lotus . . . not to mention the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Since Shanghai has been so romanticized in my imagination, it had a lot to live up to! Marcie knows how I’m wired, so she made sure to pre-book us a hotel just a few minutes away from Old Shanghai. This is a traditional section of the city, filled with beautiful architecture, history, and culture.

We headed over to Old Shanghai mere moments after dropping our luggage off in our room. This was mid-afternoon, and the place was teeming with tourists. We found the sights, sounds, and smells intoxicating. Incessant vendors were vying for our yuan, plying us with everything from cheap knock-off watches to luxurious jade necklaces. And, of course, everything in between.  We found that we were shoulder to shoulder in many of the quaint alleyways!

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The queues for the food stands were seemingly endless and there was a horde of people at the entrance to the famous Yuyuan Garden. Marcie and I looked at each other and knew at once what we needed to do: come back first thing in the morning.

We enacted our plan, arriving by 9am the following day. By comparison to our experience the previous day, we felt like we were ruling the old city. The avenues were clear, the lines absent.

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We headed straight for the Yuyuan Garden and at once stepped into a magical realm. I cannot express how much we love this place. Here is a perfect marriage between nature and human architecture, a harmony that is expressed through one scenic sight after another. Every time we turned a corner, we found ourselves gasping.

In one spot, a dragon swims across the top of a stone wall. In another, a spritely creature peers from the lip of a roof tile. Turn a corner and you find yourself glimpsing a lion state through a whimsically-shaped doorway. A walkway meanders across a serene pond where giant carp tipple near the surface. Rock formations with “spy holes” grant amazing perspectives of the pagodas and pavilions.

It’s hard to put into words, and the photos also barely do it justice. But, below, are a few images from our exploration . . .

First of all, I loved all the various doorways. I do not (yet) know the symbolism of the different shapes, but they were a variety of kinds. Aesthetically, my favourite one was what I call the “ice cream” doorway.

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Water is an important aspect of the garden’s balance. Many gates, bridges, and canals are featured throughout the space.

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Bats are a lucky symbol in Chinese architecture. You can find them on door latches, window shutters, and roof tiles.

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Throughout China (and the world, for that matter), you can find the pair of lion threshold guardians. The male has one paw raised and placed on a sphere. The female has her paw raised and placed on a cub on his back. I saw many of these on a previous trip to Beijing and there are many throughout Shanghai as well.

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Below are photos of a pair of stylized lions. They look different than the traditional ones, but the key elements (the sphere and the cub) are still there. The male represents the external world; the female, the internal.

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At one point during our explorations, I spotted Marcie sitting in a quaint pavilion . . . daydreaming, I suppose!

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I was quite intrigued by the holes through the rocks, which afforded interesting views of the garden architecture. So many children’s books feature items such as “seeing stones”, so I kept peeking through these natural windows to contemplate the garden details.

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I loved the sculptures that decorated the walls and roof tiles. I was especially enamoured with this dragon wall. You can imagine this magnificent creature oscillating along the wall. His claws are splayed, his maw is open, and below his beard is a delightful frog. This was my favourite place in the entire garden.

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Here is a traditional guardian figure decorating a roof. You can find these details throughout the garden.

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And, finally, here is our “selfie” in the garden, gazing into a mirror at once spot near the entrance of the garden.

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Of course, it goes without saying that we highly recommend this garden. Get up early to visit Old Shanghai and enjoy a magical morning!