In search of the nine-tailed fox

In search of the nine-tailed fox

This past summer, I led a summer camp in Korea with the theme of magical creatures. I have plenty of magical creatures in my own books—some of them borrowed from mythology (dragon, unicorns, perytons, etc.) and some are completely made up (like Tug the skyger, who is a main character in The Secret of Zoone).

But there is a creature I’ve been becoming more and more interested in, and that’s the fox spirit, which is prominent in Asian folktales and myths. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Korea, or maybe because so many of my creative writing students in Canada come from Chinese or Korean backgrounds. And, of course, my son being adopted from Japan has something to do with it.

The fox spirit in myth and legend

Legends about the fox spirit vary from country to country, story to story, but a common theme is that it is depicted with multiple tails—often nine. In Japan, it is called kyūbi no kitsune (literally fox with nine tails), in Korea it is called kumiho or gumiho (also, literally, fox with nine tails), and in China it’s called húli jīng or jiǔwěihú. Sometimes the foxes are seeking to gain all nine tails, which will take a thousand years (gaining a tail every hundred years) and allow them to transcend to a greater wisdom or being. They are sometimes associated with being evil (especially kumiho in Korea)—they can shapeshift into beautiful women and are often portrayed trying to seduce young men, even desiring to eat their livers!

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Last summer, when we first met Hiro, I encountered many fox effigies at the temple sites throughout Japan. When we returned to Tokyo this summer with Hiro, I made a point to seek out one of the temples in the city featuring the fox.

These are the benign versions of the fox spirit. Kitsune is associated with the God Inari, who is worshiped for fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture—essentially prosperity and success. That is why kitsune can be found at so many Shinto sites.

A trip to Toyoa Inari Betsuin

On a sweltering morning in Tokyo, we headed to Toyoa Inari Betsuin to see the many kitsune assembled at the shrine. It’s not always easy to make the trek across the city with a one-year-old in tow, especially when it comes to navigating the subway system. Actually the Tokyo subway system itself is easy—finding ways in and out with a stroller aren’t, especially at the older stations.

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But that minor inconvenience was offset by the beautiful shrine.

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When it came to finding foxes, we weren’t disappointed—there were countless ones at Toyoa Inari Betsuin.

Here are just a few of the many photos of the kitsune . . . such delightful creatures! Many of them were wearing a red bib (a symbol of good luck).

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To provide a bit more information about the shrine, I transcribed the information from the welcoming sign, which is also in the photo below:

The Toyokawa Inari is in reality the Toyokawa Dakini Shinten, one of the many Buddhist saints who were Protectors of the Buddhist doctrines. This saint has a beautiful countenance mounted on a white fox, carrying the ear of rice, and is called Toyokawa Inari. It has been enshrined in the Myōgon-ji, a temple in Toyokawa City, Aichi Prefecture, since the first founder Kangan Giin received an inspiration, enshrined it about 700 years ago. Since then, it has been worshipped by peoples of all walks of life, bringing them happiness and saving them from the suffering through the generations to this day.

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I’m pondering the idea of incorporating a magical fox with multiple tails in one of my upcoming middlegrade books. I think my many students with Asian backgrounds (not to mention my son!) will like it, though I know my magical fox won’t be an antagonist, but rather a helpful character.

The multiple tails also seem to match up very nicely with another main idea I’m developing for the book. I don’t have much else to say on it at this point, but let’s see how it goes . . .

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Our magical creature camp in Korea

Our magical creature camp in Korea

I’m just catching up on organizing photos after our whirlwind trip to Korea and Japan this past summer—which means I’m finally getting around to blogging about the Magical Creatures creative writing camp that I taught along with my actor/playwright wife Marcie Nestman and fellow children’s author Kallie George.

Marcie and I are used to spending time in Asia—personally, I’ve been there over thirty times, most of it to teach creative writing camps or workshops. What WAS new this time was that we took our one-year-old son, Hiro, with us. So, seasoned travelers that we are, we had a very different type of adventure!

A magical theme

Since Kallie and I both recently released books featuring magical creatures—Kallie’s Wings of Olympus and my The Secret of Zoone—we thought that would make the best theme for our camp.

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Of course, there are plenty of books and films featuring magical creatures, so this was a great way to connect with and inspire our students.

 

The magical menagerie art exhibit

In The Secret of Zoone, one of the characters references the “Multiversal Menagerie,” an art exhibit featuring paintings of different creatures from across the multiverse. I thought I would take a cue from that and have my students do a creative writing project in which they produced artwork of a creature then wrote the information card that goes with it.

You see, I have this belief that not every writing assignment has to be a proper story. I worry that my students get so focused on plot, that they forget other elements of writing—such as description, setting, character development and BEING CREATIVE. I call this “plot paralysis” because students get so caught up in that ONE part of writing that they start ignoring everything else.

Projects like the multiverses menagerie are meant to help the students wriggle free of the shackles of plot and just have fun.

Our project started with brainstorming creatures  . . .

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Afterwards, the students turned their attention to final artwork. Some students chose to draw, some students chose to sculpt, and others chose to do both.

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The Eye of the Dragon

Another project I rolled out at camp involved writing a scene in which a character finds or steals a magical gem that gives that character the power of connecting with a creature. The students got to choose the aspect of that connection—it could be transforming into the creature, controlling it, or even seeing through its eyes.

Step one, however, was painting the gem of power!

I really love this project because it is relatively simple, but produces stunning results. In fact, many of my students end up wearing their jewelry afterwards (it’s easy enough to glue the gems to a metal ring or amulet).

The gems themselves are glass cabochons, which you can get in different shapes (such as oval or round) and the paint is simple nail polish. This project is very forgiving—even those students who don’t consider themselves artistic can create abstract designs. Also, if you make a mistake, a little nail polish remover helps you start over!

Here are some of the gorgeous designs produced by my students:

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The magical market

We delivered many other projects at the camp, but there is one other event I wanted to blog about—and that is our magical market night. Our camps our long—often six or seven days, and we find we need some sort of event in the middle to help break it up and provide a “boost.”

We usually host a tournament or some other team-building exercises; this time, Marcie had the brilliant idea of putting on a magical market. This was brilliant for a few reasons—not the least of which was that we could do it outdoors and avoid the intense summer heat and humidity. Also, we corralled our older students into coming up with the ideas for the stalls, and then running them during the event itself.

So, we ended up having all sorts of fun stations consisting of games, face painting, fortune telling, and—my favorite—food! We invented a new fizzy drink by combining soda water and pop rocks and also had glow-in-the-dark cotton candy. We gave the students fake jewels to use as currency, so they got to stroll our market and decide how to spend their loot.

Marcie had led a project in which the students designed their own lanterns for a made-up magical creature holiday, so we already had some decorations ready to go.

It was a HUGE success!

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Touring libraries in Korea

Touring libraries in Korea

In a previous post, I described the “Storytelling Carnival Camp” that in taught in South Korea with Stacey Matson and Dan Bar-el. There was no rest for the weary after this camp—we immediately whisked off on a short tour of libraries.

Supporting literacy

The tour was put together with the help of the Canadian Embassy in Seoul and The Creative Writing for Children society. It is part of an ongoing effort to help build a cultural bridge between Canada and Korea and to help support literacy initiatives there.

Day 1: Yongin International Library

First stop of the tour was this palatial library in the city of Yongin. Actually, perhaps palatial isn’t quite the right word—the brand-new building is more like a stadium, and I mean that in terms of not only how it looks, but in its size.

In fact, at first we thought we must have the wrong place. How could we be visiting a library in a sports arena?

Turns out, it is just a magnificent and cavernous recreation and community center. There are all sorts of facilities in this facility—including a massive library.

When we first arrived, the place was empty, leaving me with a lonely, hollow feeling. All those unattended books! We were escorted to our presentation room and began setting up our computers and slideshows. Soon, families began streaming in.

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This turned out to be the most ostentatious of our events, with even local dignitaries attending. We could never quite figure out if it was the mayor of Yongin or the premier of the province.

We delivered our introductory presentations, then afterwards broke into three groups to deliver focused writing workshops. I decided that the focus of my tour would be to lead brainstorming sessions inspired by my book Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers. I discussed with the students different enchanted vessels in mythology, such as Pandora’s box from Greek mythology and Urashima Tarō’s box from Japanese lore. Then I led an interactive session in which we designed our own boxes, imagining what each of them held, how they were opened, and who would find them.

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After the workshops, the library held a book sale. Even though the attendees were well versed in English, many of the kids asked me to sign their books in Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Here’s a photo of the sheet showing the kid’s writing down their names, so I would have something to copy. (In truth, I do this no matter the language I’m signing in, because even the most innocuous-sounding names can sometimes have surprising spellings).

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When we finally exited our rooms, it was to find the library simply teeming with families. What an awesome sight. There were kids draped on stools and cushions, reading, playing, and basically enjoying the library.

Day 2: Mapo Community Library

The next day took us into the heart of Seoul, to a quieter, humbler library found on an unassuming street. This library is sponsored by a local university and we found the kids here to be quite tightknit, coming from the same neighborhood within the city.

They had pre-read my book Kendra Kandlestar series, which made it a lot of fun to talk and work with them.

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Since the kids were a little shy in asking questions, I took a poll to determine their favourite characters from the books.

Here are the official results:
Kendra: 5
Oki: 4
Jinx: 2
Uncle Griffinskitch: 2
Rumor: 1
Ratchet: 1
Undecided: 4

Poor Trooogul. Never got a sniff.

Mapo Community Library had a real cozy feel to it; you can tell it’s a type of haven, full of quiet nooks and corners for the neighborhood kids to come hang out in and talk with the warm and friendly staff. I wasn’t able to get many pictures here, just because of how the schedule went, but it was definitely a memorable environment.

Day 3: Sonpa English Library

The final day of our tur took us south of the Han River to a more distant neighborhood. This library is in an old water management system building that has been converted for community use. It is a beautiful space, however, with workshop rooms and a main presentation area.

Dan, Stacey, and I each delivered introductory presentations and then were lined up for a group Q&A. This was really quite fun. The library organizers had been worried that the kids would be too shy to ask questions, but they weren’t. I remember one question in particular: “What is your ultimate goal?”

That one made me think on my feet. I came up with what I thought was a pretty good answer at the time, but I actually can’t remember what it is now. (I just know I resisted the temptation to shout out “WORLD DOMINATION!”)

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After the Q&A, we each delivered short writing workshops again. In my room there was a board of questions specifically about my Kendra Kandlestar books.

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By the way, this library had the best bathroom I’ve ever visited. Just check out this urinal:

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A real success

All the audiences were super-engaged, despite the fact that English was the second language for most of them. I want to give a big thank you to CWC and the Canadian Embassy in Seoul for arranging and assisting in the tour and another giant shout out to the staff at each library for their warm and generous hearts. Their love of literature and children really shone in each of their spaces.

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A storytelling carnival in Korea

A storytelling carnival in Korea

I recently returned from Korea where I led a week-long creative writing camp for tweens and teens with authors Stacey Matson and Dan Bar-el. We survived the heat (at one point, it was 49 degrees Celsius, with humidity!) and managed to deliver a great program for our students.

Creative approaches to writing

Our creative writing camp was delivered through the Creative Writing for Children Society of Vancouver (CWC) and was designed around the theme of a Storytelling Carnival. This gave us lots of fuel for creative ideas—including gift parcels (in old-fashioned popcorn bags) full of fun activities such as yo-yos, stickers, and circus animal erasers.

At our camps, students usually write a lot of stories and poems, illustrate their work, and build props, working towards the goal of publishing an anthology of their creations.

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Storytelling

This year, we added a whole other factor under the expert leadership of Dan Bar-el: Oral storytelling. Each evening, Dan led “campfire” sessions, in which the kids created stories and practiced telling them. The younger students wrote stories based around the idea of a carnival and did the storytelling in themes. Our older kids took on a greater challenge: their subject was taking traditional Korean myths and telling modernized versions.

Prop-building, steampunk style

One of the main projects I led at camp was helping the students to design and decorate their own steampunk style books. I did this project at local libraries in BC a couple of years ago, and decided to bring it to Korea.

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The idea is that the students not only get a cool notebook by the end of the project, but it can serve as inspiration for a short story. There are plenty of tales of dangerous or forbidden books in the fantasy genre (think of the chained books in Harry Potter), so I thought this would be a good way to stir the imagination.

Here are a few photos of some of their creations:

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Character brainstorming

One of my favorite activities that I led was an interactive brainstorming session. I had the kids brainstorm a character who might participate in the circus, including coming up with all the minute details. As a way to galvanize them, I brainstormed my own character at the front of the group, using their individual suggestions to help build my character.

Here’s my character . . . “poop boy”:

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And here’s a few of the characters the students came up with:

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Afterwards, the project was to write a short “I Am” poem about the character. I decided I would write one based on the group character we developed. Here it is . . .

I am a poop boy

I am a poop boy
Shovelling truckloads of dung
Every
Single
Day.
It never ends.

Lions, monkeys, and elephants
—which is worse?
I can’t tell you.

The monkeys swing above me
Bombarding me with feces.
Sometimes, they even fling it at me,
Forcing me to wear
A handkerchief around my head.

The lions mangle and maul me,
Snatching at me with weaponized paws;
Those razor nails scratch and scrape me
Until I look like shredded paper.

And the elephants?
They leave behind MOUNTAINS of poop.
I wear three masks around my face,
A clothespin on my nose,
Goggles across my eyes,
But nothing seems to work.
The stench always wriggles its way through,
Causing everything to run:
My eyes, my nose, even my ears.

I wish I could run.
Away.

But I can’t
—not if I want to achieve my dreams.
One day, I will stand and strut
In the glare of the bright lights
And be the star of the show
With a crack of my whip
A twirl of my cane
And a tip of my hat.
People won’t call me
Stinky Will anymore.
No, sir!

They’ll look at my fine clothes,
Not handed down to me
From some second-rate clown,
But tailored and hand-stitched
Just for me,
And they’ll call me Ringmaster Will
And all of these poopy problems
Will be just a distant memory.

~

Well, most kids came up with characters far more prestigious than a poop boy! We had a lot of ringmasters, acrobats, and knife-throwers. Having the brainstorming portion completed help them be more detailed in their poems and, also, helped me with editing their work–if, for example, I noticed a dearth of description in their poems, I could point them back to their visual brainstorming.

Many kids took the visual brainstorming to heart and did it for other stories and projects in the camp, too:

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The camp was a lot of work for Stacey, Dan, myself, and our team of counselors, but it was a giant success. No one melted in the heat (even when we made the kids go outside for certain activities) and we’ll soon be publishing our anthology.

Here’s a photo of Stacey, Dan, and I and our students at the end of the camp.

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There was no rest to be had though; immediately after the camp, Stacey, Dan, and I embarked on a tour of libraries in Korea. But more on that in a future post . . .

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!

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.