With fingers numb from the cold, I held my phone as high as I could above the heads of the people in front of me and snapped pictures of the sunrise. When my coworker invited me to view the first sunrise of the year on a small beach in Korea, I hadn’t been expecting so many other people to be there too. Later I learned that in Korea, it’s common to make a wish while watching the first sunrise, which was why the beach was so crowded that morning.
In huge pots on the beach, people were also making tteokguk, which is rice cake soup traditionally eaten during the New Year. They gave it away for free to anyone who wanted it. My coworker told me that you can always find people making tteokguk on the New Year in popular spots for viewing the sunrise. I was in awe of all the people who woke up early and stood out here in the cold, some of them while making soup for free, in celebration of the New Year.
That was in 2019, and since then, I’ve seen the first sunrise each year. Sunrises have always had a peaceful, special feeling to them since I was young. I loved waking up early and seeing the sky turn from night to day while most of the world was still asleep. No matter how many times I see the sun rise, it never ceases to feel like I’m witnessing something profound. That’s why adopting this annual ritual quickly became my favorite part of each year.
Once November hits, I already start thinking about where I want to go to view the first sunrise. I search up great sunrise spots near me and try to gauge how crowded it’d be. Since seeing the first sunrise is such a common practice in Korea, all the good viewing spots will always be very busy, so I tried to find spots that were less well-known. Even those were usually quite crowded though.
In January 2020, I was moving to a new city in Korea and wanted to see the sunrise there as a way to greet the new year and my new home. Online, I discovered a park that overlooked the Han River where you could see the sunrise. So on New Year’s, I hopped on the bus and headed there. I didn’t anticipate, though, how popular this spot would be. The street was so backed up that by the time the bus got to the park, the sun had already risen, so I had to view it as best as I could through the windows of the bus. Looking back on it now, it’s ironic that my year started that way, given the kind of year that 2020 ended up being.
For this year’s sunrise, I went through the same ritual of finding a place to view the sunrise and I even booked a hotel in November since I had planned to travel elsewhere in Korea for it. But as New Year’s approached, the pandemic became worse so I canceled my plans. Instead, I wanted to see the sunrise near me but since I lived in the city, there wasn’t really anywhere good to view it.
However that year, two of my friends who also lived in Korea stayed at a beachfront hotel near where they lived. One of them live streamed the sunrise to Twitch, so that’s how I ended up watching the sunrise this year. Even though it was through a computer screen, it was the first time I got to see the first sunrise with my friends, so it was a fun experience nonetheless. I love sharing this ritual with others, and each year I try to convince people to tag along with me, though it’s usually a hard sell.
Although I moved back to the U.S. in April, I still plan on seeing the first sunrise each year. It has become the most important thing that I do each year. It’s how I reset myself at the beginning of the year and celebrate the passing of time. Now that I’m no longer in Korea, it also feels like a bittersweet homage to the three years I spent there. I never would have started seeing the first sunrise if I didn’t take the plunge to teach English in Korea right after graduating from college. To let go of this ritual would be letting go of a special part of me.
Seeing the first sunrise may feel like a chore because you have to wake up early, but the great thing about winter is that the sun rises later so it’s not that bad. And although it’s cold, once I see the sky reddening in the quiet hours of the new year, I remember why I do this. Waking up early and standing out in the cold may not seem like self-care, but to me, it is.
This year, I’m still not sure where exactly I’ll see the first sunrise, but I know that I will. Plus, I’m sure that wherever I go won’t be as crowded as it gets in Korea, since the U.S. doesn’t have a similar custom. If you’d like to do something special and find some peace this New Year’s, try searching up some nice places to view the sunrise near you. And maybe you can convince someone else to tag along too.
RITUALS is a nine-part miniseries edited by Vanessa Friedman. The writers who contributed to this miniseries will share all sorts of rituals: rituals for love, rituals for grief, rituals for forgiveness, rituals for inner peace. We’ve published a few pieces each week all through December; this piece is the final installment in the series. Please share your rituals in the comments, and let our contributors know which rituals in particular speak to you. Happy New Year!