Fall in Korea

During my first two years in Korea, I took almost every opportunity to go to a festival or event. In large part, it was because as an EPIK teacher, I had very short holidays, so I spent my weekends seeking fun. Now that I have great big holidays, I find I’m saving my money for those long trips abroad. Plus, it is a bit repetitive to go to the same festivals and events each year. This year, my favorite tour group, Enjoy Korea, changed up the line-up on their fall foliage trip, so instead of going to the DMZ and Seoraksan, we would visit a famous penis park, a coastal railway, and Seoraksan- a mountain that’s quite large enough to visit twice and see totally different sights. I decided to sign up, and as luck would have it, some other ladies I know from around the country also signed up so we got to hang out together. Although it was a lot of riding in buses, the weather was everything we could have asked for, and I had a lovely time.


Haesingdang Penis Park (해신당 공원)

It is a constant source of curiosity and amusement among the foreigners that in such a conservative country as Korea there are multiple overtly sexual and outright pornographic sculpture parks. I visited the famous Love Land on Jeju Island a few years ago, and so I was curious to see the similarities and differences with that very modern invention and what was ostensibly a more historical park at Haesingdang.

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The legend of Haesingdang has some inconsistencies, but basically there was a young maiden who’s fiancee (new husband? she’s supposed to be a virgin, though so they can’t have been married long) is a fisherman and through a series of unfortunate events he ends up leaving her on a large rock rather far from the shore (perhaps to harvest the edible seaweed?) while he takes the boat to fish, promising to return for her at the end of the day. However, a horrible storm arises and he is unable to fetch her and she drowns.  The next day, there are no fish to be had, nor any the day after that. The people believed that the spirit of the drowned maiden was ruining the fishing.

Here’s where it gets extra confusing. There’s a group of three statues up on the hill overlooking the ocean that are supposed to be a part of the legend. The are very… um… priapic. I’m unclear as to whether they were masturbating into the sea, or simply showing this poor virgin girl what a good dick looks like. Many versions of the myth also state that it was a man urinating into the ocean that caused the spirit to be appeased and the fish to return, and anyone who knows the function of a prostate knows you can’t urinate when you’re .. um.

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All the legends agree that it was the sight of a penis that made this virgin maiden relent and bring back the fish… I guess she was really horny? I don’t really know. Since then, the locals carved several wooden phalluses to put along the seashore and twice a year they have a religious festival to show big wooden penises to the maiden in the sea.

It’s really hard to get any hard data about this park or the statues in it. It’s likely that the myth and the rituals are hundreds of years old, but given the near total destruction of everything in that region during the Korean War, it is highly unlikely that those are genuine historical statues. More than likely they are modern reproductions and best guesses combined with truly modern art pieces like the golden penis on the stairs that was made in 2006, and a row of new statues that seems to be growing one penis a year down the path (the latest one was dated 2019).

Most of the museum looks like it was either made in the 70s or by someone aesthetically stuck there. The fishing village museum included a series of arrows leading nowhere past some large fake aquariums (plastic fish, no water) and a large diorama of a historical fishing village, plus some interactive video games and “fishing” toys.

There are plenty of photo ops where you can sit on a giant penis, or sit on a bench and look like a large erect penis and hanging balls are sprouting from between your legs. There’s a small temple dedicated to the maiden who drowned in the legend. And there’s about 50 or so wooden carvings of exaggerated penis shapes, or people with penises for heads, or penis totem poles. A star attraction is the 12 zodiac animals in penis pillars.

Aside from the overwhelming collection of dick, there is a stunning view of the sea from the top of the stairs which is in my opinion, one of the best parts of the whole park. You can actually see the rock from the legend in this photo. There’s a statue of the maiden on the rock you can see with binoculars.

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Normally conservative and reserved Koreans take these kind of parks as a place to cut loose. Although no one did anything inappropriate like public exposure, there’s plenty of lewd gestures and old ladies laughing while their husbands look a bit uncomfortable. It’s not all bad for the guys, though, they get to pose next to unrealistic dicks and dream.

Yonghwa Coastal Rail Bike (삼척 해양레일바이크)

Also known as Samcheok Costal Rail Bike, it’s the same thing because there is only one rail bike in all of Korea.

“the one and only coastal rail bike in Korea and it runs on 5.4km-long double tracks through beautiful rocks and special type of pine trees called Gomsol (Bear Pine)”

I love the coast. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, sweeping cliffs, I don’t care I love it all. So when I heard this trip was going to include a leisurely hour long rail bike up the coast, I was pretty stoked. Now, I won’t say that this wasn’t hilarious fun, but if you’re expecting an hour of beautiful ocean views you will be disappointed.

A rail bike is basically a little car that is mounted on rail tracks and powered by pedaling. Thankfully, these cars had real seats and we were not mounted on bicycle style seating. Myself and the other short person had a very hard time both sitting and reaching the pedals, but with 4 people working on it, and some motorized assistance, the trip is not especially exerting.

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The beach that we left from (Yonghwa) is quite pretty, but it is dominated by the rail bike station, and by the time we pedaled out of the building we only had a few moments of beach before we were leaving it behind. The beautiful view of the sweeping coastline is also partially obscured by those special pine trees and a fence. I had hopes that with the better part of an hour still to go, we would get more sea views, but the next part of the ride took us into a tunnel.

There was some distinctly Korean attempt to make the tunnels more interesting by adding colored lights and some neon underwater scenes, all set to strange 80s music in English. I think it would have been ok for a short tunnel, but it soon became droning and repetitive. My peaceful, sunny, seaside bike ride had turned into some hellscape of neon, concrete and bad club music. I didn’t even think about taking video at the time, so I’m borrowing my friend’s which is unforgivably shot vertical… sorry! I did at least replace the horrible 80s music with something less aggressive.

I know there’s probably no way we could have stayed outside in the mountainous terrain, but I feel like there is much more they could have done to make the tunnel more enjoyable. I was so relieved when it ended… only to have us go into a second tunnel! In the end, I’d say we spent at least 1/3 of the “coastal” ride underground.

Another 1/3 was spent outside with little to no view of the sea. We saw some cute pensions (a kind of Korean hotel), and a few resort attractions, and even a large sculpture of a battleship covered in some found art objects (I was moving to fast for a decent pic). The woods were randomly dotted with the leftover remains of the summer glamping (glam+camping) season, a few heavy machines, and a LOT of debris.

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I know we had like 3 typhoons in three weeks and the coast did get a bit messed up, but it really seemed like zero effort had been made to collect the rubbish. There was a brief stop at a little “rest area” after the tunnels and the beach there was pretty and clean, but we had only a few minutes to enjoy it before we were rushed back to the rail bikes and sent on our way.

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Although you and your group pedal yourselves, there’s not any wiggle room to slow down to see nice things or speed up to get past boring things because it seemed like 50 cars were on the tracks at the same time and although we’d been told to keep 10m between cars, it was often closer to 2. On the plus side, when we passed a group coming the other way, it was a lot of fun because they were excited to see a large group of foreigners and we got lots of greetings, big smiles, and high fives in passing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fun but silly way to spend an hour, and not a calm bike by the sea. As long as you go into it knowing what you’ll get, it’s worth it.

Seorak Mountain and the Fall Foliage

Also known as Seoraksan, san simply means “mountain”, Seorak is one of the premier places in Korea to take in the fall foliage. It’s pretty far north, and close enough to the sea that you can see the ocean from the peak on a clear day. Plus, it’s elevated. This means that the conditions for beautiful leaf colors are really promising. It’s a little like driving up to Connecticut for Americans.

I went once three years ago and had a gray drizzly day which made the leaf colors really pop, but made the sweeping views pretty much a misty, uh, mystery… I also struggled a lot with the ajuma and ajoshi (Korean’s of a certain age) who all showed up in their special hiking clothes and walking sticks and charged up the path like it was a race to the top. I personally wanted to meander and enjoy the trees, take some pictures, admire the little details. They wanted to walk. Quickly. I was elbowed so frequently that it made it almost impossible to enjoy anything, let alone obtain any sense of serenity. I was almost knocked off the mountain (down a steep ravine) and when I slipped and fell on some wet rocks, people just shoved past me instead of giving me room to stand up or heaven forbid, helping. I did not want a repeat of this experience this year.

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I am spoiled by the PNW mountain hikes which are quiet and often very private. I love forest bathing in Japan, and the peaceful mountainside temples. There is a temple at Seoraksan, but it’s a bit tricky to find. On my first visit, I managed to get a ticket to ride the cable car up and from the crowded platform, I followed a small trail with signs I recognized from the Chinese characters up and around to a small temple. There was no one else around, and I finally got some of the peace and serenity I was looking for. I was very much looking forward to visiting that place again.

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This year, we had amazing weather. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was just warm enough not to need a jacket but not hot enough to make us sweat. Upon arrival, we charged straight for the cable car ticket office only to find that everything was sold out until 3pm. Our bus was leaving at 4, and we couldn’t reasonably expect to get up and get back unless we rushed, which was counterproductive to my reason for going -eg to relax and meditate in that beautiful temple. I suppose we could have tried to race up for the chance to see the clear weather view, but neither my friend nor I were particularly interested in stress or speed that day.

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I think that the park is gorgeous in any weather, but I’m glad I got to see it in the sun. I’d like the chance to hike it one day, but clearly the fall foliage isn’t the right time for me. It makes me think of the mountains I climbed in China, Tai Shan and Hua Shan. There were certainly other people climbing those days, and I was inevitably the slowest, but the Chinese were so much more relaxed about going around me, some liked to stop for a chat or a photo, but even those in a hurry didn’t run me down. It’s been a recurring issue for me in Korea that I feel like the frog in Frogger any time I’m anywhere crowded. I really don’t think it’s only crowds as other large cities, even mega cities like Beijing and Tokyo do not have these problems. It can make it a struggle to go to an event here knowing that being shoved around all day will definitely be part of it.

My goal for this trip was to try and find the part of the park that wasn’t going to make me play elbow dodge-em. We decided to stick to the less popular paths that wandered the foot of the mountains and just to enjoy ourselves and take a million photos. It was lovely. There were still a lot of people on the “boring” trails, but with only one or two hiking-gear clad racing groups it was easy to step aside and let them by. The rest of the people on our path seemed to share my idea that it was a lovely day for a stroll. Plus the walkways were smooth and wide, so there was plenty of space to go around / step aside and no risk of being knocked off a steep slope!

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I got to spend a long time with the giant Buddha and even go to the small temple beneath it which had not been open the first time I visited. It wasn’t quite the same as my mountain peak temple, but it was nice to soak in the beautiful chanting and just still my breath and mind for a while. There was a monk inside performing a ceremony. It seemed like visitors could donate to the temple to have a prayer recited for them. I hadn’t realized it while I was above ground, but the chanting we were hearing all around the statue wasn’t a recording. It was the monk below chanting live. If you’ve never had a chance to hear a Korean Buddhist chanting, here’s a sample:

Most of the colors were higher up the mountains, we could see them from where we were, but still declined to hike up. Instead, I scampered off the path after the lone red tree or orange branch and ended up with a lot of close up photos. The effect of the sunlight streaming through the colored leaves was so stunning that I really didn’t mind that being my primary subject.

We came upon a clearing near the river about the time we were ready for a break. I sat down on the rocks overlooking a beautiful little valley view and just enjoyed life for a while, the trees made a perfect picture frame for the mountains beyond. When I had a bit of energy back, we climbed a little down to into the river bed. My friend actually went out on a huge rock in the middle of the river for photos, but I settled with a rock that was a bit closer to shore.

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Next we explored the large (aka main) temple in the park. It had beautiful carvings of flowers on the buildings and bright blue ceramic tiles on the roofs. I think that my best overall landscape photo of the day came from a small grassy knoll just behind the temple compound. Bonus, I got to refill my water cup at the sacred mineral spring! Along the way, I also found several balanced rock towers left by previous tourists, any number of glittering spiderwebs, a few really beautiful spiders that hadn’t given up for the fall yet (they hibernate in the cold, I think because I never see them), and even a stray mushroom patch.

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We walked a short way past the main temple toward the base of another arduous uphill hike. We had no intention of going up, but we thought it might be nice to walk along and see what else was on ground level. I’m glad I did because we found the Legend of Ulsanbawi Rock. The hike we were avoiding would have taken us up to this famous rock, but we could see it pretty well from the ground that day.

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According to the legend, a looooong time ago, the gods ordered all of the rocks to gather together to create the 12,000 peaks of Geumgangsan. Also sometimes spelled “Kumgang”, this is the most famous mountain in North Korea. Obviously the myth predates the 38th parallel. However, it’s only about 50km (30 miles) north of Seoraksan. Ulsanbawi was a very large and heavy rock, travelling from Ulsan, about 350km (217 miles) from Kumgang. He had only got as far as Seoraksan when it became dark and he laid down to have a rest. The next day when he awoke, he learned that Kumgang was all finished being made, and he was no longer needed there. However, he was too ashamed and embarrassed to return home to Ulsan, so he curled up on Seoraksan and has remained there until this day.

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On the way back from our low ground view point of Ulsanbawi, we found yet another small temple, and passed a number of beautiful bridges criss-crossing the rivers. Lunch was only slightly challenging as we looked for a keto-option. I had hoped for the famous seafood pajeon for myself, but there was such a large back order at the restaurant, they said it would take over 30 minutes. I ate bibimbap instead, and it was still delicious sitting on the patio staring out at the mountains as a backdrop.

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We rushed to grab more last minute photos of the park entrance we had raced by on our arrival (hoping to get those cable car tickets), and made it back to our tour buses with about 1 minute to spare. It wasn’t an action packed adventure, but it was almost everything I could have hoped for. I was still a little sad about the cable car situation, but I saw so many other beautiful things, and I didn’t get run into by a speeding ajuma even once.

The Flying Lanterns of Daegu

This week was a non-stop trip planning extravaganza! Not just two regular weekends out of town (Daegu flying lanterns and Jindo Sea Parting), but also the long holiday in the first week of May (do I go to a Korean island getaway, or do a Temple stay for the Buddha’s birthday?), and bonus round I’m trying to plan for the 10 day Chuseok holiday in October NOW because all of Korea will be flying somewhere and I need to buy tix fast. PLUS I’m trying to get the summer camps blocked out not only so I know what to teach, but also so I can try to get back to America. That’s right kids, summer in America. And somehow it all has to be planned RIGHT NOW! So, while I try to get my ducks in a linear arrangement, enjoy the magic of sky lanterns.


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Samgwangsa April 2016

Last year during the lantern crazy that surrounds the Buddha’s birthday, I visited Samgwangsa, a temple near my home in Busan. It was magical, my gbff and I twirled around like school children singing the Tangled song and generally being giddy idiots. Then after all the festivities were over, I saw some photos online of an actual flying lantern festival (a la Rapunzel), but it was too late to go! I vowed to find the festival again were I to stay another year in Korea. I began to search for it in January this year, but my hunt seemed in vain since there were no websites or festival updates. Even reaching out to Koreans I knew who lived in Daegu (the home of this flying fantasy) turned up a big bubkus.

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Then, during the week while I was poking around online once more looking for ideas on how to spend my upcoming holiday, I spotted an article about the festival. Worried that I’d once more missed it, I clicked on the link and scanned eagerly for the dates. Luck and fortune were on my side and I found out the date of the festival less than 5 days before it was set to take place. Even better luck, the trains between Busan and Daegu run late into the night, so I would be able to do it as a day trip!

This also led to my first attempt to buy train tickets online, which was not as hard as I was led to believe. letskorail.com is a multi-language website that allows us poor waygookin to book tickets in advance, avoiding the long queues and potential sold out trains. You just need your passport number and credit card info (plus ARC if your card is Korean issued).

Arriving in Daegu

20170422_181014.jpgThe festivities were set to start around 6pm, so we left in the afternoon and had a lazy, but comfortable ride into Daegu where we had to relearn bus navigation. One wrong bus and two right ones later, we got off in the general vicinity of Duryu Park. The weather was fine and we dawdled our way over to the greens, stopping to snap photos and buy iced coffees. In addition to being a huge green space, and housing the baseball stadium the festival would be hosted in, Duryu Park is home to E-World, which is a sort of amusement park and gardens. Not to mention the 83 Tower, replete with gondola rides. There may be another trip to Daegu in my future.

By the time we got inside the park, we were ready to start looking for the parade. We eventually found it on a side road, holding perfectly still. I can only assume the info I’d read online was inaccurate in timing, but it was a great opportunity to get up close to the floats for pictures.

The festival limits lantern participation to 1,000 people who sign up in advance. I’m not sure there’s any way a foreigner could get in on this, since the limited number of English language websites were all mum about the festival until it was too late to sign up for that part. The tickets to sit inside the stadium are sold on a first come first serve basis, starting at 1pm that day. Not having any information to go on about the views, I figured we were safe, since flying lanterns could be seen from just about anywhere. In retrospect, I would recommend trying for stadium tickets. They are wristbands, so once you get your spot, you can still go out and check out E-World and the rest of the park while waiting. Plus, although the website I read said that everyone should be in the stadium by 5pm, there were people coming in and out of the gates much later than that. However, even if you can’t get in the stadium proper, it’s still worth going, because I watched from outside and don’t regret a minute of it.

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We meandered around the stadium toward higher ground in hopes of finding a spot with a decent view. Us and a few thousand Koreans who also couldn’t get into the stadium. We settled on a ridge overlooking a gap in the stadium seating and surrounding trees that gave us as good a view as we were going to get from outside. There was only one row of people in front of us and we jealously stood our ground over the next hour as the concert below began, and ajuma and ajoshi tried to elbow their way to the front.

Side note:

17888705_10208562203273054_1559197028_nFor those who don’t know, these words used to be terms of respect for middle aged women and men, but have come to be less flattering terms used to describe a particularly rude class/age group of Koreans. Ajuma (women) tend to shove… a lot, and cut in line. Ajoshi (men) will join in on the shoving if their wives are around, but are perceived as perverts who peer into ladies bathrooms otherwise. I know that at least some of the younger Koreans use the words this way, and definitely all the expats I’ve met do. There is a culture of respect for age, so actually old frail people are often given seats and ushered to the front for views (and are usually super sweet about it, every one I’ve given a seat to has said thank you and offered to hold my bag in her lap), but these ajuma are just bitter middle agers who don’t want to stand in line like everyone else. Think of them like the entitled soccer moms of Korea. And yeah, they pretty much all look like that picture, too.

20170422_195103.jpgLanterns Aloft

A few people jumped the gun and released lanterns a little early, causing all of us in the crowd to whip out our phones in anticipation. It was a long wait, standing in the crowd, but as the sky darkened and the sea of people inside the stadium became a sea of multi-colored light, I knew I’d made the right decision to come.

20170422_195432At long last, the moment we had waited for, the lanterns were released in earnest. They did not rise swiftly like balloons, but in a slow and drifting manner as the tiny flames inside each one warmed the air contained by the colorful paper dome. 1,000 globes of light ascended into the blue and black night sky, and I knew no matter how hard I tried, my camera could never capture that moment. It was what we were all here for. People from many cities and even many countries, gathered in the soft night air to witness the magic of fire in the night, lanterns becoming stars, and wishes rising to the heavens.

But Wait, There’s More…

20170422_195403Shortly after the main release was over, people around us began filtering back out of the park. They had seen what they’d come for and were eager to move on to the next attraction or to beat the traffic. This meant that we suddenly found ourselves at the fence with an unobstructed view of the field below, and enough elbow room to turn around and attempt selfies (which were less impressive due to the low light).

Suddenly the shrill whistle of a fireworks mortar pierced the air and brilliant red sparkles showered down. The lantern release was followed by a fireworks show, much to the delight of everyone in the park. Bursts of red, green and white, arcs and sparkles, plus a plethora of ooohs and aaaahs from the crowds took our mood from wistful to joyous before sending us off into the night.

20170423_010828.jpgFinally the last twinkling lights above became no bigger than pinpricks of stars and we joined the crowd shuffling out of the park. We had 3 hours left before our return train and sat down for a moment to check the internet for a restaurant serving anything Daegu local. While we were seated, a family carrying armloads of paper lotus lanterns came by, and the young boy gave us each one, nervously testing out his English with as few words as possible.

Parade After Dark

20170422_204729With our gifts in tow, we set off toward our restaurant of choice, but quickly became sidetracked by the parade. The floats we’d seen before were now all lit up, but the parade itself was stopped again. We dodged in and out, taking more pictures and pausing to watch a monk’s drum performance. Back in front of E-World once more, we spotted a street vendor selling flying lanterns as fast as he could light them up, and we were able to get a closer look at the lights that had filled the sky less than an hour before.

Adventures in Dinner

We were so enchanted by the parade of lantern floats and other decorations that we lost track of time and direction. We had to give up on the local specialty restaurant in favor of one that happened to be right there. While perusing the menu, the woman in charge pointed at a particular dish and recommended it in Korean. I’m sure she said something eloquent about the flavor or ingredients, but my Korean isn’t that great. My sense of food adventure is, though, and I happily agreed to her suggestion. 20170422_212942Moments later, I had a humongous bowl of seafood and spicy broth in front of me. Mussels, clams, shrimp, crab and octopus crowded the bowl and heaped up atop a generous portion of noodles. (octopus is not something I order knowingly, but I didn’t want to waste it’s life once it was on the table) The broth was rich and spicy, causing me to reach for the ice water more than once and leaving my lips pleasantly tingly by the end of the meal. I think 2 hungry people would have had trouble eating the whole thing, and my day companion was not a seafood fan, so it was all me.

Wrap up

Tired, but full and happy, we made our way to the subway network and finally the train station. While we were standing on the platform, we were spotted by some more EPIK teachers from Busan across the tracks and conducted a conversation by shouting across from our platform to theirs. I only realized later how strange this must have seemed to the Koreans watching us who are always quiet and reserved (at least outside of bars and clubs). I’ve gotten used to holding my conversations on trains and buses at a whisper so as not to disturb the silence, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that the outdoor platform might have the same etiquette. We also got solicited by a private English school manager, which just goes to show how many jobs there are out there if you’re willing to go the hagwon route.

We drowsed and scrolled through our photos of the day on the slow train ride back. In some ways it seemed ludicrous that we had spent 3 hours on trains and another 2.5 hours in buses and subways, plus stood in the crowd waiting for over an hour all just to see 15 minutes of flying lanterns. Of course we saw more than just the flying lanterns. We saw the parade and a new city, tasted new food, and met many friendly people along the way. Travel is so much more than the destination, so while the brief and fleeting moment of magical sky lanterns was the cause and certainly the highlight of the trip, I consider the day time well spent and would highly recommend this or any similar festival if you ever get the chance.

EDIT (5/1/17): Expat community is such a tiny random world. Remember that pic I used to talk about the ajuma? Funny story – the friend I went to Daegu with sent me that pic a few weeks earlier after a conversation in which we’d been sharing “worst ajuma” stories (the one that shoved you out of the way so she could stand one person closer to the subway door you are already walking out of, the one who plowed into you despite the fact that there was plenty of room on either side, or the one who shoved you while you were dripping wet from the rainstorm, then got mad you made her wet, too). I liked the pic so much, I decided to use it as my example here, relying on the artist’s signature to credit the art. Less than a week later, I found myself on a trip where I met some of this year’s crop of EPIK teachers, and as I’m exchanging FB and Instagram contact info, one of them turns out to be this very artist, @shmamee. She asks how I got introduced to her art and I explain about D. It then turns out D, as a second year EPIK, is the assigned EPIK mentor of @shmaymee, but also had no idea the art she shared was from her own mentee! The internet does a great job anonymizing us, turning each work of art or each written story into some distant and impersonal thing. However, the person who introduced me to @shmaymee was none other than Annemone, a blogger who found my page when she was planning her own move to Busan. I don’t make any money off of my content (photos or writing), in fact, I pay an annual fee for the privilege of putting it online. This got me thinking how important it is that hobby content creators support each other, and that everyone supports artist/content creators who do this for a living (ie pay them)


The party don’t stop in Korean springtime! Next weekend I’m heading off to Jindo to watch the once annual parting of the sea and walk to the island of Mordor (no really). After that, who knows? Hopefully something fun and interesting with beautiful photos to share. Wish me luck, and light a lantern for the Buddha this May 3 (lunar birthday). Thanks for reading!