Winter Vacation, Part 1: Banpo-myeon, Korea

The vacation you’re about to see requires a fair bit of explanation, so I’m releasing my photos as a blog post. Please note that there are more pictures in the Picasa album.

December 23


I set out for Korea on the morning of the Emperor’s birthday.

As the train went past Saga, I could see balloons in the sky.

I pulled into Hakata early and walked around the port.

When they started playing Mariah Carey in the cafe I knew I had to leave.

IMG_3964.JPGI discovered that the port was a Japanese postwar repatriation site.

The red triangle thing at left is supposed to be a memorial.

I think it’s designed to be incomprehensible and therefore uncontroversial.

The boat lifts out of the ocean and flies across the Sea of Japan on its rudder.

I don’t have a photo of this, since we were not allowed on the decks.

IMG_3970.JPGOn the boat I watched a Chinese movie about a boy who finds a magical CG alien in his room.

When I got to Korea I realized I couldn’t understand a single word being written or spoken.

Luckily, my friend Beksahn was there to pick me up and take me to his village.

In the subway there were glass boxes full of gas masks, in case of an Aum Shinrikyo-style attack.

It was rather terrifying but Beksahn had never noticed them before.

December 24 (Morning)

IMG_3974.JPGThe next day, we went on a hike to visit the local hermits.

Beksahn lives in a tiny village famous for its shamans.

They build shrines at the base of cliffs and pray to ancient gods.

IMG_3981.JPGThe hermit who built the shrine seen at left was absent.

We later learned that she had injured her leg and had to leave her hermitage.

IMG_3985.JPGBeksahn showed me how she built her home with her own hands.

In Japanese houses, heat comes from a kotatsu (blanket-covered table with electric/coal heater inside).

In Korean houses, coal or firewood is stuffed underneath the house.

In this way the entire floor is heated.

Many Koreans know about this ingenious invention, but probably not many have seen it for themselves.

It was exciting to see a real life example abandoned in the woods.

IMG_3988.JPGI was put out of breath scaling a mountain, but the end result was spectacular.

We proceeded along the top of the mountain ridge to visit the next hermit, who was at work in her house.

Beksahn told me she had kicked him out before because his dad offered her money, so I didn’t want to offend her.

Instead we scaled a rock face near her hut (not shown) and slipped into the valley behind her.

When we got to the bottom, a car pulled up and the driver asked if she was at home.

This hermit apparently gets visitors.

Moving along, we walked alongside a river to look at a cave.

IMG_3997.JPGIt was cramped, dark, and very smelly.

Inside there were abandoned kimchi pots and furniture.

Beksahn said there was a second floor, but we didn’t have a flashlight.

IMG_3998.JPGAboveground, we found a pipe coming out of the cave.

Water was dripping from the pipe.

Why was it built there?

It looked recent, albeit abandoned.

There were no placards or signs around the area.

IMG_4001.JPGDeeper into the hills, there was an even weirder ruin.

It appeared to have once been a three or four story building.

It had a sort of chimney… or was it just a hole with rubble inside?

At this point, you’d need an archaeologist to figure it out.

We’d been hiking all day and became exhausted.

Luckily, there was a roadside restaurant on the other side of the river.

We hopped across the street and helped ourselves to buckwheat pancakes.

December 24 (Afternoon)

IMG_4009.JPGBeksahn was in for a surprise when he took me to the deep valley shrine.

There are many stone piles here, about a dozen.

It clearly was and is a sacred place.

Now people are building statues and altars next to the old stone piles.

IMG_4011.JPGThere was also a monk living here when Beksahn checked a year ago.

But when we arrived, the monk was gone.

His house had been systematically taken apart and left in a disorderly pile.

So much trash! Why would a monk do this?

I told Beksahn to ask a nearby farmer, but he was shy.

IMG_4016.JPGAnyway, I would learn the answer before the week was up.

At left there is a strange advertisement.

It says something like “BBQ ribs and fried chicken”.

IMG_4013.JPGBut it’s on the underside of a rural bridge!! Water is flowing!

Here’s another oddly placed advertisement.

Why do Koreans put ads under bridges?

If you’re Korean, you already know why.

If not, highlight the next lines.
IMG_4017.JPGHINT: Look closely at the ads. Notice any extra information? No Korean knowledge necessary.

ANSWER: In the summer, Koreans will drive to the countryside and flock underneath bridges due to the heat. Often, up to 200 people will lounge around the same place during the day. Next to the phone number there is a location number. Out of those 200 people per day, probably 1 or 2 a day will get hungry and call up, giving the location number shown on the ad. A delivery van will come to the bridge. Placing an ad like this can indeed turn a good profit for the delivery company.

Clever, no? Okay, on to our next stop.

We hiked a while into the mountains, past a dog farm. (Yum!)

IMG_4020.JPGEventually we came to this forbidding looking sign.

Beksahn had told me about this place before.

A beautiful garden, being carefully maintained by an unknown person.

A restaurant left standing as it was 20 years ago, slowly decaying.

Who owns this place? Why is it closed?

Why is there a religious altar on the second floor?IMG_4023.JPG

Beksahn opened a window and we snuck inside.

Inside was dust, odd noises, decay.

We made a video, which you can see on YouTube.

IMG_4029.JPGMy first ruins exploration.

It was pretty frightening, but also exciting.

The fact that everything was left in place was pretty bizarre.

Finally, we went to visit a hermit couple and talked to them a little, but I didn’t take pictures out of respect for their hospitality. They lived together in a 6 foot square hut, again with old-style Korean floor heating. It was very cold outside!

December 25

IMG_4034.JPGBeksahn’s family graciously included me in their Christmas celebration.

I even got presents!

I was really glad to be there.

I wish I’d brought presents for everyone, too.

IMG_4036.JPGAfter Christmas morning we walked to a nearby pottery village.

A lot of beautiful, artistic pottery was there.

Someone there is building an enormous pagoda, but it’s not finished so I didn’t take a picture yet.

At left you can see the traditional totem pole used to ward off bandits.

We had lunch there, and dinner at a Chinese place in the city.

December 26


For lunch, we went to Beksahn’s friend’s house. I wore myself out playing with the 2 year old little brother.

We went hiking up the mountains again, and into a valley. Beksahn’s friend came with us.

We could see abandoned farms and a dam.

Snow was falling, which is apparently sort of rare.

IMG_4049.JPGThe views from the valley were spectacular.

Beksahn’s friend from the village was with us.

I don’t have a lot else to say about this part of our hike.

I wish I had a better camera…

IMG_4051.JPGWe walked along the highway.

We came to a sign that promised some things in kanji.

Beksahn’s friend couldn’t read it,

since Koreans are no longer taught kanji.

IMG_4058.JPGBut Beksahn and I could read it.

The promised Things: A Buddhist temple and a memorial.

The memorial was written in a Japonic combination of kanji and hangul.

None of us could read it.

IMG_4060.JPGWe found ourselves back along the river.

It was still flowing and appeared impassable.

Beksahn jumped across easily.

His friend fell in, and his shoes got soaking wet– an easy way to get frostbite.

I jumped across, and made it. Hooray!

IMG_4070.JPGWe went back to the hermit’s place we had skipped before.

Beksahn’s friend acted as a translator.

It wasn’t a lonely woman.

There was a guy living there with his family. But his house was homemade and deep inside a mountain.

He said we were his first American visitors; previous people came from Thailand and Japan. He told us why there was so much trash around the big power spot in the nearby valley; the government had come by and noticed the monk’s hut was in a protected zone. The government mandated that the hut be torn down, but nobody has the money or time to dispose of it, so it remains there.

He played two drums at once, and had me try. It was really hard to do multiple rhythms!

He said I could take some photos of his votive paintings, but added that it was usually forbidden. Unclear about his family’s body language, I limited myself to one picture. It seems that with this photo I could identify where he got the rest, since they appear mass produced. But I don’t know what terms to Google for. I didn’t take any other pictures inside his house. He lent us his flashlight so we could descend the mountain safely. Without it, we probably would have all broken our legs.

December 27

IMG_4073.JPGOn this day we went hiking at a Buddhist temple.

It was pretty rare to see the temple covered in snow.

This temple was in a national park.

But it was still a pretty touristy place; the park charged admission at the gate.

IMG_4078.JPGAnyway, we saw a lot of nuns here.

They had put up a sign accusing Lee Myung-bak of something or other.

We hiked into their secret alcove and they told us to go away.

In the bottom picture, you can see the nun coming out of their private building to yell at us.

It’s a national park, though…

Anyway, the beauty of the place was impressive.


In the evening, I talked with Beksahn and his friend about culture and politics late into the night.

During this trip, I also learned about Korean Buddhism, shamanism, tea ceremonies, education, the Korean housing bubble, architecture, the dramatic drop in birth rate that has turned OB/GYN clinics into nursing homes, and so forth.

I don’t have photos of any of those things.

I’ve spent over an hour writing this post, so I’ll continue with the Tokyo section later.

Posted: January 2nd, 2011 | Travel 1 Comment »

One Comment on “Winter Vacation, Part 1: Banpo-myeon, Korea”

  1. 1 Avery Morrow's Internet Fancy » Winter Vacation, Part 2: Comic Market, also Kyoto said at 3:39 pm on January 2nd, 2011:

    […] where part 1 left off. Now you can learn about what I did in […]