A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ulleungdo Part I: The Masculine Seas

The Mysterious Island lurks just ahead.

I sat down on the ferry to Ulleungdo and looked around.  There were crowds of middle-aged Koreans wearing their matching, neon jumpsuits, curling up comfortably in their padded seats, the flat-screen televisions at the front of each row were playing an all-male, slapstick comedy show, and everything was so...clean...  Even the crew looked and acted more like flight attendants than sailors.  What kind of ship was this?!

Neat and frilly seems like sacrilege in a world where nearly every seaside culture crafts the ideal image of a sailor as a gruff, surly man's man.  The ocean is one of those few, remaining places of male dominance left, where physical strength and single-minded determination reign supreme.  Just getting near a boat made me long for adventure upon those masculine seas and rediscover my true inner toughie.

Now I know I just used the term "inner toughie," which probably doesn't make me sound particularly tough, but that's what the ocean is for.  It'll make a man, a real man, out of the weakest boy!  I also used the word "rediscover" because I remember the boats of my youth being markedly different from the ferry to Ullengdo. I recall the ferry rides off the coast of Maine or to Put-in-Bay, where the boats were rather ugly, the seats were hard, and you could stand on an open deck and watch the sea as cold sprays of wind and water hit you.  You'd bite down on your lip and bare it.  (Faulty childhood memories granted)

There's something about weathering harsh environments that makes you feel truly alive, like you're really going on an adventure.  A good adventure should always begin with a struggle and a tinge of danger.  By battling through adversity, you will ultimately feel more satisfied by reaching your goal.  Besides, the ferry was headed to a place often referred to as "The Mysterious Island" and what is better at killing a mysterious atmosphere than comfort?  I wanted the cruel, oppressive conditions with all the fog and rain a title like "Mysterious Island" should accompany.

I wanted to feel like a hardened, seafaring man when I arrived at that mysterious land, despite my being from an entirely land-locked town in the hilly, Miami Valley region of Ohio.  Because there was something Crane and Melville inside me longing to experience one of the rare, last bastions of masculinity.  Oh the sea, where women are nothing but bad luck and you spend days fighting against tireless waves and blistering winds, growing hair on your chest and grey in your eyes, facing off against the cruelest opponent man knows - nature itself.

I watched two crewmen tossing ropes from the dock to the boat, smiling and young.  Their hair was perfectly quaffed.  Their faces perfectly soft.  Their clothes perfectly pressed.  Lord, the only danger here was that our ship was staffed by children...

Then the boat swayed slightly to the left and my stomach churned.  How long had it been since I'd been on a boat?!  This was nowhere near as comfortable as flying the friendly skies.  If I was going to be like this for the next three hours, it would ruin me.  In the thousands of yeas of sailing, you'd think someone would have figured out how to make the ride a little smoother... Christ, I thought to myself.  This is why I hate the ocean.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Wild Jazz Spirit of Gyeongpo Beach

I woke up this morning eager to seize the day!  I sprang out of bed, ran through the shower, threw on my headphones, and leaped on my bike, heading toward Gyeongpo Beach.  There, I was looking for Gangneung's ferry port to check departure times for my trip to Ulleungdo tomorrow.

I had been to this port before.  It was months ago, back when I had first arrived in Korea.  A new acquaintance had shown us around town a little, and the port had been one of our stops.  I recalled it being fairly close to Gyeongpo Beach, just a bit to the south.  Perhaps, this was a false memory.  We had traveled by car that day he showed us around.  It could have been farther away than I remembered... or maybe it was north... not south...

After riding along the forested and fenced shoreline for a while, I gained a new confidence.  I was certain I would not find it!  Vaguely depressed, but mostly frustrated, I brought my bike to a grinding halt by one of the many exercise stations near the seashore walkways.  I threw up my arm, knocking one earpiece out, and shook my fist at the heavens.  Two ajusshis going through their leisurely, morning workout stared at my bizarre display, and I became keenly aware of how strange I must have looked.

I awkwardly turned my bike around for the return trip.  Then I found the stray earpiece dangling from my head.  As I lifted it up, I heard a brassy squeal come from the direction of the beach.  "Jazz?" I thought.  It was jazz!  I took out the other headphone and listened carefully.  Through the trees along the beach came music, and it was definitely jazz.  I hurriedly jerked my bike toward the sound and rode down a dirt path through the woods.  For some confused reason, as if on impulse alone, I wanted to find the source of this music that was so isolated from the world.

Hidden between a dense line of trees and brush and the coast's barbwire fence was a man in a baseball cap playing a mad tune on the saxophone.  He was barely visible through the flora, but I could see his silhouette swinging wildly with the music.

I tried to imagine what would bring this man out to the beach for a 9 a.m. session.  He lacked a human audience, and he faced the sea, as if playing to someone far across the ocean.  But maybe, the lack of audience was his goal.  He had set up his stage in a secluded, quiet place.  It struck me that maybe he didn't want, or at least care to have, an audience.

I began to creep backwards.  My earlier statement was unfair.  The musician was not "isolated from the world," because he was only isolated from our common world, occupied by cars and people.  I started thinking of the jazz man as a creature of the woods.  Encountering him became like a hiker spotting a deer.  The hiker might want to approach it out of curiosity, but if he gets too close, it might take notice of him as well and dash.  I did not want to interrupt the music that now seemed to breath with the pulse of its surrounding forest and ocean.

Letting it play on, I rode back to the street for a new journey (to find breakfast).  However, my ears had been opened and I could not allow them to close again.  My headphones stayed tucked away in my jeans, so I could hear the sounds moving around me.  I could hear the beating of ocean waves and wind through the trees.  I could hear the bird song, grasshopper chirp, and small talk of construction workers as they lazily began their work day.  I could hear each approaching car carving through the air as it outpaced me.  I could hear my poor bicycle shudder and clank as it struggled along bumpy roads.  I could hear that wild jazz spirit fading into the trees behind me.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Haesindang Park

It was a few months into my stay in Korea that I found out there was a place called "Love Land," an adult theme park, built on Jeju Island as a vacation spot for newly married couples.  It struck me as a fascinating place, considering American culture typically deems the human body and human sexuality as inappropriate for any kind of public forum, and it can still be controversial create places to display nude or erotic art today.  When I expressed my interest in Love Land to some of my co-workers one turned to me and said, "Well, why not just go to Penis Park."

"Penis Park?"

"Yeah," she said.  "It's only, like, forty minutes away.  It's a park filled with giant penises."  At this I wondered if such a magical, potentially gaudy land could be possible.  And it was.  Lordy, it was.  

Penis Park is a common foreigner term for Haesindang Park, a relatively hidden spot, resting just outside a fishing village on the coasts near Samcheok.  One might wonder what the origins of a penis park might be.  Is it the product of an over-abundance in phallic imagery and nothing to do with it?  Maybe... but, the mythical origin began with a Shakespearean couple, madly in love and soon to be wed.  One day, a high tide swept the woman out to see as her lover watched on, helpless.  Soon, fish seemed to disappear from the waters surrounding the village, endangering the community's livelihood.

The video below is a reenactment of the tragic event that lead to the creation of Penis Park...

Luckily for Samcheok, one brave fisherman took a leak in the ocean and to everyone's surprise the fish returned!  Via fisherman logic, there was only one thing to do.  Erect statues of penises along the coast to appease the restless virgin's desire for cock.

Perhaps in reality, Haesindang is little more than a tourist trap.  There are dozens of beautiful and interesting places in Korea one can and should go to.  But... do those places have giant carvings of penises?  Where in the world can you go to see giant carvings and statues of penises?  Oh temples, yes!  Korea and the rest of the world have many wonderful temples.  Palaces and Buddhas are everywhere.  Mountains and beaches are as common as house flies.  I can see them from my apartment.  And yes, I can see a penis everyday too, but it's not a garden of penises.  It's not a wood carving of a penis with a face, or a series of penis statues depicting the zodiac.  A park dedicated to penises should be no less gaudy or fun to visit than the world's largest baseball bat or Lego Land.  Yeah, they're tourist traps, but they're interesting, and different, and you'll probably never see anything like them again.  So I was off...

I arrived in Samcheok, where I waited inside a dingy arcade built next to the bus terminal for an hour for Bus 24 to leisurely arrival.  It was occupied by rotating groups of middle-schoolers, beating a punching bag carny game, and singing horrible, horrible, off-key karaoke.  I found myself temporarily enthralled by a line of cabinets featuring the likes of Coolboarders, Tekken Tag Tournament, Puzzle Bobble, and 1942.  No one seemed to pay them any attention.  "Let the Korean children sing!" I thought as I defiantly strode to the Puzzle Bobble cabinet.  "They don't appreciate the classics!"  After several pathetic defeats in both Coolboarders and Puzzle Bobble, I decided I was too old for these obviously childish toys and went to wait at the bus stop for my penises.  

When my transportation arrived, I took a window seat next to an orthodox monk with a long, scraggly beard and beady glasses.  He pointed out the sights as we passed them, showing me the rail bikes and a monument to an Olympian athlete.  He pointed in the direction of Busan and aimed his finger at the ocean and said, "Japan."  Then he balled up his fists and rubbed his knuckles together.  "Korea and Japan, always fighting," he said.  I asked why, curious about his answer.  "Egoism."  I had not expected that.  "You are hungry and I have two pieces of bread.  So, I share.  I have two pieces of bread and I they are mine.  I do not share."

"Egoism," I said.


"Japan does not share it's bread."


I had heard that a number of Christians found Haesindang offensive and wanted the phallic art completely removed, and was not eager to tell this elderly monk my destination, and I was hopeful that he would get off the bus before me.  But of course, the question was raised.  "Where will you go?" he asked in his ever-present patient, thoughtful tone.

"Oh, silly place..." I said.  "Haesind-."  

Before I had even finished the word, he was shaking his head and saying in that patient, thoughtful voice, "No, no, no, no, no."  I tried to ask where he was going, but he just said, "No, no, no, no, no."  He got off at the next stop and I was, by that time, more than a little embarrassed about my destination and felt relieved when he was gone.  They say that youth is wasted on the young, but honestly, age and experience are just as wasted on the elderly.  Sometimes, it feels like the older generations exist for the sole purpose of making people feel bad about doing things that might have otherwise been innocent fun.

Finally, I had arrived at Penis Park and triumphantly strutted through the front gates.  The first wood carvings along the trail had the hideously distorted images of a man and woman (I think...) carved into their shafts, and were being playfully observed by a frisky, young couple.  They giggled as we passed the first set of phallic benches, and then I turned off from the main path away from their fun, down a wooden walkway, and onto a dirt trail.

I took this path through the forest for a while, forgetting the penises and taking in the beautiful woodlands, until I reached a road.  There was a small farm with a shack and plastic chair featuring the Coca-cola logo emblazoned across it.  As I kept walking, I became certain that there weren't going to be any penises in this direction.  I came to a street filled with dirty, traditional houses, laundry hanging across the front porches, and absolutely no people.  It was like stumbling into a ghost town.  Before the siren could go off and the fog set in, I stopped at the next intersection only to discover Haesindang's exit.  I had completely left the park and was wandering Sinnam, the fishing village below.

I started back to the dirt trail, when I was stopped by some men wearing business suits.  One was flailing his arms and pointing to the park exit I had just discovered.  I kept saying in English that I had come from "this way" and pointed up the road, but the man didn't understand.  We argued for a while in our own languages before his friend waved me on and repeated, "It's okay" to both of us.  

When I climbed back up the dirt trail, the flirty couple was waiting for me there, playing in a lily pond and being increasingly cutesy.  This was one of two couples I kept bumping into at Haesindang.  The other was a cigarette-smoking French couple that seemed to never smile and only talked in a passive, serious manner.  The contrast was incredible, and I wondered at moments if the French couple were having fun or if the Korean couple had brains.  Perhaps, the happy medium could be found in the scores of middle-aged people walking around and giggling like school children.  To them, this was just a fun way to spend a day off work.  Here were people with loads of responsibility; they probably had kids who were grown-up and mortgages to  pay, but today they were doing something silly and fun, something drastically different from the high-strung, button-down, bali bali lifestyle they had to do deal with everyday.

When I came to a statue of the young woman who had been eaten by the ocean I couldn't help, but feel a pang of guilt.  The look on her face was so lost and scared, but right across from her were a row of men with their dicks hanging out to pee into the sea.  It felt like rape imagery, and the whole park became disgusting.  People actually visited a place to laugh and have fun where a woman died, and by doing so, they were kind of perpetuating a really creepy idea that the only way to relieve the spirit of a dead virgin was with penises.  Penises would pacify her?

Feeling kind of disturbed, I went inside the Fishing Village Folk Museum and right next to some whale bones at the front doors was a woman lying in a carved out canoe shaped like a penis.  Already, I could tell this would be an interesting museum.  On the top floor there were a lot of tiny, mechanical models depicting the ancient (by which I mean early 1900s) village, and it's fishing culture.  There was a display showing the legend of the woman being swept into the sea.  Down stairs, there were models of old fishing boats, a small aquarium, and then I crossed the threshold into what seemed like an entirely different museum... a museum of erotic art history.

The exhibits were largely made up of erotic Korean art from past eras.  Clay figures spread out in sexual positions or prominently displaying their sexual organs.  They were accompanied by an explanation about phallic art during the Silla Period and Joseon Dynasty and their connection to religion and sex in Korean tradition.  But, then the tone of the museum shifted again to a more global appreciation of erotic art history, with paintings and figures representing other cultures' art, both phallic and vaginal.  One particular piece that blew my mind was titled "Savior of the World."  You can see it below...

The origin of Haesindang Park seems like an excuse.  The tragic romance that lead to its conception, bizarrely juxtaposed with the rest of the park.  As you walk through you are expected to feel what should be conflicting emotions.  You look at the statues of the young virgin and the one of her loving yelling at the sea and imagine a sweet and sad love story, but then you look at the silly penis statues and laugh with childish glee.  In that sense, it resembles how we cope with loss and sadness in our everyday lives.  Something bad happens and we look for something to relieve the pain, something silly.  We still remember the bad days, but we learn to survive.  If the fish disappear, maybe we erect a penis carving in our spare time, and laugh it up until things get better again.

Even the giant penises sometimes felt like just an excuse.  The people who ran the museum seemed satisfied with their jobs.  They were preserving a parts of their cultural history, parts that seem fairly unrelated (fishing villages and erotic art), but if these penises had not been built along the coast there would probably not the same amount of interest in visiting a fishing/erotic art museum out in the boonies.

Haesindang is a wonderfully gaudy celebration of male reproductive organs, but it is also a beautiful and strange medley of different ways to enjoy art.  There is tragedy and romance, goofy fun, and a learning experience all within the same small space.  It is probably one of the best examples I have ever witnessed of art reflecting life, as it is just as confused, as diverse, and as strange as people.