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Animals of the Chinese zodiac displayed at the Penis Park. There are phallic carvings at every turn, with plenty of humour and over-the-top wishful thinking. Styles are endless — playful, spiritual, intertwined, and as shapes in a face, rocket ship, fence post, stool, canon or windchimes. And even more bizarre. In the higher section there is even a Stonehenge-like ring of twelve statues to represent the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac…nestled in penises. There is no explanation.
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Then one day, a fisherman peed into the ocean and the fishing nets became magically full again. At the kiosks you can stock up on actual liquor, postage stamps and other souvenirs from North Korea. Cue the dogs, cats or sheep depending on the season that roam free in Korean animal cafes.
Most of these places have a no petting rule. Just sit down, order a smoothie or coffee and enjoy watching the animal antics. Gramophones painted like delicate Korean fans. The childhood nostalgia makes it popular with kids, children-at-heart and design- or history boffins. The free tour may be in Korean only, but everybody is left wordless when a decades-old gramophone is hand-cranked to life and a cylindrical record sings to the room from yesteryear.
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Phillip Tang. Weird and wonderful Korea: unique sights for the temple-fatigued. Today, the roads are much improved, and the area has become more accessible. Visits increased after , when the South Korean workweek was legally changed from six days to five, allowing city dwellers to seek out nature with the same fervor that they devote to company culture. Many South Koreans see wild places like Seoraksan as a remedy for burnout and an antidote to the modernization that has transformed the country over the past five decades.
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Koreans commit themselves as intensely to nature as they do to every other aspect of life—eating, drinking, working, loving. The Italians of the East, some call them. The sunrise train is a decidedly South Korean invention: it leaves Seoul in the dark of night and arrives in the coastal city of Gangneung in time for passengers to sit on a long, golden beach called Jeongdongjin and watch the dawn lighten the East Sea. After an intense period of work, I was melancholy, too, and like so many South Koreans, I turned to the outdoors for spiritual nourishment.
I was surprised to find my car full of cheerful couples, mothers and daughters, and groups of hikers dressed as if ready for Mount Everest. Few seemed interested in sleep. Teenagers whispered as they watched movies on their cell phones. In the old-fashioned dining car, an elderly couple drank soda. I bought snacks of fried tofu chips and walnut-and-red-bean pastries and listened to a low buzz coming from the miniature karaoke room. When the door opened, five teenage boys spilled out of a space meant for two.
When we reached Jeongdongjin, salty sea air filled my lungs. I trailed a tidal wave of college students, including one with a football player's build who had wrapped himself in a pink Hello Kitty blanket. These veterans of night trains had come prepared to greet the sun, armed with snacks, fuzzy blankets, and plastic mats. Kids set off fireworks that cut through the mist, then stopped to watch the sea turn from green to blue to coral until the rocks and cliffs began to lose their mysterious mermaid and monster shapes. A soldier appeared suddenly to my left, reminding me that I was not only in one of the most beautiful places in South Korea but also just a short boat ride from North Korea.
He propped a leg on a rock and gazed at the sunrise that was now a riot of orange and russet. In the distance, dozens more soldiers marched in the mist. Later, I found myself behind a truckload of young men in uniform, many probably college students fulfilling their service requirement. I asked Mr. Choi, my driver, about the military presence in the area. They come here most mornings as part of their guard duty. Amid the surreal beauty, I began to notice camouflaged guard posts, evidence of a land divided by history for more than 60 years. With a population of about ,, Gangneung is the largest coastal city in Gangwon province and a cultural center.
Nestled among low mountains, lakes, and shoreline, it recalls an older, slower Korea. But unlike most provincial cities, it is growing, enticing refugees from Seoul with its natural beauty and more humane pace of life. Many traditional buildings remain, including a picturesque Confucian academy and an old city hall complex that has been converted into a library.
At the very heart of Gangneung is Seongyojang, a residence constructed for the Naebeon Lee noble family in the 18th century. Within its peaceful grounds is a blooming lotus pool with a wooden pavilion where aristocrats once came to write poetry, drink, and think. The building is a large hanok , a traditional Korean dwelling. With their signature curving, tiled roofs, these wood-and-clay buildings arranged around a central courtyard are designed to blend the indoors and outdoors. Each of the sliding mulberry-bark doors framed a hill fiery with fall colors.
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I approached a more modest structure nearby where a 10th generation descendant of the Lee family lives part of the year. It was off-limits to visitors, but from the cordoned-off entrance I glimpsed a courtyard with dozens of the earthenware jars called onggi that store sauces and kimchi. Laundry hung from a clothesline, and the grounds were silent.
For all of its traditional customs, Gangneung is nonetheless moving into the future. New buildings have risen along its skyline in preparation for the Winter Olympics ice events, which will take place in nearby Pyeongchang. The rooms drink in the light, the air, and the azure water. The building so closely hugs the East Sea that from my bed I felt as if I were floating into it. At first the Seamarq seemed conspicuously modern, but I came to see in its clean, sleek lines and lack of extraneous decoration a relationship with hanok architecture.
This became even more apparent when I strolled the grounds and discovered an annex called the Hoanjae suite, a stately modern hanok by Doojin Hwang Architects. Later, in the hotel basement, I found the remains of a fortress dating to the Silla dynasty, which ruled Korea in the first millennium.
Many years ago, because salt was not readily available here, cooks seasoned the tofu with well water and seawater, giving it a rich but subtle flavor. This being South Korea, where no meal is complete without alcohol, the dish comes with a house-made fermented corn beverage. I was eager to head to the mountains and view Korean autumn at its apex. But one cannot visit Gangwon province without trying its seafood. Several locals recommended Unpa, a seaside restaurant near the Seamarq, where the most basic set meal consisted of fresh seaweed soup, crab, mackerel, sole, flounder, and a whole medley of sashimi.
Each time I thought the feast had concluded, another dish arrived, as if in a procession of honored guests. The meal suggested a culture, so unlike the one I knew in Seoul, that was given to meandering conversations and leisurely contemplation. I felt I was among people who prefer to experience life rather than race through it. On my last day on the coast, I walked to the end of the dock and saw the entire shoreline spread before me like a dream. I fantasized about quitting my job and moving into a house by the East Sea where I could live at the languid pace of the locals. I reached the entrance to Seoraksan at mid-afternoon, and headed for the Biryong Falls Trail along the base of Seorak Mountain, for which the park is named.
A short hike that winds past waterfalls, it was an easy but spectacular introduction to the park. There was a bamboo forest, a stream, and mountains crowned by trees that had burst into an autumnal rainbow of scarlet, burgundy, purple, and saffron. Hikers had built hundreds of tiny pagodas out of rocks, which, somehow, miraculously resist wind and rain.
There are surely Buddhists among the homage-makers, but many visitors erect the pagodas simply to honor the mountains, as if they were living spirits. It was easy to understand why so many articles have been written about South Korean hiking fashion.