Beach & Coastal Walking, Korea
Comments 19

Salt Spray on the Dragon’s Doorstep

Just before I split from bustling Haeundae Beach (barely a minute after arriving), an older guy approached, asked if I was a photographer, smiled with compassion worthy of the Buddha himself when I confessed my true calling, and proceeded to list all the other westerners he’d befriended. Then he commenced a detailed discourse on the history of Yonggung Temple.

My heart sank — I had some walking to do — but he would not be stopped, so I made myself comfortable while his wife waited silently a few metres back, smiling awkwardly.

The lecture began with a question.

“Do you know why this temple is very unusual?”

“Yes. It’s the only one in the country built on the rocks at the water’s edge, and not on flat land or a mountainside.”

“Very good! I see you are a very intelligent man with an excellent knowledge of Korean history. And do you know why it was built there?”

I’d read the story — but I’ve read dozens of temple information boards, each offering their own cocktail of outlandish myths, each inevitably containing the words destroyed during the 1592-1598 Japanese invasions and rebuilt in..Seeing me falter, he pounced.

“As you know,” (a favourite Korean expression) “the temple’s name is Yong-gung-sa. Yong means dragon. Gung means palace. At that time, our ancestors believed that a great dragon lived at the bottom of the sea in his wonderful palace. So, in order to keep the dragon happy, the people gave him a beautiful young woman…”

So: a human sacrifice. A giant marine reptile, a drowned woman: it could never have worked. The lecture concluded at last, with Mr Cho handing me his card, declaring “I want to build a good relationship with you,” and then shuffling up the seafront, followed a few metres behind by his awkwardly smiling wife.

Now I was nearing the dragon’s majestic lair, or at least the temple erected in his name, part of a great serpentine line descending the entrance steps in fits and starts as the overstuffed temple disgorged earlier visitors:


Rubbing a stone belly for luck

We cleared the cave-like gateway to drop further, the ocean coming into view…


Almost there we reached the walkway that arches over a narrow and rugged cove…

Looking back on the stone walkway

Looking back on the stone walkway

..and then the temple courtyard, jammed with thousands of guests for the Buddha’s Birthday lantern festival.

I knew what to expect, having come here on the Buddha’s last birthday, and although crowds and lines are two of the main reasons I seldom go out, the atmosphere and the spectacle of thousands of beautiful lanterns, not to mention the dramatic setting, made the return visit — my third or fourth all up — worth the effort.


Yonggungsa’s lanterns & the rocky coast — looking north

In the main hall, guests paid their respects to the birthday boy…


Shoes Off

..while most seemed to be there for the same reasons I was: the colour, the joyous atmosphere.

Those who claim Buddhism is not a religion would have a hard time accounting for the some of its Japanese and Korean permutations. In both countries, Buddhism has been intertwined with local folk traditions, shamanism, and nature worship. There are gods — in all but name, perhaps — for just about everything, lucky charms and amulets for sale, elaborate rituals, temples dedicated to specific human desires (traffic safety and academic success may be prayed for at Yonggungsa) — and there certainly seems to be a distinctly religious element to proceedings at events like this one.

“Wishing lanterns” are a uniquely Korean flourish:


Bring the family!

According to this source,

This tradition is also a big business for Korean temples… Insiders say that the income from the wishing lanterns around Buddha’s Birthday make up the budget for the temples for a year, at least.


Lapping Up the Attention

This little nook on the cliffside above and behind the temple and the gold Buddha is one of my favourite parts, and is particularly peaceful on a quiet morning just after dawn:


A Quiet Corner

The sea breeze was soothing after the walk in the hot sun:


Lanterns in the Ocean Breeze

The true believers did a lot of praying — and a lot of repeated prostrations — beneath the lanterns…


Prostrations Amid the Celebrations

..but for the great majority of the visitors the day was all about fun.

There was no shame in pointing cameras anywhere you wanted, lots of laughter and family portraits, eating, enjoyment of the majestic views and the timeless rhythm of the waves lapping at the rocks below.


Boy shouting at his father — again & again & again…

This outcrop, with its view of the temple and its amazing backdrop, is the coveted place for photographers as sunset approaches. I’ve been here for dawn a couple of times as well, and had the place to myself. You can easily imagine the awe and reverence it attracted in centuries past — particularly with that fearsome dragon lurking somewhere just offshore:


A Moment’s Peace

There was lots of prayer and prostration out here at this Buddha, too…


Red Jacket Prayers

..but rituals took various forms:


The Golden Hour


Taking Position before Sunset


Starting Young


Wind in Her Hair

Around 7:00 the sun dipped behind the headland, the temperature dropped, and the sky glowed in subtle pinks and oranges:


Temple Sunset

Photographers — myself included — went into combat mode…



..and the lantern lights came on:


Temple Graffiti

It was fantastic. I ran around excitedly with the other hopeless lantern groupies until it got too dark. Up on the road, the hordes were retreating to their traffic jams and overcrowded buses. I strolled back on the coast road, enjoying the solitude and the salty breeze, until Home, Sweet Home for the night came into view:

Love Beacons

Love Beacons

It was the second great light show of the evening.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. I wonder if the sea dragon is the same one whose daughter befriended Urashimataro in the Japanese folk tale.

  2. While reveling in this colorful post, I was suddenly aware of how the red background was interacting with the colors in your photos. Did you change your blog background to red for this post? This is one of my favorite of your posts so far in the category I think of as Korean celebration posts. Wonderful series of photos and narrative. That sunset photo is sublime, as well as the black and white one below it. The ocean of compassion is part of the celebration!

    By the way, while reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, and experiencing the Pacific Crest Trail through words, I’ve been thinking of you and your PCT friends and all the people who have walked that trail. Turns out that the idea for the trail came in 1926 from a woman named Catherine Montgomery who lived in Bellingham, Washington (where I live):


    “It may be impossible to pinpoint the first person to propose the Pacific Crest Trail but published accounts tend to acknowledge the following people: Catherine Montgomery at the State Normal School in Bellingham, Wash.; a former Supervisor of Recreation for the U.S. Forest Service, Fred W. Cleator; and Clinton C. Clarke of Pasadena, Calif. According to author and mountaineer Joseph T. Hazard, Catherine Montgomery suggested the idea of a border-to-border trail to him in 1926. Fred. W. Cleator, who oversaw the Pacific Northwest Region of the Forest Service, outlined Oregon’s Skyline Trail (a seminal link of the PCT) in 1920 and extended that trail to Oregon’s north and south borders. Cleator also initiated plans for a similar trail in Washington. Clinton C. Clarke, founder of the Pasadena Playhouse and chairman of the Mountain League of Los Angeles, however, is often called the “father” of the PCT because he organized the Pacific Crest Trail System Conference in 1932 to promote the concept of a border-to-border trail.

    • Thanks, Am! Actually I think my shots from the BB celebrations of the previous year are perhaps better, but I enjoyed playing with the fisheye lens on this latest trip. I hope to publish some of last year’s shots sometime soon.

      Yes, you’re right about the colours. I used to use a very limited palette for the background but recently started playing with selecting one colour that reflects one or more of that post’s shots. It’s fun, and red makes a bold statement!

      I’ve heard of ‘Wild’ (and if Strayed is a pseudonym, it’s superb!) and it’s supposed to be one of the better Trail books. Are you thinking of doing the PCT sometime? You won’t be sorry! I still have all of Washington to do some day…

  3. Your pictures are lovely! I was at Yonggung and Haeundae at the exact same time as you actually, but you documented it so much better.

    • Ah, thank you! I noticed quite a few westerners in the crowd — and it’s always arresting to suddenly hear English out of nowhere. Don’t know if you walked from Haeundae, but that’s a great option if you haven’t — one of my favourite strolls in southeastern Korea.

      • I wish! We didn’t realize there was such a beautiful looking pathway to the temple, but we saw it by car as we came to the temple. Next time I’m in Busan maybe!

  4. maureenlynn says

    These are beautiful photos. Full of color and life. What a neat experience.

  5. These photographs are fantastic. The colors are so striking, and the people are as well. No lie, I feel like these pictures and your story capture the beauty of life almost perfectly and remind me why I want to travel so badly.

  6. The red is bold! I see what you mean about the fisheye lens. I’ve never used one, but it seems to work at ground level, doesn’t it? Those colourful lanterns look fantastic. I’d have a field day once it was dark!

    • Yes, you could lurk around with a camera in the dark for hours with impunity!

      Love the fisheye. Image quality per se is nowhere near that of the lens I use, but the tradeoff is the WOW! I think it’s underused in landscapes given the right subject matter. I like it with flowers too. You can turn down the distortion with careful positioning, or crank it up to the max!

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