Beach & Coastal Walking, Korea
Comments 15

Light Show of the Gods

We have all we need of heaven here on earth ~ Edward Abbey

I’m definitely an off-season beach-goer. Songjeong Beach in the last gasps of Autumn was the quietest I’d seen it — and heard it. Except for the half-hearted thumps from a late-night mattress rodeo in the room next door, the Kuhn Motel was pleasingly silent.

I still woke at 3:30am — excitement, probably. And 3:30 was extreme even for me, at least in late Autumn. I rose again around 5:00 and hit the road, aiming at the crisply outlined fingernail moon hanging over the ocean, then northwards again up the coast road, Yonggung Temple bound.


Roadworks dummy — a bizarre sometime-companion for the road-walker in Korea

I’ve talked about Yonggungsa on TGTW before: the ancient temple perched on the rocks at the ocean’s edge. I must have made the two-mile walk from Songjeong four or five times over the last two years, not counting the time I bypassed it (time constraints) on my big walk up the coast.

I’ve seen a couple of sunsets from Yonggung, both of them at lantern festivals for the Buddha’s birthday


View of the cairns last year on the Buddha’s birthday

..and a few of the dazzling sunrises for which the place is famed.

The temple dawns are best, since the view is eastward, and early in the morning you have the advantages of solitude and choice of vantage points.

Another bonus of cold-season sunrise-stalking: time. Dawn was due around 7:15, and still a ways off when I reached the temple gates. An old man was sweeping some steps in the dark with one of those medieval twig-brooms favoured in Korea. And this was where I broke from the script.

I’d always wondered about those bell-shaped cairns on the far side of the cove (see the picture above). Wouldn’t it be better to wander about them? I’d seen a couple of photographers scurrying around over there last time, but the only apparent path was blocked and I’d assumed they were off limits. Hell, this would be my last chance, so I bounded up the steps when the old man wasn’t looking, found my way along a vague track by feel, reached a dirt road and climbed it to the headland.

A little rock-hopping and…voila:


Pre-Dawn Rock-Hopping

It was perfect — just one of the greatest front-row seats ever. From below and to the north, the rhythmic chugging of a fishing boat as it puttered between seaweed nets — I’d watched men and women running seaweedy ropes through simple cleaning machines yesterday. The sea was calm and glassy and the pre-dawn light glimmered on the nets. I couldn’t believe I had this amazing spot to myself.

After I’d concluded slapping myself on the back, which made a pleasing sound in my goatskin showboarding mitts and goose-down parka, I got down to business. As fellow sunrise/-set groupies know, you only get a 10- or 15-minute window, so time and preparation are crucial. I bounded across the clifftop getting organised — and most important of all, going through the checklist of potential hazards.

After nearly walking off a cliff in Switzerland one time, this is especially important to me! I’ve slowly trained myself to detach my eye from the viewfinder before any step, and I’m always giving myself the heebie-jeebies, intentionally, by imagining the unpleasantness of a bad fall or slip from the local deathtraps.


Seaweed boat doing the morning rounds

It was chilly and crisp, but not too breezy; the light and stillness and enveloping silence, as the boat chugged north, were breathtaking — altogether one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve experienced anywhere.


Seaweed farm to the north

Just south, on a little promontory, another barbed-wired army post. While I waited, a few soldiers strolled out for a look, but (bizarrely) didn’t linger:


A flock of cormorants shot northwards above one of the ubiquitous seaweed fields:


I did have some company out there — fortunately the silent and still type:



These cairns appear to be Buddhist stupa — although I’m no expert. The other possibility is that they’re just very elaborate, mortared adornments positioned for visual impact: smoother, more elaborate versions of the trail-side assemblages so common on Korean trails.

When I peered through the gaps between them, I saw photographers with an arsenal of big guns gathering on the rocks on the far side, back where I used to await the dawn. I kept my head down. With me, the Stone Men and the dozens of tiny Buddhas clustered on and around them, it was crowded enough up there.

Here she comes now:





It was the most fun I’ve had in the dark for a long while. I especially enjoyed the shimmery effect of the light on the seaweed nets — and the (I’ll admit) crucifix-like shape the nets made intersecting with the rippling reflection of the sun:


I doubt I’ll ever be back, but if I am it’ll be with Kate and a little “sunrise enhancer” of some kind.


A Shadowy Self-Portrait



And that was it. The show was just about over, and as always the real miracles had gone down outside the temple gates.


The temple revealed as the world lights up

It felt so remote up there, but I could have actually walked all the way back to my home in Jangyu in one (long) day of road-trudging. Korea is tiny, but back when the temple was built, this coastline must have seemed vast, wild and mysterious.


But the day’s entertainment was just beginning. The coastal path I’d lucked onto continued southward. I decided to try to skip the unpleasant road walk (where a massive theme park construction project was blighting yet another quiet corner of Korea), and walk a new path back to Songjeong.


Rock carvings old & recent

Sometimes my unplanned adventures come together rather nicely…


~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. What a wonderfully atmospheric post. I suppose the gaggle of photogs had set up near the very best ‘standard’ viewpoint, with ideal ‘foreground interest’. I think in your shoes I too would have opted for the company of the little, silent ones.

    • Thanks, Rachael. Yup, always up for something a bit different. Really appreciated the fisheye that morning to help with fitting in both cairns and sun.

    • Thanks, Andrew! I’m sure I’ll miss things — already getting a bit melancholy. I’ve said it before and probably will again, but if it was just a few months here, with no teaching and just exploring, and my impressions would probably have been a lot more positive.

  2. Although you didn’t meet Kate in Korea, you did meet her during your time there. I will always think of you and Kate in connection with Korea and as wildinjapan wrote, we will miss your Korean period. My mind is full of vivid images of Korea now, both urban and beyond the cities.

    That’s an evocative pre-sunrise self-portrait. I’ve only seen the sunrise over the ocean once in my life, and that was in Massachusetts in the early 1970s. Having grown up in Northern California with sunrises always over mountains, I was fascinated by the thought of a sunrise over the ocean. Your startling photo of the cross-shaped reflection at sunrise made me think of William Blake’s drawings and his words:

    “He who binds to himself a joy. Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies. Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

    I haven’t been posting much on my blog because I’ve been volunteering with babies and doing the footwork that will lead to a second career taking care of babies and toddlers. Your silent company for the sunrise looks a lot like the babies in the daycare when they are quietly absorbed in being alive (-:

    • Ha, I always enjoy your comments, Am, and this was no exception. The Blake quote is great, one of the handful of poets (I’m ashamed to admit) I “get” without too much beating of brow.

      I’m lucky that I grew up on the east coast of Australia and so have seen hundreds of ocean dawns. One of the things I’m craving when I get back to Australia, in fact, is the chance to wander about on the flats when the tide’s out shooting sunrises, with a bit more know-how than I had a couple of years ago.

      There’s a lot to be said for mountain sunrises too, of course. A favourite memory and photo (or two) is Sokcho, up north at the end of that big walk I did, at both sunset and sunrise. With the sunrise over the sea I got to look inland and watch the light change on the Seoraksan mountains.

      Good luck with the babies! My problem with keeping up with the blogs I follow is that I can’t access many of them in work time — some issue with either censorship or connectivity. The things blocked by the school computers would amaze you: Rolling Stone magazine, for just one example, and this morning a news article (friend sent a link) about a vicar telling school kids there was no Santa! What’s that, blasphemy?!

    • Thanks, Barb. I had a feeling at the time the sunrise shots were working. I don’t use the word “magical” much but there was something…very special about that place and event.

  3. Lovely shots and you must have been working overtime to ensure you didn’t miss that perfect sunrise? Calm sea and no clouds would’ve had me in a frenzy, trying to make sure I’d make the most of it!

    Nothing beats the soft hue of a sunrise over the ocean for a bit of contemplation? My dream house would be on a cliff overlooking the sea, just for the sunrise and sunset. I’d contemplate my pants off! I guess when you get to the States there won’t be many coastal shots?

    All that pain in Korea, but it’s pretty important, isn’t it? Lots of stories and it’s made your blog step up as well?

    • Yeah, the blogging’s been stepped up to the post-every-two-days level! Insane, but it gives me something to do at work now the exams are over and nobody gives a $#@!!*.

      I do love coastal photography and walking but you’re right, it’s going to be mountains and farmland for the most part. I’m excited about those though! And snow — I will definitely have to learn a thing or two about snow…

  4. “We have all we need of heaven here on earth” (Edward Abbey).

    Well only if you have a conception of heaven, and, without a belief in God (or heaven) how can you?

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