Sunrise to Japan and Other Thoughts

Sunrise, Ulleungdo


It’s 10:30 pm on a Tuesday night in Korea and I’m typing presentation slides on how to write an essay about scenes from Baraka for the uni students in tomorrow evening’s lecture, and Billie Holiday’s singing through the Mac and there’s a white candle burning on the coffee table and a fluorescent bulb beaming from the ceiling and Facebook is full with Bin Laden and Harper and opinions and a Martin Luther quote and the New York Times is flying giant flags with stripes and stars and big fat capital-letter headlines about a dead man and a compound and justice and revenge and the people are happy and the people are angry and my west-coast and east-coast and middle-Canada friends are fuming and sad about the new blue map and one of them used the word crushed and I’m sorry I didn’t pull it together to apply for an absentee ballot and I didn’t mean to be absentee from my country, though I saw a photo of it last week from a student who had been there on vacation, her and her Korean family sitting in front of a lake somewhere near Vancouver, she said, with a crazy tall mountain stretching behind them all the way out of the frame and holy shit did I miss it and I’ve got six-year olds in the morning and a cup of mango tea to keep me awake well past midnight and I miss the long nights of writing when I had time with the words and the thoughts but for now, a sunrise, witnessed from an island as far east as you can go in Korea except for Dokdo, that spit even closer to Japan, a small stone of territory claimed by both countries with accusations and ancient maps, but either way the path I watched these rays pierce the cloud from was pretty far east in the far far east and the waves were foaming up against the rock as the dark lifted and I wanted to share it, and remember it tonight.


Water Rocks and Animal Names

There’s a lot of rock jutting out of the sea around Ulleungdo.

Imaginative locals have named the shapely formations after the creatures and things they resemble: Elephant, Bear, Lion, Turtle, Candlestick.  There’s even a “Noodle” rock stretching up from the ground a quick jaunt inland:  a tall cliff wall lined with long stringy indents that look a little like the salty dried spaghetti snacks served at Thursday Party bars throughout Korea.


Noodle Rock

Some of the rocks truly do echo their namesake; Elephant rock’s trunk may be a touch wide, but you can still see it dipping into the water for a long drink.

Elephant Rock. Bit of a humpback.

Candlestick rock?  Okay, there may not be wax dripping off it, but the shape is there, sort of.

Candlestick Rock

Other similarities were, we thought, a little questionable.  This is the tallest, pointiest, shell-free turtle I’ve ever seen.

"Turtle" Rock

Man vs. Nature (or Joe and the Rock)

We tried to last until sunset here, watching the light drift down behind the turtle, leaning against a rolled-up tarp on a deserted concrete porch we spotted on the shore, but between my soaked-through boots, wet feet, and the cold wind, the bus back to Dodong was calling.

Luckily, the pre-sunset glimpse was sweet enough.

Finding the Snow Fields: Road to Nari Basin

I realize it’s mid-April, and photos of snowy Korean fields on an island off the east coast might contradict the reality of bursting cherry blossoms along my neighbourhood stream in Busan (as well as trigger an unexpected chill in my Canadian readers who are enjoying the thaw of spring), but snowy fields is what I’ve got to show you.

They were taken in a place called the Nari Basin, which is the only flat stretch of land on Ulleungdo–yep, I’m still posting about Ulleungdo (the island was gorgeous, why stop now?)–and surrounded on all sides by volcanic mountains.

Like most places we ventured to during our off-season stay in early February, the Basin, we discovered, wasn’t accessible by local transport.

The coastal road bus

After a morning drive that wound up into Ulleungdo’s hills and cruised along its coast from Dodong, the bus dropped us in the village of Cheonbu, where, upon our mention of “Naribunji” the driver pointed to an uphill road in the distance and shook his head at our enquiry of another bus heading there.

Facing a long steep trek in already-damp boots that weren’t built for snowdrifts wasn’t making me the cheeriest foreigner on Korean soil, but we forged ahead anyway, with the exact time and distance the journey would take a vague notion in our minds of “a few hours.”


About 20 minutes in, we passed this grave, with the mountains climbing skyward behind it.

Soon after, a Korean family of three drove by, spotted us, slowed down, and picked us up.  We climbed into the backseat and the five of us spoke in broken English, with a few key Korean words thrown in by Joe, who far surpasses me in his ability to communicate with the locals in their native tongue.

They were headed to the Basin.  The drive was icy, steep and miles long; we never would have made it on foot.  Photos of the fields in fall show rust-coloured grass framed with red trees carpeting the mountains surrounding them.  But this day they were bright white, their wide banks shining under the sun.







Up next: More from the coastal road…

How the Sushi Rolls Start

Just like this, with square sheets of seaweed pressed and sun-drying on a row of wooden rolling mats.  In Korea, I eat more tuna kimbap–seaweed rolled up with rice, radish, sesame leaf, and a spoon of mashed-up tuna–than sushi, but it all starts with that dark algae plucked from the cool Asian waters. 


Seaweed drying on Ulleungdo Island

Squid Boats and Island Dusk

Squid fishing’s big on Ulleungdo.  It’s done at nighttime, when old Korean fisherman pull out in boats strung with long hanging bulbs that plunge light deep below the sea’s surface, luring the creatures toward their next-day destiny of drying out in the sun. 

I’m not drawn toward spending days out on an open ocean, but I love strolling through ports like this one in Jeodongni, the island’s second-biggest (but still village-like) settlement.  Old, rusty boats rock against the dock at dusk, waiting to set out for the evening’s catch.

Candlestick Rock--the village landmark

Ulleungdo's squid-boy mascot

Death of a Laptop and Ulleungdo in Late Winter

Hello everybody!

The busy level here in Busan has cranked up about nine notches in the last couple weeks, hence my lack of Coco posts and pics.  I’ve got a couple new projects on the go, and as my Toshiba died its final death in early January, my current computer time is a juggle of brief breaks at school and late hours in the dungeon-like PC bang below my apartment building, where I prep essay-writing lectures while sitting wedged between teenage Korean gamers playing Starcraft.  At least I think that’s what they’re playing.  I slap the headphones on pretty quickly, click onto CBC Radio 2, and tune into the Classical station, attempting to drown out the sound of gunshots and K-pop blasting from both sides of my cubicle.  It almost works.

Luckily, I’ll be welcoming a new laptop into my life (hello, Mac!) asap.  Then I can go back to writing from the comfort of my bed desk, which will inevitably mean longer and more frequent Coco posts.  Can’t wait.

Until then, I’ll be posting brief notes and photos to keep the flow going.  Hope you continue to stop by and say hello.  I always love to hear from you!

These pics are from a sunset-hour hike Joe and I took on Ulleungdo Island in February. After a three-hour boat ride from Pohang, a steel-factory city on Korea’s East coast, we arrived to a volcanic island covered in snow, which made for a peaceful and beautiful two-day visit.  My boots were soaked about six minutes into this climb to Naesujeon Observatory (and remained soaked for most of the trip),  but the view was worth it.  More Ulleungdo posts to come!