Our Family in Faraway Places


You may be wondering how a Canadian woman and Filipino man working in South Korea ended up getting married, having a son and traveling all over most of Asia and beyond. It’s a bit of a long story but here is how we got to where we are today!

Family in Faraway Places

Our first photo together

How we Ended up in Gwangju, South Korea

Danny

After two years of living and studying in Japan, Danny had returned to the Philippines and was working for a Japanese company in Cavite. He wasn’t planning on going abroad again but his older sister had paid a recruiter to find her a job in South Korea. Nearly a year went by and the recruiter wasn’t able to find any jobs for women, so Danny agreed to go in her place. He joined the Employment Permit System (EPS), and studied Korean for 10 days. He passed the language test and training programs and in October 2006 he was off to Gwangju, South Korea.

Family in Faraway Places

First Christmas together

Jessica

In 2005 I had finished my university degrees. I had planned on teaching in high crime, low income neighborhoods in Toronto, Canada. My brother and his wife were living in the Middle East and my family encouraged me to try working abroad for a bit. I sent my resume out all over the world with no set destination in mind and was contacted by an art and design university just outside of Seoul. The job was to teach English but I figured it would be a way to combine my degrees in art and education so off I went (I never ended up teaching any art there!).

It was a fantastic job but the program shut down after just the one year. I had enjoyed my time in Korea though and decided to come back for another year. My next job was in Gangnam, Seoul the famous wealthy neighborhood that Psy sang about in the viral video Gangnam Style. The school started losing money though, there was a bunch of drama and I moved in April 2007 to Gwangju, South Korea to start a new job.

How We Met

I went home to Canada for my summer vacation that July. While I was away on vacation a group of Filipino migrant factory workers had started visiting a local expat bar. When I returned in August a group of friends and I went to that same bar to celebrate our friend’s birthday. We walked in the door and I’m told I said something along the lines of “There are a lot of hot guys here tonight, but that guy is mine!” It’s not the kind of thing I had ever said before but I walked right up to Danny and introduced myself.

We danced all night and just before he was about to leave I gave him a quick kiss. Danny was already pretty worried about his English skills and nervous about speaking to the second Caucasian woman he had ever met. The little kiss completely shocked both him and his friends. We completely forgot to exchange phone numbers! The next weekend he returned to the bar though, and we exchanged numbers properly this time. About 4 months after meeting we were officially engaged.

The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth

We were young, naive and in love. When I met Danny I knew nothing about the Philippines, or any restrictions its citizens might have. This was the man I loved and I didn’t care where he came from, or how much money he had. Immigration Canada on the other hand did.

We planned on getting married in Canada in August but a month before the wedding Danny’s visa application was denied. As a migrant worker Danny had been sending most of his paycheck home to his family each month and immigration felt that he did not have sufficient funds to visit Canada.

Family in Faraway Places

Getting ready for the wedding

Family in Faraway Places

 

Wedding at the courthouse

Upset but determined we decided to get married in the Philippines instead. Since we were only in the Philippines for a couple of weeks, there was not time to plan anything big. We were married in a courthouse with around 5 witnesses. A $10 wedding dress, his family cooked the food and we all ate in the backyard of Danny’s brother’s place. The majority of the guests were family and neighbors and we had a surprise visit from 2 of Danny’s best friends from college. I wouldn’t have wanted anything else.

Wedding dinner in the Philippines

Wedding dinner in the Philippines

Newly Married Life

Before getting married Danny had lived in a small shared room at the factory where he worked on the other side of the city. I had my own apartment near my school so it just made sense that he moved in with me. He was being asked to work from 8am – 10:30pm every day though. When he got off work the busses had stopped running so it would be a $10 taxi ride to come home. In the morning he would get up and leave by 5:30 am to get to work on time by bus.

At one point he worked 14 or 15 hours a day, Monday to Friday and 8 hours a day, Saturday and Sunday for 3 weeks straight without a single day off. I contacted the labor board about it. They told us that he was only legally required to work 16 hours of overtime a week but we should not say anything to them because if he refused his boss might beat him!

We decided to just see each other on weekends. For 5 months we saw each other Saturday night and Sunday during the day. The arrangement was wearing us down. Danny tried to find work someplace else but couldn’t find anything with better work conditions. We thought that maybe he should just quit his job and go back to school. He decided to continue studying Japanese.

Family in Faraway Places

Newly Weds

We spoke with the foreign students’ department at a local university and they told us that to enroll he would have to take both a Korean speaking and written test. The speaking test was done informally and he passed. He would have to come to the university at a set time and date to do the written test. There was no way his boss would let him have time off work to write the test. He would have to quit his job to take it.

Once he quit his job he would have only about a month to find another job, enroll in a school or leave the country. The university assured us that the written test was only a formality and he would be admitted to the university. With that promise Danny quit his job. (The man who replaced him in the factory lost his fingers in the press machine a month later)

Danny did the writing test and the university told him he failed. They would not let him attend unless he first took Korean language classes from them for an additional $4,000. We felt completely betrayed! They knew we would be in a very difficult position if he quit his job without a backup plan. We didn’t have that extra money to spend and we felt tricked so we decided that he would not attend the university.

With only a month and a half before he would be required to leave the country, we made a plan to change Danny’s work visa to a dependent spouse visa. We contacted immigration and at that time dependent visas in South Korea were not as common as they are now. Our local immigration office wasn’t exactly sure what we needed to do. We were running back and forth to the immigration office and on the phone with them constantly. They kept asking us for paperwork from our home countries which doesn’t exist.

Family in Faraway Places

Weekend chairlift ride up the mountain

We also had difficulty getting through to the Philippine embassy in Korea. I would call and say something along the lines of “Hello, I’m calling to get some information about getting a spouse visa.” The woman on the other end would scream at me “YOU CANT JOIN YOUR HUSBAND IN KOREA!” and hang up. After several tries I called back and quickly yelled “I’m Canadian!” before she hung up the phone. She had thought I was a Filipina wanting to go live with my migrant worker husband who worked in Korea which is not allowed.

We had to leave Korea and come back to get a dependent visa. Our approval from the immigration office came only a couple of days before our flight. We would end up celebrating our 6 months of marriage back in the Philippines.

Before we left I called the Korean immigration office in the Philippines to make sure I had everything I needed. The switch board put me through to an officer and she started to list off things I needed. I paused for a moment as I wrote the information down and then the phone went dead. I called back and the switch board put me through again. I explained that the phone had gone dead. The woman said “I know. I hung up on you because I didn’t hear you.” I had paused for only a second.

She started to list off again what we needed. She said that I needed an invitation letter from my place of work. We had never been told this. I asked her what the letter had to say. Her response: “Just an invitation letter”. But what does it have to say? “They just have to write an invitation.” I could just imagine us going all the way to the Philippines to find it had been done incorrectly!

I asked her if there were instructions in Korean that I could give to my boss. She started to get rude with me. I told her I didn’t understand what was required. She said she already told me. I asked if I could maybe speak to someone else because I was confused. She said I couldn’t speak to anyone else because she had already told me.

She was being very rude and I asked to please have her name. She replied “What’s your name?” and hung up on me. I called again, explained what had happened and they put me through to another person. The first woman had been telling me the wrong information. An invitation letter is only required if you don’t have the visa number and you are applying from the Philippines.

Family in Faraway Places

Christmas together

When we finally got to the Philippines we went to the Korean immigration office. You needed to fill out the paperwork one day and the visa is ready to be picked up the next. It was a madhouse in there and a worker gave us the paperwork to fill out. A pile of 6 papers (3 for each of us) and told us to go fill them out…Except mine were all in Korean! I asked her how I was to fill them out and she just shooed me away. So we asked again and she told us to just ask some Korean.

We asked a woman who was there to do some visa stuff herself and she helped us out. She helped me fill out two forms and then she double checked the title. We were filling out the wrong forms! We were filling out the ones to apply for the visa and we had already been approved back in Korea. The woman who gave us the forms hadn’t bothered to look at our paperwork or listen to what we said when we came in.

So we went back to the front desk and the lady who had been helping us told them that they had given us the wrong form. She then gave us the right form. ONE PAGE! We filled it out, but when we went back to the counter and they told us “You’re too late. We only accept applications for visa’s from 9-11am. You have to come back tomorrow”. Coming back tomorrow would mean that we would have to wait until Monday to get the visa and have to stay in the hotel 2 more nights.

I explained that we had been on time but she gave us the wrong forms. She didn’t care and she left. I was at my breaking point. We asked everyone we could for help, the volunteers, security guards, immigration officers etc. and eventually someone from the visa department. They took the paper and the passport and told us to come back tomorrow. Except for a long wait, we got it the next day without a hitch.

You may think that we were now free from visa problems but that was not the case. We came back to Korea and went through immigration. I went through first and then Danny was to go through. The immigration officer kept looking at his visa. Because I had already gone through they wouldn’t let me come back to help out. For the next 5 years or more he would always go through immigration before me because of this.

The man eventually called me back and asked Danny if I was his mother (possible language problem). We said “no wife”. I showed him that my name on my passport was also on his visa. He looked at it, smiled, laughed and then sent me back out and sent Danny to be interrogated.

They took Danny into another room and I couldn’t see what was going on. There was the immigration officer for pilots and diplomats near where I was waiting and he asked why I was there. I told him that they had taken my husband in for questioning. He asked where he was from. I told him the Philippines. He asked if it was his first time to Korea. I told him he had lived here for two years. He assured me that they were just double checking and not to worry.

In the meantime an immigration officer was looking at Danny’s visa. She then asked to look at his ear. We have no idea why. Then she asked who I was. He told her that I was his wife. They continued to look through his passport for about 20min more. I was out in the immigration area of the airport crying and asking anyone I could to please tell me where my husband was. Finally all the immigration officers came in to where he was. A young officer asked those inspecting Danny’s passport what kind of visa he had. They said “F3”. The officer told them “It’s fine! Let him go through” and that was it.

Now What?

Once we returned home Danny decided that he would study Japanese on his own at home. This “studying” was often turning into hours of video games. We realized that this wasn’t going to work long term so we looked into formal education opportunities again. I asked him what he would like to “be”. This was something he had never had the opportunity to consider before.

Eventually he decided he liked cooking. Our friend found a two year Hotel Cooking and Nutrition program locally. Despite being past the application deadline they let him apply and in March he began his classes. At the end of the year when they held a program wide cooking contest, Danny won!graduation photo

Our First Real Vacation Together

When we first got married we planned on going to Canada the next summer to celebrate with my family. During all the changes for Danny’s new visa, our visa renewal date in Korea had gotten changed as well. When we went to apply for Danny’s tourist visa to Canada we found that he couldn’t get one. For him to apply for a Canadian visa his Korean visa would have had to have been valid for more than 3 months past the month we would have been traveling. His Korean visa expired in August and we were going to Canada in August so it wasn’t 3 months. We could only renew our Korean visas one month in advance so we wouldn’t have gotten our Canadian visa back in time.

Visa Troubles Lead to Vacation Plans!

We were very depressed because we couldn’t go to Canada yet again because of visa issues and decided to use the money that we had saved up for Canada to travel to another country. We chose Cambodia because we had just seen a great Discovery Channel program on Angkor Wat, our friends loved it when they visited and because though I needed a visa to go, Danny FINALLY didn’t! All of our visa troubles lead to the beginning of our travels.

Family in Faraway Places

Visiting the temples in Cambodia

We went for 3 weeks and traveled right across the country for about $20/day including accommodation and food. We stayed in some really interesting places. Some good, and some bad. It was a really defining point in our relationship as this was the first place that we had traveled to together for no reason other than just to travel. That same year I started to study Tagalog (Filipino) and in January I started my Masters in Education with a specialization in TESL online. Danny completed his degree.

To Canada Finally!

The summer of 2010, we attempted yet again to go to Canada. An immigration officer at the Canadian embassy had told us that in the eyes of Immigration Canada, Filipino citizens are viewed as guilty of wanting to stay in Canada illegally until they could prove they were innocent. He would have an easier time immigrating to Canada than getting a tourist visa they said. With that in mind we created our case and submitted a tourist visa application an inch thick…and were finally approved! We renewed our vows in Canada and had a lovely pot luck lunch with many of my family and friends.

Opening wedding presents in Canada

The highlight of the trip (other than seeing family) had to be visiting Niagara Falls. Karaoke (videoke) is incredibly popular in the Philippines. There you can find machines everywhere! Often on these machines they show a background video of Niagara Falls. Growing up it was the only place Danny ever dreamed of visiting and it finally came true!

Family in Faraway Places

Finally to Niagara Falls!

The Next Big Trip

Since I was working on my degree we stayed close to home for the next little while. In July 2011 we made a small trip to Palawan, Philippines. We were talking about starting a family as I finished my course requirements in the winter of 2011. As a reward for all our hard work and as a last trip before we “settled down” we headed off on a trip of a lifetime to Northern India. My grandmother’s family had lived in India for generations as part of the British Colonies and so I had always wanted to visit. We visited Delhi, Varanasi, Arga, Jaipur, Johdpur and Jaisalmer in a little over 2 weeks in February 2012. By March I was pregnant with our son.

Family in Faraway Places

Varanasi India

Family in Faraway Places

Studying Korean drumming while pregnant (We cleared it with our doctor before we went!)

And Now There Were 3

Family in Faraway Places

​Being new parents in a foreign country with no help from our families was harder then we could have ever imagined. Traveling with our son though was surprisingly easier than we thought! In August 2013 when our son was 8 months old, we took our first trip together as a family to Phuket, Thailand.

Family in Faraway Places

Being blessed by a monk in Phuket, Thailand

We wanted to take advantage of infant ticket prices while we could so we traveled to Japan in January 2014 to visit Danny’s sister and her family. That summer we visited Canada in July and later the Philippines in August. We introduce our son to as many family members as we could before his ticket cost would increase when he turned 2. It quickly became clear that rather than ending our travels, our son was contributing to our travels!

Family in Faraway Places

Meeting lolo in the Philippines

Our son grew to be an incredibly active little guy who loves to explore and be outdoors and our life in Korea was starting to feel like it wasn’t the best fit anymore. The air quality was getting increasingly worse each year and we often had to keep him inside. The school system in Korea is also notoriously stressful. We looked at moving to the Philippines but in the end decided against it. If something were to happen to Danny there we would all be in a difficult position.

We then looked at moving to the Middle East but again Danny’s visa issues made it all but impossible. All of the visa problems over the years had made me very worried about what would happen to our family if something were to happen to me or Danny. We ended up choosing to move to Canada where there would be more safety nets. Danny could eventually apply for citizenship which would provide another layer of protection. We made one last big trip together to Indonesia before we would submit Danny’s permanent residency application in March.

borobudur temple sunrise tour

The Last Time is Never the Last

If you haven’t noticed there is a bit of a pattern with our “last big trip” not being our last big trip! There was a mix up at my work in the spring and we weren’t able to submit our application in March 2015 as planned. Having a bit more time in Asia we headed to the Philippines again in the summer and submitted his permanent residency application in August. While waiting for approval we headed to Myanmar to visit the country where my maternal grandmother had been born and grew up.
family atop a temple in baganAt the end of June 2016 Danny’s permanent residency application was approved but he was required to go to Canada to officially “land” before August. There was no way we could pack up a decade of our life in Korea and just go with such a short timeframe so he went alone, officially landed and then came back to Korea. We decided to make the move together the following year and set off on a trip to Vietnam in the summer.

Now that a year is getting closer though it looks like it will be another year. Eventually we do need to move or he will lose his permanent residency so we are trying to visit all the places we still want to visit in Asia. Then, someday in the near future our adventures will shift to North and South America. In the meantime, I guess we are just a family of accidental travelers heading out on our next adventure together.
Family in Faraway Places

Geisha in Kyoto, Japan: How to See a Real Geisha

Our First Night Looking for Geisha

On our most recent trip to Japan our main goal was to finally make it to Kyoto because (if we were very lucky) I wanted to see a geisha. The exact number of geisha currently working in Japan is not known but it is estimated that there are about 1,000 with the highest concentration in Kyoto. There are about 100 geisha and 100 maiko (geisha apprentice) working in Kyoto.

We booked a hotel near the Gion, Kyoto’s most famous entertainment district where most geisha in Koyoto work. My plan was to go out to the Gion each of the 4 nights we were in Kyoto to just sit and wait and hope to catch a glimpse. Unfortunately our hotel was not as close to the Gion as we had thought.

The first evening we were just too tired and we had an early morning so we didn’t end up making the trip to the Gion. The next night we were too late. Every article we had read had mentioned that we should be in the Gion area around 5:45pm if we wanted to catch a glimpse of a geisha heading to work. Our son had had a late afternoon nap though and we had been given strange walking directions to the Gion.

We found ourselves in the Shimbashi area well after 6pm. It was eerily quiet with only a handful of people walking around. As we walked through the small alleys and side streets you could hear a low murmur coming through some of the glowing doorways as patrons behind the curtained doors enjoyed their meals. On the far side of the Shirakawa river canal large windows allowed us to get a peek into some of the expensive restaurants and clubs.

geisha

Shimbashi side street

We then made it over to Hanamikoji Dori. The famous street is less pretty than the Shimbashi area but we had been told that we would have a better chance spotting a geisha there. It was very clear when we arrived though that all the geisha were already at work. If we wanted to try to see one, we would have to wait until their parties ended later that night or try another day.  We made our way over to Yasaka Shrine and then called it a day.

Yasaka Shrine

Our Last Chance

We didn’t make it back to the Gion until our last night in Kyoto.  We took a taxi right to the intersection of Hanamikoji and Shijo Dori and started our search by around 5:20 pm. We slowly made our way down towards Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater (Gion Corner) where visitors can take in traditional performances by maiko for a fee. Looking this way and that, we carefully checked each alleyway. There were kimonos everywhere! We knew before we arrived though that most women we saw in kimono would be tourists. Daily kimono rental is a very popular tourist activity and some places will even make you up to look just like a geisha. There was a lot of “Is she? Is she?” as we walked along. A real giesha or miako is on her way to work though when you spot them in the Gion and so they will not be on the street chatting or stopping for photos.

geisha

NOT real geisha

When we made it down to Gion Corner we weren’t exactly sure what to do next except head back the way we came. There was a large group of tourists waiting at infront of Gion Corner and we thought maybe they were waiting there to see some geisha arrive. When their tour guide joined them though they moved along. Further down the street I saw 3 or 4 men with cameras looking down an alley. These men were not tourists. They were middle aged Japanese men wearing business casual and though they were discrete, they didn’t fit in to the fast and noisy crowds around us.

We decided to check it out. There was a middle aged woman with them. I regret that I never got her name. She spoke a little English and we started to chat about where we were from. They were also waiting for Geisha and the photographers asked through her what kind of camera I was using. I replied “Nikon D90”. They all whispered between themselves “Ah! Nikon. Nikon. Nikon.” while nodding. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. Apparently I had “chosen wisely” and was now part of their group! The woman told us to wait there for about 5 more minutes and then we should move on to the street near the famous Ichiriki Chaya teahouse.

Seeing Geiko and Maiko

I don’t know where she came from but suddenly she appeared! I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. There are signs throughout the Gion reminding visitors to respect and to give the geisha working there space. Some locals in the community even volunteer to patrol the Gion to watch that overly enthusiastic visitors do not act like paparazzi.

geisha

Sign in the Gion

I stayed well back until our guide said “Get in there!” and nudged me to the front of our group. The beautiful geisha in front of us stopped only for a second, looked directly at us, gave a small smile and then as quickly as she appeared, she was gone. “Is she a real one?” I asked. “Yes” our guide replied, “a geiko”.  While “geisha” is the more commonly used term internationally and in Tokyo, geiko is the term used in Kyoto and other parts of western Japan.  I didn’t cry when we saw her but I was embarrassingly close to it and in awe. She was dignified and beautiful!


We quickly headed down the street to wait near the historic 300 year old Ichiriki Chaya tea house.  A menacing looking doorman stood in front. Entry is by invitation only and if the doorman doesn’t know you, you’re not getting in. Our guide instructed us to watch for people who were delivering food to the tea house.  If you see food being delivered you know that there is going to be a party there that night. More food likely means bigger party. The guests arrived in advance and would be listening to musicians playing before the geiko and maiko would arrive about 10 minutes before 6 o’clock.  We looked every which way and peeked in every taxi going by but we were informed that if they did come by taxi, it would only be in the black ones.

Ichiriki Chaya tea house

Unexpectedly in the alleyway across the street down the side of Ichiriki Chaya a maiko appeared. Taking tiny quick steps she made her way down the walkway…and then disappeared! I was looking right at her. I don’t think I even blinked a moment but right in front of my eyes she completely disappeared. Our guide explained that the maiko I had just spotted had arrived early and so she was hiding until she could make a more appropriately timed entrance to the party.

geisha

It was now very clear to us who were geiko and maiko and who were just tourists in costume. The kimono of a geiko costs thousands of dollars. Some are even worth an entire year’s salary! Even from a distance you can see the difference in quality. The kimono of a maiko is colorful, elaborately patterned and has long sleeves. A geiko’s kimono is simpler. Maiko style their natural hair and wear beautiful hairpins whereas geiko wear wigs. Maiko usually have some skin on the back of their necks that remains without makeup but geikos usually wear makeup right to their hairline. The collar of a maiko’s kimono is red but a geiko’s is white. And so on.

geisha

Maiko with her assistant


Around 5:45pm there were suddenly maiko appearing regularly. While we waited we saw two taxis with several maiko in them go by but resisted the urge to chase them down. We saw about 5 maiko in total go into Ichiriki Chaya. The maiko who had disappeared in the alleyway also suddenly reappeared out of nowhere and made her way to the tea house. They all moved so quickly. In the changing light conditions of the dark street with lamps I would just get my camera set when she would move to another area. They were all exceptionally hard to photograph! Some would give a small glance towards the camera but most didn’t.


Since we visited in February there weren’t as many tourists on the streets as there are during more busy seasons. We luckily didn’t see anyone swarming or harassing the maiko as they made their way down the streets. There were two tourists in Kimono who stood in the alleyway taking photos with their cell phones as a maiko made her way towards us. The photographers who we were with chastised them for getting in the way of the “real” photographers and for bothering the maiko with their cellphones. I also have a series of photos where you can see two men trying to take a selfie of themselves with a maiko and her assistant in the background. When they pass the men you can then see the men in the next few photos following and giggling like school girls. The look foolish but nothing paparazzi like.

Then suddenly at 6pm on the dot the action stopped. Our guide though told us to wait around a bit longer. If more food was seen being brought into the teahouse around 6:30pm it would mean that there would be more guests and more geiko and maiko arriving around 7pm. This was not the case that night. Shortly after 6:30 we all said our goodbyes and each person seemed to go in a separate direction. I’m not sure exactly who that woman was but she was a wealth of knowledge. The photographers with her took me under their wing. I should have asked but I was just so excited about the moment. With their help though and a whole lot of luck, our Kyoto dreams of seeing a geiko came true.

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Boseong’s Green Tea Plantation Light Festival

boseong light festival dragon
Boseong in Jeollanamdo, South Korea is currently holding their annual Light Festival. The lights are on display this year at the Korea Tea Culture Park and at Yulpo Beach. Some other small displays are spread throughout the community. If you are driving from Yulpo Beach towards the Tea Park be sure to look at the mountain on the left! There is a huge light display of Admiral Yi Sun Shin that you do not see if you are driving the opposite direction.

boseong light festival
boseong light festival boat
boseong light festival tunnel
boseong light festival tree
We went during the week and the area was very quiet. On the weekends though, people from out of town come by the bus load. The displays are very nice and it is easy to spend a few hours at the festival. We were a little disappointed though because in the past they have covered the tea fields in rows and rows of lights. This year there were no rows lights on the fields when we attended. As well as the lights there are the usual festival performances and foods. The festival continues from December 16th to January 31st and is free to attend.

boseong light festival tree
boseong light festival tree
boseong light festival dragon
boseong light festival street

  • Dates: 12/16/16 – 01/31/17

  • Cost: Free

  • Arriving by Bus:

Take an express bus to the Boseong Terminal then transfer to a local bus heading for Gunhak. Get off at Dawon Bus Stop for the Korea Tea Culture Park and get off at Yulpo Bus stop for Yulpo Beach.
 


 

Mysterious Unjusa Temple of 1,000 Buddha and Pagodas

unjusa temple hwasun

View of Unjusa in the Spring on our first visit

The South Korean temple, Unjusa in Hwasun County is a bit of a mystery. No one is quite sure who the founder is but it is estimated to have been built sometime between 57 BC and 935 AD. Originally the temple had more than 1,000 Buddha statues and 1,000 pagodas but today only 91 stone statues and 21 pagodas of various sizes remain. They can be found around the temple grounds and in the surrounding fields and mountains.
child looking at buddha statue unjusa hwasun korea temple
small statue unjusa hwasun temple korea
pagoda in mountain at unjusa temple
Buddha statue under large stone hwasun unjusa south korea temple
multi cylindrical pagoda unjusa south korea hwasun
A few years ago when our son was only a few months old we took a trip to Unjusa. We hadn’t researched much before we went. We enjoyed our time but when we got home we found out that we had completely missed the giant statues of Buddha lying down. We knew we would need to return!
Painting on the temple roof
many little gold colored buddha
Temple door carvings and painting lotus

We have just returned to Unjusa and were pleasantly surprised! Since our last visit they have invested in creating beautiful trails and stairs to the main attractions in the mountains. The stone or wooden paths are steep in parts but are some of the best I have seen in my 11 years in Korea! When we visited before my husband and son had to wait at the bottom of the mountain as I climbed to get a good photo because the trail was rather slippery when wet. This is no longer a concern!

walkway at unjusa temple
Stairs going to the reclining buddha
This visit we were sure to get a pamphlet (in English!) and checked the maps so we knew where we were going. The paths are well labeled and there are signs at the major monuments in both Korean and English explaining the significance. We had missed the giant reclining Buddha statues the first visit because we had taken the trail up behind the temple rather than the trail to the left. It is clearly marked and was entirely our mistake.

We didn’t make the mistake again though! After you climb the stairs to the top of the hill there is no missing the reclining Buddha statues. Carved out of the stone in the ground, one is nearly 42 feet and the other around 34 feet. The carvings are rather crude but it is still impressive. I have never seen anything else like it in Korea.

Buddha lying down carving from rock
reclining buddha unjusa temple

The hikes around Unjusa are easy and not very crowded. It’s quite far from the city with few restaurants or other services around. It’s best to bring your own food! Some guided tour groups do make it out to the temple but with such a large area to explore it never felt busy. With so many treasures to search for it’s easy to discover something new each time you visit Unjusa which is why it’s one of our favorite temples in the region.

Cost

  • Adults 3,000 won / Teenagers 2,000 won / Children 1,000 won

Hours

  • Summer 08:00-18:00 / Winter 08:00-17:00

Transportation

  • From Gwangcheon Bus Terminal (USquare) in Gwangju take city bus number 318 or 218. The ride takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Confirm with the driver that the bus will stop at the temple (운주사). 

7 Must See Places Near Gwangju this Fall

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This summer has been a long and unbelivably hot one but fall is in the air! Maybe you're looking for a place to see the fall colours or somewhere to visit over the Chuseok holiday. The Damyang House, Compass Korea  and Family in Faraway Places  have you covered with our favorite places to visit near Gwangju, Jeollanamdo during the autumn season in Korea!

1. The Gwangju Lake Eco-Park (광주호수생태원)

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The interconnecting boardwalks and walkways inside the Eco-Park offer spectacular views of the lake and are designed to accommodate visitors of all ages.  The park is very popular and can get busy, especially on the weekend during mid afternoon.  The secret is to arrive just before dusk when 90% of the visitors are leaving, sneak in a bottle of wine and your dog, and enjoy the sun setting behind the mountains on the far side of the lake.  Better yet, arrive in the afternoon and explore the rice paddies adjacent to the park before catching the sunset.  Follow the service road behind the 7-11 in the parking lot into the rice paddies and enjoy the uninhibited views of Mundeung National Park and the surrounding mountains.  Not only are these small farming service roads pet friendly, they are virtually empty except for the occasional farmer.   Even still, for some of the best views of the lake and Mudeung Mountain, you can walk up road 887 (main road following the lake) and find one of several trails used to access the lake by the local fishermen.  Bring your camera AND your fishing rod because the bass fishing is just as good as the views.  


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Check out more about Gwangju Lake Eco Park, from The Damyang House here!
Fishing Trails


2. Baegyangsa (백양사)

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Part of Naejangsan National Park, Baegyangsa was established in 632 AD. Once you arrive it is a short and easy walk from the parking area to the temple. The walkway takes you along the river and past little shops selling fresh persimmons and roasted chestnuts in the fall. As you approach the temple you are greeted with the spectacular image of the temple at the end of the river with a backdrop of red, orange and yellow leaves framing the mountain’s rock formation. This spot is a favorite location for tourists and locals during the autumn season and during the best weekends to view the fall colors it can get busy! There is plenty of space to find a nice little quiet place to yourself and paths to hike but take the crowds into consideration. The first time we went we were a bit naïve about how bad the traffic would be on a peak weekend. The trip that usually takes 35 minutes to an hour, took us nearly 3 hours! Arriving early or on weekdays can help you to avoid the crowds nearly all together.


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Check out more about Baegyangsa from Family in Faraway Places here!
Baegyangsa


3. Guemseong-Sanseong Fortress (담양 금성산성)

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I’ve hiked and traveled all over South Korea – and lots of Asia – and the Geumseong Fortress in Damyang is a spot that continues to impress me to this day. I can still vividly remember climbing out the trees the first time years ago – not knowing what to expect – and coming face to face with the imposing stone gate towering over me. Just awesome. The appeal of Guemseong is that the reward is so high for such a short hike. After 30-40 minutes on a gradual ridge you get to explore an impressive mountain fortress. I definitely recommend it to everyone coming to the area.


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Watch a video of Damyang and the Geumseong Fortress by Compass Korea here! 
Geumseong Fortress


4. Shikyeongjung (식영정)

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Shikyeongjung is a small group of pavilions just across from the Eco-Park and right next to the Poetry and Literature Museum.  This small park doesn’t look like much at first glance, but keep in mind these are functioning pavilions.  Grab some snacks from one of the cafes or a bottle of makoli from the 7-11 and find an empty pavilion to relax in and enjoy the fresh air.  The pavilion on top of the hill even has a working Hwangto-Bang during the colder months (red clay brick room heated via small cast iron stove under the floor).  This park is especially popular with the local photography clubs during the fall months when the trees offer a colorful backdrop for the traditional pavilions.  What most visitors don’t know is that there is a pet-friendly trail behind the aforementioned pavilion on the hill that leads up the mountain to a scenic overlook offering beautiful views of Mudeung National Park and the surrounding valley.  It’s a steep 25 minute climb, but well worth it.  


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Read more from The Damyang House about what you can find around Shikyeongjunjg here!
Jishil Valley


5. Suncheon Bay (순천만습지)

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One of the best day trips in all of Jeollanamdo is to explore the beautiful eco park of the Suncheon Bay. Stroll on boardwalks just above the mudflats and listen to miles of reeds swaying and rustling in the breeze. In the summer the six-foot reeds are a vibrant green, but in the fall, when the feathery seed heads are full, they change to brown and gold, looking more like wheat than tall grass. Plus, if you go in the fall you get to see the flocks of migratory birds that rest and feed in the Suncheon Bay.


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To see Suncheon Bay upclose, watch this video by Compass Korea here!
Suncheon Bay


6. Songgwangsa (송광사)

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Songgwangsa is one of Korean’s best known temples! Found in Jogyesan Provincial Park, the temple is only about a 45 minute drive from Gwangju and is a popular destination to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday, join a temple stay program or to just enjoy the autumn scenery. When you arrive at the parking area you will find some small restaurants and vendors where you can grab a meal or a snack. The main gate where you purchase your ticket is also there but the temple is about a 15 minute walk away! We were not expecting such a long walk but the pathways follow a beautiful river and take you through a quiet pine forest. We found ourselves wishing that we had packed a picnic lunch to enjoy under the trees like many hikers were doing. Songgwangsa is quite large with many buildings to explore and lots of space to spread out in and so it never seemed crowded. 


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Check out more about Songgwangsa from Family in Faraway Places here!
Songgwangsa


7. Sosaewon (소쇄원)

sosaewon 2Descriptions of this private garden tend to be overly dramatic, but the fact that's it's 500 years old, has been passed down for 15 generations, and the current owner lives in our village just two doors down is pretty impressive.   It’s also included on just about every “top 10” list focusing on Damyang so it’s worth checking out.  The entire garden is surrounded by a bamboo forest and is split by a small stream, with pavilions on either side.  Small walkways and bridges connect everything and guide you through the park.  It's not big and is unfortunately made even smaller by the unusually large crowds.  Sosaewon is only about 1km from Shikyeongjung, but walking along the main road isn’t always the most comfortable.  To avoid this, start your afternoon here and after checking out the park exit Sosaewon via the little-known and underused back entrance.  This trail will follow the ridge up the mountain and around the valley and take you to the overlook previously mentioned and ultimately down to Shikyeongjung and the Eco-Park!  


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Check out more near Sosaewon, from The Damyang House here!
Rice Paddies


A big thank you to The Damyang House and Compass Korea for collaborating on this article!