Beyond Yon-sama

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Beyond Yon-sama

Namiseom island has a versatile disposition. Its face can change dramatically, depending on what time of day you visit and which side of the island you’re on.
Early in the morning, before the first ferry arrives, the island is shrouded in mist and emanates an archaic, mysterious beauty. There is hardly anyone in the woods, no cars, certainly no cable TV or high-speed Internet. For a visitor from the city, the absence of such things can induce a temporary panic, though the loss of urban pleasures is quickly replaced by natural spectacles like autumn leaves and grazing animals.
By noon, however, the mist clears away, and the character of the island’s landscape becomes undeniably Korean ― a curious mix of attractions which, to the casual observer, seem completely out of place.
In Andersen’s Hall, named after Hans Christian Andersen and built to suit the notion of the island as a “fairy tale place,” exhibitions and puppet shows are held year-round. A few blocks from it is the Song Museum, chronicling the history of Korean pop music; presumably, the museum is here because of the popular annual music festival the island once hosted.
Then, of course, there is “Winter Sonata.”
Scenes from the tearjerking Korean television drama, which has become hugely popular in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, were shot here. Namiseom has not been the same since.
The island is filled with road signs and memorials marking the sites where “Winter Sonata” scenes were filmed. Gift shops sell postcards and keychains bearing the bespectacled face of Bae Yong-joon, the drama’s male lead actor, who in Japan is better known simply as “Yon-sama.”
All day long, music from “Winter Sonata” plays in cafes and on tour wagons. Flocks of tourists from Japan and China line the streets, taking pictures along the tree-shaded walkways known as “Lover’s Forest,” where the drama’s lovers, Jun-sang and Yu-jin, first kissed.
The shooting locations used in “Winter Sonata” have become a major attraction for Japanese tourists; nowadays, according to the island authority, 20 percent of its tourists are from Japan and China. Last Thursday, a television crew from the Japanese television network NHK shot footage on the island for a program commemorating the anniversary of the airing of the final episode of “Winter Sonata.”

Perhaps Namiseom’s multiple identities have something to do with the number of transitions it’s undergone in the past 30 years.
Until the early 1970s, Namiseom ―which was named after a Joseon Dynasty admiral who is buried on the island ― was a desolate peanut plantation along the Bukhan River. Then it underwent major development and became a recreational park.
In the ’70s and ’80s, the island became a popular camping site for younger Koreans; it hosted an annual music festival, Gangbyeon Gayoje (“Riverside Music Festival”), which contributed to the folk music boom on university campuses. Among young couples in those days, the place was so popular that it later became a common joke to say, “I am a Namiseom baby.”
Back then, of course, the last ferry left the island early in the evening, and shy couples could use that as an excuse to spend the night there. Now the ferries run every 20 minutes, from early morning until 9:30 at night. (For those couples who do catch the last ferry, but wish they hadn’t, there are plenty of love motels on the other side of the river.)
For a while, Namiseom’s reputation slid until it became known as a tacky, commercial tourist paradise full of bars and pool halls. But three years ago, the island underwent yet another major transition, aimed at making it a more attractive destination.
Now most of the shops and dingy bars have been cleared away; in their place are outdoor sculptures and even some new wildlife. Ostriches were imported from Canada. Rabbits, deer and chicken run through the woods in the early morning.
The renovation of the island was carefully guided by a team of artists, along with the island staff. Televisions were removed from most motel rooms; instead, there are nightly bonfires. Artists were hired to make the public restrooms look stylish. During full moons, the streetlights were turned off so visitors could appreciate the natural light.
The island authority invited artists, poets and photographers to contribute the art installations that are found throughout the island. Gift shops, once crammed with tacky souvenirs, now carry artist-made crafts (though there are still those Yon-sama keychains).
An outdoor tavern in the center of the island sells barbecued meat, cooked over charcoal. On weekend evenings, groups of campers can be seen devouring grilled pork with rice wine around a bonfire.
In the fall, the autumn leaves are a major attraction. The island has several well-manicured paths through the woods, which draw hundreds of amateur photographers every month. It may sound like a cliche, but there really is a certain pleasure in watching the leaves fall while you sit on a bench and sip vending-machine coffee.
Perhaps it isn’t so bad to have a mix of experiences on one island.

by Park Soo-mee

Namiseom is perfect for walking, but an alternative is to rent a bike or hop on the tour wagon that travels along the riverside.
To get to Namiseom island via public transportation, take a train from East Seoul Terminal to Gapyeong Station, or a bus to Gapyeong Terminal. From there, take a cab to the island wharf, about a 10-minute ride. The ferry to the island runs from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; it taks less than 10 minutes to cross. You can’t bring a vehicle onto the ferry.
Admission to the island is 5,000 won ($4.50) for adults, and 2,000 won for children. There are accommodations and restaurants on the island; Hotel Nami charges 55,000 won for a double-occupancy room. Bungalows and condomium-style motels are also available. It gets very chilly at night; be sure to bring a winter jacket, especially if you are planning to stay over. For more information, go to the Web site
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