[Korea travels] Take a trip to Taean for that one perfect photo

Posted on : 2023-09-17 09:46 KST Modified on : 2023-09-17 09:46 KST
With a stunning arboretum and scintillating sand dunes, the coastal city is sure to have your Instagram followers asking where you got such good photos
The pampas grass zone at Cheongsan Arboretum in South Chungcheong Province’s Taean offers a place to capture that perfect photo for visitors. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)
The pampas grass zone at Cheongsan Arboretum in South Chungcheong Province’s Taean offers a place to capture that perfect photo for visitors. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)

A door the color of coral stands alone on the embankment beside a lake lush with lotus flowers and leaves of all kinds. The door looks rather like the one that represents the starting and ending point of the Japanese animated film “Suzume” (2022).

Just as in the animation, this door opens onto another world — paddies full of rice stalks glowing in rich green grandeur. Having weathered the summer heat, the rice stalks stand tall as they await the autumn breeze.

This remarkable bucolic view is one of the charming sights to be enjoyed at Cheongsan Arboretum in Taean, a coastal city in South Chungcheong Province.

Cheongsan Arboretum is one of the destinations in the Daejeon/South Chungcheong region recognized for its tourism potential in a recent contest run by the local branch of the Korea Tourism Organization. The qualification for selection was little-known travel destinations that have a great deal of growth potential.

The contest was organized to help promote balanced development in regional tourism and to counteract the local population decrease through tourism. The tourism agency issues “digital tourism residency cards” that provide discounts and arranges 13 travel packages for people who would like to experience life in the countryside while enjoying up to 50% discounts on accommodations, breakfasts, and tourist activities.

The successful example offered by Yangyang, Gangwon Province, has helped spotlight tourism as a key to addressing the shrinking population in the Korean countryside. Surfers and other tourists began congregating there in the mid-2000s, turning the once sleepy coastal county into a happening hotspot that drew in 1.3 million visitors last year alone.

Yangyang’s experience basically demonstrated that when a given location gets a reputation as a travel hot spot, the resident population increases as well.

Two years after being identified by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety as one of 89 areas with a shrinking population, Taean has devised a travel strategy that’s organized around Cheongsan Arboretum.

Can Taean engineer a turnout as Yangyang has? I spent two days exploring the area to find out.

A doorframe stands between the rice field and lake at Cheongsan Arboretum. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)
A doorframe stands between the rice field and lake at Cheongsan Arboretum. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)
Taean endeavors to create the perfect backdrops for photos

“I’m fighting a battle against time here,” said 59-year-old Shin Hyeong-cheol when I visited the Cheongsan Arboretum on Aug. 17. I could hear the affection in the director’s voice.

“Battle” is the laconic way that Shin describes the years he’s put into planting and cultivating some 600 species of trees and wildflowers — including golden cedar, red-tip photinia, cherry blossom primrose, sweet flag and cattails — in the arboretum’s roughly 32 acres.

That sums up how challenging it has been for him — and his predecessor as director, his older brother Se-cheol — to make the arboretum what it is today, working since the 1980s with a plot of land once farmed by their father.

“Follow me. I’ll show you around,” he said.

The arboretum is divided into sections that include the “Millet garden,” the “three-legged crow maze park,” the “Gauguin garden,” and the “golden cedar trail.” Perhaps the biggest standout, though, is the pampas grass zone.

Sometimes referred to as the Western counterpart to silver grass, pampas grass is a perennial in the family Poaceae. It also goes by the scientific name of Cortaderia selloana. It is native to South American countries including Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

Its shape is one in which several stalks measuring two or three meters in height come together to form a single large nest. The stiff leaves extending toward the earth and the brilliant silver catkins reaching coyly toward the blue sky combine to form an image that is magical and fantastical. According to Shin, quite a few couples have chosen the plants as the backdrop for their wedding photos.

Red chairs can also be found sitting among the dense clusters of grass. The setting has been fully optimized for capturing travel photographs.

Travelers stop to snap pictures in the pampas grass zone at Cheongsan Arboretum in South Chungcheong Province’s Taean. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)
Travelers stop to snap pictures in the pampas grass zone at Cheongsan Arboretum in South Chungcheong Province’s Taean. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)

This place has also contributed to increasing awareness of the arboretum. In 2010, Shin happened across 30 or so pampas grass clusters growing opposite the Anmyeondo Jurassic Museum. “That could be a picture,” he thought to himself.

His prediction proved to be on the money. In 2016, the location began taking off as a souvenir photo destination on social media.

A Southeast Asia-inspired pavilion provides a spot of shade in the wide-open rice paddy. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)
A Southeast Asia-inspired pavilion provides a spot of shade in the wide-open rice paddy. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)

I found myself wondering how many pampas grass plants there were.

“It doesn’t matter how many there are as long as the pictures come out looking good,” he said. “Who cares how many plants there are?”

Instead of answering my question, he spoke about another challenge he has faced.

“Soon, people will get to see [a different variety known as] standing pampas grass. We planted it because it’s resistant to the wind,” he explained.

The arboretum has lots of other places that offer excellent travel photo opportunities too.

“When the pink muhly blooms around Chuseok, it’s really a sight to see,” Shin said, referring to a perennial sedge-like plant with particularly striking pink flowers. Recently, he borrowed a neighbor’s rice paddy to plant rice stalks and sow Southeast Asian seeds in front of them. He also put an apricot-colored gate in place and set up a large charge in the shape of a crescent moon.

All of these elements make for Instagram-ready locations. I could see why he felt so proud to have had one of the arboretum’s small trails show up as a set in the TV series “Crash Landing on You.”

At this point, it seemed pretty clear what tourism strategy Taean had settled on: increasing the number of destinations offering travel photo opportunities.

“People are more likely to revisit destinations where they can take impactful pictures, and they’re likely to stay there longer,” said Kim Mi-seon, director of the tourism marketing team for the Taean County Office’s tourism promotion division.

“We could see more tourists arriving if those photographs appear on social media,” she explained.

The arboretum features plenty of spots for photos, including this crescent chair that offers a perfect view of the rice paddies as they glisten like gold come autumn. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)
The arboretum features plenty of spots for photos, including this crescent chair that offers a perfect view of the rice paddies as they glisten like gold come autumn. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)

Shin Hak-seung, a professor of tourism studies at Hanyang University, agreed that “travel trends these days are being driven by millennials and Generation Z.”

“For them, social media is a place for self-promotion, and travel photos showing them traveling at their most dazzling moments represent an effective tool,” he said.

“That translates into tourism effects, and now local governments are responding to it,” he explained.

Another reflection of this trend is the publication of travel books where the photographs are the central focus.

“Aiden’s Guidebook to Hot Instagram Korean Travel Destinations,” adopts a different approach from other travel guides that start with transportation information and other details. Instead, it presents 3,500 travel images under a hashtag-based organization format. The first printing of 3,000 copies is said to have sold out within a month.

“Since 2018, we’ve been creating content maps with a focus on travel objectives, where we’ve been reflecting reader opinions,” said Hong Gyeong-jin, a director at the book’s publisher Tabula Rasa.

“For the past two or three years, there’s been a lot of demand for us to include Instagrammable locations, which is what led us to put out this book.”

More than just Instagrammability
Walking along the Sinduri Coastal Sand Dune, you’ll come across uncommon insects like the antlion. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)
Walking along the Sinduri Coastal Sand Dune, you’ll come across uncommon insects like the antlion. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)

Taean has more scenic settings for your travel album. Designated as Natural Monument No. 431, the Sinduri Coastal Sand Dune in the township of Wonbuk represents Korea’s largest sand dune. This site was originally a military protected zone, but that status was lifted during the 1990s.

The setting is a picture-perfect scene with the sprawling dunes set against a blue sky with a gently winding deck path. It too is said to be a popular site for wedding photos.

“People take pictures here even when it rains. Sometimes as many as 10 couples a day will take photos,” said Ahn Gyeong-ho, an ecotourism guide at the dunes.

The formation is believed to have been created around 15,000 years ago in the wake of the Ice Age. Ahn explained, “There are beach rose habitats, and we also have rare plants growing here like the Asiatic sand sedge, Siberian tournefortia, and beach morning glory.”

“This is a natural treasure trove that serves as a home for antlions, Mongolia racerunners, Seoul pond frogs, and other species,” he added.

The plants in the dunes have thin and long roots, with over 30 to 40 strands to them. It’s a characteristic feature of dune plants, which have few opportunities to absorb moisture. Evidence of them can be found all along the site’s deck path.

Ahn also revisited childhood memories as he shared the way the setting looked in the past.

“There would be sand hills that formed in one location and then migrated over to another a few months later, because of the seasonal winds. There weren’t any roads or houses here back then,” he said.

“The damage to homes from the sandstorms was so severe that they ended up creating a windbreak forest in the 1960s and 1970s,” he added.

The sand in the Sinduri dunes is finer than flour. Stately trees stand nearby.

“It’s pretty amazing — this tree and that one are the same age, but they have different thicknesses. The one that’s gotten a lot of nutrients has grown thick, and the one that hasn’t is thinner,” Ahn said. It’s a forest scene that can only be witnessed in the dunes.

As spring gives way to summer, sea fog hovers over the setting, creating a magical scene. Visitors may well find themselves thinking they have arrived in paradise.

The sea fog has its own stories attached to it. Ahn explained, “In the old days, a traveler thought [the fog] was smoke from a wildfire and reported it. They sent a whole bunch of people in. If they get a call nowadays, they ask a few questions and confirm, ‘No, it’s not [a fire].’”

As I listened to Ahn’s explanation, I found myself drawn deeper into the environment. As I arrived at the last stretch of the deck path, I saw healthy-looking cattle sharing a farewell while they gently grazed. This setting has no separate rest area — the landscape offers all the peace your mind could want.

The sun sets over Kkotji Beach as travelers explore the mudflat once the tide has gone out. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)
The sun sets over Kkotji Beach as travelers explore the mudflat once the tide has gone out. (Park Mee-hyang/The Hankyoreh)

While the Cheongsan Arboretum and Sinduri Coastal Sand Dune are sites for daytime photography, the Kkotji Beach area is excellent for images captured before beautiful sunsets. The name “Kkotji,” which means “flower land,” is said to have been given to this beach long ago because of the abundance of beach rose plants.

As the water recedes, the rocks on the shore are exposed. Visitors can capture a romantic travel image of their partners walking on those rocks, framed against the setting sun.

The true value of travel does not lie in finding “Instagram-ready” photograph locations. It comes when visitors — perhaps lured there by the prospects of travel images — end up staying longer and interacting with locals. Simply taking pictures and leaving is as bland an experience as eating red bean buns without the filling.

By Park Mee-hyang, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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