There are many times in this country when I’ve wished I had a better grasp of the Korean language. Standing in Mr. Seo Seung-am’s workshop at the foot of Mt. Namsan (남산) was definitely one of those times. On display all over the shop are literally hundreds of hand-carved wooden penises. There are big ones, small ones, some with faces, and some with breasts. There are penis coat racks, penis hiking sticks, penis hat racks and penis chairs. Heck, some of the penises even have penises. I would simply like to ask Mr. Seo “Why?”
There’s remarkably little information online regarding this particular traditional Korean folk craft. However, if I were to hazard a guess, the tradition of carving wooden phalluses must be pretty ancient in Korea. It’s reflected in the jangseung (장승), or ancestral totem poles outside rural villages and in the particularly phallic “grandfather” statues of Jeju-do Island. It seems a deeply pagan part of rural folk beliefs and the practice of shamanism in Korea. And, unlike the legendary Haesindang Penis Park (해신당공원) near Samcheok, there’s no particular legend associated with the it that I know of around Gyeongju.
In spite of the language barrier Mr. Seo, also known as the Namsan Namu Gun (남산나무꾼) or “Woodcutter of Mt. Namsan”, is a very gracious man. He has a short, stocky build befitting one who spends his days working with wood. He sports perhaps one of the longest, bushiest black beards I’ve seen on a Korean and is always busy at work whenever I’ve popped by his shop. From the looks of his card, Mr. Seo is even a member of the Gyeongju Cultural Festival Committee.
His shop isn’t just about penises either. Mr. Seo also sells naturalistic, hand-carved coffee tables, polished wooden objects de’ art, and miniature sotdae (솟대), the long wooden totem poles with carved birds on top which were traditionally believed to attract good feng shui. There are also loads of antiques and curios, like stuffed pheasants, antique Buddhas and a creepy wooden figure with holes used for practicing acupuncture. He’s also got a dismantled shamanistic shrine in the back of the shop. From what little I could understand of his explanation, it somehow involved spirits of dreaming or sleep.
So if you’re looking for some unique momentos or presents from your trip to Gyeongju (the smaller penises start around 30,000 won) or you’d simply like to poke around his shop, you should definitely pay a visit to “The Wood Carver of Mt. Namsan.” Mr. Seo’s workshop is actually quite easy to find. Just catch any of the 500 buses out to the east side of Mt. Namsan. Get off at the huge parking lot for the Samneung Valley (삼릉공) and the workshop is just across the street, a hundred or so feet to the left of the big map and trail head. Just follow the short path between the two totem pole penises. Be sure to hike the remarkable Samnueng Valley and go for some deliciously creamy kalguksu soup while you are in the area.
View East Side of Mt. Namsan in a larger map