Exploring Geoje Island (Part II)

The morning dawned bright and early.  It was another beautiful clear day, with only a trace of morning fog far out on the bay, obscuring the view of distant islands near the horizon.  Breakfast would be served for 9:30am, so my first order of the day was to head down to the beach and see what the morning would offer.

 It was relatively cool near the water; with all the mild weather (at least mild as compared to what I was used to in Canada for late March) it was easy to forget that winter was still going on.  My friend the great crested grebe was still foraging close to shore, but I was unable to locate his compatriots or the Pacific loon from yesterday.  The bay itself was relatively empty, with a few Vega gulls and black-tailed gulls flying around.

 Depending on who you talk to, there can be just one species of herring gull or there can be three.  I’ve read some of the research into this, and I tend to lean towards there being three species, rather than just one overarching species for all the herring gulls in the world.  The breakdown of herring gulls (which are split into three species by the International Ornithologists’ Union [IOU] but remain one species by the American Birding Association [ABA]) is the American herring gull (Larus smithsonianus), the European herring gull (Larus argentatus) and the Vega gull (Larus vegae).  Bird nomenclature and taxonomy are constantly in flux, and it can be a full-time job keeping up with all of the revisions, splits, and lumps, which says nothing about having to go through field guides once a year to update the species name and Latin binomial.  Just preparing for my move to South Korea required updating my primary field guide A Field Guide to the Birds of Korea by Lee Woo-Shin, Koo Tae-Hoe, and Park Jin-Young.  The whole process took several weeks, but considering it was published in 2000 and is the only English-language field guide available for the Korean peninsula specifically, it was worth the effort.  I supplemented this guide with the more recent Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil, which functions as a great cross-reference book for subspecies identification and recent splits that Birds of Korea doesn’t even have plates for.  But I digress…

The bay was quiet, so I turned my attention to the cliff edge above me.  There was sparse vegetation on the cliff face, but a small gully near the base of the cliff provided some ground for a few small trees and shrubs to take root.  It was here that I found the bulk of my birds for the morning.  It started with hearing the call of a varied tit, by far the most colorful and interesting tit (or chickadee, for my North American friends) anywhere, in my opinion anyway.  The tit was singing high on the top of the cliff, but eventually began working his way down to the beach.  It took a lot of waiting, but I finally got a shot of this striking bird.

A nominate subspecies Varied Tit (Sittiparus varius varius) at Nambu-myeon.

There was also a lone vinous-throated parrotbill, which I found odd as I rarely encounter this species without at least a dozen of his closest friends in tow.  The parrotbill is a very social and gregarious bird, and often forms flocks of 40+ birds when foraging.  I noticed a small skulking bird in some hanging vegetation, and at first I thought it was another parrotbill.  But finally getting it in the binoculars revealed its true identity as a Japanese white-eye!  And shortly after I found another white-eye foraging nearby.  The white-eyes resemble bright yellow-green vireos with huge white eye rings.  They are very distinct, but their small size makes them hard to locate in dense vegetation.

This menagerie of birds was scattered when a flock of large-billed crows, until then staying high over the cliffs, descended in a flurry of activity and cawing that sent the smaller birds undercover.  A couple of crows took up position on a large snag, and I got off a few shots before they flew down the beach to join a larger group picking at scraps of trash left on the beach.

Two Large-billed Crows (Corvus macrorhynchos mandschuricus) near the private beach at Nambu-myeon.

I left the beach to have my breakfast, and soon after our group was packed up and loaded onto the bus.  We were scheduled to take a ferry ride to the Haegeumgang formation, then skip over to Oedo to view the botanical gardens.  Our bus took us through Nambu-myeon along a coastal road that gave us all excellent views of the coastline.  We arrived at the ferry at around 10:15am under beautiful skies.  It was forecast to become cloudy by midday, but thus far there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  We were a bit early for the ferry, so we spent some time admiring the view of Haegeumgang from a quaint patio overlooking the ferry dock.  I found a single white-cheeked starling in the parking lot by the ferry, and an oriental greenfinch near the patio.  Otherwise it was the ever-present large-billed crows and a few Eurasian magpies and brown-eared bulbuls.

A map of Nambu-myeon, with the locations of Haegeumgang and Oedo Botanica.  The dotted line shows our route from the pension to the ferry,  and the route the ferry took around Haegeumgang towards Oedo.

A map of Nambu-myeon, with the locations of Haegeumgang and Oedo Botanica.  The dotted line shows our route from the pension to the ferry, and the route the ferry took around Haegeumgang towards Oedo.

The ferry dock and the Haegeumgang.

The ferry dock and the Haegeumgang.

At long last our ferry was ready to depart, and we were quickly escorted aboard.  There are many ferries that go around the Haegeumgang formation.  The formation has dozens of caves carved into it after centuries of ocean erosion.  When the ocean is calm, the ferry pilots challenge one another to bring their boats in the closest to these caves.  It’s a rather harrowing experience as a passenger, but the pilots’ skill is unrivaled and they maneuver their boats to within a few feet of the Haegeumgang cliffs.

I think our pilot would have brought us in closer, if only the cave was large enough to accommodate more of the ship...

I think our pilot would have brought us in closer, if only the cave was large enough to accommodate more of the ship…

After experiencing the Haegeumgang close up, we circled around the edge of the formation, taking in the amazing geology and enjoying the cool ocean air.  Flocks of black-tailed gulls followed our ship everywhere it went, and I also saw a great crested grebe and a brief glimpse of a Pacific reef-heron around the edge of the Haegeumgang formation.  As we left the formation behind on our way to Oedo, I noticed a congregation of great cormorants roosting on the cliffs above.

One of the Black-tailed Gulls following our ferry towards Oedo.

A few of the locals would throw crackers and dried fish to the gulls, attracting more and more of them as we made our way to Oedo.

Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis) on the cliffs of the Haegeumgang.

Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis) on the cliffs of the Haegeumgang.

On the crossing to Oedo, I noticed a raft of Pacific loons, about seventeen in all, but otherwise it was just the black-tailed gulls escorting us to Oedo.  Years ago, the Korean government began selling off the small islands off the coast to private owners.  The buyers of Oedo, being nature-lovers, turned it into a botanical garden, and now the island, opened to the public, is a popular tourist destination and source of income for the local economy.

We had about an hour on Oedo before we had to return to the mainland and begin the long trip back to Gwangju, so I split from the group to make the most of it.  There was a continuous sea of people over the entirety of the gardens, and most were dressed just as colorfully as the flowers and plants.  The skies were beginning to darken with clouds, but the fresh blossoms and flowers still lent plenty of color to the greying environment.

Tulips at Oedo Botanica.

Tulips at Oedo Botanica.

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A view of the Oedo Botanica.  This view only covers one section of the gardens.

A view of the Oedo Botanica.  This view only covers one section of the gardens.

With so many people around, the birds were laying low.  On three occasions I heard a beautiful melody being sung from the vegetation, but I could not locate the bird no matter how hard I looked.  I’m sure I raised some eyebrows with the Koreans: who was this strange foreigner with binoculars staring into a mess of branches for minutes at a time?  After two failed attempts to locate the source of this beautiful song, I was beginning to get frustrated.  At the summit of a small hill overlooking the whole of the island, I found eight Pacific swifts making aerial maneuvers above the island.  These large swifts have long forked tails and white rumps.  They are one of the largest swifts in Korea, second only to the white-throated needletail.  The long forked tail distinguishes them from the smaller house swift.

I was enjoying watching the swifts, a new species and the first swift species to be added to my list since 2008, when I heard that song coming from below me in the Venus Garden.  I hauled it over to the garden, determined to find the source of this song and check off another species.  It didn’t take long to zero in on the right tree, and finally I was able to get a glimpse of my quarry: a Japanese bush-warbler!  Old World warblers are a large family of relatively drab, uninteresting, and extremely similar-looking birds that have remarkably beautiful songs.  They are the equivalents of our North American wood-warblers that thrill birders during the spring migration, but the Old World varieties more resemble our sparrows than the colorful birds that delight us in the spring.  Nevertheless, I was thrilled to see the bush-warbler, even if it looked just like a red-eyed vireo without the red eye.  The bird darted into a low shrub, providing me a brief chance to get a photo before disappearing into the garden.  Surely this is one song that I won’t forget in a hurry.

A Japanese Bush-warbler in the Venus Garden at Oedo Botanica.  This rather drab bird has the most melodious song.

A Japanese Bush-warbler (Horornis diphone cantans) in the Venus Garden at Oedo Botanica.  This rather drab bird has the most melodious song.

Alas, the hour flew by, and I had to return to the ferry to catch my boat back to the mainland.  Before returning to Gwangju, we stopped for dinner in a different part of Nambu-myeon, where we had some delicious 김치 찌개 (kimchi jjigae), a style of stew made with Korea’s world-famous kimchi.  The soup is nice, flavorful, and spicy, and it really hits the spot on an increasingly damp and cold day.  Before leaving Geoje Island, I spotted a sign for the Hallyeo Haesang National Park (한려해상국립공원-거제), which is a known breeding ground for the elusive fairy pitta.  The Park is the only location on the Korean peninsula where this species can be reliably located; only Jeju-do and Jindo Island to the south are better spots for this species.

Methinks a return trip to Geoje is already in the making…

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Exploring Geoje Island (Part I)

When I first arrived in South Korea, and was in contact with the former English teacher I was replacing at my school, she told me that if I travel around Korea, travel with Pedro Kim.  I didn’t understand her advice at first, but one afternoon Melanie was searching Facebook and found an ad for a trip to Geoje Island through Lonely Korea, and sure enough, there was Pedro’s name as the trip leader.  I’ll start by saying that, if you’re planning on visiting South Korea, or are new to the country and don’t know how to get around, travel with Pedro Kim.  He has more contacts around the country than I can imagine, and knows how to plan ahead and make sure everything is taken care of, whether it be accommodations, food, entry fees, transportation…you name it, he’s already thought of it.  And you can’t go wrong with the prices.  One thing I’ve learned since moving to South Korea is that it’s unbelievably cheap to get around here, at least as compared to North America.  The buses are fast, on-time, and clean (although they don’t have on-board restrooms, but the bus will usually make a few pit stops along the way), there is no hassle with security checkpoints, invasive baggage searches, X-ray scanning, etc. etc. etc., and with the exception of some of the smaller settlements in the less-populated provinces, almost the entire country is accessible by public transportation.

So when we saw a two-day, one-night stay at Geoje Island (거제시), all expenses paid for only 138,000 won each (about $140 USD), we were sold.  We were slated to stay in a small pension (a type of Korean hostel, but more resembles a B&B in style and facilities) right on the shore, with access to a small private pebble beach.  The trip also included a ferry ride around the famous Haegeumgang (거제해금강), massive rock formation just off the coast of Geoje Island, and a stop at the botanical gardens on Oedo Island (외도 보타니아-해상관광농원).

Map of Geoje Island.

Map of Geoje Island.

With our itinerary set and bags packed, Melanie and I met our bus at the U+ Square Terminal in downtown Gwangju early Saturday morning.  There were about 30 people registered for this trip, the majority of them foreign English teachers from Gwangju and Yeosu, and there were about a half-dozen of our friends from our orientation group going as well.  The ride out to Geoje took about 3½ hours, following the Honam Expressway along the southern coast.  We arrived at Geoje around 1pm that afternoon and stopped at a famous Indian restaurant in Jangpyeong-dong.  This section of Geoje has a large foreigner population, and hosts some well-known and delicious foreign cuisine restaurants.  Since leaving Ottawa in February, Melanie and I were craving Indian food once again, so this was a special treat and welcome change from kimchi and rice.

After lunch, we had a few minutes to enjoy the harbor in Jangpyeong-dong before heading on to our destination in Nambu-myeon, on the other side of the island.  Geoje Island hosts several major shipbuilding ports, and serves as the center of the Korean shipbuilding industry.  The major builders are Hyundai and Samsung Heavy Industries (SHI), and Korean-built cargo ships are among the best in the world.  The restaurant was situated near the SHI Shipyard, and we could see two large cargo ships still under construction in the harbor.  The tide must have been out, because the water was down, creating some mudflats near the harborfront.  There were three smallish gulls near the shore, which I quickly identified as slaty-backed gulls.  A fourth gull was flying around, quite lighter on the mantle than the others.  Getting a good look at the primaries, which had a large white spot on the first and second primary, surrounded by a dark black fading to light grey, I realized it was a mew gull of the kamchatschensis subspecies.  The harbor had more surprises in store, including several eastern spot-billed ducks further out in the shallows, accompanying a pair of northern pintails and mallards.  A little egret and grey heron skulked close to the rocky shore looking for food.  As I was watching the ducks, a large-billed crow flew in and began picking at a piece of dried seaweed.  It was then that I noticed a small shorebird scuttling in and out of the rocks near the harbor.  A quick look through the binoculars revealed it to be a little ringed plover.  Just a few minutes by a harbor brought in four lifers!  Before getting on the bus, I noticed a single horned grebe way out in the harbor, diving for food on its own.  We boarded the bus fully satisfied by our meal, and by the good fortune in birds.

A Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) grabs a meal near the SHI Shipyard in Jangpyeong-dong.

A Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) grabs a meal near the SHI Shipyard in Jangpyeong-dong.

We continued our journey to Nambu-myeon, taking a winding road into the mountains at the center of the island.  The views were spectacular, especially when a sharp curve on the road would suddenly reveal a glorious panorama of the island, showing the rocky coasts jutting out of a clear blue ocean.  The roads were very narrow and there were few pull-offs large enough to accommodate a parked bus, but the views were incredible and I give a lot of credit to the driver for being able to maneuver the monstrous bus on such a treacherous roadway.

At last we arrived in Nambu-myeon, and unloaded our things into our rooms.  Melanie and I were paired with another couple from Gwangju, and our room was on the second floor of the pension, with a beautiful view of the ocean with rocky outcrops jutting up from the water.  It was nearing the evening hours by the time we were settled and unpacked, so I grabbed my binoculars and camera and headed down to the private beach to have a look around.  There was a few Korean families on the beach, but it was mostly empty save for about two dozen large-billed crows picking at a pile of garbage near a boat ramp.  I would discover during this trip that large-billed crows were the dominate species on the island, easily being the most common bird I saw during the trip.

Our private beach at Nambu-myeon.  Who's that weird guy looking out over the ocean with binoculars?  Oh, that's me...

Our private beach at Nambu-myeon.  Who’s that weird guy looking out over the ocean with binoculars?  Oh, that’s me…

There were no shorebirds on the beach, but I did manage to find a great crested grebe diving close to shore.  Every so often it would resurface and let me get a few quick photos before moving out to deeper water.  Looking further offshore, I found several more great crested grebes and a single Pacific loon near a large rock outcropping on the other side of the bay.  I loved watching the grebe – it reminded me so much of the western and Clark’s grebes I had seen in Nevada back in 2011, just by the shape of the neck and the long bill.  It’s interesting that the great crested grebe, being in the genus Podiceps, is more closely related to the diminutive pied-billed grebe than either the western or Clark’s grebes (genus Aechmophorus) that it so closely resembles.

A Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) on the ocean near Nambu-myeon.

A Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) on the ocean near Nambu-myeon.

A group of us decided to take a walk through Nambu-myeon, checking out some more of the village and seeing more of the rocky coastline before nightfall.  There wasn’t much variety in bird life at this hour, and the only other species of note that I saw was a single white wagtail on another private beach along the way, more large-billed crows, and a handful of Eurasian tree sparrows.  But what was lacking in wildlife was made up for with amazing venues of rock and water.  The coastline of Geoje Island is amazing: sheer cliffs of rock dropping into the ocean in every direction.  The setting sun gave us plenty of chances to make a study on the effect of dwindling light on rock.  There are times I wish I would give up the chase and become a landscape photographer – the landscape doesn’t move or get startled and fly away.  Thoughts like these are usually short-lived, or forgotten entirely when my eye catches something small and feathery dart out from the periphery.

The majestic coastline of Geoje Island.

The majestic coastline of Geoje Island.

The sun set on the first day of our adventure.  Our group spent the evening enjoying a barbeque on the pension patio, overlooking the private beach.  A few of us stayed up late to roast marshmallows over an open fire pit.  As we went to bed, the promise of a new day (and new birds) awaited…

The Damyang Excursion

In my years as a birder, I never fail to be surprised at how much serendipity plays a role in your success and failures in the chase.  The most carefully planned outings can end in total disaster, while at the same time you can find the rarest bird you can imagine almost as if it was an afterthought.  That’s how my Say’s phoebe sighting in Rhode Island, only the fifth record for the entire state, took place.  I was returning to a work site after dropping off a co-worker at his truck while I was working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  We were in the middle of planting native shrubs for a habitat restoration at the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.  I turned my truck onto a service path on the refuge and within a few moments caught sight of a small passerine hover-gleaning on the dirt path ahead of me.  I thought it was either a grey catbird or American robin, both very common on the refuge, but when I finally found my bins in the back seat and got the bird in view, I was shocked to be looking at a Say’s phoebe sitting on a bayberry branch not a kilometer away from the Atlantic Ocean.  Here was a bird where its kind had no right to be, but nevertheless I was looking at it.  I put out the word on the local RBA (Rare Bird Alert), but unfortunately no one was able to relocate the bird.  As it turned out, that wasn’t the only sighting of Say’s phoebe on the East Coast that fall, with birds showing up in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well.  Who would have expected that?

So the lesson I’ve learned is always be birding, even when you should be doing anything but birding.  You never know what’s around the corner, or in the tree above you, or right at your feet.

It was with this lesson in mind that Melanie and I headed out with a group of fellow English teachers on a make-shift spur-of-the-moment trip to Geumseongsanseong Fortress (금성산성) in the town of Damyang.  The fortress was built during the Three Kingdoms Period, sometime in the 13th century.  It consists of a stone wall encompassing a large mountain valley; the whole perimeter wall is about 7.5 kilometers around, and takes nearly 5 hours to hike the whole thing.  From the U+ Square Terminal (formerly the Gwangju Bus Terminal), take #311 or #303 to Damyang. It’s about a 40-minute bus ride, and will cost around 2,300 won (about $2.50USD) for a round-trip.

A map of the Geumseongsanseong Fortress.  The dotted line represents the perimeter wall.

A map of the Geumseongsanseong Fortress.  The dotted line represents the perimeter wall.

A group of us, about a dozen waygooks (the Korean word for “foreigners”), descended onto the Geumseongsanseong Fortress at around 10am under a perfect clear sky.  It was a warm day, with temperatures reaching into the mid-20°C – basically a perfect spring morning.  We took cabs to the base of Mt. Geumseong, and hiked up the side of a mountain, along trails that hardly deserve the name.  This was real hiking!  None of those pre-planned paved or gravel pathways with rope handrails or retaining walls.  These trails had been walked on for centuries, and they hugged the edge of cliffs and valley walls with nothing more than gravity holding you to the ground.  In a word, the hike up to the summit was intense!

The real enjoyment of hiking in Korea is the hope that you will stumble onto a Buddhist temple or shrine, or come across a forgotten burial mound or grave marker.  These signs of ancient Korean society are literally strewn over the landscape.  There are mountains only a few minutes from our apartment in Gwangju where you can walk for fifteen minutes and come across a grave marker holding position idly next to the trail, or enter a clearing dominated by several burial mounds that have been there longer than Europeans have been in North America.  One such temple could be found along on our ascent to the summit, but we chose not to take that detour on this trip.

Nazis?  150m ahead?!  No, just a signpost to a Buddhist temple at Geumseongsanseong.

Nazis?  150m ahead?!  No, just a signpost to a Buddhist temple at Geumseongsanseong.

After what seemed like a never-ending vertical ascent, we came to a vast expanse, and discovered that we had reached the entrance to Geumseongsanseong.  The entrance is guarded by what appears to be a guardhouse or observation platform (remember, this was a fortress once).  A second observation platform sits to the east, overlooking the valley below.  From the height of the mountain, we could see the entirety of Damyang below us, and just on the horizon the peak of Mt. Mudeung on the edge of Gwangju to the south.  What a sight it must have been to be on guard at this fortress, overlooking a mountain valley untouched by human hands.

The imposing entrance to a guardhouse at Geumseongsanseong.

The imposing entrance to a guardhouse at Geumseongsanseong.

The first guardhouse, as seen from the second to the east.

The first guardhouse, as seen from the second to the east.

From this position, the wall of the fortress went in both directions, following the rise and fall of the peaks.  It was easy to see the strategic advantage this fortress must have served: the valley walls were so steep, any invading army would be like shooting fish in a barrel from the safety of the fortress walls.  Our group enjoyed a brief respite from the arduous climb, then followed the wall towards the west.

The western wall of Geumseongsanseong, looking back towards the entrance.  The small dirt path next to the wall is the hiking trail…did I mention it’s a two-way path?

It was slow going over most of the hike, due mainly to the uneven walking conditions and amazing scenery that demanded closer inspection.  The hiking trail operated in two directions, so people were walking towards us as we continued along.  Normally this wasn’t a problem, but on some of the ascents things got a bit, shall we say interesting.  This is a must-do hike, but be sure to come prepared.  Sturdy shoes and plenty of water are a must.  While the hiking was tremendous, I was disappointed by the lack of wildlife.  A few Siberian chipmunks were around, but very little in the way of bird life, with the exception of a few great tits and marsh tits.

That distant peak is where we took our break.  It offered commanding views of Damyangho Lake below, as well as some much needed shade.

Our group made it about halfway around the fortress wall when Melanie and I decided to head back.  We had not brought much food, and Melanie was starting to get tired.  A few others felt the same way, so as the main group headed on to continue the hike, four of us stayed behind to rest up and meet them again at the entrance.

Enter serendipity…

My group stayed near a sharp spire of rock jutting out from a mountain peak.  There was some shade and a beautiful view, so we stayed there for awhile talking and resting in the cool shade.  It was during this relaxing period that I noticed a distant bird riding the thermals over the mountains.  Some observation through the binoculars finally revealed the bird to be an adult golden eagle!  I was able to watch it for a few more minutes, circling lazily in the sky, before folding its wings and plunging hundreds of meters down into the mountain valley below.

Shortly afterwards I heard some flight calls from the south.  A flock of small birds flew past the peak, and though I was able to see them through the binoculars, I was unable to identify them.  I was left with the guess that they were some kind of finch, but I was less than certain.  We stayed at our resting place for another twenty minutes.   I was getting a bit restless when I heard the flight calls again.  I looked up to the rock edifice above me and found a small bird at the edge of the rock, singing away.  I looked at it, but the sun was behind it, and all I could see was a silhouette.  I left the group and headed up the trail, hoping to get a chance to see it from the other side.  I turned the corner of the trail and flushed eight birds, which all gave an identical call as they scattered.

One of a dozen Alpine Accentors (Prunella collaris) foraging on the rocks at Geumseongsanseong.

Seeing two of the birds climbing a near-vertical rock face, I quickly identified them as alpine accentors.  I grabbed a couple quick photos before the flock took to the air again and disappeared.  These birds are uncommon residents in South Korea, making their homes on bare mountains with low vegetation.  They can usually be found at heights above 2,000m.

After this encounter, my group began our return trip back to the entrance of the fortress.  As we descended, the birds became more abundant.  The marsh tits were still singing periodically, and as we reached the guardhouses at the entrance, I found two Eurasian nuthatches foraging on the trees.

One of two Eurasian Nuthatches (Sitta europaea) at Geumseongsanseong.

There was a side trail behind one of the guardhouses, and in the bamboo around there I located several brown-eared bulbuls and a Eurasian magpie. Further down the trail I heard and saw two large-billed crows flying overhead, and flushed two Eurasian jays from foraging near a stream bed.  The stream led down into the mountain valley at the center of the valley, where a small farm house and rice paddy rested at the center.  Around this area were numerous yellow-throated buntings and oriental turtle-doves.  I was also able to locate a singing varied tit and a lone male hawfinch resting in a tree.  It seemed as though all the birds had been hiding here in the valley the whole time.

Alas, it was getting late and I had to return to my group so we could meet up with the rest of our fellow hikers.  We met them on the descent from the entrance to the fortress, and the remainder of the hike went by relatively uneventfully, with the exception of a single pygmy woodpecker working a fallen tree near the path.

The hiking around Geumseongsanseong Fortress is worth the bus ride, and the scenery is some of the nicest I’ve seen to date in South Korea.  This site is definitely on the list for a return visit someday soon.