I can still remember the feeling of disbelief when I turned the corner in a well-heeled, respectable Tokyo neighborhood to find myself face-to-face with a porn cinema. Not only that, but on the shopping street nearby, a poster display advertised the cinema's selection of lewd flicks with maximum explicitness. A respectable-looking man in a suit stood in front of the display in broad daylight, inspecting the images like a true connoisseur.
Whoever said the Japanese are prudish? For me it was one of these moments of astonishment tourists often experience in the Far East. You think the whole region is as repressed as a priest's seminary. You see only the most daring teenage couples kissing in public. And then all of a sudden you find yourself sitting next to an office worker on the subway and notice he leafing through a porn mag. Or you discover astounding fertility fetishes in the local temple -- like a penis-shaped bell clapper dangling from the ceiling.
But if you really want to learn about the Asian sex life, "Love Land" in South Korea is the place to visit.
"Love Land" is a theme park, about the size of two soccer fields, located in the north of Cheju Island. And it's crammed with soft porn memorabilia -- statues, photographs and sculptures that seem like something halfway between a post-modern version of those temple phalluses and a Jeff Koons installation -- just more trashy, if that's possible.
Just behind the entrance to Love Land, an acrobatic, oral-sex ensemble greets visitors. It shows a man and two women -- one woman has her legs wrapped around the man's neck and looks like she's going to break her own neck any minute. The acrobatic threesome is illuminated at night, just like the other exhibits here: the nipple mountain crowned with pink nubs or the sturdy erect penises that rise up from the goldfish pond like a fountain. The sculptures are so explicit you can't help stopping in front of them with a mixture of disbelief and amusement -- even as a jaded Western tourist.
What's the point of all this? And why is this salacious Disneyland located here of all places, right between the planes of volcanic Cheju Island, whose other attractions are a traditional village turned folkloric theme park and a teddy bear museum?
Even people who know next to nothing about Cheju Island are aware that it's also known as South Korea's "Honeymoon Isle." The small island with its 600,000 inhabitants has held this honorary title since the end of the Korean War, thanks to a double coincidence. On the one hand, Cheju Island is the southernmost and hence warmest part of Korea to have been properly settled. On the other hand, most South Koreans were unable -- for financial and political reasons -- to travel abroad until the early 1990s.
Cheju Island, with its beaches and mighty volcanic mountain, became the destination of choice for those who didn't want to go hiking and temple-spotting in the country's interior. That was doubly true for freshly married couples, who are still drawn to the island today.
The "island of sex ed"
During the last few decades, many of these marriages were arranged by the parents of the spouses. The lucky ones might have had a brief chance to meet each other -- under the watchful eyes of relatives -- before exchanging vows. And then, after their wedding, they were immediately flown off to the south -- to Cheju Island. As they got used to the notion of being bonded for life, they spent their wedding night and the following days on the Honeymoon Isle, which thereby also became a kind of "island of sex ed."
As late as the end of the 1980s, journalist and travel writer Simon Winchester reported that some hotel employees on the island performed as "professional icebreakers." In the evenings, the hotel would offer an entertainment program featuring lap dances and others raunchy or risqué highlights. Its purpose was to help the intimidated, freshly married novices relax -- and perhaps to give them some ideas for later. Winchester remarks wryly about one of these hotel entertainers that he probably deflowered more women than any other man in Asia.
So perhaps it's no wonder then that Korea's Love Land should have been built here, just a short taxi drive from Cheju City. Whoever has meandered about between the gigantic stone labia and climbed the 10 meter (33 feet) marble phallus probably feels a little less repressed afterwards.
Still, none of this is proof of an unusually open or relaxed attitude to sex. The opposite is true. A few thoroughly rule-governed exceptions apart, the things that are shown and imagined in Love Land are kept under cover elsewhere in South Korea. In this sense, the theme park is not unlike Asian porn mags or fertility rites: It's a small isle of freedom in an ocean of taboos.
A picture for the album
Of course, Korea's newlyweds now have other destinations they can travel to besides Cheju Island. South Korea has gotten wealthier, and flights abroad aren't a political issue anymore either. Still, the island has remained an important travel destination for young couples.
Besides tourists on an afternoon outing, you'll still see many shy young couples in their early 20s idling through the love park, glancing about and giggling nervously. They'll sit down next to each other on the phallus bench, set up their camera tripod and use the automatic release function to shoot a photo for the family album. We're in Korea, after all, and no trip would be complete without a picture. Maybe they'll even stop by the Loveland Store and purchase a few souvenirs to use later.
If they're not too embarrassed, that is.