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Isabu Road

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Isabu Road (이사부길; map), also known as “Millennium Coastal Road”, is a 4.7-kilometer long roadway that snakes along the East Sea in northern Samcheok City.

Selected as one of Korea’s 100 most beautiful roads, Isabu Road features two parks, unique rock formations, evergreen pines, and plentiful observation decks to look out upon the East Sea’s rocky coast and vanishing horizon.

Before we explore the road’s highlights, let’s learn about the road’s namesake.

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General Isabu

General Isabu (이사부; 480 ~ 562) was born a nobleman in Korea’s bone-rank system during the Silla Dynasty (57 BCE ~ 935 CE). In 505, at 20 years-old, he was given the title of General and ruler of Samcheok by the Silla King.

Among his many achievements, he reformed his government and military, seized territory owned by the Gaya Confederacy, and, most importantly, he conquered Ulleung Island (Ulleungdo; 울릉도; map) and Dokdo Island (독도; map), then known as Usan State (우산국; Usan-guk).

Ulleung and Dokdo are a pair of islands that lie 120 kilometers (75 mi) off Samcheok’s coast, halfway between Japan and Korea. Why are they important? Though tiny, both Japan and South Korea have laid claim over these islands for centuries. Whichever nation owns them, also owns the waters around them and their abundant fisheries, minerals deposits, and shipping lanes.

General Isabu and the Lions

How did General Isabu conquer Ulleung and Dokdo Islands? As legend has it, General Isabu thought the people who inhabited these rugged island rocks were brave and fierce. So Isabu ordered his craftspeople to carve lions out of wood, leaving an opening in their mouths.

When he and his ships arrived at Usanguk (Ulleung), he ordered his men to pour fire from the openings of the lions mouths, and said to the people of Usanguk, “If you do not surrender, I will release these beasts to devour everyone on your island.”

The lions terrified Usanguk’s inhabitants and soldiers. The island’s king remove his helmet and surrendered unconditionally.

Legend also tells that two of the wooden lions brought to Usanguk (Ulleung) transformed into boulders in the East Sea’s waters: one in Namyang Port (남양항; map) on Ulleung Island. The second off Samcheok’s coast near Isabu Road. Both named “Lion Rock,” they’re said to protect the territories.

The Road

Workers started constructing Isabu Road in 1995. The goal was to boost Samcheok’s tourism industry, so the city selected an inaccessible cliff-top stretch along the coast between Samcheok Beach (map) and Samcheok Port (map) to lay this scenic roadway.

Nicknamed the “New Millennium Road,” engineers completed Isabu Road in 1999, just in time to welcome in the year 2000. Since then, the coastal route has gained fame amongst drivers, cyclists, and trekkers for its high- and low-angle views of the East Sea and its unique coastal topography.

Beginning in the south, visitors can catch a parade of notable highlights.

  • Isabu Square (이사부광장; map) is a small park at the southern end of Isabu Road with a raised walkway hovering above the seaside near Samcheok Port.
  • Lion Rock (사자바위; map; Saja-bawi) is a large, naturally shaped rock resembling a lion , that clings to the coast 700 meters north of Isabu Square. It features a concrete patio at its base, allowing visitors to snap photos of them in front of it. Legend has it that one of the lion sculptures General Isabu used to scare the residents of Ulleung Island was brought back to Samcheok and transformed into this rock. Locals believed that Lion Rock protected them from invasion.
  • Felice Hotel (펠리스관광호텔; map) is a large hotel a couple hundred meters north of Isabu Square. It is flanked by restaurants, coffee shops, and other accommodations. 
  • New Millennium Coastal Amusement Park is Isabu Road’s flagship park. It features the Tower of Hope. Read more below.
  • Gwangjin Port (광진항; map) is a quaint port known for fishing and snorkeling.
  • Beach Sculpture Park is a small park along the Isabu Road with sculptures, a lookout platform, and cafe. More below.
  • Toad Rock (두꺼비바위; map) was named when local fishers noticed it resemble a toad. Legend has it, if you take a photo of yourself with Toad Rock in the background, prosperity will come to your household. Toad Rock is also known as Osam Rock (Fifty-Three Rock) because an angler on top of the rock once caught a 53-centimeter long (21-inch) black sea bream, a fish rare to Samcheok.
  • Hujin Port (후진항; map) is a small fishing port fitted with a large breakwater. It’s known for its rough waves and fishing.
  • Hujin Beach (후진해수욕장; map) is a tiny beach next to Hujin Port with clear waters.

But Isabu Road’s major highlights are its undulating, curving roadway, walking decks, and viewing platforms. A handful of boulders hold stairs that lead to observatories from which you can view the rugged coastline.

New Millennium Coastal Amusement Park

New Millennium Coastal Amusement Park (새천년해안유원지; map) perches along Isabu Road at its highest point midway up the route. It was completed with Isabu Road in 1999 to commemorate the new millennium. Every New Year’s Day, locals hold a sunrise festival in the park.

The park isn’t big. Just a flat courtyard overlooking the East Sea. It hosts a resting pavilion, heart sculptures used as a photo backdrop, and a 10-meter tall sculpture known as the Tower of Hope (소망의 탑).

The Tower of Hope at New Millennium Coastal Amusement Park along Isabu Road.
The Tower of Hope at New Millennium Coastal Amusement Park along Isabu Road.

Made up of two arching spires that form an oval, the Tower of Hope displays a few unique design elements:

  • The inner bellies of the Tower of Hope’s spires are made of metal. Workers engraved the names of 32,347 people who sponsored the tower.
  • The sponsor’s names are arranged in three tiers along the inner walls of the spires:
    • The bottom tier shows the names of newlywed couples.
    • The second tier up holds the names of teenagers.
    • The top tier displays the names of children.
  • The tower’s curved spires are said to resemble two hands praying for a brighter future.
  • If you visit the Tower of Hope at dawn to glimpse the sun rising over the East Sea, make a wish for the future.
  • A bell hangs from a chrome circle on the ground below the tower’s spires. Visitors can make a wish and ring the bell.
  • When completed in 1999, workers buried a time capsule below the Tower of Hope to commemorate the new millennium.

Beach Sculpture Park

Beach Sculpture Park (비치조각공원; map) sits near the north end of Isabu Road. Like New Millennium Coastal Amusement Park, it occupies a small courtyard along the side of the road. Here are some of its unique features:

  • Beach Sculpture Park holds 10 sculptures.
  • Its viewing deck offers a panoramic view of the East Sea.
  • Small stages often accommodate performances, mostly in the summer months.
  • Marine Deck (마린데크; map), a small coffee shop, lies directly under Beach Sculpture Park. Ascend a set of stairs next to the sculpture park and find a cafe with windows looking out into the sea.