Written by: Jason Strother
Inside Kim Min-kyeong's handbag is a small, pink pouch containing a lucky charm that is supposed to lead her to the ideal partner. The object is said to deliver love to its possessor via powers derived from the spirit world.
Kim paid around $300 for a dehydrated fox vagina that was blessed by a shaman.
"It has the power to attract people," Kim recalls the female shaman saying. "And it will help you get a man."
Based on ancient animistic traditions, Korean shamanism has survived the successive introductions of Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity to the peninsula. Temples and shrines are found on mountain slopes and inside apartments, where mystics claim to commune with myriad deities and the spirits of clients' long-dead ancestors through a ceremony called a "gut".
There are about 30,000 practising shamans in the country, according to the Institute to Research and Conserve Korean Gut.
Some believe a shaman's guidance can lead to a life of greater wealth, health and love - which is perhaps especially appealing to women such as Kim.
Kim is what South Koreans call a "Gold Miss" - a career woman in her 30s who has yet to settle down. That's not by choice, says the 35-year-old, who is a manager at a beef and pork importing company.
|Women are instructed not to remove the love amulet from its pouch or it will lose its power [Jason Strother/Al Jazeera]|
Kim is cheerful, laughs often and has a warm smile. She had always imagined she'd be married with children by now - a source of frustration that's only compounded by her parents' frequent nagging about why she's still single.
Last year, after dozens of disappointing blind dates, Kim felt depressed about her marital prospects. She was also tired from work and felt sick owing to persistent digestive problems. That's when she decided to visit a shaman.
"The shaman told me the cause of all of my problems was that I don't have a boyfriend," Kim says, adding the female shaman claimed that her saju - a type of fortune-telling based on one's place and date of birth - was "unlucky for meeting men".
Kim has visited fortune-tellers and shamans since she was in university. Market research firm Trend Monitor found that about 70 percent of 1,000 respondents to a 2012 survey see a fortune-teller at least once a year.
Carrying a dried and sanctified fox sex organ - not a widely known practice - was something new to Kim, but she was willing to give it a shot.
"I was advised to keep it with me at all times for one year and to never remove it from its bag, or else it would lose its strength," Kim says. "I was going through such a tough time that I really wanted to believe in it, I was emotionally vulnerable."
In South Korea, a shaman's responsibilities go beyond that of just a medium.
David Mason, author of Spirit of the Mountains, a book about Korean shamanism, told Al Jazeera over email that shamans step in as "psychotherapists", with requests ranging from reconciling family quarrels and healing illnesses to easing financial concerns and passing exams.
According to Mason, shamans are viewed as helping with life's "practical matters", even by many religious Koreans. He says Buddhists don't perceive shamanism as conflicting with their religion as they consider it to occupy the realm of everyday, worldly concerns and although Protestants are forbidden by their ministers to visit shamans, some still do.
Addressing matters of the heart is another task for shamans as well as for Korean fortune-tellers.
It's not unusual to see young, well-dressed women queueing in front of street-side tents in many of Seoul's commercial districts, waiting for the saju reader inside to tell them when they'll meet the right partner or if the future couple can expect difficulties conceiving.
Consulting saju readers and shamans for dating advice is just one of the ways South Korean women and men attempt to search for partners, says Grace Chung, an associate professor in family studies at Seoul National University.
As Chung notes, once a single woman turns 30, her parents and relatives begin pushing her to settle down.
That's owing to the perception that an unmarried and childless woman is "unfortunate and even pathetic", she says.
"They're seen as missing out [because] they haven't fulfilled one of the major requirements for successful adulthood."
Chung says she's not surprised that some women buy a fox vagina from shamans in the hope that it could somehow improve their love life.
|Shamans in South Korea step in as 'psychotherapists', dealing with a range of issues from family problems to helping a young woman find love [Jason Strother/Al Jazeera]|
Foxes have a dubious distinction in Korean folklore.
In legends about shape-shifting creatures called kumiho, nine-tailed foxes transform into beautiful women who eat the hearts or livers of male victims.
"Foxes have the power to attract and deceive people," says a shaman who goes by the name of Tae Eul. "These animals are clever and can adapt to many situations."
Tae Eul, 43, who claims his name was given to him several years ago by a god he worships, speculates that this tradition of giving dehydrated female fox genitalia to single women goes back centuries.
He says they are harvested from Siberian foxes and sold by Chinese middlemen to Korean shamans.
"Siberia is pure and more energy comes from the North," he says.
Park Il-bo, an official at the Korean customs authority, says the agency doesn't record the import of foxes and it's only illegal if the body parts came from an endangered species. But shamans aren't the only purveyors.
Several online vendors sell what's described as a "secret weapon" for women searching for a wealthy husband. One site expands the list of potential beneficiaries who can receive greater luck from the charms to real estate agents, new entrepreneurs and "ladies who work at night".
Some shops near Jogyesa, a Buddhist temple in central Seoul, that sell paper lanterns, monk robes and various trinkets also offer the fox charms - costing just under $30 at one store.
Tae Eul shakes his head at the notion that a fox's vagina could be sold so cheaply - he charges up to $2,000 for each amulet. But that's with value-added service.
"It must be consecrated during a gut," he says, referring to a shamanic ceremony. "Only then will it receive power."
Tae Eul's shrine, a room inside his apartment in Seoul's affluent Gangnam district, is adorned with portraits of several deities that he says give him strength. On the altar are burning candles and statues as well as Marlboro cigarette packs and several bottles of hard liquor - offerings to the gods, he says.
The shaman estimates that 10 percent of his clients are single women who are concerned about their romantic prospects.
"The more pressure that families put on their children to get married only makes their children more stressed out," he says. "Most people will marry when they meet someone they love, but that's not how their parents say it should be."
While not disavowing its spiritual fortitude, Tae Eul does admit that carrying a fox vagina has a "psychological effect" on its owner - it provides them with some degree of "comfort", he says.
But, sometimes a woman just doesn't have any luck and it's not her living relatives who are at fault, he adds.
"Maybe her ancestors are preventing her from meeting someone and they need to be consoled," Tae Eul says.
Only a month remains until the power of Kim's fox amulet fades away.
She's still single, but it no longer brings her down.
"I don't know if it's a coincidence, but now I feel more positive," Kim says. "I think the fox gave me more confidence. I go out more now and I've made new friends."
She also says her parents recently encouraged her to do whatever makes her happy, married or not.
Kim isn't sure what she'll do with her lucky charm once its purported powers wear off.
"Maybe I'll just throw it away," she says. "Or, I could keep it as a souvenir."
The writer of this article Jason Strother is an independent multimedia journalist based in Seoul