Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Jindo Miracle Sea Road Festival

Jindo island located just off the southwest corner of the Korea peninsula is a mystical island of folk art and music, traditional performance and the much celebrated surreal sea road which forms a 2.8 kilometer long pathway to an outer island twice a year. This mysterious walkway roughly 10-40 feet wide has been dubbed the “Korean Moses Miracle” and attracts Koreans and foreigners alike to see the mysterious phenomenon and walk its length.

The four-day Jindo Miracle Sea Road Festival in spring attracts about half of a million visitors every year, making it one of the three top festivals in Korea. The two other most popular festival events are the Mud Festival in July and the king of festivals, the Hwacheon Sancheonea (mountain trout) Ice Festival in January. For all of these, charter tour buses from various cities flow into these otherwise minimally populated areas, filling large pre-designated parking areas. Traveling by private car to any of these places during the festival season is one’s worst nightmare.

This year the Jindo festival opened on a Thursday, April 7, and concluded on Sunday, April 10. And because this year the lowest ebb tide of the Moses Miracle took place on the weekend, tour buses arrived throughout the weekend for people to see this once-a-year celebrated phenomenon. The most popular buses, however, were those that arrived in the early dawn of Saturday, in time for the Fire Torch Walk when thousands of people carry flaming gas-lit torches and walk into the sea on the appearing path that links Jindo to the distant Modo island. For those who missed the iconic Torch Walk, the sea parting occurred again at 18:20 on Saturday and 19:00 on Sunday. A few thousand even got up early Sunday and did the unofficially schedule sea path walk at around 6:40am.

Each of the sea path occurrences lasts about an hour, so if a person does get to Modo island, he or she will probably be stranded there or be forced to hire a local boat to ferry them back to the larger island.

The sea path is steeped in legend and, unlike other legends of long-long ago, the legend of Grandma Ppong and the sea path goes back to a precise date, the year 1480 when a man Son Dong-ji was condemned to exile on Jeju Island. As Son’s ship navigated to Jeju, a furious storm blew and shipwrecked him on the tip of Jindo island at a savage place called Hoedong, literally the “tiger place”, named so because of the numerous striped beasts prowling the area. Son stayed with the villagers and for the next 200 years his descendants lived in Hoedong until the area became so frightening a place to live because of the many tiger attacks that the villagers along with Son’s descendants built rafts and moved to the nearby Modo island.

Unfortunately in the move, a grandmother was left behind. In terror and loneliness Grandmother Ppong prayed to the Dragon King of the sea to be reunited with her family. Finally, in a March night dream the Dragon King appeared and told her the next day a rainbow would appear to guide her to her family. The next day on the rocky shore she prayed again and the rainbow bridge appeared, forming an arching path from Hoedong to Modo island. In her joy she ran along the rainbow path and collapsed into her family’s arms on the other side whereupon she praised the Dragon King for reuniting her and then died from exhaustion.

In filial respect, her family honored her for her tenacious faith in the Dragon King. Many locals still dance, stage shamanic rituals and have other performances to give respects to Grandma Ppong for her strong faith in the Dragon King. Particularly during festival season, the statue of her located at the narrowest expanse between now-Jindo and Modo is draped with ribboned wishes and prayers as she looks earnestly to the distant island. Another statue overlooking the head of the rainbow path is where Grandma Ppong kneels beseechingly while looking toward Modo; a snarling tiger statue is her companion.

Though a legend to some, many Koreans still put faith in the powers of the Dragon King and the faith of Grandma Ppong. Many come to pray for the well-being of family members, for wishes for their children, for prosperity and health. The local Jindo residents have a traditional celebration called Yeongdeungje in which they pray to Grandma Ppong and the Dragon King, their village guardian spirits. Unlike the more publicized Jindo Miracle Sea Road Festival which is only celebrated in spring, Yeongdeungje is held during the spring and fall sea road partings when the road is widest.

The partings are scientifically explained as tidal harmonics. Predictable by the lunar calendar, the phenomenon is controlled by the gravitation pull of the moon along with effects of the rotation and momentum of the earth. From a superstitious point of view, a mystical miracle occurs.

The Jindo sea parting is a family experience. Everyone can participate, and while mom is digging around for lunch, baby is quit dry and content to just be along!
Wearing gumboots and carrying a trowel and a pail or just a bag, Koreans are fully equipped to explore food for lunch: crabs, clams, abalone, stranded octopi, sea tangle and other sea delicacies are all fair game!
photo contribution by Nicola Hayne - adventurers feeling their way along as the tide continues to ebb
The Jindo Miracle Sea Road Festival didn’t stem from the prayers to Grandma Ppong or the Dragon King, but came about by the French ambassador Pierre Landy who was visiting Jindo island in 1975 to learn a bit about, some say the Jindo dogs and others say the local music. Why he actually went there is now unimportant for what he saw, Grandma Ppong’s rainbow bridge, he unintentionally immortalized in a French newspaper when he published his observation as the Korean version of the Moses Miracle and much like the Biblical parting of the Red Sea. After international awareness was raised, other foreigners wanted to witness the parting as well, and so in 1978 the sea parting festival was established.

Western foreign interest increased every year, until in 1996 Tendo Yoshimi, a Japanese pop star, sang the song “A Story of Jindo” describing the enigmatic water parting which ignited Japanese interest in the phenomenon as well, so then hordes of Japanese tourists flocked to Jindo every year.  

The Jindo sea parting miracle is not the only ebb tide sea road in Korea. In fact, about 20 others exist. Somaemuldo, the so-called “lighthouse island” off Geojedo, Gyeongsangnam-do has a rock-strewn path that appears regularly twice a day; then near Incheon a stretch of cement-paved walkway appears to connect Nuesan Island Lighthouse Observatory with the mainland, and nearby on Seonjaedo island a fairy-like meander of golden sand appears to bridge Seonjaedo to the tiny Mokseom island. More exist but none as long or wide as the Jindo phenomenon and none have yet had international exposure on such a grand scale to immortalize them as must-see tourist attractions.

Jindo island in its own right is a tourist attraction. At least five folk heritages have been listed as intangible cultural heritages with UNESCO—the ganggansullae, a circle dance performed by women; the ssitgimgut, a shamanistic ritual soul-cleansing of wandering spirits to resolve their earthly grievances; the Jindo dasiraegi, a performance for consoling people who have lost family members; the deulnorae, a farmer’s song; and samulnori, the play and dance to the beat of four percussion instruments. Two other folk heritages are listed by the provincial government as intangible cultural assets—the Jindo buknori, a traditional drum play with two sticks, and manga, the local funeral dirges. It can be said that much music and performance claims Jindo as their birthplace. And thus the Jindo saying, “When in Jindo, beware of showing your musical abilities” because the musical talents are high and broad.

Jindo, a place where anything is possible if connected to the sea.
These boats were part of a long boat procession that paraded for the Jindo visitors.
The mythical aura of Jindo is more than just legend, and gugak—Korean traditional music and performing arts—has rich history as well for near Jindo island is where brilliant Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598) fought with his famed turtle ships to defeat the Japanese fleet. It is also the island that the unfortunate ship MV Sewol sank near in its unfortunate maritime accident just two years ago. On a lighter note, the famed Jindo dog is of course taking its name from Jindo island; the animal is no highly regarded that it is esteemed as a national treasure. Accordingly, Jindo dog shows and performances during the Jindo Sea Road Festival are scheduled to highlight the dog’s superior intelligence and loyalty to its master.

And finally, if someone adventures to Jindo island, whether during festival season or not, a visit is said not to be complete unless one enjoys the local Jindo hongju, a 40% alcoholic drink made from whole grains, rice and jicho, a local medicinal herb extract. The bright red liquor, hence its name “hong” for red, is the only distilled red-colored liquor in the world, and it is said not to give someone a hangover the next morning. With that in mind, the visitor can enjoy the mystical flavor of the island while walking the sea path, listening to gugak or simply drinking the medicinal-herb liquor.

Korean traditional wrestling with professionals

After the professionals exhibited their skills, foreigners could participate. My friend and one other were the only foreigners of about eight who could "triumph" over the professionals. They brought with them Western wrestling tricks unknown to the Korean pros.

Published in Korean Quarterly, Vol 19, No 40, Summer 2016, p 49, 64-65.

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