Approximately 10,000 km away from Bulgaria to the east, near the southernmost part of the Korean peninsula, nestled among the waves of the Yellow and the East seas, joining together in the so-called South Sea, lies the picturesque Jindo Island. Although the third largest in Korea, it is not particularly popular amongst foreign tourists and locals alike, giving way to the incomparably more famous Jeju Island. Hundreds of kilometers away from Seoul, and as if decades away distant in time, this small piece of land, steeped in long-standing traditions, offers a thoroughly different view on Korean culture, spreading beyond the endless crowds of tourists, the fast-paced lifestyle and the rapid pulsating of the metropolis. Here, the mountains resonate with another rhythm – a rhythm of gongs and drums, the rice fields sway from the whisper of the wind, carrying centuries-old songs, and the magnificent bays inspire the calligraphic brushes of generations of masters.
If we flip through the tourist guides, Jindo is mostly known for the dog of the same name, which has been bred on the island from time immemorial. Even today, almost every yard on the island is home to one of the four-legged friends, known for their legendary devotion. Many local stories praise the bravery and loyalty of the Jindo dogs, which happened to be separated from their owners and traveled tens of kilometers to return back home. A Jindo dog breading center has been established for the preservation of the breed, as well as a theme park with a rich show program, demonstrating the various talents of the dogs.
One of the events attracting the most interest is the annual parting of the sea, which opens the so-called Miracle Sea Road between Jindo and Modo – one of the smaller surrounding islands of the archipelago. This phenomenon has given rise to many legends and beliefs, the most famous of which is The Story of Grandmother Ppong, dating back to the 15th century. This legend recounts the hardships of the islanders, who lived in constant fear of the many tigers dwelling the island and were forced to move to the nearby island of Modo. However, an elderly woman named Grandmother Ppong was accidentally left behind, at the mercy of the tigers. Finding herself alone, the brave woman prayed night and day to the Dragon King of the Sea, asking to be reunited with her loved ones.
One night, having heard her prayers, the Dragon King appeared in her dream and promised that in the beginning of spring he would draw a long rainbow as a bridge between the two droughts, on which Grandmother Ppong would be able to cross the sea. He kept his promise, but the miraculous road proved too long for the exhausted Grandmother Ppong, and she collapsed in the middle of the rainbow, into the hands of her loved ones who had come down from the other end. Yet still she was happy and thankful to be reunited with her family for one last time. In the honor of this miracle and Grandmother Ppong, up to this day in early March, when the astonishing road appears from the sea, the locals gather to perform annual rituals and pray for the well-being of their loved ones.
But above all, Jindo Island stands out as a true cradle of the Korean folk art, preserving its traditions up until today. A total of ten local folk songs, dances and games are declared part of Korea’s intangible cultural heritage, and some of them have also found their place on UNESCO’s world heritage list. One of the most famous versions of the most Korean songs of all times – Arirang also comes from Jindo, and the history of this important piece of music is studied and exhibited in a specially designed Arirang Cultural Center. It is located in one of the picturesque bays of Jindo, with the building following the shape of the traditional drum called janggu, which resembles an hourglass.
Despite the enormous interest and extensive research on the subject, there is no definitive answer to the question about the origin and meaning of Arirang. The name is believed to symbolize the beauty and spirit of the Korean people. The historical records only reveal that this was the song that used to calm the heart of the troubled King Gojong in the late 19th century, who was once terrified of a dream in which he saw the collapse of the Gwanghwamun Gate. Arirang has become a word closely related to the Korean identity and lifestyle, and has gained a considerable presence in the everyday life, giving its name to a number of Korean magazines and brands since the middle of the last century.
The visual arts also have deep roots on the island. Nestled at the foot of the highest mountain, in the middle of a magnificent lake garden, is the atelier of the great brush master from the 19th-century, Heo Ryeon, also known by the pen-name Sochi. The calligrapher named his atelier Unrim, the forest of mists, due to the surrounding misty landscapes that inspired his scrolls, and owing to his heirs the place remained a flourishing art center for four more generations.
Last but not least, the island is home to the impressive Jindo National Gugak Center – a place for traditional performing arts, perched on the hills of the south coast. Its picturesque terraced buildings house folk music concert halls, rehearsal rooms, a research center and accommodation facilities with a breathtaking view. For two weeks this summer, the Center hosted a traditional drum training program, which was attended by the members of the Samulnori Soyoung Ensemble.
Next time we are heading to the center!