Posts Tagged ‘Sea Parting Festival’

The parting of the sea

If there is one thing that Korea doesn’t lack for, it is festivals. Each and every weekend, the peninsula is speckled with an array of festivals celebrating a myriad of things. As of late, a popular cause for celebration has been the flowers. Just the other weekend my city hosted Korea’s 3rd largest azalea festival while over near Busan there was one of the larger cherry blossom festivals. Upcoming festivals include, a strawberry festival, canola fest, and a handful of tulip festivals. Every single crop, product and even many historical events spur reason for celebration. Many of these festivals share nearly identical structures: trot music for the old generation, kpop performances for the young and all accompanied by large amounts of food and drink.

There are a few festivals that are particularly popular and even geared towards the foreign population. The biggest of which is the infamous Boryeong Mud Festival in mid-summer. Basically, think spring break in Florida but with all those beach-bodies covered in slippery mud. Alternately there is the winter-time Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival complete with ice slides and elaborate snow sculptures. In the autumn you have the Andong Mask Festival  with cultural dance and comical shows, all set within a beautiful river valley. As I alluded, spring may have the highest density of festivals but one that particularly sticks out is the Jindo Sea Parting Festival.

Once a year and only in the spring, the tide is low enough to create the “miracle sea road” – a 2.8 km path connecting Jindo (Korea’s 3rd largest island) to a much lesser island off the southern coast. Unlike the other festivals this time of year, this one revolves around a legend:

It is said, that ages ago tigers were abundant on the island of Jindo.  As often happens in these legends, the predators became hungry and began terrorizing the local village, prompting the locals to flee to the nearby island of Modo. An elderly woman: Grandmother Ppong got left behind. She prayed to a Dragon King in this dire time of need. One day, the Dragon King appeared in her dream and told her that he would connect the two islands with a ‘rainbow bridge’. When Grandma Ppong arrived to the coast and began praying, the bridge appeared as promised. The sea road opened, and villagers from Modo walked across playing drums and gongs to scare the tigers. Upon meeting the villagers, Grandma Ppong confessed that seeing the sea road appear was her last wish, and shortly after, she passed away. Ever since, it has been a tradition to congregate on Jindo and celebrate Grandma Ppong’s will to reunite with her clan across the sea.

I didn’t know any of this two years ago but nevertheless found myself knee deep in dark icy water at 4AM on a cold, dark spring morning. As it turns out there are actually a few partings that all happen around the same time period. While this brutally early one fit our group itinerary, it wasn’t in fact a full parting. We shivering early birds were maybe only a third of the way across before air raid sirens accompanied by a seemingly impromptu firework display beckoned us back as the tide came in behind us. Despite the impatient waters, I did end up making it to the island via a new adjussi (older Korean man) friend and a chartered boat. The boat ride back was particularly memorable as it was ferrying one of the youngest professional singers of traditional Korean music (video forthcoming). This and a cool group of new friends made the weekend one of the most unforgettable of my first year in Korea.

So last Friday afternoon, when I was browsing upcoming events on Facebook, these warm memories returned – seeing that the festival would take place over the weekend. Being that I live in the same province and even on the same coast, I was tempted to make a repeat of the event. My temptation subsided when I saw that the group would be participating in the Saturday morning sunrise parting… Nevertheless I mentioned to a friend on the other side of the province that I was interested in going. She confided that she had never been, but ironically enough she had met one of the event leaders the night prior as he stopped through Mokpo en-route from Seoul to Jindo. Michael had invited her to tag along on the trip. Sol hadn’t given the invite much thought, but hearing my interest, decided to look into it.

Next thing I know, I am on the last bus to Mokpo. Around 10PM I rendezvous with Sol at the bus terminal and we are off in our hour long taxi ride down to the island. After navigating the foggy country roads, the driver dropped us off at a large hilltop pension that I immediately recognize as my accommodation from 2 years prior.  Michael comes out, and escorts us through the quiet complex (the bus loads of foreigners are just now departing from their respected corners of Korea). In his room, he introduces us to his catering crew from Busan. After plenty of fried chicken and mixed drinks, the Busan posse retired to their room. It was not long before we were joined by a USAF captain who had driven down for the event. Only the captain and I attempted any sleep, and it was maybe only 30 minutes later before we had to be up and at-em to join the buses rolling in near the seafront.

In our groggy state, we joined the hoards of Westerners in putting on our colorful thigh-high rubber boots. As we followed the procession to the sea, a firework display erupted in front of us! Soon enough, we arrived at the bottleneck of torch-bearing sea-parting-partiers. Live traditional music was entertaining so much so that I did not realize people had already started heading out into the sea. I hung back taking in the scene: a torch-lit snake of bodies illuminating against the pre-dawn twilight. The tide worked its way out, but the onslaught of torchbearers moved faster -thus giving the illusion of a  water-serpent gliding atop the depths.

I joined the ranks. The chill of the water stark against my thin rubber boots. I moved quickly, aiming to make it to the island this time around. I passed Westerners and locals alike – stopping to take ‘selfies’ or watch the old islanders dig for clams & and other salty treasures exposed by the abnormal tidal drop. I bypassed the film crews, out fishing for interviews and stopped only to snap a few hurried photos. My destination looked ominous – only a radio tower poked out of the cloud-shrouded island.

**** Air Raid Sirens ****

It was clear I would not be making it to the island this time around either. The waters came back with a vengeance, reclaiming the briefly exposed land-bridge. While heading back on an already submerged segment, I accidentally stepped off the path and filled one of my boots. The tide came back in so fast that water in my boots became a recurring event, to the point that I was saturated thigh-to-foot.

Once on dry land, I rejoined Michael and Sol and we sloshed back to Michael’s refreshment tent. After emptying my boots and gratefully polishing a tall cup’a Joe. Sol and I attempted a nap but were hindered by the recent dose of caffeine.

The rest of the day consisted of traditional Korean wrestling (Ssireum), a chance run-in with a local group of friends, followed by a double run-in with a friend from orientation, a paragliding show, a holi-hai color festival on the beach, new Turkish friends from Yeosu and finally an international party at the ‘Global Zone’. Said party featured both male and female Kpop troupes, a South African DJ, and both a funky group from Daejeon as well as a solid cover band. I ran into my new Turkish friend (Esat), after exchanging contact info, we joined in as the night devolved into a dance party. Unfortunately it was cut short by Michael’s intervention on some unruly Sri Lankans who couldn’t seem to respect the party going women.

It wasnt even noon before the buses had all departed the following morning. The festival went on, but felt a bit deflated without the ranks of ‘foreigners’. Nevertheless Sol and I enjoyed a series of cultural dances featuring Russians, Colombians and even a professional American Kpop dancer that I recognized for YouTube. After chatting and getting photos with her and her partner, it was time to say goodbye to the Busan crew and head back up to Mokpo with Michael.

In the end it was an impromptu weekend well spent. I had gone for the sea parting; although I was again disappointed, I came away with new friends and even a few new experiences which is saying something as the years draw out in the Land of Kimchee.