Darren Southcott, recently returned from a stint in Jeju-do, appreciates one of the island’s unique attractions: Jeju Stone Park
In this age of globalisation, authentic Korea may seem elusive and challenging for the visitor to find, but there are many sites which seek to preserve the nation’s cultural spirit. Jeju Island, despite heavy tourist development, has always sought to preserve this spirit and no place more so than Jeju Stone Park, in Gyorae-ri, Jocheon-eup, Jeju-do.
Jeju is in many ways a nation within a nation, set off from the mainland and encircled by the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean. Borne out of volcanic eruptions hundreds of thousands of years ago, its remoteness preserved its land, legends and culture for centuries. It is dominated by the vastness of Mt Halla at its centre and is protected as a World Natural Heritage biosphere.
The intimate relationship between Jeju and its geology is clear enough for all visitors to the island, and has also inspired a mythology drawing comparisons with the classics myths of Greece and Rome. Inspired by this history of myth, stone and spirit, the Jeju Stone Park seeks to be a physical embodiment of the mythology of Jeju Island and its people.
The myth of Seolmundae
In days of yore, a legendary goddess named Seolmundae, who was large enough to use Mt. Halla as her pillow, was making a cauldron of soup for her 500 sons. The mythological grandmother of Jeju must have grown quite drowsy, as she somehow toppled into the broth and perished. Returning home, her sons wondered where their mother was, but tucked into their dinner nonetheless, noting its unusually delicious taste.
The youngest son, who was always the last to eat, came to the pot and discovered his mother’s bones in the dregs at the bottom. Upon realizing what had happened he became distraught and angry with his brothers. Beside themselves with grief, the sons were petrified into stone. These stones, known as the 500 Generals, are the outcropping rocks at Yeongsil on Mt. Halla; while the youngest brother stands on Chagwi-do, forever following his elder brothers.
The spirit of this myth lives on in the very structure of the Jeju Stone Park, as its director Baek Woon-cheol explained: “Visiting the park is intended to be a journey through the mythology of the island, entering through the ear of Seolmundae, progressing through the body and exiting at the feet. It represents the journey of life and death,” He said.
An aerial view of the park reveals how Seolmundae lives on in the very structure of the park. The layout is suggestive of the goddess lying on her back looking to the sky, with entrances at the ears and exits at her hands and feet. The first monument to greet visitors as they enter is a gracious pool of shimmering water- the Sky Pond, the water of which cascades over its rim. This is the bowl of soup from which the Jeju Grandmother’s returning sons ate.
The spirit of stone
It is a beautiful scene and from here visitors can enter the main gallery to view the stone displays inside. The stones are every bit as beautiful as sculptural masterpieces. Baek, whose commitment was pivotal in creating the park, sees it as an endeavor to safeguard Jeju’s culture and the beauty of the earth. He explained that “the major influences behind the park are identity, culture and art. The stones contain an essence of the Jeju spirit and people, which should always be preserved.”
Visitors can choose any or all of the three courses, totaling 2.3km, the first of which represents the omnipresent Seolmundae myth. The paths lead visitors to many stone representations of the myth and guide them to the Sky Pond. This leads to a waterfall which represents the four seasons, before the exhibition hall astounds with its wealth of geological formations.
The other walks are more studious; as they are in many ways a fascinating series of pint-sized museums, housed in traditional thatched buildings. There is the feeling of wandering through a lost Jeju village. Visitors become entwined in the relationship between stone and Jeju culture, as artifacts ranging from barbells and baduk boards, to stone toilets and children’s toys, are presented all around. Finally, the thatched houses showcase Jeju life of yesteryear, with working implements such as ploughs, millstones and pots carefully displayed.
A life’s work
Baek personally collected the 20,000 stones on display over a period of 40 years- more recently with the help of the Jeju Provincial Government. In this truly unique representation of Jeju’s dynamic history, he wished to connect the past, present and future of Jeju through the concept of stone. “On a visit to Paris I was impressed with how they went to great lengths to preserve their rich culture and I used this as inspiration to protect what was left of our culture on Jeju.” He explained.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that the Jeju Stone Park is somehow a museum of Jeju life, as Baek sees it as a living creation and of much deeper significance: “Humans cannot perceive stones moving and therefore presume they are dead, but they contain the essence of life itself, just like the earth. If we allow our culture to forget these stones we lose what keeps our culture alive. In many ways Jeju culture has already been orphaned, so our responsibility is to be its foster parents.”
This fragility of local cultures is something experienced all over the world and Baek feels that, as change is inevitable, adaption is the key to survival. “This is the true globalization of Jeju,” he suggested.
The stones of Jeju Stone Park safeguard the mythology of Seolmundae for millennia and in times of unprecedented change, one man’s painstaking work is going someway to ensure Jeju’s Grandmother will be with us far into the future.
Jeju Stone Park is open from 9a.m. daily, all year round. It closes at 5p.m. in the winter and 7p.m. during the summer. Admission is 2500W with a Jeju resident’s card and 5000W without. For further information, please visit: http://www.jejustonepark.com/eng/