For the entire 52-week account of Dr. Nemeth’s time on Jeju Island as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s, you can download his new e-book free of charge. JejuWorldWide would like to thank Dr. Nemeth again for his generous contribution. — Ed.
Hwasun was such a peaceful place when I first discovered it in 1973 — purely by accident! It was late spring. I was on a nearly empty westward-bound provincial bus circling half the Island from Jeju City westward toward Seogwipo. It was a fresh spring weekend in March. We had just passed through Moseulpo Town when the bus began to make strange noises, advancing only in fits and spurts. The bus then broke down and rolled to a stop. We were in “upper” Hwasun Village.
I disembarked and, anxious to hike about in an unfamiliar place, headed down a path toward the seashore of “lower” Hwasun Village. The path was unpaved and narrow, barely wide enough for small garden tillers much less small vehicles or the bravest of taxis. Barely two minutes off the bus and I could already tell I was in for a special treat! At that point the path took a sharp turn amidst a sharp decline in front of a small farm house located in the shade of a grove of marvelous old trees. At that dark and shady place there were two high rock piles, one on each side of the road. I later discovered these types of stonepiles were called duk and/or useokmok. Each one supported what appeared to be a small stone grandfather (dol harubang), and these grandfathers were positioned atop their stone piles facing each other across the pathway.
As I approached them, I encountered some inexplicable force of resistance in the pathway that slowed my pace to a halt. This was, as I grew to understand, a spirit gate. It was constructed at that point in the pathway as protection against unwanted outsider entry into lower Hwasun Village. Upper Hwasun Village was behind me, but suddenly irrelevant, as it was both physically and socially outside the sacred perimeter formed by this symbolic gateway. I was entering a world yet immune to advancing modernizing outsider influences intent on systematically corrupting ancient island ways.
There I stood paused in awe, with one village guard on my right…
… and another on my left, almost impossible to discern amidst the darkened foliage.
I stood in my tracks, momentarily suspended between two worlds. Suddenly I lurched forward, free to continue my descent around the curve and straightaway thereafter for a few minutes until glimpsing the first dwellings of Lower Hwasun Village. I saw no one up to that point except for an old woman who stared at me quietly from her front yard vegetable garden as I passed outside the low wall of her small chogajib (grass-roofed hut) within the grove. I learned later that she was herself guardian of the guardians of the grove, alert against vandalism and theft of the earth, stone and wood that comprised the sacred grove. These were in fact spirit trees, and a few of them were hundreds of years old, and twisted into awesome shapes.
Lower Hwasun Village in 1973 was modest in size, with no evidence of the sorts of tin sheet and cement invasions of the Korean government’s Saemaul Undong (New Village Movement). It was still an Old Village, faithful to the past. Residents appeared to be both fisher folk and farmers, with small plots. Fresh water was abundant, and there was a spacious estuary at the village coastline, fed by an energetic flowing spring. The villagers had constructed a stone enclosure for modest bathing between themselves and the wide, deserted beach to the west. The beach was endowed by the sea with deep white sands so abundant that they climbed inland and upward as far as gravity allowed upon the lower slopes of a remarkable high stone cliff. The cliff paralleled the surf for about a half mile, forming a sort of amphitheater that pinched off in the distance where it finally marched off into the surf head-on. Lower Hwasun was all but inaccessible overland from that direction.
It was the same sort of landscape to the east of the village, though the beach was shorter, the cliffs lower; and altogether less spectacular, though still dramatic. Directly between the village and the surf was a small stone harbor, part natural and part extended and enhanced by decades of human effort and the addition by hand of thousands of boulders. This formed a breakwater capable of protecting a few small fishing boats at best. Lower Hwasun in 1973 seemed a fantasy village, apart from the world, with no great aspirations to be more than it was. It seemed to me a paradise. Beyond the modest harbor and breakwater was a broad bay opening on to the empty and foreboding expanse of the North China Sea. Beyond this breakwater and this bay was, for all islander intents and purposes, the end of the world and certainly no place anyone would want to be during a typhoon.
Next week, Moseulpo’s Aussie Arnold Schwarzenegger.