The Island of 18,000 Gods: Rocks and Stories from Jeju

• Dispatch #20 •
Jeju’s geology shapes the island’s stories.

For the most part, I travel to new places to hear their stories.

There are stories that only people can tell. And there are those that their fashion, food, architecture, and other facets of culture can narrate beautifully, without the need for anyone speaking.

And there are stories that only nature can give.

Jeju boasts one of the most interesting and diverse geologies I have ever seen so far. Here are some of my favorite memories from the rocks of Jeju:

1. Samseonghyeol

One of my first stops was Samseonghyeol (“three holes”), a shrine dedicated to three demigods who emerged from three holes in the ground. These gods became the founding fathers of Tamna, who ruled the island until the Joseon Dynasty.

These holes are still there and are surrounded by some stone markers. This part is shielded from the public via a wall, and so I was only able to take a photograph on tiptoe.

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Samseonghyeol

It’s oddly refreshing to have a people’s collective mythology preserved like this. It’s also a very peaceful place—perfect to meditate on your origins.

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Under the shade lies the birthplace of Jeju’s founding fathers.

2. Mt. Halla

It is impossible to talk about Jeju without mentioning Hallasan (“Halla mountain”). Mt. Halla is Jeju. The island is known to have “18,000 gods and goddesses” and it is said that the goddess Seolmundae created the mountain. More specifically, Mt. Halla is a shield volcano, but it last erupted centuries ago. The lava flowed to the edges of the island, which explains the dark coastlines I encountered during my visit.

Mt. Halla is the highest mountain in South Korea with an elevation of 1,950 m (6,400 ft). A visit would not be complete without climbing it. And so I did, even though it was a very foggy day and it rained at the end of my hike.

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Foggy and wet Mt. Halla. Beautiful trees, though!

My view was limited and the experience was a bit of a blur. I mean, seriously, look at this. I remember nothing of this experience other than the dampness of the air and hanging on to a lot of trees.

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A blurry path. I was relieved not to have slipped.

Even though I was soaking wet after the experience, I suppose I did feel blessed by the gods. After all, I didn’t get pneumonia.

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Wet after the Mt. Hallasan hike.

3. The caves of Jeju

There are other fascinating geological formations in Jeju, largely thanks to Mt. Halla’s old eruptions. Interestingly, myths produce other myths.

Among them is Ssyangyong (“two dragons”) Cave, which was formed by an eruption of Mt. Halla about 2.5 million years ago. A sign near it says that this is the only place in the world where a lava cave and a limestone cave are joined together. There are stalactites and stalagmites in the cave, which can’t grow in a lava cave. A survey of this area showed that there are 20 caves here, measuring 17,000 meters long.

I really like this part of the cave, which does look as though a dragon slithered through it.

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A dragon’s tracks in Ssangyong Cave

Another interesting cave is this one that tells of the legend of Dr. Jin, who as a young boy encountered a fox spirit disguised as a girl. The rock formation does look like a woman.

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The highlight of my cave excursions was Manjanggul Cave, a magnificent lava tunnel with a lava tube deep inside. When lava that is deep underground flows to the surface, a lava tube is formed. I’m always afraid of spraining my ankles, so my gaze was directed on the uneven ground. I really appreciate these patterns formed my nature so long ago.

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Nature’s carpet

The highlight of this experience is seeing this lava tube—the second longest in Jeju. The colored lights are unnecessary to feel awestruck about this rock formation.

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Each time I’m in a new city, I’m often sad at how nature has lost to shopping centers and apartment buildings. It’s always nice when they do otherwise.

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