▲ Thatched roofed stone cottages such as this one in Seongeup Folk Village once dotted the countryside of Jeju Island. Photo courtesy Seogwipo City Hall
Visiting the Seongeup Folk Village in northeastern Jeju is like stepping back to a time before honking horns, flashing neon and a Parisian bakery on every corner.
In fact, there is not a single chain store in the village, which has been largely frozen in time.
The traditional village is unique in that it is still a working village. This is no museum – people still work and live here as they have for centuries. Visitors may be asked to join in with every day tasks, such as spinning rope or harvesting crops.
The village contains some 3,000 stone and clay houses, and not a single “no trespassing” signs. Respectful visitors are fee to wander at will.
The village has an important place in Jeju history, dating back to the fifteenth century, when it was the local administrative office of Jeongui. Remnants of the Jeongui fortress remain, including the impressive entrance gate. Two of Jeju’s original Dolhareubongs, “Grandfather Stones” still guard this entrance.
The Jeongui district was a prosperous one, with nearly 1,500 households, 140 rice paddies, more than a thousand horses and 200-plus cattle. From this zenith the district eventually fell, and became another sleepy Jeju village. It may have succumbed to the fate of many, with a wide road whizzing cars past, new developments taking over traditional housing, and tin roofs supplanting the labor-intensive thatch, but in the 1980s its cultural significance was recognized, and it was declared a cultural property. Officially it is National Folk Asset #188, a treasure recognized not only in Jeju, but nation-wide.
It’s almost eery to walk the narrow, winding “olles” of the town, like a voyeur, peeking into Jeju’s past. Graceful zelkova and nettle trees arch over the main road through town, standing sentinels who no doubt hold many secrets in their gnarled limbs.
▲ Traditional Jeju black pigs can be seen at the folk village, before they end up as dinner. Photo courtesy Seogwipo City Hall
Rough stone walls, loosely stacked to allow the famous Jeju wind to find its way through and around them, mark the borders of each family’s property. The stone houses are topped with heavy moptops of grass thatch, held in place by a classic basketweave of hand-spun straw rope. Look closely: the end of each rope is tied around a rock which dangles just over the end of the thatch. One wonders how many thatched roofs blew away in the winter winds before someone figured out this elaborate roofing system.
While tourists stroll through their town, villagers go about their business. They will often invite visitors to join them, as in rope twisting, but in this case, many hands do not make light work. The villagers laugh as visitors clumsily turn the simple wooden crank that is supposed to cause multiple strands of straw to efficiently twine together into one strong rope. Listen carefully and see if you can pick out the Jeju dialect in their playful teasing.
Look around the family compounds closely, and see if you can locate the “tongsi” – the traditional “pig-feeding toilet.” Very efficient, it is just what its name implies, an outhouse for humans where no waste goes to waste. The village also contains several Confucian shrines, gravestones, stone monuments and farming implements from Jeju’s past.
Seongeup Folk Village is free and open year round. From either the Jeju City or Seogwipo bus terminals ask for the bus going to Seongeup. The trip takes about an hour each way.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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