▲ Mount Songak, with views of the Brothers Islets, is a popular hiking spot but bears permanent scars from the Japanese occupation of Jeju. Photo by Candy Litimco
A relatively unknown site on the southwestern coast of Jeju, Mount Songak boasts some of the island’s best panoramic scenery. While a great place to bring a camera, Songaksan is also a mountain scarred from a time of instability, and visible reminders of the area’s once turbulent past are apparent. A trip to the mountain gives visitors a glimpse into the reality of Jeju’s plight during Japan’s war with China and World War II, which is as much a part of the experience as the 360-degree views.
To get to Songaksan, continue driving a short distance along the coast just west of Mount Sanbang, or for the more adventurous, make the trek on foot along Olle Course 10. Songaksan lies in the middle of the route, between Hwasun and Moseulpo. Your first impression of the tour bus infested parking lot may be deceiving, as the mountain is relatively quiet.
Looking along the jagged coastline, the large man-made caves are the first obvious sign that Songaksan was once used for something other than hiking. Formerly used for the storage of weapons, there are 19 caves in all along the coastline, 13 of them visible from this spot and the majority accessible from the rocky beach. The entrances are large, and upon stepping inside, you’ll find many loop around in a half-donut shape.
During the war, forced labor of the locals was commonplace to build such caves. According to Cho Sung Yoon, a sociology professor at Jeju National University who has been researching the area since 2005, the caves were, perhaps surprisingly, relatively easy to construct. “Since Jeju is a volcanic island, even rocks are not as hard as people think. The only tools required to build these coastal tunnels were pickaxes and shovels,” he said.
▲ Photo by Kim Gyong Ho
As you begin to head up the mountain, smaller mid-level caves appear on the right, requiring you to duck for a look inside. At one time, the mountain caves were inter-connected, with the number of entrances far exceeding the number of caves. For safety reasons, many have since been filled to avoid collapsing and injury to grazing animals.
Pushing on past a small restaurant and trinket stand, you’ll reach the southern-most tip of Jeju Island. Just past a tied up horse - apparently a cornerstone of every Jeju tourist stop - a gaze over the edge will lend you a view of the islands of Gapado and Marado, with villages so small that those who think of Jeju as isolated might experience some relief. A ferry to these can be caught about a quarter of the distance to Sanbangsan.
For the pinnacle of the afternoon, make your way to the peak. Trails are not obvious, so simply choose a place to begin and blaze your own path. The trek is short but can be steep. Once atop the mountain, the 69-meter deep crater can be fully circled, offering views from Moseulpo to the west, all the way to Hwasun to the east. Most spectacular is the display of Sanbangsan, as it poses with grand posture in front of Mount Halla. A clear day is recommended for optimal viewing.
“I like that the surrounding area doesn't have artificial things, like a port, and there hasn’t been any construction in that area,” said Baek Seung Hee, an avid hiker of Jeju’s mountains and olle courses. “When I’m at the top looking out at the view, I can only see islands and hills. I feel very peaceful and open-minded.”
▲ Photo by Kim Gyong Ho
During Japan’s occupation during its war with China in the 1930s, seven villages simply vanished from the surrounding area to allow Japan’s military use of the land. Local residents were forcibly removed without anywhere to go. “There was no monetary compensation for it either. The residents received a sack of potatoes instead,” Cho said.
To the northwest, the old runways of Alddreu Airfield can be spotted. If you dust off your sunglasses, you can see the airplane hangars built into the side of small mounds.
As the war evolved and became part of World War II, the island became a pivotal location due its proximity to China and Japan. The Japanese needed to maintain control over Jeju not just to be near China, but to prevent the U.S. from having a safe haven near Japan. The Japanese figured that if the Americans were to attack, the areas surrounding Songaksan would be the first place they would land.
The caves were built on Songaksan in the mid 1940s for precautionary reasons and to keep Japanese supplies and soldiers hidden from the Americans. “During that time, the command of the air belonged to the U.S.A.,” said Cho.
Today, most everyone seems to be in agreement that the remnants of the war ought to be preserved for education purposes. “In the past, people simply thought ‘why do we have to remember the sufferings and sad legacy of the Japanese occupation.’ But nowadays, people think ‘peace’ based on a correct understanding of the past,” Cho said.
Songaksan and the surrounding areas are open for exploration, and often wandering off the beaten path leads to the finding of hidden landmarks. Assume the barbed wire fences are for the grazing animals, and have a free stroll around. While most visitors are aware of the darker days of the past, the clouds have cleared over Songaksan, and it is now seen as a place of recreation with some of the best scenery on Jeju.
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