South Korea Sojourns IV: Jeju Island Fire Festival

by Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro
51st Fighter Wing PAO

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Author's Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles about recreational travel opportunities for service members stationed in South Korea. Each article will highlight a specific South Korean destination, attraction, or event within the authorized travelling distance for U.S. forces in country. The aim of this series is to encourage everyone to safely and enthusiastically explore their surroundings, develop an appreciation for the history, culture, and customs of their host nation, as well as showcase the diverse activities available to service member, and their families, near and far, while stationed in the Republic of Korea. Concluding each article will be an approximation of how much money and time are required for each destination, attraction or event, as well as directions and amount of physical activity is required. Many opportunities to travel in groups are available through the base's Information, Tickets and Travel office as well as Outdoor Recreation.

March 6. I had been in Korea for two months, and while I felt like I was getting around okay, and seeing a lot of the sights, I had only managed to get out of the Seoul metropolitan area a couple of times.

Coming off the two-week long, peninsula-wide exercise Key Resolve 2014, I needed to see something new, something refreshing, something organic and alive.

It was my good fortune the exercise ended just a day before the Jeju Island Fire Festival, a three-day event on the South Korean island renowned for its scenic beauty. On March 7, the day after ENDEX for KY '14 was declared, I boarded a plane at Gimpo International Airport headed for Jeju.

Reaching Gimpo was simple because there's a metro line going directly to the airport. It takes an hour-and-a-half from Songtan Station, and costs W2,000, but does require two transfers. Regardless, I found this to be the most economical and timely transportation method, although people who carry lots of baggage when they fly might want to consider another means.

After a one-hour flight I arrived at Jeju, the first thing I noticed exiting the airport was Mt. Halla, a massive mountain with smaller-sibling peaks broadly cast against a clear blue sky. Inhaling a breath of ocean air was refreshing, and there was no yellow dust in sight. I stayed at a hotel outside the main city of Jeju, so I used a cab, which cost W20,000.

Car rentals are a good option for Jeju-travelers. The cost varies, but can be worth it if you plan to travel across the island. Frequent taxi rides to and from the various scenic spots across the island can cost a lot. Since I was primarily on the island to see the Fire Festival, I got a hotel within walking distance of the location.

The Fire Festival was held in Saebyeol Oreum, a usually empty mountainside that has life brought to it every year by the festival. It was an easy destination to find, just off the highway and advertised for with giant signs and colorful flags. I walked from my hotel and back to the festival at leisure.

People at the event taught me the festival is derived from the tradition of setting fires to cattle grazing fields in order to eliminate pests, making it safer for the livestock to graze. This tradition became an official festival in 1997 on Jeju Island and has been observed annually ever since.

There are multiple events and games for people to participate in or watch during the festivities, such as tug-of-war or traditional Korean stage and music performances. The events ran from about 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. each day.

In addition to events throughout the day, there were also multiple vendors and traders with tents set up at the festival, serving traditional island foods and drinks. Due to the chilly conditions and high winds, grabbing some hot food and drink was a must, and didn't cost much either. There are some essential items to try as well, such as the rice wine, green tea, and mandarin oranges.

The celebration is foreigner-friendly and designed to promote communal interaction. There are English translations available for most of the announcements and activities, and most of the people I met, Korean or other, were social and happy to talk.

While the fire festival is a three-day event, the highlight of each day is at the very end, when the people grab their torches and light the mountainside on fire before participating in a ceremonial dance, praying for a healthy harvest. There were fireworks accompanying the flames, making the event a great place to take children, who will love the explosive visuals.

Jeju attracts a lot of tourists, it's been designated as one of the new seven wonders of nature and an UNSECO world heritage site. Spending three days there and getting a chance to explore some of the island's natural beauty, as well as witness and participate in the Fire Festival showed me why. I can confidently say Jeju Island is an essential sight for people on a tour here in Korea. Flights are cheap, and there are reasonably priced hotels available, but the memories you make, sights you see, and people you meet won't be able to be quantified in money.

Location/event: Jeju Island/Fire Festival

Directions: Jeju Island is accessible by ferry or plane. There will be shuttles running regularly from Jeju City to and from the festival as well as city bus stations in Jeju City.

Total Cost: Varies by person. Round-trip plane tickets should run around approximately $300, and while ferry rides may be cheaper, they take considerably longer. There are high end and affordable hotels available, and travelers should consider renting a car if they're going to see a lot of the sights as multiple taxi fees can be exorbitant.

Time: The Fire Festival is a Friday-Sunday event running from approximately 10 a.m. - 8:00 p.m. each day, but there are great sights to see on Jeju Island year round.

Documentation required: You'll need a government issued photo ID to enter Jeju.

Who it's for: People interested in South Korean, specifically Jeju Island, culture and anyone looking for a family friendly event with tasty food and drink.

When it's open: One weekend, Friday-Sunday, typically in March.

Activity required: Nothing major. The festival requires a little bit of walking, but nothing strenuous or out of the ordinary, no special considerations needed.

What to travel with: Dress warm because it can get cold and windy. Also bring enough money to buy souvenirs or food. A camera will be nice to capture some of the excellent visuals. Make sure to take your SOFA and ID card as well as a functioning cellular phone. As always, when traveling, groups are preferable and fun at a jovial event like this. The festival is designed to attract tourists, and even has some events specifically for foreigners, so don't be shy approaching vendors or taking part in the ceremonies personally.

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