No Moses needed to part these watersIf the story of Moses parting the Red Sea in the book of Exodus didn’t make you a religious person, try visiting Jindo island.
Every spring and fall at the island in South Jeolla province at the southwestern tip of the peninsula, the third largest island in Korea, you can witness a similar natural spectacle.
Jindo island’s Muchangpo Beach is famous for the appearance of a dry path in the middle of the sea that appears on the last and first few days of the lunar month in spring and in fall.
This dramatic natural phenomenon, which has been the subject of debate among scientists in Korea, is no religious miracle, however. It is caused by changes in tidal currents in Myongrang Strait, which controls the tidal range for nearby seas.
Every year, about 400,000 tourists visit Jindo to walk through the parted sea on Muchangpo Beach. The same phenomenon occurs elsewhere along the country’s western and southern coasts, in areas that have a jagged coastline and a large tidal range.
Sado in South Jeolla province and Jebudo in Gyeonggi are some of the other well-known places to witness this scene. But the parting of the sea happens in those regions throughout the year, whereas at Jindo island, the phenomenon is limited to 5 days a month in spring and in fall.
For this reason, Jindo is by far the most popular spot to view the parted sea, sometimes attracting foreign media like CNN and Japan’s NHK. Pierre Randi, then the French ambassador to Korea, visited Jindo in 1975 and wrote about the spectacle in a French newspaper. According to the municipal government of Jindo, the number of Japanese tourists to Jindo increased sharply after Japanese pop singer Dendo Yosimi’s song “Jindo Story,” based on the phenomenon, became a big hit in 1996.
The parting of the waters reveals an S-shaped path about 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) long and 40 meters wide. The tides roll in and out twice a day. Times fluctuate depending on weather and the speed of the tides, but normally the sea stays parted for about two hours during the early evening.
That makes it a bit tight to travel back and forth between the beach and nearby Modo island. Most visitors take a ferry to Modo island, wait there until the tide recedes and walk back to Jindo island when the sea opens, making it a one-way trip.
Fishing boats patrol the area throughout the evening, checking to make sure no visitors have been stranded as the tide rolls in. The best spot to see the seaway from afar is an observation platform just behind the statue of the Bbong Halmeoni, a famed character of local folklore.
At low tide, the split in the sea exposes a wealth of sea creatures such as razor clams, crabs and baby octopuses. You can see women in rubber boots crouching in the mud with hoes and baskets, digging for clams. If you want to try your hand at clam-catching, sprinkle a bit of salt into the small, oval holes that dot the ground, and a razor clam will literally jump out. Grab it quickly, before it retreats back into its hole.
While the parted sea at Jindo island creates a path for people to walk on, visitors shouldn’t expect a dry road on a sandy beach. According to experts, the seaway is only completely dry for three minutes, so it’s best to bring proper footwear. The best times to go are in April, May, October and November. It’s difficult to enjoy the scene in the fall, though, as the sea doesn’t part until past midnight.
There is a 500-year-old tale associated with Jindo’s parting sea. Legend has it that a high official from the Joseon Dynasty was exiled to Jeju island at the turn of the 14th century. During his voyage, the ship went down, and he drifted ashore onto Jindo island at a place called Hoedong-ri, or “Tiger’s Town.” His descendants settled there and lived for over 200 years.
Constant tiger attacks, however, forced the villagers on Jindo island to flee next door to Modo island. During the migration, an elderly woman named Bbong was accidentally left behind.
The old lady prayed every day to the god of the sea to let her see her family again. Sometime in February, the god of the sea appeared in her dream and said, “I will send a rainbow to the sea tomorrow; ride the rainbow and cross the ocean.”
The next day, the lady went out to the sea and prayed again. This time the seawater parted, forming a road in the middle of the water. It was through this road that her family and the other villagers came back to the island.
To celebrate this natural wonder, residents of Jindo island hold the Youngdeung festival, which literally means “spirit was lighted upon.”
During the festival, which takes place next Wednesday through Friday, visitors can see unique, traditional rituals performed by the islanders, most notably a boat parade, shaman rites and Jindo’s version of “Arirang,” a famous folk song that is accompanied by an elaborate dance.
The geographical position of Jindo island also contributed to the region’s unique traditions in the arts. Its isolated location and frequent natural catastrophes led villagers to develop a strong belief in supernatural powers.
Even now, Jindo is one of the few regions of the country where local religions are still actively practiced among the villagers and shamans act as healers.
At a shrine on Jindo island, where a portrait of the old lady Bbong is kept, visitors make wishes. Jindo residents are known for their nature poetry, calligraphy, painting and chanting. The island is also home to a stylistic genre of painting called namjonghwa, represented by artists like Huh Yu.
by Park Soo-mee
To get to Jindo island, you can fly to Mokpo and take an express bus to Jindo. You can also take a bus from Seoul to Jindo; that ride is about six hours. Buses to Jindo leave Nambu Express Bus terminal four times a day. There are also guesthouses throughout the island. For general information, call Jindo’s tourism information center at (061) 540-3224.