A temple, mud flats, the freshest seafoodStanding on the deck of a ferry to Seokmodo island, the passengers carry bags of saewookkang, a shrimp snack, intended as food for the “hundreds” of seagulls that flock around the boat as soon as the engine begins to roar. Some eagerly lean against the railing of the vessel, waiting for the arrival of the birds.
Last weekend, three friends and I boarded the nameless ferry, which is big enough to carry up to 50 vehicles each time it crosses the water between Seokmo and Ganghwa islands, off Incheon, on Korea’s west coast. We were bound for Seokmodo, a small island that can be reached in less than 10 minutes by ferry from Ganghwa.
As the ferry started moving, I tossed a piece of saewooggang up into the air. One seagull, followed by dozens more, flew in, grabbed the morsel in its beak and ate it. One of my friends, Yeong-cheol, who held out a piece of saewookkang to see if the birds would come any closer, soon regretted it. As soon as he stretched his arm out, a seagull snatched the food away so quickly that my friend gave a yelp of surprise. “Don’t try it, it’s so fast your finger burns,” he said, cringing.
Seokmodo is only 1.5 kilometers (0.9 mile) from Ganghwa Island, so it is usually visible from any dock on Ganghwa, although on the day we went it was so foggy that we didn’t notice the island until the ferry captain told us we had arrived.
When we disembarked, our car was waiting for us at a fork in a road. We hesitated for a while, then decided to turn right. (We realized later that the direction did not matter because there was only one coastal highway that allows you to circle the island in 40 minutes.)
We had made a reservation on the Internet for a place to stay on the island. But there seemed to be plenty of lodging facilities. Every mile or so, there were signs for “pensions,” or small condominiums, and “minbak,” a word meaning “lodging at a private residence.”
Fliers filled with restaurant advertisements and lodging information were also distributed at the ferry terminal.
We stayed at “Bangju Pension,” run by a middle-aged couple who also operate a chicken and deer farm nearby. The name “bangju” means “ark,” as in “Noah’s ark,” but the owner, Yoo Yi-hwan, later told us that it was also the name of his dog. The dog was no longer there, and the owner said he suspected that some tourist might have stolen it to sell it as dog meat. (We hoped that was just a bad joke).
A room with a table, bed, small kitchen area and bathroom cost 70,000 won ($67) per night. The view from the veranda was amazing. Below where we were standing was a small green forest, and ahead there were mud flats leading to the waters of the Yellow Sea. A small uninhabited island was visible a few hundred yards offshore.
Giving in to hunger, we had lunch at the Haebyeon (“seashore” in Korean) restaurant, which served Seokmodo specialties such as sushi, crab stew and shrimp dishes. The sushi dishes cost as much as 90,000 won, rather pricey, but the side dishes were amazing. Along with the main dish, herring sushi, clam soup, steamed shrimp, octopus, sea squirt, turbot and various kinds of seasoned sea plants were served.
The touring started off with a visit to Bomunsa temple. By hiking halfway up a mountain called Nagka, you arrive at the temple, which was built in 635, during the reign of Queen Seondeok of the Silla Dynasty.
Rows of traditional markets and eateries lined the way to the entrance to the temple. Women, apparently the restaurant owners, came running up and started handing out cups of insam dongdongju, or ginseng wine, and shrimp and vegetable fritters.
“Try our food, it’s really good,” one woman shouted. “Remember to drop by here when you are done with the temple tour.”
The fritters were good. The insam dongdongju, one of the many specialties of Seokmodo, had a strong aroma of ginseng and other roots, but it was sweeter than ordinary dongdongju, which is usually made of rice.
The temple consists of the main hall and several smaller prayer rooms. There is an interesting legend surrounding how the temple came to be built. In 649, a fisherman living on the island caught 22 stones that were as big as a man’s forearm. He threw them back into the water, but the stones kept getting caught in his net. So he cleaned them and moved them to an empty cave. People on the island felt the stones were special and started praying to them.
The stones still exist, but in the form of miniature Buddhas ― they were carved into Buddha statues and placed inside the main hall of the Bomunsa.
Another famous site at the temple is Maaebul, meaning a Buddha image on a cliff. History says the seven-meter-tall image of the Buddha was jointly carved on the cliff by the chief priests of Bomsunsa, Lee Hwa-eung and Bae Seon-ju. The belief is that if you climb the 400 stairs to the site and say a prayer in front of the structure, your wish will come true.
So, the four of us started climbing the stairs carved into the rocks. The higher we climbed the muggier the air became around us, and we were breathing hard when we reached the top. Although the day was not very clear, the view from the top was fantastic. We all wished for something (we’ll have to see if our wishes come true), then began the long trek back down to the temple.
The next stop was Minmeoru Beach, the only beach on the island. Actually, it’s made up of mud flats that had been a salt farm. It was at low tide, so the 50-meter (152 feet) wide mud flats that normally stretch for over a kilometer created 100 acres of a top-quality natural mud pool.
Families who came with their children got out their small shovels and buckets and started scooping up the clams and shells that the tide had deposited.
By this time it was getting dark, and a mysterious environment formed as the foggy beach turned grayer. It was time to head back to Bangju Pension.
Mr. Yoo prepared a pork barbecue, boasting that it was “the best meat in town.” All the ingredients he used were organic, he said, and the food was seasoned with the natural salt that came from the best Seokmodo salt farm.
“You guys should try the seawater spa down the road,” he said, noting that a salt farm owner was digging a well several years ago but found a hot spring instead. The spa will soon become a commercial operation, but is now free for residents.
“Before they charge you, go and dip yourself into that water, it will cure every illness you have,” Mr. Yoo said.
by Lee Min-a
To reach Ganghwa Island, it’s a two-hour drive from Seoul to Gimpo to reach the Ganghwa Bridge, which links Gimpo and Ganghwa Island. The bridge is part of state road No. 48, which brings you to Oepo-ri dock, one of three docks on Ganghwa island. From there, the ferry crosses to Seokpo-ri dock on Seokmodo every half hour. A round-trip ticket costs 1,200 won ($1.15) for each passenger, and 14,000 won for the vehicle and driver.