South Korea has a divine culture that has flourished for thousands of years, filled with countless legends of tradition, honor and hope. Similar to many other Asian cultures, it continues a great history of storytelling that has become a way of life for generation after generation.
Ancient stories of both historical figures and mythological characters have been told for centuries in South Korea, shaping the beliefs and virtues of the people. These legends encompass the very heart of South Korea’s history and integrate magic and mystery into its culture. Discover the stories of early inhabitants, soldiers and gods whose legends are far from forgotten. You’ll be captivated as you surround yourself in the sights and sounds that South Koreans regard as their heritage.
Jeju: See Magical Myths and Legends Unfold
Start your journey in Jeju City at the Chilmeori Shrine, which is located just a few minutes from the Jeju International Airport. If you have the opportunity to travel in February, you’ll be able to enjoy the ritual shaman performance, which represents the proverbial myth of 18,000 gods. As one of the most highly recognized practices on the island, the people of Jeju believe these demonstrations rid the world of evil and injustice.
Next, immerse yourself in the story of the three founding demi-gods at the Samseonghyeol Shrine, their birthplace. You’ll come across the burial altars and ring of stones created in their honor during the Ancient Tamna Kingdom in the 1500s, where celebratory rituals are still held each spring and fall. A little further down the same route is Tamna Mokseokwon, a provincial monument showcasing the unusual beauty of 20 natural trees befitting to their characteristics (such as Gosamok, the “Dead Tree”), 500 pieces of rock in the shape of a human head and other distinctive stones generally found around the island.
Mount Halla is another major landmark you won’t want to miss during your stay on Jeju Island. Learn about the time-honored legend of Grandmother Seolmundae, the mystical founder of Jeju, and the 500 Generals.
Along your walking journey on the Yeongsil trail, you’ll see a long line of vertical pillar rocks spread out along the mountain, bringing the story to life of how the 500 generals wept for their deceased mother. Jeju Stone Culture Park features outdoor displays of stone cultures from prehistoric dynasties and traditional thatched-roof houses. You’ll come across exhibits honoring Grandmother Seolmundae, artifacts relating to the life and death of Jeju residents and also the Bangsatap, a stone tower constructed to protect islanders from evil.
Travel further east to the Seongeup Folk Village where you’ll find a small Jeju community still filled with many cultural treasures of traditional folk songs, authentic foods and historic zelkhova trees. During the rest of your trip, you won’t want to miss
The Korean Confucian temples — these long-established philosophical monuments are a colossal part of the history of the country (as well as the rest of Asia). Located in the southwestern part of Jeju, the Daejeong Hanggyo temple is an awe-inspiring piece of architecture that dates back to 1653. The Yakcheon Temple is famous for its display of the largest Buddhist statue in Asia. The name of the temple translates as the “temple where medicinal water flows.” A place of hope and renewed spirit for many Buddhists, the Yakcheon Temple is widely renowned for mystical stories about the medicinal water, which many people still drink when they are here.
If you’re looking for other ways to immerse yourself in Jeju’s traditions, here are a few highly celebrated festivals you can plan your trip around:
First Full Moon Fire Festival (Jeongwol Daeboreum): The annual festival is held on the weekend before the full moon of the Lunar New Year. During this traditional ritual, they set Saebyeol Oreum ablaze in the hopes of receiving a year of abundance and exterminating harmful insects from the fields.
Sacrificial Ritual (Samseonghyeol Chunkidaeje): This traditional ceremony is a veneration of the three demi-gods who founded the ancient kingdom of Tamna.
Seogwipo Seven Fairies Festival: See a reenactment of the legendary story of the seven fairies at the “Pond of Heaven” (Cheonjeyeon).
Tamna Cultural Festival: Just in time for the tangerines to ripen, this event draws you into the spirit of South Korean traditional music, theater, and a special sacrificial rite for Mount Halla.
Experience Tradition in South Korea
Without a doubt, your vacation memories will be so much richer as you begin to appreciate how South Koreans once lived and the incredible stories that made their culture a unique and influential part of Asia. While there are many regions that offer an authentic experience of South Korea, Seoul and Gyeongju are two major cities abounding with preserved traditions of their distinct way of life.
The city of Seoul features several cultural attractions, making it the Republic of Korea’s number one destination for foreign visitors and the appropriate starting place for an ambitious exploration of the country. This adventure begins at the Changdeokgung Palace, an exceptional display of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design from the 15th century. Nearby, you’ll find the Chongmyo Shrine set in wooded grounds, containing the ancestral tablets of the Kings of the Joseon Dynasty that bring luck and stability to the rulers of the country.
Adjacent to the City Hall, the Toksugung Palace holds the former royal villa of Prince Wolsan. Translated as the “Palace of Virtuous Long Life,” it is considered the largest and most beautiful temple in terms of its architectural style in Seoul. Originally constructed in 1394, the Gyongbokgung Palace is a spectacular site that contains many symbolical and mythical objects like the Ten Symbols of Longevity, which tell much about the ideals that the Korean forefathers considered important for the prosperity of the country and dynasty. At the Suwon Korean Folk Village, take pleasure in tasting exotic Korean food at the traditional marketplace, finding a variety of shops selling exquisite handicrafts and witnessing customary performances and ceremonies.
Known as Korea’s “museum without walls,” Gyeongju is a repository of ancient Korean history and Buddhist culture and has been designated as one of the world’s 10 most historically significant sites. At the Tumuli Park, you’ll find more than 20 tomb mounds of kings and court officials of the Shilla Dynasty. Learn about the legend of the Chukhyonnung (or “Bamboo Soldier Tomb”), which tells of soldiers with bamboo leaves in their ears emerging from the tomb of King Mich’u to repel his enemies. A few minutes away, you’ll come across the Cheomsongdae, a seventh-century astronomical observatory that ranks among the oldest in Asia. The tower is built of 362 pieces of cut granite, which some claim represent the 362 days of the lunar year.
Travel a little south to the Gyeongju National Museum and see more than 80,000 treasures from the Shilla period, including golden crowns excavated from the tombs. Spaced around the museum grounds are various recovered pieces of statues, temple ornaments, bridges, stupas and other monuments. In the area, you’ll be able to enjoy walking through the Anapji Pond and Gardens, a reconstructed pleasure garden complete with pavilions. The surrounding hills are dotted with ancient monuments and temples and laced with scenic hiking trails.
Be sure to stop over at the Bulguksa Temple, where you’ll immediately be drawn by its beautiful architecture and stone pagodas. Originally built in 528, the temple compound houses a number of national treasures, including the Blue Cloud Bridge and White Cloud Bridge, which bear spiritual significance for Buddhists as they enter into the temple through the Golden Purple Gate. High on the mountain above Bulguksa is the fascinating Sokkuram Grotto, an ancient and highly complex cave-like structure containing a large granite Buddha and wall carvings of guardian deities. At the heart of the Kayasan National Park is the Haeinsa, Korea’s best known temple. You’ll be inspired to see the extraordinary Tripitaka Koreana, a set of over 80,000 wooden printing blocks engraved with the complete Buddhist scriptures, still in perfect condition since 1252.