Yu Hong-june, a prominent art historian in Korea and chair professor at Myongji University in Seoul, said in his book "My Exploration of Cultural Heritage," "The more you know, the more you see." Even if a place is famous or on a plain ordinary day, a landscape can be seen differently depending on the viewer's knowledge and perspective.
Korea.net launched this year a series on domestic cultural and tourist spots. For famous places easily found on the internet, we approach them from new perspectives focusing on people and their stories. In addition, we cover spots often overlooked to promote them as potential tourist attractions. Thus readers can discover hidden but attractive gems of tourism nationwide.
Shinan-gun County, Jeollanam-do Province, is the country's only local government consisting only of islands -- 1,025 of them comprising 72 inhabited and 953 uninhabited. The county has earned the nickname "Cheonsa Island," with cheonsa in Korean have the double meaning of the number 1,004 and an angel.
The county has numerous monikers to be proud of like "the star of tourism in Korea, "the world's best tourist town," "a UNESCO biosphere preservation region," "Ramsar Convention-registered wetland" and "Korea's first slow city." When Korea.net staff chose to cover the county for its next series, they unfolded a map and went blank for a second. Not only did the region have many places to explore, but given how spread out the interconnected islands are, it was difficult to decide where to start and which places to hit.
The distance between Seoul City Hall and Shinan-gun County Office is about 310 km. The county is located in the southwestern Korean Peninsula and requires a drive of around five hours to get there from the capital area. Because of its far-flung location that attracts few visitors, the unexplored regions have seen their gifts from nature remain largely intact.
The 7.26 km-long Cheonsagyo Bridge, which connects the islands of Abhaedo and Amtaedo, was opened in 2019 to facilitate more convenient access to both islands. Going to Shinan-gun by car through Abhaedo, which is connected to the city of Mokpo and Muan-gun County, makes it easy to travel to islands connected by the bridge like Jaeundo, Palgeumdo, Anjwado and Jeungdo.
A recommendation for getting there is going to Mokpo Station by train and renting a car near the station or heading for the passenger ship terminal 1.3 km from the station and boarding a fast ship bound for an island.
Known both at home and abroad as the "purple island," Shinan-gun spans the islands of Banwoldo and Bakjido. The county attracted few visitors before it turned purple, so residents discussed how to turn their area into a tourist attraction amid a declining population. From 2018, they started to turn the entire town purple, getting inspiration from balloon flowers and Asiatic self-heal. The residents collaborated with the county to paint the bridge and roofs of houses purple, and planted purple flowers such as purpletop, lavender and asta chrysanthemum.
County resident Jang Sang-sun, 76, recalled how the island went purple. "The county asked residents for their opinions before it started painting the rooftops, and not a single person said no. Everyone agreed to paint their roofs, so we began painting. The county even measured the clothing sizes of residents and made and distributed suits, modernized Hanbok, socks, hats and even underwear all in purple," he said.
The purple transformation was a success. Since officially opening as a tourist site in August 2020, the county has attracted over 380,000 visitors.
Jeong Sun-sim, the oldest resident of Bakjido at 89, explained in a thick southern accent how the region was transformed.
"It's been 70 years since I moved here after getting married. Over that period, many people have left and arrowroot vines have started covering the town. So I started to wonder if I should continue living here. I've witnessed great things happening since deciding to stay. Since we turned the town bright and purple and paved roads, many people have visited and so it's been fun."
The nodugil, a steppingstone bridge connecting islands at low tide, has an interesting back story. When the islands of Banwoldo and Bakjido were not connected, a Buddhist monk and a Buddhist nun who lived on the islands pined for each other and built a road by piling rocks between the islands whenever the tides ebbed. At long last, they crossed their completed path and hugged each other in the middle of it, only for the tide to rise and swallow them.
Despite the sad ending to this love story, Jang Cheong-gyun, a facility manager on Bakjido, said, "This is where even Buddhist monastics fell in love, so love awaits anyone who comes here. I ask Korea.net readers to visit our purple island and find love themselves."
The Gomak Beach in the village of Goseo-ri in Bigeum-myeon Township is not well known, even among Shinan-gun residents. The fine sand and emerald-colored sea during high tide are mesmerizing, but only at low tide does the beach show how dazzling it is. Visitors can walk to Pojeondo Island when the tides ebb.
While slowly walking up the small rocky islands of Pojeondo and Naepojeondo, the first eye-catching thing is the magnificent view of the uniquely shaped rocks. At the top, a panoramic view of Dadohaesang National Park is sure to impress. A look at the horizontal lines between the islands brings the fragrant aroma of the ocean that rises along with the wind, and the cheerful sounds of the waves are heard hitting the rocks.
For those with enough time and strength to walk, a spot called "pilgrim's island" at the starting point of Jeungdo and Soakdo islands is also worth a visit. The place is nicknamed "Seomtiago" (seommeaning island in Korean) named after the famous pilgrimage road Camino de Santiago in Spain. The islands of Sogijeomdo, Daegijeomdo and Soakdo each have a small chapel named after one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ and between each chapel is a pilgrimage path.
Each island in Shinan-gun has unique characteristics. Visitors should be willing to use an inconvenient transportation to get there and not try to see as many places as possible within a short time or rush. Instead, they should raise their heads, look around the surrounding blue sea and vast mud flat, and listen to the birds singing and the laughter of residents to hear the beauty of cheonsa (1,004 or angel) islands.