Wind, Water, Earth, Fire: A Visit to Sangbangsan

On Saturday morning I awoke to a gray sky and a stiff breeze, so I did the obvious thing: threw a rain jacket and a scuba mask (just in case) into my backpack, and walked down in the direction of the bus stop. The 750 came, and I headed off into the miscellaneous southwest. As we drove I watched the tasseled heads of grass toss erratically along the side of the road; the wind was visible this morning.

Sanbangsan through crops
Sanbangsan from a distance

As the 750 moved toward Moseolpo, my attention fixed on a solitary dome of stone that stood above the farmland on the southern coast. I had heard of this mountain before—Sanbangsan. The small volcanic dome was fabled to have been thrown from the summit of the main volcano, Hallasan, by the goddess of the island. The sides were steep, almost sheer, and while the mountain was neither tall nor wide it loomed over the flat fields and roadways that made up the rest of this landscape. I remembered having seen this mountain once before, by moonlight, when a wrong bus had deposited me along one of those empty roads. The effect of the mountain was no less daunting in the cloudy light of day.

I waited until the bus began to veer away from the mountain and then stepped off at the next bus stop. I was in Moseolpo, the town on the far southwest corner of the island. But I didn’t walk to the west. Instead, I started to pick my way through the country roads toward the distant heap of stone.

With every half-mile, the mountain grew. I saw it silhouetted behind corn stalks bending in the wind; I watched it sliced by the powerlines that swung with each gust. The wind pressed gloriously as I walked, quickening the trees, bringing life to each discarded plastic bag. A line of women hunched across a field, the wind slapping the corners of their bright jackets even as it slapped the loose straps on my backpack.

After an hour and a half of walking I finally walked up the hill to reach the base of Sanbanbsan. I was glad to have seen the mountain in relief before glimpsing it at such close range. I could appreciate the height of the stone cliffs, and the tussle of trees on the crown of the mountain, because I had known what it was to watch them grow with each step. The effect was mesmerizing, almost mystical.

Sangbangsa temple
Looking down through the temple

That element of mystery was why I was not surprised to find a Buddhist temple on the seaward base of the mountain. Apparently, this place had captivated imaginations for much longer than my hour-and-a-half trek. I entered the temple grounds and was enamored by the beauty of the space. Although this temple was much smaller than its neighbor to the east, its position on the slope of Sanbanbsan allowed for a beautifully intricate arrangement of rooftops and stone statues silhouetted against the ocean to the south and the stone cliffs to the north. Looking down over the temple, I could see the whole countryside framed by its ornate rooftops.

I noticed a number of people following a series of stone steps, so I followed them into the treeline. The stairs continued to climb, broken occasionally by platforms with information about the volcanism of surrounding geological features. As the stairs moved on I started to regret my long walk, but before too long I had reached the top of the staircase.

The stairs ended at a small, high cave about two-thirds of the way up the stony side of the mountain. In the cave was a shrine devoted to the daughter of the mountain, who is said to have turned into stone out of grief after she was unable to have a family. In the cave was a pool filled by drops from the roof of the cave—the fabled tears of the mountain’s daughter, said to bring good fortune to families.

The shrine was an interesting mix of devotion and tourism. Families took pictures as their mother or father caught drops of water that they drank from wooden cups, then jostled to light candles at the foot of the statue. One girl even filled her water bottle from the pool. Meanwhile, a few men and women did their prostrations at the base of the shrine. The place had a friendly, familiar feel, though as a foreigner I remained on the outside, unsure of my place.

Sangbangsan from the stone beacon
One view from the beacon

After a few minutes I left the shrine and walked down the mountain for an iced coffee. Feeling refreshed, I walked across the road toward the water. The first thing I saw was a square platform of volcanic rock situated a few hundred yards from the base of Sanbangsan. A sign informed me that this was an old smoke beacon, used to warn of approaching ships. I walked up on the platform and was blown away (almost literally) by the view. From the beacon I had an unbroken panorama of foothills cradling mist from Sanbangsan all the way to Hallasan. Then came the jagged break where grass met the black sand beach, and just beyond the large sets that collapsed into shorebreak. In front of me waves broke around a grass-covered point that a sign had told me was the oldest volcanic tuff on Jeju Island, and to the right of the tuff another black-sand beach ended in tidepools where the spray splashed high over the rocks. Then came more grass, several houses, and the fields beyond. I found myself envying the person whose job it once was to sit on this stone and watch this sliver of world.

From the beacon I walked down past the tuff towards the beach. I walked past the entrance to the Yongmeori coast, a stretch of low-lying rocks where anybody interested could walk around the point. Due to high surf conditions, the point was wisely closed. Instead I walked down towards the water. Here Jeju surprised me yet again, this time with a life-sized replica of a ship from the Netherlands that had shipwrecked on this beach a few hundred years ago, thus making the captain and his crew the first westerners to visit Jeju Island. There were also a few carnival rides, some horseback riding, a Dutch heritage museum, and a very small exhibition room devoted to climate change.

I walked straight past these attractions (with the exception of a quick trip to the climate change exhibition), and instead made my way to the path leading down to the black sand beach. As soon as I reached the beach I remembered the wind. I saw a wave break as a strong gust lifted the spray and swept it back over the beach. I smiled, until the moment the gust reached me and I realized it was filled with both spray and tiny particles of pebbly black sand. After that I stayed closer to the waterline, where the waves weighed down the sand and the wind was full only of water.

Looking toward the Yeongmori coast
Wind and water

I made my way to some low rocks and stood for a few minutes watching the water break. The spray soaked me, dampening my shirt and jeans, sifting down into the roots of my hair. Each wave was a clashing, its substance inhaled by the wind. Above me the clouds twisted in shades of gray and white, molded by the same power that whipped my ponytail and tore at the corners of my shirt. My smile spread as white as sea foam—exultant, wild, free.

After a while I stepped down off the rock with spray in my hair and made my way through the tiny pebbles. I noticed some sea glass scoured by the water and stone, so I began to collect some for an art project. Before long I had filled two pockets of my backpack with sea glass and one large sponge. As I walked I stopped now and then to glance back at Sanbangsan and the Yongmeori tuff, their shapes set against the swollen grey water and the tidepools channeled with green algae. The tufts of spray looked distant now, purely aesthetic. I brushed some pebbles off a piece of blue sea glass and smiled. Here was where wind and water met earth, met the deposits of ancient fire. And I was solidly in the middle of their meeting, specks of lava stuck in my shoes, earth beneath my feet, spray on my skin, wind creasing my eyes. I pocketed the sea glass and stole a last glance at the white water, then walked back to the bus stop, my clothes and my backpack heavy with the gifts of the sea.


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