My first Jeongwol Daeboreum experience was with the Cheongdo Jeongwol Daeboreum Festival in 2010. Unfortunately in 2011, for fear of spreading the livestock killing foot-and-mouth disease, these festivals were canceled and people were discouraged from unnecessary travel. Now, after 5 years of living in Korea, I was finally able to visit Jeju Island during the famous Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival in 2012. And I can say right off the bat that I had one of the best times I’ve ever had in Korea. Read on to find out why.
First, the festival is a traditional annual event held on the first full moon of the lunar year, 15 days after the lunar new year which generally falls in January of February on the Western calendar. The main focus of the festival is to pray for a good harvest in the coming farming season, and to pray for one’s own personal wishes. Folks write their wishes on a sheet of paper and then tie them to daljip (달집), or “moon houses”, which are piles of wood and hay that will be set on fire. I refer you to this Korean Tourism article for an introduction to more customs of Jeongwol Daeboreum.
There are small and large festivals everywhere across the country. Quite possibly, the Jeju festival is the largest, if not most famous festival of all of them. It runs for three days and culminates in the setting of several fires on Saebyeol-Oreum, one of Jeju’s many parasitic volcano cones. Because of my plans to hike Hallasan National Park, visit Gwandeokjeong & Jejumok-Gwana, and check out the Tamnaguk Ipchun Gut Nori Festival, I limited myself to Saturday’s events. Although, if I could have been in two places at the same time, I would have attended all three days. You can read about the main programs here.
I have a college friend named Jeff who lives on Jeju Island, so I teamed up with him for this adventure. I’m so glad that he was with me because it was a wild one. As soon as we arrived to the festival site a little past 2pm, we were given a small bottle of soju by a random local man while we were eating samples of gwamegi (과메기) which is half-dried herring, with raw garlic and ssamjjang (쌈장) wrapped in lettuce. Shortly after, we said thank you and the man disappeared into the crowd. It was lightning quick hospitality.
We made our way down to the several daljip on Saebyeol-Oreum where a nearby festival kiosk was providing paper and pens for people to write their wishes on. We wrote our wishes and then went in for a closer look at the daljip. There was one big one in the center in the shape of a ball, and a few others in the shape of squares.
Most of the festival tents were being used by vendors. Many were giving away small samples and trying to sell some goods. Other vendors were the standard food vendors you find at any big Korean festival.
There was also another row of tents off to the side where maybe 20 individual groups of people were barbequing food for themselves. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Jeff and I walked up to the first grill pit to take a look and, instantly, we were greeted with smiles and conversation. Often, despite 5 years of study, my Korean ability fails me. However, sometimes the stars align for me and my Korean excels. This was one of those glorious days that I was able to speak fluently.
I established quickly that I could speak Korean which made the Koreans really happy and we talked even more while they repeatedly offered us their food and soju. I probably drank half of a bottle of soju in about 20 minutes. We expressed our gratitude for their kindness and started off to the next grill pit where there was more food and soju offered to us.
We could hear a ruckus coming from inside one of the tents. About 22 men were playing a game. Jeff and I walked up to the tent to investigate. I was given a seat(!) at the edge of the game mat and more alcohol. I was thrilled. It was the first time I had ever wished that I owned a wide angle lens for my camera so that I could get more of the action into my shots.
I was told that these men were playing Jeju Island’s version of a traditional Korean game called Yunnori (윷놀이). I had never heard of the Jeju version, but I love the game played on the mainland. The first two differences that I could see are that the game is played on a huge woven mat, and on a portion of the mat there is a hand drawn game board for the game pieces to move around on. Interestingly, these men were using soju bottle caps and “cat’s eyes” form sea snails as game pieces. The game board looks much different from that of the mainland, so I’m unsure of the rules.
I also noticed that the sticks used are tiny compared to the mainland. The sticks are carefully placed into a small silver cup and then tossed onto the mat rather than tossed from the hands as is done on the mainland. Despite the differences in game play, the excitement is the same. As soon as a winner was declared, all the men dispersed. In retrospect, our timing couldn’t have been better.
As soon as we left the tent, we were at yet another grill, eating and drinking. This time we happened to meet one of the town “captains” of Jeju. It turns out that each of the tents with grills were set up by and for the people of different towns. Well, anyway, the captain took us on a whirlwind tour of the remaining tents to meet and greet other captains with whom we would have more food and drinks offered to us.
Once we had met all the captains, our captain took us to get some food at a vendor’s tent. He asked us if we wanted to eat pig balls. I thought, why the heck not? The vendor asked for ₩ 20,000 (~$18) for a serving. The captain mumbled something in Korean and started to walk off. The vendor shouted ₩ 10,000 and the captain agreed to the 50% discount. Moments later, we were washing down pan fried pig balls with more soju.
Upon finishing our meal, we parted ways with our impromptu guide and made our way around the festival grounds. It was half past 4pm and the atmosphere was getting charged with energy as two groups of 500 traditional musicians wandered around the grounds while playing tunes.
Jeff and I bumped into a group of foreigners that he knew and we spent the rest of the evening with them while waiting for the burning of the daljip. Sometime around 6:45pm the energy climaxed with the lighting of the daljip and fireworks. Many people stuck around to finish off a few more drinks while keeping warm around the bonfires.
Sitting at my desk and looking back, this was easily one of the most exciting festivals I’ve been to in Korea. Not just because of the festival, but also because of the people I met and the experiences I shared with them. I have a deep appreciation for the Koreans who welcomed my friend Jeff and I to eat and drink with them, for being given a front row seat at an intense yunnori game, and for the “captain” who went out of his way to show us a good time.
Jeongwol Daeboreum Celebrations and the Best Places to View the Full Moon (Korea Tourism Organization)
Jeju Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival (Korea Tourism Organization)
Jeju Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival (Official)
Cheongdo Jeongwol Daeboreum Festival (Tigers & Magpies)