Slow Living: 시골 Life on Jindo Island

There’s something about the pace of life in Seoul that is amazing and ever-changing–but also exhausting and perhaps, for some, crushing. I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends about Korea’s rapid modernization, and one thing that has come of it is a 빨리빨리 (“hurry, hurry” or “quickly, quickly”) culture.

And it’s exactly that hurriedness that I wanted to escape. So I went to about the most rural (시골), most inaccessible (but still accessible) place you could get to in Korea without taking a boat or plane: Jindo Island.

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Watching the sunset from Sebang, on the western side of Jindo

Jindo Island is the third largest island in Korea, and like one of my other favorite islands in Korea (Dolsan Island in Yeosu, my Korean hometown), it’s accessible by a bridge that’s lit up in bright colors at night. It’s most well known for its annual “Miracle Sea Road Festival,” when once a year, the low tide is such that the sea “separates” and you can walk across a (briefly available) land bridge to one of the small nearby islands. But I wasn’t there for any of that. I was there because of Edward.

Edward was my Airbnb host–an artist and a martial artist who had listed his traditional Korean house online (traditional houses in Korea are known as “hanok”), calling it “rustic” and talking about nature and how artists come there. I was trying to find a place to get away to, and I did a general search on Airbnb for all of Korea, and his place was in the top ten results. And even though I lived for a year in Jeollanam-do (the Southwest province that Jindo, Yeosu, and I call home), I’d never made it to that coast of the country. So I thought, why not?

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My walk from the bus stop to Edward’s hanok house

Going to Jindo Island from Seoul was like stepping into a different Korea. Like an alternate universe version of Korea. Or a previous version of Korea that managed to get some upgrades (like cell phone service) but not all of them (like the giant, identical, sky-high apartment buildings that are everywhere, even in the smallest of towns).

I took the KTX train from Seoul to Mokpo (a big city on the Southwest corner of the peninsula) and then took an intercity bus over the bridge to Jindo’s one and only bus terminal. And when I got on the village bus that would take me to Ohil-shi (오일시), the small village where I was staying, I already felt like I was some place completely different.

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Admiral Lee at the bridge to Jindo, protecting the island from invaders even today

Gone were the skyscrapers and noisy streets of Seoul (and Mokpo, or any other Korean city, for that matter). But gone also were the neon lights that blink at you from almost every sign in Korea. And the motels on every corner. And the churches on every other corner.

Gone even was the “regular” way of doing the city/village bus. (The village bus didn’t announce the stops in Korean or English, or have working buttons for you to buzz when you wanted off (as most Korean buses do). So used to locals, you either just walked to the front when it was your stop or told the driver where you were going beforehand. And, except for when coming from the terminal (where you bought a bus ticket from the counter), you paid at the end of your ride instead of at the beginning, depending on where you were coming from.)

Jindo Boats
En route to Geumgap Beach.

Instead of all of these things, there was beautiful countryside and farms and small clusters of homes. And there was quiet and little English. And I could see the stars and hike up mountains that weren’t crowded with ajummas and ajeossis (middle-aged men and women) in matching hiking outfits.

If you can’t tell, I loved Jindo. I stayed for a week the hanok house, which was 100 years old and had been bought and restored by this young family who had moved to Jindo because they were tired of the consumerism and hurried way of Korean city life. They’d searched far and wide and finally found this small house on a small island and were raising their family there.

Edward said that it took him two years to restore the home. And that there was such a push to develop Korea after the Korean War (plus, so many structures had been destroyed across the country) that it was–and is–hard to find people who would preserve this way of life. Even in his own village, he said owners have destroyed most of the other remaining hanok houses in favor of rebuilding something new. And as a hanok aficionado, Edward could tell you a lot about the benefits of the traditional structure, from heating and cooling to resistance against the elements and natural disaster.

Beyond filling me in on this history, Edward and his family were incredibly hospitable. They were fountains of knowledge on Jindo, martial arts, and slow living, and I enjoyed conversations about all of those things while sharing meals, eating watermelon, watching falling stars in a nearby field, and driving out to catch the sunset on the western side of the island.

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I met Jindo dogs (a breed famous and once exclusive to the island), went on solo hikes, meditated on mountains, and hung out at some of the quietest beaches I’ve ever seen (for fellow travelers, I recommend Gagye/가계 and Geumgap/금갑). And I caught some traditional music performances as well (there’s a free on every Saturday in downtown Jindo!).

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In short, I had a fabulous getaway. But as much as I enjoyed my quiet time, I had more fun getting to know Edward and his family. As I’ve been working on slowing down and during this journey, I’ve often wondered about how to apply the things that I’m learning on the road to “regular life.” Eventually, I’ll probably (maybe?) choose to stay somewhere in this wide world again. And with all the options before me, I want to be deliberate in that decision.

So what does it mean to unplug? To step back from all these forces around us that tell us to “hurry, hurry”? What does it mean to choose to live differently?

And not to that that urban life is bad. But even in the middle of a city, how do you find that stillness, that quietness, that slowness?

I don’t know yet, but I know Edward has given me a lot to think about. And maybe I can find a way to live with a little bit of “Jindo style” wherever I go.

Traveling to Jindo? Check out Edward’s rad (but rustic) hanok house here.

Pro Tips:

  • You can reach Jindo by bus from many Korean cities, including Seoul, Mokpo, and Gwangju, or a combination of train (I recommend KTX to Mokpo) and bus. You can also take a ferry from Jindo to Jeju, if you want to island-hop, and to a number of other small islands along Korea’s western coast.
  • Public transportation on Jindo leaves something to be desired. The buses have a schedule, but they don’t always stick to it. Rates are not uniform (and unless you’ve ridden the route before, you won’t know how much it costs until you get off), and it’s usually quickest to take two buses–one to downtown Jindo first, and then a second to wherever you’re going next. And if you’re looking for nightlife, you better mean stargazing because buses stop running around 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. Taxis are always an option, but might be hard to use if you don’t know a few Korean phrases.
  • Jindo might be hard (but not impossible) to navigate if you don’t know Korean. There are few foreign tourists (though I met some Sri Lankans along the way that evidently work in the fishing industry here), and not many people speak English/have English menus/etc. But where there’s a will, there’s a way!
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