Posted by: Matt Kelley | 21 February 2009

Jeju Feature Part 1: Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival

20090221_blast1For the past 11 years, Jeju has hosted the spectacular Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival.

About 2 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions created South Korea’s southern-most province, the island of Jeju-do. Jeju was ruled by the Tamna Kingdom (탐라국) for millennia before it entered and exited a series of tributary relationships with peninsula kingdoms. It wasn’t until 1404 that Tamna ended with Jeju’s final incorporation with Korea’s Joseon Dynasty.

Since volcanoes created Jeju, it’s no surprise that an annual fire festival would be among the island’s most popular events. And for the past 11 years, the island has celebrated the lunar new year’s first full moon with the Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival (정월대보름들불축제).

20090221_jwibulnori1Two festival goers try their hand at jwibulnori, a traditional exercise where children spun holed cans filled with burning charcoal.

Daeboreum is an important traditional holiday in Korea.  People across the country celebrate the day by climbing mountains in the cold to catch a glimpse of the first full moon, or they might journey to the nation’s East coast to see the year’s first rays of sun.  Other traditions include the flying of kites and jwibulnori (쥐불놀이), a fun exercise where kids twirl cans filled with burning charcoal.  As pieces of charcoal fall to the ground, the soil is fertilized and harmful pests are killed. 

20090221_fireworksA dazzling fireworks show also helped ignite the fire. Note some of the torch bearers in the lower left-hand corner.

The cleansing of farmland is an important theme of Daeboreum, so as in years past, this year, Jeju Island’s fire festival began with a torch relay across the entire island.  Other games and events, including one where children chased pigs and ducks across a finish line, were popular among families.  In another activity once used to mark adulthood on Jeju, participants see how far they can carry a 130-kilogram stone.

20090221_fire1After being set ablaze by torches and fireworks, the oreum’s fire spread quickly.

Undoubtedly, the festival’s highlight is its firey conclusion, the lighting of an 82-acre oreum named Saebyeol (새별오름).  Jeju is dotted with hundreds of parasitic volcanoes called “oreum” (오름) in Korean. In 2007, these grassy hills, the mountain’s tallest point, Mt. Halla (한라산), and the island’s famous lava tubes, won the entire island inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

20090221_vendorsScores of white tents housed food and craft vendors.

Located in the northwestern part of the island, thousands of people gathered around Saebyeol oreum’s base while festival onlookers became participants.  Shortly before 7:00 pm, hundreds of participants carrying torches lined up at the base of the oreum, until, at the urging of Jeju’s mayor, they cast them onto the hillside.  As the hill began to burn, an impressive fireworks display lit up the sky.

For the next thirty minutes, the audience was treated to a fireworks show while they watched the inferno.  Adding to the show were dozens of kites illuminated in the night sky by the fire and exploding fireworks.  But as the burning hill reached its zenith, a long line of percussionists snaked its way through the crowd, inviting participants toward the main stage, where ten ladies dressed in beautiful hanbok sang popular folk songs.

20090221_singers1Jejanese women dressed in colorful hanbok sang rousing versions of popular folk songs.

Soon, a multicultural dance area formed in front of the stage, with Jeju residents, Korean visitors from the mainland and foreigners alike danced together.  In a show of typical Jejanese hospitality, the musicians shared their instruments with the visitors while film crews captured the festival’s rousing final moments.  The fire festival was definitely an exciting way to start my Jeju experience!

map_jeju_saebyeolGetting There:
→ From Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport, dozens of flights depart for Jeju City daily. The 1-hour flight costs between 167,000-244,000 won ($113-$165) on major Korean carriers, and around 108,000 won ($73) on budget carriers, like Jeju Air. Once on Jeju, reach Saebyeol Oreum by taking road 1132 to 1136, and finally to Pyongwha Road (1135).

→ Ferries also depart Busan and Mokpo for Jeju.

Learn More:
Jeju Special Self-Governing Province (official site)

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on February 21, 2009.)



  1. gorgeous pictures~

  2. Thanks, Zora!

  3. […] Tomorrow: An 82-acre parasitic volcano is set ablaze as part of the Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival. […]

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