TRAVEL & EXPERIENCE

Mysterious Forest, Hwansang Forest Gotjawal Park
Jeju’s Gotjawal are the only forests in the world where northern and southern plants live side by side. There’s a family that takes care of a Gotjawal, opening it up to people. To meet them, I visited Hwansang Forest Gotjawal Park.
Since Gotjawal are in Jeju, I headed there to see the forests. 
Gotjawal forests are naturally formed forests, located on the middle slopes of Halla Mountain in an area known for its rocky formations. From small to big rocks, the geographical features of the forest allow southern and northern plants to live together. 
Due to the poor ground, the area the forest is in was unable to be cultivated for farming, so it became lost land. Luckily, this meant it was able to maintain its natural ecosystem.
If you consider Halla Mountain to be the center of Jeju Island, Gotjawal — which in the Jeju dialect just means any forested area on rocky land — span across the eastern and western slopes of the mountin. They are widely spread in the mountainous areas of Jochon, Gujwa and Aewol. Of the many Gotjawal, “Hwansang Forest Gotjawal Park” is one of the only places where visitors can really experience Gotjawal.
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Hwansang Forest at dawn

“Hwansang Forest is a Forest I’ve watched since I was little,” said Lee Ji-young, vice president of Hwansang Forest, who also manages the children education program.
“My dad got a loan to buy this land when he was 34 years old. My dad, who was into trees, bought this rocky land when my mother asked him to buy a tangerine orchard. That land became the Hwansang Forest and it became that after my father got sick.
“When my dad suffered from a cerebral infarction at 44, the right side of his body was paralyzed and he went into the forest to avoid the people. The road he created with his left hand became a trail and three years after it, he fully recovered. Once he was fully able to use his body, my dad wanted to spread the value of the forest to others. Due to this, in April 2011 he made this forest public so visitors can see.”
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Entrance to Hwansang Forest and view of the fairytale-like forest

The small trail, made by hand instead of machine, and ticket office that was also a bedroom, were the start of Hwansang Forest. The forest covers about 33 meters squared and has about 202 plants living there, 79 of which are endangered species including red-bark oak, camphor tree and ilex. Hwansang Forest may not be Jeju’s best Gotjawal, but Hwansang Forest does have the unique stories of the people who lived there. It is cultivated and operated by its own family. 
Vice president Lee Ji-young talks about the forest and her family.
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Lee Ji-young, docent at forest

Q. Were you with Hwansang Forest since it began?
A. I started narrating the forest’s story in January 2012. Before that, I developed an educational program about nature and the farm village at a research center in Seoul. I went around the country to give lectures and do some consulting, but one day, I started to think that I actually didn’t care much about our home.
So, I took a month-long vacation to head down to my parents’ house. A month turned into a six months leave of absence and that was extended to a year. Eventually, I was fascinated by the charm of nature and ended up staying here.

Q. It’s a forest you’ve seen since you were little. What was your first impression?
A. It may sound funny, but I was scared of the forest. Just forests in general. It’s not like I was scared of snakes or bugs because I was a brave child raised on a farm. When I was little, the forest was covered in thorns. If I wanted to pick fruit, I had to walk in right behind my dad, who was holding a sickle. When I thought about it, I always went into the forest with my family or friends. I finally got to the forest by myself in 2012, when I came back to Jeju. It took a lot of bravery. Back then, I was still scared of the forest, but now I’ve become a person who can walk in there at night to take pictures of the stars.
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Hwansang Forest in autumn

Q. When we think of Hwansang Forest, the story of your family is just as attractive as the Gotjawal itself. Can you tell us more about it?
A. That’s true. Honestly, there are Gotjawal forests that are bigger and have better scenery than Hwansang Forest. The biggest characteristic at Hwansang is that there’s the story of the people that lived here. All our family members know the story of the forest.
Since the forest stories are told by people who lived here and watched it every day, it may sound like more of a human story than a plant story. Although it’s a small forest, it’s great to take your time and look around at such a great Gotjawal. There are a lot of Gotjawal that are quiet and dangerous, but this place is a beginner’s course that children and the elderly can enjoy. Also, since we tell its stories every hour, anyone can hear a story about this Gotjawal.

Q. Is there a reason why you tell the stories every hour?
A. A forest is a great space to walk around by yourself. But if you hear a story about the forest from a person who watched and studied the lives living within in for a long time, you can see the past, present and future of the trail you’re walking on. As you hear the stories of the forest in different seasons or times, it’ll become friendly, like you’ve been there for a long time. So I recommend listening to our stories at least once.

Q. Did you experience them yourself?
A. Of course. I was raised in Hwansang Forest, but back then I never paid attention to the stories. Once I heard the story after I’d matured, that’s when the forest, which I saw every day, started to look different. I wanted to share that experience with people because I think that no one will know why the forest is important or how we live in it unless someone tells them.

Q. There is a saying that the more you know, the more you can see. Would you say that’s true?
A. You see as much as you know. But the definition of knowing the forest doesn’t always mean that you know the scientific name of a plant. People mistakenly think that they know the forest well if they get the name of the plant right. When they visit, a lot of the people only ask this question: “What’s the name of this plant?” Once I tell them what kind of tree it is, they don’t try to know more about it.
Think of it as a person. Just because you know the name of a person, it doesn’t mean that you know everything about that person. You only get to understand the person once you know their personality, the environment they grew up in, or their past. It’s exactly the same for the forest. If you walk around the forest, after knowing about it, you can communicate with it.
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Lee Ji-young providing commentary at forest

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Visitors listening to Lee Ji-young

Q. When you tell the stories, which one are the listeners most interested in?
A. A story of “conflict” leaves the biggest impression with people. The Korean word “conflict” actually comes from the physical shape of a criss-crossed kudzu vine and rattan, because kudzu vine rolls up counter clockwise while rattan rolls up clockwise. They are destined to miss or bump into each other. But conflicts are not bad things. Because there’s conflict, we get to see more beauty and richness in the forest.
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Kudzu vine and rattan

Q. How many story-tellers are there at Hwansang Forest?
A. There are a total of eight of us.
Firstly, we have my father Lee Hyeong-cheol, who took care of the forest as well as curing his illness. Those who were sick want to listen to my father. Since he spent the most time at the Gotjawal, he knows every little attraction in the forest and has special affection towards each and every tree.
My mother Moon Eun-ja is a native in this neighborhood, so she knows of the Gotjawal’s image from years ago. From years of experience and a clear voice, she grabs the attention of all listeners.
I tell the stories emotionally while keeping it easy to understand. I’m more popular with children. My husband Noh Su-bang can explain the difference between seeing the forest as a visitor and as a person who lives here. Then there’s also Bae Young-sook, who’s been with us since the beginning, Jeju native Oh Jung-sil and Kim Ju-kyung.

Q. When I saw the reviews, there were people saying that they had visited the forest thinking that it was free admission. Is there a reason you charge the visitors?
A. We don’t get any support from the province or any other organizations. We maintain and take care of the forest from the admission fees. Since we opened eight years ago, we never increased the admission fee. We still tell our stories even if we only have one visitor. To maintain this system, we believe that we need to receive a small fee. Since there are a lot of Gotjawal nearby, if there are people that want free admission, we tell them where to go. I think we need to accept only those who are ready to listen to the forest’s stories so we can take care of the forest better.
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Hwansang Forest offers programs for children.

Q. Your sincerity ended up working because a lot of visitors visit Hwansang Forest. How do you feel?
A. “We’ll still tell our forest stories even if there’s only one visitor.” Since the beginning, we decided to keep this rule. If about 1,000 people come to visit the forest, we think it’ll only damage it. Helping at least one person know the forest properly is perhaps the best thing for the Gotjawal. I guess this mindset also touched the listeners when they listen to the narration. Honestly, it is very organized because we’ve taken a lot of care of it. Hwansang Forest looked nothing like this in the beginning. But there’re true fans of Hwansang forest who love that side of it. They said they got the impression of meeting some special family in Jeju and heard about their story as well as the forest they lived in.
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People cooling off at wind cave

Q. What would be a must-see attraction at Hwansang Forest?
A. There’s a place called “Geological features observatory.” It is a cool, sunken place that you reach at the end of the tour. It’s a space where the temperature does not go above 17 degrees Celsius in the summer. When you’re there, you get to experience a gift from nature.
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Hwansang Forest in winter

Q. Is there a best season or time to visit Hwansang Forest?
A. I think it’s a matter of personal opinion as to when you feel the forest is most beautiful. Some people would say the early morning where they can see the wet fog, some would say a shiny forest after the rain or some would say the green forest during the snow-covered winter. Personally, I like the Gotjawal forests in the early morning of monsoon season, when there’re less people. It feels like all the plants are plumped. When the raindrops bounce off the leaves, it feels more alive. I like the early morning, the moment when there’s wet fog during monsoon season.

Q. What etiquette should travelers who would like to visit the forest know about?
A. If you want to walk in the forest, think about if you are a good person. Are you complaining because there’re a lot of mosquitoes? We could get rid of the mosquitos with bug spray but that would make fireflies disappear. Are you scared of snakes? To humans, snakes are unwelcome. Do you wish the forest trail was flatter? Do you want to get rid of the thorns and bushes?
I want everyone to remember that forests don’t exist for human’s convenience. We need the forest but the forest doesn’t need us. Only those who appreciate nature are qualified to walk in the forests.

Hwansang Forest Gotjawal Park
Address 594-1 Nokchabunjae-ro, Hangyeong-myeon, Jeju
Phone +82-64-772-2488
Website www.jejupark.co.kr
October 2019 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Cooperation: Hwansang Forest Gotjawal Park

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