Nami Island, Chuncheon, South Korea
October 26, 2014
Gamsa hamnida to Winter Sonata. If not for this Korean soap, Nami Island would have slipped under my radar. The show was wildly popular in the early noughties that even its dreamy island setting shot to fame. Although I never caught an episode, the island would become a non-negotiable item in the itinerary of my first SoKor trip more than a decade later.
I traveled with fellow teachers, Melds and Cindy, one of whom had a former student, Sora, who offered to host us in Chuncheon and take us to Gapyeong Wharf. Halfway through, traffic screeched to a crawl. Small wonder, it was a Sunday in autumn, a perfect day and peak season for Nami Island. Worry clouded Sora’s sunny disposition, but she maneuvered her car like a daredevil in slow-mo, making U-turns and taking empty country roads just to get ahead of a long line of stalled vehicles. She managed to drop us off in no time. Still, hundreds had beaten us to the ticket booth and dock. We followed snaking lines of local and foreign tourists, some with kids on their shoulders, one with a lap dog in his arms.
Despite the throng, the system of ticketing and embarkation was well-oiled. In ten minutes, we were aboard Nami Maid that would ferry us halfway through Han River to Nami Island. It was only weeks before that we learned Nami was a river island, not off the coast as we had thought. Only then that we knew it was man-made, formed in 1944 during a dam construction downstream. And that it was named after a general falsely discredited 500 or so years ago. We were clueless beyond the Winter Sonata connection, tsk tsk.
Only after we docked at Nami Wharf, we realized the island was a micronation called Naminara Republic with its own flag and insignia. That explained why the ticket was printed as entry visa, the price as visa fee (8,000 won). This island had been privately owned since 1965 and turned into a showcase for culture and nature. It was a diplomatic republic. Flags of the world lined the decks of Nami Maid. On the island, several flags were paired with that of South Korea as a token of cultural cooperation. We were elated to find the Philippines well-represented. The multilingual welcome sign included Tagalog.
The 46-hectare island had something for everyone. Families occupied picnic tables at the shadow of towering trees. Culture vultures soaked up outdoor concerts and art galleries. Bookworms had a library. Friends and couples biked and strolled along tree-lined paths. Hungry tourists like us made a beeline for Nami sausages and free hibiscus tea. I didn’t know who the crops and cabbage plots were for, perhaps a nod to the land that was originally a peanut farm before it became an island. There was no animal sighting other than stealthy squirrels foraging for crumbs and leftover picnic food.
Tourist trap elements all, but Nami Island had transcended its own contrivance. Thousands of trees, planted by founder Byeung-do Minn in 1965, were its saving grace. Each season had its charm, but autumn painted the island with more colors than the rainbow. Each leaf, each hue, each fall conveyed the romance of a thousand poems. Of course, only when we were not jockeying with other tourists for photo ops. I threw a hissy fit early on when photobombers blocked my background. Cindy called me out and a moment of reflection calmed me down enough to share my communion with nature, and my not-so-solo shots, with others, true to the spirit of harmony whereby the founder developed the island.
For all its delights, the soul of Nami Island was in its trees. White pine, maple, ginkgo, metasequoia, cherry, and birch stood as living testaments to the founder’s avocation of tree-planting. The trees were arranged to romantic effect: canopying footpaths, forming groves, enclosing gardens, and fringing shorelines.
The main event was the Ginkgo Tree Lane, the iconic footpath through a tunnel of trees. With the Midas touch of autumn, everything had turned gold – the canopy, carpet, and confetti of leaves. This golden masterpiece was a sight no photo could do justice. As a soft breeze rustled through the leaves, a drizzle of gold floated down on us. The crowd roared in delight. The moment was an impressionist painting come to life. Each falling leaf was as ephemeral as a brush stroke.
The end of October was the height of autumn in these parts. Ginkgo trees still retained a full crown of leaves, yet they had shed enough to blanket the ground. Thoreau nailed it, and eloquently so:
October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight.
Had we come a week earlier or later, we would have missed this golden treat.
I had fallen for fall. In both senses. Autumn colors left a deep impression on me as they had on Thoreau. The street of gold looked tempting enough to lie on. Good thing there was none of the putrid smell of squished ginkgo seeds that clung to the soles of our shoes the previous day. Perhaps the founder had considered that and planted only male trees.
Ginkgo biloba, also known as maidenhair tree, was one of the few extant species from the Jurassic period. I wouldn’t have guessed that such romantic view was similar to what dinosaurs saw 200 million years ago. Ginkgo was not known as the “living fossil” for nothing. The species remained unchanged for much longer than human history. Although ginkgo trees were common in Chuncheon and all of Korea, it was here that they stood majestic and timeless. It was the most mind-blowing surprise of all – that we were practically promenading through a real Jurassic Park! Who knew?
It was not evident on the ground, but on a map Nami Island had the shape of a leaf, similar to the outline of a fallen ginkgo leaf I saw resting on pine needles. Appreciating the island’s Winter Sonata charm was rewarding enough, but there was more than met the eye. Autumn in this veritable Jurassic Park had made manifest both the evanescence and immutability of life. Whereof was human existence made?