Tales from the Trails: Jeju Olle


What’s in a trail?

More than 400 kilometers, for a start (437, to be precise, or 272 miles), on an island, in 27 courses, 4 of those on outlying islands…but there’s more. So much more.

Bucolic nature, to be sure — volcanic, often dramatic — along coastline, through farmland, over 130 or so hills (the volcano’s ‘children’), and into dark gnarly forests. The trail system also wends its way through more than 135 villages where locals may be engaged in many a traditional practice, from the renowned breath-hold female divers to sesame stalks drying in the sun, or their seeds being beaten off by a squatting grandma with a bone. The trails pass Buddhist temples and Shamanist shrines, artifacts of resistance to both Japanese occupation and Mongol conquest, and tragic sites of the island’s political massacres.

Jeju Olle trail system, the brainchild of former journalist and island native Suh Myungsook, saw the opening of Course 1 in 2007 and the final course, No.21, 5 years later. Long-established footpaths (and at least 1 goat path) were integrated into the system wherever possible, interconnected by new trail development when needed; one walks the trails, then, in the footsteps of countless Jeju native people from centuries gone by.

Those who trek the Camino in Spain, England’s Cotswold Way, or US Adirondack, universally report the experience as deeply healing and rejuvenating, often transformational; so too, with Jeju Olle. Profoundly peaceful, heartily healthy, astoundingly aesthetic, markedly meaningful.

These trails are not only all that (as if that weren’t enough); they also represent a unique opportunity for learning about the island’s people, culture, art, craft, history, tragedy. Wend your way through many a village, say hello to the local residents and observe the village life. Sit beneath the central tree (for every village has one); take alternate breaths of sea and mountain air. Bow with the Buddhists, shake with the shamans, pet the horses and walk with the cows. Go into the sea with the haenyeo if you dare — but don’t get in their way. (I’d say, get lost in the darkness of the gotjawal…but try not to do that; instead, float there with the butterflies, or follow the crows.) And weep with Jeju people, each time you come across a memorial to their still deeply felt tragedy known as Sasam.

What’s in a trail?

Story. So many stories. We humans are storytellers. Myths and legends, history and culture, nature and the (volcanic) beginnings of the world, tragedy and triumph, trauma and healing…and maybe, a typhoon.

I invite you to take a walk with me. And to listen to some stories along the way.

excerpted from Introduction to Tales from the Trails: Jeju Olle, author Anne Hilty, ©2023