Guardian of the Han River: Ganghwa Island


Ganghwa-do (Ganghwa Island) is the 5th largest island in all of South Korea. It is situated just at the mouth of the Han river, the river which flows through Seoul, and thus had been a strategic location for thousands of years.

The map shows that Incheon is on the northewest coast of South Korea, that all of the islands in the northwest are part of Incheon, and that Ganghwa Island is the largest and furthest north, right next to the coast of the mainland.

Ganghwa Island is officially a part of Incheon, the third largest city in South Korea by population (after Seoul and Busan. However, it’s a rural area which has been put in Incheon city limits, not an actual part of the urban mass. There are farms, there is forest, there are villages … classic South Korean countryside.


Unfortunately, due to limited time, I did not get to visit every place I wanted to visit on Ganghwa. So I had to pick the one place I most wanted to visit, and that was…

There are two verticle slabs of rock supporting a single horizontal slab of rock.

The Bugeun-ni Dolmen!

Korea has the highest concentration of ancient dolmens in the world. I missed seeing the dolmen in Gochang due to travel logistics (the fact that public transportation to those dolmen is sparse did not help), so I was not going to miss this chance to see one, which happens to be the biggest in South Korea.

All of these dolmen sites are part of a World Heritage Site


These were tombs for powerful people in the Bronze age, over 2000 years ago. They are part of the global ‘megalithic’ culture of those times. In South Korea, they are associated with the Gojoseon Kingdom (literally ‘Old Joseon’), which presumably existed before the iron age and the three kingdoms, two of which were Silla and Baekje.


Right next to the dolmen is the Ganghwa History Museum, which starts with the island’s prehistoric heritage and then goes through the island’s interesting history.


One of the places I didn’t have time to visit was Manisan, a mountain on Ganghwa island which has an ancient shamanic shrine, supposedly built by Dangun, like the one at Taebaeksan. At least the museum has a photograph with some shaman-mannequins, shown above.

Oepri, a village on the west coast of Ganghwa which is known for seagulls

Oepri, a village on the west coast of Ganghwa which is known for seagulls

When the Mongols were invading Korea, the capital of the Goryeo kingdom temporarily moved to Ganghwa island (being an island, it’s easier to defend, and being at the mouth of the Han river, it’s relatively easy to communicate/trade with the rest of Korea). Much dazzling Goryeo celadon ware (which I will feature in a future post) has been found in Ganghwa.

Furthermore, the Triptaka Koreana, which is currently at Haeinsa, was originally carved at a temple on Ganghwa, Jeondeung-sa. Some even say that Jeondeung-sa is even the oldest Buddhist temple in Korea. Jeondeung-sa is another place I ended up not having enough time to visit, but this writer went to the temple and this blogger did a templestay there.


Because Ganghwa sits between the mouth of the Han river and the sea, and the Han river flows through Seoul, Ganghwa was a focal point for various imperial powers which wished for power or influence over the Joseon Kingdom in the second half of the 19th century. France attacked the island in 1866, and the United States Navy attacked in 1871, as depicted above inside the museum. Again, I didn’t have time to visit the palace/fortress which the French military destroyed.


So that’s Ganghwa island, which combines history from a surprising range of historical periods into a single island, and remains surprisingly rustic considering that it’s a part of Incheon City and so close to Seoul. Furthermore, I met a very nice local woman as I returned to Ganghwa-eup to catch the bus back to Seoul.

In the next post, I will describe my trip to Seongmodo, the island just to the west of Ganghwa.



About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who has previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.
This entry was posted in Ancient History, Incheon, Joseon, Museum, Shamanism, World Heritage and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Guardian of the Han River: Ganghwa Island

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