IBUSUKI, KAGOSHIMA PREF. – On the South Korean island of Jeju, hiking trails called “olle” have become a major tourist attraction over the past few years.
Now the tourism industry in Kyushu also hopes to cash in on the phenomenon, importing the olle concept and establishing four of its own hiking courses.
Organizers hope the newly established trails will spark a tourism revival in the region, which saw South Korean tourists decline sharply due to the high yen and fallout from last year’s disasters in other parts of Japan.
In the Jeju dialect of the Korean language, olle means “a narrow path leading home.” The routes are mostly unpaved trails that allow hikers to view nature in all its unspoiled splendor.
Among the four olle routes in Kyushu is the trail in Ibusuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, an area famous for its sand baths and view of Mount Kaimondake. Starting at Kyushu Railway Co.’s Nishioyama Station, the 20.4-km route offers an abundance of local atmosphere for hikers as they trek through fields and pine groves and along rugged coastlines.
In addition to a varied geography and differing views of Mount Kaimondake, the scent of trees, the sound of waves and the sight of flowers await visitors.
Walking the course in March, Seoul office worker Han Koo Lee remarked, “It was a bit early to come here, yet it’s really nice to imagine what this place will be like when the flowers are in bloom.”
Tadataka Shimotakehara, president of a local hotel company, was amazed to find such beauty in the city.
“I have driven past many times with no interest in the place at all,” he said.
According to the Kagoshima Prefectural Visitors Bureau, 60,000 South Koreans visit Kagoshima Prefecture annually, with Ibusuki long a popular destination.
“We hope tourists enjoy hiking throughout the year, not just in winter, which is the best season for hot springs and golf, but also in the hot summer,” a staff member at the visitors’ bureau said.
The other three olle routes in Kyushu are in Takeo, Saga Prefecture, Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, and the Okubungo area of Oita Prefecture.
The original olle hiking trails on Jeju began in September 2007 when an organization called Jeju Olle created the first hiking route there. It was the brainchild of Suh Myung Sook, president of the organization and a former journalist in Seoul.
“Working for more than 20 years, I had a really busy life and was exhausted both mentally and physically. All I could think about was how to be a good journalist,” Suh, 54, recalled.
Fearing she may collapse from overwork, she left in 2006 to spend 36 days walking the Way of St. James pilgrimage in Spain. The experience changed her life forever.
“I used to think tourism could only be successful when tourist attractions had been created. But in Santiago, everything was the way it was. But still, there were so many visitors,” she said of Santiago de Compostela, the destination of the pilgrimage.
Based on this experience, Suh realized that Jeju, her birthplace and now a famous resort, also had a lot to offer.
Today, there are 24 hiking routes on the volcanic island, from grassland treks to coastline trails, each with its own unique history.
Olle routes avoid paved roads as much as possible. “Olle is not just about paths,” Suh emphasized. “It enables you to communicate with local people while learning about culture and history. You don’t need to rush, as olle is about slow walking. You can also walk with friends and family, if you like.”
Jeju’s olle trails have become popular among South Koreans in search of peace and serenity.
According to the Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Tourism Association, 770,000 people hiked the island’s olle in 2010, an increase of 550,000 from 2009. They accounted for 10 percent of the total number of annual tourists to the island.
Inspired by the success of Jeju’s olle, there are now around 100 hiking courses in different parts of South Korea.
The Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organization began promoting trekking courses in the region to South Korean tourists in 2009. “But they preferred climbing the 100 most famous mountains of Japan and there are only six of them in Kyushu,” Yumi Lee, assistant manager of the organization’s Overseas Division, said, referring to the 100 mountains selected by Japanese mountaineer and novelist Kyuya Fukada.
The organization eventually turned its attention to the success of olle, which appeal to people of wider age range. Also, olle hikers are expected to stay in one place longer, as they do on Jeju.
Last August, Jeju Olle agreed to partner with the Kyushu organization in establishing Kyushu Olle. This alliance allows the organization to use the Jeju Olle logo and guidepost ribbons on its own hiking courses.
“As South Koreans are familiar with the logo, they feel safe trying olle in Kyushu,” said Toshiro Mochimasu, manager of the organization’s Overseas Division.
In addition to the four olle routes created in Kyushu by the organization and Jeju Olle, several more are being planned for the near future.
“Kyushu is yet to show its true self, but this may change with the help of olle,” Suh said.
She hopes Kyushu Olle will become a form of therapy for all who need rest and relaxation.
“I hope olle can open new paths in people’s minds,” Suh said.