Notes from the Land of the Morning Calm – Jeju-do

Jeju-do, South Korea, Oct ’06

Often called “Korea’s Hawaii,” or “Honeymoon Island,” Jeju is an island situated off the southwest coast of Korea. At approximately 33 degrees south latitude, Jeju has a mild, subtropical climate – not quite Hawaii, but certainly more temperate than, say, Seoul, or for that pretty much matter anywhere on the Korean mainland.

We arrived in Jeju via the Pusan airport, having traveled by car about an hour south to get to Pusan. While at the airport, we were somewhat surprised to see planes marked “Vladivostok Air,” – we shouldn’t have been, I guess – Vladivostok is only a few hundred miles to the north and quite close to the border of North Korea.

We stepped off our airplane (Korean, not Vladivostok, Air) into bright sunshine and balmy temperatures. The airport was bustling with people – most Korean and Japanese tourists on their way to or back from vacation. Jeju island certainly had the nicest dressed crossing guards I’d seen anywhere – young woman dressed impeccably in red suits and hats directed traffic.

We stayed in Jeju City – the largest town on Jeju island – about 15 minutes from the airport, by cab. But first, we needed a car – Jeju being a bit easier to navigate around than Seoul or Gyeongju (it’s an island – how lost can you get?) we decided to rent a car to wander around a bit on our own.

At the airport

The first full day in Jeju we took a bit of a driving tour just to check out the lay of the land and get used to the (Korean language) navigation system in the car. After driving down a few one lane roads in the middle of some farm fields we finally figured out how to use the nav system.

Driving tour

Jeju island is volcanic in origin, so there are number of volcanic craters on the island. In fact, the island’s geography is dominated by an extinct volcano, Halla-san, in the middle of the island, which is the second highest peak in Korea and the highest peak in South Korea.

Before we got to Halla-san, though, we checked out Seongson Crater, located on a small promontory of land on the east coast of Jeju. The walk to the top of the crater is a fairly steep hike – so my inlaws decided to forego the hike. I looked around a little bit, hiking over the side of the promontory to a black sand beach on the far side.

Seongsan Crater

Near Seongsan is Shinyan Bay and Seopjikoji Peninsula. Seopjikoji is well known for being a yeondae (beacon site). During the Josean Dynasty beacon fires were lit on platforms erected here to warn of an oncoming enemy invasion.

Shinyang Bay/Seopjikoji Peninsula

A larger, more accessible volcanic crater was San’gumburi Crater – over a half kilometer across and filled with woodlands, we stopped by on our first afternoon just to check it out. Apparently, if you want it, you can also order coffee there, or a bear – I’m just not sure what you would do with the bear.

San’gumburi Crater

The next day Grace and I decided to tackle hiking up Halla-san, while Dawn took Mom and Dad Lee to the botanical gardens to have a look around.

Grace and I spent the better part of a day hiking as close to the top of the mountain as we were allowed – the trail to the actual top was roped off (From the looks of things, you probably need ropes, technical climbing ability, and permission from the local government to actually attempt a climb all the way up.

Hiking in Korea, at least on Jeju, was much different from hiking in Colorado. Instead of a wilderness experience shared with the one or two people in your party, hiking in Korea is a more social experience – there are a lot of people on the trail. Most are polite and say hello (Annyong haseyo) as they go by – a few brush past like you don’t exist. For the most part it wasn’t too obnoxious, though close to the top it got a bit wearying. We were passed in the opposite direction by what I can only assume was a few busloads of teenagers who were all hiking together. Since there was a continuous stream of them coming down they tended to keep the center of the trail and Grace and I literally had to struggle to claim some space on the trail so we could make any kind of forward headway. It was fun playing the “start the greeting meme*” game though – it seemed if you said “Hello” to a likely candidate the sentiment would be echo by the person behind him or her – you ended up starting a chain reaction of “hello” interchanges with the line of hikers for 20 or 30 people before it would die out. Similarly if you greeted someone with “Annyong haseyo” – it would be picked up and echoed for a while, then die out. So it was great fun to try to switch the stream in mid-meme – answer “hello” to someone who said “Annyong haseyo,” or vice-versa. What can I tell you, guess I’m just a trouble maker at heart.

Once we got above tree-line the trail widened out and was replaced by a nicely maintained 3-4 foot wide boardwalk – I guess they’re trying to preserve the relatively fragile alpine tundra as best as possible by not allowing it to be trampled. At the top of the trailhead, though not at the top of the mountain, was a multi-level deck where many people were eating Noodle bowls bought from a small concern there. Grace and I had brought our lunch, so we contented ourselves with eating sandwiches and watching the people, as well as the 2 dozen or so large crows that were in the area.

Halla-san

The next day we decided to stick a little closer to home and explore Jeju-City. Our first stop was Gwandeok-jean/Jejumok Gwanaji. Gwandeok-jeon is a
large wooden pavillion, built in 1448 and thus the oldest wooden structure on the island. It fronts a complex called Jejumok Gwanaji, which was the seat of
government power in Jeju-do during the Joseon Dynasty. In front of Gwandeok-jean were a pair of original Dolharubang (Grandfather statues). 45 original examples of the stone “grandfather” figures survive to this day, and the likeness of the carved grandfather has been adopted as the marketing symbol for Jeju island. Modern copies of the grandfather are everywhere you turn – even the outdoor phone booths are molded plastic copies.

Gwandeok-jean/Jejumok Gwanaji

Down by the sea shore is a rock formation called Youngduam, or “Dragon Head Rock,” named, as you might have guessed, because the rock has the shape of a dragon’s head being thrust out of the water. Just as interesting were the woman divers, called Hanenyeo operating in the area. Jeju has a long tradition of women diving, unaided by air tanks, all year round, to collect sea food of various varieties from the ocean floor. There were several such women operating nearby, and as quickly as they could bring items up they were being sliced up and served for lunch to a gathering throng of Korean and Japanese tourists. Talk about fresh seafood! I have to admit, I like seafood fresh, too – but I do prefer to give it time to get cooked.

Yongduam (Dragon Head Rock)

One other attraction in Jeju City, actually a stone’s throw from our hotel, was the Samseonghyeol Shrine and Jeju-Do Folklore and Natural History Museum. The shrine marks the spot where 3 gods were supposed to have emerged from the earth and became the progenitors of the found families of Jeju, and the museum tells the story of that legend, as well as of life in early Jeju.

Samseonghyeol Shrine / Jeju-Do Folklore and Natural History Museum

Our final full day in Jeju, and in Korea, dawned bright and beautiful and crystal clear – a perfect day to wander the shores and waterfalls of the south side of Jeju, which is what we had planned. Our first stop was Woedolgoe – aka “Lonely Woman Rock” – legend has it that a local woman pined for her lost husband, a fisherman, here, and when he never returned she passed away and turned into the pillar of stone just offshore.

Colorful legends aside, the coast along here held dramatic cliffs and vistas out sea, framed by pine and cypress-like trees that reminded me much of the California coast near Monterey and Pebble Beach. We wandered around for quite some time just enjoying the sunshine, the views, and the fresh salt air.

Woedolgoe (Lonely Woman rock)

Not far from Woedolgoe is another set of coastal cliffs, Jusangjeolli, where, for reasons I’m not sure about, lava entering the ocean waters formed hexagonal columns as it cooled.

Jusangjeolli Cliff (Hexagonal Rocks)

South Jeju is also known for its waterfalls, so we checked out Cheonjiyeon Waterfall, not too far inland from the coast. Unfortunately, Jeju had been in a dry period recently, so the waterfalls (actually a series of 3 waterfalls along a particular river that flows into the ocean from there), weren’t at there most spectactular. Nonetheless, the middle, most dramatic waterfall had a decent amount of water flowing over it, and made a pleasant spot for a cool respite from the otherwise warm day.

Cheonjiyeon Waterfall

Jeju city itself has a vibrant shopping district in the center of the city, and after heading back to the hotel for dinner I wandered outside for a few snap shots of the night lights. Too bad we had to get up in the morning and head back to jobs and reality – but that’s both the good and bad thing about travelling and vacations, I guess – sooner or later, you have to come home.

Jeju-City at Night

* Meme – from Merriam-Webster online – (noun) “: an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Also see Wikipedia for a fuller explanation.

[gyeongju][korea]