Although we’ve never been to the tropical shores of Hawaii, we now have the pleasure of saying that we’ve been to the “Hawaii of the East,” the often used tag line to describe South Korea’s Jeju island, where we spent the entirety of our time on the Asian peninsula.
The island, we assumed, got the nickname due to its natural wonders, warm waters and the fact that it was the honeymoon destination for practically all Korean newlyweds. Going in early April, we worried about whether we would have enough to do in our five days there without the prospect of wasting one of those away sitting on a beach. We would find just how misguided this fear was though as we sat in our hostel, Jeju Hiking Inn, for the entirety of our first day, confined to our rooms due to an incessant downpour taking place outside.
With time to kill, we began planning out our days on the island and the lines of our notebook quickly filled up with must-dos and must-sees. The problem of finding enough things to do was now one of finding a way to fit everything in. Little by little, we dwindled the list down to one that consisted mostly of outdoor activities and went to bed content that our time on the island would be spent in the best way possible: hiking around its UNESCO recognized natural landscape.
The next morning, we eagerly sprung out of bed and scurried down to the kitchen for our breakfast of toast and eggs. The hostel’s owner spotted us eating and, in his naturally friendly way, used his severely broken English to ask about our plans for the day and then offered to drive us to the bus stop. It’s amazing how much can be communicated with the word “okay” when accompanied with a series of hand gestures and head nods. After driving us there and dropping us off, we hopped on the bus and took off toward our first destination: the Seonsang Ilchubong volcano crater.
Throughout the ride there we sleepily looked through the foggy windows at a consistently gray and wet landscape and wondered if the sun would ever be coming out during our time on the island. While it would eventually make an appearance, it wouldn’t be anytime soon, a fact we came to terms with as the bus rolled up to the crater and we got our first glimpse of it. While the base was partially visible behind the blurring effects of the mist, the top was completely hidden behind a veil of fog. Not wanting to sulk too much in our weather misfortunes, we decided not to curse the fog, but rather enjoy it and the mystical effect it created as we ascended the crater.
On our way up, we were never quite sure where exactly the top was so we climbed until we couldn’t anymore and it was at this point that we found ourselves on a wooden observation deck with nothing to observe. The signs and outlooks pointed towards the volcano crater, but all we could see was the by now all-too-familiar fog, rolling across our line of vision without actually going anywhere. We stayed to see if it would clear up, but the fog clung stubbornly to the crater so we decided to give up our wait and move on to what we hoped would be less-obscured sights. On our descent, to our surprise and delight, the blanket of fog covering the landscape below us began to be pulled away and lying underneath were sweeping views of the ocean and shore. At the sight of this, we quickened our lumbering pace as the prospects of the day now seemed endless with the world now in clearer focus.
Our first order of business after getting to the base was to find a way to get down to the ocean, which ended up being rather easy and one of the more beautiful places we’d happen upon on the island. The one thing that struck us most once we got down was the color black. It dominated practically every plane of vision we could find, whether it be the rocks scattered across the shore, the sand of the beach, the volcano crater standing formidably in the distance or even the water at times if you looked at it a certain way. Unlike most other things around it though, the water took on many other colors apart from the ubiquitous black. Sometimes, it would be an ominous shade of turquoise, nearer to the sky it would seem almost gray, but mostly it would stay within the range of a foamy white as the ocean was violent that day, swaying and cresting into waves that would crash over the black rocks, creating a beautiful contrast. We explored the different nooks and crannies of the shore finding seashells, crabs, sea anemones and the like along the way. After walking around for a while we came to the painful conclusion that, while the scenery would never get old, the day would and, with a couple of worthy-looking shells in tow, we left that section of the coast in search for another called Seopjikoji.
The walk to Seopjikoji was extremely enjoyable. The rain and fog had all but disappeared leaving a cloudy and gray sky behind, which was all the same to us as it made the different colors of the island more vibrant by comparison. Among these colors, the ones that caught our attention the most were those of the rapeseed flowers, whose petals blanketed the ground from which they grew in a bright yellow. We had seen them out of our window on the bus, but to experience them in person along our hike was another matter entirely. After walking through them for a short while and taking plenty of pictures (that later all looked the same), we continued our walk along the coast.
Finding the rest of our way from the rapeseed field wasn’t too difficult, we just had to be moving away from the volcano crater. So, as long as it was shrinking on the horizon behind us, we knew we were going the right way. With the crater at our backs, we worked our way along the coast. As we walked over the crest of one particular hill, we noticed a brown, four-legged speck in the distance that promptly began making its way towards us. As it got nearer, we made it out to be a horse whose steady gallop didn’t stop until he was standing face to face with us. With a clear understanding of where it’s food supply came from, it sniffed around our jackets and pants pockets, leaving strings of gooey slobber behind. It quickly lost interest though as it realized we had nothing to offer apart from a few strokes of its mane. So, we parted ways, the horse clearly unshaken by our departure as it stood on the hill waiting for the next passerby.
We walked for another hour or so, cutting inland until we came across a large brown sign pointing us towards a peninsula and notifying us that we had finally reached Seopjikoji. We weren’t sure what awaited us there, but we had read that it had some of the most beautiful scenery on the island so we anxiously pushed on towards it despite the aching protests from our tiring legs. The first noteworthy sight we came across after winding around the tip was an expansive field of black lava rocks. As we looked out at the field, colorful dots that we made out to be people through squinted eyes poked out of the rocks in the distance and we began making our way towards them, awkwardly stumbling down into the field one rock at a time.
In front of us as we walked, crabs scampered into dark crevasses at the sound of our heavy feet. If they had been spiders, we may have avoided the rock field altogether, but for some reason crabs don’t seem to demand the same level of fear despite looking almost as equally sinister as their arachnid counterparts. After maintaining a constant balancing act across the field for one hundred yards or so, the rumblings of our long empty stomachs persuaded us to leave the rocky terrain in search of some food.
After climbing back up to solid ground, our noses picked up an alluring aroma of grilled seafood and we followed it to a shoreside food stand where octopus, squid, sea cucumber and abalones were being grilled up and dished out to tame the appetites of hungry hikers. We examined the different options closely and found the price of the abalones and sea cucumbers to be too steep for their abundance and their cooking process, which consisted of the stall attendants plopping them down on the fiery grill alive and writhing in pain, too cruel. So we made the financial and ethical choice of the squid and octopus which was neatly cut up into convenient bite-size pieces and handed over to us in an equally convenient to-go bag. Lunch in hand, we found a nice spot to sit overlooking the ocean and dug in, feeling slightly guilty eating the invertebrates so close to their home.
With our stomachs now moderately full we continued our walk around the peninsula, all the while the scenery remained unchanged: white waves crashing into the black rocks, grass-covered hills rolling off into the distance, the crater lying flat on the ocean. In other words, the perfect accompaniment for a walk through the countryside. With nowhere to be, we walked on and on until the light gray that had dominated the sky all day began to darken and we sought out a bus to take us back to Seogwipo (the city our hostel was in) for some rest before what would be another busy day.
Our third day on the island started much like the previous one had right down to the car ride from the hostel’s owner to our first destination. The only difference was that on that particular morning we weren’t heading to a bus stop but rather to the Jeongbang waterfall. On our ride there, we were bewildered to look out the window and find not the gray-tinted landscape we had become accustomed to during our short time on the island but instead at a blue and sunny sky. For a day that would be spent almost entirely on the ocean, we were extremely grateful for this fortunate turn in the forecast and began taking advantage of it almost immediately with the waterfall.
The sound of the falls, booming and ceaseless, reached us well before the view of it did, serving as a guide down the steep path towards its rocky base. At the bottom, necks jerked back, we stared up at the waterfall as it tirelessly crashed over the edge of the island and into the ocean. The sunlight, now unobscured by clouds, illuminated the water and and everything around it, including most spectacularly the mist spraying off the violent collision between the plunging water and the rocks, creating a faint rainbow that hovered over the ground. Every angle was a good angle and, after exploring them all, we chose what we deemed to be the best one, a secluded rock across the outgoing flow from the falls, to sit and enjoy the scenery.
Getting to the rock proved to require some amount of effort as, before we could plop down on it, we had to take off our shoes, roll up our pants legs and maneuver across the cold slippery rocks that served as a dividing line between the waterfall and the ocean. The effort, minimal and enjoyable, paid dividends once on the rock as the tranquility of the spot was unparalleled. No one else had crossed the stream and, while the crowds on the other side of it were still visible, their rumblings were muted by the roar of the falls. So we sat, taking it all in until the urgency of our agenda forced to cross back over. Once on the other side, we were alarmed to find that a wave of Korean pubescence had crashed down from the hills above, flooding the surrounding area with shrieks and shouts. At the sight and sound of this, we hastened our exit from the park and began making our way towards the Jungmun Daepo stone columns.
We never were quite clear on how the columns formed despite multiple signs informing us of the exact, albeit highly scientific, process, but they were interesting to look at all the same. Hexagonal and varying in height, they fit together snugly so that if you looked at them from above they would give an appearance of a flattened soccer ball. Staring at them from level ground, they looked like a stone forest growing out of the almost glowing turquoise waters beneath. We bounced around from one outlook deck to another, waiting for the scenery to change (it didn’t), so we just stayed at one and appreciated the stillness of it. As we looked out, our enjoyment of the scenery slowly began to diminish with each passing tour group and, after an elderly Asian man poked Ryan in the chest and called him “monkey, monkey” to the amusement of his friends, we decided it was time to go.
Before heading back to our hostel, we decided to look for a place to get lunch since we were in the hub of Korean honeymoon resorts and assumed the options would be abundant. We ended up settling on a buffet overlooking the ocean due to the fact that it served a lot of the food we had wanted to try on Jeju: black pork, the candy-like tangerines native to the island, seafood in various forms, and abalones, albeit in soup form, but abalones nonetheless. We were so anxious to try the latter because we had seen them being sold all over the island by shrunken old women in diver’s suits at the heart-dropping rate of ten dollars per shell (they were one hearty bite at best), so we were happy to get to try them without compromising our financial morals. Since we got to the buffet so late in the afternoon, we only had about 45 minutes to eat so we unashamedly stuffed our faces for the entirety of the time allotted to us, washing everything down with a tall glass of beer before paying our bill and waddling out of the restaurant.
Wanting to walk off the ungodly amount of food we just inhaled, we found a beach nearby to stroll along. As we walked, we were surprised to find not one, but four of the aforementioned abalone shells washed ashore, alive and kicking. Not quite in the entrepreneurial mood, we tossed the shells (forty dollars worth of them) back into the ocean and hopped on a bus to take us back to Seogwipo.
Once back, and with a little daylight left to spare, we went to the nearby Cheongjiyeon Waterfall (not to be confused of course with the Cheong-JE-yeon falls further west). If you haven’t noticed by now, Jeju was not lacking in its supply of long and confusing names, perhaps another reason it was given the title “Hawaii of the East.” Cheongjiyeon, as it turned out, wasn’t too different from the first waterfall we saw that day. Instead of rainbows, oceans, and blue skies, the setting was a dim, misty forest, but, other than that, it was essentially water violently falling over a cliff into the rocks below. The familiarity of the scene in no way diminished our enjoyment of it though for, while the concepts of nature–mountains, rainstorms, forests, etc.–are extremely familiar, to witness the power and size of them in person is always an experience worthy of admiration. So, again we sat, bookending our day perched on a rock and gazing out at the mesmerizing endlessness of the waterfall.
Our fourth and last full day on the island, sadly, was a combination of misfortune and missed opportunities. Our agenda was full with plans to hike up Mt. Halla, the island’s central peak and tallest mountain in Korea, visit the world’s longest lava tubes that ran under the island, and, if time, go to the Jeju Folklore and Natural Museum to learn a little about the island we had inhabited for the better part of a week. To our disappointment, none of these would come to fruition.
After hiking up the mountain for nearly two hours the skies opened and, with the scenery now blurred by the haze of a rainstorm, we decided to turn back before reaching the peak. The lava tubes, perfect for a rainy day, were closed due to the fact that it was the first Wednesday of the month…silly us. And, to top things off, by the time we had exasperated both of these options, the museum was nearing closing time. In a desperate attempt to salvage the day, we randomly hopped off the bus back to Seogwipo to search for a beach in the illusion that it could still be enjoyable in a downpour…it wasn’t.
If our tone comes across as bitter, that’s because at the time it was, but there were some bright spots throughout the day (none coming from the weather) that made it worthwhile. One of these came on our way to the mountain in the morning. As we walked to the bus stop, we stumbled upon a street lined with cherry blossom trees so big and full that they formed a canopy over the road, creating a floral tunnel for the cars to drive through. On the ground below them, thousands upon thousands of tiny white petals laid scattered about, making it look like a fresh coat of snow had just fallen. For us, it was one of those unplanned moments that you can never recreate, just pure contentedness with where you are and what you’re doing.
Another of these moments came as we walked back from the lava tubes after finding out they were closed. Despite every excuse to be downtrodden, we found ourselves enjoying the rain-soaked hike back to the bus stop. The rain and wind, while no friend to our shoes or pants, gave the surrounding countryside a sense of beauty that might not have existed on a sunny day. The green seemed greener in the fields of grass that swayed hypnotically in the fluctuating patterns of the wind. Yellow and purple flowers dotted the landscape. Even the humble stone walls, which cut through the entire island, were stunning in the rain, blacker than ever and serving as a neat divide to the palette of colors surrounding them. It was a scene worth walking through very slowly, which we did until the rain picked up and our pace with it until we were back at the bus stop.
We spent the next two hours in the humid interior of the bus and, after finally getting back to Seogwipo, it was safe to say that all of the satisfaction we had managed to soak up throughout the day had now been rung dry. Wanting to end our time on the island on a good note, we decided to try a black pork restaurant that would have been way out of our price range on our first day but now seemed perfectly reasonable. It was worth every penny, or won for that matter, and one of the more unique restaurant experiences we’ve ever had.
Shortly after being seated, our table, which also served as our grill, was filled with plate after plate of appetizers by the waiter who culminated his back and forth kitchen runs with two slabs of black pork on the grill. After that, the warm, orange charcoals burning underneath did the rest of the work and in no time we had a feast. For the next hour or so, we existed in a state of bliss as we delicately sampled the different tastes before us with a pair of steel chopsticks, paying extra attention to the juicy, flavor-filled strips of pork that went down like potato chips. It was the perfect meal for an imperfect day.
Our last morning didn’t consist of much. We woke up early, made a mad dash to the bus station in the pouring rain, by now as omnipresent to the island as the ocean surrounding it, and spent the remainder of our time in the airport. As we waited for our flight and reminisced about our trip, the rainy days and missed opportunities had all but washed away in our memories. Only the good things remained, and there were plenty of those.