Jeju Island: Bali in Korea?

Stone Grandfather, Jeju

Jeju Island

Not sure if we can agree with the title “Bali of Korea,” but Jeju is indeed a pretty island. Volcanic and subtropical, Jeju is filled with natural beauty unmarred by the bountiful tourist attractions crawling with busloads of holidaymakers. It’s also the “honeymoon island” popular with couples who have the opportunity to visit Love Land or the Museum of Sex after their walks on the beach.  Once you get past the tourist promotion and marketing blitz though, Jeju is sure to reward with its unique history, culture and charm.  Jeju is known for beautiful sunsets, rugged coastlines, female free divers, grandfather statues (hareubang: 하르방, which guard from evil), tile fish, mandarin oranges and being home to Mt. Halla, Korea’s highest mountain, as well as several world heritage sites.  The land is crisscrossed with low, lava-rock fences enclosing fields, homes and burial spaces. The black, porous basalt is put to good use in all kinds of structures and decor, making everything seem to tie back to the source, the volcano.

As luck would have it, most of the island was fogged in by thick, wet clouds the whole time we were there. Though it was disappointing, we tried to look on the “bright” side and think positive.  There were plenty of tourists, but less than usual since it was the beginning of the rainy season. That meant fighting our way through the crowds was kept to a minimum. The more we travel, the more we seem to try and avoid places too frequented by the masses. We don’t want to miss any amazing sights, but we want to be there by ourselves. And who really needs the beach? Too much sun is a bad thing, right? Who wants to do hike if it’s too hot? And just think of how good these days of mist will be for our skin…

Seongsan Ilchulbong and the Lava Tubes

Our first day, we took the local bus up to the northeast coast.  The island’s UNESCO sites include Geomunoreum, an extensive lava tube system unlike anywhere else, and Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone, which rises right out of the sea. Visibility was literally 5 feet or so for our visit, but we made the steep hike to the lookout point anyway, reading about volcanic structure and formation along the way. You could tell the views would be dramatic, and we did enjoy the atmosphere of the jagged rocks in the mist. The photo above is from someone’s Flickr collection, and used in all the tourist brochures.  Manjanggul, one of the longest lava tubes in the world is nearby and has some spectacular formations.

Olle Walking Courses

The second day was spent hiking Olle Course 10. The environmentally friendly Olle routes have been created in the spirit of the Camino de Santiago in Spain and France. It’s fairly recent (first one opened in 2007, #18 this month) that many of the areas these routes cover have been open to the public, though many of the trails follow long-established traditional paths. The word olle, in the Jeju dialect, originally described the narrow pathway between ones house and the main road. The trails cover more than 200 kilometers, mostly along the coast. One route stops where another begins, making it easy to continue walking on subsequent days.  Our route was about 15 kilometers, though we added 5 or so more getting there after a miscommunication with the bus driver!  Hwasun Beach was the departure point.  Following the ever-present blue arrows and ribbon trail markers, the trail took us first across the sand and over the lava flows. We saw caves and fishermen and lots of little sea creatures and picked up a quick geocache.  Mt. Sanbang was next, the area at its base opened to the public for first time with the opening of the olle.  At the top, is a unique cave-temple. Back on the main trail, we soon passed a port and a memorial to Hamel, the Dutchman whose ship the De Sperwer was wrecked off Jeju in the mid 1600s. He (involuntarily) lived in Korea for 13 years, and was said to be the first account of Korea by a westerner. His journal can be found on the web.

In another section, along a shallow stretch, was an area protected due to the importance of the fossils found there. Some are said to be human footprints, along with those of other animals, plants and mollusks. A while and a steep climb later, and we were at the top of Mt. Songak, with a crater in the peak. The crater itself was filled in with green grasses and plants, but its shape is still obvious.  The rugged peaks and volcanic indentations were made all the more mysterious in the mist. It felt like a dinosaur might step out at any moment!  Mara-do (the southernmost island of Korea) and Gapa –do (island), which can be viewed on most days, were not remotely visible, nor was Mt. Halla.  We could make out the outlines of the smaller mountains and Oreums (small inactive volcanoes).  Though beautiful, and blessed by fantastic scenery and views, the mountain is scarred with memories from Japan’s war with China and WWII, when Jeju was and its people were used to help Japan’s war efforts. Locals were forced labor, and built tunnels, caves and structures to be used for weapons storage, strategic lookouts and anti-aircraft artillery battery.

Haenyeo, Female Divers

The trail goes along the coast again at the bottom of the mountain, and past the Sangmo women divers’ (haenyeo) house.  These female divers (Haenyeo) keep a hundreds-of-years old tradition alive diving for abalone, conch, seaweed.  The majority (43%) are over 70, and another 37% in their 60s! There are only 2 in their thirties. Though the government is giving some support to preserve this cultural heritage (and enhance tourism), it’s difficult to interest young women in the profession. The haenyeo dive down in cold waters to as much as 60 feet or so, returning with shells, abalone, conch and seaweeds to sell back on shore.  Traditionally, this was done to feed the family, without anything but a basket and goggles, and no protection against the frigid water.

Alddreu Airfield and Surrounding Farmlands

Not far away, the old runways of Alddreu Airfield and its big stone hangars can be seen.   In another area close by is a memorial to those killed in a massacre of supposed communist sympathizers related to an uprising in April of 1948.  We later read that there are a number of such massacre sites around the island.  Though these sites are a painful reminder, most agree that a clear understanding of history is good education and the sites should be preserved for this purpose.

We also passed through some farmland (including the former airfield), mostly fields of radishes, garlic and cabbage.  The trail went in between fields at some points, and we waved to the farmer on his tractor (before descending to take a look at a hidden bunker in the middle of the fields).  It’s great that they’ve got the cooperation of so many landowners, and people seem to respect the sections that pass through private property.  After some forested sections, we came out at a spot with a nice view of a lighthouse and some big fishing boats heading out in the late afternoon.  Eventually, we reached the end at scenic, rocky Hamo-ri Beach in Moseulpo, before heading home to celebrate with a couple of cold bottles of Cass and some instant noodles, which was all we had energy for after the hike!

Click HERE for more photos.

About the author

Free-spirited traveler at peace on the slow road. Packs light and treads lightly. Tamara writes about the nomadic lifestyle and slow travel along with budget-friendly tips and destination guides.