Monday, February 18, 2013

Jeju Island: Exploring a Gem of the Pacific

Last week, two friends and I decided to take advantage of our final long weekend in the country during Seollal (설날) - also known as the Lunar New Year - and hop on a ferry to what is reputed to be the most beautiful place in all of Korea - Jeju-do!

Recreations of the famous Jeju hareubang statues.
For those who don't know, Jeju (제주) is a small (73km by 41km) oval-shaped volcanic island 130km off the southwest tip of the Korean peninsula. Famed for it's beauty and often called 'the Hawaii of Korea', Jeju was recently named one of the New 7 Wonders of the Natural World - and I have to say, even in winter, Jeju lives up to it's hype.

Exploring the rock formations on the southern coast of Jeju.
While the 2 million year old island is literally littered with mini extinct volcanoes (360 of them to be exact), volcanic craters and lava tubes surrounding the main volcano of Hallasan (한라산) - also Korea's tallest mountain, coming in at 1950m (more on that in the next post!) - these are only part of what make the island so spectacular.

In addition to having a unique geology, Jeju's relative isolation has given it a unique cultural history. While Jeju was eventually annexed by the mainland Goryeo Dynasty in 1105 and the Mongols after that, then returned to Korea with the takeover by the Joseon Dynasty (who used it as a place to send political exiles) in 1404, and thus has shared much of it's more recent history (such as Japanese occupation) with the mainland, prior to this, Jeju-nese history is somewhat of a mystery.

Cheonjiyeon Falls (천지연 폭포) from a distance. You can see Hallasan rising into the clouds on the right.
Very little is known about the pre-Goryeo Tamma Kingdom and how it came to be. Island legend states that the three demigods: Go, Bu and Yang, rose out of the ground and became the islands first residents. When the three men were out hunting one day, they ran across three princesses who had washed ashore with all of their agricultural accoutrements and livestock. Marrying these three women, the hunters settled down and established the three main agricultural clans of Jeju island. The hole in the ground from which the hunters emerged can still be visited at Samsunghyeol Shrine (삼성혈)- which remains an important location for the seasonal ancestral rites performed by their descendants - in Jeju City.

A stone ring and tripple alter surround the hole through which Go, Bu and Yang entered Jeju at Samsunghyeol.
Other unique features of Jeju-nese culture include thatched roof houses - although these can only be seen today in the preserved traditional 'folk villages', the inexplicable ancient basalt mushroom-like grandfather statues called Dol Hareubang (돌 하르방) which dot the island, the hand-stacked stone dividing walls to allow for Jeju's famous winds to pass through without toppling them and, last but certainly not least, the haenyeo (해녀) - Jeju's famous women divers. Although now somewhat of a dying breed, women began to do the work of diving into the waters along the coast to collect shellfish in the 19th centuries when their husbands discovered that their families would be tax exempt if they did so!

As interested as I am in culture, as much as I loved hiking Hallasan and as fascinating as the publicly accessible portion of the lava tubes at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Manjanggul (만장굴), geologically speaking, it was the coastline that took my breath away!

Looking toward Munseom (island) from some of the Rock formations along the coast in Seogwipo.
While the northern coastline around Jeju City (제주시) has some fun rocks, it's the south near Seogwipo (서귀포) that is really stunning. Not only is the area around Seogwipo studded with waterfalls, to the West of the city lies the resort area of Jungmun (중문), home to Korea's Jusangjeolli (주상절리) or  'Black Beach', made of hexagonal basalt formations reminiscent a smaller version of the Giant's Causeway connecting Scotland and North Ireland. While Jeju's Jusangjeolli is not as large as the Giant's Causeway, the emerald blue (no, really, that's the only way to describe the colour!) water the rocks rise out of makes it breathtaking to visit.

Jusangjeolli. The colour of the water made me nearly desperate to jump in - and it was February!

Jungmun is also home to Yakcheon Temple. While I have seen a lot of temples during my time in Korea, Yakcheonsa is ranks up there with my favourites. Done up in a more ornate style that reminds me more of the temples I've seen in Taiwan than any I've seen in Korea, the combinations of pastels and golds, as well as the amazingly detailed latticework carvings on the windows made a visit well worthwhile.

The bell tower at Yakcheonsa with oranges in the foreground. In addition to being famed for it's beauty, Jeju is famed for the deliciousness of it's oranges. Sadly, I was there a month too early for these ones to be ripe.

The giant gold Buddha inside Yakcheonsa. The great hall is said to be one of the biggest in Asia. With three floors of viewing galleries, each surrounded with painted panels depicting stories, I may well believe that.
Even further to the west along the southern coast was quite possibly my favourite spot on the island - the Yongmeori (용머리 - dragon's head) Peninsula. While it's invisible until you are down there and closed off at high tide, the coast below Sanbang peak (삼방산) if formed of weathered vocanic cliffs and caves that just bed to be explored. This is also where the monument to Handrick Hamel - the Dutchman who washed ashore on Jeju in 1653, was captured and enslaved, eventually managed to escape with 7 others in 1666, and wrote a book bringing news of life in the Joseon-era Hermit Kingdom of Korea to the rest of the world - and recreation of his ship are located. The small Mt. Sanbang itself is also worth a visit as it is home to Sambanggulsa (삼방굴사) or Sambang Cave Temple.

Looking toward the Yongmeori Coast from Sambang Temple. Hamel's ship is just visible in between the temple and coast.
A view of Hamel's ship through his momument.

While Jeju is fairly small, the sheer number of protruding mini volcanoes can make getting around the island somewhat time consuming. It's possible to travel by public transport, but having a car (and in smaller areas, bikes) might be more convenient (you need an international drivers licence though). We were lucky enough to stay in a wonderfully accomodating hostel (the owner even fed us traditional New Year's Tteok-guk (rice cake soup) on Seollal!), which offered cheap tailor-made driving tours. You can check out B&B Pan here. The island is also crisscrossed by 'Olleh Trails', 200km of connecting walking trails which have been divided into 13 different routes - although on many you can jump it at any point along the path.

Looking back toward Sanbang while walking the coast.

Some of the formations on the Yongmeori coast. This one is about three times my height.

Some more of the crazy geological features.
There are a number of ways to get to Jeju. Flights leave from most of the larger city airports on a daily basis and ferries, from Incheon (Seoul, 14hrs), Mokpo (4hrs) and Wando (3hrs), to Jeju City on the North Coast leave just as frequently. The fastest Ferry, and the most convenient for us, is the JH Ferry run by Orange1 which leaves from Jangheung (장흥), near Yeosu in southern Jeollanamdo, and arrives at Seongsan (성산) on the west coast of the Island in 2 and a half hours. There is also a free shuttle bus run by the ferry company which connects Gwangju to Jangheung. Their website is here. Unfortunately, it is entirely in Korean.

A view of Ilchulbong (일출봉), or Sunrise Peak in Seongsan on the East Coast at Sunset.

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