The wind pummeled us relentless, but we didn’t care. The dark blue waves screamed in protest as they crashed violently against the lava formed rock formation we stood upon. Although the dark, unknowing waters of Jeju looked unwelcoming, the fresh and cleansing breeze of the Korean countryside and its pastel, blue sky was more than enough to keep me here. After relentless days of smog and apocalyptic skies of dust and toxic matter in China, the coast of Jeju was like medicine.
The wind whipping my hair across my face, the sprays of fresh, seawater splashing across my open toed sandals, a fresh paint of blue sky:
It felt great being back in Korea.
Jeju: Korea’s Hawaii
Jeju Island is an island getaway for local Koreans as either a summer vacation or a romantic honeymoon retreat. With a number of beaches, an active volcano, rare rock formations, casino, shopping malls, and a sex (?) and teddy bear (!?) museum —Jeju has developed into more than just a reclusive island off the coast of South Korea. And with throngs of Chinese tourists coming in visa-free from the mainland, it’s become a hot investment spot and shopping haven for the got-rich-quick Chinese.
A Slice of the Simple Life
Jeju was quiet. There was no traffic, no sirens, no blaring horns or throngs of people. Aside from the occasional tourist bus or farming truck, the streets of Jeju were relatively empty. Near the beaches only the sound of waves lapsing against the shore could be heard; while inland, an overwhelming blanket of silence and nature draped itself across the island.
“I feel like I’m back in the rural areas of Japan, back in Yamagata,” Tomoko said as we crawled over the rocks and passed an old Korean grandma fishing clams from the sea. “It’s so green. So quiet. So peaceful.”
Back on land we passed by small vendors along the coast, most of them local shops that weren’t even open. Squid hung in the air on clotheslines, like laundry out to dry. A truck was selling a fresh batch of tangerines, with tangerine soju to match. The sun was warm, but mild; the sea breeze blowing in from the coast was crisp, the juices of the fresh tangerine I bought dribbled down my chin.
Refreshing, I thought. Jeju is, in every sense of the word, a refreshing escape.
Jeju Volcanic Island
“We only have 30 minutes Mary, pick up the pace!” Tomoko sprinted up the mountainside like it was merely a flight of stairs. The steep incline of Jeju’s Volcanic island was not a difficult climb by any means, but to scale it in less than 30 minutes felt like some sort of marathon challenge. I huffed and puffed and sprinted forward, but after a few minutes Tomoko became a speck in the distance. I was no match for her.
Korea is literally a giant volcanic island. Speckled across the island are multiple climbs, with the tallest being Mt. Hallasan. We were taken to a volcanic retreat near the ocean, one that spurted just slightly hundreds of years ago, but not with as much force as Hallasan.
I looked at my watch then up the road, praying that I make it to the summit before our tour bus decided to abandon us. I felt my breath coming in short gasps and came to a stop for a rest. I turned around to this view:
When I reached the top of of this mini-volcano I found myself looking down into a gap that resembled a tub of freshly scooped ice cream. A bubble of green had formed at the top of the mountain, with a lone tree growing in the center. Below me, a crater of green. Beyond me, a horizon of blue. A volcano on the ocean. I climbed below to join Tomoko, who had arrived ten minutes earlier.
“Glad you could make it” she laughed. I smiled back and looked with her across the summit of the volcano in silence.
It’s amazing how something that spewed molten lava years ago was now such a peaceful retreat, I thought; my eyes fixated on the baby tree at the focal point of the crater.
Even in the most unexpected of places, live thrives on.
Let It Go
After a dinner of Korean BBQ, Tomoko and I donned our finest summer dresses and watched a beautiful sunset from the sandy shores. Darkness descended on Jeju.
There were tables set on the sand for outdoor eating (I presume), but Tomoko and I feigned ignorance and used them as our personal picnic blanket. Local Korean restaurants and eateries lined the coast with residents, drunks and tourists alike all dining on the plastic tables and chairs. People were laughing and pouring soju, the splash of the black waves rolling in and out of shore serving as their background music
I, on the other hand, was taking swigs of plum soju while Tomoko sipped on a beer.
We sat next to one another looking out to the black emptiness that is the evening sea. Although we couldn’t see anything, we could definitely feel everything. The air was so fresh we could almost taste it; the weather so perfect, we had no need to mention it.
“We need music,” Tomoko proclaimed. She took out her iphone and searched for a song.
Then she hit play, stood up, and danced on the table. The customers at the nearby restaurants and vendors began to stare.
“My god Tomoko,” I look up at her. “Is this Boogie Wonderland?”
“You better believe it is,” she held her hand out to me. “It feels great up here Mary, come on! Dance!”
I looked around. At least twenty people from the nearby restaurants had their eyes fixed on the crazy Japanese woman besides me, lost in her trance of Earth, Wind & Fire. I obviously wasn’t drunk enough, I thought. I was extremely self-conscious about becoming Jeju Island’s next tourist attraction.
“Don’t worry Mary!” Tomoko laughed and continued her groove. “Who cares! Just let all your worries go!”
I took another swig of soju and thought, what the hell. I tossed the empty bottle to the sand and hesitantly stood up with Tomoko, my dance resembling the shuffle.
But then, the song changed to September. I never really listened to Earth, Wind & Fire in my free time. I knew it as that random background music they play in movies and commercials. Yet standing there with Tomoko, seeing her entire soul and spirit captivated by the melody spurting out from her small iphone speaker, something inside me sparked. My shy shuffle turned into a hip-gyrating, hair flinging, full-blown groove. Tomoko and I were unstoppable.
Our co-workers walked by, pointed, laughed, and took photos. The onlookers having dinner and drinking beer applauded our random dance numbers. A few guys came down and tried to join us, but Tomoko wouldn’t let them up. Instead she looked them in the eye, took their beer, had a swig, and returned it with an “arigato.”
I don’t know how long we danced up there, just the two of us. It was a really long time. Earth, Wind and Fire turned into Prince, then to Michael Jackson, and finally came to a steady end with Nat King Cole’s “It had to be You.”
Sandals in hand, I walked on the moist, sandy coast back to our hotel. Tomoko, still with a hop in her step, skipped ahead, her blue dress fluttering in the night wind. I looked to the nearby shops closing up, the black tide rolling in and out, and the twinkling stars above.
This is the best part of traveling, I thought. Releasing your inhibitions and free falling into the moment.
The Treasures of Jeju
Korea always surprises me.
From having no desire to go there, to a vague interest post Seoul trip, to absolutely falling in love in Jeju—Korea never ceases to amaze me. Korea is a great Asia destination with its temples, Confucian values, neon light cities, crazy soju-filled night life and famous shopping. Yet the charm of its food, people, and natural sights, while somewhat similar to China and Japan, still remain uniquely Korean.
Similar to Seoul, in Jeju you can go to ten floor duty-free shopping malls, have an excellent meal of Korean BBQ and experience the wide selection of Korean coffees in the convenience store.
But unlike Seoul, you get a taste of the simpler Korea. Horses grazing in the field, the elderly harvesting fish, the old mom-and-pop BBQ places with no English menu or pictures—this is a taste of Korea that you simply can’t find on the mainland.
The natural sights are also out of this world, with waters so turquoise blue and skies so fresh and clean that it even gives Japan a run for its money.
For a quiet and reflective escape, Jeju is the perfect place. I went in expecting little, and left with some of the best memories of my life abroad.