The mass of islands draping off Korea’s southern coast fades into the Pacific, before coming to an enigmatic conclusion in the crater-pocked JEJU ISLAND, known locally as Jejudo (제주도). This tectonic pimple in the South Sea is the country’s number-one holiday destination, particularly for Korean honeymooners, and it’s easy to see why – the volcanic crags, innumerable beaches and colourful rural life draw comparisons with Hawaii and Bali, a fact not lost on the local tourist authorities. This very hype puts many foreign travellers off, but while the five-star hotels and tour buses can detract from Jeju’s natural appeal, the island makes for a superb visit if taken on its own terms; indeed those who travel into Jeju’s more remote areas may come away with the impression that little has changed here for decades. In many ways it’s as if regular Korea has been given a makeover – splashes of tropical green fringe fields topped off with palm trees and tangerine groves, and while Jeju’s weather may be breezier and damper than the mainland, its winter is eaten into by lengthier springs and autumns, allowing oranges, pineapples and dragon fruit to grow.
Around the island, you’ll see evidence of a rich local culture quite distinct from the mainland, most notably in the form of the hareubang – these cute, grandfatherly statues of volcanic rock were made for reasons as yet unexplained, and pop up all over the island. Similarly ubiquitous are the batdam, walls of hand-stacked volcanic rock that separate the farmers’ fields: like the drystone walls found across Britain, these were built without any bonding agents, the resulting gaps letting through the strong winds that often whip the island. Jeju’s distinctive thatch-roofed houses are also abundant, and the island even has a breed of miniature horse; these are of particular interest to Koreans due to the near-total dearth of equine activity on the mainland. Also unique to Jeju are the haenyeo, female divers who plunge without breathing apparatus into often treacherous waters in search of shellfish and sea urchins. Although once a hard-as-nails embodiment of the island’s matriarchal culture, their dwindling numbers mean that this occupation is in danger of petering out.
Jeju City is the largest settlement, and whether you arrive by plane or ferry, this will be your entry point. You’ll find the greatest choice of accommodation and restaurants here, and most visitors choose to hole up in the city for the duration of their stay, as the rest of the island is within day-trip territory. Although there are a few sights in the city itself, getting out of town is essential if you’re to make the most of your trip. On the east coast is Seongsan, a sumptuously rural hideaway crowned by Ilchulbong, a green caldera that translates as “Sunrise Peak”; ferries run from here to Udo, a tiny islet that somehow manages to be yet even more bucolic. Inland are the Manjanggul lava tubes, one of the longest such systems in the world, and Sangumburi, the largest and most accessible of Jeju’s many craters. All roads eventually lead to Seogwipo on the south coast; this relaxed, waterfall-flanked city is Jeju’s second-largest settlement, and sits next to the five-star resort of Jungmun. Sights in Jeju’s west are a little harder to access, but this makes a trip all the more worthwhile – the countryside you’ll have to plough through is some of the best on the island, with the fields yellow with rapeseed in spring, and carpeted from summer to autumn with the pink-white-purple tricolour of cosmos flowers. Those with an interest in calligraphy may want to seek out the remote former home of Chusa, one of the country’s most famed exponents of the art. In the centre of the island is Hallasan, an extinct volcano and the country’s highest point at 1950m, visible from much of the island, though often obscured by Jeju’s fickle weather.
Jeju is one of the few places in Korea where renting a car or bicycle makes sense. Outside Jeju City, roads are generally empty and the scenery is almost always stunning, particularly in the inland areas, where you’ll find tiny communities, some of which will never have seen a foreigner. Bicycle trips around the perimeter of the island are becoming ever more popular, with riders usually taking four days to complete the circuit – Seongsan, Seogwipo and Daecheong make logical overnight stops.
Jejudo burst into being around two million years ago in a series of volcanic eruptions, but prior to an annexation by the mainland Goryeo dynasty in 1105 its history is sketchy and unknown. While the mainland was being ruled by the famed Three Kingdoms of Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo, Jeju was governed by the mysterious Tamna kingdom, though with no historical record of Tamna’s founding, it is left to Jeju myth to fill in the gaps: according to legend, the three founders of the country – Go, Bu and Yang – rose from the ground at a spot now marked by Samseonghyeol shrine in Jeju City. On a hunting trip shortly after this curious birth, they found three maidens who had washed up on a nearby shore armed with grain and a few animals; the three fellows married the girls and using the material and livestock set up agricultural communities, each man kicking off his own clan. Descendants of these three families conduct twice-yearly – in spring and autumn – ceremonies to worship their ancestors.
More prosaically, the Samguk Sagi – Korea’s main historical account of the Three Kingdoms period – states that Tamna in the fifth century became a tributary state to the Baekje kingdom on the mainland’s southwest, then hurriedly switched allegiance before the rival Silla kingdom swallowed Baekje whole in 660. Silla itself was consumed in 918 by the Goryeo dynasty, which set about reining in the island province; Jeju gradually relinquished autonomy before a full takeover in 1105. The inevitable Mongol invasion came in the mid-thirteenth century, with the marauding Khaans controlling the island for almost a hundred years. The horses bred here to support Mongol attacks on Japan fostered a local tradition of horsemanship that continues to this day – Jeju is the only place in Korea with significant equine numbers – while the visitors also left an audible legacy in the Jejanese dialect.
In 1404, with Korea finally free of Mongol control, Jeju was eventually brought under control by an embryonic Joseon dynasty. Its location made it the ideal place for Seoul to exile radicals. Two of the most famed of these were King Gwanghaegun, the victim of a coup in 1623, and Chusa, an esteemed calligrapher whose exile site can be found on the west of the island. It was just after this time that the West got its first reports about Korea, from Hendrick Hamel, a crewman on a Dutch trading ship that crashed off the Jeju coast in 1653.
With Jeju continually held at arm’s length by the central government, a long-standing feeling of resentment against the mainland was a major factor in the Jeju Massacre of 1948. The Japanese occupation having recently ended with Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, the Korean-American coalition sought now to tear out the country’s Communist roots, which were strong on Jejudo. Jejanese guerrilla forces, provoked by regular brutality, staged a simultaneous attack on the island’s police stations. A retaliation was inevitable, and the rebels and government forces continued to trade blows years after the official end of the Korean War in 1953, by which time this largely ignored conflict had resulted in up to thirty thousand deaths, the vast majority on the rebel side.
Things have since calmed down significantly. Jeju returned to its roots as a rural backwater with little bar fishing and farming to sustain its population, but its popularity with mainland tourists grew and grew after Korea’s took off as an economic power, with the island becoming known for the samda, or three bounties – rock, wind and women. Recently tourist numbers have decreased slightly, with richer and more cosmopolitan Koreans increasingly choosing to spend their holidays abroad, though Jeju still remains the country’s top holiday spot.
The eastern half of Jeju is wonderfully unspoilt – the coast is dotted with unhurried fishing villages, while inland you can see evidence of Jeju’s turbulent creation in the form of lava tubes and volcanic craters. Buses to the region leave Jeju City with merciful swiftness, passing between the sea and lush green fields, the latter bordered by stacks of batdam. Seongsan, on the island’s eastern tip, is the most attractive of Jeju’s many small villages, crowned by the majestic caldera of Ilchulbong.
Just offshore is Udo, a bucolic island whose sedentary pace tempts many a visitor to hole up for a few days. A cluster of natural attractions can be found south of the port village of Gimnyeong, most notably Manjanggul, which are some of the world’s longest underground lava tubes. Further south again, Route 97 heads southeast from Jeju City across the island’s interior, running past Sangumburi, a large, forested volcanic crater, and two rewarding folk villages: one a working community with a patchwork of traditional thatch-roofed houses, the other an open-air museum which – though devoid of inhabitants – provides a little more instruction on traditional Jeju life.
A short way east of Jeju City, a group of natural attractions provide an enjoyable day-trip. Foremost among them is Manjanggul (만장굴), a long underground cave formed by pyroclastic flows. Underwater eruptions millions of years ago caused channels of surface lava to crust over or burrow into the soft ground, resulting in subterranean tunnels of flowing lava. Once the flow finally stopped, these so-called “lava tubes” remained. Stretching for at least 9km beneath the fields and forests south of the small port of Gimnyeong, Manjanggul is one of the longest such systems in the world, though only 1km or so is open to the public. This dingy and damp “tube” contains a number of hardened, lava features including balls, bridges and an 8m-high pillar at the end of the course.
With a volcanic crater to see and two folk villages to explore, rural Route 97 – also known as the East Tourist Road – is a delightful way to cut through Jeju’s interior. All three attractions can be visited on a day-trip from Jeju City, or as part of a journey between the capital and Seogwipo on the south coast, though it pays to start reasonably early.
Heading south from Jeju City on Route 97, the first place worth stopping is Sangumburi (산굼부리), one of Jeju’s many volcanic craters; possibly its most impressive, certainly its most accessible, though currently the only one you have to pay to visit. Hole lovers should note that this particular type is known as a Marr crater, as it was produced by an explosion in a generally flat area. One can only imagine how big an explosion it must have been – the crater, 2km in circumference and 132m deep, is larger than Hallasan’s. A short climb to the top affords sweeping views of some very unspoilt Jejanese terrain; peaks rise in all directions, with Hallasan 20km to the southwest, though not always visible. The two obvious temptations are to walk into or around the rim, but you must refrain from doing so in order to protect the crater’s wildlife – deer and badgers are among the species that live in Sangumburi. Consequently there’s not an awful lot to do here, though there’s a small art gallery on site.
A twenty-minute bus ride south of Sangumburi brings you to dusty Seong-eup Folk Village (성읍 민속 마을), a functioning community living in traditional Jeju-style housing, where you’re free to wander among the thatch-roofed houses at will; the residents, given financial assistance by the government, are long used to curious visitors nosing around their yards. Here you’ll see life carrying on as if nothing had changed in decades – farmers going about their business and children playing while crops sway in the breeze. Most visitors spend a couple of pleasant hours here, and if you’re lucky you’ll run into one of the few English-speaking villagers, who act as guides.
Route 97 buses terminate near the coast at the Jeju Folk Village (제주 민속 마을). This coastal clutch of traditional Jeju buildings may be artificial, but provides an excellent complement to the Seong-eup village to its north. Information boards explain the layout and structures of the buildings, as well as telling you what the townsfolk used to get up to before selling tea and baggy orange pants to tourists. The differences between dwellings on different parts of the island are subtle but interesting – the island’s southerners, for example, entwined ropes outside their door with red peppers if a boy had been born into their house.
You’re unlikely to be disappointed by SEONGSAN (성산), an endearing rural town with one very apparent tourist draw looming over it: Ilchulbong (일출봉), or “Sunrise Peak”, is so named as it’s the first place on the island to be lit up by the orange fires of dawn. The town can easily be visited as a day-trip from Jeju City but many visitors choose to spend a night here, beating the sun out of bed to clamber up the graceful, green slope to the rim of Ilchulbong’s crown-shaped caldera. It’s an especially popular place for Koreans to ring in the New Year – a small festival celebrates the changing of the digits. From the town it’s a twenty-minute or so walk to the summit; a steep set of steps leads up to a 182m-high viewing platform at the top, and although the island’s fickle weather and morning mists usually conspire to block the actual emergence of the sun from the sea, it’s a splendid spot nonetheless. Powerful bulbs from local squid boats dot the nearby waters; as the morning light takes over, the caldera below reveals itself as beautifully verdant, its far side plunging sheer into the sea – unfortunately, it’s not possible to hike around the rim. If you turn to face west, Seongsan is visible below, and the topography of the surrounding area – hard to judge from ground level – reveals itself.
Besides the conquest of Ilchulbong, there’s little to do in Seongsan bar strolling around the neighbouring fields and tucking into a fish supper, though the waters off the coast do offer some fantastic diving opportunities. South of town is Sinyang Beach, where the water depth and incessant wind make it a good place to windsurf; equipment is available to rent.
Visible from Ilchulbong is UDO (우도), a rural speck of land whose stacked-stone walls and rich grassy hills give it the air of a Scottish isle transported to warmer climes. Occasionally, the nomenclature of Korea’s various peaks and stony bits reaches near-Dadaist extremes; “Cow Island” is one of the best examples, its contours apparently resembling the shape of resting cattle. This sparsely populated dollop of land is a wonderful place to hole up for a few days, and one of the best places to spot two of Jeju’s big draws – the stone walls (밭담; batdam) that line the island’s fields and narrow roads, and the haenyeo, female divers long famed for their endurance.
Other than these – and the diving grannies are almost impossible to spot these days – there are very few tourist sights on Udo. Those that do exist can be accessed on the tour buses that meet the ferries. Usually under the direction of charismatic local drivers, they first stop at a black-sand beach for half an hour or so, which allows just enough time to scamper up the hill to the lighthouse for amazing views that show just how rural Udo really is. The buses stop at a small natural history museum – whose second floor is home to some interesting haenyeo paraphernalia – and continue past Sanhosa beach before returning to the ferry terminal.
What is it with Pacific islands and statues? The moai of Easter Island are the most famous, but similar relics have been found on Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii and Okinawa, among other places. Jeju’s own version is the dolhareubang, or “stone grandfather”. Commonly abbreviated to hareubang (하르방), they can be found all over Korea – nowadays usually outside fish restaurants wishing to drum up custom. Bulgy-eyed and often cheery, they differ from their Polynesian counterparts by being quite expressive. Their hands rest on their tummies as if full of food; those with left above right are said to be military, as opposed to the more scholarly right-above-left brigade.
Like the moai, the origin and purpose of the statues remain shrouded in mystery, though it seems likely that they were placed at village entrances as a means of protection. Another theory, and one supported by their extremely phallic appearance, is that they served as sources of fertility – today, miniature versions are sold to women who are having trouble getting pregnant, as well as tourists wanting a souvenir of their trip to Jeju.
Today, only a few dozen authentichareubang remain; the most accessible can be found in Jeju City, at the entrance to the Folklore and Natural History Museum, and outside Samseonghyeol.
Arriving by ferry on a clear day, you can see the whole of Jeju tapering slowly to Mount Halla, known locally as HALLASAN (한라산), a dormant volcano at the centre of the island, and Korea’s highest point at 1950m. Blanketed with pink azalea in the spring, and snow in the winter, the centre of the island has long been a national park, with four well-trodden hikes heading to Hallasan’s crater, a grassy bowl pocked with grey volcanic rocks, and home to a couple of small lakes. As long as the weather cooperates, a climb up Hallasan is one of the main goals for adventurous visitors from the mainland. The four main routes, starting from the north and heading clockwise, are Gwanamsa, Seongpanak, Yeongsil and Eorimok.
JEJU CITY (jeju-shi; 제주시) is the provincial capital and home to more than half of its population. Markedly relaxed and low-rise for a Korean city, and loomed over by the extinct volcanic cone of Hallasan, it has a few sights of its own to explore, though palm trees, beaches, tectonic peaks and rocky crags are just a bus-ride away, thus making it a convenient base for the vast majority of the island’s visitors.
Jeju City was, according to local folklore, the place where the island’s progenitors sprung out of the ground (you can still see the holes at Samseonghyeol), and while there are few concrete details of the city’s history up until Joseon times, the traditional buildings of Mokgwanaji, a governmental office located near the present centre of the city, shows that it has long been a seat of regional power. Other interesting sights include Yongduam (“Dragon Head Rock”), a basalt formation rising from the often fierce sea, and Jeju Hyanggyo, a Confucian academy. There are also a couple of vaguely interesting museums, best reserved as shelter on one of Jeju’s many rainy days. South of the centre along the Mysterious Road, where objects appear to roll uphill, is the entertainingly racy Love Land.
It may be hard to believe in a place that once was, and in many ways still is, the most Confucian country on earth, but for a time areas of Jeju had matriarchal social systems. This role reversal is said to have begun in the nineteenth century as a form of tax evasion, when male divers found a loophole in the law that exempted them from tax if their wives did the work. So were born the haenyeo (해녀), literally “sea women”; while their husbands cared for the kids and did the shopping, the females often became the breadwinners, diving without breathing apparatus for minutes at a time in search of shellfish and sea urchins. With women traditionally seen as inferior, this curious emancipation offended the country’s leaders, who sent delegates from Seoul in an attempt to ban the practice. It didn’t help matters that the haenyeo performed their duties clad only in loose white cotton, and it was made illegal for men to lay eyes on them as they worked.
Today, the haenyeo are one of Jeju’s most famous sights. Folk songs have been written about them, their statues dot the shores, and one can buy postcards, mugs and plates decorated with dripping sea sirens rising from the sea. This romantic vision, however, is not entirely current; the old costumes have now given way to black wetsuits, and the haenyeo have grown older: even tougher than your average ajumma, many have continued to dive into their 70s. Modern life is depleting their numbers – there are easier ways to make money now, and few families are willing to encourage their daughters into what is still a dangerous profession. The figures peaked in the 1950s at around thirty thousand, but at the last count there were just a few hundred practising divers, the majority aged over 50. Before long, the tradition may well become one of Jeju’s hard-to-believe myths.
Korea’s most exclusive resort curls along a beautiful beach west of Seogwipo, a place where expense-account tourists come from the mainland and abroad to play a few rounds of golf, shop for designer bags or relax in five-star pools in between business conventions. However, to write off JUNGMUN (중문) on account of this would be a mistake – the surrounding area has the island’s greatest and most varied concentration of sights, accessible on any budget, and can even credibly claim to possess the most distinctive temple, gallery and museum of Korea’s inexhaustible collection – all this shoehorned amid beaches, gardens and waterfalls.
Although it may sound like the epitome of Jeju tack, the Teddy Bear Museum (테디베어 박물관) impresses even its most sceptical visitors. The main building is filled with floors of bears, but the diorama room is the museum highlight, with furry depictions of historical events – one for every decade of the twentieth century. Moving backwards in time, you’ll see teddies bashing down the Berlin Wall and fighting in World War II. Then following on from the battle, what appears to be a roller-skating teddy Hitler races into view, though he’s soon revealed to be a teddy Charlie Chaplin. Other delights include a teddy Elvis, a “Teddycotta” Army, and a vision of what teddies may be up to in the year 2050, as well as a shop (no prizes for guessing what’s on sale here) and garden.
A few kilometres east of Jungmun, and best reached by taxi or bike, is the stunning temple of Yakcheonsa (약천사). Built in the 1990s, what it lacks in historical value it more than makes up for with its main building, a feast of intricate decoration despite its colossal size – the cavernous four-storey main hall is claimed to be the biggest in Asia, and is one of the most impressive in the country. The huge golden Buddha at the centre is best viewed from the encircling upper levels, which are themselves crowded with thousands of Buddhist figurines. Yet more (over five hundred, and all individually crafted) can be found in an exterior hall to the front of the complex; most are jovial (cheer up, no. 184) and many are individually interesting – take a look at no. 145’s disturbing party trick, if you can find him. The best time to visit is 7pm on a summer evening, when worshipping locals chant under the interior glow with their backs to the sunset. Insect and bird calls add extra resonance to the bell rings that mark the beginning of the service, while squid boats out at sea shine like fallen stars on the horizon.
The charming town of SEOGWIPO (서귀포) sits sunny-side-up on Jeju’s fair southern coast: whereas days in Jeju City and on the northern coast are curtailed when the sun drops beneath Hallasan’s lofty horizon, the south coast has no such impediment. Evidence of this extra light can be seen in the tangerine groves that start just outside the city and are famed across Korea. Though the real attraction here is the chance to kick back and unwind, there are a few things to see and do – gorgeous waterfalls flank the city, while water-based activities range from diving to submarine tours.
Most of Jeju’s rainfall is swallowed up by the porous volcanic rock that forms much of the island, but a couple of waterfalls spill into the sea either side of Seogwipo city centre. To the east is Jeongbang (정방 폭포), a 23m-high cascade claimed to be the only one in Asia to fall directly into the ocean. Unique or not, once you’ve clambered down to ground level it’s an impressive sight, especially when streams are swollen by the summer monsoon, at which time it’s impossible to get close without being drenched by spray. Look for some Chinese characters on the right-hand side of the falls – their meaning is explained by an unintentionally comical English-language cartoon in an otherwise dull exhibition hall above the falls.
The western fall, Cheonjiyeon (천지연 폭포), is shorter but wider than Jeongbang, and sits at the end of a pleasant gorge that leads from the ticket office, downhill from the city centre: take the path starting opposite Jeju Hiking Inn. Many prefer to visit at night, when there are fewer visitors and the paths up to the gorge are bathed in dim light.
Jeju’s western side, though strikingly beautiful, is somewhat wilder and less hospitable than the region east of Hallasan National Park, with its sights generally harder to reach – if you have no transport you may have to resort to the occasional spot of hitchhiking. However, this remoteness is very much part of the appeal, and those who’ve been drawn to the island by promises of empty roads, bucolic villages and unspoilt terrain should look no further – to many, this is quintessential Jeju. The sights are grouped into three main clusters; it’s possible to complete any of these within a day, even after factoring in transport to and from Jeju City (commuting from Seogwipo is also possible, but will require a little extra patience).
Jeju’s windswept southwestern corner boasts a collection of sights, three of them within walking distance of each other around the mountain of Sangbangsan and accessible on a single ticket. Sangbanggulsa is a temple hewn out of the peak itself, which looks down on Yongmeori, a jagged and highly photogenic coastline pounded mercilessly by waves; adjacent to this sits a replica of a Dutch vessel which came a cropper near these crags. In the distance lie the wind- and wave-punished islets of Gapado and Marado, the latter being Korea’s southernmost point.
Just north of Sangbangsan are a couple of arty attractions – contemporary fans may appreciate the large outdoor sculpture park, while traditionalists should head to the former exile site of Chusa, one of Korea’s foremost calligraphers. Further inland, in a remote area hard to penetrate without your own transport but well worth the effort, are a tea plantation, a bonsai park and the underground tunnels and rusty munitions of a peace museum.
Hareubang are all over Jeju – and Korea, in fact – so you may question the need to gather together a whole park full of them. However, Geumneung Stone Garden (금릉 석물원) is an absorbing sight nonetheless, since it houses Jeju’s famed stone grandfathers in substantial numbers. Many of these are in the regular hareubang shape, though most have been pushed and pulled into unconventional forms by young local artists. Big, small, wonky or squat, they make for some great photo opportunities, as do the statues with Buddhist and local themes. Abandon hope all ye who enter the Hell Path – a crying child points the way to a narrow, snaking trail of ghoulish stone misshapes that, in true hellish fashion, seems to go on without end. There’s also a collection of small hareubang presented to – and presumably given back by – some of Jeju’s most famous international guests.
In 1653 a Dutch trading ship bound for Nagasaki in Japan encountered a fierce typhoon south of the Korean peninsula and ran aground on the tiny island of Gapado. Just half of its crew of 64 survived the shipwreck, but despite their obvious status as victims rather than aggressors, they had entered the “Hermit Kingdom” and found themselves treated with scant respect – Joseon-era Korea was a highly isolationist land, whose policy (one rarely triggered) was to bar any foreigners who washed ashore from returning to their homeland. Forced into servitude, they made repeated attempts to escape, but it was not until 1666 that a group of eight managed to flee to Japan from Yeosu, a port city in what is now Jeonnam province. Unfortunately, they found Japan little more welcoming, but one year later a second escape took them back to the Netherlands. The accounts of survivor Hendrick Hamel became a bestseller in his homeland, and gave the West its first real portrayal of the Korean peninsula; English-language copies of Hamel’s Journal: A Description of the Kingdom of Korea 1653–1666 have been published, but are hard to track down.