Chestnuts crackling over an open fire, crispy waffles stuffed with something sweet, mysterious and red and the heady whiff of kimchi, the scents, the sights and succulence of the wonderful Seogwipo markets.
Sprawling through a maze of backstreets they are the heart, the spirit and essentially the stomach of this delightful fishing town, tucked away on the south coast of Jeju-do, South Korea’s “Honeymoon Island”.
Lying 96km off the southern tip of the mainland, where the East China Sea cuddles the Sea of Japan, Jeju-do is the largest of Korea’s 3,000 offshore islands. An hour’s flight from the capital, Seoul, its warm sub-tropical summers and snowy winters are a magnet for honeymooners, mainly from the Korean mainland and Japan.
The islanders are firmly Korean in identity but the relative isolation of Jeju-do and a lengthy Mongol occupation in the 13th century have produced a unusual ambience with the climate, the landscape, the dialect and lifestyle all different from those of the mainland.
Jeju-do is known as the island of three negatives – no thieves, no beggars and no gates but they could have added a fourth, no Westerners. As I drove south from Jeju City through the Hallasan National Park toward the south coast, I discovered that lanky bearded Aussies tended to attract the sort of wide-eyed attention I had encountered in rural China 40 years ago.
Westerners are rarely seen on Jeju-do; it’s where locals fish and grow canola and tangerines and where Asian couples arrive en masse to honeymoon. For some reason, it doesn’t seem to feature on many Western tour itineraries.
Across the island, 52 ancient mysterious Tolharubang (grandfather stones) appear in all shapes and sizes, great statues reminiscent of those on Easter Island. Some are prehistoric, all are phallic-shaped and rumoured to be fertility symbols, which is probably on the money since they appear to have been reproducing for centuries.
While many old island beliefs have gone underground, the profusion of the revered Tolharubang suggests they haven’t completely disappeared.
For the hordes of honeymooners, Jeju-do is a playground of beaches, waterfalls, lava caves and a coastline blessed with majestic scenery. Dominant is the central and mystical Mount Halla (Hallasan), one of three sacred mountains in Korea and, at 1950m, it is the country’s highest.
Hallasan is visible from almost anywhere on the island and in spring the slopes are alive with wild deer, azaleas and more than 1800 species of wildflowers.
In the warm autumn, when the crowds have dwindled and exhausted honeymooners have returned to immerse themselves in marital monotony, sweet tangerines that have been ripening in the summer sun are ready for harvest.
South of Hallasan, just about every small farm and backyard has a tangerine grove lurking behind low walls of volcanic rock, right up to the outskirts of the fishing town, Seogwipo.
Spotlessly clean and with a minimal crime rate (like most of South Korea), Seogwipo has about 85,000 people, dozens of inexpensive small hotels and yogwan (traditional inns) and a plethora of restaurants, nightclubs and bargain shops.
Yogwan are Korean-style inns, usually family run, that have a choice of rooms with a mattress on the floor, a pillow and a quilt. In cool weather the rooms are heated by ondol, Korea’s unique system of under-floor heating and these days they mostly come with TV, air-conditioning and even hair driers.
For a modest fishing town, I found the nightlife surprisingly robust with nightclubs and karaoke bars brimming with the Seogwipo beautiful people well into the early hours of the morning.
Koreans work hard but at the end of the day they love a few cool drinks and kerbside foodstalls throughout the backstreets of downtown were doing their best to keep the revellers upright.
They offered a patchwork of colourful and barely identifiable street food of which I recognised chilli chicken satays, braised fish maw with rice cake, abalone porridge, big fleshy green chillis stuffed and deep-fried and that good old favourite chicken feet soaked in chilli.
With every takeaway there was a bowl of fiery kimchi, Korea’s national side dish mostly radish or cabbage salted and pickled with garlic and bright red chilli flakes. It’s a staple that has become more a way of life than a food.
There weren’t many bars in Seogwipo but there were restaurants and beer lounges that were oddly called hofs. At the White House Hof on Lee Chung Sop Street, where the menu also featured coffee and pizza, it was somehow immensely comforting to sip a cold Hite Exteel beer in this relatively remote place where few people speak English and hear John Lennon singing “Yesterday”. How wonderfully universal is music?
Also surprising was the quality of the bargain shopping. There was leather by Nina Ricci, clothing by Pierre Balmain, Calvin Klein, Charles Jourdan and Ralph Lauren and Korean gemstones like amethyst and smoky topaz. At the duty-free shops, much of the genuine designer stuff was marked down by up to 50%.
A short drive from town was the harbour where fishing boats that had worked the waters offshore all night had returned before dawn to prepare the catch for market.
I drove out beyond the harbour to the beautiful Ch’onbang waterfall and found busloads of tourists but the expansive walkways and garden paths lined with Chinese elm and maidenhair trees that led to the falls, still gave the place an overall feel of peace and serenity.
Jeju-do measures just 71km east to west and 41km north to south so every attraction on the island is within easy striking distance of Seogwipo, either by bus or by rental car. Twenty minutes to the west lay the huge Jeju Jungmun complex, Korea’s largest resort, with its super-deluxe 5-star Shilla, Lotte and Hyatt hotels, golf course, Yeomiji Arboretum, casinos, riding stable, sports centres, oceanarium and shops.
Another 20 minutes away was the Jeju Art Park, the largest sculpture park in Korea exhibiting 160 Korean masterpieces outdoors with the magnificent backdrop of Hallasan.
And on the mountain itself there’s plenty to do. Hiking trails wind through the vast national park and for the more adventurous, there’s horse riding, paragliding and all-season mountain climbing.
Other recreational possibilities include fishing, scuba diving, windsurfing and hunting. On the nose in some countries, hunting is popular on Jeju-do and the Daeyoo Hunting Range, two kilometres west of the Jungmun Resort on the broad slopes of Hallasan, is billed as the only private hunting ground in Asia.
The season lasts from November to February when pheasant, ducks and wild doves are fair game and when the nearby cottage-style restaurants dish up a fantastic menu – namely pheasant, duck and wild dove.
At Jeju Racetrack the island’s purebred native horses, chorangmal, originally introduced by the Mongol armies in the 13th century, race every Saturday and Sunday between April and December and at night during August. A touch of nostalgia for many Australians, a day at Jeju Racetrack with a cold beer in one hand and a winning ticket in the other.
East of Seogwipo, I stumbled on the Jeju Folk Village, a collection of fascinating re-creations including a traditional mountain village, a fishing village, a market place and an old-style botanical garden. But in these cute thatch-roofed huts with homely furnishings and accoutrements, there was nobody home.
Up the road in Songup there was. The heritage-listed town that dates back several hundred years boasted about 3,000 thatched houses with stone and clay walls in which the villagers still lived, a number of Tolharubang, old government buildings and tomb stones. Some of the spectacular trees around Songup were more than 1,000 years old.
But Jeju-do’s most famous attraction is its haenyo, that rare breed of women divers who, when the tide is high, head into the seas year-round in search of abalone and shellfish as their forebears have for centuries.
From teenage to old age, they dive mostly without any breathing aids to scary depths, often for up to four minutes at a time, seemingly indifferent to the often savage winds, icy winter waters and the constant threat of sharks and poisonous jellyfish.
They can be seen occasionally with their black wet suits and string bags full of shellfish around the rocks and beaches of Songsan on the east coast where they are born, grow up and die near the sea.
Photographing the shoreline, I was startled to see a black-clad haenyo emerge from the water onto the slippery rocks and moved closer for a better shot as three more appeared. None could speak English but they were extremely friendly and eagerly offered me samples of their fresh raw shellfish.
But their days as island icons are numbered. In the 1950s, there were about 30,000 haenyo working Jeju-do, a number that dwindled to less than 10,000 in the early 1980s.
Now is the time to meet them because their numbers are expected to decline even further as their incomes increase affording better education and opportunities and they become little more than a footnote in Jeju-do’s long, quaint history.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)