This Sunday was exquisite. I woke up at a decent hour, cleaned my apartment, then rode my scooter with a friend down to Uncle Tony’s on the Hagwi-Gwatchi coastal road. We had fish and chips. The perfect pitcher of sangria. All in the sun.
Then we headed down the coast for some snorkeling. I saw more plastic-crayon-colored nudibranchs than I’d ever seen on Jeju. As they absorbed my attention, a bright squid meandered past.
Over the two years that Jeju Island, South Korea, has been my home, I’ve had more of those days than I can count.
But even in the midst of such routine beauty, there are days that stand out. Days where Jeju became more than just a place. Days where the soil or the water beneath my toes re-taught me what it means to feel awe.
Here are those days.
Day 1: Yakcheonsa Temple and Donnaeko Waterfall
Any day that begins at 4 AM is worth noting. Usually worth noting with wrenching screams and a syringe full of espresso.
I woke up last September at 4 am on a floor beneath the Yakcheonsa temple, the largest temple in Asia according to some carefully constructed parameters, wondering why on earth an overnight temple stay had sounded like a good idea.
As I put on my loose-fitting pink uniform and stumbled outside, the sky pressed down with a black so dense it felt solid. Above me the roof of the temple shone white against the starless night.
I had to admit there was something oddly jarring about the temple lights in that inky morning sky.
What followed were prayers. A tired sunrise. Bead-making. 108 bows, which had the aching effect on my quads of 108 squats, and which made me newly appreciative of the fact that Buddhist monks are unfairly buff.
By mid-afternoon my fellow temple explorers and I were on a bus with our backs to the temple, headed towards Donnaeko, a recreational area at the Southern base of Halla mountain. We walked up from the bus for what seemed like ages, then promptly found ourselves at the wrong end of the river and opted (unwisely) to try for some bouldering the rest of the way.
Nothing could have been more refreshing than the waterfall that waited for us at the end of that climb.
Blue water pooled deep above the clean grey stone, so clear it felt like something out of Narnia. The waterfall, modest in size, was just the right strength for me to climb behind the water to watch the life-jacketed children playing in the shallows from behind my veil of clear water, water bubbling down onto my ankles.
“This is what I imagined every day would be like when I moved to Korea,” one of the newer teachers thought out loud, as we all sat scrunched into a smaller mossy pool.
And all of us agreed.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-Get to Yakcheonsa temple by taking the 600 airport limousine bus, which leaves every 25 minutes from the airport and from Grace Hotel in Sinjeju. Fare is slightly more expensive than the normal bus (Approx. 4,000 won), but the bus will drop you directly in front of the temple. See here for information about temple stay programs (be advised that prices may have changed).
-To get to the Donnaeko Waterfall, take the 780 bus 516 route, over Halla Mountain, from either Jeju City or Seogwipo. Get off at the Seogwipo Science High School bus stop, cross the street, and walk up the hill for a godforsaken long period of time until you see signs for the waterfall. Then follow the boardwalk path all the way until it ends.
Day 2: Sunrise Peak to Jeju City by Bike
Last May brought a four-day weekend, so when I heard a friend was planning on biking the 178-kilometer circumference of the island in four days, I quickly finagled my way into the group.
I then proceeded to rent a bicycle for four days, and practiced riding said bike for the very first time in over a year.
Then, we were off.
The first day we rode 100 kilometers to Sanbangsan, where we slept in a sauna. The next day we worked our way over the hills to Seogwipo, where we stayed the night in a friend’s house before riding the third day to Sinyang beach near Sunrise Peak.
The next morning, we woke before sunrise and raced the sun to Sunrise Peak, where we climbed up just in time to see the sun rise over the lip of the volcanic crater.
Back at Sinyang beach we paused just long enough to pack up our tents and stretch out in the clover while Jerich played his ukelele. Then we packed up our bikes, and hit the road.
The road passed Sunrise Peak and followed a long bridge across an estuary, then turned toward the blue coast. We followed the curve of asphalt as it dipped past villages lined with drying squid, through bays colored a sandy turquoise blue, past a roadside boat stationed senselessly on top of a rocky outcrop. A bridge took us across a glowing estuary backed by Halla mountain on one end and a sandy bay on the other. I hummed lines of poetry as I rode.
We stopped at a seaside restaurant for pajeon (savory pancake) and shellfish ramen, and sipped makeoli in the sun.
Then came the vast white windmills of Sehwa and Gimneong, and the usual cluster of foreigners beneath the volleyball net at Hamdeok beach. We stopped for iced coffee at an art cafe. I made it back to the city with three minutes to space on my rented bike.
It was the first time I felt I could call Jeju home.
DO IT YOURSELF!
–This guide by the Jeju Weekly has some helpful information, including contact information for bike rental shops.
Day 3: Hiking Halla Mountain in Winter
Nothing, however, compares to hiking Halla Mountain in winter.
Sometime last December I was gently coerced into a day of hiking by my friend Natalie, the adventure queen. I begrudgingly obliged. It was winter, and too much nature interfered with my hobby of sleeping in as late as humanly possible.
We waited for a bus. The bus was crowded. We hailed a cab. The cab carried us up as far as the ice on the road would allow.
And we started to walk.
Having grown up in California, snow is still a vacation item for me. My four companions, all from South Africa, felt the same. We allotted our two pairs of crampons between the five of us, and walked in ecstasies up the very typical snowy road.
But then the trail turned up, and became actively beautiful. Rocky crags pierced through the mist, dropping into waterfalls that fell completely frozen, falsely blue. We followed the thin line of trail along a long sloping drop to the cliff face, wishing we had more crampons. Red flags stabbed through the white fog that drifted in, and drifted out.
At the top of the hill we suddenly found ourselves in a fairytale.
Trees, carved by wind and locked in ice, twisted in whimsical patterns against the aching blue sky. It was a storm frozen in time, the sky and wind sliced away and swapped with blue. Only the iced screams of the trees hinted at the savage beauty of this sugar-frosted wonderland.
We wound our way to the top of the trail, then snacked on leftover pasta while brightly-colored groups of Korean hikers clumped around their steaming pots of ramen.
Afterwards the trail stretched across a flat wasteland that dissolved completely into the mist, until all we could see through the white haze was the next red flag.
Then the sun broke through, piercing the landscape with an even sharper loneliness.
So we did the natural thing: slid down the mountain on our butts, and eased our awe in hot curry.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-Take the 740 bus or cab to the Yeongsil trailhead. Hike up to the shelter area, then return along the Eorimok trailhead. If the weather is warmer and you want a quieter experience, try the longer Donnaeko trail as a return, which will drop you off above Seogwipo.
Day 4: Horse Daaaaaay- Race Track and Horse Restaurant
So, you caught me. These were actually two days. But I meant to do them in a single day, and only failed to do so due to faulty information about race track closures.
On the day I turned 24, I wanted to do something different than the usual birthday bbq. Hence was born horse day: the day in which you go out, look at horses, appreciate their marvelous equestrian beauty, and then appreciate them further in dinner form.
A note: you might be reading this and thinking, awwww. How sad and wrong to eat a cute little horse. My question then is, why? Why would a well-cared for horse (and the horses on Jeju do seem well-cared for, at least in comparison to other animals) have any intrinsic value over an equally well-cared for pig, or cow, or even a highly intelligent though less lovable octopus?
(That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know.)
In the meantime, without any legitimate reason as to why eating horse was morally wrong, horse day commenced.
First, we went to the Jeju Horse park near Pyoseon. But on January 4th it was cold, and desolate, and altogether not very exciting.
Let’s pretend we went to the race track instead.
At the race track they have Disney Princess and Shrek statues, and a host of other violations of copyright law. They have a random mini golf course. They have inexplicable plastic centurions posted around the playground.
And they have horses.
It’s worth noting that Jeju horses are tiny. They come from the breeding stock of the Mongolians who used Jeju as a horse ranch during the Yuan dynasty in China, and like Mongolian horses, they are short and stocky.
The jockeys, like all jockeys, are tiny. But on Jeju horses, they look comically large.
The day we actually did go to the race track, I followed my herd and wore heels and a fancy dress. I walked down to where the horses were waiting and looked them in the eyes, and bet accordingly.
That worked only once. But, seeing as how all of my bets were between 1,000-2,000 won (US$1-2), I was happy.
Now after this trip to the horse track that totally really happened on January 4 (not), we all gathered at the horse restaurant in Musucheon. The menu was more expensive than I had hoped – $28,000 for a set – but everyone agreed to give it a try.
What followed were the most intriguingly delicious eight courses I have yet to eat.
We tried raw horse liver. Raw horse salad. Horse sashima. Horse broth, which was my least favorite, and which tasted exactly like what you would expect if you licked a live horse.
Horse barbecue. Horse shabu-shabu.
Confusingly, I found every course absolutely delicious. The best was the barbecue, which was cooked just a few seconds on each side, and which was one of the most tender, flavorful meats I have yet to taste.
Stay appreciated, horses.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-To get to the race track, also called “Let’s Run Park!”, take the 750 or 780 bus west from Jeju City. Get off on the stop that bears that name (20 minutes).
-To get to the horse restaurant, take the 750 bus west from Jeju City. Get off at the Musucheon stop, cross the street, and walk back about 150 meters. The restaurant is behind the Hyundai Oilbank gas station, and has a domed stone roof.
Day 5: An Abandoned Hotel with my Biker Gang
Jeju has a pretty boom-and-bust economy when it comes to tourism sites. Hence, it’s pretty common to see abandoned buildings lining the highways and byways of this ambitious little island.
Some of these buildings are pretty close to home.
On my first excursion with my biker gang, The Sons and Daughter of Mild Confusion and Disorder (read more about those days here), we went to a hotel near our building that had been abandoned mid-construction. Because, you know, we’re really cool and intense and scary people, and we love to take pictures of how cool and intense and scary we really are.
This building was way more cool, and intense, and scary, then all of us put together.
It had half-finished staircases. It had leaky basements. It had swimming pools filled with bright green algae, and wide open foyers dripping with vines, and rusted steel rafters.
And, in the main open area, it had a child’s bed beneath a chandelier, a pile of ash, and a desk with a Korean bible open to the chapter in Esther where the Hebrew people kill those who had tried to kill them.
Intense. Scary. Cool.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-There are a number of abandoned buildings around Jeju…if you see one, check it out!
Day 6: Camping on Udo Island
I have a thing for islands: the smaller, the better.
That being said, Udo Island is by far my favorite place near Jeju. Only a ten-minute ferry ride from Seongsan port, it’s the perfect place for a quick escape from paradise. But I never really understood how great Udo really was until I took my scooter across the ferry last September for a Chuseok camping trip.
A truly massive group of us met on Hagosudong beach to camp, which went exactly as expected: late.
Luckily I managed to slip away early enough to save the next day.
The next day I had a massive hamburger and coffee for breakfast, because why not. Then I packed up my scooter full of snorkel gear, and went off to explore.
What followed was a bay with the best visibility I’d seen on Jeju. A sea cave. Tiny soft corals on a rock wall. A single blue-striped anglefish. A jellyfish the size of a trashcan lid disappearing into the shadows.
I climbed up on the rocks, where a fisherman gave me a water bottle and two milky way bars, and told me about his six dogs. I thanked him, and stuck the extra milky way in my wetsuit, and slid off past the barnacles.
On the way back I stopped past the black rocky underside of Udobong peak, where the speedboats took off full of tourists, then drove past the shining white sands of hongjadongoehaebin beach. Halla and the oreums looked misty from across the channel.
Then, I packed up my tent, and boarded the ferry back to Jeju for the next adventure.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-Take the 701 or 710 bus from the bus terminal to Seongsan port. The 710 bus is far more direct, but only runs once an hour. Then, walk straight ahead to the ferry terminal, and purchase your tickets. Be aware that the last ferries run between 4:30 and 6:00, depending on the season.
It’s hard to pick my favorite days on Jeju. I love this island more than makes sense. There are others that really should be on this list, but I’m leaving five minutes after I write this sentence to go hang out naked in a sauna, so you’ll have to go without. Sangbansan. Manjangul lava tubes. Scuba diving at Munsom. Volleyball at Hamdeok. Any day spent diving with the haenyeo. Random scooter rides around Jeju.
Those are MY favorite days.
Now get out there and make your own.
What are YOUR best days on Jeju Island? Comment below and tell!