The Best Things to do on Jeju Island: From the Beautiful to the Strange

The Best Things to do on Jeju Island

Jeju Island can best be symbolized by the yin and the yang. Everything beautiful on this Korean island, which sits off the tip of the mainland peninsula, is counterbalanced by something incredibly not. As I toured around searching for the best things to do on Jeju Island, I found myself simultaneously impressed and baffled.

 

Manjaggul Lava Tube Jeju Island

 

The Best Things to do on Jeju Island

 

First, there are the UNESCO World Heritage sites–Hallasan, the mountain in the middle, offering panoramas of lake-filled craters and stunning rock formations; the dark lava tubes running beneath the earth; and the tuff cone rising from the ocean. However, before UNESCO knighted this place for its natural wonders, the government had sounded a bad call to action, encouraging businesses to think up ways to increase tourism. And thus Jeju Island built more than 100 museums, ranging from the absurd (a dinosaur museum with no bones and an ice museum that’s really just a glorified freezer box) to the redundant. While it would be amusing to find one museum for Teddy Bears and another for sex in a metropolis. To find these on Jeju Island is shocking. And to find three… of each, borders the absurd. But we’ll get to all that.

 

Travel Jeju Island Hydrangeas

 

Long ago, Jeju was its own kingdom, losing sovereignty over the centuries to the Mongolians and then eventually to Korea. In the way that Australia served as Britain’s penitentiary, this became the function of Jeju Island during the Chosun Dynasty, mainly housing political dissidents.

 

But the people of Jeju cleaned up their act–not counting the creation of those museums–and the island became a quintessential bastion of trustworthiness in the nation. For example, the old fence post system, which only became outdated in the 1980s, had residents signaling to others their whereabouts. If they laid three beams from post to post, it indicated that no one was home. Two said that the owner was in shouting distance. One meant that only the kids were home. No beams welcomed all. In other words, it was the exact opposite of the fifty-dollar-per-month alarm systems most of us use today.

 

Female Divers on Jeju Island

 

Another wonderful treat on the island is the food, specifically Jeju Black Pig. But the stories connected to this animal’s upbringing are, to say the least, revolting.

 

After my guide pointed out the pig pen at Jeju’s folk village, I asked about the best place to eat this pig. Instead of answering me, my guide pointed to the structure at the back, which resembled a fireplace leading up to a chimney.

 

Travel Jeju Island Black Pig Pen

 

“That’s the toilet.” He clarified. The fireplace-looking structure, at least the void, was the place where the long drop ended, delivering to the pigs human waste. Which, if you’re avoiding making the connection, became lunch for the black pigs. “But it’s part of the cycle on Jeju,” the guide said, referring to the fact that islanders then ate black pig meat.

 

Eating Jeju Black Pig

 

For lunch, I stopped at the most famous black pig restaurant on the island, Neul Bom. Cooked on the table’s charcoal grill, the tender pork sizzled to perfection. I enjoyed it best after dipping it in anchovy sauce, smearing it with bean paste, wrapping it in a sesame leaf or sheet of lettuce, and topping it with pickled onions, trying to forget its preferred source of nourishment.

 

If you look at a map of Korea, ocean swells appear blocked by Japan and whenever I had asked Koreans if they had seen waves at home, they looked at me as puzzled as I was when I heard the black pig story and then saw it on the menu. But on the south shore of Jeju Island, where palm trees stand on the medians of roads, thick waves roll over patches of sand and black reef. Down at Jungmun Beach, I found a man renting boards, paid the fee, and paddled out.

 

Best Things to do on Jeju Island Surfing

 

The Koreans in the water were mostly longboarders, but the one or two on shortboards, riding as well as most, were in town for the Korean Surfing Association’s sponsored competition, which had been moved up a day because of the approaching typhoon. The water was warm and the forthcoming storm produced green rollers and also the occasional bomb that still had the ability to run the length of the beach.

 

Jeju Island Museums Teddy Bears

 

While excrement-eating pigs being turned into food is not much different than shellfish offered up as cuisine, and locating surf in an ocean isn’t terribly baffling, the Jeju museums do much to rattle the mind. On the way back from the surf, I stopped at the Teddy Bear Museum. As mentioned, there are three, but the best–I can’t believe I’m attributing that modifier to a Teddy Bear Museum–is the one nearest to Jungmun. The museum presents Teddy Bears from the early 1900s, which might be museum-worthy (though should probably be housed in a museum dedicated to toys or history and not specifically Teddy Bears). After passing those collectors items, however, the majority of the displays are just odd. There are Teddy Bears dressed like famous celebrities, from stuffed animal Mother Theresa to the mustachioed Beatles in Sergeant Pepper bear-sized suits. Even more shocking are the historical scenes recreated using these bears, like the invasion of Normandy and the falling of the Berlin Wall. Best, however, is the four-minute, five-song set performed by Teddy-Bear Elvis and his Teddy Bear band to a theater that could hold fifty people.

 

Jeju Island Museums Love Land Sex

 

While bears might make a person snicker, it’s the scene at Jeju Love Land that brings a park to an uncomfortable uproar. Love Land is set in a lovely, tranquil garden, which, if it had been left as such, would probably have attracted visitors in its own right. But the first thing a visitor will notice when entering Love Land is not the bushes; it’s of the sex sculptures and penis-shaped signs throughout. With nearly one hundred artful statues, it’s hard to recognize the creations as art, even though they are well done. Maybe it’s because every statue is positioned in orgasmic poses or just existing as a giant, sometimes tiled, genitalia. This is a family paper, so we’ll leave the descriptions at that. However, while it is slightly bizarre to find this sex museum on Jeju, it does seem to have been inspired by the ancient symbol of the Island, an intentionally phallic-shaped statue known as the “Stone Grandfather.” (But it’s still very, very strange to find three sex museums on an almost tropical island.)

 

Best things to do on Jeju Island Stone Grandfather

 

After walking the gardens of Love Land and passing the displays of stuffed animals, I needed to return to the true wonders of the island. The next morning, I set off for Hallasan. The mountain in the center sees only a small percentage of visitors to the island, but presents Jeju in all of its glory. There are about half a dozen paths up the mountain. To prevent erosion, two paths are closed, and hikers with limited time on the island have to choose between reaching the top of the mountain, hiking most of the way through dense forest, or taking a route that doesn’t reach the peak, but offers spectacular views along most of the way. I opted for the panoramas on the Youngshil Trail.

 

Hiking Jeju Island

 

Youngshil begins in the jungle, where small bamboo more closely resembling houseplants than its slender cousin takes over the forest floor. As the boardwalk leads up to steep steps and eventually to the black volcanic rock that makes up the island, one should be able to look out into the valleys and across some of the island’s 368 craters. But on the day of my ascent, with a typhoon lingering out at sea and heavy rains raking over the shrubs and the grass, the views were nil.

 

Hiking Jeju Island

 

The winds were a force, kicking at my legs, making my steps land clumsily, snapping plastic ponchos, and knocking crows about as they attempted to land. If the birds couldn’t rest, I had little chance of seeing the endangered butterflies listed on one sign. The fog grew heavier. All I could see of the panoramas was what artists had rendered onto placards, like the rock spires, known as the 500 Generals, that stood among the trees. But there were beautifully blue hydrangeas fully bloomed in the mist and humorous little signposts that asked ‘Aren’t the flowers adorable?’ and suggested ‘Talking to others makes hiking more fun.’

 

Hiking Jeju Island

 

When I reached the farthest point on the trail, I stepped inside a little hut, where they served up instant cups of ramen and moon pies. I removed my poncho and took my soup and dessert to one of the benches. The other hikers complemented their ramen with homemade banchan that they removed from their coolers.

 

Ramen Hut on Hallasan

 

 

Ramen on Mount Halla Jeju Island

 

Laid out on benches were pickled lotus root, cabbage kim chee, sweet and salty anchovies, among other things. And in that fraternal gesture that hikers feel on the trail, a man, without asking, scooped some rice and fried egg into my ramen with his used chopsticks. Or maybe the offering was inspired by Jeju Island, where, like everything else, even gestures were both lovely and odd.

 

Banchan on Jeju Island Hiking

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Asia, Somewhere

8 Responses to The Best Things to do on Jeju Island: From the Beautiful to the Strange

  1. Minna Kapp

    Your article presented a very interesting read about this remote island. I enjoyed it immensely……nice coverage!

  2. Sam

    Nicely done

  3. Jin

    Imagine how friendly they would be if you went to one of their saunas where everybody walks around in their birthday suit.

    I had a friend who went to one of those saunas and an ajuma (old korean woman) suddenly started scrubbing her back without asking, lol.

    • Noah Lederman

      I never got the whole naked communal bathing thing. I don’t even like it when I have to share a lap lane in the pool. I’ll stick to sharing banchan. Thanks for the story, Jin.

  4. YU KEON HEE

    Wow.. It’s really helpful to travel Jeju.
    Repersent of Korean, thanks a lot!

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