IN THE EVENINGS, we liked to head out to Jungmun Resort, a bustling playground of museums, restaurants, and of course, the luxurious Lotte Hotel. The company Lotte seems to be doing extremely well. Not only do they have some of the biggest clothing department stores/grocery chains on the mainland, but they have their own hotels, too? Pillars, chandeliers, outdoor pools, and secluded paths curve down to the white sand Jungmun Beach, making the Lotte Hotel a nice stop--just to marvel at the sheer decadence of it all. The waves were huge when we visited, and lifeguards made sure you didn't venture too far past the wave break. Experienced surfers received the green light, however, and could be seen enjoying the waves about a ten-minute paddle out.
The Jeju Museum of War History and Peace marks both a solemn chapter in the island's history and a promise for a brighter future. Movies and artifacts originating from the Japanese Occupation, which lasted from the beginning of the 20th century until the end of World War II, immortalize the victories and sacrifices of Jeju men and women during those dark days. Visitors can climb a hill to a historic overlook and venture deep into an old tunnel system, in which you might meet a replica of a Japanese soldier or two.
Venturing deeper into Jeju's history, we took a stroll through the renowned Ssangyong Cave in the lush Hallim Park on the western side of the island. "Ssang Yong" means "Twin Dragons," so named for the uncanny depiction of "scales" and "tails" intertwining on the cavern above our heads. Here's a peek at the uniquely patterned ceiling (Although I can't knock on my Nikon camera, as it has lasted far longer than any iPod, laptop, or phone I've ever owned, it might be time for an upgrade):
Our short window of vacation time drew to a close, just as we were getting comfortable with bus routes. One of Jeju's greatest treasures is all of the unique treats you stumble upon by accident--from obstacle courses, to green tea swiss rolls and lattes, to receiving a special three-legged crow pin from an archery master. My personal favorite was an unnamed lagoon we happened to come across, sandwiched between the roaring ocean and a waterfall. Despite the light rain, it was a beautiful spot to dive in and explore. Spontaneity is awesome.
On our final day, we bused all the way out to Seong San Ilchulbong, one of the three UNESCO world heritage sites. It's nicknamed the "Castle Sunrise Mount," a striking natural butte on the northeastern side of Jeju Island, just across from U-do. Rain and gray clouds were there to greet us, but despite the weather, throngs of people hiked past a horse pasture and up slick rocks to the very top. Although we couldn't see far out, we could see below, where an unusual little fishing hut had been set up overlooking the bay.
This was the hang-out spot for local haenyeo (해녀), the famous sea women, who don only black wet suits (no oxygen tanks) and plunge deep into the cool coastal waters, hunting for abalone, conch, sea urchins, and other delectable sea fare. Often well over age 50, these grandmothers have not only wrestled with octopi, but are part of a unique matriarchal tradition that has challenged Confuscian patriarchy, carried out diving missions for their island during World War II, and provided for their families. Today, new conflicts threaten their lifestyle, in the form of naval base construction, a resurgence of increased fishing competition amidst the boom of tourism, and a younger generation that focuses on careers that don't cross paths with literal sharks. How this will change the haenyeo way of life is too soon to tell, but one thing's for sure--these ladies aren't going down without a fight.
And boy, do they know how to whip up some fine marine cuisine. Until next time, Jeju!
* The above is depicted as fiction, not fact.