Above: Canola flowers in bloom on the island.
By turns kitsch and serene, the Korean holiday island of Jeju offers plenty of authentic experiences, as time spent with its free-diving haenyeo attests
By Aaron Gulley
Photographs by Jen Judge
Five Korean grannies with painted-on eyebrows and perm-fluffed hair are about to prove me, once and for all, an utter wuss. It’s a raw morning in the wind-lashed village of Hado, on the east coast of South Korea’s Jeju Island, and I’m ostensibly here to go fishing with these female divers. But this is not the radiant spring morning I had envisioned. Instead, the sea and sky have melded into a slate curtain and the trickle of rain is building up to a steady spray. As a cold gust snaps at my wool coat, one of the ladies asks me, through my translator, don’t I want to dive with them?
The truth is, with the water in the East China Sea hovering around 14°C and the swells cresting at more than a meter, I can’t think of a single thing I’d rather do less. I shuffle my feet and look to the sky for some excuse. When I glance back, all five of the women—three of them in their seventies—have already pulled up the hoods of their black rubber wetsuits and are clambering over the rocks into the ocean. In addition to being some of the toughest free divers anywhere, the haenyeo of Jeju can apparently spot a pantywaist when they see one.
Harsh weather and humiliation wasn’t what I had in mind when I booked my ticket to Jeju, which brochures and guidebooks chirpily liken to Hawaii or Bali. Bobbing some 80 kilometers off the southwestern coast of the Korean Peninsula, the island indeed benefits from milder weather than the rest of the country, a phenomenon that has won it a reputation as a fun-in-the-sun escape. Some 6.5 million holiday-goers—mostly from Korea, China, and Japan—descend on the island each year for its white-sand beaches and dizzying array of attractions, which include a trio of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 27 golf courses, and 80-some museums. All the glitz is a relatively new development, I’m finding out. For centuries, Jeju was a forsaken place, battered by stormy seas and mostly disregarded by Korea’s rulers. “Jeju is known for three things,” my guide and translator, Sunny Hong, told me on arrival, quoting a local maxim. “Strong winds, strong rock, and strong women.”
I’m up against them all in Hado, where I realize—with a heavy sigh—that I can’t let the high-tide mark of my trip be an absolute shaming by a flock of geriatric divers. So I dash for the van to grab my fins and wetsuit. Getting into the latter proves as challenging as pulling on an octopus costume, and by the time I writhe my way into it, the old gals are already emerging from the sea. The swells are rising, one tells me, and it’s no good for harvesting shellfish today, though I notice that each woman carries a small net of crustaceans they’ve gathered. Still, the wetsuit gambit seems to have redeemed me, as rather than deride my gutlessness, the women motion for me to follow them into their stone warming hut. Once they’ve built a fire, they press whole fresh abalone into my mouth and feed me spoonfuls of urchin roe. The haenyeo may be tougher than walrus hide, but they’re still grandmothers at heart.
The first few days on Jeju, I stumbled around in a daze of astonishment, but not because I was so awed by the landscape or taken by the sites. Rather, I couldn’t shake the disorienting sense that I’d landed on the wrong island.
From everything I’d heard, Jeju, which exploded into existence some two million years ago in a succession of volcanic eruptions, was a naturalist’s fantasy, with extinct cinder cones tumbling down to grasslands and thorny basalt sea cliffs punctuated by isolated strands. But the cold, needlelike rain that greeted me on arrival obscured any such views, and sent me scurrying for indoor diversions instead.
One option that Sunny proposed on the 30-minute drive to my hotel was Love Land. She described the museum, with its sex-education films and erotic sculpture garden, as a testament to South Korea’s emergence from centuries-old taboos. As politely as I could, I asked her to keep driving—giant phalluses weren’t exactly the type of recreation I’d come here for. A few minutes later, I couldn’t help but chuckle when we sped by the Jeju Dinosaur Theme Park, and then past the Miniature Theme Park, which boasts pocket-size models of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, the Forbidden City, and other such monuments. Amusement tipped toward alarm when we reached the Lotte Hotel Jeju, where the receptionist advised me not to miss the Volcano Fountain Show, complete with fire-breathing dragon.
“Designed by the same company that produced the show at the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas!” he added with obvious relish. It was clear that the irony of a manmade volcano on an island with a bad case of tectonic acne—368 craters pock the landscape, including South Korea’s highest peak, 1,950-meter Hallasan—had never occurred to him.
“Where’s the show?” I asked, more out of courtesy than interest.
“At 8:30 each night behind the hotel, sir. Just beside the Dutch windmills.”
My gaze followed his finger to the blur of three neon-lit, full-size windmills spinning in the distance. As soon as we’d left the reception, I turned to Sunny and asked, “What’s with all the crazy museums and kitsch?”
“People want to offer something for the tourists,” she explained. So they’ve conceived any and every diversion to entertain guests. There are museums devoted to glass blowing, aviation, paper dolls, and African artifacts. But confusion is growing now that enterprising locals have begun doubling up on themes, she continued: these days, there are two teddy bear museums, two stone parks, two love museums. “It’s no good. How will people know which is the best teddy bear museum?” Sunny exclaimed. “They need to regulate it. But the problem is that anyone who opens a museum gets a tax break.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard taxes blamed for the seemingly inexplicable on Jeju. Before I arrived, I’d read that the haenyeo (pronounced “hen-yuh”) phenomenon emerged when husbands discovered a legal loophole that exempted them from paying taxes on their wives’ earnings. The truth, I’d find out, is less tantalizing. The women of Jeju took up diving as early as the 17th century to support their families because their husbands were so frequently killed while fishing the treacherous seas. It’s possible that the work also fell to the women, much the way it did among the ama pearl divers of Japan, because, with slightly higher levels of body fat than their male counterparts, they could better endure the cold waters. Jeju still has about 5,600 working haenyeo—literally, “women of the sea”—though the trade is dwindling fast as girls, who now have ready access to education, find easier means of making a living. Those
who remain diving are a vestige of Jeju’s past, when life was a struggle against the harsh marine environment and people did what they had to do to eke out an existence.
Jeju’s extremes—ersatz spectacles side by side with fetching waterfalls and seashores; flinty old women divers on brand-new 50-cc tricycle scooters—can be jarring. But after those unsettling first few days, I decide that to truly understand the island, I have to embrace all of its facets. So I ask Sunny to show me some of Jeju’s finer attractions.
First stop is the Teddy Bear Museum, the good one per Sunny’s counsel. The dioramas here offer cuddly restagings of historical and biblical events: a Neil Armstrong bear landing on the moon; two teddies with paws outstretched à la Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam; the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. As much as I don’t want to, I find myself smiling at this ridiculous display. What makes me grin even more are the Koreans thronging the place —and not just children. Grown women claw over one another to snap shots of their friends with a hirsute version of the Mona Lisa. College students cock imaginary rifles alongside helmeted bear-soldiers coming ashore at Normandy. Everyone seems downright amused, including scores of newlyweds—Jeju is the top honeymoon destination among Koreans—who, Sunny tells me, are easy to pick out because of their penchant for matching outfits.
Sunny takes me next to the Geumneung Stone Garden. This is a showcase for dol hareubang, the goggle-eyed stone “grandfather” statues that originated on Jeju. No one is exactly sure why these sculptures were created or when, but it is thought that they were placed at the entrance to villages to ward off evil spirits and enemies. Today they litter the island landscape, though few bona fide antiques remain thanks to thieves and curators. Geumneung, however, is like a nursing home for stone grandfathers, with basalt figures ranging from fist size to two stories tall. They are all the work of local artisan Jang Gong Ik, who tells me he learned to carve in the womb and has been making dol hareubang ever since. He’s carved figurines for Jiang Zemin, Bill Clinton, and every other major dignitary who’s visited Jeju, but he says notoriety isn’t what interests him. “This is a hard place to live, always a struggle against the wind,” says the leathery 80-year-old, setting down his carving implements to speak. “I’m inspired by the people who have made their lives here in this hard land. I want to tell the stories of the old Jeju. The real Jeju.”
As he takes up his tools and returns to hammering at the dark rock, I wonder to myself again, what is the real Jeju?
All of the island’s major landmarks are inventoried. At the entrance to the Manjanggul Lava Tube, for instance, I find a sign that reads, “Natural Monument No. 98.” Jusangjeollidae, an impressive outcropping of columnar basalt that flares from the sea, is number 443. I admire this punctiliousness—especially when I realize I can exploit it. Tour buses blast between Jeju’s top sites like slabs of raw steel pulled by industrial magnets, stopping only when there’s a number placard in view. Avoid the digits, I surmise, and you avoid the crowds. So I resolve to get out into the countryside, sidestepping all the attractions.
Sunny suggests a series of walking courses, called olle, that have recently been plotted to allow active visitors to take in quieter bits of the coast. “Koreans are famous for rushing. We’ve been rushing ever since the war, working so hard to build our country,” she tells me. “The idea of the olle is that you don’t always have to be hurrying to see this, or rushing to do that. You can just relax and walk.” She recommends Olle 7, “the most famous and beautiful of all the walks.”
I soon discover that “famous and beautiful” is synonymous with “overbuilt and crowded” in Sunny’s lexicon. The first half-kilometer of Olle 7 is groaning with camera-toting tourists in sunhats, and I begin overtaking them like Lance Armstrong on a community ride. Then I see the culprit: National Monument No. 421. Below the railing of an overloaded observation deck, Oedolgae, a 20-meter basalt sea stack, surges from the surf. According to legend, this rock is an old woman who turned to stone while waiting for her husband to come home from an ill-fated fishing trip. In some ways, that seems an easier fate than the hard life taken up by the many haenyeo who lost their men to the sea.
The crowds immediately thin as I charge away from the overlook, and after 30 minutes of walking I find myself in a broad, open countryside. The trail meanders out over towering black sea cliffs, where I get clear views of the emerald pyramid of Hallasan behind me and nothing but the East China Sea’s lapis expanse ahead. I walk through sweet-smelling tangerine groves and wave to stooped old farmers working in garlic fields. At one point, the trail steps down to the sea, where a wrinkly haenyeo has set up a stand to sell her catch. I hand her a couple thousand won (about US$2), and she kneels down on the ground and cleavers up a section of sea cucumber, which she serves to me on a plate with chili oil.
By the time I reach the end of the walk, I’m feeling about as serene as the country I’ve been moving over. Rather than call a taxi, I decide to continue on with Olle 8. After a few more hours of traipsing along the empty seaboard, I follow the trail inland to Yakcheonsa, an ornate Buddhist temple whose gracefully upturned eaves strike a balance against thousands of colorful paper balloons festooning the entrance. Long a sacred site, the complex apparently got its name, which translates as “medicine water,” from the healing properties of a spring in a nearby cave. I dump out my water bottle and refill it from the spring—can’t hurt, I figure. Then I sit on the steps, listening to the guttural chanting of monks and watching the twinkle of sunlight on the distant waves. The old Jeju still exists,
I realize: quiet, bucolic, restorative, elemental. You just have to look for it.
The monks continue their gravelly song, and I take a long draw off my bottle of magic water.
The cloak of cold mist that settles over Jeju the morning I’m next scheduled to meet with the haenyeo threatens to extinguish the warm feelings I’ve developed for the island. Today is my second attempt to go diving with the ladies of Hado village, and the weather is even more ominous. But inside their little stone warming hut, 15 stout women, none younger than 50, are prepping their gear, oblivious to the freezing drizzle. “The weather doesn’t affect us,” explains 64-year-old Kim Doo-soon. “Before, we had to dive if we wanted to eat. Things are easier now, but we still follow the old discipline.”
I ask them about their work. Yoon Bok-hee, a pudgy septuagenarian who identifies herself as the head of this unit, tells me that they harvest abalone, conch, octopus, sea urchin, sea cucumber, and seaweed and sell them to a cooperative, which in turn sells to restaurateurs and fish markets both domestically and abroad. There are small units of 15 to 20 women like this one all over the island; Hado has seven such groups. They work at depths between five and 20 meters without any breathing apparatus, partly because the haenyeo tradition predates such innovations and partly as a limit on how much each woman can take. They dive approximately 150 days each year, according to the tides, and spend between four and six hours in the water each shift. Most suffer from ear problems and headaches, and all of them say they know at least one woman who died while diving. The work is so grueling and treacherous that, according to one timeworn expression, “It’s better to be born as a cow than to be born as a girl on Jeju.”
I ask if they make a decent living. “We don’t need to dive anymore. We have plenty of money,” Yoon Bok-hee tells me as she cleans her mask. “But we like to come here and be together. It’s our community. Our children tell us not to dive anymore. They want us to come take care of the grandchildren. But that would be like a jail sentence. Our life is here, on the ocean.”
“But it’s so difficult,” I say. “Don’t you want to retire?”
“Before, it was so hard and there was shame in what we did,” she says, explaining that the haenyeo were once considered part of Korea’s landless peasantry. “But now, there are saunas and hot tubs and life is comfortable. If I was born again, I would want to come back as a haenyeo.” The statement seems to succinctly capture the island’s paradox: While it’s easy to lament the shift from authentic, old ways of life to high-polish tourist kitsch, the new economy has eased the hardship of most people on Jeju and provided millions of visitors with indelible memories as well. And for these few haenyeo, at least, the change has allowed them to finally savor their lives.
The divers are anxious to get to work, so I follow them down an algae-slick concrete path to a rocky point where we put on our fins and clamber in. My hands go instantly numb and the cold stings my face in spite of my mask and hood; I fall behind trying to adjust my gear. By the time I catch up with a small cluster of divers, we’re a kilometer offshore and I’m winded from the exertion. Kelp shrouds the sea floor in a thick carpet of crimson and thrusts up toward the sunlight in ropey vines that sway and surge with the waves. The haenyeo kick down 15 meters to the seabed and plunge into the thick foliage to root around for their quarry, prizing abalone from the rocks with a twist of the sharp metal hooks they carry. One minute passes, sometimes two, before they stream back to the surface, where, with a massive exhalation, they let out a shrill squeal called sumbi, an age-old breathing technique that empties their lungs of carbon dioxide. I rarely see a woman ascend without at least one or two abalone, and their nets begin to sag with delicacies. They only stay above water for a minute or two before flipping over and repeating the process.
I try finning down with them a few times, but by the time I reach the bottom my lungs are burning and I have to kick back to the surface. Instead, I just watch them, amazed. After an hour, I’m trembling from the cold, so I wave goodbye to the women and fight the waves back to land, where I steal a hot shower in their women’s-only bathhouse.
Warm again, I sit down with my umbrella to wait, snacking on kimbap (seaweed-wrapped rolls of rice and minced fish) and huddling against the wind. The day stretches on, past the sun’s zenith and into the afternoon, and I begin to understand just how big a pansy I am. These are some seriously tough old ladies. Finally, around 3 p.m., the haenyeo begin floating into shore one at a time, their nets bulging behind them. They scrabble from the icy froth and totter over rocks that glisten with an onyx sheen, tiny black sea creatures from a bygone age.
Asiana Airlines (flyasiana.com) operates a dozen flights daily from Seoul to Jeju City. Most depart from the domestic airport, Gimpo; if you’re connecting from an arrival at Incheon International, avail yourself of the limousine bus service between the two airports—an easy 40-minute transfer. UPDATE: As of March 25, 2012, Korean Air flies to Jeju straight from Incheon. Read the full story.
When to Go
June through August is Jeju’s warmest—and busiest—time of year. Early spring and autumn mean fewer tour buses and empty beaches, though unless you’re hardy, the 15ºC waters of the East China Sea might confine any seaside aspirations to sunbathing.
Where to Stay
** If you want to be near the action and one of the best beaches on the island, the Lotte Hotel Jeju (2812-4 Saekdal-dong; 82-64/731-1000; hotellotte.com; doubles from US$296) isn’t a bad choice. Billing itself as “the World’s Best Hotel,” this sprawling complex sports three restaurants, a beer garden in a neon-lit windmill, and the notorious dragon and volcano show each night. Families with children will feel at home.
** At the Haevichi (40-69 Pyoseon-ri; 82-64/780-8000; haevichi.com; doubles from US$174), you’ll get tranquility and a more sophisticated vibe, though you’ll have to drive a bit for the privilege. Still, the sleek birch-and-steel aesthetic in this Hyundai-owned hotel is worth the trouble. Request a room on the south side so that you can order a martini up to your terrace and watch storms roll up over the rocky coast.
What to Do
** The haenyeo can be tough to track down, as they move with the tides and spend most of their days in the sea. Head for Seongsan, on the east coast, where one outgoing unit runs a diving demonstration each day at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. After the ladies show you the tricks of their trade, they won’t even take off their wetsuits before they serve you up a plate of abalone sashimi and a bottle of the local soju at the attached restaurant. While you’re here, take a stroll up Ilchulbong Peak and peer down from the rim into its crown-shaped caldera.
** A trip to the sauna is an integral part of Korean life, and you won’t find any better place to partake than at the Nine Bridges golf club’s Swiss Perfection Spa (15 San, Gwangpyeong-ri; 82-64/793-9999; ninebridges.co.kr; treatments and spa access from US$100). With the Total Program, not only do you get exclusive access to one of the spa’s two massive square Jacuzzis, but you also get a full body and foot massage, as well as a La Prairie–approved facial.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2010 issue of DestinAsian magazine.