The moment we arrived, the island’s billboards started giving it the hard sell: We LOVE having you here! Jeju’s appetite for tourism is as insatiable as Disneyland’s: relentless and teetering on vulgar. Visitors—mainly from China and Japan, come to Jeju Island for a medley of entertainment: fresh sushi and sashimi, water-sports, the gentle hike trails through the national park and their volcanic peaks, luxury hotels, and the dozens of kitsch and downright bizarre museums that dot the coastline. I was making my first—and what felt like obligatory, visit to Jeju a year into my teaching contract in South Korea, having been told by almost every Korean I had met that I must not, under any circumstances, leave the country without first visiting the island. I remained skeptical (and still do) of what a place like Jeju, saturated in the economics of tourism, can offer the casual visitor and those who prefer to travel independently of package deals.
Thousands of visitors arrive weekly during peak months, causing its two small cities and roads to swell. Consequently, we were unable to secure a seat on one of the many flights that left hourly from Seoul to Jeju Island. John, my traveling companion, and I had no choice but to wait out the thirteen-hour journey on the night ferry from Incheon. Our boat was shared by a large, excitable group of middle school children on their annual school trip to the volcanic island. We found a spot on the top deck and listened to them as they bellowed ‘Gangnam Style’ into the karaoke machine, ourselves muted by their uniquely Korean bonding and camaraderie that seemed to emphasize our awareness of our Britishness. “Why is everyone so excited about Jeju?” I asked John. He raised an eyebrow, and nibbled on his kimbap as we set sail into a red and ochre sunset. Later that night, brave students came running up to us, sent on dares by their friends to speak English to the foreigners and shout well-worn English phrases at us: “How tall are you?” and “Could you tell me where the post office is?” and would run off before we could answer, further adding to our growing sense of bewilderment.
We soon made a friend, a middle-aged Korean man traveling alone who clutched his rucksack excitedly and beamed when we told him where we were from, charmed by our accents. We asked him why he was going to the island, and who he was traveling with. “I had a huge argument with my wife because she didn’t want to take the boat, so I left her at home,” he told us, cheerfully. “So now I get Jeju all to myself.” He closed his eyes for a few seconds, as if he were picturing a scene in his mind’s eye, took a long draw of sea air and exhaled, “Ah, beautiful Jeju.” Sensing that the decision to leave his wife on the mainland was perhaps a little hasty, and that actually some company might be nice, our ferry-friend generously offered to share his hire car and tent with us and show us the sights. “We’d like to take the bus,” we told him, hoping not to offend. We agreed to share a taxi with him to the bus station where he reluctantly let us go, but not without a fistful of his business cards.
John and I stayed with a Couch-surfing contact, David, who lived in the south coastal town of Seogwipo and had been teaching on the island for the past five years, falling in love with it at the first sunrise. Eager to escape the tourist trail, we asked David to point us in the right direction. He showed us the route to a coastal path called Oedulgae, which takes walkers along a remote shoreline high above a raging turquoise swell. The sight of ominous, slate-grey volcanic headlands after each bend in the path gave us a tantalizing first glimpse of the island: white surf smashed and fizzed on the porous rocks below, and sea birds danced in the eddies of the cliffs. We returned to David’s house breathless, and with the crashing waves still making their echo.
Later that night David asked us if we fancied a swim. “Um, Isn’t it too dark?” I queried, not liking the idea of going into that unpredictable surf, especially in the dark. “I’ll show you a secret place,” he said, “besides, I need to be in the water every day.” His energy and earnestness that we experience the whole breadth of the island was rubbing off on us so we followed him, trusting our new friend. We climbed uphill over smooth boulders that marked out a fresh-water stream that took us into the foothills outside of the town and eventually opened up into a wide pool. “Look at the surface of the water,” he told us, and sure enough, on the still, black meniscus was the Milky Way, a perfect mirror image of the stars that lit the night sky above us. David plunged into the chilled, velvety water breaking up the luminous patterns and I followed him, trying to grab at the light on the water’s surface and drink the moon.
A few months later, I returned to Seogwipo to investigate the town and came across the home of Korea’s modern art hero, Kim Joong Seop, which sits next to the small gallery that houses some of his paintings and a collection of his personal belongings. His ‘estate’ is a traditional Jeju house: a four-roomed clay-walled building with a low, thatched roof that he shared with his family. Renowned for denouncing material things, Kim embodied the simplicity and hardship of traditional Asian life pre-1953, dying, at the age of forty, just a few years after the civil war that divided the country. For many, his death marked the end of the old Korea.
Kim’s legacy lives on through the community of painters, sculptors and artists who seek much coveted space and solitude from the overcrowded mainland. One artist who has sought this creative succor on the island is director Meul O, winner of the 2012 Sundance International film Festival. The Jeju-native won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for ‘Jiseul,’ a film set on the island that portrays the true story of a terrible massacre that took place during the years preceding the civil war. Meul O has made other contributions to the island’s artistic identity by hosting a street art festival – ‘Flower for a Jeju Head’, that brings together artists, the local community and tourists for a celebration in the name of public art. For one week, food, music and creativity spill out onto Seogwipo’s streets, and visitors can appreciate the full flavor of the artistic ardor that exists just beneath the tourism-suffused surface.
But anyone who visits the fishing and tangerine farming village of Gangjeong will realize that Jeju’s artistic sanctuary and natural beauty is under threat. On the coast at the edge of the village lies the remains of Geurombi Rock, an area that was once categorized as an UNESCO World Heritage site because of its rich marine life and fresh water springs. Legend has it that Gureombi was as a sacred place that had healing properties, and solitary figures could often be spotted meditating or praying on its smooth flanks, making silhouettes against the dipping sun. The UNESCO prize, sadly only categorizes (but cannot protect) areas from being interfered with by developers. The marine life in the waters of Gangjeong was one of the richest and most diverse on the island, and for centuries the coastline was home to a prolific community of female free divers, Haenyo, which literally translates as ‘sea women.’ These women – most of whom are in their 60’s , dive for abalone, octopus and seaweed, selling their goods to local restaurants to provide income for their families. Haenyo houses are located at each dive spot and offer curious tourists the chance to sample their raw cull; sliced, with a smattering of hot pepper sauce. Active haenyo communities still operate around the island, but all of the Gangjeong’s have been forced off the coastline. Where their haenyo house used to be, sits a pile of worn and well-used diving masks and flippers, repaired with duct tape and hand stitched where the rubber has started to give, perhaps left there in the hope that their owners will be able to return one day; sad reminders of a life once lived. This is just one of the many sub-communities at risk on Jeju.
In 2008, the South Korean government detonated Gureombi rock in order to make room for a military naval base that will house air-craft carriers, destroyers and submarines: the largest weaponry arsenal in Asia. The island’s “strategic” location in the Korea Straight, a few hundred kilometers west of Nagasaki, means that it is in a prime location for naval developments that will contain China and protect the mainland from North Korean provocation. This rationale for building the naval base is highly questionable considering Jeju is just a tiny self-governing province straddled between two major Asian economies, hundreds of kilometers away from any hypothetical Chinese or North Korean threat.
The building of the naval base has had a cataclysmic effect on the village and its economy. Tangerine farmers have been coerced into giving up their land, ending generations of farming. And when the site is finished, thousands of armed Korean and American troops will be stationed there and the placid village, once circled by pods of dolphins, will be one of the most heavily armed places in the world. In response to these drastic changes, residents and protestors have set up a twenty-four hour, seven days a week peace camp around the kilometers of fabricated wall that demarcates the base. The camp has attracted the attention of peace groups and freedom advocators from around the world, including Oscar winning filmmaker Oliver Stone who visited this summer. Other activists include monks, university professors, children, villagers, tourists, Jesuits, farmers, and locals; clearly the breadth of interest in the future of Gangjeong has brought international attention. In recent years, the South Korean government has issued a slew of deportation papers to foreign activists who have protested, and a Korean academic risked his life in the name of Gangjeong through hunger strike. Villagers will tell you that despite a 94% vote against building the base, the plans were carried out. Gureombi was blown up as dawn was breaking, and the village came out to witness its end, the town plunged into mourning at the sound of explosions.
I walked along the entire length of the grey wall, reading the messages that people had written on it: break this wall, and peace for Gangjeong. The plans for the military base have united the community in its protest, but its habitat and heritage are still slipping away.
The story of Gangjeong demonstrates that Jeju’s population is in flux with the changing political and environmental landscape. Many Jeju natives, particularly the younger generation, are leaving the island in search of better employment opportunities, enticed by the bright lights of bustling cities such as Seoul and Busan that are home to the top universities and huge conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai. In a reversal of the trend that sees Koreans leaving the island, teachers from English speaking countries are choosing to live there and teach in one of the many private and public schools. There is a growing expatriate community on Jeju who enjoy the paybacks a sub-tropical climate offers. “ I have everything I need here,” David told me. “Why would I want to leave?”
But as the population changes and modernization continues, there are still a significant number of older Koreans for whom traditional ways of life still hold fast, such as the tangerine farmers, who are struggling to keep up with the change that is engulfing the island. In many of the back lanes live monks who run temple food restaurants from the front rooms of their houses. Their cooking sends wafts of ginseng over the low stone walls and across the fields, enticing hungry hikers on their return from the mountains: barley grains, sesame leaves, green tea, rice cakes, soups, stews and mushrooms grown in the rich soil in the hillsides are just some of the nourishing ingredients and dishes that come out of their kitchens. The working practices of older Jeju residents have barely changed over the centuries: feeding, building, healing and replenishing the land to the rhythm of the seasons that blow across this little island. They have seen no reason to change their methods. Unfortunately, many plots of untouched land around their communities are being sold off to build more themed museums—which incidentally, raises the price of the land they are built on. The green tea, car and the teddy bear museum are just some of the places that draw in tourists on a rainy day and whose gift shops picture scenes of frenzied souvenir buying. Older Jeju islanders find contentment in the stillness that the untouched corners of Jeju Island offer, but these are becoming increasingly more difficult to seek out. There is no doubt that the future of Jeju is uncertain, and my advice to those who want to explore its peaceful, quiet spaces is to visit soon, before hotels, theme parks and barbeque chain restaurants permanently write them out of the landscape.
My second Couch-surfing contact, Louie, who I stayed with when I returned to the island, is a mainland Korean native who had also been captivated by Jeju. Louie was a member of the ‘Seoul Exodus,’ and had abandoned claustrophobic city living in search of something more in keeping with ‘The Good Life’: clean air, solitude and an apartment with simply more elbow room than Seoul could offer on a medium salary. On my final visit to Jeju, just a few days before I was set to leave Korea for good, Louie and I hiked up Jeju’s highest peak: Halla Mountain.
We stopped midway to catch our breaths in the pure mountain air, and taking a moment to admire the vista laid out before us. I could see across the entire island, from the apartment blocks in Jeju city in the north to the snaking roads of Seogwipo to the south. In between the two cities I counted dozens of smooth peaked oreums—volcanic cones, that date the island’s long geological history. The ocean acted like a mirror on the spotless firmament; the horizon line lost to the brittle, hard surrounding blue, and we breathed in a gleaming, metallic world where sea and sky became indistinguishable. The snow, which had begun in the foothills, now capped every peak, adding to the ethereal tricks of the light. It was like being suspended by an invisible thread and hanging in the silent atmosphere, the weight of the busy, raucous world far beneath.
On each of my visits to Jeju Island I peeled back another layer and it revealed itself to me a little more, like fragments of colored glass shifting inside a kaleidoscope, each view uniquely different, its changeability lying at the heart of its identity. “How can I leave this place?” I asked Louie.
“You’ll be back,” he told me.
Hannah Garrard is from the UK and is studying for an MA in Biography and Creative Non-fiction writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. Her prose has appeared in Literary Traveller, The Matador Network, and New Asian Writing. She is currently writing about things much closer to home.