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JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, March 4-8, 2015 — If I am to write a K-Drama story, the theme would be magical realism since everything about our visit in this island seemed surreal– from the natural environment that is oh-so-green-and-clean, to the stunning places we visited, its richness of culture, the local people’s vibe, and the food we enjoyed. Indeed, a festival of the senses in many respects!

One of the heroes of my story would be Richard, who happens to be my friend and my favorite Korean. If not for him, our trip here would not be as memorable and as enjoyable. He even picked dates in the first week of March to surprise us with the magic of winter and the first bloom of canola flowers that ushered in Spring– both within less than an hour drive from one to the next!

I traveled to Jeju Island minus Dutchie since this is a company bench-marking trip. We are to experience and make plans for the improvement of our own little educational theme park in the Philippines, the Funtastic Park Subic Bay. Check it out here: Two of our junior managers, Heather and Krystel, joined Richard and I. And these are

Our Top 10 Experiences in Jeju-do

1. Drive around Jeju Island with a rented vehicle. It is more efficient, time and cost-saving, if you think about it– esp. when you are traveling as a group.

Upon arrival at the airport, look for the car rental counters at the airport and take a free shuttle bus to your agency of choice. There are too many to choose from and they will also drive you to the airport when you return your rented vehicle.

We picked Lotte Rent-a-car since it has partnership with reputable Hertz. True to their advertising of fast service, we were in and out for a total of 15 minutes. We thought it was also that fast because Richard made reservation from our coutry of origin, the Philippines, as soon as we confirmed out flight schedule. (We flew Cathay Pacific from Ninoy Aquino International Airport so there was a layover at HK. Although there were also other airline choices in Clark International Airport, 45 minutes away from our home, Subic Bay, I loved flying Cathay Pac!)

It was a big advantage that our host is Korean. We haven’t even arrived in Jeju and we were already excited at the prospect of doing things that locals do!

We got ourselves a 7-seater Kia Carnival when there were only 4 of us, so all our luggage fit in nicely. The vehicle has a GPS that has an English version. We were made aware that clients may get discounted rates through advance reservations. Richard said the company paid $50 (more or less) on daily rental and that to us, was a good deal! By the way, you need to have an international driver’s license from your country of origin before you could rent a vehicle anywhere in South Korea.

Jeju Island has two main cities that are situated at the north and south of Mt. Hallasan, an active shield volcano. They are: Jeju City in the North; and Seogwipo in the South. We were billeted at Hanwha Resort in Jeju City side, 40 minutes from the airport.

2. Shop @ e-Mart for groceries, souvenirs, durable Korean housewares and even makeup! Everything you need is in this store.

We are billeted in a service condo-tel so there is a kitchenette where we could cook our breakfasts before leaving for the day’s itinerary (and our late evening snacks, too)! After getting our rental vehicle, we went grocery shopping @ e-Mart first. So nice to see special products that are indigenous to the island. My best advise is to prepare a shopping list and research prices in the Internet so you already have an idea to aid your decision if you want to already grab what you listed on your first visit to the store. It would also save you time.

Lotte Supermarket is another place where tourists go since it promotes itself as a “discount department store.” We were never lured by the idea of going there after hearing it has has 7 floors. It has a cinema and buffet restaurants, so effectively, it is like a big mall which we have in abundance in our locale. We thought we have to be strategic in spending our 5 days in the island. A big mall like Lotte would be too much to walk around and may eat up time.

e-Mart won the day! We purchased our water supply for 5 days and no-MSG noodles! Lots and lots of it. We had a contest on the best finds so we could compare prices and quality. We were all winners in the housewares and make-up department, which Korea is known for quality.

3. Celebrate the Jeju Fire Festival with the locals.  

WE WERE THERE! It was our luck that on second day of our trip, the Jeju Fire Festival was to take place. We decided to do our bench-marking tour of theme parks during the daytime first. In the afternoon, Richard drove us to the festival site at Bongseong Village in Aewol-eup, also located at Jeju City. Earlier in the day, he said it would only take about 30 minutes from our hotel. That would have been true if not for the estimated 300,000 revelers– locals and visitors alike, who flock to this festival yearly!

So two hours have passed and we were still driving in snail pace when we started at 4 PM from our last destination which is the Trick Art Museum! We told him to turn around back to the hotel but he said we were already close that we could already see the festival area, and pointed to it. If we have to turn around, he said the detour would bring us anyway in front of the festivities. Traffic was also still heavy at that time so as tired as he was, Richard kept on, just to cater to our curiousity.

A tiny bit about Jeju Fire Festival: A tradition from hundreds of years ago, the field-burning ceremony is held every year around the Saebyeol Volcanic Cone of Bongseong Village. It stemmed from the tradition called “bangae”, where farmers and their families burn down the fields during the time between late winter and early spring, to pray for health and good harvest and to rid their land of disease.

That is why the timing of our visit was perfect as it was the first full moon of the lunar New Year. Simultaneously all over South Korea, the Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival is being held, but Jeju is considered the best and the biggest!

Finally, we arrived and found parking just as when the fields were about to be lit up. We grabbed some hotdogs, fried fish on skewers and drinks. We checked the surroundings: senior (or the more mature) celebrators were wearing traditional costumes, while the young ones were wearing neon bracelets and what-have-yous so they glow in the dark. All were eager for the big event to begin!

We didn’t want Richard to suffer from the return drive, so we suggested to get out of there ahead of other vehicles. While we missed a lot of traditional fun activities during the day because of heavy traffic, at least we made it to the heart of the festivities which is the field-burning ceremony! To know more, we watched Arirang’s coverage of the whole-day event. Check it out:

4. Nurture your inner child at the Hello Kitty Island Museum & Cafe.

RIGHT HERE IN MY LITTLE CORNER OF CHILDLIKE-NESS. Little Twin Stars were originally my favorite in high school when Sanrio became a big pop culture hit among young girls. It was only when I became a mom of 2 cute girls, Trisha and Denise, that I started acquiring the collectibles. I have saved a box full of this memorabilia for my love Gabrelle Marie, our dearest granddaughter, whom I will take to Jeju Island whenever she wants.

Read story of our visit to the Hello Kitty Island Museum and Cafe:

San59-8, Bongseong-ri, Aewol-eup, Jeju-si, Jeju-do (제주특별자치도 제주시 애월읍 봉성리 산59-8)

5. True Mermaids: Meet with the amazing Haenyeo, the women-divers of Jeju-do. See them at work and savor the taste of their fresh catch of the day, starting with the delicious abalone porridge, or Jeunbok-juk.

When I requested Richard to bring us to where we could see the Haenyeo in action, he did not disappoint. We drove to the coastline area of Jungmun in Seogwipo, also famous for its beaches and magnificent sea view, in search of these remarkable women. The House of Jungmun Haenyeo Restaurant is the secondary landmark; the primary landmark is the sea itself, their place of livelihood.

There were no tourists there because those who want to see the Haenyeo usually go to the Haenyeo Museum or the diver show at Seongsan Ilchulbong. We skipped both since all information may be available from the Internet anyway. It interests me more to have casual interaction, as natural an encounter as it gets, without them feeling being intruded upon and without paying any entrance fee like they were some kind of a spectacle.

(Although I understand why the Haenyeo has become part of the island’s tourism promotion, as their contribution to the Korean society is something to be proud of. They also need the fund to augment the women’s livelihood, esp. those who can no longer dive because of old age.)

As soon as we got off our vehicle and have the view of the sea, we can already see them busy working. Two were near the shore, busy picking seaweed, shellfish and sea urchin. We also see feet in flippers, upside down from afar.

The House of Jungmun Haenyeo is the local people’s favorite because of its delicious , authentic Jeonbok-juk (abalone porridge). Truth be told, I was dreaming about it the previous night! We shared two orders of the famous porridge among the 4 of us since the serving is humongous. They were so tender and juicy delicious!

The seafood platter is something that you should not miss as well. Fresh sea urchins, braised turban shells, and chewy octopus made me feel like we are eating these delicacies straight from where they were caught, and it cannot be any fresher than that! There were big aquariums in the resto that allow the seafood to breathe in and stay alive until its their time to serve their purpose in life.

Here, seafood are harvested sustainably, which means the locals are espousing eating species that have a healthy population to lessen adverse impact on the environment. From the ocean to the table, the Haenyeo who catch and cook what they serve in their very own restaurant have put a lot of care in the process. Knowing all these has brought us to an experience that is somewhat close to the spiritual.

I had the pleasure of talking to some of the ladies, as they were serving our lunch. There were 8 of them present at that time. Richard translates. The ladies appointed a robust-looking Ms. Kang, whom they teased to be the youngest at 65 years old, to be their spokesperson. Although I forgot their names, their smiling faces were etched in my memory, and their ages. It is remarkable that the oldest of them was 85 years old and still diving. Although she said, she has to watch the weather and the water temperature before she dives to work. “I can feel pain in my bones,” she said in Korean with a big laugh.

Thru Ms. Kang we learned that the Haenyeo culture is facing some challenges in its next-generation continuity. “I learned to dive as a means of livelihood at the age of 8. But the young Jeju women of today have more options. They can go to school and those who cannot afford education often move to the bigger cities to seek better opportunities.”

I asked, “so: when you are busy foraging the sea, what do the men do?” Richard answered this one: “There were more women than men in Jeju-do for a long time because most of the men were lost at sea or wars. So the women took over the part of providing for the family.”

“And that is how a cultural heritage of catching seafood to survive began, that put women in the forefront of economic history of the island,” rejoined Ms. Kang in her own language.

Entrance to the House of Jungmun Haenyeo. Address: 2658-2 Jungmun-dong, Seogwipo-si, Jeju Special Self-Governing Province. Operating Hours: Until 5 PM. Main menu: Assorted seafood 20,000 won / Abalone porridge 10,000 won. Reservation Inquiries: 064-738-9557
Savor the delicious, tender, freshly-catched abalone cooked into Jeju Island’s famous rice porridge, Jeonbok-juk.
The life and culture of Haenyeo which date back from 1629 exists only in Jeju Island in South Korea. While women are regarded as having strong roles in Korean society, the women-divers of Jeju-do have become a symbol of true women empowerment. To know more about how unique they are, watch this brief documentary:

Jeju-do is abundant in three things – wind, rocks, and women. As a volcanic island, it attracts lots of wind. Wind power is the source of electricity in most houses. The scenic rock formation of the island was formed by flow from past volcanic eruptions of Mt. Halla (Halla-san) since time immemorial. Stones (basalt) from this phenomenon are being used for construction and island beautification. “Women” are the Haenyeo, who instead of mourning the loss of their men from sea and wars, learned how to abalone, clams, seaweed, squid and octopus, to feed their families and passed what they know on to their young girls as life skills.

— Richard Choi, Korean expatriate in the Philippines

6. Visit the Hallasan National Park to experience the magic of Winter. Do a “snow angel.” Make a snowman. Share your human warmth with a cold tree, hug one. Throw snow balls at one another. Strike a “look up” pose, a Korean favorite.

Just a short drive from our hotel, we went to the Hallasan National Park for our winter experience. We did an easy hike of 30-minutes (1.3 km.) that started at the visitor center and finished atop Eoseungtaeng Oreum. It is the shortest trail tailored for visitors like us, who would like to experience snow but are not willing to stay out long in the cold. This particular trek has a sweeping views of the Jeju plains and the peak of Mt. Halla. We did all of what we suggested here and it was loads of fun!

7. Lie down among the sea of majestic yellow Yuchae (rapeseed or canola) flowers of Seopjikoji. Take 60 deep breathes of the fresh Spring air and allow yourself to be at the moment. Let time stand still.

The full blooms actually takes place in April but there are spots where you can capture the freshness and jolliness of Spring! Jeju-do has many different sites where you could enjoy the sights of this yellow wonderland! Seopjikoji (still in Seogwipo) just happens to have one of the largest Yuchae land coverage, and the atmosphere screams Korean drama romantic landscapes!

At this point, I wished Dutchie was with me. Moments like this are meant to be shared with my loving husband! Holding hands together while walking to the “Wishing Lighthouse” at the top of the hill, with strong winds flowing through my hair as we watch the charming expanse of the ocean! Ah, for this reason, I have to make a second trip to Jeju-do with him.

Incidentally, Seopjikoji is a favorite location of Korean TV drama productions. Scenes from “All In” (starring my favorite, “Mr. Sunshine” Lee Byung-hun with Song Hye-kyo of the Descendants of the Sun” fame), “Boys Over Flowers,” “Orange Marmalade,” “Warm and Cosy,” “Gingko Bed,” “The Uprising,” and “One Thousand and One Nights,” were reportedly shot here. There. This K-Drama cray-cray just had to include this info!

There is no entrance fee entrance to Seopjikoji and it is open 24 hours as the night time adventure offers another scenic view.

Fairytale-like. You’ll be swept by this lovely feeling as you commune with any field of flowers. You just have to have your significant other joining you in this experience for it to be truly romantic!

8. Eat Korean food like there’s no tomorrow. (So many alcoholic beverages to choose from) but sample the island’s authentic and organic Makgeolli (rice wine) brew, which is at old as Korea itself!

I won’t tell you what to eat or not to eat, however, these recommendations came from our hosts: Jeonbok-juk (Abalone Porridge). Heuk Dwaeji (Jeju Black Pork). Iced spicy cuttlefish soup or sea urchin. Jeju Momguk (Gulfweed Soup). Haemul Dukbaegi (Seafood Hotpot). Galchi Jorim (Hairtail Fish Soup). Okdom Gui (Grilled Sea Bream). Just to name a few.

On three occasions, our company president and his friend, a Korean cosmetic manufacturing owner, brought us to first class dining experience. I cannot even remember or pronounce all the names of food that was served to us but those five days surely placed me at the height of my enjoyment in Palatelandia. I washed everything down with sweet and tangy Makgeolli and Jeju-do’s hot green tea! Just trying to recall the flavors makes my head burst!

Wherever we ate, whether in the traditional market or top-rated restaurants, we had excellent enjoyment in every food that was served. After this trip, Korean became one of my top 3 favorite cuisine, and that’s a high score!

9. Immerse in the rich cultural history of Jeju-do, from the prehistoric era to the Joseon Period by visiting the Jeju National Museum.

Jeju National Museum “is a history museum that displays, preserves and studies Jeju Island’s historical and cultural assets. Jeju National Museum houses various remains excavated from ruins, including meaningful relics from the prehistoric age through to the Joseon dynasty. It boasts unique traditional culture and holds special exhibitions each year.” (Info from the museum’s website.)

Not so fun fact. Jeju-do was formerly the state of  Tamna Island from ancient times until it was taken over by the Korean Joseon Dynasty in 1404. Some royal burial sites that were discovered in modern times indicated that when a king dies, all members of his household– from his wife and concubines to slaves, including their quality pottery and favorite things were buried (alive) with him.

10. Shop for Jeju-do’s indigenous products and have lunch @ Dongmun Traditional Market. Get a glimpse on how locals live through their market.

Since you’ve already been to E-Mart or Lotte Supermarket, we recommend this to be your last stop. Here is where we wrapped up our shopping list for pasalubong and samplers for home. Here are some of what we shopped:

Other Places We Visited

1. Manjanggul Cave or Lava Tube in Jeju City is up to 8.928 kilometer-long, making it is the 12th-longest lava tube in the world, and the second longest on Jeju-do. “It is regarded as having significant scientific and heritage value, owing to its excellent condition of preservation despite its age of formation (about 300,000 to 200,000 years ago),” says its tourism information.

2. For adults only: Jeju Loveland. Richard was a real gentleman that after paying for our entrance fee, he waited for us outside. That was also okay since we thought we would feel awkward having our boss tail us around as we inspect the sexy and erotic giant sculptures and artworks portraying human sexuality. Imagine, there are 140 of them! We also noticed that most visitors were women who were laughing and having fun taking photos!

3. Alive Museum. We spent a few hours here, noting every single detail because improving our own trick art theme park in Subic Bay is the goal of this trip to Jeju-do. This is like one big mall, dwarfing the scale of what we have back home. But it’s an excellent framework that we could emulate.

4. Hanwha Aqua Planet isn’t a place my Dutchie would like to see. As a personal rule, we try not to visit places that have animals in captivity and feature them in shows. (Although we have one right in our own home and before I had Dutchie in my life, I brought my children, then very little, there.) However, I came here as a part of a group and enjoyed some portion of the show and tour of facility, because I have good company! If you are against animals in captivity, this isn’t for you, too!

5. Gimnyeoung Maze and Cat Park is near Manjanggul Cave. It contains a maze that has the shape of Jeju Island, and “its images that can be clearly seen from above include the following: a serpent, which was an object of worship on the island until the mid-70s; horses of Jeju Island, which were brought there by Mongolians as far back as 1276; the ship, Sparrowhawk, that was shipwrecked on the island in 1653 bringing Hendrick Hamel and his company of Dutch sailors to the Joseon Kingdom; and dolmens that are relics from the Bronze Age. All of these images are famous symbols or landmarks of Jeju Island.” (From park information.)

What added charm to an otherwise drab enter-the-maze-and-find-the-exit activity is the presence of friendly cats who accompanied us in our sojourn through the hedges. It was also drizzling when we went there so we had some free warm purrs and paws!

6. We drove by the Mysterious Road or the Dokkaebi Road and discovered why it is called such. Richard showed us the ‘phenomenon’ by parking our van (while we were inside) at the first few feet of hill’s elevation. He wasn’t stepping on the accelerator but we felt moving uphill instead of moving downwards. That action seemed to have defied the laws of gravity but in reality, it is just a mere optical illusion that vehicles, even objects, roll uphill. The seemingly high surroundings are the ones creating the trick.

Try leaving any circular object in the beginning elevation of this road and witness it move up instead of rolling down!

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