Rendezvous with the freediving Haenyeo grand mothers of the sea.
The locals call Jeju-do the "Hawaii of the Orient" as they are attracted to the natural treasures of the island.
Jeju Island as a whole is a UNESCO Geopark, which was added to UNESCO's list in 2007. Five locations are worthy of preservation: the Hallasan Nature Reserve including the large volcano, several lava-tube formations, which are caves formed during previous eruptions, and the Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff-ring volcano. This particular volcanic type occurs when a volcano builds up during an eruption in shallow water, a so-called hydro-volcano.
In addition to the world heritage list, there is UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage, which covers cultural traditions and cultural knowledge. Jeju's Haenyeo culture of diving grandmothers is worthy of preservation and was included in UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage in 2016.
So, obviously, as island enthusiasts, we had to spend a week here exploring the island. The nature is admittedly a big draw, howver we think that the real treasure is the people and odd culture characterized by the Haenyeos.
Location: off the coast of South Korea
Jeju Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a true gem in South Korea. As we stepped off the plane we're immediately captivated by the island's unique beauty and the warm welcome of the locals. With a week ahead of us, we're excited to embark on an adventure that will take us through lush landscapes, ancient volcanoes and vibrant cultural traditions. T
For hundreds of years, women in Jeju Island have been engaged in harvesting shellfish, abalone. conch shells, and echinoderms such as starfish, sea sausage and sea urchin from the bottom of the sea. The women, who are often elderly and both 70 and 80 years old, are called haenyeo – or sea women translated from Korean – and they do not use oxygen tanks or diving equipment, but hold their breath while they free dive down to a depth of 10 meters for two minutes at a time. Their only support underwater is a pair of homemade diving goggles and a wetsuit to keep warm. Their working day consists of many hours in and under the water. Before the wet suit came about fifty years ago, they just wore cotton clothes in the cold water that flows around Jeju Island in the Yellow Sea between China, Korea and Japan. Heavy lead belts around their body help them hit the bottom quickly, while they collect their sea harvest with a knife and a net.
It is a dangerous occupation, which is performed by approximately 3,000 women today, the vast majority of whom are over 60 years old. The number of practicing sea women has been reduced drastically from over 20,000 active haenyeos in the 1960s, and the fear is that the tradition is dying out. The oldest descriptions of this tradition are from the 4th century, so the tradition has lasted for many centuries and survived both world wars and occupations. With long and challenging days in the water in all seasons, the haenyeo women have become a national example of women's strength, dedication and courage in South Korea.
During our time on Jeju Island, we drive around the entire island in a rental car and visit many beaches, waterfalls, and wild rock formations. The Koreans call the island the 'Hawaii of the Orient' because of the many volcanoes, dramatic landscapes and exotic vegetation such as palm trees, cherry blossoms and yellow rape, which adorn the blue-black background of rocks and sea. A memorable place is the spectacular tuff-ring volcano named Seongsan Ibul-chong: it is a green mountain that rises from the sea, where the sun first rises on Jeju, with steep sides and an adventurous appearance. A small sandbar connects the volcanic island with Jeju Island. The view from the top is breathtaking and around the small island there are many active haenyeos who jump into the sea and sell their catch on the beach.
We also get to walk a lot through beautiful landscapes along the ocean and in large caves formed by liquid lava. It is striking that small, somewhat creepy and goblin-like statues carved out of lava peek out everywhere on the island, somewhat randomly placed in this black and green landscape. It's like Easter Island in the Pacific, where there are also statues carved in lava rock. For the Korean visitor in particular, this adds to the underlying sense of the mythology of Jeju Island, where nature and its spirits are exuberantly alive. For thousands of years, Jeju has been isolated and developed its own religious customs, with shamans playing a major role. Only a few places we've experienced the local spirituality crawl under our skin like this. Perhaps only in Bali or in North India have I felt it to be so strong.
In fact, Jeju Island is a huge volcano that rises two kilometers above the deep blue sea. The peak is called Mount Hallansan and is the highest point in South Korea. The trek to the top is very beautiful, through forests, over flower meadows, and with a view of a beautiful lake at the bottom of the crater. In winter and in the earlier spring there is snow on the summit.
During our time on the island, we based ourselves in the beautiful town of Segwipo, located on the south coast close to the main attractions. We love food experiences, especially Japanese and Korean, which are so fantastically beautifully arranged and optimized in taste and texture over generations - and Segwipo is known for its large food market Maeil Olle Market. It allowed us to eat our way through the island's delicacies every night: braised oxtails, abalone harvested by haenyeos, and black pig from Jeju – topped of course with plenty of kimchi.
Selected pics during our visit here:
Comfortably located off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, it has a more tropical appearance and charm than rest of the country
We flew into Jeju Island with great expectations on the stone statues which cover the whole island. Dol hareubang, the stone statues, are fortress protectors or guardians. With its unique appearance sculpted out of hole-ridden basalt, the Dol hareubang literally stands as the most famous symbol and face of Jejudo Island. Crafting of the statues started around 1700-century. Reminiscent of the Moai statues of Easter Island. One theory is that it was spread into Jeju-do from the South Pacific
Close to the beautifully situated Seogwipo coast line, the waterfall is hidden inside a deep gorge. Jeju is a wild volcanic island with many waterfalls and a wild interior. When we screened the internet for key opinions on "world top10 hidden island gems" or "top10 remote, undiscovered islands", Jeju often figures on such lists. It has a fair bunch Chinese and Korean tourists, but is less unknown to Western travel addicts and tourist. The island became one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2011.
We trekked up the Sotbannae river along a large gorge in Southern Juju Island. It was early spring, a great time to visit the island
Jeju is surrounded by water and a key activity is to fish. What makes the island special is the many locals hawkers serving raw, freshly caught seafood near most rock beaches. Often consumed together with strong local alchohol, it is a key activity for local tourists to get a taste of the ocean. We didn't even need to pay, since everywhere we went, we were dragged into eating and drinking sessions by local Korean tourists who wanted us "foreigners" to join in and get new local friends.
One raw dish typically costs about 20,000-40,000 won (sea cucumber, sea squirt, spoon worm, conch, spoon worm and octopus and so on). Dig in, it is very tasteful!
The list of waterfalls around the world which debouche into an ocean is very short. We've visited several of them, incl. the wild Bøsdalafossur waterfall on the remote Faroe Islands in the Norhern Atlantic. On Jeju Island, Jeongbang Pokpo waterfall is a close candidate on the beauty-scale, dropping 23m directly into the sea. After spending an hour here, we had raw seafood as lunch on the beach right next to the waterfall, together with a bunch of drunken Korean men. "Geonbae!" ("Cheers!")
Everywhere in Northeast Asia, spring time is a special event. On Jeju Island the blooming of bright yellow rapeseed and canola flowers marks the start of a change in the Korean landscape. Jeju's black volcanic landscapes are a perfect contrast to the yellow flowers
Korean cuisine is special compared to the rest of the world, and has many very unique and delicious tastes. On our trip to Jeju we visited a lot of local markets in the villages around the coastline, while circumnavigating the island. There were many meat dishes, but mostly we had seafood as the local food in this category is unique and has had much historical development time to be perfected. The food was amazing
We used local busses to travel all around the island of Jeju. On the eastern coast one of the most impressive sights of Jeju is a black volcano, covered in green plants, which is shaped like a big punchbowl: Named Seongsan Ilchulbong. Beneath the volcano a small beach was used by old woman - the so-called Haenyeo female divers - as a base to catch fresh sea food and serve it directly on the cold black boulders on the beach. The atmosphere was magical and out-of-this-world
Haenyeos are female divers who enter the sea without any breathing equipments and catch seafood susch as octopus, spoon worms, seaweed, and clams. They are able to dive up to 25m below sea leavel for anywhere between 30 secs to 2 minutes. The mos striking part is the age of these Haenyeos, which is average more than 60 years old.
Irrespective of summer or winter ocean temperatures, the Haenyeos dive the sea everyday to make a living. The old lady on the picture picked up an octopus at the ocean bottom for us, which was prepared on the beach by cutting it into peaches. We had it for lunch that day
Any shellfish, clam or octopus small enough to fit in their buoyed nets are sold whole or as sashimi at tiny ad-hoc restaurants they run by the shore
... cathed, and eaten fresh, sashimi-style, just two minutes after being pulled out of the sea
It is a very old and unique culture which is preserved on Jeju Island. Currently, there are around 20,000 Haenyeos and mainly concentrated in Jeju Island in South Korea. However, it is expected that Haenyeos will be disappear in 20 years as the younger generation are not willing to pick up these skills.
We visited sereval beach sites on Jeju to chat with the old Haenyo women divers who are carrying on a Korean legacy that goes back generations.
Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called the Sunrise Peak, is one of Jeju Island's key attractions and is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. We went there to climb it during the morning. This picture was taken from a tourist stand poster next to the volcano (we did not bring a drone ourselves)
Off the eastern coast of Jeju, Seongsan Ilchulbong is one of Jeju's most distinctive views - a punchbowl formed volcane, which can be hiked in around 2 hours.
Seongsan Ilchulbong volcano has steep walls crying for rock climbers to challenge the steepness and heights
On top of Seongsan Ilchulbong volcano. We trekked to the top and around it in a couple of hours. The weather was Spring-like, cloudy, but comfortably warm. The yellow rapeseed flowers, marking the coming of spring, prided the landscape surrounding the volcano
We went on a daytrip to Udo (also called U-island), a small island located at the eastern coast of Jeju Island. It's a great little miniature of larger Jeju Island, boasting fertile soil and black volcanic boulders, local heritages such as the female divers, and the stone statues. Also here, we enjoyed raw shellfish directly on the sea shore. After the Jeju tour we probably had eaten several kg's of raw sea animals - digestion and stomach feeling?... No problem, it was great and a healthy living