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Regional Adventures: Jeju, South Korea

December 14, 2013
Yakcheonsa Temple, Jeje Island, South Korea

Yakcheonsa Temple, Jeje Island, South Korea

My next adventure takes me to Jeju, South Korea! Jeju Island is Korea’s largest island and the capital is Jeju City. Jeju Island is a volcanic island, dominated by Halla-san (Halla Mountain): a volcano 1,950 metres (6,400 ft) high and the highest mountain in South Korea. The island measures approximately 73 kilometres (45 mi) across, east to west, and 41 kilometres (25 mi) from north to south. The island was created entirely by volcanic eruptions approximately 2 million years ago.

Halla Mountain, Jeju, South Korea

Halla Mountain, Jeju, South Korea

Because of the relative isolation of the island, the people of Jeju have developed a culture and language that are distinct from those of mainland Korea. Jeju is home to thousands of local legends. Perhaps the most distinct cultural artifact is the ubiquitous dol hareubang (“stone grandfather”) carved from a block of basalt.

One of many Stone Grandfather statues in Jeju, South Korea

One of many Stone Grandfather statues in Jeju, South Korea

Another distinct aspect of Jeju is the matriarchal family structure, found especially in Udo and Mara, but also present in the rest of the province. The best-known example of this is found among the haenyeo (“sea women”), who were often the heads of families, because they controlled the income. They earned their living from free diving, often all year round in quite cold water, without scuba gear, in order to harvest abalones, conchs, and a myriad of other marine products. It is thought that women are better at spending all day deep-water diving because they resist cold better. However, because of rapid economic development and modernization, few haenyeo are still actively working today.

Traditional Haenyeo or "Sea Women" of Jeju

Traditional Haenyeo or “Sea Women” of Jeju!

Due to the lack of fresh water, paddy farming is very limited on Jeju so the main feature of agriculture here is cereal crops such as millet, buckwheat, and barley making those the main ingredients in the local cuisine. Being an island, another main feature of the local cuisine is fresh and various salted, dried fish such as abalone.

Abalone with rich in hot iron bowl

Abalone with rich in hot iron bowl

The Jeju economy has traditionally been supported by primary industry, agriculture and fishing, but tourism has taken a more and more important role as the island receives upwards of six million visitors per year. These are mostly Korean mainlanders but through the opening of the 2010 decade hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists have been arriving and the number is increasing.

Sangumburi Volcano Crater

Sangumburi Volcano Crater

There are many natural tourist attractions on Jeju Island such as Hallim Park, one of the oldest and most popular attractions, and Manjanggul, which is one of the longest lava tubes in the world. There is also the extinct volcano crater called Sangumburi Crater and Mount Halla which is one of the mountains of the three gods.

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