Jeju Island: With Chungwon High School

After summer vacation and a quick sojourn to Seoul to trek the Cheonggyecheon Stream it was time to take the schools bi-annual trip to Jeju Island in the South of Korea.


As the honeymoon capital for all of South Korea, Jeju Island is often highly regarded as the Korean Hawaii”  though newer locations such as Guam are also popular. Jeju has a number of attractions to satisfy all tastes, its natural wonders should be the main draw but there’s a range of off-beat, in all honesty, weird additions to its portfolio as well as a new international convention centre. Our school had an action packed comprehensive itinerary planned.

We left early Monday morning for the hour long drive from Chungju to Cheongju Airport in 6  coaches filled with sleeping teenagers. Such were the numbers that 2 flights had been booked some 90 minutes apart, I was on the second flight out. The flights left on time for the hour long hop to Jeju and our tour organisers were in situ as we arrived.

After a hearty bibimbap lunch our first stop was Mazeland which is located northeast region of Jeju. The main attraction of this establishment are its complicated expansive labyrinths related to “Samda,” a Jeju dialect term that means “three plenties.” It refers to the three items which Jeju has in abundance: wind, rocks, and women. Mazeland, wanting to integrate Jeju culture into its design, has three mazes correlating with these themes. The first and easiest maze is the “wind maze,” which is made of arborvitae and is circular in shapes. The second maze, in the shape of a haenyeo (Jeju female diver), is composed of Leyland cypresses and camellia. The third, and by far the most impressive maze is the one made of stone. It is in the shape of a dolhareubang, one of Jeju’s ubiquitous “stone grandfathers.” The 1.8-meter high walls took three years and 2,144 tons of Jeju basalt to build.


The kids seemed to have a fun time navigating their way around and many decided, when they got lost, that it was easier to scale and walk the walls rather than formulate an exit strategy. It was then time for attraction 2 and the trek to the cusp of a crater which rises on Jeju’s eastern coastal plain.  Darangshi Oreum is labelled the “Queen of Craters”. Jeju nativies made use of the  ‘Gumburi'(crater) for raising cattle because the geology provided natural protection from wind and a mild diverse eco-system rich in flora and fauna. The trek to the perimeter took around 30 minutes but was well rewarded with awesome view towards the sea. The kids of course were less than enthusiastic about participating in cardio exercise and constantly complained how tired they were. Fortunately for them the schedule meant a quick return to the bus and a sleep in preparation for our arrival at the hotel.  The carbohydrate laden meal dished out on arrival was ravished with great fervour. You would have expected the sleeperz to be dead for the night after attacking both natures mountain and the carb mountain but no! They found their second, third and fourth wind as they giggled and chatted into the early hours.

I awoke early the next day and took a walk along the lava beach past an ancient salt farm. The villagers here used salt as a currency to trade with other islanders and with others on the mainland.

Our first destination of the day was Cheonjiyeon Falls, meaning “God’s pond,” it derives its name from the legend that the seven fairies serving the King of Heaven came down to the pond on stairs of cloud and bathed in its clean waters. The waterfall is 22m high, 12m wide and 20m in depth. The clear and deep water of Cheonjiyeon Falls is renowned as a habitat for Mutae eels. Also, the annual Seven Fairies Festival is held every May. After a stroll through shaded walkways and past stepping stone bridges the peace was of course shattered by our arrival and the the 30 minute role call for photos but it is picturesque beauty spot. Rainbows formed under the cliffs as the overcast skies cleared to offer us searing sunshine.

From here we headed past the harbour to the thoroughly modern Saeyeon Bridge, resembling the sail of a  taewoo, a traditional boat used by Jeju people. It leads to more of natures endowments from the islands volcanic past on Saesom Island. The recently built walking path on Saesom (Bird) leads around the perimeter offering beautiful views of Hallasan, Munsom and the surrounding area. Saesom would be a grand place for watching a sunset but our schedule pays no homage at all to a photographers needs. The trail is open until 10 pm with no admission cost.

Onwards and upwards to Jusangjeolli Cliffs. Reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway in Nothern Ireland, Jusangjeolli is referred to by locals as “Jisatgae Rock”.. Thousands of years ago when Mt. Hallasan erupted, as the lava trails reached the sea the lava quickly cooled and formed peculiar hexagonal and cubic columns. This is known scientifically as the contraction phenomenon, which occurs when volcanic magma is exposed and cooled on earth. It is an unusual rock formation created by the erosion from the ocean, waves, and wind. It appears as if someone stacked a pile of hexagonal crystals on the seashore. Interestingly no teacher had bothered to ascertain the science behind the cliffs formation and it was left to your truly to try and explain, of course my efforts proved fruitless. The white elephant that I had become found a purpose as “team” photographer recording a Guinness Record for the amount of “two fingered” gestures that can be recorded on 30 minutes! It’s perceived to be “cute”, it just reinforces the collective Confucian doctrine of not being an individual. Ironically it was invented as a peace sign by of all people the Japanese. Here’s an interesting quote:

“I make the peace sign but I don’t know why I do it, who invented it and when we started doing this. I think I’ve been doing it since I was born. The peace sign gesture must have been programmed in my DNA, or foreigners mind-controlled Japanese to make the peace sign subconsciously when we pose for a photo to keep the peace after the war.”

-Seiichi Igeta, 17

Our next audience with nature was at Sanbangsan and it’s adjacent headland. Sanbangsan is actually a monolithic lava deposit. The cliffs on the southern side of the lava dome are marked with a rich variety of curious formations such as weathering pits and talus scree slopes, some of which are as high as 200m. As its name ‘sanbang’, (literally meaning ‘a cave inside a mountain’) suggests, this mountain contains a cave located about 150m above sea level and has a spectacular view out over the ocean. Due to its close location to the sea and its high elevation, the peak is often ringed with clouds. The upper slopes of the mountain have their own distinct eco-system. On the slopes of the mountain sits Bomunsa Temple. The coastal trek along the Yeongmeori headland (Dragon Head) was breathtaking its wide variety of eroded geological formations incredibly eye-catching and photogenic. The kids reveled in this natural theme park, freely dipping their feet in the sea as big V was in hiding, where I know not! The mirrored rock-pools were particularly beautiful and the sea had eroded the rocks into charismatic sculptural forms that will linger long in the memory. Standing near the rock’s edge the kids were sprayed with cold refreshing seawater produced by the crashing waves. The rock formations in the area are so peculiar, it seems like a surreal artists landscape. On the return to the car park restaurant for lunch the students enthusiastically grasped the chance to ride the “Viking” a swinging boat  that elicited shrill screams from its female clientele, butch boys grunted their disapproval.

Climbing aboard our caravan of buses after lunch we headed around the coast to the area adjacent to Mt. Songak and parked up with great views of Sanbangsan, in the distance. Below us was a cave bunker area with the ubiquitous “forbidden entry” signs. The caves were established in Daejeong-eup, Seogwipo-si by the Japanese army during the World War II. At the end of World War 2, Japan set Jeju as the last line of defence to protect their homeland. They stationed about 65,000 elite soldiers in Jeju, which had a population 200,000 at that time. While the Japanese army was setting up military installations such as coast bases and airfields to enhance their military prowess, they demanded that Jeju people provide food and forced them to fit out the caves. One of the reasons for this was that they they kept submarines stationed here. The area still shows traces of the Japanese war effort. This special sea base was used as a base to counterattack the Allied forces; they set up pillboxes and bunkers along the defence line that spanned Mt. Songak, Sagye, Hwasun Harbor, and Wolrabong Peak. We stayed here for a hour or more, the kids forray to the beach to dip their pinkies thwarted by V of Harry Potter fame and head of Chungwon’s disciplinary unit! As usual, being the anarchist I am, I ignored him and questioned his authoritarian rule by plunging Knee deep into the surf.

From here we visited a rather pointless museum (the name I cannot remember) which was yet another example of money wasted on bizarre “perceived” tourist attractions. I speak of wasted money in terms of international visitors, the more than easily pleased Koreans chattered frantically moving from one attraction to another in this culturally inadequate attraction. Its tally included an ice sculpture room, illusional or delusional “trick” art room (depending on your perception) and an overly expensive souvenir shop.

At the end of day two I took a sunset stroll along the volcanic beach adjacent to the hotel followed by the school Karaoke contest hosted by a local “entertainer”.  It seems that the only requirement to be an entertainer in Korea is to wear short drain pipe trousers in a loud colour, sport a pork pie trilby and to shout a lot.

Day three began with a drive  back to the South of the Island and a boat trip around Seongsan Ilchulbong from Seogwipo. The north and southeast sides  feature dramatic cliffs. The northwest slope, however, is a grassy field that connects the crater to Seongsan Village. This destination became Korea’s first UNESCO Natural World Heritage site. The distinction is shared by just 173 other places around the world, and has served to boost international interest and travel to the island. Of course the well honed cynicism in me may suggest that the expanding catalogue of UNESCO nominations for South Korea is being fueled by Bag Ki-moon’s influential position at the UN, in this case though the nomination is well-deserved :-). My major disappointment was that we were not on course to climb and view inside the peak but merely to sail around it. This also meant we missed the opportunity to see the Hanyeo; literally translated as “diving woman”. These women dive for abalone and other sea fauna. Jeju Island is famous for its Hanyeo and these skilled women put on diving performances throughout the day in the waters just off of Seongsan Ilchulbong. The above said the boat trip was fantastic and afforded great views of the rock formations that categorise this natural attraction gleaned from past aquavolcanic activity. One thing that didn’t surprise for the 50% apathy rate among my young charges, a couple even slept through the who experience. One plus point was I received a new nickname nomination.  I am from this point forward referred to as “Hellboy”, nothing to do with behavioural characteristics but entirely related to my sunburned pate.

The Seopjikoji coast was next, it’s a magnificent volcanic landscape surrounded by flowers and mountains and there’s a lighthouse/weather station to climb with an impressive view of the ocean, if you like nice views, it’s a place you should’t miss. Apparently the time to visit is spring when the cliffs hold pretty flowers and the fields adjoining are covered in yellow rapeseed. I strode ahead with a group of students with the cry of “only 20 minutes here” ringing in my ears. V was back! A group of 12 became 2 with just Joseph and I left, we climbed to the lighthouse viewing platform for great views along the coast. The red martianesque dust from the rocks glowed in the sun. Most of the Koreans stopped for a photo shoot outside the picturesque church but God failed to inspire further exploration of the peninsula. Joseph and I scurried back passing V waving his punishment stick, the coach was ready to leave, after all the SK priority is not nature but food!
A “Black Pig” lunch beckoned! It’s a specialty on the island, black pig meat, or heuk-dwaeji in Korean. Arriving at the restaurant I felt excited about trying this famous delicacy. I had eaten a lot of pork bbq since arriving in Korea and had no idea what the difference would be with the black pig to say the least it was disappointing. I was advised by my co-teachers if was a cheap version :-). Now for a strange travel fact! As recently as the 1960′s Jeju’s black pigs used to feed on human waste, yes our #2. Nowadays the pigs are fed a common diet (waste-free), but many say this has negatively affected the taste. Bring on the poo poo!

Next on this action packed adventure was the “cave”, there are apparently some spectacular caves on the island but our tour guide chose the least spectacular and if I’m honest dull example. He picked Micheon Cave in Ilchul Land, a designated Natural Monument, it’s one of the representative lava tubes of Jeju along with Hwanggeumgul, Socheongul, and Manjanggul caves. It has to be said that the cave sits in beautifully landscaped and manicured gardens which are a greater attraction than the cave itself.The cave is 1.7lm long but we are only privy to 365m. I’m sure Korean fear of death by falling rocks has stopped us from discovering its hidden delights which are most probably legion! If you want to gift me lava tubes try and stimulate me with some “tites” and “mites” as every other country has done.

The next agenda item was the circus, yes the circus, complete with underage imported Chinese kids, I was appalled! Whilst no denying the talent on show at Dongchun Circus World the sad faces told the real story. The acts ranged from spools and rope dancing girls (Gaby you’re a has-been) to the acrobatic pairs dangling on a hoop suspended from the ceiling and then the tumbling acts; it is spectacular but those sad faces. The next act with the spinning fans is similarly extraordinary, the litheness and adroitness of the performers is clearly exceptional. The next act involves two adult males and two kids (the girl is apparently 15 years old we are told).  It’s a tumbling act and the two men tumble and juggle the tiny kids with their feet.  The might required to do this is absurd and it really is an extraordinary act. The grand finale is the motorbike act, it starts with a single biker who zooms around inside of an colossal sphere. Eventually more and more bikers enter until there are a total of seven in a globe that seems to have abruptly decreased significantly in size. All in all, as a spectacle amazing but the whole shebang is incredibly immoral.

Next horse riding, as it turned out the kids and by the way it looked the teachers favourite activity. My role was chief photographer but it did look fun. Jeju is famous for horses and there is a saying in Korea, “Send people to the mainland and horses to Jeju.” The island may have been short on horses at one time, but not anymore. Jeju horses, also known as “Jejuma,” or “Gwahama” meaning “short enough to go under fruit trees,” are known as the symbol of Jeju island. Jeju horses are distinctively shaped, with shorter front legs and a long body. They are slightly taller than Shetland ponies. Their diminutive stature is a result of their heritage. During the thirteenth century Jeju was ruled by the Mongols who brought about 160 of their own short, stocky horses to the island. These horses were bred with the native horses resulting in the Jeju horse of today.The kids smiled more in the 45 minutes we were there than on the erst of the trip put together. Some of the teachers were so enthralled they did repeat circumnavigations of the arena.

Our final stop was a fading, lost in time, Natural History Museum which was embraced with the disdain that it deserved, from there back for more slop in the buffet style restaurant.  I didn’t engage as I’d eaten enough of it. The usual martialing of the kids followed by a shed load of Soju after lights out took place and hangovers were in evidence as we depaerted in the morning for our return to Chungers. It was a a wonderful trip punctuated by the endearing idiosyncratic behaviour that make Korea such a wonderful place to live and work :-).

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3 thoughts on “Jeju Island: With Chungwon High School

  1. Bring on the poo poo?
    The traditional farmers in mountainous regions of North Sumatra have been refusing to use modern fertilizers because they prefer the poo poo. I guess that’s why their vegetables are the best tasting ones in the whole province! 😀

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