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JEJU-DO – SEAFOOD DIVERS, SUNRISE PEAK AND STONE GRANDFATHERS

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Dolhareubangs (stone grandfathers) live only on Jeju-do. (Do means island.) The largest of Korea's 3,300 islands, Jeju dangles like a pearl pendant 100 kilometers off the southern tip. The popular honeymoon destination is a one-hour flight south of Seoul, South Korea's capital city.

Stone grandfather
Stone grandfather
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Easy to recognize, stone grandfathers range in size from teacup-sized souvenirs to street lamp-tall monoliths. They have rounded shoulders, stubby noses, bulging eyes and firmly closed lips. Round hats with narrow brims cover their porous basalt heads.

Dolhareubangs guard bridges and entrances to buildings. They peer from green foliage and shop windows.

Cultural treasures

Currently, 41 of the original dolhareubangs remain, although there are countless newly carved versions scattered throughout the island. Commemorative plaques identify the weathered originals as cultural treasures.

Created in the mid-1700s, they were placed near the gates of ancient walled towns to ward off evil spirits. To us, the stone grandfathers were more than historical monuments. They were benevolent spirits that brought us luck.

Although we arrived in June, at the beginning of Jeju-do's monsoon season, brisk winds dispersed the clouds. When we stopped at Jeongbang to photograph a waterfall cascading into the sea, they showered us with good fortune again. We not only saw Korean honeymooners, but also a unique and vanishing tradition on the island — haenyeos.

Seafood diver
Seafood diver
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Free-diving for shellfish

These women divers wear masks, but no snorkels or scuba gear. Holding their breath for long periods of time, they gather seafood at depths of up to 10 meters. We watched a half-dozen haenyeos emerge from the ocean, clad in black wet suits and carrying white cylindrical floats, which they use as resting stations in the water. Their nets were filled with abalone, oysters and sea urchins.

All the haenyeos that we saw were middle-aged. Young women no longer wish to learn this difficult craft. And men want nothing to do with it. When the haenyeos become too old to dive, no one will replace them.

Seaside restaurant

Until then, these mature mermaids make a good living by setting up makeshift restaurants on the rocky beach. We watched a haenyeo wash a freshly caught octopus, chop it into bite-sized sections, and serve them—still wriggling, to customers.

Diners sat on the rocks, balanced trays on their laps and, using chopsticks, eagerly devoured the seafood. Small dishes of chile paste and cloves of garlic were the only accompaniments.

Dragon Head Coast meal
Dragon Head Coast meal
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Both are mainstays of Korean cuisine. Drying cloves of garlic paved the sidewalks and roadsides as we drove along the west coast. Women wearing broad-brimmed hats, to protect themselves from the sun, scooped the garlic into net bags for storage.

Jeju-do is ringed with a 356-kilometer coastline. On the Yongmeori (Dragon Head) Coast, pounding surf has eroded the rock into grottos, stone bridges and whimsical shapes. On the scenic coastal path, we scrambled up and over elephant-sized boulders, occasionally getting sprayed by sea water exploding between rocky crevasses.

Cave temple

Mount Sanbang towers above the beach. From the parking lot at the base of the 395-meter-high peak, 600 breath-wrenching steps make their way through a forest of evergreens to a natural grotto called Sanbanggulsa.

The cave was turned into a temple by a monk, named Hyeil, in the year 1000. Stone steps lead up to a statue of a serene Buddha, which people have visited since ancient times.

Mount Sanbang temple
Mount Sanbang temple
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

At the ear-shaped entrance to the cave, a grey-robed monk with a scarlet sash observed worshippers cupping their hands to collect and drink water drops falling from a spring in the ceiling. Legend claims that they are the tears of the patron goddess of Sanbang mountain. A sip ensures a long life.

Halfway down the mountain, a 20-meter-high Bodhisattva (saint, next in importance to Buddha) presides over an elaborately painted temple. A monk's chanting drew us to the entrance. Flickering candles illuminated three gold Buddhas, an ornate drum, and the source of the chanting: Samsung electronics.

From the temple, a dolhareubang looks out over the 1,825-square-kilometer island of Jeju. Like all stone grandfathers, he had both hands placed over his tummy, as if he had just finished a satisfying meal.

Jeju-do tangerines
Jeju-do tangerines
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Jeju foods

It's not surprising. Many people come to Jeju-do for the cuisine. Local food specialties include shitake (pyogo) mushrooms, seasoned with mountain herbs and cooked in a stone pot, pheasant dumpling soup, sea bream (both broiled and served raw as sashimi), golden honey and juicy tangerines.

The citrus scent from the mouthwatering fruit is also incorporated into a perfume called Jeju, along with the fragrance from rapeseed flowers. These mustard-yellow blossoms carpet the island in early April in vivid contrast to the fluorescent green rice paddies and ebony black rock.

Mt Halla National Park

Hallasan, the highest mountain in Korea, at 1,950 meters, is the source of the volcanic rock. Mount Halla volcano is now extinct and the centerpiece of a national park that is home to 1,800 species of flora and a herd of stocky wild ponies. The best way to see both is on hiking trails that range from two-to-five hours (one-way).

At least 15 volcanic flows have left lava tubes throughout the island. A drive along the west coast brought us to Hyeopjaegul and Ssangyonggul (Two Dragons Cave). The caves show stalactite formation in progress.

In the cool darkness, we explored Manjanggul Cave. It's the longest lava tube in the world. Water drops filtered through the ceilings, plopping on our heads and splashing on the floor, slowly building stalactites and stalagmites.

Climbing Sunrise Peak
Climbing Sunrise Peak
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Hiking up Sunrise Peak

Seongsan Ilchulbong is the most spectacular volcanic mountain on Jeju-do. The 99 buttress-like rocks that surround the crater's circumference are the origin of its name: seong (fortress) san (mountain). We huffed-and-puffed up several hundred stairs to the 182-meter-high rim of Sunrise Peak. Looking east, we saw the Yellow Sea, from where the sun casts its first rays each day. Gazing west, we viewed the village of Seongsan.

Many homes on Jeju-do are constructed from blocks of black lava rock and covered with thatched straw roofs. The government protects them as cultural properties. Villages, such as Seongeup, which includes 3,000 thatched roof homes, are designated as folk villages even though they are still inhabited.

Seongeup is also a good place to see traditional jeongnang (long sticks). In earlier days, three wooden poles were balanced horizontally between stone pillars in front of a home when the owners were away. A single pole meant that the owners were nearby, while two poles strung across indicated that the owners would be back later in the evening. When all three were resting on the ground, the owners were home and were willing to receive visitors.

Seongeup Folk Village
Seongeup Folk Village
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A few of the oldest homes are now museums. As we peered inside the doors and examined large glazed urns used to store rice and soy sauce, we sensed someone watching us. Looking around, our eyes met the amiable gaze of a dolhareubang.

Jeju-do weather

Jeju-do has a subtropical climate with four distinct seasons. In summer, temperatures range between 22 and 26 degrees C (71 to 79 degrees F), while winter temperatures drop to 5 to 7 degrees C (41 to 45 degrees F).

You can rent a car at Jeju International Airport. Driving is on the right-hand side. Roads are in excellent condition and uncrowded. Everything on the island is within a day's drive.

We stayed at The Shilla Jeju Hotel. Its guest list reads like a Who's Who. Guest VIP's have included Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, movie director Oliver Stone and golfer Greg Norman.

Jeju-do has been called many names over the years: Korea's Hawaii, Island of Fantasy and Dwelling Place of the Gods, to name a few. But for us, it will always be the Island of Stone Grandfathers.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Korea Tourism Organization

More things to see & do in Korea:

Korea - Where East Meets West

Gyeongju Korea - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Guide to Korea