We said in our first Korea post that one of the inspirations for coming was the Netflix series Korean Pork Belly Rhapsody. And any Korean will tell you that the best pork in the country comes from the Jeju Black, a black-skinned domestic pig breed which originated on Jeju Island.
Highly prized by Koreans and often described as the ‘wagyu of pork’, you can buy it on the mainland, but why not go to the source.
We flew from Busan and at the airport saw something so quintessentially Korean, we just had to post this. A dog that looked like a toy as carry-on luggage, and those oh-so-comfy looking shoes.
But we digress. We came for the pork, and it wasn’t hard to find.
There were piggies everywhere.
More to the point, there were black pork restaurants galore. Is it better than other pork? Well, it might be the power of suggestion but we did find it utterly delicious.
Jeju attracts loads of domestic tourists for its beautiful white sand beaches, but for us, the interior was a bigger drawcard. After all, we have the best beaches in the world in our own country!
We needed to walk off some of our pork excesses so we headed to the forest. Hallasan National Park, which covers almost 10% of the island, is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve surrounding Mount Halla, a massive shield volcano and South Korea’s highest peak.
On the eastern border of the park is the stunning Saryeoni Forest, with 15km of walking trails through maple, cedar and oaks. It’s particularly attractive in the autumn.
We also went up to Jeju’s north-east coast to Seongsan Ilchul-bong, a 182 metre high extinct volcano which is lauded as one of Jeju’s most impressive sights.
UNESCO World Heritage listed Seongsan is also known as Sunrise Peak, famous as the best spot on the island to see the sunrise. It’s particularly popular on New Year’s Eve, as locals believe seeing the first ray of the sun brings good luck for the year. But buses don’t run from Jeju town in the small hours of the morning and anyway, John has long believed sunrise is over-rated, so we just opted for a day walk.
At the base of Seongsan, a directional sign points the way.
The Korean idea of ‘mountaineering’ is a little different to ours. The trail turned out to be:
It wasn’t as steep as it looks and didn’t shift too many pork pounds. But the ascent does end on the rim with a stunning 360 degree view.
The volcanic crater is solid and densely forested, and on a clear day you can see the outer lying islands of Japan on the horizon.
At the base of Seongsan is Ilchul-bong beach, one of the last places where you can see haenyeo, female free divers. These women are able to stay underwater for an impressive three minutes, diving to a depth of up to 30 metres in the chilly water to harvest abalone, oysters, sea squirts and sea urchins. Girls begin training at age 11, becoming fully competent haenyeo after around seven years.
According to records, diving to collect seafood has existed on Jeju since the 5th century. Originally a male occupation, it evolved into an exclusively female occupation by the 17th century. It’s unclear why, but however it came about, the societal impact was profound. Uniquely within the region, it led to a semi-matriarchal society with women as the primary breadwinners. As recently as the 1960s, 40% of haenyeo husbands did not work.
The culture of the haenyeo divers was inscribed into the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2016, but it’s a disappearing vocation, largely overtaken by commercial fishing. Almost all of the divers are over 70 years old. It’s a hard way to make a living, and this generation of ladies will almost certainly be the last.
The Jeju people are indigenous to the island, with their own culture and (now endangered) language. It was spared from much of the imperialist oppressions of the Japanese occupation but suffered greatly from political and social unrest in the following years.
The Jeju 4.3 Peace Park is a museum and memorial park which explains the history and consequences of what has come to be called the Jeju April 3 incident, although it was not a single incident, rather a period of state-sanctioned brutality and repression which lasted seven years.
After the ousting of the Japanese at the end of WWII, the south of the Korean Peninsula came under the administration of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK). It was intended as a temporary measure but after negotiations for re-unification with the north stalled, a decision was made to hold a general election for a South Korea-only government.
Already discontented about economic conditions and police brutality, the decision led to mass protests on Jeju Island with fears it would permanently entrench the north-south separation of the country. On 3 April 1948, the protests morphed into an armed uprising.
The USAMGIK branded the protestors as communists/sympathisers with Russian-backed North Korea and began brutal purges which continued for years after the South Korean government was formally established via the election. 39,000 homes were burned as police forced the entire inland population to move to the coast so they could be monitored and controlled. 90,000 people were displaced in the process. 25,000 people, 10% of the entire island population, were killed by police during demonstrations, were executed or died in prison.
It was only in 2003 that the government formally apologised to Jeju’s citizens for the atrocities, with a commission chaired by the then President of South Korea finding that they amounted to attempted genocide.
The museum, which looks a bit like a flying saucer, is full of facts and there’s a peaceful, contemplative park surrounding it with lots of memorials.
Jeju is the only self-governing province in South Korea, which leaves it free to make policy decisions seperate to the mainland on a range of matters. Some years back, the government established tax breaks for private museums on Jeju to help bolster the economy and attract tourists. So there’s lots of niche museums like Jeju Love Land (X-rated erotic sculptures) , Spirited Garden (bonsai), Hello Kitty Museum (aimed squarely at the Japanese market), Snoopy Garden (Peanuts characters), an aerospace museum (despite the fact that Jeju has no space program), tea museum, teddy bear museum, African art museum, lightning museum, computer museum, seashell museum. The list goes on.
Too many to visit them all. We opted for the Jeju Stone Park. Being a volcanic island, Jeju has a lot of stone.
The site is enormous, just under 950,000 square metres and still a work in progress. There’s a pavilion with a display of 400 rare volcanic rocks. And an exhibition hall dedicated entirely to How Rocks are Made.
The Sky Pond evokes the Korean legend of Grandmother Seolmundae, a 49,000 metre tall woman (no, that’s not a misprint) who threw herself into her enormous cooking pot, sacrificing herself to feed her starving children. For reasons that were not explained, you can don a pair of Wellington boots and wade around in it, if you wish.
There were temple guardian statues that looked like smaller versions of the Easter Island moai.
The Statues of the 500 Generals references another well known legend, although to us they looked rather like a random pile of stones.
If you’re mad about rocks, this place might be for you. But we are not rock fanatics and in truth, found the park disappointing. Julie was expecting lots of interesting outdoor sculptures but as John pointed out, it is the Jeju Stone Park, not the Jeju Stone Sculpture Park. Julie wished we’d opted for Snoopy Garden. John suggested a return to town and a pork dinner. Much better plan.
We’d been feasting on pork belly BBQ a lot, so hit the Dongmun night market for something different. It was full of porky treats, like these eggs encased in pork mince, crumbed and then wrapped in a strip of sticky pork belly.
When you order one, the vendor blasts it with a butane torch to scorch the pork belly and drizzles it with chilli sauce. The Jeju equivalent of Scotch eggs.
Pork dumplings in rainbow flavours.
And these rolls of pork stuffed with cabbage and grilled. For Australian readers – like a chiko roll without the pastry and sooo much tastier.
Once cooked, the roll is topped with a fried egg, more grilled pork and a sweet, spicy sauce. Impossible to eat without making a mess, but delicious.
The Stone Park was a bust but yes, it was worth ducking down to Jeju, just for the pork.