Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Brief Review of HanaTour of Jeju

In the background is the faint outline of Hallasan,
the main volcano of Jeju.
The tour with HanaTour wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I thought of visiting Jeju. I would prefer more of visiting the natural/environmental attractions (e.g. Sunrise Peak, the Olle trail, etc.), and left to my own devices, I’d skip the circuses, glass museum, and horseback riding (which all screamed “tourist trap”). But in the end, it wasn’t a bad tour; the guide was talkative and nice, the whole trip was well-organized, and we managed to pack a lot of stuff into just two and a half days (arguably too much stuff, as I often just wanted a break in the middle of the day). The real problem, I think, was just that I clearly was not the intended customer: a Korean who wants to get away from the mainland for a couple of days and do some fun stuff he or she normally doesn’t get to do, besides just hiking around in the fresh air. For those who don’t fit this description, like me, there are undoubtedly more suitable tour packages out there. As a final note on my experience, I don’t think that Jeju Island itself is overrated at all. The tourism industry is front and center in Jeju for a reason: there are truly some spectacular works of nature here, and the historical culture is likewise unique.  

Saturday, May 28, 2011

5/18/11: Tour of Jeju-do Continued

We started off today with an elephant show. Similar to the glass museum and yesterday’s circus, it was basically a tourist trap with no relation to the historic or natural assets of Jeju, but it was engineered for a good crowd reaction. I do tend to question the use of animals in circuses, but I can also see the viewpoint that when done well, it’s not more objectionable than, say, training horses to compete in dressage. The elephants did seem well-cared-for and relaxed, and they definitely liked receiving bananas from the audience (if you gave the elephants money instead, they passed it on to their riders).
A couple of cranes at EcoLand.
Can you tell they aren't real? ;)

We then took a forest train tour of the EcoLand theme park. Some of the scenery was nice, but as the tour was only in Korean, I missed the explanations of the features of the preserved forest. There wasn’t much to speak of in terms of fauna, and it seems the park management tried to compensate by putting in fake animal models (!).

After EcoLand, we visited a horseback riding operation, where members of our tour group got to ride a few laps around a small field. The horses seemed to know their job extremely well, going automatically in a group around the same track that they always did, but I had to feel bad for their rather rote existence. At least they all appeared to be in good condition physically. Perhaps to differentiate between the tourists and staff, all tourists had to wear bright red vests and black cowboy-style hats, which were pretty silly looking (and had no protective value whatsoever; I was very surprised they had no helmet requirement, but perhaps Korean culture isn’t as sue-happy as American culture). 

An original dol hareubang
After the horseback riding, we headed to a preserved traditional Jeju village, including thatched buildings and original, several-hundred-years-old basalt statues known as dol hareubang ( 하르방); the name means “stone grandfather” in Jeju dialect. The statues were intended to protect against demons, and similar dol hareubang are still found commonly throughout the island, to the point of being an iconic feature. While at the village, we also got to try a drink prepared from ohmija (오미자), the berries of Schisandra chinensis. The drink supposedly has health benefits, but at any rate, it was delicious – somewhere between cranberry juice, grape juice, and honey.
A painting inside
Micheon Cave.
(I like the reflection.)

We also visited Micheon Cave (미천굴), a lava tube of which only 365m (out of 1.7km) is open to the public. Though not quite pristine and secluded (having been well-developed as a tourist attraction), it was a pleasant walk, especially as the cave was a cool refuge from the increasingly warm and humid weather outside. The surroundings above ground had also been developed with various gardens and a collection of interesting stone statues, including a ~5m tall dol hareubang.

A view from near the top of Sunrise Peak.

Our last main stop of the day was Seongsan Ilchubon (성산 일추본), aka “Sunrise Peak” (it offers a spectacular view of the sunrise, which we unfortunately didn’t get to witness). Sunrise Peak features a large crater at the top and nearly vertical cliffs. The climb is fairly steep and takes about 20 minutes at a good clip, but it has a good staircase all the way up – no real hiking or rock climbing. The view from the top is breathtaking in every sense of the word, and more than worth the exercise it takes to get there.

Dinner was at a seafood shack right next to the ocean. The main dish was a kind of seafood rice porridge, which might not sound particularly interesting, but was actually very delicious and hearty. 

5/17/11: Tour of Jeju-do

Beautiful Jeju! Taken from the deck of the submarine Jiah.
On our first full day in Jeju, HanaTour first took us to a glass museum. It turned out to be a kind of theme park with outdoor displays of glass trees, flowers, animals, sculptures, etc., as well as a few indoor exhibits of glasswork from around the world (e.g. Venetian glass and Bohemian glass). To be honest, the whole place felt rather on the kitschy side, but most people seemed to enjoy the photo-ops. Afterwards, we went to another event that I was surprised to find on our itinerary: a circus. The main attraction was the final act, in which up to six men at once rode motorbikes at high speed in a spherical cage with a diameter of perhaps 20 feet. I really don’t know how they learned/rehearsed the moves without suffering debilitating accidents…

Green tea plantation.
 Following the circus, we went to the O'Sulloc Tea Plantation. It was a sunny day, so the rows of green tea bushes were quite beautiful. Per our tour guide’s recommendation, we each tasted a leaf picked straight from the bushes; it was very bitter.

After lunch, we headed to the Cheonjiyeon waterfalls (천지연폭포). The bridge to the waterfalls offered spectacular views of the surrounding landscape, and the main waterfall, while not exactly Niagara Falls, was still worth the visit.

The main waterfall at Cheonjihyeon.
We then had a tour of an orchard, where several Jeju specialties were grown: a seedless orange-like citrus fruit known as hallabong (한라봉), kumquats (called 금귤 [geumgyul]), and sanghwang mushrooms (상황버섯). The flowers of the hallabong trees smelled absolutely heavenly; the fragrance was very similar to that of acacia blossoms. The mushrooms were also very interesting: they grow on tree stumps and take three years of cultivation to be harvest-ready. Within the Eastern medicine tradition, it has long been thought to have medicinal properties, and those claims may have some truth to them: a Boston University School of Medicine study in 2006 found that extracts of the mushroom boosted the efficacy of a chemotherapy drug.  

Geumgyul, aka kumquats.
Sanghwang mushrooms being
cultivated on chunks of trees.

The diver following the submarine.
After the orchard, we were treated to a ride on the Jiah submarine, which went to a depth of about 40 meters. A diver followed the submarine and fed the fish, which clearly knew to expect dinner. Lastly, we took a short walk along a portion of the Olle trail (a 200-km walking path, much of which is along the pristine coastline) to see the Oedolgae Rock (외돌개), a 20m high volcanic basalt pillar. K-drama tidbit: a little further along the trail is the place where the death of the character Han Sang Gung was filmed for the popular 2003 drama Jewel in the Palace, aka Daejanggeum (대장금).     

Oedolgae. Some say it resembles a
grandmother's head...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

5/16/11: Welcome to Jeju-do

Sleeping dragon?
Volcanic rocks along the coast of Jeju.
We transferred to Jeju this afternoon via a 50-minute flight from Gimpo International Airport. Jeju is a volcanic island south of the mainland, and it’s an extremely popular tourist destination, especially for honeymoons. After meeting up with our tour group (in which there actually was a young couple on their honeymoon), we got started with sightseeing right away, climbing Yongnuni Oreum (용눈이오름). The name literally means “Dragon Eye Mountain”; apparently, some say that the crater on top looks like a dragon’s eye from above, while others say that the mountain (really a parasitic volcano) looks like a sleeping dragon. The climb was a bit steep at times, particularly on the descent, and it would have been quite slippery in the damp weather were it not for the strips of rope pressed into the trail. The cool, wet weather didn’t offer the most picturesque conditions (the view was mostly obscured by mist), but it was very refreshing after being on a plane and a bus. By the time we made it down from the mountain, it was already dinnertime (for which we went to a shabu-shabu restaurant), so that was about it for today.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

Changdeok Palace

Here are some more pictures and trivia from our visit to the rear garden of Changdeok Palace in Seoul:
Can you see the small gates on either side of the main gate? (You can enlarge
the picture.) Those forced visitors to bow when approaching the king.
There's a myth that 10 years are added to your life if you walk through this arch.
One of the beautiful paintings on the pavilion ceilings.
Another unique pavilion, viewed from what some claim is the most scenic
vantage point in the garden.
Animal figures on the pavilion roofs protect against evil spirits.
Bonus picture from Korea House: So many dishes! You don't order them
individually; they all come as part of a traditional meal.

5/15/11: The First Day

Not surprisingly, jetlag and tight travel schedules combined to make me fall behind on posting right from the start, so I apologize if the chronology of these first few catch-up posts is a bit confusing. The posts are written according to the dates I’ve put in the titles, not according to the dates they were actually posted.
We arrived in Seoul yesterday afternoon after a 14-hour flight with Korean Air. The flight was surprisingly comfortable, with the most leg-room I’ve ever seen in economy class, but we were all extremely tired by the time we got to the Lotte City Hotel in Gongdeok-dong. Of course, thanks to our internal clocks, we nevertheless woke up bright and early today (5:30am).

A peaceful path at Ewha, on the way to the language center.
Around mid-morning, we took a shuttle to Ewha Womans University to see the campus where I’ll be studying later this summer. The Ewha campus is famously beautiful, and I think it lived up to our expectations. It was very peaceful and refreshing to walk around; it probably was especially quiet because it was a Sunday morning. The flowerbeds were all in full bloom as well along the main walkways. Although we didn’t make it all the way around the whole campus, we did find the building where the Ewha Language Center is based. Conveniently, Severance Hospital (where I’ll be receiving allergy treatments) is literally right across the street from the ELC building.

Just across from the Ewha main gate, we popped into a FamilyMart (a ubiquitous chain convenience store) to buy T-money cards for the subway. (It turns out that you can also use T-money to buy snacks and drinks at FamilyMart.) We then headed to Changdeok Palace (창덕궁) for a tour of the secret garden (비원), also known as the rear garden (후원). I'll have a separate post about Changdeok Palace so that I can better do it justice with plenty of captioned photos. For now, here's a teaser ;)

According to the tour guide, this is Korea's (and maybe the
world's?) only pavilion with a double, hexagonal roof.
After Changdeok Palace, we took the subway to meet my future home-stay host. She drove us to her apartment in Eungbong-dong, Seongdong-gu, where she lives with her husband and 16-year-old daughter (who I think may actually be 14 or 15 by American counting; Koreans often count age from conception, and sometimes also add a year on January 1st instead of on one’s actual birthday). She also has an older daughter studying abroad in an American high school. The family lives in an 18th floor apartment with a truly spectacular view of the Han River – I was amazed when I stepped into their living room! Thanks to my host’s generosity, I was able to drop off my violin and a small extra bag for safekeeping so I won’t have to lug them around while touring the country. My host also lent us two Korean cellphones – I’m so happy to be able to text in Hangeul ^_^.

In the evening, we went to Korea House (한국의집) for dinner. Korea House, which features traditional Joseon architecture, was originally the private home of a famous Joseon scholar-politician, Bak Paeng-Nyeon. Nowadays, it is a popular tourist destination because it offers traditional meals followed by a performance of traditional Korean music and dances. In classic Korean fashion, meal was quite elaborate, with a large variety of small dishes. The music and dance performance showcased several traditions, but unfortunately we were all so jetlagged that we kept nodding off throughout the whole thing – except for during the pungmul (풍물) performance, in which the handheld gongs kept us wide awake. The intricate patterns created by the long ribbon attached to the sangmo (상모) headdress were also fascinating to watch.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


안녕하세요! I’m a U.S. student who just completed my freshman year in college. In this blog, I will chronicle my experiences and observations as I travel and study in South Korea this summer, from May through August. My mother is Korean, but I don’t consider myself to have had a great deal of exposure to Korean culture, and I’ve never visited Korea before. This past school year, however, I started studying the Korean language and also watching Korean dramas (I think I’m an official K-drama addict now). As I became increasingly fascinated with the language, culture, and history of my mother’s homeland, going to Korea as soon as possible became one of my principal goals.

For the latter half of May, I will be traveling around Korea with my parents, starting with Jeju-do and then completing a circuit of the mainland with HanaTour. By the middle of June, my parents will leave and I’ll begin the Intensive Language Program at the Ewha Language Center, which is run by Ewha Womans University [sic]. While studying at Ewha, I’ll be staying with a Korean family I found through Korea Homestay ( – more on that later.

If there’s any Korea-related subject that you are particularly interested in reading about (e.g. famous sites, cuisine, music, dramas, etc.), just let me know by commenting on a post, and I’ll do my best to follow up!