About 55 miles south of the Korean mainland is the island of Jeju. A friend of mine who used to live in Korea had suggested I stay there for a few nights, so from Busan I caught a flight down to the island. It only took about 50 minutes for the plane to land in Jeju City on the island’s north coast. Gray skies and cool breeze greeted me upon arrival. Jeju is sometimes referred to as Korea’s Hawaii, but I unfortunately would be there during a period where there wasn’t much sunshine.
After arrival I made my way to the car rental area of the airport. While there is public transit on Jeju Island, my friend had told me that renting a car is the best way to get around. This would be the only time during my journey across Japan and Korea where I’d be driving a car and it would be my first time driving overseas, however Koreans drive on the same side of the road as Americans and the roads on Jeju are in good condition so it wouldn’t be much of a challenge. The car I rented was a white Chevrolet Spark—a compact car that was cheap to rent and had more than enough space for me. My car needed a name, and while Sparky was too obvious I wanted to stick with an electrical theme, so I named it Lightning. The car rental staff got my car’s GPS switched from Korean to English and then gave me a quick overview of the car before I pulled out of the lot and began my drive to the town of Seogwipo on Jeju’s southern coast. It took about 20 minutes to escape the traffic of Jeju City but once I was at the city’s outskirts I was on the highway and making good progress. The sun was slowly going down and the road was getting steadily darker as I cruised along. I thought that I had already turned my car’s headlights on but as the light grew dim it was clear that they were off. For some reason I couldn’t find the dial to turn them on and even though my vision is good it was getting increasingly hazardous to drive. Concrete barriers lined the side of the road and for a while I kept missing the gaps between them but I finally caught a gap and pulled over. Using my cell phone’s light I located the correct dial—which of course was in plain sight but I had somehow missed it—turned on the lights, did a mental celebration, and then continued on my way to Seogwipo. Half an hour later I reached the town and after a few more minutes I got to the area near my hostel and found a place to park on the street. The rest of that night was uneventful but that was fine by me. I had made it safely to my hostel despite my own stupidity and that was all that mattered.
The next morning I took a leisurely pace in getting ready for the day. Certainly there were plenty of things to do that day but I figured I was doing Jeju wrong if I treated it the same way as I did places like Tokyo, Kyoto, and, Seoul. Before heading out I went up to the roof to check the view. Low clouds blanketed the entire sky and the wind was starting to pick up. It wasn’t cold but it wasn’t warm either and I’d be wearing my hoodie for much of the day.
My first two sightseeing locales were within the city of Seogwipo and just a few minutes on foot from my hostel so I decided to walk to them rather than drive. In retrospect maybe I should have drove just to save a bit of time. I first went down to Cheonjiyeon Falls (not to be confused with another set of waterfalls on the island with a very similar name). After you enter the park where the falls are located you walk along a trail past two smaller rapids and you’ll heard the falls long before you actually see them. The name Cheonjiyeon translates to something along the lines of “sky connected with land” and I can understand where the name came from since the falls are about 22 meter (72 feet) high. Cheonjiyeon isn’t the tallest waterfall I’ve ever seen but it’s a good height and the clear turquoise waters of the pool it feeds make for a great photo opportunity. Strangely enough, while I was at Cheonjiyeon Falls a group of Korean (Or maybe Chinese, I’m not sure) girls wanted to take a photo with me and I obliged. This seriously came out of nowhere and I have no idea why they wanted to take a photo with me. As I think more about it, there were very few other Westerners that I saw on Jeju—the vast majority of the tourists I saw were Asian—so maybe there was some sort of novelty to getting a photograph with a Westerner like me. Or maybe there was some sort of joke being perpetrated and I was just clueless about it. On the way out of Cheonjiyeon I passed by a small outdoor theater and then crossed a stone footbridge over the river that streams away from the falls. A crane was standing in the middle of one of the rapids and I almost got a great photo of it taking flight but I was half a second too slow in composing the shot.
As I exited the park with Cheonjiyeon Falls I decided on a whim to walk down past Seogwipo’s harbor to a small island that was connect to the rest of Jeju by a very modern-looking bridge. I think the names of the tiny island and bridge are Saeseom Island and Saeyeongyo Bridge, but I’m not totally sure about that. It was getting really windy as I approached and crossed the bridge and the weather brought to mind my time in Avignon, France back in 2012. A sign on the island indicated that the trail that looped around the island was only about 1,100 meters long and I decided to take it. I only passed two or three other people as I made my way around that forested little island. Out on the island’s rocky shores I could see a group of fishermen with their lines cast out into the sea. When I looped back to the trailhead I crossed the bridge back to Seogwipo and made my way to the hostel to grab my car. It was now time to start my life on the road.
I drove a short distance to the east side of Seogwipo to visit Jeongbang Falls. What makes Jeongbang unique is that the falls are right next to the sea. The natural spray from the falls combined with the day’s winds made for a mist all around the falls and I had to clean my camera lens frequently. While photographing the falls I got the idea to step out onto the rocks in the middle of the stream flowing into the sea. This turned out to be a predictably precarious place to be standing but I managed to keep my balance. Jeongbang Falls reminded me a bit of the big waterfall in Plitviche Lakes in Croatia, which I visited in 2015, and is my personal favorite of the waterfalls I saw on Jeju Island.
Then it was back to the car and I drove west to my next destination. About 7 miles west of Seogwipo I came to Jusangjeolli Cliff. Many years ago a lava flow hit the sea and created angular rock formations. Large clusters of hexagonal and pentagonal pillars stretch out into the sea where they meet the crashing waves. Time and exposure to the sea have worn down and smoothed some of the rocks but many still look like a stonemason cut them. A group of Chinese tour buses were at Jusangjeolli Cliff at the same time I was there, so it got crowded on the pathway over the cliff but with a little patience I got my photos. Before leaving Jusangjeolli Cliff I stopped to check the bank account that I was using while overseas and found that I was down to my final $300 (plus the cash in my wallet). I had only a week to go before flying back to America and all my remaining big expenses were already covered so I wasn’t in any real danger, but I made a mental note to be selective with my remaining purchases in Korea and Japan.
I continued my drive west and some time later arrived at Sanbangsan Mountain. Honestly, I didn’t know anything about Sanbangsan Mountain but had seen it on a travel map as one of the featured places in the southwestern part of Jeju Island and I figured I’d check it out. The free parking lot at Sanbangsan Mountain was full so I had to pay for a permit but like just about everything on Jeju it was very cheap. I found a small temple at the base of Sanbangsan and then climbed the mountain path up to a small shrine in a cave. Some sort of Buddhist relic is supposedly held at Sanbangsan but I’m not sure exactly what.
When I came down from Sanbangsan I was trying to decide where to go next and settled on Hyeopjae Beach on Jeju’s northwestern coast. The only problem was that I couldn’t find a good phone number of a business next to the beach to plug into my car’s GPS. A Korean guy noticed me sitting in my car, fruitlessly trying to plot a route on my car’s GPS, and very kindly offered to help me out. He switched the GPS to Korean, plugged in Hyeopjae’s Korean name, and then switched the GPS to English again once the GPS had plotted the route. I thanked him for his generosity and again marveled at how the Korean people will go out of their way to help travelers like myself.
It took about 30 minutes to reach Hyeopjae Beach and by the time I got there it was the late afternoon. Clouds still enveloped the sky, so I wouldn’t be getting any dramatic sunset photos as the light slowly started to fade. Hyeopjae is a beautiful little beach with good sand as well as volcanic rock. The clear, shallow waters were almost emerald in color. Lots of other people were walking around the area, including a wedding photographer who was working his magic farther down the beach with a couple who I’m guessing had gotten married just a little before I arrived. Walking around Hyeopjae and enjoying the sights, smells, and sounds of the beach was a good way to wrap up the day’s sightseeing. I made a mental note to come back to Hyeopjae if possible before leaving Jeju as I returned to the car to start the long drive back to Seogwipo.
A few miles outside of Seogwipo I stopped at a large grocery store called E-Mart and bought some food before continuing on to the hostel. During dinner I talked to a guy from San Sebastian in Spain who was leaving the next day with his friends to fly back to Busan. Earlier that day I had heard him and his friends talking at the hostel and though I recognized they were speaking Spanish I had a hard time understanding what they were saying since the Spanish they spoke sounded very different from what I was familiar with. Later that night I also talked a bit with a Chinese girl named Kate and her aunt. They were heading over to Seongsan Ilchulbong, aka Sunrise Peak, in the morning, which happened to be where I was going too. I offered to give them a ride and thus save them the hassle of catching a bus and we set a time to meet at the front desk in the morning.
That next day the three of us met up and then got into my car for the drive out to Sunrise Peak on the eastern tip of the island. It took a little over an hour to get there and we pulled into the parking at about 10:35am. Sunrise Peak is a small mountain that’s a popular spot for watching sunrises, hence the name, though people like me who prefer not to get up early will instead show up at a more reasonable time in the morning. The downside to not being early, of course, is that you have to deal with all the tour groups, and there were many Chinese tour buses in the parking lot by the time we got there. Kate paid for my entry ticket as thanks for the ride and all three of us started up the mountain. There were a lot of stairs to climb but the cool weather kept me from overheating. At Sunrise Peak’s crest you can look out across the entire eastern part of Jeju Island as well as the shallow crater on top of the mountain. Sunset Peak is thought to have formed from underwater volcanic activity a few thousand years ago but is not an actual volcano and there’s no danger of it erupting. When we came down from the top we made our way to a beach on the northeast side of the peak. This beach was one of the ones where Jeju’s famed women divers go out into the sea to collect shellfish without the aid of oxygen tanks, though we were there at the wrong time to see any of them at work. The view of the peak from down on the beach would have made for a really good photo, except that bright white clouds with the sun right behind them made the lighting really bad. If I ever come back to Jeju and revisit Sunrise Peak I’m thinking I’ll stop by in the early afternoon for better sun position.
As we came back towards the parking lot I asked Kate and her aunt where they were headed next. It was decided that we’d stick together for a little longer and go visit Manjanggul Cave, which was about 30 minutes by car to the northwest. Manjanggul Cave is actually more of a tunnel than a cave and was created long ago by lava flowing underground. Water dripped from the ceiling and colored lights guided us down the 1km of the tunnel that is open to the public. At one point we passed by the Stone Turtle, a rock formation that bears an uncanny resemblance to the overall shape and topography of Jeju Island. Not a lot of other people were visiting Manjanggul Cave while we were down in it, but as we were making our way back to the entrance a large group of school kids passed by us, so I guess we had managed to catch a gap in the crowd. Had we arrived later we would have had to deal with a cave full of the echoes of noisy kids.
When we exited the cave it was around 2:15pm and Kate and her aunt parted ways with as they waited for a bus to go somewhere else on the island. As for me, I set a course for Hamdeok Beach on Jeju’s north shore. It took about 45 minutes to get there and as I was driving along I saw a motorcycle cop behind me with flashing lights. I wasn’t speeding and was very confused as to why I was getting stopped but I pulled over. To my surprise, the cop just drove past me. For whatever reason, the cops on Jeju Island drive around with their police lights always on and I can’t have been the only foreigner who has been confused by this. Anyways, I reached Hamdeok Beach awhile later and after I pulled into the sandy parking lot I noticed a group of people on the beach playing a game of dodgeball. I also discovered that Kate and her aunt had left their snack bag in my car and I made a mental note to try to get it back to them. The rest of my day was spent at or near the beach. Like Hyeopjae, Hamdeok is a beach full of bright sand, clear water, and volcanic rock. Near the parking lot was a small surf shop whose owner had a puppy that was curiously exploring the beach and each time the puppy strayed too far the owner had to go out and bring it back. I walked around the beach area and at the eastern end I unzipped the lower part of my convertible pants and waded out into the water. A group of kids was playing on that part of the beach and one of them walked up to me and said hello in Korean and shook my hand. I said hello back to him in Korean (hopefully not butchering the pronunciation). Also out in the water was a group of four rookie surfers and their instructor. The waves were small that day but that likely wasn’t a problem since they appeared to just be practicing the basics of surfing. I took a few photos while standing out in the shallow waters of the beach and then came back ashore to towel off and collect my sandals and daypack that I had left on the beach. On some beaches you need a friend to watch your stuff while you’re in the water, but Hamdeok (and Hyeopjae) seemed like the kind of place where you could just leave things on the beach and be confident that no one would take them.
Next to the eastern end of Hamdeok Beach is a hill with a hiking trail snaking up its side. I decided to see where it led and followed it for some distance. At one point I thought I had found a branching path that would circle back to Hamdeok Beach but it soon became clear that wasn’t the case and I turned around and went back the way I came. Close to the trail I could see a few horses hanging out on the side of the hill. As I continued along they all started moving in the same direction and I could hear someone whistling in the distance, which I’m guessing was their owner signaling to them that it was time to eat. Back near the start of the trail there was a horse standing around right next to the path. I petted him a bit and he gave my arm a sniff before trying to bite if off. Maybe I had some food crumbs on my arm that it smelled, or maybe that horse had acquired a taste for human flesh. Whatever the case, I walked back to my car and started the drive down to Seogwipo. I got a bit of a sunset view during the drive and also sampled more of Jeju’s radio stations. Among others, I heard some English language programming, K-pop, and music I could only describe as the Korean version of American Country Music. I really wish I knew the name of the song or the band playing it because it was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard. When I reached the hostel I ate dinner and uploaded photos to social media. I didn’t see Kate or her aunt so I put their snacks in the hostel’s refrigerator in the hopes that they’d notice it there.
My last day on Jeju soon arrived and I tried to make the most out of my final hours on the island. I got up early, ate, and loaded up my backpack before checking out of the hostel and heading for my car. I couldn’t help but notice as I stepped outside that the skies were now mostly clear. The sun was out, Mt Hallasan in the middle of the island was visible for the first time since I had arrived on Jeju, and although the wind was still blowing it was getting warm. “Of course, the weather improves just as I’m about to leave” I thought to myself as I put my backpack into the car. Unfortunately for me there was no time to waste on self-pity. My flight was in the early afternoon but I needed to drop off the car an hour before the flight. That morning I would be driving like a Jeju local—thank is, I would be driving fast and aggressive, but being careful of the myriad speed cameras across the island.
I drove first to Cheonjeyeon Falls, about 8 miles west of Seogwipo. It would have made a lot more sense to go there after I had visited Jusangjeolli Cliff since the two aren’t far from each other but my planning for Jeju Island admittedly hadn’t been the best. Cheonjeyeon is a three-tiered waterfall, though when I was there the uppermost fall wasn’t receiving enough water to make an actual waterfall. I followed the trail leading to each of the falls, not stopping too long in any one place, though at one point I detoured to check out a large arch bridge that crossed the river gorge. The middle falls of Cheonjeyeon were nice but overall I liked Cheonjiyeon and Jeongbang Falls more.
Time was rapidly running out but I wanted to visit Hyeopjae Beach again now that the weather was good. I tried replicating what that Korean guy had done for me two days earlier but was unsuccessful and none of the convenience stores by the beach had phone numbers listed online so no luck there either. What I managed to do was drop a GPS pin close to the beach and have the car’s GPS navigate to that. I sped along the highway and when I got to my GPS pin I was close enough to the beach to navigate the rest of the way on my own. With the sun out and the clouds clearing, the sands and waters of Hyeopjae were looking even better than my first time and I enjoyed a good five minutes there before I had to leave. If I’m able to return to Jeju in the future I’ll check out other beaches but Hyeopjae will definitely be getting another visit.
Sadly, I couldn’t stay longer on Jeju Island. I plugged in the car rental agency’s phone number into my car’s GPS and began the drive to Jeju City. I was making good time with my Jeju-style driving until I reached the outskirts of the city and then traffic slowed me down significantly. As I inched forward it became clear that I was going to be late in returning the car to the rental company. Close to the car rental area I stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank of my car. I had 35,000 won in my wallet and as the price gauge steadily climbed higher I was beginning to panic. The final bill was 34,000 won, so I lucked out that time. I dropped off the car at the rental area about 25 minutes later than I was supposed to, but after the staff inspected the car they didn’t give me any sort of fine for a late return. That was luck escape number 2. A shuttle bus then took me to the airport where I awaited my flight to Busan. Even though the weather could have been better, I had a pretty good time on Jeju Island and I had gotten some interesting experience with driving overseas. Leaving Jeju, however, meant that I was now very close to the end of my journey across Japan and Korea. Next I had a brief stay again in Busan and then I’d have a final three nights in Tokyo before the flight back to America.