|In May in Japan is a holiday known as "Golden Week". Even in Japanese it’s Golden Week in English NOT Japanese which would be Kin-shuu. Nearly everybody has it off and so the whole country is trying to travel. Kind of like Thanksgiving in the states.
Lots of people try to travel and so most of the students in my school were making their plans but I hadn’t made any. Then a couple of friends approached me and said, "Let’s go somewhere!". Feeling like I ought to do something with my time off I said "Cool!". Our choices were limited since most things were sold out and so we ended up going to Cheju Korea even though one of our group, I-san was Korean.
Cheju is an island south of the Korean mainland.
The hotel we stayed at is actually a place that caters to honey-mooners. Instead of rooms it’s a bunch of bungalows. I was told by I-san that newlyweds in Korea often wear matching clothes and observing quite a few couples wearing matching clothes there were quite a few honey-mooners though it was off season so it wasn’t that crowded.
It was on a cliff above the ocean. Very picturesque. There was also a historical village connected to the hotel that was featured in some famous Korean drama as well as a couple of restaurants. We got in about 5pm just in time to have dinner and watch the sunset.
Our first dinner was pretty big. If you have never had Korean food I’ve gathered there are two *main* features. Lots of it is spicy hot and it’s almost always accompanied by a large assortment of pickle like side dishes the most famous being forms of Kimchee.
Another thing that’s different about eating Korean style is that they use very thin chopsticks made out of metal. It was interesting to me because although I’ve never had a problem using them, my friend Doreen, from Taiwan, who has used chopsticks all her life, said they were too frustrating for her and she always had I-san ask for wooden ones.
I-san rented a car for us so we could drive around the island. The first place he took us was a temple in the mountains on the coast. At the bottom near the parking lot are 2 large structures with lots of people gathered around and even some kind of performance. I thought that was the temple but there were steep stairs leading up from there.
We walked up and ended up at a store where we spent maybe 20 minutes looking at souvenirs. But, there were still stairs going up. The rest of the group didn’t want to continue because they though nothing was up there so I went up alone. It was quite a ways up zigzagging back and forth up the mountain.
Finally it opened up to a big cave. In the entrance to the cave were a bunch of hanging lanterns and set into the cave was another giant statue with candles all around it.
Looking back down I was quite a way up. I have no idea how far up but it had to be several hundred feet at least. The town below and across the some fields looked very small and there were several small islands out in the ocean. (or maybe they were just large rocks)
Next we continued driving around the coast of the island stopping at some other cliffs on the ocean with a nice view. Both there and below are hotel there were people catching things and serving them up for lunch and dinner.
The people below our hotel where a group of women that looked in their 60s all walking around in black wetsuits. We watched a couple of them walk out into the ocean and dive for various shellfish and other coastal creatures. Back in their restaurant they had large buckets with water in them and aerators to keep the animals alive and fresh until eaten.
Continuing around the island we came upon an area where there were lots of fences covered with squids drying in the sun. Literally there were thousands of squids hung up to dry and several small stands setup to sell them. I was actually surprised at the number of them since it seemed like very few people lived in the area so there must be no way that could sell so many.
A little farther up we stopped in a small town that had 4 or 5 restaurants on the ocean serving fresh seafood. On the side of the restaurant we picked they had large outdoor fish tanks. Maybe 5 of them about twice the size of bathtub. You could point to the specific fish you wanted and they would get it out and cook it up.
I don’t know what kind of fish we ate but you can see it cooked up in the pictures on the right plus we had 2 plates of tai (snapper) sashimi.
Even though we were stuffed, after lunch the girls wanted to try some of the squids hanging outside so we stopped at a stand and they got some. Think of it like jerky. Although I like squid jerky which is a common snack in China and Japan the squid we got at the stand didn’t really do it for me. Kind of bitter with a chalky aftertaste.
One thing we did try somewhere else was these round flat fish patties. They were about the size of a homemade Mexican tortilla and maybe about twice as thick and they had a concentric circular pattern to them. I don’t know how they are made but I was told they are made out of fish. They are heated up like a tortilla where they are placed directly on a gas burner and turned and rotated quickly for a few moments so they don’t burn and then served hot. They were pretty yummy and slightly sweet.
After lunch we went to the Hallim Park and the Hyeopjae and Ssangyong Caves which are 14km long. Only a small portion is open to the public but it’s all inside a large park with several sections including flower gardens, rock gardens, an archery range, a historic town section showing what life was like hundreds of year ago. We were there for probably 2 or 3 hours.
One of the gardens has lots of rocks and also lots of bonsai trees. Of course they are not bonsai since that’s a Japanese word but I don’t know the Korean word. Many of them were 100, 150 even 200 years old still in their little pot and still being maintained.
The girls wanted to do some shopping but it was already pretty late so since most of the malls were probably closed we went to a large K-Mart / Walmart type of store. It was 7 stories tall in a fairly large building. We spent about an hour there with I-san and I looking at men’s clothing. I don’t know what the girls looked at. After that we went to the basement level which was a large supermarket. The girls practically bought the place out. I was amazed that they were able to get it all home.
For dinner I-san and I wanted to eat dog which Korea is famous for (or maybe I should say infamous for) but the girls said "NO WAY!", so, driving around I-san saw a restaurant and said "Let’s go there. They have a special kind of Korean pig that’s a delicacy!". The girls kept teasing that it was probably dog and they were being tricked because I-san told us he would not explain what was special about it until we were done. It looked like big slabs of bacon and we cooked it in front of us Korean BBQ style.
After dinner he gave as the explanation. The pig we ate is raised on almost nothing but HUMAN FECES!!!. I’m glad he didn’t tell us before we ate it because I don’t think I could have eaten it knowing what it was beforehand. It didn’t taste funny though. I-san claimed that one reason it’s special is because many pigs’ bodies can’t live with human feces as food and so not all of them make it long enough to become food themselves.
Cheju is supposed to be a resort island and in many ways it reminded me of Hawaii. It is a volcanic island and the culture there had things that looked like tikis and statues made from lava
But, anyway, the next day I-san and Doreen wanted to go scuba diving. I would have gone too except I had a little bit of a cold but Ko-san and I went along for the ride.
I was kind of nice. We drove around to another part of the island where there was a fairly large port town. We drove up to a dock and got on a boat that took us out to a small island outside the harbor and dropped us off out there with the instructors. There was a large rock next to the island and between the rock and the island is where they had you scuba. It was a really nice view looking back at the main island.
Back near our hotel was a famous bridge and waterfall. In fact it appeared there are several famous waterfalls on Cheju. I don’t know how old the bridge is. I have a feeling it’s not really that old but it was pretty neat and ornate. The pictures around the bridge showed the falls being very active but that’s probably during rainy season or else earlier in the year when the snow is melting. Yes, they get snow.
Still it was very beautiful. There was a path that led down to one set of falls with lots of people gathering to take pictures at the bottom.
After that we went back to the town where the scuba boat had been and had dinner. Another feature of Korean food you see quite often is to serve the food in a hot stone bowl. Hot enough to cook food on. Probably the most famous of this is Toe Suk Be Bim Bap (I don’t know the correct *spelling* in English). That’s made from rice, spinach, sprouts, a raw egg and some special spicy sweet sauce. You stir it around in the hot bowl and it cooks as you stir. That’s a fairly common dish though which I’ve eaten both in LA and Tokyo so we wanted to try different things. We had some kind of Korean chicken soup called Samgyetang. It’s made with ginseng and it was delivered to our table in hot stone bowls. So hot in fact that it was still boiling in front of us for at least another 5 or 10 minutes.
We then went into town and did some shopping. The girls and guys split up again and I-san and I walked around the local shops. I was amazed at the number of produce shops and pickle shops.
Korea is also known, at least to the Japanese, as a shoppers paradise because most things are relatively cheap. That seemed true but also when they say that they are usually speaking of Seoul which is a much much bigger city.
The last day was mostly spent returning. The trip back involved an hour to the airport, waiting for the plane, flying 1 hour from Cheju airport to Ginpo airport in Seoul. From there it’s an hour by bus to Inchon International Airport, another wait, then 2 hours back to Narita and then another 2 hours from Narita by train back to our neighborhoods in Tokyo.
The last day I did catch one more interesting thing though. In the Cheju airport in the restroom the toilets had a very curious seat cover. It was completely covering the seat like a sock or a condom. There was a button you push that electronically roles up one size and pulls an unused portion from the dispenser around the seat. Kind of gross if you ask me because if the seat is messy that mess is sucked into the box that holds the used roll of the seat cover. You can see a movie of it here.
You might also want to read my thoughts about it just as I got back.