Jeju Island and the “Sea Women”, South Korea
I was excited to have a couple of business meetings set up on the holiday island of Jeju, off the south coast of Korea. It is kind of like Korea’s Hawaii, where couples go on honeymoon and retired folk go to play golf. The number of visitors is over 5million a year and the population is only around 500,000.
Because of work I didn’t get to see many of the tourist attractions, such as the volcano crater in the middle of Hana Mountain, the countries largest mountain and one that dominates the skyline wherever you are on the island. I did however have a drive around and was able to admire:
- the indigenous Jeju horse, famous in South Korea. They race it.
- the graves that are dotted all over the landscape. They are a mound that is walled with local stone to keep the horse out. They look very Neolithic
- the cherry blossom, which lined many of the roads and was in full bloom
On my only evening there last night I was taken to the sea by my hosts to try some local delicacies. The “Henyeh” (literally sea women) are divers who free dive into the ocean year round to harvest sea cucumbers, octopus and sea urchins. They are a local tradition but are dying out because no young women want to do the job. Hence they are now all old ladies in their 70s or older who brave the icy conditions and risk of sharks and drowning every morning to earn a crust.
Until recently they wouldn’t earn very much at all, but the Jeju government has realised their value and has implemented ways for them to generate income through selling their produce directly to tourists. We sat at their plastic tables and ordered sea urchin with seaweed, sliced sea cucumber and some winkles that you had to manipulate out with a cocktail stick. All eaten raw. I can’t say it was a taste sensation, but was certainly interesting. I was really impressed with the jolly Henyeh women who were really no nonsense and full of mischief. Ours wrestled with an octopus she had caught and insisted that we eat everything she had given us.
Later that night I actually ate live octopus tentacles that suckered my mouth as they went down and wriggled in my throat. A really bizarre experience, but supposed to give men stamina! The rest of the food was amazing: a barbecue where everything was cooked in its shell. I have never seen such enormous molluscs and it was really delicious, if not a little wierd. I also tried the local poisons – maloki, which is a milky rice wine and soju a rice spirit like sake.
I’d like to take you and your mother to Jeju next time, it’s a lovely place.