Jeju & Jimjilbang

In this blog I will discuss our most recent trip to Jeju Island in March, Chris and my day trip to a jimjilbang in Seoul, and the latest ferry tragedy near Jeju Island in April.


Chris and I enthusiastically jetted off via airplane from Seoul (a 1-hour flight)  to Jeju Island for a 3-day retreat away from the polluted, motley mass of cement and structure, February 28- March 3. With a population just under 700,000, Jeju felt pleasantly spacious, compared to the constant jostling amongst the 12 million residents of Seoul (25 million including commuters Monday through Saturday).

Jeju Island, also known as the “Island of the Gods,” is a popular vacation spot for Koreans and foreigners. It remains the top honeymoon destination for Korean newlyweds, and is also regarded as one of the top honeymoon destinations in the world. Despite attempts to market the island as “the Hawaii of Korea,” climatologically and geographically it bears little in similarity to the Hawaiian Islands in the U.S. The island offers visitors a wide range of activities: hiking on Halla-san (South Korea’s highest peak), catching sunrises and sunsets over the ocean, eating island-specific delicacies, caving, shopping, and quirky museums, etc.

Although tourism is one of the main industries on the island, many of the hotels and other tourist areas are run by mainland companies, so much of the income never gets put back into the local economy. Also, since the attractions are geared towards tourists, many of the entrance fees can be hefty.

The local traditional culture stands in stark contrast to the mainland (and much of Asia) as being matriarchal. Stemming from this basis, and some odd tax reasons, the role of seafood gathering on the island has been dominated by women. As such, a common sight around Jeju’s coastline is that of the “haenyo” or “woman diver”, a figure that has become somewhat iconic of the island. They are often the heads of families, because they control the income. They earn their living from free diving, often all year round in quite cold water, without scuba gear, in order to harvest abalonesconchs, and a myriad of other marine products. In the early 1960s, 21% of women on the island were free divers, providing 60% of the island’s fisheries revenue. However, because of rapid economic development and modernization, as of 2014 only about 4,500 haenyeo, most aged over 60, were still actively working.

The Jeju economy has traditionally been supported by primary industry, agriculture and fishing, but tourism has taken a more and more important role as the island receives upwards of six million visitors per year. These are mostly Korean mainlanders, but through the opening of the 2010 decade, hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists have been arriving and the number is increasing.

 Day 1: Friday February 28

The island has two cities: Seogwipo in the South and Jeju-si to the north. We stayed closer to the airport in the north because neither of us were eligible for an international drivers license, so we wanted to be closer to the action and to available transportation. Friday night we landed around 5:30 pm, checked into our very spacious hotel and wandered the bare streets. It was odd not being surrounded by traffic noises, bustling crowds, drunk men, skyscrapers, or street vendors. Everything was… just… quiet. Soooo quiet!

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For dinner, we enjoyed an island specialty of mackerel. I also enjoyed the sweet potato variety of banchan.

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Day 2: Saturday March 1

On Saturday morning we awoke to a persistent pitter patter of rain as it listlessly pelted our windows and the island. Instead of mirroring the dreary weather in our moods, we made the best of a rainy day. First, tea. Then lattes and reading at a coffee shop, Indian lunch, and shopping.

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These are our matching His and Hers designer frames, along with a bow ring that we purchased.

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In the evening, we braved the continueal downpour for one of the most notorious sites on the island- The SEX museum! XXX

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The statues/forms/figurines were expertly crafted and depicted a variety of sexual positions. What I was shocked to see, or rather not to see, was representation of ASIAN characters! Almost all of the humans depicted looked to be of European decent. There were only a handful of plump figurines (mostly men), and all of the sculptures represented the hetero-normative culture. I did not like that the very few fat women displayed were grotesque and portrayed in a comical way (this was not true for the pudgy men). While entertaining, the sexual scenes definitely perpetuated a standard that sexual identity exploration is saved for those beautiful, skinny, white, and straight, which as we all know, is just not the case.

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After our trip to the museum, we delighted in another island specialty: black pork! The Jeju Black is said to have a unique taste quite distinct from other breeds of pig and forms the basis of some well-known local dishes. The pork is smoked over burning hay allowing the smoke to penetrate the meat juices resulting in a flavour quite unlike regular pork and a meat that is somewhat chewier.

Until quite recent times, the pig was kept in order to dispose of human waste. They were housed in sties built below the outside latrines where their “food” was directly delivered. This practice was still current in the 1960s but has now given way to more conventional feeding. Some commentators are adamant that this change has adversely affected the taste.


Day 3: Sunday March 2

On Sunday, we acquired a driver/tour guide for 8 hours.

First stop: Manjanggul Cave

Manjanggul Cave is the longest lava tube in the world. It is 5 meters wide, between 5 to 10 meters high and is over 13 km long. The lava tube, which formed about 2.5 million years ago, has been well preserved, revealing a splendid interior that is out of this world. Only one kilometer of its total length is open to tourists. In hindsight, I probably would have skipped the cave because it was damp and cold. After being rained out the previous day, I was more in the mood for sun and activity. Nevertheless, the cave was a creepy splendor.

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Second stop: Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak


Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak rose from under the sea in a volcanic eruption over 100,000 years ago. Located on the eastern end of the island, there is a huge crater at the top. The crater is about 600m in diameter and 90m high. With the 99 sharp rocks surrounding the crater, it looks like a gigantic crown. While the southeast and north sides are cliffs, the northwest side is a verdant grassy hill that is connected to the Seongsan Village.

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The hike was definitely challenging, but the views from the top were so spectacular that it was worth it. One hilarious, albeit distracting component of the journey was being stalked by flocks of Chinese tourists. In Korea and many other countries that Chris and I have traveled to together, we have been photographed often. Usually, people want to pose with us, or just Chris, and giggle together, enjoying the novelty of the situation. The Chinese tourists, on the other hand, did not want to stand with us. Instead, they photographed us as if they were filming an endangered animal in the wild. Close up or far away, people pointed their lenses at us and started clicking. Some would even stand by us and have their friends take pictures. It was exhausting, yet cute. I am not a fan of the pictures out there of me heaving up the climb though. I now have a 1%,  understanding of what celebrities go through- the dehumanizing act of snapping someone in rare form. From the sociological perspective, that which was breathing life turns into a human commodity to be captured and displayed.

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Third stop: Lava Estuary

Below: This ancient lava estuary is a part of the area designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. Most of the estuary is dried up, but you may rent a clear kayak and paddle around the clear water of the lower half of the estuary.

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Yes, that’s right y’all. Below you will see a Korean woman wearing 4-inch stilettos while peddling. This is not even shocking anymore.

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Fourth stop: Jeongbang waterfall

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On our drive back to the northern tip of the island, we rode through Mount Halasan. My favorite part of the ride was seeing snow for the first time in ages and the cool, fresh wind whipping against my cheeks.


Day 4: Monday March 3

Monday we departed at 8 am for the airport and arrived back in Seoul just in time for work.

Jimjilbang: Saturday March 9

Before we went to the jimjilbang, I had a limited scope of what the entire experience would entail. I knew that genders were separated and spent a majority of the time naked in baths. I understood that there were saunas and that one could sleep overnight at a jimjilbang for very little cost, like a hostel in Europe. I had no idea what I was in for! In the simplest form, a jimjilbang is like an amusement park, spa, fitness club, mall, and pool all rolled into one. While pictured as relaxing, the journey through it was anything but.

In Korea, a Jjimjilbang is a place where one can not only enjoy the spa, shower, and sauna but also sleep overnight at an affordable price. They are a popular getaway for Korean families, couples, and friends. You can enter various heated rooms each designed with a particular theme. These are great places to sweat and relax. 

In a Jjimjilbang, you will also find many recreational facilities such as a snack bar, fitness club, PC bang, and noraebang (karaoke). Open 24 hours a day, Jjimjilbangs are easily accessible and offer a variety of activities.

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The Dragon Hill Spa where we went is an all-inclusive health and relaxation complex that is seven-stories high. On the underground level, there is an indoor golf range, a PC room and a video room. On the 1st floor, there is a common jjimjilbang area, an outdoor pool, a food court, a children’s playroom. The women’s sauna is on the 2nd floor, and the women’s jjimjilbang, massage, and esthetics, and locker room are on the 3rd floor. The 4th floor has a fitness center. On the 5th floor is the men’s sauna and locker room. The 6th floor has another men’s sauna and co-ed rooms for napping and resting. The rooftop has a barbeque, a cinema, and a garden. Dragon Hill Spa is one of the largest, most luxurious jimjilbangs in Seoul; first opening its doors to the public in October of 2006.

For visitors to Korea, going to a sauna can be a rather overwhelming if not daunting experience especially for the first-time visitor. Like any other public facility, there are some basic etiquette mannerisms that follow, and knowing them in advance will make you feel less clumsy and less-like a foreigner.

Before Going to the Sauna:

1. Bring your own toiletries. Shampoo, conditioner, soap, body or face cleanser, and most importantly a Korean essential toiletry called ‘ddae,’  ascrubber which you use to take off the dead layers of skin on your body. Some also bring a carton of milk, which they apply on their face. Milk is supposedly good for your skin.

2. Public Nudity-having the courage to do it and/or face it. This is not exactly like going to your local pool or health club, where you can wear your bathing suit or have your own personal shower with a curtain, but rather just the opposite.

At the Sauna:

1. Two small towels are given to you; one is for you to take in the sauna, either to wrap your hair in or to sit in the hot or wet sauna. The other one, you should save, for drying off BEFORE going to the changing room. Make sure to  dry off well when you go back into the changing room because if you’re really wet and track water in the changing room, the cleaning ajummas get angry. Most people just wind up wearing one like Princess Leia.


2. GET NAKED completely and attempt to find the steam/pool room. While I am a very confident woman and love being naked, I was a little worried about being alone and not being able to read Korean. I had no idea where I was supposed to go or what to expect. I would love to go back with friends because I felt a little lonely with no one to talk to.

One of many aspects of Korean culture that I really respect is that ‘unaltered’ nudity is separate of sexuality. Nudity is a state of being, a part of humanity and is not sexual in any way. Women of all ages commingled between generations to cleanse the body and bond.

3. Upon entering the spa, no one noticed me at first, but after showering & scrubbing before entering the steam rooms or hot/ cold pools of water, I caught the attention of those passing by or in the pools with me. I’m pretty sure almost every Korean’s head exploded when they saw me nude:

“Oh holy alabaster! Fat! Blonde! Tattoos! Whore!”


Let me explain. The white, fluffy blondness I bet you can figure out on your own. Tattoos, although I only have two little ones on my ankles, are still pretty uncommon here. The next generation is changing this norm, but for now the adjummas still stop and stare. Finally, I thought about whether or not to discuss pubic hair on my blog, but it is so crucial in understanding the culture and the jimjilbang experience. In Korea, if a female shaves or shapes their nether regions, she is considered a prostitute, or at the very least a very promiscuous woman. A woman would only alter their pubic hair if she had a disease to get rid of (like crabs) or if she is a lady of the night. Due to globalization or just plain common sense, Korean women have started waxing, shaving, snipping and altering their private hair.  Because of this trend, they often refuse to go to the jimjilbang with their families once any alterations have been made in fear of judgement. I did my own thing and enjoyed myself thoroughly, despite a few glances my way.

Relaxing in the water was by far my favorite part of the day. I loved unwinding in the warm/ scorching/ cold/ bubbling waters. There were at least a dozen different pool options and one is free to move between them at any speed.

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4. Chris and I met up to experience the salt room, saunas and common area. Salt is supposed to help detoxify which actually increases the heat of your body and used as a scrub to loosen the dead skin.


5. Next we entered a variety of rooms shaped like Navajo hogans. One was an ice room and the rest were varying temperatures of hot, meant to sweat out and cleanse the body. Most people just laid around and sweated with each other. There were far too many people for this to be relaxing for me. I also was bored just sitting there with nothing to read or eat. We could talk but the expectation is that one speaks quietly.

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6. After we had our fill of ‘sweating’ together (how romantic?!?), we entered the common area for the massage chairs and some Dip & Dots ice cream. We went on a Sunday… the worst idea ever. Unmonitored children were screaming and crying, WAY too many people were just lying around, and there wound up being a magic show timing to booming techno music next to the arcade. I personally would not be inclined to want to sweat with thousands of other people, only to communally watch a shitty magic act on one of my precious days off. Needless to say, it was an ‘interesting’ undertaking and I am glad I tried it. I left feeling a bit dirty and not relaxed. I want to go back with girlfriends next time.

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Recent Ferry Sinking 4.16.14

The morning after the listing ferry sunk, my classes were buzzing with concerned chatter about the peer-aged children trapped in the hull of the vessel. My children wanted to talk about it. They were antsy to express their horror and grief. I was initially surprised that the news of the capsized ferry hit many Koreans particularly hard, given that not more than one hundred miles from the border in North Korea, human rights violations and deaths occur daily without a word about it from the South Koreans. Upon further speculation, I realized that the event was not only traumatic for the parents and family members of the lost loved ones, but also for the plethora of those stunned around the country. My students were wide-eyed whilst exclaiming that their mothers had been at home crying all day. Mind you, these are not relatives or related persons to my students or their families.

Of the 476 passenger boat, only 172 were rescued. The rest are confirmed dead or still missing. Families are furiously up in arms about how long it has taken to recover the bodies. I conjecture that there are four major factors that contributed to the immense impact that this event has had on Korea: cultural expectations, emergency response, inconsistent and unmonitored ferry regulations & speculative government cover up. 

Before jumping ship, the captain had left a deeply insufficient third mate in charge. The captain and the third mate had instructed the children to stay put instead of braving the sea to try to save themselves. Thad Allen, the former head of the U.S. Coast Guard, said that two things needed to be done simultaneously: “Keep trying to save the ship but mitigate the risk to loss of life by preparing the passengers to abandon ship.” The error here was a non-existent, and thus not practiced, emergency plan or exit strategy. Also, the boat was carrying 3 times the amount of cargo than it should have been which is the fault of the ferry company. No one was present to hold the ferry company or captain accountable to meet load regulations. Furthermore, the boat was made in 1994, ironically the very same year that the international regulations on ferry structural requirements changed due to the high frequency of prior incidents of ferry tipping globally. So, this specific ferry escaped the needed foundational changes.   

I personally believe that if American children had been in the same situation, they would have revolted against the authority, organized themselves, and jumped ship. In Korea, Confusion values are core to the function of society and historically proliferate. Gender, age and professional rank matter very much in the decision making process. Self-reliance, independence, critical thinking skills, and problem solving are not attributes of acquisition amongst Korean youth. I am not in any way, shape, or form blaming the victims. Instead, I hope to lay the framework of understanding on how tragic the situation actually was, not just on the surface, but to a culturally-based, unfathomable depth.

With the aforementioned hierarchical norms, great responsibility is given to elders or authority to care for those under his or her control, anyone younger, weaker or marginalized. While each person may have their roes about gendered/age-related norms, try at least in this situation, to think of it as a checks and balances. Some give up power as those in power take on the solemn tasks of providing safety, security and resources. The fact that the captain and the third mate failed so miserably to adhere to the country’s structural expectation of responsibility makes the reactions all that much more  understandable. This was not just an unexpected accident of a slowly sinking ship, it was a massive, purposeful rejection of an honored duty to provide and protect, and so unforgivably shameful. 

Finally, irrespective of people’s political leanings, there have been some pretty scandalous reports during the current president’s term. The current president, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of former president/dictator Park Chung-hee (1961- assassination in 1979). He was renown for modernizing and developing the country at a nearly miraculous rate, but was also culpable for imprisoning anyone who voiced opinions against him. The resident president, Park Geun-hye, has done a lot to restrict free speech, squash strikes, restructure education, and been caught in a couple lies. The most recent was reporting that there were 600 divers and 40 boats attempting to rescue those trapped in the ferry. The family members of those in the ship, who where miserably watching from shore, confirmed no such report. The pictures also do not capture a large rescue effort. Why would she even pretend to have an adequate disaster response? I can muster a couple educated guesses. One, Korea is a very ‘save face’ culture and does not like to experience shame, especially not on a large global scale. Two, and more importantly, Korea has expressed desire to limit the amount of international (aka USA) army presence. The USA has no intention of moving its perfectly positioned bases in Korea (within the Asian marketplace), unless Korea can prove its ability to manage on its own. This time they failed… terribly. 

The information for this blog was gathered from: Wikipedia,,, and The Washington Post.