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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Simple Pleasures

Feb. 25 (Jeju Weekly)
Since I returned to Jeju several months ago, I have resisted friends and colleagues when they have, many times, tried to take me to a particular temple food restaurant. It’s not that I have anything against healthy, organic food. In fact, I lived on an organic farm in Aotearoa/New Zealand where most of our vegetables were freshly picked and simply prepared, but I’ve had many experiences of vegetarian food that failed to satisfy my palate.

To all those friends - I was wrong! The food at Mulmaegol, located in the home of owner, Kim Ae Ja, in the Aewol district, is superb and I have been craving one particular salad every day since my visit. Going there, I was glad my friend Jenie had agreed to accompany me, not only so she could translate for me but because Mulmaegol was further out of town than I had expected and Jenie, being a regular diner there, knew the way. We arrived, on one of spring’s last snow-filled days (I hope) and entered the house to find two long wooden tables low to the floor, another with chairs for those less comfortable with sitting cross-legged, and more low seating in an adjacent room. The warmth of the wood was added to by the many craftworks displayed around the room, including hand-dyed and sewn scarves and clothing, cushions and linen made of traditional galot (persimmon dyed cloth), ceramic and pottery items and teas and foodstuffs.

Owner Kim added to the warmth of the welcome, greeting us wearing a tie-dyed tunic and scarves and a huge smile, and I felt I’d found an oasis of calm in the midst of my hectic work-week. She explained that since young, she had suffered an allergic reaction to meat and found at an early age that temple food suited her best. In 2005, she met a monk named Sun Jae while taking a masters course in Buddhist Studies at Dongguk University. Sun Jae, who has published books on temple food, was teaching how to cook such meals as part of the course. Kim noticed many similarities with local Jeju food so she invited the monk to visit her here and, in 2007, opened a tea and temple food cafe at Gwaneumsa, before moving her restaurant to her home.

I knew I liked the owner cum chef but was still a little hesitant about the food so we ordered a buffet meal, but asked that we only get a small taste of each dish so as not to waste any food. A seaweed porridge arrived first, accompanied by tiny pancakes, a selection of kimchi dishes, rice wrapped in lotus leaves and a tasty miso-based sauce to eat with the rice. All were much more flavorsome than I had expected but my absolute favorite was an almost Thai-style salad that included tofu, apple, copious amounts of fresh coriander (also known as cilantro), which Kim grows herself, topped with a sweet and sour chili-based dressing. I devoured each last leaf from the plate and just writing about it now is teasing my taste buds.

All of this for only 10,000 won per person was a fabulous deal, and we finished our far from humble feast with shindari - a traditional fermented rice drink to which Kim adds citron to make it more pleasant. That may well be the secret of her wonderful food, as she said she takes traditional temple food recipes but then alters them to make them more flavorsome and take into account what is grown locally and is in season. I’ll definitely be going back for more.

10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days
795-1 Susan,
Aewol-eup, Jeju City

Tel: 064-713-5486
Cell: 019-696-5486

The hospitality of strangers

Feb. 25 (Jeju Weekly) It takes a certain type of person to invite complete strangers to stay in your home, so it’s not surprising that those Jeju residents who are members of the couch-surfing community tend to be adventurous types, with personality to spare.

CouchSurfing (www.couch describes itself as, “an international non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world. Since 2004, members have been using our system to come together for cultural exchange, friendship, and learning experiences. Today, over a million people who might otherwise never meet are able to share hospitality and cultural understanding.”

Members can either host others, by offering a place to stay, or surf the couches, spare rooms or even cottages available online. The latest Web site statistics list more than 1.7 million couch surfers in 235 countries.

Sasha Kolchevsky-Shepherd of New Mexico now resides in Aewol and has been a member of the community for a year and a half, with his wife. The couple also has a two-month old daughter, Kaia, who seems quite at ease with strangers.

Kolchevsky-Shepherd’s mission, as stated on the profile that all members post on the Web site, is to, “Spread beauty, Hospitality, cont. from page 1 light and consciousness ... helping people become free.” A reference from a surfer who stayed with him states, “Sasha is the embodiment of positivity.”

“I’ve never actually couch surfed,” Kolchevsky-Shepherd said, “but I’ve been fortunate enough to have some situations to be able to host people on Jeju. And I think that in Korea, in general, that’s not quite so common because a lot of people here are English teachers who have studio flats [apartments] where it’s not really so comfortable. You have to really get along quite well with somebody.”

He has hosted a number of couch surfers on Jeju Island, and he is happy to lend guests his spare motorcycle, in addition to offering a bed.

“I’ve had a few people who I just felt like, from the moment I met them, I just felt they were the oldest friends,” he said. “Just laughing and joking and having such interesting conversations.”

His wife said she enjoys meeting new people, with different experiences than those on the island. “A lot of the people who speak English here are English teachers,” she said. “It’s nice to meet more than that.”

“I’ve never actually gone couch surfing myself,” Kolchevsky-Shepherd said, “but I feel that in a way it almost changes the world in terms of opening up freedom of travel on a low budget. It makes the world so much more accessible.

“I’m thinking of times in the past when I’ve got stuck in a city somewhere and I had nowhere to stay and I didn’t know what to do and no money for a hotel, and I didn’t know where a hostel was. I’d have had a much better time if I’d have known about couch surfing because there’s so much participation in it and there are so many people who are active in it all over the world. It’s really quite amazing.

“It’s like a network that lets people help each other and do favors for each other,” he added. “And how good is that, right?”

▲ Rebekah Lesher, left, preparing to bake bread in a wood-fired cob oven in the yard of her home in Hagwi. Right, Joel Young and Moon Sook Mi playing with their son, Joon. Photos by Tracie Barrett, courtesy of Joel Young

Rebekah Lesher and Phil Hacker have lived in a cottage in Hagwi since 2008 and list their current mission as, “Busy living.”

Lesher’s first couch surfed herself in Ghana, and she described the experience as “an awesome, awesome deal.” “I met up with this girl on CouchSurfing and she said she would host me and I really had no idea what I was getting into. I needed to get visas and do a bunch of stuff and she met me at the airport and took me to her house and helped me do everything. If she hadn’t have helped me, it would have taken me over a week instead of the three days I’d been planning on.”

They have since hosted a few people at their home but have also had “a bunch” of people cancel at the last minute and one girl who simply didn’t show up. Lesher said that sometimes when people don’t pay anything, they don’t think it’s as serious to back out of. “I think that when it’s just, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be there,’ then there’s no commitment.”

Hacker is less enamored of the service than Lesher, never having used it himself. “I’ve always spent time of people’s couches but I’ve never joined the actual Web site,” he said.

“I’ve met much more interesting people whose couches I have stayed at or who have stayed at my couch. “While it’s still great, because you don’t have to stay at hotels and hostels and what-not, I think it does take away that element of spontaneity.”

English teacher Joel Young and his wife, Moon Sook Mi, live in a rural setting at Ara-dong with their 2-year-old son, Joon. Young lists his mission on his profile as, “keeping my door and my options open.”

In what they describe as “a long story,” the couple first met on a kibbutz in Israel in 1988. They kept in touch, Moon joined Young in the United States, where they married, and they returned to her home island of Jeju about one and a half years ago. He signed up with CouchSurfing while they were in Seattle, just before the move.

The family has glowing references from surfers they have hosted and friends who are also members of the community, many of whom mention their adorable son. They said they have hosted one couple and two individuals.

Young makes it clear on his profile that they are fairly isolated, with only one bus stop close by, and that is only serviced every 90 minutes. “Be prepared for not-instant access and a little tricky to get here,” the advice reads.

Despite that, he has had a lot more inquiries than he expected but sometimes, owing to other commitments, he has had to turn surfers down. He said he would recommend the service to others if it were their “thing.” “I think you just have to be comfortable with strangers in your house,” he said.

Moon said her mother is good with strangers so she has fed their couch surfers several times. “The second one we got, he had a lot of experience with couch surfing so he was ready to make meals for us,” she said.

Young said he does vet their guests carefully, particularly because they have a young son in the house. “When you look at a profile and you see when they joined up and you can tell that they were thinking, ‘I might go to Korea. Here’s couch surfing. Maybe I’ll join up.’ Those are the kind of things I look out for. “You have to have that common sense kind of judgment if you want to get into it.”

As to whether they would couch surf themselves as a family, Young and Moon agreed that it would be more difficult, but they were definitely open to the possibility.

“I would certainly look into it,” Young said. “It would have to feel right if we were going somewhere. If it felt sketchy at all or difficult or ‘How are we getting there?” and they’re not really being helpful or anything like that, then, no!”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ready for a Shakedown?

Feb. 16 (Jeju Weekly) When Lee Yill Byung headed out of Busan harbor bound for Jeju on his yacht’s shakedown cruise, he wasn’t aware just how shaky it was going to be. In nautical parlance, a shakedown cruise is where you learn what your boat can do and what problems it may have, and this professor of computer science at Yonsei University in Seoul found more difficulties than he had expected.

He ran aground at Haengwon Harbor on arrival in Jeju and learned the hard way that most of the yacht’s sails needed to be replaced. But he has taken each setback with good humor and a relaxed calm and treats each as a learning experience.

Lee first became interested in sailing as a way to spend more time with his family. “I started windsurfing in 1987-88,” he said. “At the time I was also riding a [motor]bike but I felt I wasn’t doing anything with my family.”

While in the United States with his family in 1999, he bought his first yacht, a Catalina 27 (yachts are traditionally identified by the design firm or maker’s name, followed by the length in feet). “My wife didn’t like it,” Lee said. “My kids kind of liked it but they weren’t really into it.”

When the family returned to Korea, the boat stayed behind and then, a year and a half ago, Lee began to look for another boat. “I went to Indonesia and I went to Norfolk, Virginia, to find a boat, then I found this boat in Busan,” he said, speaking of Paramida, the Celestial 48 he bought in December 2008, “as a Christmas present for myself.”

The boat was named by a previous owner, a Buddhist monk who bought it in San Diego and eventually sailed it to Korea. Param is the Sanskrit for the world beyond, or heaven, and ida means to go over, Lee said. Korea does not have professional boat surveyors so Lee bought the yacht not realizing the amount of work it needed: “I didn’t know a lot of things didn’t work.” This was only partly due to his inexperience, he explained.

“It is my bad habit,” he said. “When I like it, I buy it. I just want to find a reason to buy rather than a reason not to buy.

He sailed Paramida off Busan and took the yacht to the East Coast last summer with only an inexperienced crew member to assist him. “I got really friendly with the Coast Guard,” he said, with a laugh.

Then, for his winter vacation, he invited four students who sail dinghies in the Yonsei University yachting club he supervises to accompany him on a longer trip. “I said we’ll go to Jeju and then go to Fukuoka and come back.”

The charts they were using were old and did not show Gimnyeong Harbor, where they were headed, and the inexperienced crew members were having difficulty plotting their exact position as they neared Jeju, he said. They were talking back and forth with the Coast Guard at Gimnyeong but were actually outside Haengwon, a small fishing harbor further east. “We called the coast guard again before the harbor and I said, ‘We are strangers but I see there are about 15 big windmills to our left and two or three big windmills on our right. So if you are in the harbor, do you see those 15 windmills and two windmills on the left and right?’ He said, ‘Yes!’ so we went in.

“Of course, Gimneong doesn’t have any windmills,” he said.

They realized when entering the harbor that the lighthouses were not set up as expected for Gimnyeong Harbor and they “could see rocks everywhere.” They ran aground on those very rocks and at 3:55 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 15, Lee phoned the Coast Guard on 112 to report the incident. The Fire Brigade arrived first and tied lines from the yacht to the lighthouse and Coast Guard scuba divers checked the hull to see if it was holed. Another Coast Guard employee responsible for oil control also checked the amount of fuel on board and whether there was a possibility of any leakage. Late that night, at high tide, Paramida was refloated and finally made it to Gimneong.

The students flew back to Seoul on the next available flight. “I didn’t know how long it would take to fix the boat or how serious it [the damage] was, so I let them go,” Lee said.

The following week, having made minor repairs, Lee and a crew of more experienced sailors took Paramida to Hwasun Harbor, near Mount Sanbang in Seogwipo. A few days later, Lee was joined by Ralf Deutsch, owner of Big Blue 33 Jeju Island Diving and an experienced sailor; Sherrin Hibbard, a former fishing boat skipper in Australia who holds her Korean yacht license; and this writer, who has crewed yachts from Thailand to Kenya and between Sydney and Hobart, Tasmania. Sailing in highly variable winds, we managed to tear both the mizzen and mainsails and reduce a sizeable portion of the genoa (foresail) to ribbons.

“The fiber was really old, I think,” Lee said. “It had seen too much [sun]light.” When I commented during the trip that it had been an expensive day, Deutsch’s comment helped put things in perspective. “It clears thing up,” he said.

What it has cleared up for Lee is that a boat requires a bigger commitment than he first anticipated and, despite being tempted to sell Paramida, he intends to strip the yacht back to basics and do the work needed and learn more about his vessel while doing so. He will get a new set of sails, do some work above and below deck and replace any damaged parts, then cruise a little more.

“I enjoy it in the sense that I get to meet a lot of special people who are very kind and who are very different, who are unique characters,” he said. “Foreigners as well as Koreans, especially on this island. That is happening because I came here by myself on a boat.”

However, Korea doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure for yachting, such as marinas, he said. (The Jeju Free International City Development Center signed a memorandum of understanding with a Singapore-based company in January to help develop a marina somewhere on the island.) “I probably bought the boat too early in the stage of yachting development in Korea,” Lee said. “Maybe in 10 years, it will be much easier to keep a boat.”

For now though, Paramida will remain moored as a guest at the Gimnyeong Yacht Tours floating dock until its new sails arrive and Lee has it shipshape for the voyage back to Busan. “I spent a lot of time and money on the boat so far,” he said, “and I cannot forgive myself quitting in the middle. I want to make it nice again and really desirable, to me and to other people.”

Wake to a Different Era

Feb. 16 (Jeju Weekly) For anyone wanting to experience what it might have been like to live in a traditional thatched Jeju house while still enjoying modern comforts, the Choga Minbak at Seongeup Folk Village is the perfect answer. Each of the six houses scattered throughout the village is completely traditional on the outside, with stone walls, wooden doors and the straw-thatched roofs, or choga, for which they are named. Step inside however, and you are greeted by a pristine interior of walls lined with hanji, or Korean traditional paper, above wooden skirting boards and with a flat-screen LCD television dominating one wall of the living area.

Situated off each side of the house we looked at were two bedrooms with comfortable beds on wooden bases and wood lattice and hanji inner doors and windows. Open these and the outer solid wood doors and there are views across the verandah and tree-filled yard to other parts of the village, where horses and pigs are tended and men can be seen tying fresh straw roofs on buildings and trimming the dangling ties.

The modern touches continue in the kitchen, which has ceramic top cookers for heating water in the kettle supplied and a small fridge secreted behind a wooden door. The bathrooms feature a tiled shower booth with one glass wall and shower heads at various heights and other modern fixtures. There is a traditional outhouse displayed in the village but the amenities in the minbak houses are thoroughly up-to-date. Discreet digital displays on the wall of each room operate the ondol, or under-floor heating, making for a comfortable stay even in the coldest weather.

The minbak, which translates most closely as home stay but here uses the term loosely as staying with the village rather than in an individual’s home, was established in June 2009 by Seogwipo City Hall.

“Already about 800 people have stayed in it,” said Koh Sang Bum of the Seogwipo City Hall’s culture and art department. Koh, who is in charge of Seongeup Folk Village, said about 10 of those guests have been from countries outside of Korea, including Japan, China, Germany and the United States.
“In 1984,” he said, “the Central Government identified Seongeup as one of six folk villages in Korea and it has the largest population.”

The original buildings used for the minbak were very old so they were remodeled on the inside while left in their original exterior form. Most of the private houses in the village are similar, with the outside appearing as it would have generations ago while the interiors have been updated for comfort and to provide modern conveniences. The display buildings that are uninhabited are kept in the traditional style, although Koh said many had been damaged or destroyed over the years and not all the repairs and refurbishments were purely traditional. It is planned to replace those repairs with more authentic work.

The inspiration behind the lodgings was to let people experience what life would have been like in a traditional village, Koh said. To help authenticate that experience, the village has for the past two years had a summer program where visitors could re-enact traditional village activities. These will restart in March but will continue year round from then. Although the details are being finalized now, the program is likely to include past favorites, such as brewing Omegisul and Gosorisul, two alcohols traditionally made on Jeju Island, making rice cakes and learning about the husbandry of Jeju’s famous black pigs.

Visitors are not permitted to cook inside the minbak houses because of concerns of fire safety but there are many restaurants scattered throughout the folk village and nearby. There are also many companies close by which offer horse-riding, ATV rides, go-karting and archery for guests who want to venture a little further afield. But the folk village offers much to see, experience and photograph within its gates, and Choga Minbak provides serene and comfortable lodgings from which to venture out.

Costs range from 40,000 won per couple through 80,000 won per couple depending on the house size. Bookings can be made by phone but only in Korean.

Choga Minbak
Seongeup Folk Village
Pyoseon, Seogwipo
Tel. 064-787-5560,
010-6482-1456 (Korean only) (Korean only)

How to get there:
By car: Seongeup Folk Village lies on the 97 highway between Jeju City and Pyoseon Beach and is well signposted. Once there, the information and management office can be difficult to find without already having a map, but the villagers are happy to give directions.

By bus: From Jeju City Bus Terminal, take the Jeju City to Pyoseon service (there is no number and the destination is written in Korean only). It takes about 40 minutes to reach Seongeup Folk Village.
From Seogwipo City Bus Terminal, first take the Seogwipo to Pyoseon service, and change at Pyoseon to the Pyoseon to Jeju City service.

Sacred Cow

Feb. 16 (Jeju Weekly) Spirits were high in Jeju City at the weekend as the island welcomed spring 2010 with the Tamnaguk Ipchungutnori. Ipchun, which commonly falls on Feb. 4, is one of 24 seasonal divisions in the solar calendar and marks the onset of spring. The Ipchungut, or Ipchun Shamanic ritual, derives from rites held at village shrines throughout the island each year to ask the gods for a bountiful harvest. The Ritual has been passed down from the Tamnaguk, or Tamna kingdom, which was an independent state on Jeju Island between the 7th and 11th centuries.

Hosted by Jeju City and managed by Jeju Min-yea-chong, the celebration began at City Hall in the early evening of Friday, Feb. 5, before wending its way through the lower part of the city to Gwandeokjeong, where festivities continued the following day. Pamphlets available in both Korean and English stated that the tradition had died out during the Japanese occupation of Korea but was reintroduced in 1999 due to its significance as a precious intangible cultural asset.

The area in front of City Hall was a riot of color by 4:30 p.m. when the event began with pungmul troupes from 18 villages warming up for each group’s turn to display their musical and dancing skills center stage. A central part of the festival is the nangsha, or wooden cow, which began the festival displayed at the top of the steps leading into City Hall, with traditional masks laid out on the steps and an offering table, similar to those used by Korean families during the Jesa ritual at Chuseok, lower down. Participants dressed in a range of clothing, ranging from ornate nobles’ robes and the more sedate garb of officials through Confucian monks’ vestments to simple galot clothes - the tough, persimmon-dyed garments traditionally worn as everyday working wear on Jeju. One group led a smaller cow figure around and another was dressed as a hunter with a rifle on his shoulder and a brace of pheasants slung across his back.

Once the speeches were given and a Confucian rite performed for the wooden cow, it was led, on its wheeled platform, down to the road ready for a procession to Gwandeokjeong near Jungang Rotary, which was the provincial government’s base during the Joseon Dynasty. Pungmul troupes both led the way and followed the cow, which was pulled and pushed through the Friday night traffic. Jeju’s police did an admirable job of trying to minimize the chaos caused by hauling a heavy cow along sometimes potholed roads but frequent sit-downs by those doing the hard labor as they demanded makgeolli and food to sustain their efforts didn’t lessen the disruption.

On arrival at Gwangdeokjeong, the cow was manhandled into a prominent resting place and there were more speeches and dancing before the festival-goers headed to food tents to eat Ipchun noodles. (It is believed that eating noodles on Ipchun drives away bad luck.)

The next day dawned crisp and clear with a cloudless sky allowing the warmth of the sun to counteract the chill breeze off a snow-capped Mount Halla. Adults and children meandered through the environs of the Gwangdeokjeong complex, watching and taking part in the many activities on offer. These included masked dances and musical performances, a beautifully choreographed tea ceremony, traditional children’s games and the opportunity to make your own model nangsha or other craftworks.

There were few Westerners to be seen at either the Friday evening or Saturday events and Hong Sun Young, who was in charge of promotions, said there were more foreigners present last year. She was unsure of the reason but said the organizers were happy overall with the number of festival-goers. “One of the aims of the festival is to bring more people into the festival,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of people. We just want anyone to come and to enjoy it.”

At 11 a.m. Saturday, the sound of drums and gongs marked the start of the Ipchungut itself and drew visitors to a pavilion outside the complex walls, where the chief shaman invited the shrine gods of all Jeju City’s villages to ask them to protect the welfare and wellbeing of the city. The gut had five stages and featured intricate and intriguing choreography, singing, music and dance.

Festival-goers could also have their fortunes told or write out their wishes for the year to come on paper provided and hang them from the ropes fencing in the wooden cow. The cow used in the festival is made anew each year and nangsha from previous Ipchungutnori had been put out to pasture within the walls of the complex, where this year’s beast will soon join them.