I’m not a traveler who takes it easy. Jared and I always pack as many activities into our vacations as we can; we’ll go from getting sunrise pictures, to walking an entire city, to a late night dinner without stopping. That is what traveling means to me, but I know a lot of people who enjoy relaxing on cruises or in all-inclusive resorts. And while I know that is the ideal type of vacation for some, it makes me feel antsy to just hear about it. I like my journeys to challenge me, to push me out of my comfort zone, to cross lines that I normally wouldn’t.
Jeju was full of such challenges! The most obvious one is the local cuisine. Jeju is an island; what do you think their specialty food is? Yep, fish. Lots and lots of fish. I’m a recovering picky eater. My mother still bemoans my childhood phase of only eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (with homemade grape jelly that had to be specially shipped from my grandmother). For years the only vegetable I would touch was a potato, and then only in certain forms. However, I’ve started branching out in the past few years and trying new things. I promised myself that I would try all the food Asia had to offer; that I wouldn’t let my delicate palate (aka stubbornness) keep me from new experiences. Stupid promise. I stuck to it though! Our very first stop in Jeju was for lunch, and we decided to dive right into the local flavor. Our guidebook recommended Hae Jin: A Sliced Raw Fish Restaurant as an excellent choice. It was located right next to the ocean and had tanks of doomed fish swimming around. With encouragement from the owner, we ordered an expensive meal that would feed our group of five; I don’t think I fully understood what was about to happen. Most of the Korean meals I have had consist of a main dish (Korean barbecue, for example) and several side dishes. The side dishes will be a lot of different vegetables: kimchi, bean sprouts (a new favorite), pickled radish. This meal had raw fish as the main dish and raw fish as the side dishes. It’s eaten like Korean barbecue; you load up a lettuce leaf with meat and condiments, roll it, and then shove it in your mouth.
The first course had around eight or nine small dishes of sliced raw sea creatures. Not just fish. The waitress showed our friend how to eat the meal. She kindly told him to grab a leaf, and then indicated which dish he should try first. We are pretty sure she was messing with us, because she started him out on the tentacles. I’m not positive what animal they came from- squid? octopus? (Is an octopus a type of squid?) All I know is that they were TENTACLES. I hadn’t realized they were on the table, and I was fascinated to watch as our friend picked one up with his chopsticks. That little piece of meat moved when he touched it. It started twisting and curling and wiggling all around his chopstick. We were all absorbed with watching this, shouting and laughing, and not making it any easier on our friend who was holding a twitchy lettuce wrap. Gotta give him props though; he threw it right into his mouth and started eating. Then we heard a pop. I was on the other side of the table and could hear his tooth pierce that tentacle. The rest of us had to man up and try it too. I couldn’t get my tentacle picked up with my chopsticks and resorted to grabbing it with my fingers. I let him swim around in sauce for a minute to get extra flavorful. And then I did it. I ate the wiggling squid/octopus tentacle. I feel nauseous even writing this. It was disgusting, very tough and hard to chew. However, I DID IT!
I tried most of the fish on the table (and what we think may have been eel), but I didn’t like it. Some of it was definitely better than others. I was able to put lots of spicy sauce in the my lettuce wraps, which helped with the taste, but the texture is what really got to me. Near the end of the meal, the waitress came out with a plate of something new. I watched her approach and then cried out, “Is that fried?!? Is there something cooked? What is that?! It’s squash!!!” I have never been so happy to see fried squash in my life. It wasn’t fish. It was cooked. It was appropriately crunchy. I devoured my pieces. I actually got full from all the fish I ate; though I did stop before everyone else. I felt slight fishy the rest of the day; and though at the time I did not enjoy the meal, I am happy to be able to say that I tried it. Now if people try to get me to eat raw fish, I can tell them that I’ve had enough for a lifetime.
From one of the worst experiences to our best experience in Jeju! On the Fourth of July we were celebrating freedom at a bar in Seogwipo. We were playing darts when the bartender came up and started talking to us in broken English. He kept pointing to a group of Koreans across the bar and to the dart board. Since we had been playing for awhile, we thought that they wanted us to leave the dart board and let them play. No! Instead, they wanted to challenge us! Five of them, five of us. Losers buy a round for the winners. Challenge accepted. My friend Kat and I were a little nervous because both of us consistently miss the board. We were generally happy if the dart stuck and had not been trying to improve our performance at all. The Korean group came over, shook hands with us, and continually pointed out their “ace.” They seemed as excited about the challenge as we did; the entire group became very loud. I was cheering for everybody, and then suddenly it was my turn. We were slightly ahead, and I felt the pressure to keep our lead. I was nervous with everyone watching me, and really started regretting my gin martini. I threw my first dart, and everyone was cheering. It took me a second to really understand what just happened (again, martini); I hit the bullseye! Seriously, I have no idea how that happened. I hadn’t even been close the entire night. It was Lady Liberty; she was there in spirit. That bullseye was for America. All of us Americans came together and dominated that dart board. I think our final score was close to a hundred points higher than the Koreans. It was one of the best nights out we’ve had in Korea! The locals were so friendly; I’m very happy that they challenged us. So often, we are just stared at or ignored; it was wonderful to be acknowledged and included. If the situation was reversed and there were a group of foreigners in a local American bar, would they be welcomed as we were? Maybe, maybe not. Think about it next time you see a group of tourists in your hometown, a little friendliness from you can make a wonderful experience for the guest. It certainly meant a lot to us. I would have loved it even if we hadn’t won, but it’s so much better since we did!
We went to the same bar the next night and again played darts. Both nights we were given free food every time we bought a round. We were given fruit trays, bingsu (a fruit and ice dessert), chips and salsa, nuts, and ice cream. It was always too much to eat, but they just kept bringing it out! We were also given free tequila shots; those were given at the same time we received ice cream sandwiches. Not a combination I’d recommend. On our second night, there were two Korean guys who had heard about the challenge from the previous evening. They challenged us again. They won the first round, but we won the second round. They were very friendly, but apparently became more friendly when Kat and I left the guys alone at the table. So, we left.
Like so many places we have been in Korea, I feel certain that we will return to Jeju. Though we did a lot in just four days, there were some activities we missed out on. We still want to go hike to the top of Hallasan and spend a day at the beach. It was an unforgettable trip and I am so grateful that we were able to share this experience with our friends…and with you!