Korea’s history is at least 5,000 years old. During that time they have been invaded over 200 times, mostly by the Japanese. They say proudly, “But we have never invaded anyone else.” Then under their breaths they mutter, “Perhaps it is because we were too weak.” They aren’t weak anymore. This Asian powerhouse manufactures many of the electronic goods and cars we can’t live without. We were in grade school during the last Korean War, which devastated the entire peninsula and in many ways has not ended yet. But today nearly all of the people living in the south have comfortable lives and export their culture to the rest of Asia. While we are embarrassed to admit that we can’t tell Korean from Chinese from Japanese, they have a language distinct from their neighbors with a simple alphabet of forty characters that can reliably be sounded out phonetically. Our guide said that with two weeks of study, most folks can memorize the alphabet and its sounds and read Korean aloud even though they have no idea what it all means at that point.
We stopped in Je Ju, the largest island in Korea, south of the mainland. We were scheduled to be there from noon until 8pm and were surprised to get our shore excursion tickets with a 4:30pm start time. Someone in the Princess management screwed up the scheduling. Je Ju only has one cruise ship sized pier and the Sapphire Princess was scheduled to be in Je Ju the same time we were, They had barely left the pier when we sidled in and raced onto the tour bus to see as much as possible before the sun set.
Overhead a steady stream of large airplanes passed by. Our guide explained that Je Ju is a vacation spot, not only for Koreans, but increasingly popular with main land Chinese. It has a temperate climate year round and is mostly green and agricultural looking except for tourist structures. We passed lots of pastures with people riding horseback and many go kart tracks. Je Ju has thirty golf courses and a prominent Korean golfer who has won major events around the world lately hails from here. Mainland Asians appreciate Je Ju for its fresh air, lack of crowds and dramatic volcanic scenery.
Our first stop was at the Seongup Folk Village where people still live in traditional peasant homes The walls of the homes are made from volcanic rock and the roofs are thatched straw which is replaced annually. When we looked at these homes more closely we could see all the modern conveniences inside. The quaintness of some of the roof tops was marred by satellite dishes, At one time animal pens and out buildings were all constructed from volcanic rock. Traditionally, Koreans had large families and new rock buildings; pens and out houses were added continually to accommodate the ever growing family groups and their animals.
Then we headed to Sunrise Peak, a UNESCO World Heritage Site so designated for its picturesque setting. Seongsan, the remnant of a volcanic peak is connected to the main island by a little causeway and today is a natural crater falling into the sea. At the base of the mountain a traditional woman diver’s home could still be seen. With all the wars Korea has suffered there was often a shortage of men and the women learned how to “do it all.” Their tradition of fishing by deep sea diving, holding their breaths for two minutes at a time is a proud one still carried on today, mostly by women in our age group. The climb to the top of the peak was strenuous for geezers and the views would have been much better if we had been there earlier in the day as the name of the peak suggests.
The obligatory twenty minute stop at a gift shop was completed in the dark and we were back on board just before 9:30 when it was time to set sail. We enjoyed what we saw, but our time here was much too brief.