If you watch Korean TV shows, you've probably seen the beauty of Jeju Island, South Korea's largest island and favorite vacation spot with beautiful beaches.
Inscribed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2007, Jeju is a mild-climate oasis for outdoor enthusiasts.
The Jeju volcanic island and lava tubes, which showcase the traces of volcanic eruptions from two million years ago, create a dramatic landscape with craters, caverns, and cliffs that are unlike any other place on the globe.
Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called "Sunrise Peak," is a breathtaking tuff cone crater formed approximately 5,000 years ago by volcanic eruptions underneath the sea. The said volcanic crater is about 600 meters in diameter, has a dip of strata up to 45 degrees, and is 90 meters from sea level to the crater floor.
The subtropical climate provides warm summers, snowy winters, and vibrant hues in spring and fall. And such seasonal changes in ambiance make visitors want to return even before they leave.
Jeju even has its own local dialect, and numerous theme parks make this island family-friendly.
As a tea sommelier, Jeju Island has been on my bucket list for a long time.
Jeju is a prominent tea-producing area with many tea museums in the Korean peninsula.
So last October, I went on a tea sourcing trip and visited six tea plantations in Jeju province.
On this trip, I prioritized family-owned, small tea farms over large commercial tea plantations to support small businesses and introduce Mansa's tea lovers to more micro-terroirs.
So in this blog post, I am sharing my key learnings about Jeju tea and teaware as well as food and other travel tips based on my recent visit.
Read on, OR use the links below to jump to a specific section:
- Jeju Trip Planning during COVID
- What to Expect Upon Arriving at Jeju Island
- 3 Important Learnings about Jeju Teas
- What’s Special About Jeju Onggi and Teaware
- Jeju Food Recommendations
- Non-Tea Related Activities in Jeju
- Reflecting Back
Jeju Trip Planning during COVID
Ah, COVID and traveling…
COVID makes your travel planning much more difficult with the constantly changing guidelines.
At the time of my travel, I had to
- File a Quarantine Exemption Certificate at the Korean Consulate 3 weeks before my travel
- Apply for K-ETA (Korea Electronic Travel Authorization) even if you have a US passport
- Take 3 COVID tests within 10 days
All these steps are new to the South Korean travel scene, so let me expand on them a bit more.
File a Quarantine Exemption Certificate
As a fully vaccinated traveler, I was able to apply for a Quarantine Exemption Certificate to be exempt from the 14-day quarantine.
You can apply for this certificate online, but the embassy website has one of those poorly designed portals that logs you out after a short time.
Have you ever had an experience where a government site logs you out as you are trying to get your documents scanned, uploaded, resized, and re-uploaded, and end up re-filling out the application from the beginning all over again?
Well, expect that to happen multiple times.
And make sure to apply for the exemption about three weeks before your travel to avoid any last-minute anxiety.
I highly recommend checking the official Korean government travel guidelines frequently before your trip, as the government changes its policies quite often.
[Please note that everyone has to quarantine for ten days due to the Omicron variant as of my writing today. So they are NOT issuing the Quarantine Exemption Certificate at the moment.]
Apply for K-ETA
Until recently, United States citizens did not have to obtain any travel visa for the Republic of Korea.
So I was shocked to have discovered the new visa policy when I tried to check in 24 hours before my flight.
I ended up frantically refreshing my email for visa confirmation the morning of my flight.
Thankfully, they processed my application in time.
But please don't make the mistake I've made, and apply for K-ETA well in advance.
Applying for K-ETA is very straightforward if you apply at least 24 hours before boarding the flight.
Take Multiple COVID Tests
Taking a PCR COVID test within 72 hours of your flight is quite common these days.
So COVID Test #1 is pretty self-explanatory.
As I was trying to book my appointment, I've learned that it's much more efficient to get your COVID testing done at a laboratory, like Quest Diagnostics, than at an urgent care.
After all, urgent care and other non-laboratory facilities send your sample to a lab.
So why not skip a step?
Then, upon arrival, you have to take another COVID test (i.e., COVID Test #2).
If you arrive on Sunday evening like I did and all the test centers are closed, that means you have to wait until the next business day.
And until you get your negative result back, you are NOT allowed to go out!
So this means that you can’t explore Seoul or hop on a flight to Jeju until you get your result back.
In terms of itinerary, this means you cannot travel until Tuesday late morning.
- Sunday evening: arrival
- Monday morning: COVID test
- Tuesday morning: test results texted
So to avoid wasting your time quarantining at your Airbnb or hotel as I did, I recommend you arrive on a weekday and get your COVID test immediately.
Korean Public Health Centers provide COVID tests for free, and you do not need an appointment.
Then comes the COVID Test #3.
Had I extended my stay in South Korea by a day or two, I would have had to get another COVID test.
But given that this COVID test requirement overlapped with another COVID test requirement for my return flight, I skipped the 4th test.
For your return flight, it's a bit tricky as you are required to get an official document of your COVID test results in English.
And the Korean Public Health Centers do not provide this for you.
So I ended up going to a large university hospital for this.
It costs about $100 for the test and $50 for the documentation.
And yes, it’s per person.
So for a family of 4, that would be $600(!) just for the COVID test and documentation!
Last but not least, beware of COVID.
Our Jeju flights were completely full both ways.
And I later learned that Jeju is where everyone in South Korea goes for a vacation during COVID.
Translated: This is where people get COVID and bring it back to their respective cities.
So I was pretty paranoid during this trip.
What if I get COVID during the trip?
I’d have to quarantine myself for two weeks and won’t be able to fly back to NYC!
It also did not help that your iPhone sends you notifications about new COVID positive cases in your vicinity.
Thankfully I tested negative on all my tests.
But do be careful of COVID if you want to come back home according to your plan!
What to Expect Upon Arriving to Jeju Island
Weather in Jeju Island - October
Once you get through all the documentation and COVID test requirements (#1 and #2), you can finally travel to Jeju Island!
Arriving on the island, I immediately noticed how sunny and warm it was.
I thought to myself… Did I over-layer based on my quick research about the Jeju October weather?
I began to regret not bringing more T-shirts and jeans.
But don’t be fooled!
Depending on where you are on the island, you’d notice large fluctuations in temperature.
I found myself taking my layers off in the afternoon sun while bundled up in the morning and the evenings.
So after a few hours on the island, I felt at ease with my suitcase full of layer options as I began my tea garden visits.
Get a Rental Car
Getting around the island without a car can be difficult.
The buses don't run as often, and most of the outdoor activity spots you want to explore are not accessible by bus.
And especially if you are on a tighter schedule, you most likely do not want to waste your time waiting for a bus.
So if you can, GET A CAR!
And bring your international license.
Also, stay in one part of the island unless you stay for a week or longer.
Exploring the whole island in 3-4 days is pretty taxing, even with a car.
It takes an hour and a half to get to the other side of the island.
So unless you are moving to a different hotel or an Airbnb, it'd be almost 3 hours round trip, not to mention the drive between multiple places you'd be visiting throughout the day.
Because we were trying to visit multiple tea gardens in a single trip, we ended up spending a lot of our time in the car.
But if you are on vacation, remember that even if you stay on a single part of the island, you can enjoy many activities, including surfing, hiking, dining, and horseback riding.
3 Important Learnings about Jeju Teas
I'm lucky to have seen the splendid tea gardens on the island in the flesh.
I usually like to visit a few tea gardens each day to avoid caffeine overconsumption during my tea sourcing trips.
Even as someone with high caffeine tolerance, I usually feel jittery by the end of the day, even with this strategy.
Instead of sharing my specific experiences at each of the tea gardens, I will be sharing the three key learnings I obtained from this Jeju trip.
1. Short History with High Potential
Although tea has been around South Korea since the 6th century, tea farming is relatively new in Jeju.
It only started in 1979 when Sungwhan Suh, better known by his pen name Jangwon, decided to revive Korea’s tea culture in Jeju through his tea company Osulloc.
Jangwon found the perfect opportunity to create a new tea garden on a volcanic island with an optimal terroir to continue the unique Korean tea tradition.
As the founder and former CEO of the world's 12th largest cosmetic company, he had the capital to jumpstart a tea industry in Jeju Island.
And the rest is history.
Despite its short history of just over 40 years, Jeju teas possess incredible potential, thanks to the island’s fertile volcanic soil and optimal climate.
Jeju is a real environmental treasure trove, with over 2,100 plant species in a volcanic zone with a tropical climate.
The volcanic soil on the island is incredibly fertile and has a slightly acidic soil of pH 4.5, perfect for tea plant growth.
However, since the tea trees on the island are still relatively young, you can't taste the full potential of the Jeju teas just yet.
It’d be exciting to taste the Jeju teas from older tea trees in 40-60 years!
2. Highly Influenced by Tea Maker’s Skill Level
When you try the same type of tea from the same terroir but from different tea farmers, you begin to notice how much difference in quality a tea maker can make.
When I tasted woojeon, the highest grade Korean green tea, from three different Jeju tea gardens (let’s call it A, B, and C), it became apparent that Woojeon A was the best by a considerable margin.
- Woojeon A had complexity and depth with an elegant finish that lingers on your palate for a long time. The leaves were carefully handpicked in early spring and carefully pan-fried.
- Woojeon B was pleasant but without the smooth finish and depth of Woojeon A. The leaves were cut to smaller pieces as they were machine-harvested, making it difficult to distinguish between a chopped bud and a chopped stem.
- And Woojeon C(?) Well, there was no “Woojeon” C because this tea farmer did not grade their tea leaves at all(!) and had one standard green tea of teabag quality.
Because most of the tea trees in Jeju are still young, compared to the ancient trees in Yunnan, for example, Jeju teas need to be carefully processed by tea masters who know how to bring out the best from the tea.
To use a chef analogy, anyone can make fresh seafood taste good. You let the raw ingredients shine with minimal cooking.
However, to make subpar ingredients taste incredible, you need a great chef who knows how to bring out the best from each ingredient.
I ended up sourcing teas from great tea makers who bring out Jeju's unique terroir and flavors from the tea leaves.
3. Heavily Commercialized and Industrialized
Most of the Jeju teas that are commonly available are heavily commercialized and industrialized.
Even during my tea garden visits, it was very evident that most of them focused on mass-produced teas.
Handpicked and handcrafted Jeju teas are incredibly rare and expensive.
Even our Jeju white tea maker told me that he plans on machine-harvesting his white teas in the following year to make the tea more commercially viable.
Now, not all machine-harvested teas are bad.
Handpicking and hand-processing tea in developed countries is very expensive.
However, for our Jeju Island Tea Tasting set, we made sure to prioritize small tea gardens that still handcraft, if not semi-handcraft, their teas.
So the set is made up of the top 0.1% Jeju teas in quality.
And they are all 100% organic.
This also means that our teas do not represent Jeju teas that are more widely available.
The tasting set also comes with a digital magazine that deep dives into each of the eight teas that make up a set.
What’s Special About Jeju Onggi and Teaware
During my trip, I also carved out a half-day to learn more about Jeju Onggi (onggi in Korean means warmth or pottery used to warm food) directly from two master artisans, Master Shin and Master Kim.
I had heard that Jeju Onggi alters tea flavors, both the stored dry tea AND the brewed tea.
So, of course, I was intrigued and had to find out more!
Jeju Onggi is unglazed like Yixing teaware.
So it can interact with the contents they hold to enhance flavors, whether tea, meat, sauce, or alcohol.
The clay used for the earthenware is from the volcanic soil of Jeju Island, so it alters flavors differently from other unglazed clays.
It is also unique in that although it is not glazed, it still has a glossy layer due to its high volcanic ash content.
So I ended up purchasing a Jeju Onggi teacup and a canister to experience first-hand the effect Jeju clay has on tea.
Upon experimenting with the Jeju Onggi teacup, I have to say its impact on the brewed tea has been minimal so far.
I plan to do a closer-by-side experiment against porcelain to understand its full potential, so I will report back on how my experiments go in a few months.
I have not experimented with the Jeju canister yet but plan to do so in the next few months.
Another interesting fact is that Jeju kilns are different from all other kilns in the world in that they use stones, not clay!
As shown in the photo, Master Kim and his family still produce their pottery in their 100-year-old kiln using hardwood as the primary heat source.
They attempted to modernize the pottery-making process by building a modern kiln using gas as a heat source.
But the resulting pottery did not have the same quality.
So they decided to preserve the old-school method of making their pottery despite the extra work it requires.
Jeju Food Recommendations
Exploring authentic local cuisine is one of my favorite parts of traveling.
Jeju has a broad range of unique and distinctive food options for a small island.
So, where to dine in Jeju was a bit of a dilemma for me.
Unfortunately, it turned out that I picked the wrong restaurants while we were in Jeju despite the long lists of restaurant recommendations I received from those who’d been to Jeju.
So here are my two cents on how to pick the right places for your food options.
Stick with Raw Seafood
Seafood is an obvious choice when you are visiting an island.
But there’s a caveat.
In a traditional Jeju family, women were the breadwinners.
Haenyeos, the Jeju female divers who dive without a scuba tank, fetch seafood and sell in the market while men stay home.
Some say that Jeju doesn't have good cooks because Jeju women do not have time to cook at home.
Of course, they are assuming that women would be cooking in a patriarchal society, although women as breadwinners are not exactly patriarchal.
What an irony!
Anyway, there are two options to get great seafood in Jeju, and both involve sticking to dishes that do not require much "cooking," like sashimi.
1. Purchase fresh seafood directly from a haenyeo
The best way is to directly purchase fresh seafood from haenyeo and bring it to a restaurant to help prepare the raw fish for you.
I did not get a chance to do this as I wasn't sure exactly where to go to find haenyeos to buy the fresh seafood from.
But with further research, I am sure you'd be able to find a way to do this.
2. Go to a sashimi restaurant—mackerel sashimi in particular
I've heard good mackerel sashimi can be tough to find as you need very fresh mackerel for it, but you can get them in Jeju!
Unfortunately, we couldn't go to the only sashimi restaurant on our itinerary as we ended up behind schedule.
And it was when I had already gotten back from the trip that my aunt told me that the mackerel sashimi was a must-have.
Oh well, I missed out.
On a positive note, I thoroughly enjoyed the abalone gimbap, a Korean seaweed rice roll, to the point that I revisited the same place the following day.
That's when you know it is delicious!
And the owners even recognized me on my second visit and graciously offered me a free cup of coffee.
Try Some Citrus Fruits: Oranges, Tangerines, Clementines
Before this trip, I hadn't realized that there were so many different types of tangerines in Jeju.
Now that I think about it, it makes sense that there'd be heirloom varieties of any agricultural product.
Although I did not get to do a full Jeju tangerine tasting, I did get to try two different types of fresh-squeezed tangerine juice and noticed a surprising difference.
Hallabong juice was sweeter while Chunheyang juice was more bitter and sour.
I later learned that they used 90% regular clementines as a base and added a bit of the heirloom variety to make their juice.
So I was slightly disappointed to hear that.
At least, the 10% of the added heirloom variety made quite a difference in taste!
I also met a tangerine farmer at a fruit stand who was very passionate about tangerine farming.
He told us that he does not have any tangerines to sell that day as his harvests need an additional week to be at their peak of flavor.
When he noticed my disappointment, he mentioned that many farmers sell subpar tangerines by harvesting the fruits earlier than their optimal harvest point to meet the customers' demands.
But he doesn’t.
“Why pick the fruit early when it can be twice as juicy and sweet in a week or two?”
I 100% agree with his mindset and his philosophy.
It's the same philosophy that I look for when working with tea makers.
It's essential to maximize and create the best product possible given the limited resources.
Although I did not have the opportunity to try his tangerines, I’d love to come back one day to try his.
He does ship domestically within Korea, though that wouldn’t work in my case.
Note that his oranges are pricey at almost $4 each.
Famous "Black Pork" of Jeju
Although I have heard about the Jeju black pork, I only learned about the origin story of these black pigs during this trip.
Years and years ago, when the residents of Jeju used to have "bathrooms" (as in a hut with no modern toilets) placed outdoors, they would raise their pigs around the bathrooms.
And these pigs will grow eating your "yes-you-guessed-it."
Now, I am not sure whether that's the actual reason that these pigs became black or not, but they do say that's the reason why black pigs "used to" taste different.
Nowadays, of course, black pigs are not raised this way.
And the authentic Jeju black pigs tend to be small in size and slow in growth, so most “black pigs” are now bred with more commercial breeds.
So now people say that there's no actual difference in flavor between regular pigs and “black pigs.”
Still, visitors always look for black pork in Jeju.
Perhaps all that's left is good marketing for now.
Jeju Bakery - What a Lucky Find!
And this wonderful bakery I stumbled upon…
Frankly, I wasn't expecting to be eating baked goods in Jeju.
I would be if I were in Paris!
We were supposed to go kayaking near Soesokkak Estuary (in Korean, Soe means an ox, so means a pool of water, and kkak means the end).
It’s a picturesque cliff surrounded by a deep blue ocean and a pine forest.
But there was a wait time of over 1 hour when we got there.
Given that I packed our schedule with lots of places to visit (remember, I was visiting multiple tea gardens and teaware makers on this trip), we did not have one hour to spare.
So we ended up taking a short walk around Soesokkak instead.
As we were strolling around the beautiful cliff, I stumbled upon this bakery.
And wow, wow, wow!
It was one of those moments when you want to try everything, but you have to come to terms with the reality that you can only eat so much in a day.
So we picked four different baked goods to share as a group. They were all so unique and delicious!
- Garlic Bread: This was no ordinary garlic bread! It had sweet cream cheese in the middle, and the ingredient list included squid ink, pumpkin, green tea, and of course, garlic.
- Sweet Potato Bread: It was shaped and powdered in purple like a sweet potato!
- Volcanic Rock Bread: The bread was designed to look like a volcanic rock with white crust over a black bread filled with grains and nuts.
- Pumpkin Bread: This was great too. But as I tried this one last, I felt like I had too much bread by the time I tried this one.
Some of the combinations of the flavors were so interesting and refreshing.
Ah, I love good surprises like this on trips!
It’s always fun to sprinkle in some fun activities during tea travels.
If you plan on traveling with other people who are not as into tea as you, OR you would like to maximize your Jeju travel with additional activities, here are some ideas to get you started.
I’d been to Jeju Island once before this trip.
My first trip happened when I was 4 or 5, so it’s fair to say I have zero memory of that trip.
The only “recollection” is based on a photo of me horseback riding in Jeju.
And likely because of that photo, I’ve been associating Jeju Island with horseback riding.
So I added horseback riding to my itinerary.
Let me start by saying that I am not athletic.
I’d put myself at the bottom quartile when it comes to athleticism.
My horse kept wanting to go slowly and sideways, so I had some steering to do while keeping my back straight, perhaps with too much tension, for a good 20 minutes.
As an inexperienced horse rider, I felt like the 20 minutes felt like an hour.
Oh, and do bring a pair of gloves.
My hands were freezing by the end.
Despite what I just said, I loved this fun and unique experience!
Camellia Hill Botanical Garden
This 20-hectare botanical garden holds over 6,000 Camellia trees and over 500 different species of wildflowers and other plants.
And yes, Camellia trees include Camellia Sinensis, the tea plant!
Please note that Camellia flowers fully bloom in the winter, so if you go during warmer months like me, you won’t be able to see them.
However, this is an impeccably planned garden where flowers bloom all season.
For example, when I was there this fall, the garden had beautiful Pink Muhly grasses.
In the summer, it’s filled with hydrangeas.
You can easily spend more than one hour walking through different parts of the garden.
It’s the perfect garden I can only dream of, especially as someone without a green thumb.
And I can see myself revisiting this place multiple times at different times of the year.
I highly highly recommend it!
Jeolmul Natural Recreation Forest
Jeolmul Natural Forest Resort is another excellent place where you can relax and be one with nature.
The path through the cedar forest is very well maintained, so the walk here is suitable for young kids and the elderly as well.
There’s a waterfall, promenade, pond, and even forest cabins for lodging.
Keep in mind that this is a human-made forest. If you prefer an actual hike in the mountains, I recommend climbing the Hallasan Summit, the highest mountain in South Korea and a dormant volcano.
A few other places worth mentioning are:
- Bunker de Lumieres: an immersive digital art museum where you experience the famous works of art via large surface projections and sound experiences.
- Jusangjeollidae: a scenic cliff created from the volcanic eruption of Mount Hallasan. Make sure to arrive there at least 30 minutes before they close. We arrived 28 minutes before their close time, and we were NOT allowed to enter.
- Seongeup Folk Village: an old village that preserves the homes of the people of Jeju in the past few hundred years. This place is also where I learned about the story behind the Jeju “black pigs.” I recommend booking a guide to make the most of your visit.
I wish I had more time on the island to enjoy more of Jeju.
Sometimes it isn't easy to balance tea sourcing and other fun activities.
But that also means there’s more reason to revisit and explore in the future, right?
If you plan to visit Jeju Island, I hope my perspective on this trip helped.
It’s truly a unique experience that you won’t regret.