Jeju Island South Korea

The Jeju Island Winter That Shut Down the “Hawaii of Korea”

Jeju Island winter, South Korea
 

Winter wonderlands may long bless the top winter travel destinations of the world, but a snowy hand rarely touches the Jeju Island winter on South Korea’s favorite island. Besides Hallasan Mountain, the tallest point of South Korea, snow is still a relative rarity on the island. But for me, a Jeju Island winter was still very, very cold.

Now, I may be teaching English abroad on Jeju Island in South Korea, but I’m a Los Angeles girl. And gosh darn it, I’m proud of it. I’m proud to bask in the rays of the California sun, to prance on the Santa Monica boardwalk as a golden UV-overexposed nymph striped every shade of tan scouring an exotic array of sunny places to eat in LA, who wears summer dresses in the winter and thinks anything below 60 Fahrenheit is freezing. I’m not ashamed of this. Thus, my Jeju Island winter proved quite a challenge.

 


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South Korea, however, ripped me a new one.

A place with such incredibly hot and humid summers (perfect for sprawling across your own personal Hidden Beach or enjoying a view of Mt. Sanbangsan from Sagye Beach) brings it equally hard for its Jeju Island winter, especially for this sunny California gal who knows nothing of puffy jackets and snow boots. Temperatures of a Jeju Island winter drop from a high of 35°C to a low of -6°C. The nasty Korean mosquitoes slowly bounce out, saying, “sayonara, I’m leavin’ this betch.” And you’re left alone, shivering and pathetic, with three pairs of sweat pants, five sweaters, and 6-7 blankets layered like sedimentary rocks above your frozen shell of a human body. The glorious summer waters of the nearby Iho Beach or the verdant O’Sulloc green tea fields seem like a distant dream. This was my Jeju Island winter.

Note: These photos were all taken on an iPhone 4s (I know…freaking ancient), but we have since upgraded to a Canon 80D (#worthit). Learn more here: Essential Cameras for Every Traveler!

Jeju Island Winter: Record-Breaking!

 

Jeju Island Winter: The Frozen “Hawaii of Korea”

Our apartment thermometer hovered around 12-14°C (53.6-57.2°F), but dropped as low as 7°C (44.6°F). Jeju Island, the home of famous Jeju tangerine and Korean cherry blossom trees, touted misleadingly as the “Hawaii of Korea,” lost its heavenly floral landscapes and descended into grey fog and cold days.


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We envied those living in Seoul, who at least had the novelty of snow to justify the cold winter temperatures. But for our Jeju Island winter, December came and went without much more than a wet flurry. We felt a few centimeters of snow mush here and there, but it always melted fairly immediately. If you’re looking for incredible winter landscapes in Korea in a typical year, you’re far better off checking out one of these top 10 Best Places for Winter in Korea!

But this year wasn’t typical.

 

And then there was January.

Jeju Island, South Korea

A post shared by L A U R E N + B E N 🌏TRAVELERS (@televisionofnomads) on

 

The week before January 23rd and 24th, Ben had been obsessively checking the weather reports for Jeju Island (although, TBH, this is pretty standard), and kept excitedly announcing that we would receive 1 WHOLE INCH OF SNOW. To us, this seemed like an impossible winter fantasy.

The weekend of January 23rd-24th rolled around, and we received 12 centimeters (about 4.7 inches) over 4 TIMES what was earlier predicted, and the biggest snowfall any Jeju Island winter had seen in over 3 decades.

OVER 3 DECADES.

 

View from our apartment during Jeju Island winter

View from our apartment

 

Jeju City became a powdery ghost town—the streets untouched, untracked by foot or car. Ben and I waddled out looking like marshmallows with a third of our closet layered on us (most importantly, my North Face Metropolis Parka 2 Jacket), jauntily stretching our legs to explore the near-desolate streets. This was how we learned to layer properly for winter travel and developed our Essential Winter Travel Packing List. (Don’t forget a good pair of thermal underwear!)

A steady flow of flakes fell from the South Korean sky, sticking to our eyebrows, eyelashes, and Ben’s beard till we looked affirmatively like abominable snowmen (our puffy clothing only strengthened this super cool look). 


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With the squinting eyes beneath my stylish Winter Queen snow-dusted lashes, I ingested the scene: icy white palm trees, not a store open in sight, and a thick, lush, pure blanket of snow cloaking the surface of anything and everything.

 Icy white palm trees

 

Jeju Island officials were just as unprepared for what came as we were.

This is what you have to understand. 4.7 inches of snow may be peasant’s snow levels for Colorado or Montana, but for Jeju Island—the “Hawaii of Korea,” remember—this is a ROYAL ice fest. Known for its resorts and beaches bringing in millions of tourists  each year, the unexpected flurry of snow shuttered Jeju to a devastating halt. And what did this mean for the 86,000 travelers trying to leave Jeju that day to traverse what just so happens to be the busiest passenger air route IN THE WORLD ? They were, to put it bluntly, *sugar* out of luck (hey. let’s keep this family friendly, kay boo?)

 

Winter Wonderland Park

Over 86,000 tourists were stuck on the island, frozen and sealed shut by a mere few inches of snow. Nearly 1,100 flights were cancelled, and with the temps dropping to -6.1°C (21°F), these thousands of people had to huddle with blankets and sleep on cardboard boxes. No bueno. While we were less affected than these scorned wanderlusters, we had friends who were also stranded on parts of the island nowhere near their homes, forced to crash at nearby friend’s houses or walk miles in the snow to get to their destination. Buses weren’t running, taxis weren’t running. The streets of this Jeju Island winter, like the airways, were dead.

Jeju Snowed Over

So What To Do on a Snowed-In Ghost Island?

Channel your inner Jeju Island winter child. Ben and I wandered the streets in 50,000 layers, making the most triumphant ugly snowmen and snowwomen (equal representation, obvi), and snow angels a California boy and gal could know, gettin’ hard in da paint with snowballs, and basically just living a fairy-tastic winter dream.

My lovely snowwoman

My lovely snowwoman

 

Visit the Seonlimsa Temple (선림사)

Winter wonderland in Korea

A post shared by L A U R E N + B E N 🌏TRAVELERS (@televisionofnomads) on

 

After a hearty helping of winter games, we meandered up and down the hills near our apartment in Nohyeong-dong in Jeju City to the Seonlimsa temple (선림사) near the Halla Arboretum (the same Halla Arboretum that houses the magnificent Korean cherry blossom trees in the spring!). The temple was desolate, peaceful, save for one lone monk we later brushed paths with.

Color in the orange trees
The ponds decorating the temple’s entrance were frozen over. The sky’s white paintbrush had coated over the scene, leaving only a few pops of color in the red and green of the temple’s structures, in the few tangerines still dangling from the trees. It was magnificent.

 Getting to the Seonlimsa Temple

 Directions the Seonlimsa Temple (선림사): Take the 90 or 95 bus to the Halla Arboretum stop. Walk up the hill to Sumogwon-ro 수목원로 and turn left towards the arboretum. You will see signs for 선림사 on the left side (look near the trash and recycling bins). Follow the signs off the main road and you will find the temple a little ways down the road.

 

Sidewalk covered in snow

Some Work, But More Play

Monday came and we trekked through the snow to work. I can now channel that quintessential tale told many a’time to grandchildren all over the snow-ridden states to my own grandbabies: “WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE, I WALKED A MILE TO WORK IN THE SNOW.”

Feet in the snow

If we had worked with EPIK (English Program in Korea), the public school system in South Korea, maybe we wouldn’t have had to come in at all. But as teachers at Korean hagwons (private schools), there is no such luxury. However, when we came to work after a brisk 20-min walk through mild snow, we were delighted to find this day would be no more than a glorified daycare session. The books stayed closed and YouTube stayed open. I played Rugrats for the kids while coloring and making crafts all day until we were told those blessed words that every shift-working millennial has fantasized about a thousand times over: “you can leave early.”

Snow-covered temple

A [Reformed?] Lady of the Sun

The time we had the highest level of snow in over 30 years rocked the Jeju Island winter,  stranding some several thousand poor souls on the frozen paradise. But for a “local” (can I call myself that after living here for 10 months?), it was a welcome novelty in an otherwise grey and foggy winter, and a fantastic excuse to leave work early. But am I a convert? Have I abandoned the way of the UV in exchange for a less sunlit life, the way of snow and darkness? NO FUDGING WAY. But, I am a little less of a wuss in the face of colder temperatures. I will buy a new pair of winter boots (I now use a great pair of Cougar Waterproof Snow Boots. And, with the internet as my witness, I WILL appreciate the warmer temperatures on this incredible island even more than before!


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Jeju Island Winter in South Korea


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3 Comments

  • Reply
    marileska
    May 25, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    South Korea looks also very beautiful in winter. I was actually in South Korea last week. we loved it. The weather was very unpredictable tho – sunny one day and raining the next day – but we had such a great time. 🙂
    Marileska X.
    https://marileska.wordpress.com

  • Reply
    televisionofnomads
    May 26, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Oh yes, the weather here is quite unpredictable! Glad you enjoyed your trip here!

  • Reply
    Television of Nomads
    June 6, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    […] LA-natives who see sunny days not as a weather forecast but a way of life, the cold Jeju Island winters in South Korea had another thing coming for […]

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