When Snow Shut Down Jeju, the “Hawaii of Korea”

I’m a California 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, who wears summer dresses in the winter and thinks anything below 70 Fahrenheit is freezing. I’m not ashamed of this.

 

Korea, however, ripped me a new one.

A place with such incredibly hot and humid summers brings it equally hard in the winters, especially for this sunny California gal who knows nothing of puffy jackets and snow boots. Temperatures declined from a high of 35°C to a low of a very cold -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 two pairs of sweat pants, three sweaters, and 6-7 blankets layered like sedimentary rocks above your frozen shell of a human body. This was my winter.

Jeju Winter

Jeju: 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, touted misleadingly as the “Hawaii of Korea,” lost its heavenly floral landscapes and descended into grey fog and cold days. We envied those living in Seoul, who at least had the novelty of snow to justify the cold temperatures. But for us on Jeju, 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.

 

And then there was January.

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Jeju Island, South Korea

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The week before January 23rd and 24th, Ben had been obsessively checking the weather reports (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 Jeju Island has received in over 3 decades.

OVER 3 DECADES.

 

View from our apartment
View from our apartment

 

The 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, jauntily stretching our legs to explore the near-desolate streets. A steady flow of flakes fell from the 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). 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 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, like the airways, were dead.

Jeju Snowed Over

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

Channel your inner 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)

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Winter wonderland in Korea

A post shared by LAUREN + BENNY 🌏 (@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 temple was desolate, peaceful, say 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 oranges still dangling from the trees. It was magnificent.

 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 Jeju,  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. And, with the internet as my witness, I WILL appreciate the warmer temperatures on this incredible island even more than before!

 

Winter on Jeju Island, South Korea

 

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3 Comments

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  1. 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

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

    Like

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