▲ Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
Even on Jeju, busy lifestyles can mean it’s difficult to note the subtle, or not so subtle, transition between the seasons. Luckily for Jeju residents, there always seems to be a festival around the corner to remind us of where we are in the seasonal cycle.
It is fitting then that between Nov. 8 and Nov. 11, as autumn faces off against the Jeju winter wind, the Extreme South Moseulpo Yellowtail Fish Festival opened in Daejeong-eup, Seo-gwipo City.
As the ‘Extreme South’ in the name suggests, this is one of the most southerly festivals in all of Korea. Being in the extreme southwest of Jeju Island, it celebrates the annual catch of the yellowtail fish of sushi fame.
Korean residents are doubtless familiar with the festival terrain — white tents greet your approach and a variety of foods funnel you inwards towards the central festive area. To make it there without a nibble or a swig of something is a victory at the best of times, but for this festival it really is advised to leave as much room in one’s stomach as possible.
Contrary to what the name suggests, you probably know the yellowtail by the pinkish-red tinge of its otherwise translucent flesh. Every year around early November this graceful fish finally reaches its mating grounds around Marado, having set off from its territorial waters around the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. That is nearly 3,500 kilometers as the crow flies, which is undoubtedly a lot more as the yellowtail swims.
After such a long journey, the yellowtail could probably do without being chased around a shallow paddling pool by the stomping feet and grasping arms of Jeju’s willing residents. But all's well that ends well, and things certainly end well for those sitting under the ubiquitous white tents come lunch time. Found tucking into lunch under one such tent, former principal of local Daejeong Boys’ High School, Kim Seung Geun, believes the festival is central to the community in this corner of Jeju.
“Festival time brings so many people to the town. The seafood here is among the best in Korea so I think the trip is worth it for that alone. My personal favorite is the baked yellowtail,” Kim said.
The centerpiece of this slightly eccentric festival is the yellowtail-catching experience where competitors don waterproof garb and slosh around in three feet of water trying to catch the luckless fish. The fish dart between legs and flailing limbs, trying to evade capture as screams of delight punctuate the splashing of the cold water pool. The Korean for yellowtail, bangeo, is a homonym for defense, which seems no coincidence as the fish expertly steers its plump flesh around the pool, evading capture.
Eventually, due to the sheer weight of numbers, a victor will arise bear-hugging a yellowtail, knowing that even the slightest of squirms could set the fish free. It certainly isn’t a sight for the faint hearted, but this is definitely a lunch well earned. Experts are on hand to prepare the fish, and a fresher meal is hard to come by. Dip it in a wasabi and soy sauce mix, perhaps wrapped in a lettuce leaf, and you will not regret it.
If fish-wrestling is not high up on your to-do list, then there are plenty of other activities to indulge in, including singing, face-painting, Olle walking, and visits to local historic sites. There are even shamanic rituals pleading the sea goddess for a bountiful harvest. As Committee Chair Lee Jae Jin stressed, the festival holds more appeal than the yellowtail alone:
“Through this festival, we’re trying our best to promote and advertise Jeju products, not only yellowtail, but also garlic, potatoes, pork, and beef, and to provide a place for Jeju locals and visitors to mingle,” said Lee.
The were many activities on offer, set amidst one of the most scenic areas of Jeju Island, giving ample opportunity both to work up an appetite or to work off a lunch. Even if fish wrestling isn’t your idea of a well-spent brisk autumn day, the Extreme South Yellowtail Fish Festival won’t leave you feeling empty handed.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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