Walking into the Jeju City Folk 5-Day Market is to enter a heaving mass of mingling and haggling. The atmosphere is familiar from markets the world over, and it is what makes them the best places to go to get a feel for the local culture.
The “o-il-jang” on Jeju is reportedly the largest five-day market in Korea, attracting up to 20,000 people on a weekend and having a 100-year history. It is best accessed via Iljuseo-ro, Dodu 1-dong, Jeju City, just a stone’s throw from the airport.
Entering on an empty stomach and looking for nothing in particular, I arrive with “Snowy,” the editor of The Jeju Weekly’s Chinese sister paper, Jeju Jugan, and Agne Latinyte, a Lithuanian artist living on Jeju.
There are two main thoroughfares, one running south to north and the other two running east to west. As a basic rule, vegetables can be found near the front, with the restaurants toward the back, and bedding and clothing in the middle. There is also much else in between.
Whereas market traders elsewhere often stand behind their wares bellowing out to the passing foot traffic, the (mostly) grandmothers in Jeju tend to sit surrounded — and often camouflaged — by their goods, preferring chatter with fellow traders and regulars.
But, as long as you don’t just buy and say “bye,” there will be plenty of opportunities for you to get involved, too.
As we venture in, it is not long before a man beckons us over and shares what is to be the first of many tidbits of cultural knowledge imparted that day.
“This is a special tree in Korea,” he said, bringing us over to a side wall where tall slender bamboo stood, known as “namcheon” in Korean (heavenly bamboo in English). “People place it near doors and windows to stop spirits from entering.”
More concerned by the winter drafts than wailing ghouls, we move on, first stopping at an arts and crafts stall selling Jeju-inspired souvenirs, and then searching out a snack. First it was barley bread — “delicious,” said Agne — and then that Jeju stalwart, “bingtteok,” radish-filled barley pancakes.
The chef, a North Chungcheong Province native sporting sunglasses, a red bandana and broken English, delighted us with his cheeky patter as he fried away.
“I am Korean traditional and I make the best bingtteok here!”
As we move deeper into the market’s bowels, passing bowls of fruit and vegetables, Snowy’s eye is caught by some colorful fruit as I opt for five juicy-looking bell peppers. “What are they?” I ask.
“These are just melons. They make women’s breasts bigger.”
I ask the vendor to fill my bag.
There isn’t only aesthetic enhancement on offer either, as remedies for even serious ailments are available. As we pass a vendor of “hanyak,” Korean traditional medicine, Agne remembers giving some to her sick mother.
“You buy it in a huge portion and then make it into a concoction. It seems expensive at first, but then you realize it is used in everything in place of water,” she says. “And it works,” she claims.
After an hour or so of shopping we go for lunch, having somehow acquired a medley of traders who take us for the best “momguk” (gulfweed soup) in the market.
The starters include cow head and chicken rectum, and we all concur it is the best we’ve ever tried. The momguk seals the day, confirming that food is the hidden treasure of the 5-Day Market.
So, although winter’s wails may tempt you to stay indoors, it is actually the perfect time to sit huddled in a tent with friends, getting a taste for a steaming soup, and Jeju’s rich heritage.
Jeju City Folk 5-Day Market
Dodu-1 dong, Jeju City
Open all days that end in 2 or 7 (e.g. March 2, 7, 12 and 17)
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