▲ Chuja-do is an archipelago of islands a two-hour boat ride off the northwest coast of Jeju-do. Fishing is the lifeblood of the 3,000 hardy inhabitants, who are often cut off from the mainland by storms that sweep across the sea. Photo by John Hellman
Just beyond the horizon of Jeju, about 32 miles to the northwest, lies an archipelago of 42 islets and large rocks collectively known as Chuja. While small in size these miniature islands are rich in history and culture unique from both mainland Korea and Jeju.
The four largest islands of the Chuja island group are Sang-Chuja, Ha-Chuja, Chupo and Hoenggan and are the only ones with permanent inhabitants. The islands form a dense network in their four square miles of ocean, and fishing dominates the daily lives of most residents.
This self-described “paradise for fishing,” is home to about 3,000 Chuja-doans. Of the working adults, 80 percent are employed in the fishing industry, according to Chuja government statistics. The islands are ringed with halos of squid boats at night, and fishing hotspots along the coasts teem with Haenyeo during the day.
Despite the fact that seafood and sea products are essentially the only natural export of Chuja, the island is remarkably self-sufficient and even possesses its own elementary, middle, and high schools.
This self-sufficiency is not always by choice. Access to Chuja is only possible by ferry departing from either Jeju or Mokpo on the mainland. When the weather is too severe for safe passage, Chuja becomes completely cut-off from the outside world.
However, when the seas are calm tourists are attracted to Chuja for an enchanting weekend getaway where they can sample local history and unique natural beauty.
Sang-Chuja is home to two shrines commemorating a pair of centuries-old historical figures of Chuja: General Choi Young, and a teacher known only as Park. Additionally Sang-Chuja is home to a recently constructed lighthouse, situated atop a nearby hill, providing spectacular views of the sea.
Second to the excellent fishing opportunities, the beautiful views of the vast ocean surrounding the cluster of lush islets are perhaps some of the strongest natural attractions to visitors. Hiking almost any accessible hill leads to wonderful photo opportunities and a surreal feeling of humble isolation as one takes in the panoramic view of blue stretching to the horizon in all directions.
Life on Chuja is changing rapidly. Twenty years ago the population was around 7,000, but due to increasing opportunities of the modern age the youth of Chuja are no longer content to spend their lives isolated in the middle of the Yellow Sea, and more often choose to re-settle on the mainland or Jeju for better career opportunities or simply to ease their “island-fever.”
Even the Haenyeo trademarks of Jeju and Chuja cultures are waning in numbers and it is estimated that within 20 more years there may not be any of the famous female divers left on either island.
In response to negative population growth and a leveling off of the number of tourists, the local Chuja government has begun promoting its locale by hosting several festivals this past year and making an increased effort to invite Korean and international travelers to their unique islands.
Additionally, the Jeju Provincial Government designated 2008 “Visit Chuja Island Year”. Visitors were able to purchase ferry tickets to Chuja for only 10,000 won, less than half of the normal ticket price. So far their plan has been successful as 2008 saw Chuja’s tourist numbers double.
Whether or not Chuja becomes Korea’s next hot tourist destination, its people and culture will persist. The islands have been populated for hundreds of years without the aide of national tourism campaigns. Such a self-sufficient culture, utterly dependent on the moody sea for its livelihood, learns to endure and make the best of what it has.
To partake of Chuja’s culture for yourself simply visit the Jeju-si Ferry Terminal and inquire for prices and timetables. Cancellations are not unusual due to bad weather, and bring some Dramamine just in case!
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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