At the behest of my surfing teacher, my arms were submerged in the water. I was sure that I would soon swallow the salty sea I had inhaled. Gray clouds hung down, causing it to rain in small showers.
I tightened my lower back, turned my head up and looked forward, toward the palm-lined shores of Iho Taevu Beach on the north coast of Jeju Island. With equal parts nerves and eagerness, I heard the waves crash against the hard surfboard and the squeak of my wetsuit, gathering courage for my teacher’s final signal.
A professional Korean surfer I met earlier that day called Iho one of Jeju’s “ugliest beaches,” but that hasn’t diminished the sandy stretch’s popularity among locals and vacationers alike.
The oval-shaped island of Jeju, about an hour’s flight south of Seoul, is famous for its dramatic landscape, which includes the volcano Mount Halasan and its semi-tropical national park. full of beaches Dol Harebang, or “stone grandfathers”, carved from black volcanic rock, sometimes as tall as a person.
However, I did not come to see those sights. I came with three friends and a simple itinerary: eat Jeju’s famous black pork, bike the tiny Udo Island off Jeju’s eastern shore, and head to the beach. Our pipe dream? To try surfing for the first time in Korea’s Hawaiian destination.
It was a tough idea: Not only did I grow up in a small town in the Midwestern United States, but while learning everything I knew about beaches from “Shark Week,” I became a natural-born Felt away from the athlete as well. Not long ago, a gentle yoga class was enough to tire me out, and I spent years slowly building up my physical strength.
But Jeju seemed like the perfect place to try something I had once thought impossible, its cool personality so different from the South Korean mainland, where I had lived for three years.
Due to its varying geography, the island has developed its own cultural nuances, and people joke that Koreans fluent in the Jeju dialect are practically speaking a second language. By calling on local surfing schools, my friends and I used every ounce of our Korean abilities to find a place ready to teach us, eventually landing on Jeju Barrel Surf.
Sitting on a board at Iho Taevu beach the next day, running my fingers through the wet sand, I listened intently as our sunny instructor, Sam, explained why the island is such a welcoming place for newcomers: The history of the sport here is remarkably short, and South Korea has the oldest generation of surfers alive today.
The nation’s first serious, native wave riders moved here in the 2000s, importing the pastime from places like California and Hawaii, and enthusiastically passing on what they knew.
The Korea Surf League, a professional organization dedicated to developing the domestic surfing industry, is only as of 2020, although the sport’s local popularity continues to grow among men and women alike. Surfing, it seems, is the opposite of an otherwise success-driven culture. It’s about taking the waves at sea or in life as they come: the opposite of turbo-speed Seoul.
Eventually, we were ready to put our rookie techniques to the test, as the rainy day kicked off some good early surf. Lying on our stomachs on a long surf board, my friends and I pretended to paddle with our arms, lifting up the sand in a flurry.
On our teacher’s instructions, we proceeded: brace on hands and toes, slide right knee to hip, keep gaze straight and stomp up on feet. I should have pulled over already!
Sam took us through our steps over and over again, correcting the position of our feet or reminding us to keep our knees above the sand.
Then, there was no more time left for fear or doubt – I was more ready for the water than I would have ever felt. Pushing my board toward the waves, I rode and stood still, my body long and flat, ready for my countdown.
“One… two… go!”
I leaned forward as Sam pushed against the tail of my surfboard. I thought the rush would stop soon, but the board only moved faster. My first wave was catching me.
The chant of steps we had previously drilled on the sandy beach ran through my head. To my surprise, they clicked calmly through my mind and body: eyes forward, hands and toes, right knee to hip, feet pivoting, board to hand… and there I was.
I was riding my little wave. I could do nothing but laugh, breathing with a sense of relief in the cold, salty air, swelling on the edge with a joy I won’t soon forget.
Travelers are reminded to check public health restrictions that may affect their plans.