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Trip 37 — Jeju and Xiamen Walks

Jeju day 9: Jeju City to airport
Thursday, 3 August 2023

Today: 6303 steps/5.25 km/3.26 mi/53m
Grand total: 269521 steps/212.23 km/131.87 mi/39h 44m

I picked the Daedong Hotel in Jeju City because I saw that it was near a place called Black Pork Street and, like a little kid, I said, "Ooh! I want to stay there!" I didn't realize that it was also across the street from Dongmun Market and a few blocks away from a block signed as West Wharf Premium Sashimi Restaurants Street.

How to choose where to have dinner, on my one night in the heart of town?

Well, you know me by now. All three.

The sashimi restaurants were by the waterfront. I had a vague memory of eating there in 2016 and, much as on this trip, finding it difficult to score a meal much after eight.

This time I arrived just as the sun was turning the color of a ripe mandarin. What better way to start the evening than with some sunset sashimi? One guy invited me into his place and they sat me down with a menu. All around Jeju I had seen groups picking from giant sushi platters; as with other dishes, a mix for one wasn't common. Even single-species sashimi plates were usually an entire fish, priced by the kilogram.

But here they offered to make me a somewhat smaller portion for the equivalent of about $40. It was an assortment of different fishes and squid, plus perilla leaves, cloves of raw garlic, hot peppers, and pickled cabbage. Sashimi on its own with soy sauce and wasabi (or even without them) is pretty perfect, but it was a new pleasure to wrap a few pieces in a leaf with garlic, cabbage, and red sauce and have all those textures at once.

I asked what kinds of fish were on the plate, and the server brought me out to the tanks and scooped a live flatfish out with a net to show me. There were clearly other fish types on the plate, including a red fish that was bony and perhaps improperly cut, but I didn't press it. I was there to enjoy a mountain of fresh squishy fish.

If I went to Dongmun Market seven years ago, I didn't remember it. Much like the Seogwipo Maeil Olle Market, it was crammed with stalls offering citrus fruits, meats, marine products, and takeout meals. There were also souvenir stalls where, failing to obtain "Finding the Giant Abalone," I purchased two dol hareubang figurines for my nephew. These are the statues I'd seen all over Jeju in human-sized form (or larger). Made of volcanic rock, they lack eyeballs; have whimsical, gnome-like expressions; and guard the entrances to parks, hotels, restaurants, and other places for protection, usually in pairs. They are also said to promote fertility, but I don't think that will have much impact on a three-year-old.

In the back of the market were stalls selling cooked meals, and the area was packed. The line for crab and lobster must have been 25 people, and there was no place for them to wait other than where everyone else was walking. The neighboring stall was flashing lights and playing hard disco music. I made a circle of this fun food frenzy and picked up abalone egg rolls: rice wrapped in seaweed wrapped in omelet, with a piece of abalone in the middle. As before, the abalone flavor didn't make me gush with wonder, but the textures, on-the-spot cooking, and unusual combination were spot on.

Finally, I went to Black Pork Street and picked one of the livelier restaurants. They brought out about ten side dishes, plus pork-kimchi stew and egg souffle. Then came the pork belly and neck and a bottle of citrus wine. I particularly liked wrapping the pork in marinated leaves and adding bean sprouts, kimchi, and fish paste. With all those sides, there were so many permutations, not that the pork didn't stand on its own.

A bar nearby had one review that said simply, "Do not go," so of course I checked it out. I found two men and a woman outside, smoking.

"What kind of bar is this?" I asked.

"Whiskey bar."

It was an almost-hidden door. I peered inside. All I could see was a photograph of a woman in a tiny, red bikini.

"Just a whiskey bar? A normal bar?"

"Yes. Normal bar. Please, join us," once of the men said.

"Please wait one minute," the woman said. She was the bartender. When they finished smoking, we all went inside.

It was a normal bar after all, and a friendly one, apparently reopened after the review was written. The photograph was a Hennessy ad. There were only six seats. Two other patrons were inside. I took the stool on the corner and ordered a Balvenie.

"Are you a tourist?" one of the men asked.

That's always a difficult question to answer. In the strictest sense I am, based on the original meaning and connotation of a journey that involves a kind of circumferential turning. "I'm walking around all Jeju," I said.

"Are you a scientist?"

That was a leap. "No. I'm a piano player."

That drew a collective "Ooh!" sung as a glissando from the other patrons' lowest notes to their highest, followed by applause.

"Thank you," I said, laughing. "Are you a scientist?" I asked the man.

"No. We are event planners."

The bartender took the obvious cue and put on "Piano Man."

"I would like to buy you a Jack and Coke," the man said. His group of three was working their way through a bottle of Jack Daniels.

"That's very kind of you."

The last seat filled up. The bartender switched the music again. "What do you think of this song?" the new arrival asked.

"It's beautiful," I said, catching his articulation of the question. "Did you write it?"

"He wrote it," someone else said.

"I'm a composer," he said.

"I am, too! What is your song about?" It was in Korean.

I didn't fully understand his answer — this was not his first drink of the night — but it had to do with looking optimistically at life. He had written it a decade ago, when he had no money.

A seventh stool was brought in, and we shifted to make room for one more person. We took turns buying rounds, and somehow, at a sensible hour, we went our different ways.

Before heading to the airport this morning, I took another stroll through Dongmun Market and spent my last 10,000-won note on a package of sashimi. When else will I get to have 35 pieces of squishy fish for $8?

I completed Abecedarian Walk number 15 by walking along Sanchi-kawa, the little river that leads toward the harbor, which was bustling with the activity of fisheries. I rounded the corner and continued along Jeju's long waterfront promenade. A final haenyeo statue saw me off.

Once again it was clear and hot, but I had only a short distance to go. The package with the sashimi and dol hareubang, however, was heavy, and I didn't want the fish to succumb to the heat. It wasn't until I got to the airport and had my lunch that I realized the vendor had packed an ice pack under everything.

I flew to Shanghai, where I'll spend a couple of nights before taking the train to Xiamen. Getting into town was the same 300-kilometer-an-hour maglev experience it's been for years, but that may be one of few constants.

Go on to Xiamen day 1