Surfing in South Korea? Why Jeju Island is a welcoming place for new learners wanting to get the hang of it
My arms scooped frantically into the water at my surfing teacher’s command. I was sure I’d soon gulp down the salty sea I’d inhaled. The grey clouds hung low, spritzing down rain in short bursts.
I kept my lower back tight, head up and gazed forward, toward the palm-lined shores of Iho Tewoo Beach, on the northern coast of Jeju Island. With equal parts nerves and eagerness, I listened to the crash of the waves and the squeak of my wetsuit against the hard surfboard, gathering courage for my teacher’s final cue.
A professional Korean surfer I’d met earlier that day called Iho one of Jeju’s “uglier beaches,” but that hasn’t diminished the popularity of the sandy stretch among locals and vacationers alike.
The oval-shaped island of Jeju, about a one-hour flight south of Seoul, is famous for its dramatic landscapes, including the volcano Mount Hallasan and its semi-tropical national park. The shores are peppered with dol hareubang, or “stone grandfather” statues, carved from black volcanic rock, sometimes as tall as a person.
I hadn’t come to see those sights, however. I’d arrived with three friends and a simple itinerary: eat Jeju’s famous black pork, bike tiny Udo Island off Jeju’s eastern shore and go to the beach. Our pipe dream? To attempt surfing for the very first time, in a destination considered the Hawaii of Korea.
It was a daunting idea: Not only had I grown up in a small town in the Midwestern United States, learning all I knew about beaches from “Shark Week,” but I also felt far from a natural-born athlete. Not long ago, a gentle yoga class was enough to exhaust me, and I’d spent years working up my physical strength little by little.
But Jeju seemed like the right place to try something I’d once thought impossible, with its laid-back personality so different from the South Korean mainland, where I’d lived for three years.
Because of its set-apart geography, the island has developed its own cultural nuances, and people joke that Koreans fluent in the Jeju dialect are practically speaking another language. Calling around to the local surfing schools, my friends and I used every ounce of our Korean abilities to find a place willing to teach us, finally landing on Jeju Barrel Surf.
Sitting on a board on Iho Tewoo Beach the next day, running my fingers through 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 the oldest generation of surfers in South Korea are still alive today.
The country’s first serious, original wave riders moved here in the 2000s, importing the pastime from places like California and Hawaii, and enthusiastically passing down what they knew.
A professional organization devoted to developing the domestic surfing industry, the Korea Surf League, dates back only to 2020, although the sport’s local popularity keeps growing among men and women alike. Surfing, it seems, is the opposite of an otherwise success-driven culture. It’s just about taking the waves as they come, in the ocean or in life: the antithesis of turbo-paced Seoul.
Eventually, we were ready to put our rookie techniques to the test, as the rainy day rolled up some decent beginner’s surf. Lying stomach-flat on long surf boards, my friends and I pretended to paddle with our arms, scooping up sand in a flurry.
At our teacher’s direction, we moved: brace on hands and toes, slide the right knee up to the hip, keep the gaze straight and pivot up onto the feet. I should have stretched beforehand!
Sam took us through our paces, again and again, correcting the position of our feet or reminding us to keep our knee up off the sand.
Then, there was no more time left for fear or doubt — I was as prepared for the water as I would ever feel. Pushing my board out to the waves, I climbed aboard and laid still, my body long and flat, bracing for my countdown.
“One… two… go!”
I lurched forward as Sam pushed against the tail of my surfboard. I thought the rushing would soon stop, but the board only propelled faster. My first wave was catching me.