Bureaucrazy in Korea: Banks & Healthcare

I’ve been having a lot of great adventures here in Korea, but I’ve also had to deal with some more mundane aspects of living in a new country. When I first arrived here, I got the flu rather badly and had to learn about the healthcare system much faster than I expected. Also, I had to open a Korean bank account and learn the details of online banking. One of these is awesome and the other is overly cumbersome. Can you guess? Sorry there aren’t any beautiful pictures in this one, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway.


Korean Banking

I was generally advised to wait until my ARC (alien registration card) arrived to open a bank account, but due to my illness, we got a late start on the ARC process and so my school’s accounting office was a bit desperate for me to open an account before my first payday. So my co-teacher and I headed out one afternoon after classes to do just that. I did some research on Korean banks and found that the Korean Exchange Bank was reviewed well for it’s service to foreigners, especially international money transfers, so I opted to open my account there. Recently, KEB merged with Hana Bank, so we went to a Hana branch to do the actual opening. I was able to open the account using my passport and US social security number, but it was going to be a somewhat limited account, and we would have to return to update the paperwork once the ARC was complete.

I thought at the time that it went smoothly. Although the bank clerks didn’t speak English, I was there with my co-teacher who helpfully translated and patiently got all my questions answered. I had to sign a thick pile of paperwork, on every page, sometimes twice. I deposited a small amount of cash just to open the account, and we were even able to make my bank card act as my public transport card as well. This was a clever option so I don’t have to worry about refilling my T-Money card, and the month’s bus/subway bill gets withdrawn on a scheduled day. We also filled out the paperwork for internet banking and international transfers, so I thought I was golden!

Nope.

I left the account alone for a while, since there wasn’t much money in it anyway, and then on payday, I tried to log on to see if my deposit had gone through ok, and that’s when the trouble started. Internet security in Korea is intense. First, I tried to look up the KEB website and log in using the username and password we’d created at the bank for the express purpose of online banking. This was an abject failure. After several attempts, with the bank telling me that my user name didn’t exist, I finally asked my co-teacher to call the bank and ask what was going on. We discovered that the merger isn’t actually complete yet, and so I had to go to the Hana Bank website instead. Ok.

Next problem. I usually use Chrome as my browser, and have avoided IE since there was an alternate browser to choose from. However, when I opened the Hana Bank website in Chrome, I was informed that I could only access the website from Internet Explorer. So I lauch IE and try again. Then I’m informed that I must install special security software on my computer to access the website. Ok. Three separate pieces of security software, all of the instructions for which are in Korean. This is one of the reasons I like Chrome, because it has a translate option for websites which is (while not perfect) a really huge help in navigating foreign language sites. Fortunately, I have Google Translate on my phone, so I was able to use the photo option to take a picture of my monitor and translate the messages. Finally, I got all the software installed, managed to log in and see my bank balance. It turned out the deposit hadn’t shown up by the time we left school for the day (a Friday), so I went through the whole process again later that night from my home computer. Saw the money had arrived and decided to pay my entry fee for Holi Hai via internet transfer.

Nope.

I hit the transfer button, went through the process of entering all the information: my account number, my pin number, the name of the receiving bank, and the receiving account number, the amount of money, then I was asked to verify via phone or certificate. I still didn’t have my Korean phone number when we opened the bank account, so my co-teacher used hers to fill out the forms. But I was at home and couldn’t just walk into the next office to ask for her help. It was Friday, the fee was due the next day, and we wouldn’t be back at school together until Monday, so I texted her to ask for help.

After a whole lot of back and forth, including her calling the hosts of Holi Hai because she thought they were Korean (nope, Indian) and that I might be having trouble communicating with them about the due date, we discovered that it was effectively not possible for me to do the transfer myself, so she agreed to send them the money herself and let me bring her cash the next day. I do love my co-teacher.

I spent a chunk of that weekend trying to figure out the certification process, because it seemed to indicate that once a computer (or other device) was registered with the bank, then the phone verification step would not be necessary. Several frustrating hours and more translation work later, I discovered that the certificate also would require phone verification, and so I gave up until Monday. I brought my laptop into the office because I didn’t want the school computer being the only one I could do my banking from, and managed to get online with my phone’s mobile hotspot (since my school has restricted internet access). My co-teacher and I painstakingly went through the website so I could show her the steps I had taken, but something had changed! My weekend of research was useless and we had to try to figure it out all over again.

Usually, Koreans use their national ID, and foreigners use their ARC ID for secure identification. I opened the bank account with my passport and US national ID, so when the website asked for my national ID number, I tried both of those with no success. We finally called the bank and got someone to explain what my temporary ID was (according to them), but they also told us that if I created this security certificate with that ID, then I would have to do it all over again when we changed the bank account to my ARC ID. So we decided to wait.

The next day, we headed over to a local government office that would print out a temporary paper that would have my real ARC number on it so we could give that to the bank, and we made plans to go to the bank later in the week where we could both change my account to my ARC number and figure out the certificate issue.

On the very day we were to go to the bank, my actual ARC card arrived at the school, so at least we never had to find out if the temporary certificate would have worked. We trundled over to the nearest Hana branch with my laptop in tow because we weren’t going to leave the bank without the certificate complete. We got the ID number changed with little trouble, and then asked more questions about the online certificate before we sat down in the waiting area to make it work. In order to apply for the certificate, I still had to go through the rigmarole of entering my account number, my pin number, the set of numbers requested from my security card –

*oh I forgot to mention this part. When I got my bank account, I was given a card full of numbers: two long numbers along the top and rows and rows of four digit numbers filling the card. Whenever you do anything online, you have to enter the numbers from the card that are requested, so it’s not just a pin code or password that you can memorize, you have to pull out the card and squint at the tiny numbers to find the one being asked for.

AND the phone verification (which at least was easier to do since my co-teacher was sitting next to me. Unlike other SMS verifications that text a code you enter on a website, this one actually voice (computer recording) called her phone (remember it’s the number linked to my account at this point) and requested we enter a number from the website into the phone.

The certificate had to be downloaded onto my computer and also requested yet another password (distinct from my password to log onto the website, or my pin number) which, I was informed, were I to forget, would necessitate physically returning to a branch to get a new one. Did I mention banks are only open during school hours, so I’m taking PTO from my vacation to get this stuff done?

Certificate complete, we then decided to test it by paying one of my bills online. In the US, when you want to pay a bill online, you can go to the company’s website and log in, see your bill, then pay it by credit card or by your bank account. The point is, you go to the company website. (Sure, banks have bill pay options online, I’ve never set mine up because it’s a hassle to enter all the data). I’m not saying our way is better (non-sarcastic), but you do take certain things for granted when they are all you’ve ever known. Even when I paid my phone bill in Saudi, I did it with the phone company, not with my bank. Korea is a bit different. The bill shows a bank name and account number where you transfer your payment to.

This took us a little tinkering because my co-teacher has all her bills set on auto-pay and hadn’t actually paid a bill by transfer in many years and I’d never done it this way at all. The first screen you come to when you select the transfer option has you enter your account number, your pin number, the bank and account number you’re transferring to, and the amount of money plus a brief description.

bank info prtscn

I had no idea how to indicate to the company which bill I was paying since my name isn’t actually on the internet, gas or utility bills that were set up before I ever arrived. I tried entering the customer information in the description field, and I hit “OK”. I was shown a summary of the transfer including my banking information and the name of the account I was sending to (which is nice so you can catch it if you mistyped the long account number). Then if that’s all in order, you enter the selected numbers from your security card:

bank card verf prtscn

hit “run transfer” again and have to enter —

bnk cert page prtscn

your certificate password! Bearing in mind, we’ve already gone through all this trouble just to register my computer as safe to do bank stuff on, but every time I do a transfer (read “pay a bill”) I have to go through three passwords (log on password, pin number, and certificate password) and a security card number dance to prove I’m really really really really me.

Once we did the transfers, I noticed that the description field had not worked as I expected and the customer account information was not showing up to the recipient. How are they supposed to know what bill the money is for? Tomorrow. The next day, we called around to the places I’d paid bills to and had the hardest time finding a real person to speak to (some things are truly international?). One place told us they’d simply matched the amount to the bill and figured it out. The internet company however said they couldn’t look up the account without the national ID number of the person who opened it. We didn’t even know who opened this account, it’s just been with the apartment for as long as anyone remembered. In the end, we were told, we could read the MAC address off the router as ID, so I took a photo when I got home and we called once more the next day. The good news is, companies here issue unique transfer account numbers. So the bank account number that’s on my bill is *just for me*, and that’s how they know what bill it is.

After more than a week of hair pulling, I finally figured out the process for online bill paying. I still haven’t tried the international transfer option because I want to send the maximum transfer when I do to get the most for my transfer fee. Nor have I been able to change the phone number linked to my own Korean one (still linked to my co-teacher’s). I’ll let you know how that goes in a couple more weeks/months.

Another really important point here: I did not do this alone. I had a cheerful, friendly, bilingual Korean person with me most of the way. I can’t even imagine trying to do this by myself. I’d probably be trying to pay my bills in person or by ATM (apparently that’s an option) and sending money home by Western Union. I bought my co-teacher a chocolate cake.

I’m all in favor of security for banking, and internet security in general, but Korea takes it to a whole new potentially tinfoil hat level of paranoia. My US bank account asks me security questions if I log in from a new computer, which is nice. But I CAN log in from a different computer, which is also nice, especially when I had to do things like log in from a public computer at a hostel in China to transfer money on the fly. I don’t think that would even be possible with my Korean bank.

On top of that, the internet security isn’t just for banking. I finally figured out how to order food for delivery online. Yogiyo is a really popular website, but they required me to register my phone and authenticate it with an SMS to place an order. I went to the Papa John’s website and tried to register, and only after half an hour of futzing with the security protocols, installing another security program, and trying to legally verify my real name did I give up and place my order as a “guest”. Why do they need to legally verify my name for a pizza? On the plus side, I’ll never have to worry about someone ordering a pizza and claiming to be me.

Korean Healthcare

The EPIK Orientation was ground zero for a very virulent flu minidemic. Later I found out some 40% of the new teachers missed part or all of their first week of teaching due to this outbreak. I got to my new apartment on a Friday evening, feeling tired from the long week, but otherwise ok. I bought some necessities from the local grocery and some soup from a restaurant and settled in to enjoy my weekend. A few hours later, I wasn’t feeling so great. I started coughing and having some breathing distress. I was suddenly gripped by fear that the pollution in my new home was worse than I expected, that I might experience the smog-induced nightmare of China all over again and be unable to stay here and be healthy. The next day was worse. I’d developed a fever and many flu symptoms, which was actually a relief because it meant my breathing trouble wasn’t caused by smog. I was hoping that it was just a short cold and I’d be at least slightly functional by the time I was expected at work on Monday, but alas, it was not to be. I texted my co-teacher (who at the time I had met just briefly on my ride from the orientation to my apartment) and told her I was feeling very ill. I didn’t want to be sick for my first day of work, but it was bad.

I finally managed to get the point across, and we started talking about doctor options. She tried to tell me about a place I could walk to or take the subway to, but this was my first weekend in my new place and I’d had zero time to learn the location of anything before falling ill. And even now that I know where the hospital is in relation to me, there was NO way I could have made it there in my condition at the time. She finally agreed to come pick me up and take me to the hospital. It turned out her husband and son had just recovered from the flu, so she was more sympathetic than I had feared. We got to the ER and checked in. Yep, ER, emergency room. It was after 8pm on a Sunday night so that was all we had, but my coughing/ breathing trouble had become too severe for me to wait any longer.

There was perhaps one person ahead of us in line to check in, so that was done quite quickly, and we were ushered into a large area where I was questioned and examined politely and professionally. We talked about my history of asthma, and about my other symptoms. They took a swab to test for influenza, then set me up in a cot with an IV for fluids (I don’t doubt I was dehydrated by this time) while we waited for the results. Being tested for the flu was a new one on me. In the US, healthcare is so expensive and doctors are so overburdened that it’s just not done. I might have expected a nebulizer treatment for my breathing, and I probably would have been sent home and told to rest and take some Tylenol for the fever, maybe a prescription cough syrup to help me sleep.

The test came back positive for influenza A, a more severe and less common strain that is highly contagious. I was ordered 5 days “quarantine” (basically don’t go anywhere unless you absolutely have to, and wear a face mask if you do) and given a prescription for anti-viral medication as well as a cocktail of vitamins and decongestants. We went out to pay for the visit, but my ARC was not in yet (or even applied for) so I wasn’t in the national Health Insurance registry and had to pay out of pocket. It was about 80$. That was it. For an ER visit. Blew my mind. We walked around the corner to the pharmacy, me coughing all the way, forcing my co-teacher to slow her normal pace to one that wouldn’t destroy me. The medication too, I paid for out of pocket and it was something like 10-12$ for all of it.

After my week of medication and bed rest, I was feeling much better. No more fever or aches, but my cough was lingering on fiercely. I showed up to work the second Monday, and we made arrangements to go to a doctor during regular hours to avoid the ER expense. My co-teacher was delighted to learn the English word “pulmonologist”, because here you don’t need to see a general practitioner to be referred to a specialist if you already know what kind of specialist you need. I couldn’t breathe, so we clearly needed a pulmonologist. You can’t actually make an appointment. It’s first come first serve, but that day we didn’t wait long, maybe 15 minutes, before we got in to see the doctor.

This kind of lingering breathing distress after a serious bout of flu is not unknown to me and that flu had been a doozy. I explained my history (with help translating) to the doctor and he listened attentively. He asked his own questions about my symptoms, and seemed ill at ease with some of my answers. When I asked why, he told me that it didn’t really fit with a “typical” diagnosis. So, I got even more into my history and explained the issues in more detail. This is also totally new to me, since US doctors just want you in and out as fast as possible and hardly ever want to listen to a patient’s own information about their illness or history except for short yes or no answers to specific questions. This doctor had done the specific questions, but when my answers didn’t fit, he kept looking for more information! He did insist on an x-ray just to be sure there wasn’t another problem (which I’m ok with, although it was clear as I expected) and then we talked about medicine.

Now, if this was new, I’d want to take the doctor’s word. But I spent years dealing with this after my return from China. Years of doctors who didn’t believe me or insisted it was something else, or kept giving me medicine that didn’t work or had bad side effects. And although I did eventually get one who listened and helped, it was an uphill battle. So, when it comes to my breathing, I know what works and what doesn’t. He wanted to give me a type of medicine that was awful for me in the past. I was on it for 2 years, and I hate it. I countered with a different option (which, to be honest I also hate but at least it’s over faster, and has always kicked the breathing problem in the butt before). We talked about risks and side effects, when had I last used the medication, how often I’d used it at what dose. Eventually he was satisfied that I understood what I was asking for and prescribed the medication. The visit and prescription out of pocket cost was less than 30$ total, which is what I could expect for a co-pay (what you pay after insurance) in the US (if my prescription was generic).

So– no appointment, short wait times, respectful doctor who both listened to me about my symptoms, history and preferences, and cross checked me to make sure he wasn’t just giving me whatever I asked for without sufficient knowledge, comfortable, professional, dignified, and cheap. Wow.

At a follow up appointment a week later, we had a longer wait. The nurse at the check in desk explained that Saturdays and Mondays were the busiest days. We waited for about an hour that day. My co-teacher was beside herself with the long wait, and I tried to explain that in the US, you can have an appointment to see a doctor made well ahead of time and still have to wait an hour or more in the waiting room before getting in. She was aghast.

The doctor clearly remembered me (although foreigners might stand out a little) and we were able to pick up our discussion easily, and decided to continue another round of treatment. We both agreed that this would be the last of this medication, as it’s meant to be a short term fix, so if this didn’t kick my cough, we would change tactics. At the final follow up, my cough was much improved but not gone. Although he seemed to think it might be normal activity induced asthma, he believed me when I told him I hadn’t had that as a regular symptom in years. We talked again about the original medication he had suggested, and I told him, no I had a different option in mind instead. His face clouded up with concern, but when I showed him the picture of what I was asking for on my phone, he recognized it at once, relaxed and immediately agreed. He gave me a month’s supply and said to come back if it wasn’t better at the end.

Compared to the US and Saudi (the other countries I’ve seen doctors in) the health care I received here was amazing. I have argued with so many doctors in the US who refuse to listen to me talk about my own body and health. I’m not suggesting they should blindly take my word, but to have a doctor listen and critically analyze my self reports was so awesome. I felt like a human being who was heard, respected and cared for in contrast to the US where I’m often made to feel like I’m being a nuisance or a silly girl who is making it up or someone whose health problems would all be solved by losing some weight. And believe me, I’m not the only one. The internet is full of stories of people who have seriously bad experiences with US doctors because they are poor, or women, or people of color, or possibly anyone that isn’t a medical cadaver.

About a week ago, my health insurance card arrived and we finally got some answers about reimbursement. My contract stipulates that I’m covered from the last day of orientation, so even my first ER visit should have been included in that coverage. We didn’t have the insurance card or national ID number at the time, so I paid in full and wanted to know how to go about getting the portion that should have been covered by insurance back. I was sort of committed to the idea that it wouldn’t really happen (getting money out of an insurance company in the States is like blood from a stone), and the bills weren’t that bad, so I knew it would be ok either way, but I decided to try. It turned out to be so easy.

All we had to do was go down to the hospital and pharmacy where the original purchases were made and show them my insurance card. The hospital took the credit card I’d used to pay with and refunded all the charges, then billed the new lower amount instead. The pharmacy simply handed me about 50$ in cash so they didn’t have to go through the paperwork process of reversing bank charges. It was done on the same day we asked for it, and it took less than an hour for both locations together.

The Korean health insurance system is a public service. All Korean citizens are automatically a part of it, and foreign residents are covered once we’re registered with our employer or immigration. But even without it, the health costs are low and the health care is good and speedy. The next time someone tries to tell you universal health care can’t work without insanely high taxes, poor quality care or long waiting lists, point them at Korea and ask them what part of this system is a problem for them.


So there it is, banking and healthcare, two systems required for long term existence in any country broken down in Korea. Although the banking system is far more cumbersome and complex than I personally feel it needs to be, I should point out that the customer care was really good and the fee structure is quite reasonable. I’ve had no problems with the bank itself or anything there other than simply navigating the obstacle course of security protocols. It’s really amazing when you remember this country was razed to the ground by war in the early 1950s and then look around at everything they’ve built since, not just in terms of skyscrapers or subway systems, but the social infrastructure that provides for it’s citizens and guests. I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to live in this uniquely fast paced country, modern that hasn’t yet lost it’s sense of social responsibility to the siren call of greed.

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Holi Hai & Beyond: April Adventures in Busan

Korea certainly keeps me busier than just about any other place. Before now, I intended to have one good adventure a month and be able to spend some time doing more local adjusting as well as reflecting on my most recent adventure and planning my next one. Since recovering from my arrival flu, I feel like I’ve been in a non-stop adventure here, catching only a day here or there for the more mundane purposes of laundry and catching up on my shows. Since the Jinhae festival, I’ve attended the Holi Hai Festival, visited the long cherry tree lined walk in Busan, tried Korean style raw fish for the first time, gone on a super windy sailing adventure, witnessed a (rare) Korean bar fight, tried out the norebang, visited the Busan Canola Flower Festival, and done some mini-car racing. I keep meaning to sit down and write, but most of the time, everything else seems more fun. Finally, here I am on a lazy Saturday afternoon hiding from the late spring chill and rain, in a desperate bid to record some of the adventures of my last two weeks.


Holi Hai (April 3)

holi-flyer2016-logoIn India, the Hindu people ring in the spring with a festival known as Holi. It is often called the festival of love or the festival of colors. The main activity is throwing colored powders at each other until we all look like crazy rainbows. There is a huge mythological background involving gods/goddesses and heroes, and it seems like various regions within India each attribute some slightly different details to the history, but you can Wikipedia it if you want to know more about that part as I did for myself before attending. I’m here to talk about how a bunch of foreigners from more than 20 different countries (Indian and other) celebrated Holi here in Busan.

20160403_105807A group of Indian expats organized the event to take place at Haeundae beach. They set up a stage, a DJ, and tents where we could collect our colors, store our bags, and enjoy some delicious samosas. They started setting up at 9am, but since it takes me about an hour to get to the beach from my place, I opted to join a little later on. It was supposed to rain that day, so we had a lot of clouds in the sky, but when I showed up the beach was still dry. To abide by the Indian tradition, we were all asked to wear white to the event, and most people complied. In India, everyone would be wearing all white versions of their traditional styles, but we had to make do with what we could find here. Some girls were wearing white sundresses, and lots of guys (ok and me too) were wearing cheap white men’s undershirts.

We all lined up to sign in and receive our color packets, and several folks found some liquid paint that we used to paint pretty and colorful designs on each other’s faces. This turned out to be almost entirely pointless once the festivities started in earnest. I ran into a bunch of people from Orientation, including some of the girls that had been sent to Daegu instead of Busan. It was really nice to see everyone and to realize that even if I go to a big foreigner’s event on my own, I won’t stay that way for long.

The organizers moved up the first color throw a little just to make sure that we got one in before the rain hit, so we all gathered up in the sand near the stage and proceeded to dance like crazy people to the Bollywood beats until the countdown began. 20160403_121555_2When the announcer reached one, everyone threw handfuls of powder up in the air, creating a sandalwood scented rainbow haze above us that settled down on our hair and shoulders. After a few minutes of ecstatic throwing of colors, people got down to the more serious dancing. It seemed another major part of the ritual involved hand painting people with paint or powder as you wish them a Happy Holi, so my face and shoulders quickly started to acquire more colors. All of the revelers were very respectful of body space, so the most popular targets for strangers were cheeks and arms/shoulders to avoid any uncomfortableness.

20160403_131021I went through two such countdowns while staying in the core of the dancing area, I didn’t have my powder yet for the first one, so I made sure to be in the middle for the second one. Then I started wandering around the rest beach area to see what else people were up to. Some folks had built a sandcastle and decorated it with colors. Some had decided to take a dip in the ocean, causing their colors to take on the gentle fading effect of watercolor paintings. Lots of people had broken out bottles of beer and soju, and everyone was getting more and more colorful, happy, friendly and generally frenetic.

Religious rituals like this (and secular ones too, as it turns out) where people bond over a common experience, dance, drink or imbibe other substances (not at this one, but often throughout history and around the world), and generally lose themselves in the crowd and the experience have been a really major part of human culture for basically as long as we can tell. More recently, scientists have taken a look at some of the effects of crowds on our emotional state to explain what happens at political rallies and sporting events. The point is, participating in something like this isn’t just about what one person feels, it becomes more than that, and you feel like a part of something bigger and more amazing than just yourself or a collection of individuals. I’m not saying it’s a “religious experience” per se, but I think that the feelings celebrations like this engender help to bind a community together and could easily be a part of what keeps followers devotional.

20160403_125153I hadn’t actually had anything to drink at all at this point, but the atmosphere of excitement and the music combined to make me feel like I was floating through some kind of happy dream land. I met tons of new people, in addition to running into familiar faces, and I got more and more colorful as the afternoon wore on. Some folks had found the face paint and started making paint splatters and dribbles on one another, while others coated their hands and left hand-prints on their fellow revelers. Even as those hand-prints started drifting away from just shoulders and upper backs, I noticed that consent was always obtained. Lots of people of both genders turned up with hand-prints on butts and breasts, but every time I saw someone touch or get touched it was with respect, consent and Happy Holi. This was even more amazing, since such a party with free flowing booze and an excuse to touch people would have likely ended up with a good deal more unwanted groping in other places. And who knows, maybe someone here did experience that, but I tend to be aware of such things, so at least I can say the overall mood was of respect and not abuse.

20160403_140043People started conga lines, crowd surfing, or just lifting and tossing each other up in the air. I headed up to the grass line above and behind the stage to try to get some pictures of the crowd and hopefully to see the countdown color throw from outside, now that I’d seen and participated from in on the inside. While up on the sidewalk area, I noticed a fair number of locals out for a Sunday stroll who gave us a wide range of interesting looks from curious to downright horrified. Some stopped to take pictures, and I was even asked to pose a couple times. Plus, although we were several hours into the event, it had not rained even a little bit.

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Pictures taken, I headed back down into the crowd to dance again. I got handed some more powder by a late-coming young reveler who’d gotten too many extra bags and I taught him how to toss and hand apply the colors before we parted ways. I ran into more friends. I took photos of and for others. It seemed that photobombing had become a favorite hobby of the festival. Any time anyone took a candid photo, this was barely noticed, but if a group was seen to be posing, they instantly attracted a huge number of extras who did everything from pop up in the back row to throw themselves into the air in front of the group. Again, this behavior was taken in good fun by everyone I saw, and even when a group wanted a photo-bomber free photo, they simply asked the bombers to wait their turn, and they did.

20160403_132116After the last countdown, we gradually started winding down. The music didn’t stop, but the announcers asked everyone to help clean up the beach, which had become littered with empty plastic bottles and empty color packets. At the risk of sounding like a jaded broken record, pretty much everyone still there at this time did as they were asked and began gathering the rubbish in to large piles where it could be picked up by staff more easily. I’m not sure when I stopped believing that masses of young partying people could be polite and respectful, but I am really glad to have been so pleasantly proven wrong. The event coordinators must have had a ton of food leftover, or they just brought extra because they were also giving away free delicious Indian food at the end of the event as well.

13016718_10101394817956241_1276198467_oSome of my new friends and I lingered around the beach for a while, and it eventually did begin to rain and get colder, so we headed back inland to the Wolfhound, an infamous Irish Pub where we proceeded to drink some very large pitchers of ale and dance to some of the best top 40 hits from the 80s and 90s. I headed home only slightly after dark, and despite my best efforts (not drinking any booze while on the beach and going home at a reasonable hour) I still woke up the next day with a magnificent hangover. Inhaling lots of powdered colors, forgetting to drink enough water, and not eating enough did me in and I got a chance to try my very first Korean hangover cure (sold at convenience stores everywhere). And, although I washed everything else, my Holi shirt now hangs on my wall as souvenir art of the wonderful day.

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Cherry Blossom Road & Hoe Restaurant (April 6)

Just as I was starting to recover from my weekend revelries, the school announced that the teachers would go on Wednesday after school to the nearby cherry blossom road, a famous walkway that is lined on both sides with cherries, creating a tunnel of blossoms. Due to the rains on Sunday, the blossoms were somewhat faded, but it was an incredible sight, nonetheless. What I didn’t know in advance, however, was that our fitness minded Principal had decided we would walk from the school, along the road to a restaurant several kilometers away. As it turns out, repetition even of beautiful things can get a little dull after about 2km. I believe it would have been a great way to spend an afternoon with some friends if we’d had more opportunities to stop and rest, take more photos, or even stop when we reached the end of the blooms, but it was a little rough to take at such a brisk pace carrying all my school bags (since we weren’t returning to the school that day).

The last part of our walk left the trees almost entirely behind and became increasingly industrial, and we finally paused for a rest in a small park that was still mostly brown. But our efforts were finally rewarded when we arrived at the restaurant where I got my first taste of the Korean style raw fish dish called “Hoe”. Hoe is similar to Japanese sashimi, raw fish served with sauces, but no rice. Like all big Korean meals, it also came with a huge number of side dishes that included a raw fish and vegetable salad, some cooked whole fish, candied sweet potatoes that were almost like my favorite Chinese treat basidigua, egg dishes, roasted corn, and of course kimchi. The hoe itself was quite different from sashimi. Sashimi is served in slices that are rectangular, similar to the slices you see atop rice for sushi, but hoe was cut in long thin strips that looked more like noodles. We dipped them in the sauces or mixed and matched them with the other sides, especially the white kimchi. It was quite a unique experience, and I enjoyed the meal immensely.

Sunday Sailing (April 10)

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I must either be the wimpiest adventurer or the most adventurous wimp because the exertion of these three events left me wiped out and I spent the next few days resting up to get my strength back so I could properly enjoy the sailing trip I’d booked a couple weeks earlier. Fortunately, the sailors weren’t morning people, so I didn’t have to start my Sunday too early either. I discovered early on in my stay here that Google Maps doesn’t work that well in Korea, thus quickly installed and learned how to use the Korean map app called Naver Maps, which allows me to choose a wide array of bus and subway routes to get anywhere as long as I know the Korean name for the place I want to go, which turns out to be good language practice too.

20160410_145643Armed with Naver, I headed down to the marina at Gwangalli to meet up with the sailing group. It was a good mix of the more experienced sailors (the crew) and first time sailors. Everyone was friendly and happy to be there, and once the whole group arrived, we got a short safety lecture and headed to the slip where our boat awaited. We were in for a great sailing day with clear skies and winds up to 17 knots. There were some issues getting the sails up, so we motored around the bay and under the bridge, getting some fantastic views before we finally got under way.

Our crew were kind and skilled, and also quite adventurous. They took advantage of the winds to treat us to a roller-coaster style ride, tipping the boat nearly 90 degrees to the side. The passengers clung to the side of the boat high up in the air, and we all got splashed regularly by the waves. 20160410_155906We sailed out past the small islands nearby before tacking for our return trip. Because of the strong winds, it was important for us to sit on the side of the boat that would be in the air, and we all had to change sides before the tack, while avoiding the boom. I let some of the first time sailors go ahead of me, figuring they would have a more difficult time, but this meant I was still on the port side when the boat tacked, and I got half dunked when the boat tipped up the other way before I could clamber up into the middle.The trip out had left most of us soaked, and several people started shivering in the high winds. We brought out some blankets from the hold, but in the end a some had to go below decks to get warm. I was chilly, but wasn’t about to miss a minute of the great weather and views.

I didn’t get very many pictures that day, because I could only bring out my camera when we were calm enough for me not to worry about holding on with both hands, or dropping it in the water. The few I did get were quite nice, and I had an absolute blast. I talked to some of the crew, and it turns out they go almost every week. They even do night cruises in the summer. I have to admit, I got colder than I would have liked that day, so I’m really looking forward to going out with them when the weather is warmer and a dunking is more refreshing than bracing. It took several days for my shoes to dry out, and I think next time I might have to learn how to use the dryer function on my washing machine. One crew member told me that in the summer, they often sail out and take a swim before returning, so I definitely see this as a repeat activity!

Out on the Town (April 12)

The following Wednesday was election day in Korea, and the schools would be closed. Take a brief moment to appreciate the fact that government employees get the day off to vote, even though early voting is available here. However, since we expats can’t vote here, it just meant a free day off, so I made some plans to go out Tuesday night with some of my newly acquired friends. Because I get up at 6:30am to work, I don’t get to go out much during the week, and this was a perfect opportunity to sample Busan nightlife. A bunch of people were getting together for a birthday party, and even though I didn’t know the birthday boy, I was invited to come along anyway.

I started out by heading over to a friend’s house about an hour away from mine. I’ve noticed that although my neighborhood is quite awesome itself, because it’s basically in the middle of Busan, it takes me 45min to an hour to get most places I want to go. We hung out at his place for a while, chatting, drinking, watching YouTube videos and singing Disney songs. I don’t know about other people, but this is one of my top ideas of a good time. Then, we got some burgers for dinner and then headed out to the bar to meet up with the group.

When we came up to the front of the bar, I was surprised to see several faces I recognized from the sailing trip, and we quickly reconnected. Inside, I saw more people I’d met at Holi and even one I’d met at orientation. Busan may be a big city, but the expat community seems to be pretty tight. After my experience of isolation in Saudi, it’s a huge relief to live in a place that not only has so many activities, but also has a friendly community of people I’m likely to run into again even without planning to. Inside the bar, however, it quickly became apparent that something was amiss.

I may have oversold this slightly as a bar fight. There wasn’t any physical violence. What there was was a Korean girl who was very drunk and very belligerent. I missed the beginning, but apparently she’d beaten on the bathroom door when one of the expat girls was in it, then burst out with a spate of anti-foreigner epithets, threw a bunch of stuff around in the bathroom when she finally got in, and generally yelled at everyone in a massively hostile way. Even though many of the expats there were long time regulars of the bar, it was still culturally difficult for the staff to treat her too harshly. Eventually I guess she called the police and we all headed out to avoid further confrontation. I’ve been reassured by basically everyone (foreigner and Korean alike) that this is really rare behavior here, and even the long time foreign residents seemed shocked.

Having lost the bar, we decided instead to head over to a local norebang joint. Norebang is the Korean word for Karaoke, and it’s set up very similar to the Japanese style where you get a room for you and your friends and pay an hourly rate to sing. The norebang we went to was significantly cheaper than the karaoke bar I went to in Japan, but also not quite as nice. No phone to order your food and drinks to your room, no soft drinks dispensers and no soft serve ice cream. You’re not supposed to bring in outside liquor, but they also don’t check to closely or make a big deal about it if an employee happens to see some in your room, so we had quite a bit to go around, and settled into some crazy singing fun. Norebang rooms also come with multiple microphones, and you just enter songs you want using the remote panel, so there’s no real rotation or solo singing the way there is in America. Most of the time, this is really not an issue, everyone just shares and has a good time singing and dancing, but every so often you get a mic hog (usually too drunk to notice). I do my darndest not to hold on to a mic for more than 2 songs in a row so I’m never that person.

Since we all had the next day off, we stayed out until about 3am. Private room style karaoke/norebang has the distinct advantage over the public American style in that you’re with people you choose, and everyone is more relaxed and comfortable, so it feels more like a house party than a public spectacle and time just flies. The subways and buses had all stopped running by this time, so I also got my first ride in a Korean taxi. Fortunately, I live really close to a landmark hotel, so it’s very easy to give directions and it’s a short walk to my apartment from there. I was pleasantly surprised at the taxi rates too. Even though I was clear at the end of the subway line, it still only cost about 10$ to get home. Not something I want to do daily, but it’s good to know if I stay out past subway time, it’s not going to cost me an arm and leg.

Canola Flower Festival & Mini-car Racing (April 15)

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The Nakdonggang Yuchae Festival is held near the Nakdong river in a huge field of canola flowers. These bright yellow blossoms used to be called by the unfortunate name of “rape flower” due to some cross linguistic issues. The Latin name for the plant is brassica rapa, so you can see how that happened in some non-English speaking countries. It is also the source of canola oil, and now more often called the canola flower once people figured out why English speakers were looking so horrified. Interestingly, the brassica rapa family also has lots of edible plants which is why you sometimes see ‘rape leaves’ on Chinese menus. It’s also the root of the name Rapunzel, who was named after the plant her mother so craved from the witch’s garden (non-Disney).

20160415_172337The girl I met on the bus back from Jinhae invited me to come with her to the festival and we decided to meet up Friday after work and head over. It was a long and winding subway ride, but we arrived with plenty of late afternoon sunshine to enjoy the flowers. The plants grow about 1-1.5 meters and there were little trails through the fields where visitors could walk among them, often chest high in yellow. Busan is a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains where it isn’t bordered by water, and as we crested the hill and the fields came into view, my breath was taken away by the expanse of brilliant yellow, bounded by the low mountains and a bright blue sky above.

D20160415_172111uring the weekends, and possibly earlier in the day, the festival has a variety of events and booths, but by the time we got there at 5pm on a Friday, there were only a few food vendors left. I didn’t mind this too much, since my primary goal was to see the flowers anyway. The fair food on offer wasn’t as interesting as what I encountered in Jinhae, but there were still some spiral potatoes and a tremendous amount of kebab vendors, as well as the sculpted candy floss. After a brief survey of the vendors, we headed into the flowers and were soon immersed in a fairy world. It reminded me of a sort of reverse horror scene. You know the movies where people are lost in a field of crops until the monster leaps out at them. But instead of monochrome crops by night, we were amidst the brightly colored blooms in glorious sunshine, and I felt that instead of a monster, we should expect a unicorn to leap out at us.

We sang songs to one another as we strolled around and paused often to take pictures. There were plenty of areas of interest to break up the sea of yellow including stone cairns, gazebos, a horse-riding area, platforms for posing, small irrigation ditches, giant pinwheels, and larger paths. We stayed until the last bit of the sun dipped below the mountain line, leaving the sky a beautiful orange and slowly draining the glow from the flowers around us.

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I’d also been invited to a mini-car racing night with some of the folks I’d met at Holi/Sailing/Norebang. I had expressed that I’d already planned to do the festival with Jinju, but would be happy to join afterward if I could invite her along (I hate ditching people I’ve made plans with). They said sure, so after the sunset, we got back into the subway maze to make our way across town again. I had suggested we pick up some dinner on the way, and only once we were looking at restaurants did it become clear to me that she didn’t realize we weren’t doing “Korean style”, by which I don’t mean Korean food, but the fact that often if one person brings food, they should expect to bring enough for everyone and share. I had to explain that as Westerners (mostly US and Canada) we were very comfortable with a more fend-for-yourself style and that if anyone else had wanted us to pick up something for them, they would ask and would pay us back when we arrived. I could tell she was skeptical of this change in etiquette, but once we arrived and the others all backed me up, she got comfortable enough to enjoy her dinner (bacon and tomato pasta, yum!).

13009731_10153334479315989_253832677_oKorean apartments are tiny little studios, comfortable for one, cozy for two and not actually terribly well suited for a party. On top of this, our host had set up his racing track which took up nearly the entire floor in the sitting area. We had to carefully step around and between the loops of the track to move across the room and there were only 6 of us. We watched the guys race while we ate, and then we got a crash course in how to use the track. It was a little like Hot Wheels on steroids. The cars were about three times the size of the Hot Wheels, and the track was equally sized up, which is why it took up the whole floor. In addition, it was linked into a video game system that measured our laps as well as our “fuel” so we had to not only drive the mini-cars, but pull into a pit stop when our fuel was running low or risk losing the race by running out and getting stranded.

Once Jinju and I learned the basics, we tried for a 6 car race, but ended up with too many wrecks, and settled into 4. I don’t even know how many years it’s been since I raced toy cars, but it was just as fun as it was when I was a kid, only this time we were also drinking beers and complaining about politics. I still think Mario Cart is the best drinking and driving option, because we crashed those mini cars too many times and may have damaged a wing mirror, but we made it through a 100 lap race and I came in a respectable second place behind our host.


As you can see, Busan is treating me very well. I’ve also done some more totally practical things like finally getting my medical reimbursements and setting up my Korean phone, and of course teaching adorable munchkins! I know I’m still in the “honeymoon” phase of life in a new country, but so far I honestly feel like this is a place I’ll be content and even happy to call home for quite some time. There’s always something to do, the locals are helpful and kind, and the community of expats is fun and friendly. I’ll do my best to keep blogging because I genuinely enjoy writing about my experiences, not just to share them with you all, but as a record of my experiences I hope to enjoy in my dotage many years from now. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out all the rest of the pictures on my Facebook page!

Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival

The first weekend in April was a crazy amazing busy awesome one. It turned out that April 1st was our school’s birthday, and so the school was closed for the day, granting us a 3 day weekend. On top of that, the cherry blossoms had started to bloom that week, promising a flower-filled weekend. In researching top blossom viewing spots near me, I learned about the Jinhae Festival, hailed as the largest cherry blossom festival in all of Korea. It lasts 10 days, takes up several city blocks, and ends with a military parade and fireworks show. Then on Sunday, the Indian (yeah, from India) expat populace would be celebrating the spring festival of colors, Holi, and I had a ticket for that as well. It’s taken me a week to write this, and I’m only just now starting to recover some energy from the blast(s) I treated myself to last weekend. Here we go.


It recently came to my attention that there are Westerners who do not know or understand this obsession with cherry blossom viewing. It actually confounded me a little, because I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think that the magical snow and lace blooms were anything other than an event to be anticipated and cherished, but then again, I got to live in Japan as a kid, and in (or at least very near in one case) two of the very few cities in the US that boast large populations of blossoming cherries for public view. 890400420circles202620squares-lI’m also spoiled rotten by the UW campus quad which boasts 40 old and giant cherries that put on a spectacular show for the students every spring. It seems, however, that large portions of the Western population have simply never experienced the joy of standing in a huge grove of cherry trees in full bloom as the wind teases the frail petals loose and swirls them through the air around you. I am sad for these people because as beautiful as the paintings and photographs are, they cannot do the experience justice. So please, find your nearest cherry blossom viewing spot and GO.

The city of Jinhae has the largest cherry blossom festival in Korea, which probably makes it one of the biggest in the world (Japan wins). It is also purported to have more than 340,000 cherry trees. I told my Korean co-teacher that I was thinking of going, and she strongly recommended it, even though there would big crowds and long lines for the buses. That said, while I have experienced the joy that is the spring blooming of the cherries in several places and have always had my breath taken away, I had yet to experience anything close to Jinhae.

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Jinhae is about an hour away from Busan by bus, and the tickets are less than $5 one way. I showed up at the intercity bus terminal around 9:30 am to purchase my ticket and immediately noticed a long queue and began to worry. Then, as I stood in line to buy the ticket, I heard person after person requesting a ticket to Jinhae. Bear in mind, this is 9:30am on a Friday morning. My school was closed for it’s birthday, but it wasn’t a city wide holiday. Most people should have been at work at this time. Or so I thought. Turns out, a whole bunch of other people had the same thought. The line was doubled back on itself when I joined it, and by the time I got to the front a little more than an hour later, it had turned into five rows. Disneyland has nothing on the bus to Jinhae for lines.

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While in line, I met a nice young man named Lucas who was vacationing in Korea from Singapore (where he had moved from Malaysia, yay international people!). Lucas started chatting with me to pass the time in line, and we enjoyed each other’s company enough that we decided to sit together on the bus ride as well. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m exceptionally fond of meeting new people whenever I travel, so it made me quite happy to have a fun companion 20160401_121251for the day. As the bus drew nearer to Jinhae, our windows became filled with blossoms, as the roadside and mountains were simply covered in the blooming trees. And once we arrived, I began to get an understanding of what 340,000 cherry trees might actually look like. Every street we walked on was lined by trees, planted every 3-4 meters on both sides. No matter where we turned, we were walking under a blossom bower. The main festival stage isn’t a far walk from the bus terminal and soon we were greeted with streets closed to traffic and covered with tents offering traditional fair foods and souvenirs. Lucky me, my companion was just as interested in sampling all the unique foods as I was. The first thing we were greeted with was a whole pig roasting on a spit, and we resolved to try that for sure, but he had ice cream on his mind first, so we kept looking.

20160401_121910Following the sound of some flute music, we turned a corner and were greeted by a most unexpected sight. Two men in what seemed to be traditional Native American dress. Lucas had no idea what they were dressed as, and I had to try to explain while being totally bewildered myself as to why Koreans would kit out in feathered headdresses.  I’ve since done a little research and it could be one (or a mix) of two things: 1) Korea really enjoys using other cultures’ stereotypes in pop-culture and they aren’t always sensitive about it, and/or 2) they were actually trying to honor the culture because Native Americans did help to defend Korea during the Korean War and have gone largely unappreciated for it. Either way, it was quite a shock for me to see these costumes at a cherry blossom festival, and further on I noticed that the souvenirs in that area consisted of a lot of dream catchers and other stereotypical Native American tribal art and jewelry (although in a real hodgepodge of tribal styles).

One of the main attractions in Jinhae is the small stream or canal called Yeojwacheon that runs through the city and is much more densely crowded with cherry trees, think every 1-2 meters instead of 3-4). Not only is the canal a beautiful walk, but there are several famous bridges including the “Romance Bridge” which was made popular as the meeting place of the two leading characters in the TV Drama “Romance”. 20160401_124307As we made our way toward the stream, we finally found our ice cream vendor. I’d done some reading on the Jinhae experience before I went, so I had a few things to look out for and this was one of them. This odd confection is a “J” shaped corn crisp shell that’s filled to both brims with soft serve vanilla ice cream. The flavor is about what you’d expect, although the cone was a serious improvement on the standard American cake cone, it’s also a far cry from those waffle cones I got in Prague. But the experience is the thing, and as soon as he spotted the vendor, Lucas swept down and bought us two. The man at the booth was having fun clowning around, pretending to drop the ice cream, and in the end, he turned both cones upside down to form a heart with the two of them for us. Korean culture is big on dating and romance, and he had no way to know Lucas and I had only just met a few hours ago, but it was cute and we took it in good humor.

Ice cream confections in hand, we continued on and soon came to the first of many bridges that spanned the stream. It was crowded to be sure, but Korean’s (like most Asians) are good about taking turns at photo-op spots, so it didn’t take long for us to be able to get up to the railing of the bridge for a few good photos. Then we continued on, looking for the decorations that our internet research had promised. The first decorated section we came across was lined with artificial white roses, and real yellow flowers tucked in among the fresh green spring grasses. It was pretty enough, but following this was possibly my favorite section: the beautiful red umbrellas. I don’t know if it was the contrast of the red umbrellas with the green grass and pale pink blossoms, or if it was the whimsical notion that the umbrellas stood guard against the “rain” of falling petals, but this section just struck me as especially magical among all of the decorations I saw.

The third section contained cut out silhouettes of people in various poses under paper lantern stars, and the final section contained rows of bicycles that I predicted would be luminescent once the sun set. After the decorated sections ended, there were some stairs leading down to the stream bed itself where people could stand in or near the water to pose with the stunning backdrop. We went down too, of course. As whimsical as the blossoms had been from above, suddenly being cut off from the crowds, with only a handful of other people nearby, and looking up up up at the trees blocking the sky… well, to avoid overusing some of my fairy-tale adjectives here, it was bibbity boppity boo, and probably as far as supercalifragilistic.

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After returning to the surface, we dodged back and forth between the wooden planked walkway that lined the stream and the street that was in turn lined with more booths of food and souvenirs, some high arches set with tiny lights for the night time, and of course, more cherry trees. 20160401_132852.jpgAfter a little bit, Lucas became enamored with the grapefruit drinks we had seen other tourists enjoying, so we found a vendor and ordered two of those. We watched, fascinated as the vendor cut a neat hole in the top of the fruit, then held it up to a machine which quickly reduced the insides to pulpy juice. Finally, he popped in a straw, and set the sticky globe into a plastic drink top to keep our hands clean. Ah, fair food. I love grapefruit juice, but nowhere else do I know anyone who would say, “sure, let’s drink that right out of the peel!”. I felt 5 and it was awesome.

We decided to tough it out and walk all the way to the end of the stream to see where the festival “ended” (at least in this direction). We stopped a lot for pictures and to look at the booths, but it was still a serious trek. Our diligence was rewarded, however, because when we came to the end, we found a lovely park that had shady wooded walks and a small lake. Even though the park wasn’t solely dedicated to cherry blossoms the way that the stream was, it was still a very worthwhile walk around the lake that ended up yielding my second favorite photo of the whole day. Cherry blossoms alone are beautiful. Cherry blossoms with mountains and lakes are magniflorious. 20160401_141325On our way back through the streets alongside the stream, we were lucky enough to get caught in a strong gust of wind that tugged thousands of petals loose from the trees above us, covering us in pink, soft snow. Everyone there burst into surprised and happy cheers and gasps as we felt the warm wind and watched the whirlwind of flowers in awe.

jinhae-festival-map1By this point we were starting to sense the layout of the festival (plus we’d seen a map) which had the central stage at it’s hub in the largest roundabout in town. Streets came off the roundabout like bicycle spokes, each one lined with blossoms and tents, and each one leading to a different destination for viewing and exploring. Out of the 8 possible directions, we probably only went in 4-5 and I missed out on at least half of the festival’s activities and sites even though I spent nearly 9 hours there that day. Taking a look at our options, we headed back toward the center of the festival to try to find the mountain observatory.

Jehwangsan Mountain overlooks the whole city, and is topped by a pagoda style observation tower, giving visitors extra elevation. It was one of the things on my to-do list, but when we arrived, the line for the tram was very long, and the climb is a daunting 365 stairs. I like physical activity, but I’m not the best athlete. I’ve done huge stairs before, Great Wall, Petra Monastery, etc. However, this was only one of many activities we wanted to do, and the smog alert was in the orange that day. Chances are, climbing (at least for me) would have taken just as long as standing in the line, and I would have felt worse afterward. Lucas wanted to catch a bus back by 4, so instead we opted to go find lunch.

20160401_121818You may remember that upon arriving, one of the first foods of interest we saw was this whole roasting pig? Well, that was what we wanted for lunch. Thus we hiked back towards the center of the festival, scanning the booths around us for that telltale swine-flesh until we found one. Neither Lucas nor I had any real amount of Korean language ability, but pointing works well enough, and it turns out “Barbecue” sounds the same in Korean as it does in English. Lucas tried to order some soup to go with it, but through the hilarity of charades and cultural differences, we actually ended up with a bowl of local rice wine instead. Yes, a bowl. It turns out that dongdongju is served this way traditionally and is a common fair drink alongside the barbecue, so our server can certainly be forgiven for assuming we wanted the popular choice.

20160401_153024Despite it’s somewhat dubious opacity, the wine was tasty and refreshing after our long walk. And when the single dish of barbecue showed up, suddenly my erstwhile companion understood why I hadn’t ordered a second dish myself. The heaping pile of pig had been cut into chopstick friendly cubes and was served alongside a piquant chili sauce, some tiny brined shrimp, sliced onions, mixed salt and pepper, and green hot peppers (and of course there was kimchi). We were free to mix and mingle the flavors as we pleased from there, and I quite enjoyed the experience. Even the brined shrimp went well with the pork, much to my surprise. We chatted, ate and drank for almost an hour but were unable to finish either the pork or the wine between just the two of us.

After the meal, Lucas had to head back to the bus station. W said our farewells and I set off into the maze of the fair to see what else there was to do. I still wanted to go up the mountain, but the food, wine and walking had made me more than a little tired. I knew I wanted to stay until after dark to see the lanterns, so I headed over to a local cafe for a little pick me up and a soft seat. The first time I came over to Asia as an adult, I was deeply saddened by the lack of coffee options. Nescafe or similar instant coffee was and still is popular in most Asian countries. In some cases, it’s even preferred to the real beans. Fortunately, for reasons that probably stem from colonialism, Korea has taken a strong love to the French pastry/cafe idea and it is now common to find small coffee shops all over the place offering an array of espresso based drinks and flaky pastries. I was still too full from lunch for a pastry, but an iced latte and a seat by the open window looking out on the cherry blossom filled road was quite welcome.

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Once the food coma and wine haze were chased away, I decided to head out to see what the line at the mountain looked like now. I had about an hour until sunset and the night light shows and wanted to get in a little more viewing if I could. There was still a long line for the tram up the mountain, but it was much shorter than when we’d looked before lunch, so I joined in. It turns out one of the small advantages of being a single traveler in Korea is that, because many of them go in large groups, there is often a single space left on any form of conveyance that no one else will take because they don’t want to split up. As a result, I was shuffled forward in line to fill the gap, and got to the top in time to walk around and climb up the pagoda to watch the sun set over the city from the very top. The view was truly stunning, despite the smoggy haze in the air, and I realized that some of the surrounding mountains were blanketed in groves of blooming cherries too. Watching the mountains, trees, city and water from the sky, it left me in no doubt that I get to live in a stunningly beautiful place this year.

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The sun itself looked like nothing so much as the Japanese flag, a red orb in a white/pink sky. The haze was strong enough that I could look straight at it even without sunglasses. Unfortunately, I don’t own pro-grade camera equipment, and alsas my pictures don’t even come close to doing it justice. Once the last sliver of red dipped behind the mountains, I made my way back down to ground level and struck out once again toward the stream to see the display lit up.

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It did not disappoint. The festival had become even more crowded since I went up the mountain, and I had to jink and dodge along the roads to try to make decent time from one landmark to the other. The last bus was set to leave at 9:30 and I knew that there was going to be another long line. I had to try my best to get back to the bus station by 8pm. But even standing at the crosswalk looking at the blossoms lit up by the street lights, I knew I’d made the right decision in staying. I’ve done night viewing before, because the UW campus isn’t closed off after dark and I was able to take walks around the quad with the orange lamps reflecting off of the blossoms and the dark city sky above. But here, I was treated to a whole range of colored lights and the night sky of Jinhae had far less light pollution than Seattle, so it was a good black velvety night dark rather than the orange-grey color of big city night skies.

As I passed by the train station, I noticed that some of the trees I had overlooked by day were now glowing with 20160401_192130LED cherry blossoms in shifting colors. Despite my rush to see the real flowers, I took a quick detour to watch the light show. When I got to the road by the stream I was overwhelmed by the number of people. During the day, I had to wait my turn to get up onto the bridges for photos, but now the bridges were so crammed that even people trying to get away from the railings to make way for the next visitors had to push their way physically through the crowd. It wasn’t a lack of politeness, just the sheer volume of humans in such a tiny space made it impossible to get out of someone’s way without pushing into another person. At one point someone backed into me and leaned on me, and only realized I wasn’t the railing when I moved. They were, of course, apologetic, but that’s how crowded it was!

I could more easily access the railing on the sides of the stream, and it was well worth doing just that. However, I knew from my daytime exploration how different the view from the center of those bridges was from the sides, so I valiantly squeezed my way through the crowds to have my turn. Despite the fact that my phone does not sport the best night camera, most of my bridge pictures turned out well, and only one area did my camera get jostled to the point that I had only side views in the end.

20160401_195507The area of the yellow flowers and fake white roses was first. Although we’d spotted the roses were fakes, I had thought at the time it was just about making a pretty pattern, which is harder to do with living flowers. Now at night I realized that each false flower was connected to a hidden wire because they glowed magnificently, casting a pure white light up on the blossoms above them.

Next, my favorite one, the red umbrellas, revealed small lights under each of the umbrellas making them glow as brightly as they had in the sunshine. The umbrellas were followed by the stars and silhouettes, which may have taken over first place for the night version if for no other reason than the stars were more color shifting soft LEDs and caused the blossoms above them to go through a rainbow of reflected colors, creating dazzling combinations and effects. Finally came the bicycles, which were more or less what I expected: tube lighting in a variety of colors, reflecting up into the trees.

I didn’t go any further down the stream since there hadn’t been anything in the daytime that looked like it would be a night display past the bicycles. I had spotted a night light walking area on the map, but it was simply too far away for me to get to without missing my bus and being stranded in Jinhae with no hotel reservation, so I headed back toward the bus terminal, admiring the lighted arches and glowing blossoms on my way.

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Once I was back in the tented area, I started questing for my last fair food goal, the spiral potato. 20160401_201741This was another tempting snack I’d read about online and decided I wanted to try. Plus, it had been 4 hours since lunch and I knew I had a few more hours of standing in line and bus riding before I would be back in Busan.  It was time to grab a snack anyway. On my way through the stalls, I came across these clear glass-like treats. They were served with a kind of powder that stuck to them, and many Koreans seemed quite taken with them. I decided to pass because I have an aversion to all things gelatin (there is no room for Jell-o), and the Asian desert culture is heavy on foods that have a gelatinous, jellyfish kind of texture. Which is not to say that I don’t have love for other Asian desserts. I enjoy the glutinous rice and sweet red bean paste concoctions. You can see from the picture this stuff looks like it could go either way: gelatinous or glutinous, and in a situation where I had more time, I might 20160401_200327have given it a shot just to find out, but as it was already after 8pm and I was not yet near the bus station, I had to forgo the mystery in favor of a more well known potato based snack. This turned out to be dusted with cheese powder and was a lot like eating very thick cut, fresh potato chips, yum!

When I arrived at the small bus terminal, I was greeted with another Disneylandesque line that took a little over an hour to get to the top of. The buses normally run every 15-20 minutes, but during the festival, they were running as fast as they could get them loaded. Once again, I got to bump up in line because I was a lone traveler and could fill the single empty seat on the bus. As it turned out, I ended up sitting next to another friendly lone explorer. Jinju introduced herself, and I learned she was from Kazakhstan, although ethnically Korean. She’d been living in Korea for years, but still had some trouble due to the confusion of her appearance versus her cultural upbringing. We chatted on the long bus ride back to Busan, and on the subway as well, since she lives near me. I love making new travel friends, and hopefully we’ll get to hang out again soon.

By the time I got home, it was well after 11pm. I was so sore and tired, even rolling over in bed seemed like too much effort. However, as I’ve watched the cherry blossoms in Busan fall to the rain in the last week, I can’t help but be grateful that I had the chance to go to the festival at it’s very peak. Although the parade and fireworks shows were set to take place in the second weekend, I can tell that the blooms were definitely on display for only the first few days. By the time I was heading home from work on Friday just one week later, the cherry trees were sporting only a few last flowers and the green leaves were filling in all the gaps.


I spent Saturday at home, recovering and doing my regular weekly chores, plus assembling my photos from the amazing journey to Jinhae. It was tempting to go out to see some more cherry blossoms in Busan, but I had booked a spot at the Holi Hai festival for Sunday and I really wanted to make sure that I had enough energy to enjoy it. So, please enjoy the rest of the pictures, and stay tuned for the next installment of the crazy busy amazing weekend where I tell the story of Holi on the Beach. As always, thanks for reading! 🙂