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. I’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.
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.
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 for 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.
Following 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”. As 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.
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. After 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. On 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.
By 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.
You 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.
Despite 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.
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.
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.
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 LED 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.
The 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.
Once I was back in the tented area, I started questing for my last fair food goal, the spiral potato. This 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 have 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! 🙂