Namhae Anchovy Festival (May 5)
This week in May turned out to be a four day long holiday weekend for us. Thursday was Children’s Day, which meant of course no school, but most businesses had it as a holiday as well. For about a week beforehand, there was much debate about what would be done with the following Friday. For a while it looked like we would have to come into work after all, but the Korean government stepped in at the last moment and declared a temporary federal holiday so that we could have a 4 day weekend in order to “boost the economy”. While we were debating what to do with our extended holiday that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg while all of Korea and Japan were simultaneously enjoying a long holiday, I saw an advert on one of the local FB pages I follow to stay informed.
The Korean government has stepped up their tourism game recently after some flack from the media about Korea’s low tourism income. So in addition to all the English language websites where I find my festival info, and all the English (and Chinese and Japanese) in the bus and train stations, there’s also a budget for treating foreigners to free stuff. In this case, it was a free trip to Namhae Island to celebrate the Anchovy Festival.
I have never especially thought of anchovies as a thing to celebrate, but I like islands and free trips, so we signed up. Namhae is a good distance from Busan, and it was over 4 hours later when we finally arrived at 2pm. The festival grounds were right on the water and provided a wealth of vendors, activities and food. We watched kids play in giant bubbles floating in a pool. Two of our own retinue eventually tried it out, and while they looked like fun devices, they weren’t available on the ocean. We watched young and old try to catch fish by hand in a similar large but shallow pool. They were impressively large fish too, we’re talking a good meal, not a pet goldie. t At one end of the festival, there was a large stage set up a with an array of entertainment and the focus of the festival was, of course, the food!
After our 4+ hour bus ride, we were all quite hungry and so we explored the food booths to see what local anchovy dishes were around. Finally we settled on a mix of grilled anchovies, deep fried battered anchovies and an anchovy pajeon (a kind of savory pancake). Plus, I saw they were serving the dong dong ju that I’d tried in Jinhae so I ordered a bowl for the table so everyone could taste it. We also found a booth selling makoli (막걸리) cocktails, mixing the makoli with grenadine, Hennessy and ginger ale and serving it up at 1$ a cup.
There was a brief display of some kind of water board device (not the torturing one) that basically allowed it’s wearer to fly on jets of water. It looked like nothing so much as a classic Aquaman move and the audience was suitably impressed. There was some jazz improv saxophone music, and a dance performance that seemed to be an imitation of some kind of ancient ritual. Folks were dressed in traditional clothes and made offerings to an actor in a straw beast costume until the offerings were accepted. As they danced around the made up village square, a man in an old fashioned clown costume capered around the performers and audience making ribald jokes and gestures. He encouraged the male audience members to stuff money in the bra and panties he had on over a white shirt and pants set, but under his clown costume, and then he got the ladies attention and made an… amusing shape at his crotch with his wrinkled hands. It was nice to see the Koreans around me laughing along and not being too embarrassed. We took our time walking up and down the seaside, checking out the wares and goodies, listening to the music and generally being relaxed.
Sometime around sunset, the K-pop performance started, and I went in search of the oysters I’d seen advertised earlier in the day. Although I didn’t realize it, the oysters were part of a set meal, so when I tried to order some a la carte (the way oysters in shell are typically served in the US), the servers weren’t quite sure what to do with us. One of them shelled a few so we could taste them, then wandered off before we could pay. It took quite a lot of effort to get someone to come back, and even more to explain that we just wanted to pay for the ones that we had eaten, not to order the set meal. Fortunately, we had Jinju with us that day, so she was able to explain (in Korean) much better than I. Even then the concept itself was so foreign that it took her several tries. Finally, they said we could pay 10$, and they started shelling more oysters. I thought they’d decided that we hadn’t quite eaten 10$ worth the first time and would make up the difference, but they just didn’t stop shelling! Finally, the lady explained she wouldn’t charge us for the rest because she wanted us (the foreigners) to have a good experience! Lovely! They were some of the best steamed oysters I’ve ever had. Jinju had never tried an oyster before and we finally convinced her. She was squeamish at first, because oysters are not the most attractive food especially right out of the shell, but she expressed surprised delight when she finally worked up the nerve.
We made our way up to the stage to see some of the K-pop performance. The musicians did more than sing and dance and I got the impression they were playing their instruments, not just going through the motions. Since it was children’s day, there was a whole stage area near the front just for the kids to dance in and they were enjoying the heck out of it.
After the K-pop concert, there was a light show scheduled on the water, but since it was running a little late, the Namhae government provided makoli coctails and a light snack to anyone who wished it, then we all sat down on the steps to watch the light show over the water.
There was a jetty (or maybe a quay, it was dark) that had some large LED pillars set up on it and the show primarily consisted of a variety of colors and patterns on these pillars, their reflections dancing in the sea, set to some music and interspersed with a few fireworks. It was certainly pretty, and the weather was nice, so we weren’t upset by the lack of grand spectacle or anything, but it wasn’t a jaw dropper… until… Aquaman came back. That’s right, the guy with the strap on levitating water jets now dressed in a color shifting LED suit came out onto the water to do more tricks and dancing in mid-air set against the backdrop of the lighted pillars and fireworks. The audience was certainly thrilled, but you have to know what you’re looking for in a Korean audience. They aren’t really big on screaming cheering support, but the performers and coordinators clearly knew they were into it, because he did so many encores that the jet ski powering his flight suit ran out of gas half-way through the third “last song”.
Enjoy the video and check out the rest of the photos here.
Full of great food and great sights, we loaded back on to the bus to return home. I don’t know if Namhae is a place I would have ever thought to go on my own simply because of the distance from Busan and the remote/rural nature of the island, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to go. I feel like I got a good taste of local Korean culture, the kind of thing they do for themselves and not for tourists or urban sophisticates. I’ll definitely keep my eye on this group (#enjoykorea) to see what other trips they have to offer us in the future. I got home close to midnight, and although I’d originally planned to leave for Taean at 9am the next morning, I gave myself permission to skip the alarm clock and have a late start if my body needed it. Little did I know what the next day would have in store…
Taean Journey & Tulip Festival (May 6-8)
The promise of the long weekend lured me into intercity travel. Although I would have loved to go to Japan, it turns out the two countries share so many holidays that it would have been crazy crowded and expensive, so I found this cool looking Tulip festival instead. As part of the ongoing effort to increase foreign tourism here, the government runs a nifty website that tells you when and where various festivals around Korea are. I simply plugged our weekend into the search parameters and bam! – full list of all the haps. Even the lantern festival we’d attended locally the previous weekend was on the list! My companion and I decided we really wanted a nature weekend, so I looked at the events that centered around nature, and by coolness rating and distance, we narrowed it down to Taean. Taean is on the west coast of the Korean peninsula and much closer to Seoul than Busan. Google seemed to think it would take us about 5-6 hours to get there, so I booked us a room for 2 nights, figuring we could leisurely travel Friday and Sunday, leaving all of Saturday to explore.
To Taean and On
Taean is also covered in beachfront national parks, so even though I couldn’t find anything else attraction-wise in the town, I reasoned if the Tulips weren’t all that, we could go hang out on a beautiful beach or walk through a pretty forest.
I booked our room on booking.com, because I’ve used it a million times and never had an issue. I don’t know if our issue stemmed from Korean culture not being 100% up on online booking, or if it was just that this place was tiny and not well organized, but we’ll get to that later.
Jinhae was my first attempt to travel outside Busan on my own, and Taean was my first overnight outside Busan since arriving in Korea. I’d had some experiences with the intercity buses, and I didn’t really think the trains could be that different, so with our itinerary in mind, we marched down to the Busan train station Friday morning to buy our tickets. Unfortunately (I knew from previous research) we couldn’t take one train all the way to Taean, so we got tickets to go to Daejeon, which was a little more than half-way there. Google isn’t great for intracity directions, but it did let us know a good route to travel between cities.
I heard rumors before I moved here that the inland cities and coastal cities had massively different weather, but Oh Em Gee. As soon as we stepped off the train in Daejeon, we were sticky with sweat and humidity. We moaned and groaned all the way to the intercity bus terminal where we got our next tickets to Taean and promptly went on a quest for something frosty. I found an apple-kiwi-kale smoothie, which made me feel almost at home. I think I could have liked Daejeon a lot if it weren’t for the fact that they already had our August weather in early May.
The bus to Taean was really lux. There were huge comfy seats that reclined and had foot rests, but we didn’t sleep. I decided that the long hours of travel were the perfect time to force my companion to learn the Korean alphabet. I say “force”, but he’s been here 5 months and can’t read the signs, he knew it was time too. To give you an idea of how easy this thing is, I started teaching him letters in Daejeon at the terminal, and we were done with everything except for the “y” sound by the time we got to Taean, with plenty of time for practice and random road trip conversations. So if you’re coming to Korea, you can easily learn the alphabet on the plane ride over and give yourself an easier time of it here.
When we got off the bus in Taean, my directions to the hotel advised me to take a rural bus so many stops over to the something-something stop, then walk for a little while. OK! Rural bus! Adventure! GPS! Can’t find it on the bus board! (which, btw is only in Hangeul, there are no English letters anywhere in this bus station, even the bathroom is only in Hangeul without pictograms– why we should all be able to read the alphabet). Korean people are insanely helpful. I’ve been told that basically all of them want to help us foreigners, but are just scared to speak English. I started showing the directions to people and asking where it is (in my bad Korean), and it seems like it does in fact leave from this bus station, but I still had no idea where or how to get a ticket. Finally, as we were about to give up and hail a taxi (I have the hotel’s address in Korean in the confirmation email) a nice man with good English showed up and asked where we were trying to go.
I showed him the email and he said we could buy bus tickets here; he’d even show us how. He went into the bus station and asked a few people which bus to take to get to where we wanted to go, then bought our bus tickets for us. I tried to pay, and he just would not let me. He walked us outside and showed us where the bus would come. While we were waiting, for reasons I’m still not quite sure of, he asked me to pull up the email again so he could see the phone number of the hotel and give them a call. And just as well he did.
The Case of the Missing Room
When he got ahold of someone there, he was told that there are no rooms. I thought maybe there was some confusion, they thought we wanted a room, but everything was booked. So I told him, ‘it’s ok, we have a reservation’. ‘No, no,’ he says, ‘It’s full, there are no rooms.’ ‘But we booked the room online’, I say again. Apparently the hotelier gave away our room. Even though we had booked it online and received a confirmation. Grr.
So there we were at this rural bus station in a tiny town that we have traveled all day to get to, with no hotel room. The very nice man had more Korean conversation on the phone, then told us that the lady at the hotel would come and pick us up then take us to another hotel for the night.
I should pause here. I keep using the word “hotel”, but that is really misleading. In Korea, there is a thing called a “pension” which has nothing to do with your retirement fund at all. A pension is a house or apartment that a group of people will rent for a night or a weekend to have a party in, or stay in when they travel. It’s a little like AirBnB, in that, you’re staying in a full on home with amenities, rather than just a room with a toilet. So, we didn’t book a hotel per se, we booked a pension.
We waited some more. The nice guy bought us coffee (again, I really tried to pay). He told us that he was an engineer and usually worked in Mongolia. He wasn’t afraid to use his English because all the people he works with have to communicate in English, even though none of them are from English speaking countries (Russia, China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea and the Philippines), it’s the only language they all have in common. He also said his mother and sister were living in Nevada, and that he was working to join them, but that the US immigration paperwork was taking several years.
Soon the lady from the pension we booked showed up and more arguing ensued between her and our newfound defender/translator. I don’t know the full extent of what was said, but I know that she claimed she tried to notify me of the cancellation (which she did not do via the booking.com site). Since cell phone telemarketing is legal here, I don’t answer my phone unless I know the number. Even if I had answered, she didn’t speak English and my Korean is lousy so I probably wouldn’t have understood and ended up hanging up on her. She didn’t leave any messages or try to email me, which I could have at least asked a Korean friend to help translate. This minimal effort on her part meant I had little sympathy for her lack of business acumen in this department, and pretty much still considered our lodging to be her responsibility.
Then she said that she could find us another room, but we’d have to pay extra for it. No, no and no again. I pulled out my email confirmation to show her the amount that I agreed to pay for 2 nights. She apparently bitched enough that our new friend/helper pulled out his wallet (again) and handed her some money!! I pleaded with him not to. We had a deal and we would pay her the agreed amount, no one should have had to pay any extra because she made a mistake and double booked our room. All I can really say out of it, is that Korean hospitality and helpfulness blows me away every time. I’ve helped visitors to my home country, and I’ve even helped tourists in countries I know better than they, but the lengths this guy went to to make sure we were taken care of were truly extraordinary.
Although he never translated it fully, I rather got the impression that her lame excuse for giving away our room was “it’s a holiday weekend”. No really? Could that be why I booked in advance instead of relying on finding something when we arrived? I might be bitter about this.
In the car on the way to wherever she was taking us, she got Mr. Awesome back on the phone and started explaining stuff about food and schedules. We were told that we could get dinner and breakfast at the place we were on our way to, and that since we would be staying in her pension the second night, we should let her know if we need dinner or breakfast there. Ok, cool. I like being fed and this place is straight up in the middle of nowhere. Like, we’re driving past farms and fields and it’s all misty-foggy and there are these creepy AF robotic traffic cops waving at us as we drive by, and we’re sitting in the back seat of this car that belongs to some woman we don’t know from Eve. But hey! It’s an adventure!
Then she told us that she’d pick us up to bring us to her pension the next day. Which seems nice, until she said “at 2pm”. Remember the whole reason we’ve gone through 6 hours of trains and buses and total confusion to get to this middle of nowhere stretch of coast? The Tulip Festival? And Saturday is our explore Taean day because we have to take 6 hours of buses and trains back to Busan on Sunday? And this lady wants us to sit around on our hands until 2pm? Awww heeeeell nah. We have come all this way to see some nature, we are not sitting around at some pension until 2pm on our sightseeing day. I tried to explain this (with a great deal of restraint and politeness), via Mr. Awesome on the phone, but I wasn’t confident about how much got through.
To Be Continued…
What will happen to our intrepid Gallivantrix? Will she end her holiday in a Silent Hill-esque land of small town fog? Will the animatronic policemen turn out to be Autons and come to life in a dramatc tribute to Dr. Who? Will she find a place to sleep??? Will there ever be tulips???? Stay tuned for the next installment of The Long Weekend: Part 2 – Where Nothing Goes According to Plan. The good news is, you know we made it back alive. 😉