Coming back to work on a chilly and blustery Monday morning, I was greeted by the school’s flock of cherry trees, now mostly green with only a few pink petals hanging on. It’s hard to reconcile that only two days before I was basking in the warm, sunny weather of Jinhae under a veritable blizzard of blossoms. Yet, another all too brief cherry blossom season has come to an end. Let’s take a look at the haul.
My school is the first exposure I get to the flowers in spring since I pass by a stately line of a dozen or so trees every morning on my way in. I watched with growing anticipation in late March as the buds swelled on the branches and finally burst onto the scene on the particularly gray and chilly afternoon of March 27th.
For the next week, I tried a little photo collection of the progress while counting down until I could head out to the park on Saturday. Mother nature had other plans, and Saturday turned out to be even more cold and rainy. Paintings of cherry blossoms in the snow may be amazing, but hanging out in the park in the cold rain, not so much.
In the end, the only option was to take an after work walk in Samlak Park, a long and narrow strip of green (or in this case pink) along the riverside. Eager cherry blossom viewers can walk for kilometer after kilometer along a pathway so densely enclosed by cherry trees that it becomes a tunnel.
I went to this park last year with my school, but the day we went was after a heavy rain and late in the season so the trees were somewhat bedraggled. This time, the blossoms were still at peak snowosity, and my friend and I enjoyed a walk under the canopy and a sunset through the lace-like silhouettes of the branches. We found the posing platform that allows the hordes selfie-takers to get up to the level of the top branches for the best down angle on the background of blossoms, and we finished the whole thing off by getting some pho in a nearby Vietnamese neighborhood.
The next two days were fraught with rain and thunderstorms, making me all the more grateful for that one glorious afternoon in the park.
Food bonus: Last year I got to try the Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frapuccino, but this year I tried the McD’s cherry blossom soda and the Hoegaarden Cherry Blossom beer. I’m still not sure what cherry blossoms are supposed to taste like, but it’s fun to try all the seasonal attempts to capture such an ephemeral experience in flavor.
Jinhae by Night
Jinhae is the country’s largest cherry blossom festival. I went last year, but was only able to stay about an hour after dark and missed several parts of the festival due to time/ distance constraints. This year I was determined to catch the bits I’d missed, including more time with the night lights. Not only are cherry blossoms naturally stunning against the backdrop of a black sky, but the Jinhae festival sets up beautiful light sculptures along the river bed.
We left on Friday April 7th. Knowing that the storms might have wrecked the blossoms, we still wanted to go to see the lights, shows, and food. It’s not a long bus ride from Busan and we found our Air B&B in easy walking distance of the bus terminal. After dropping off our overnight bags, we quickly headed out to catch the festivities. A military parade and marching band show was scheduled for that night and we followed a cluster of Koreans in traditional costumes into the stadium.
We were too late to get a seat in the stands, but we watched from the sidelines and enjoyed the music. I had spotted a group of dancers wearing the distinctive hat of my favorite style of Korean traditional dancing. I fell in love with the spinning ribbon hats the first time I watched them at my orientation and never miss a chance to watch. When they lined up on the sidelines, a lovely Korean lady in military dress began singing a slow and sad song. My Korean is not good enough to translate, but I got the emotion from her face and the melody. Then suddenly, the whole song changed, becoming upbeat and K-pop. The dancers came on to the field behind her, but it was not just the traditionally dressed dancers, there was another troupe of young men in a sort of K-pop version of punk outfits, and the two groups had a dance off as the song blended traditional Korean musical elements with modern ones. That dance number was easily one of the best I’ve seen here and I wish I’d been able to catch it on video, but alas, I was standing behind too many people.
Next, we headed off for dinner, where I got a repeat of my delicious meal from last year’s festival- whole pig BBQ and dong dong ju (delicious local boozy drink). Once our bellies were full, we moved on to our evening goal of night-time light displays along the river. Along the way, we found more amazing treats: fresh strawberry “latte” (made with homemade strawberry syrup and fresh strawberries in milk, it is what strawberry Nesquick becomes when it dies and goes to heaven), and “cherry blossom” fried ice cream. I think it was really vanilla ice cream, but it was shaped like a cherry blossom. When I ordered it, the man took one out of the freezer behind him and dropped it into the hot oil. A minute or so later I had the crispy desert in my hand. The outside was crunchy and a little bit salty, providing a wonderful compliment to the sweet, creamy ice cream inside.
The most famous part of Jinhae is the narrow “river” that runs through town and is lined with cherry trees the same way the path at Samlak is. Mind you, just about every street in Jinhae is lined with cherry trees, and the mountains around it are dotted with fluffy pink clusters of them, but the river is famous for the density of the trees and the stunning beauty of the blossoms over the water. Plus the decorations. Last year my favorite were the beautiful red umbrellas, but this year’s decor was totally different.
Far along the river, so far we were starting to wonder if we’d missed it, the lights started with arches of white lights, followed by a stretch of glowing roses and lilies of every color. There were romantic heart shaped arches, folded paper crane shapes, and a giant “I
We took photos of the lit blooms in every color light, posed against the antique looking streetlamps or framing the full moon in the sky. It was after 11pm by the time we made it back to the room and fell gratefully into the surprisingly soft bunk-beds.
Jinhae: Trains, Planes and Turtle Boats
The next morning we woke up early and (after breakfast) headed off in search of the famous Korail train that makes its way into nearly every photo album of Jinhae. I hadn’t been able to find it the previous year, and neither had my companions. It turns out the train is not as easy to get to as many other aspects of the festival. Nearly everything radiates out from a sort of wagon-wheel spoke at the center of town, and visitors can easily walk from the bus terminal around the festival grounds. However, a visit to the famous train requires a bus-ride.
It wasn’t hard to tell which stop to get off. The green and white festival tents and huge crowds told us right away where to go. Here on a disused section of railway, a retired train sits in a tunnel of cherry trees. The unique landscape creates a kind of wind tunnel and petals here fly in a way that is rarely seen elsewhere. Even with a breeze, most cherry petal rains are light. Last year, I experienced only one strong gust of wind that transported us into pink snow fantasy land. At the train however, the winds were stronger than the rest of the town and more frequent. Sometimes it felt as though we were in a warm pink blizzard and I won’t recount the number of petals I found in my decolletage later that evening.
We joined the queue to pose in front of the train and found some more treats to enjoy like cherry soda made with Monin Cherry Blossom Syrup and some fresh cut oranges. One older man selling candles and aroma therapy did not let the language barrier be an obstacle to his sales pitch; he simply switched to miming. Like a classically trained clown, he mimicked passing gas and the unpleasant smell, then the sudden delight that his aromas would refresh any room from such stenches. He was hilarious.
After our poses, we wandered down the tracks a ways to take more photos and then came back along the other side to see the handmade crafts on offer. One little girl of kindergarten age said “hello” to us, her only English word, and was so entranced by the fact that we said “hello” back that she became our shadow. She ran back and forth from her mother to us, saying “hello” and bringing us gifts of fallen petals.
In the Navy
After the train, we made our way over to the Naval Academy. The museum is on the military base and is only open to the public during the festival. We took the crammed shuttle bus from the base entrance down to the waterfront to have our chance to see the 400+ year old turtle boat that turned back the Japanese invasion.
Before heading to the boat, we stepped inside the museum for a little historical perspective. The Naval Museum is small, but informative. We saw several historical weapons, including some swords actually wielded by the famous Admiral Yi. They looked like Japanese katana, but were close to 6 feet long! There was also an actual battle plan from the Korean War’s Battle of Incheon with the combined Korean and US military forces.
The turtle ships were famous for their ability to deflect the arrows and flaming arrows shot by the Japanese that so easily destroyed wooden boats. The shell of the “turtle” is a spiked metal carapace at a gentle sloping angle that was fireproof and arrow shedding. Yi’s most famous battle involved the use of only 12 such ships against a fleet of 120 Japanese ships. And he won. The 2014 feature film The Admiral: Roaring Currents was about that battle. It is the most watched film in Korea. In his final battle, he was killed, but as he lay dying he told his aides not to announce his death, but to beat the drums and urge the troops to go on to win. Needless to say, the Koreans revere him and his achievements.
The ship on display in Jinhae is a restored antique. We weren’t quite sure at first because the condition is so good, but we asked one of the soldiers on duty and were told that’s not just a replica. I don’t know how much of the original is left, but it’s quite an opportunity that we got to see the real thing and not just a movie prop.
Guests were invited aboard to explore the ship. Inside it was warm, golden wood. The main deck, which would have been open to the sky on a regular ship, was well lit by a series of cannon ports and arrow slits that allowed the crew to point weapons out while minimizing exposure. There were two small state rooms on the main floor as well, but the captain’s quarters were clearly utilitarian and not anything like the luxury we see in replicas of British ships. The head (toilet) was a series of holes at the aft (back) which opened over the sea for swift disposal.
Through narrow openings in the deck floor we could see below to the crew quarters and galley. There was a ladder leading up to a small space storage above. Decorative spears and battle drums were dotted around the deck. Cannons pointed outward and oars the length of 2 grown men or more were shipped in racks along the ceiling.
Just as we finished our tour of the ship, we heard the loud sound of jets overhead and stepped out onto the pier in time to catch a skilled air show, reminiscent of America’s Blue Angels. The jets flew in tight formations, changing shape and leaving artistic contrails across the clear blue sky as they passed. It was a perfect ending to our military base excursion.
What a whirlwind! in less than two weeks, the cherry trees went from rosy buds, through pink popcorn, and on to spring green leaves. There’s no time to blink if you want to get the most out of the season, but it’s worth it. This year, I saw far to many fun-shamers online poo-pooing the notion of celebrating trees, but I will look forward to the experience every spring and I hope that my photos and stories inspire some of you to hie to a cherry tree infested town next spring. Check out all the photos on the Facebook page (Busan 2017, Jinhae Night 2017, Jinhae Day 2017, Jinhae 2016) and thanks for reading!