The Foods of Cherry Blossom Season

20160401_141325The last two years of living in Korea has been cherry blossom heaven. I had amazing experiences at the nation’s biggest cherry blossom festival in Jinhae both years (2016, 2017) and didn’t see the same thing twice. When I announced my move to Gyeongju, the museum without walls, everyone said “oh what a beautiful place! you’re going to love the spring”. And I was. I was excited to love spring until it turned out to be the bipolar spring from hell. It’s late April still vacillating back and forth from  10C with rain 30C with sun. Neither the flowers nor I know what to do.

I was so ready for a couple weeks of stunning cherry blossoms and sunny afternoons by the lake and river, but instead I got about two days (both of which I was working during) and then the rain drove all the blossoms away.

Since I couldn’t attend a cherry blossom festival this spring, I’ve decided to focus on the other bounty of cherry blossom season: the themed food and drink. Bearing in mind I’m not in Seoul where the trendy boutique cafes all live, I decided to try and find as many cherry blossom themed consumables as possible in my small town of Gyeongju.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Every town has a few local variants, and who knows how many tiny cafes and bakeries were selling their own seasonal specials that I never even encountered. Nonetheless, it should be obvious that cherry blossom season isn’t only a feast for the eyes.

Coffee:

2016-04-15 15.45.30Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frappuccino: This one is available in several countries. It’s a seasonal milkshake style beverage. I like that it wasn’t too sweet. I don’t feel like it tastes especially floral, but it’s pink and festive and fun, so why not?
3 stars

Ediya Cherry Blossom Latte: As a result of the Starbucks trend, every other cafe here offers some variation on the cherry blossom latte/frappe. Ediya is probably the most famous, but I found it to taste like strawberry milk. The iced latte version was thicker than flavored milk, but not all the way to frappe/milkshake status.
1 star

Bliss Blooming Latte: The one coffee shop I really wanted to visit this year and didn’t get to try was the cafe Bliss out by Bomun Lake. They have a latte with a “blooming” blossom. A confectionery of some sort that expands in the coffee. No other branch offers this cherry blossom special. I saw the video online and was instantly captivated. However the lake is rather far away and I never made it out there a second time after learning about it. I’ll put it on the list for next year.
(not rated)

Kanu Spring Blend: This is my go to instant coffee brand, a phrase I never would have believed I could have uttered 5 years ago. I admit, I did try it at first because of the ads, but it’s so much better than most of the other packet coffees in Korea that it soon became a staple at my office desk for emergency pick me ups. I was so excited to see it show up in the seasonal line up, but I haven’t seen it in any of Gyeongju’s shops.
(not rated)

Drinks:

20180325_135358Cherry Blossom Soda: GS25 is a major convenience store brand here in Korea and they also have their own line of drinks and snacks. In the spring, they offer a couple of cans decked out in cherry blossom art. The pink can is a bright pink bubbly soda pop that wins hands down for the most floral flavor. It reminded me of drinking sweetened rose or orange blossom drinks in the middle east. I don’t know if it’s made from real cherry blossoms or if they use a more common flower to get the flavor, but it’s legit. My only complaint was that it was so insanely sweet I had to dilute it. I wanted to mix it with gin, but I haven’t found a local supply since moving here. I tried it with water, but that didn’t work well. Finally, I mixed it with milk, Italian soda style, and that was delicious.
4 stars

20180423_200958.jpgCherry Blossom Grape Juice: The green can was actually my favorite drink of the season. Instead of a soda, it’s green grape juice with the same intensely floral flavor as the soda. It doesn’t have the crazy pink dye, or the bubbles. It’s a bit less sweet, and it has some tasty fruit jelly bits in the bottom. It was still strong, but I diluted it with just water and it was perfect. I’m thinking of buying a bunch to stash for the summer.
5 stars

Cherry Blossom Milk: Koreans love flavored milk. Banana is the most popular flavor here, but I’ve seen several others including green grape and apple. While perusing at a local 7-11 I noticed a single serving milk container with pink blossoms on it. Upon closer inspection, it was indeed cherry blossom milk. It wasn’t bad, only mildly too sweet and somewhere between floral and fruity. Worth drinking once, more than once if you love sweet milk.
2 stars

Alcohol:

Hoegaarden Cherry Beer: It’s technically cherry flavored and cherry blossom scented, but it was released seasonally and decorated with pink blossoms. I was expecting it to be similar to a lambic, but it ended up tasting more like a shandy made with cherry-ade. Not too sweet, and certainly not bad.
3 stars

Kirin Sakura Viewing Can: This beer is decorated with the signature unicorn dancing amid the sakura. Kirin is a Japanese beer company and sakura viewing is an important part of spring. The seasonal can is decorated to put you in the mood for spring, but the inside is the same classic Kirin taste. I happen to like Kirin beer, so this wasn’t a big disappointment.
3 stars

Soju: I saw posters around town for soju (the Korean distilled rice wine) that had cherry blossoms on the label, and usually when there’s something on the soju label other than bamboo it signifies flavor, so I was very hopeful when I finally found some. Sadly, it turned out to be regular soju, which I don’t care for as much as the cheongju (like soju, but smoother with less of that nail-polish-remover aftertaste).
1 star

Foods:

20180311_163719.jpgCherry blossom popcorn: GS25 is a chain of local 24 hour convenience stores. The same brand that created my favorite floral soda and juice, as a matter of fact, and they didn’t stop at drinks. Amid the food offerings was a light pink bag of cherry blossom popcorn. This was my first find of the season this year and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. When I opened the bag, I was hit by a powerful and pleasant perfume making it clear that this was not merely pink popcorn, but genuinely floral. It was sweet and tart, with a base coat of kettle corn and a top note of something like Smarties. I didn’t realize at the time, but I suspect it was made with actual cherry blossoms. More later.
4 stars

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Cherry blossom Pepero sticks: By now the world knows Japan’s famous Pocky sticks: crisp shortbread sticks dipped in chocolate and other flavors. When my family lived in Japan in the 80s (yeah… old) the iconic treats weren’t available in the US and I spent years pining for them after we moved back to America. Although Korea has gotten past it’s hatred of all things Japanese enough to import Pocky, they also have their own national brand of the delicious snacks called “Pepero”. There’s even a national holiday for Pepero where all the stores sell huge boxes and decorated gift sets and we all buy and exchange boxes of Pepero. Not Pocky. The Lotte brand of short, double dipped pepero are delicious anyway, but then I spotted this special pink package and had to try it. The first dip was white chocolate and the top coat had the same sweet/tart taste that I’m coming to realize is the ‘authentic’ cherry powder flavor. It was more creamy than sweet, which was refreshing. It’s not going to replace chocolate as my favorite Pepero flavor, but still enjoyable.
3 stars

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Cherry blossom frozen yogurt: Since many coffee shops here are also dessert cafes, it wasn’t only coffee drinks that came in exciting cherry blossom themes. Yogurpresso is a dessert cafe that specializes in, as you can imagine by the name, frozen yogurt and espresso drinks! Unlike American fro-yo, this is quite tart, like actual yogurt instead of ice cream with an identity crisis. The large “blossoms” are crisp meringue and the sprinkles are some kind of candy. It might be one of the preserved cherry blossom additives. I’ve seen them mostly advertised out of Japan. More likely they are random berry flavored sugar bits. However, the little carafe of pink milk down there is the cherry blossom flavor. A tiny pour over to add floral goodness to the sundae. It was tart and refreshing with a variety of flavors and textures to keep it interesting.
4 stars

Cherry blossom pastries & snack cakes:

Once again in a convenience store (they are truly ubiquitous) I found a rack of blossom themed snack cakes. I’m not a huge fan of the packaged pastries here in Korea. Although they are super cheap, they are far inferior to the fresh pastries offered on every other street at the cafe/bakery combos like Tous le Jous and Paris Baguette. I got one bun to try, but it turned out to be strawberry creme. The darker red is red bean (a common bun filling and one I actually quite like), but I prefer my red bean filling with fresh cream. The strawberry was too sweet and there wasn’t anything cherry blossom about it other than the pinkness. The other snack you see here is a variant on the ever present snack cakes. I read this one before grabbing it and it’s also just strawberry and cream cheese. I didn’t bother to buy it after all.
1 star

Festival food:

I didn’t go to any festivals this year, but I decided to throw in my festival food observations from previous years. Every festival in Korea has shaped and colored cotton candy. I’ve seen cartoon charaters, animals, and abstract art created in spun sugar. Cherry blossom festivals of course bring out cherry blossom shaped cotton candy. I didn’t eat any because I figure it’s all cotton candy flavored when we’re talking about festival street carts.
(not rated)

I did eat the cherry blossom fried ice cream at last year’s festival, however. It’s not very pretty, and it’s hard to tell in the paper cup that it is blossom shaped, but you can sort of make out the petals at the top? The best part of this treat is watching them make it. The vendor removes a super frozen blossom of ice cream and dips it in batter before dropping it in boiling oil right before your eyes! When it’s done, the outside is warm and crispy and the inside is cold and creamy. It was vanilla, and I loved it anyway.
4 stars

Honey Butter Cherry Blossom Potato Chips: I was not going to eat this. I saw it early in the season and turned away. This is because when I first arrived in Korea I tried the Honey Butter Chip. I do not know what the obsession with honey butter flavor here is, but you can get WAY too much stuff in honey butter. The problem was it was awful. It was cloyingly sweet and the butter was really potent (maybe because they use French fermented butter?) I was glad to have the experience once, but had no desire to repeat it.

Then I read another blog about Korean snacks and discovered that the limited edition seasonal flavor is actually made with domestic cherry blossoms, harvested from Chilgok County in north Gyeongsang. That’s really close to where I live!Untitled.png

Only 1.4 million bags were released, by the way. That sounds like a lot, but there are more than 51 million people in Korea, soooo I guess we’re sharing. As you can see, the chips are not pink. I’m fine with that since it means no dyes. The smell of cherry blossoms is the first thing that hits you when you open the bag, which is saying something, since potato chips have a fairly strong smell of their own. I tasted a crisp and was pleased to find that the cloying sweetness I’d disliked in my first honey butter experience was dampened significantly by a gentle floral tartness. I became extremely curious at this point. So many of the things I’d tasted had been more tart than floral, and I’d just been assuming it was a matter of artificial flavors, but this was made with real flowers!
4.5 stars

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The Last Word on Cherry Blossom Flavor:

I looked it up, because that’s me. I found that in Japan, there’s an ages old culinary tradition of salt pickling cherry blossoms in plum vinegar. But, Haitai Corp. was very clear about the Korean origin of the flowers they used (equally proud of the French origin of the butter they use, by the way). I broke down and worked on translating the package and ingredients list to try and get more information, but all I could gather was that it’s domestic Korean flowers and not artificial flavors.

My only conclusion is that cherry blossoms are actually tart in taste. This explains why every cherry blossom treat I tried was either a little sour or way too sweet. The flavor has to be treated more like lemon or green plum in contrast to sweeter flowers like jasmine or lavender. Considering how many times I was surprised by sourness, maybe I ate a lot more real cherry blossoms this year than I realized.

Happy spring and happy snacking!

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벚꽃! Cherry Blossoms in Korea

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.


Busan

20170403_075400My 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.

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The next two days were fraught with rain and thunderstorms, making me all the more grateful for that one 2016-04-15 15.45.30glorious afternoon in the park.

20170403_172853Food 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

20170407_213250.jpgJinhae 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.

20170407_195453We 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.

20160220_141948We 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.

20160401_153024Next, 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 17757156_10208580288885183_7244900065842656679_n (1)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.

20170407_221607.jpgThe 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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

20170408_125822.jpgThe 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.

20170408_130100.jpgGuests 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.

20170408_131130.jpgThrough 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.

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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!

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! 🙂