Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How to Explore the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival

Over one million visitors come to the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Jinhae, South Korea.  It happens every year for 17 days near the end of March-beginning of April.   At this time the cherry blossoms are in full bloom and are quite a spectacle.  

The visitors come from far and wide to walk over bridges and down streets that are draped in blooming cherry trees.  When the wind blows the air fills with pink petals and the trees "rain" pink all over the streets and streams. 

Our trip to this festival began a day earlier in Busan.  We came in from Jinyeong on the bus and then took the Busan subway to the Gwangan station on the Green line.  We met our friend Tom and we headed for Gwangali beach.  There we met a few more friends and sat on the beach enjoying some cold beers and snacks.  We had come to this beach a few months ago and we wished we could have stayed but it was bitter cold.  I was so happy the sun was shining and I was able to wear a t-shirt and soak up some sun.  

Our crew broke up when the evening came and went separate ways.  Nikki and I remembered the Korean BBQ place a few blocks away that we'd been to before and we walked over there to eat dinner.  We ordered the same meal we had last time and it was just as delicious.  The marinated galbi dish was really good.  It was nice to sit on the floor, shoes off, and eat dinner Korean style.  We are getting more brave about going into Korean style restaurants and ordering.  All too often foreigners fall into the routine of going to safe western style places and ordering the same thing every time.  It can be hard to order sometimes but that is half the fun!

After we ate dinner we went back over to the beach for a while to take part in the local beach pastime, shooting bottle rockets out over the waves.  Many of the convenience stores sell firecrackers and bundles of bottle rockets to beach goers.  We bought a few bundles and walked down to set them off.  Watching the bottle rockets and firecrackers explode over the reflection of the calm waves of the ocean was a beautiful sight.  

We called it an early night because we were meeting people at the bus station to leave for Jinhae early the next morning.  It was a good thing we arrived early because the line for the Jinhae bus was epic.  The  bus station is normally a pretty busy place but today the lines for tickets and buses were long, winding and twisting affairs.  We bought a quick McDonalds lunch to eat while we waited in line.  The bus to Jinhae was packed and our seats were in the very back row.  I was glad to have gotten a seat for the 45 minute ride, but I was feeling just a tad crowded looking at the bus crammed with people standing and some sitting on the floor.  I put thoughts of a crowded bus crash out of my mind and tried to concentrate on the novel I'd brought with me instead.

Pulling into the Jinhae bus terminal we could see the bustling crowds already.  The passengers poured out of buses all over the parking lot as we stepped off.  The city and streets were filled with a festival air and the people and cars even seemed to be filled with energy.  We waited to meet up with our friend Grace, a teacher at our school who grew up in Jinhae, who offered to show us around the festival.

Graced arrived, bubbly and happy to see us.  Our group was 8 people strong, which meant that it was nearly impossible for us to all stay together.  Grace led the way and walked in Korean style, with quick turns, last second street crossings, and she was able to move through the huge crowds like a spy avoiding a tail.  The only way I was able to stick with her was to follow the pink jacket she was wearing, even when she was a half a block away I could still find her.  
She briskly led us through the festival atmosphere.  Tents lined the streets and crowds of people choked up each available thoroughfare.  There were tents selling all imaginable street foods like chicken on a stick, corn cob on a stick, fishcake, corndogs, gyros, rice cakes, roasting chestnuts, ice cream, and the infamous Bondeggi (silkworm larvae).  The smell of roasting pork also filled the air, as a few of the tents offered pork dishes cut straight from the pig spinning on a spit out in the street.  

I couldn't help but think to myself that THIS is what I came here for.  We can watch those travel shows to distant places and see all of it, but to BE here is a totally different scene.  To buy strange foods and walk around a festival with vendors yelling in a different language, selling food, toys, candy, and clothes.  I tried to soak it all in as I quickly followed Grace and Nikki through the streets of Jinhae.

Grace eventually led us up to the Jinhae tower where, after a walk of 365 steps (one for each day of the year), we entered the tower.  It was originally built in honor of military victories but it now offers an incredible 365 degree view of the city.  From high above we could see all of the crowds and streets we had just pushed through.  We could see the town center, the stadium, the crowded bus terminal, and the islands leading out into the ocean.  From high above we could also see the cherry blossoms peppering the landscape like some giant had spilled a bag of cotton balls.  The bright white trees were everywhere.  In clumps together on the moutainsides and lining the sides of every street.  far in the distance we could still see more of the trees in the valleys and hills around the city.

One of the most popular sights of the festival is the stream near the city lined with cherry trees.  This is the photo opp spot to see.  Grace led us there in her expert fashion but it had already been found by a meandering crowd of thousands.  People lined the bridges and railings, aiming their cameras down the stream trying for the best shot.  Even the most amature photographer could have taken a great picture here, as the blossoms were floating with every breeze.  At one point a big gust of wind blew through, sending tiny pink blossoms everyhwere and the crowd of people let out a collective, "Ahhhh, Ohhhhh!" This is what they had come to see.

For me, the tour was topped off when Grace pointed out her middle school and high school, just blocks away from this stream.  She said that it was here when she was 14 that she began taking English classes, and now she's an English teacher at our school.  It added a personal touch to the festival, as I was honored to have received a tour from a true local.  It made me feel like less of a tourist and more of a real participant in the festivities.

After Grace left to visit her mother, we met up with the rest of our crew of foriegners.  We had lost them on our quick meandering through the city but met up again in the huge grass circle in the middle of town.  There were several bands playing and many people out eating and drinking on the grass.  It made for prime people watching, as local festivals tend to bring out the more interesting types.  We sat and talked and ate street food and drank some beers from the nearby Family Mart.  

We watched as young women teetered over the grass and sidewalks in spike high heeled shoes and tiny skirts, in current Korean women's fashion.  Many strolled with their dogs dressed in garish outfits.  Many men sat and smoked, eating bondeggi and drinking Micol, a kind of fermented rice liqour.  The older ladies paraded around in their decorated and immense sun visors, sometimes so large and dark that I was reminded by Darth Vader's imperial Storm Troopers.  

One the bus rides back to Changwon and then back to our home in Jinyeong we talked about the weekend.  How could it be that just a few months ago we were back home in the States?  How could it be that I used to be scared to ride the bus around my own hometown of 30,000 people and now I fearlessly travel in buses with schedules that I can't read and that are packed like sardine cans?  I reminded myself that THIS is why we came.  To travel and to explore the world.  To eat strange street foods and get tours from locals who are proud of their city.

No comments:

Post a Comment