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Monday, December 17, 2018

Chasing Jinhae Spring

IN Korea, no bloom quite heralds the arrival of the spring season than that of the cherry blossom. When these trees mushroom into clouds of pale pink, the celebratory mood catches on. People shed their winter coats and gather in the park for a weeklong series of picnic fun.

But for those of us who have mostly existed in hot-or-hotter temperatures, spring rituals are exotic affairs. Since we don’t experience the season in these parts, we have to make a trip to do so.

Go East

The cheapest ticket to seeing spring is heading out to East Asia in the months of April and May. Timing your spring break when the cherry blossoms are at their fullest bloom is another story all together. There is just no way of exacting specific dates. I know this well because I have managed to miss the cherry blossom season on three separate occasions (in the order of: New York, Washington, and Tokyo). This is the story of how I finally succeeded on my fourth attempt.

That is not to say that the attempt was a near-miss. As I had booked my flight to Seoul a year ahead of my visit, I had little expectations of pinning down the cherry blossom festival dates. True enough, when the cherry blossom forecasts trickled in by October last year—I was sure to miss it by a week in Seoul. But, I knew better by then. In expansive territories like Korea and Japan, cherry blossom peak periods are spread and varied. This led me to Jinhae-gu, a district in Changwon City in Korea, some 312 kilometers from Seoul.

Day trip to Jinhae-gu

The distance between the cities of Seoul and Changwon can seem daunting. But in reality, a day trip is manageable given Korea’s impeccable road network. You can get to Jinhae-gu via a smooth four-hour bus ride.

If you want to take it easy, book a seat on a group tour. This way, you can catch up on sleep in the bus without worrying about missing your stops. Tours pick up participants at 6 a.m. and drop them back to Seoul by 9 p.m.

So, is Jinhae-gu really worth a whole day of your entire trip?

Gunhangje: Korea’s prime cherry blossom festival

If you are flying in to check out cherry blossoms in Korea, look no further than the 10-day Gunhangje Festival in Jinhae-gu. It has the largest concentration of cherry blossom trees in the country; 340,000, if you’re counting. What started out as a memorial service to commemorate Joseon period’s most noteworthy naval admiral, Yi Sun-sin, has now ballooned into a major springtime festival enjoyed by at least two million visitors every year.

A day trip affords you only four hours to roam Jinhae-gu, enough time to cover the two main vantage points for cherry blossom viewing.

First stop is the Yeojwacheon Stream where cherry blossoms line both sides of the stream. Navigating through the sea of people on the bridge lanes is slow, with every other person trying to take a decent picture. If you want to take a photo of yourself beneath a canopy of cherry blossoms, go down into the stream area. It is not slippery and there is far less foot traffic. If you are traveling from Busan, you can linger here until nighttime, when it transforms into a different kind of scenery. The stream lights up with festive LEDs, harmonizing man-made and natural flora.

Next is the sprawling Gyeonghwa Station, which runs through an 800-meter cherry blossom tunnel. Not to worry, there are no train services. You can take a nice stroll on the actual railways, without fear of being run over. A must-stop is the imposing Korail pilot (tip of the train) that is conveniently parked for sightseers to take souvenir shots.

Not only is it a feast for the eyes; the food selection here is equally impressive. Stalls not only display the best of Korean street food but also Middle Eastern and Indian samplers and fresh fruits and delicacies that the season has to offer. So you see, in more ways than one, Jinhae-gu guarantees you a very full day.


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