The weekend I arrived, and after three days of work at Eastern English Academy, I traveled west to the city of Jinhae for a wildly popular festival commonly known as the Cherry Blossom Festival. Millions of people pour into Jinhae each spring to bear witness to the spectacular blooming cherry blossoms that line the outside perimeters of the city, near train tracks where people bring expensive camera equipment and set up shop to document the activities (This statistic is an estimation, but gathering from when I attended in 2012 and the two hour bus ride it took from Busan when usually it takes twenty minutes, I’d vouch that it’s close). There is also a famous walkway through the center of Jinhae where cherry blossoms stand on either side of a stream.
Jinhae is a larger bay area very close to Busan that is enclosed by the Jirisan mountain range. The city was part of a navy development by the Japanese during the Japanese occupation and has remained a military location, having both Korean and American bases. I knew two officers who belonged to the American base, that gave me the unique ability to request American goods from the base which they would deliver when they would visit Changwon (the city I lived in my first year). Jinhae is largely supported by Naval personal, shipyard undertakings, and manufacturing facilities.
Every April, Jinhae sponsors the Cherry Blossom Festival, alternately known as the Military Parade Festival, for ten days. Visitors also observe a military parade that celebrates the successful deflection of Japanese forces by Korean Admiral Yi Sun Shin, during the Second World War.
Nearer the mountains was a train track that traveled directly through the center of arching, blooming cherry blossoms where many flower viewers would mosey for photos of their children, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or themselves (Koreans have an application for smartphones that works as a timer for photos taken of the self, but instead of timing, it works based on the recognition of a smile or teeth. Once it registers a smile, it takes the photo, making self-portraits easy) with the beautiful mountains in the background. During the incoming of the train through the nave of flowers, the driver could be seen taking pictures of the blossoms that were having their pictures taken by tourists taking pictures of the train in an infinity mirror effect.
Among the visitors and into the heart of town bustled street vendors, middle-aged to elderly, that sold enticing treats like foot-long lollipops, cotton candy, waffle cone ice cream (a waffle is literally pressed and folded in front of you, then drizzled with chocolate syrup and sprinkled with colorful flecks), water chestnut and chocolate balls (having the consistency of mashed potatoes in the warm center) coated with pancake batter, and various kinds of red bean treats like patbingsu (shaved ice topped with red bean paste and milk with peaches or kiwi slices). On street corners and in alley ways also crouched weathered old women selling beondaegi (wok fried silkworm larvae, evidently seasoned with something I’ll never know, as I am completely unwilling) which emits a smell like burning chemicals or plastic. Other classic foods lined the cherry blossom stream like toast sandwiches (Toas-teh, phonetically in Korean: ham, egg, cheese, Thousand Island dressing, and cabbage between two slices of fried bread, tteokbokki (said, “dduck-bo-kee”: a spicy treat of rice cake and fish cake), fried fish sticks of all sorts, corn on the cob, spicy chicken, fried eel and other sea urchins, and chicken feet.
During the time of Japanese occupation, cherry blossom “watching” was introduced to Korea and has continued to the present day. Many Japanese strains were planted in important areas of Korea, such as Seoul’s Gyeongbok Palace, as a sign of rule, but later destroyed. “Hanami”—or flower viewing, in Japanse—is the activity of enjoying the beauty of flowers that dates back centuries ago to the Nara Period of Japan.
My director in was serious about the blooming of cherry blossoms during my first year in Korea and I’m happy to have attended the festival with her, as she most definitely held the hanami custom dear. I went with her and two other Korean teachers. My director and the others (English names Anyta and Ellie) did their best to translate and explain everything they could to me and my director cared over me like I was another one of her sons, buying me ice cream, water chestnut treats, and taking pictures with me over the stream that traversed Jinhae.
At the far reaches of the festival were larger red and orange tents where visitors could rest and order food and beer. Many people were enjoying golden teapots of makgeolli (rice wine that has a milky texture, served cold), soju (deadly rice based vodka that induces a poisonous headache/hangover if abused), and sampling kimchi fried rice, plates of grilled flounder, or pajeon (green onions in a flat pancake made from battered eggs, wheat flour, rice flour, and some type of meat, popularly squid).
During the night, paper lanterns were strung up through the trees at the stream and people dissipated home, leaving the stragglers to weave back and forth across the little wooden bridges and see the cherry blossoms without crowds. Outside of the lanterns and street merchant lights, the rest of the city was atypically dark, leaving the impression that the cherry blossoms emanated a pale glow.