In appreciation of cherry blossoms

Before coming to Korea, cherry blossoms had always been something I’d heard about in Washington, D.C. Little did I know that come spring time, this country goes cherry blossom-crazy. Streets in seemingly every city are lined with the trees, and they’re planted all over parks across the country. They seem to be everywhere.

After what’s felt like a rather long winter, it was nice to see some flowers. And while there’s plenty of the trees in my neighborhood in Ulsan, the urban backdrop isn’t very picturesque. So I went searching…

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First stop: Daegu

Cherry Blossoms
Walking through a park in Daegu on a Saturday evening, the trees looked quite nice lit from below.

The most popular place in the country to see the blossoms is the festival in Jinhae, a small city west of Busan. After reading reports online of four-hour traffic back-ups to get to the festival, I decided I’d just try my luck in Busan. But where? I referred to my tourist map of the city, and thought the green-covered islands in the south looked pretty promising.

Tourist Map of Busan

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Stop #2: Yeongdo island, Busan

As it turned out, the island is really big – a small city in itself, really – and not quite the natural paradise all of that green on the map had me envisioning. Walking around, I felt more the quaintness of a small coastal town than the rest of metropolitan Busan. We followed some narrow streets up and down steep hills, where houses disappeared down tiny alleyways, their cement walls covered in many different brightly colored paints. After about an hour of trying to follow signs to the ‘Jeoryeong coastal pathway,’ I finally found my way to the green part of the map.

Yeongdo island, Busan

While the excursion was a total failure in terms of finding cherry blossoms, it was still a spring afternoon very well-spent. The pathway goes along the rocky coastline, up and down tons and tons of steps set into the sides of the cliffs facing the ocean.

Yeongdo island, Busan

Yeongdo island, Busan

On one of the beaches there were a bunch of ajummas selling raw fish and soju. Amongst the seafood being sold out of their colorful plastic buckets was something terrible looking called dog penis. Gross.

There were several other people hiking, including a group of Koreans behind my friend and I that had obviously been drinking (which seemed a rather unwise decision for all of the steep steps up and down cliffs they were navigating). One of the men kept offering to take my friend and my’s picture, even though we weren’t asking. He also wanted to take our picture kissing, which we weren’t too keen on. But he was persistent, so eventually we told him we were brother and sister. At that, they all seemed very embarrassed, and his wife bought us both an ice cream.

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Number 3: Hakseong Park

This park is just down the street from my apartment in Ulsan, but for some reason I had never been. My first week in Ulsan, one of my co-teachers told me something about how “only old people go there,” and I guess it made me less eager to explore. As it turns out, it’s absolutely beautiful in spring and full of cherry blossoms.

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Needless to say, I’m glad I finally decided to check it out.

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A sunny evening in the park, surrounded by flowering trees and floating flower petals. What could be better?

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Stop #4: Gyeongju, Bomun Lake

My final excursion to take in the cherry blossoms was to Gyeongju, Korea’s ancient capital and rather conveniently Ulsan’s neighbor to the north. Joining what seemed like a quarter of Korea’s population in Gyeongju on a warm Sunday afternoon, I hopped on a bus to the resort-y Bomun Lake.

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The lake was crowded, but still beautiful. Most of the lake was lined with restaurants, motels, noraebangs, and places to rent bicycles and ATVs, which reminded me a bit of some Michigan towns along the Great Lakes.

Gyeongju World and the hot air balloon experience provide the fancy entertainment on the lake. The hot air balloon looked like a total rip-off to me, as you never actual detach from the rope holding you to the ground and just kind of float for a while.

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Duck paddle boats filled one part of the lake. Please note the mommy duck in the back.

It’s been a very pretty couple of weeks, but the cherry blossoms in Ulsan are officially dead. There’s actually a site that tracks the cherry blossom progress across the country, and I hear they’re just starting to open up in Seoul. But I think I’m finished chasing them. At least after these past few weekends, I won’t be associating cherry blossoms solely with D.C. anymore.

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Weekends in Busan

Busan is Korea’s second city. It’s nowhere as big as Seoul, but compared to Ulsan, it’s sort of like the New York City to Ulsan’s Hackensack, NJ. It is generally seen as that much more exciting, metropolitan, cultural, better, and everything.

Lucky for me, Busan borders Ulsan, and is just a bus/train/KTX ride away. Which means I’ve been there quite a few times these past few months. In Busan I’ve found some exciting international culture, clubbing opportunities, and even some reminders of home. Here’s a summary:

Busan Fireworks Festival (Oct. 23)

Dad visits!

My dad’s business trip to Korea coincided with the Busan Fireworks Festival. He booked a hostel in Seomyeon for the weekend to visit.

Seomyeon is one of Busan’s busiest nightlife districts. It’s packed with bars, clubs, restaurants and young people.

Seomyeon at night

Dad wanted to check out the clubs, but I wasn’t really up for it and certainly wasn’t dressed for it, so we had a mini Seomyeon bar crawl instead, where I introduced my dad to the wonders of Korean beer and anju (the side dishes served with drinking) and we explored two of the area’s many Chicago bars.

Gwangali Beach
Gwangali Beach: the scene for the fireworks

Busan’s fireworks festival is a huge event that draws millions and millions of spectators. With nothing else planned for the day, we decided to head down early and beat the crowds. The show didn’t start until 8, but there were quite a few people there by the early afternoon.

Gwangali Beach - camped out for the fireworks
One way to save a spot.

Gwangali Beach - camped out for the fireworks
Camped out for the day to save their spot.

Around the beach, we found some giant crabs:
Giant crabs!

And some smelly beondegi for sale on the street:
yuck
(you seriously have no idea how bad this smells…)

The festival also marked the first get together with some of the friends I had made at the EPIK orientation since we all headed to our separate cities.
Waiting for the fireworks to start

The fireworks felt a bit different from a fireworks festival back home.
– Food vendors wandered through the crowds selling boxed sets of fried chicken and radish kimchi.
– Other people wandered through the crowds to distribute trash bags.
– Open alcohol consumption was no problem.
– Once the beach area filled up, a line of police officers kept more people from crowding on. Aisle spaces allowed those already on the beach to leave and return, with a hand-stamping system to make sure only those already on the beach were let back on.

Overall it was rather impressively well-organized.

Crowds on the beach:
Firework festival crowds

5th Annual Busan Fireworks Festival

The show begins:
The fireworks finally start!

Busan Fireworks Festival

Busan Fireworks Festival

Busan Fireworks Festival

In the end, we had been saving a spot on the beach for ~6 hours. But it was well worth it! The show was very impressive.

Afterwards there was some drinking, and my dad managed to match my guy friends in shots of soju 🙂 Eventually, of course, the evening ended in a noraebang.

After-festival noraebang-ing
Mark, always a passionate noraebang-er

After-festival noraebang-ing

International Food Expo and Club Foxy (24 Hours in Busan – Nov 13)

My second trip to Busan was primarily to visit an International Food Expo in hopes of finding a burrito or some pierogies. Unfortunately the festival had neither, but the trip turned out to be worthwhile anyways…

International Food Expo
That looks like garlic…

International Food Expo
Someone put frosted flakes on my sushi.

Seaweed in bulk
Want to buy some seaweed?

sashimi
A year ago, I would have this this looked gross. But not anymore. Sashimi? Yummmmmmm.

The festival was in Busan’s Bexco center, a giant exhibition hall. Next door was a design expo.

Fancy Water Fountain
A fancy water fountain.

Awesome Water Fountain
Another fancy water fountain. (Hand modeling by Shannon)

Paul sits at a Fancy Bench
A fancy bench. (Bench modeling by Paul)

Bike sky-way!
Every city needs one of these!!

adorable cloud monster bike parking sign
Adorable.

There was also a fish expo, but you had to pay to get in, so we didn’t bother.

From Bexco, we went to a ‘Play room’ to recharge. The play room was a small private room you could rent that came equipped with a TV, internet, video game system, pre-loaded movies, and nice sound system.

Eventually I did fulfill my original goal of going to Busan and got a burrito at the Fuzzy Navel, a western place in Haeundae Beach (a westerny-touristy part of Busan). But it was quite awful.

The night took us back to Seomyeon, where I finally made it to one of clubs (Foxy). It was more packed than any club I’ve ever been to, but played lots of K-pop and American hip hop (including “Wild Wild West” at one point) and so was very enjoyable.

We passed the remainder of the night in a noraebang, and once the subways started back up headed to the bus terminal to catch an early bus back to Ulsan.

Christmas Shopping (Dec 11-12)

Busan having far more shopping opportunities than Ulsan, my friend Paul and I decided to head over there to do our main Christmas shopping. Christmas isn’t really a big holiday in Korea, but it’s kind of like Valentine’s Day, so department stores still get really into the decorating to encourage the gift-giving.

Our day of Christmas shopping started with a visit to a market that was supposed to specialize in Korean antiques and old, interesting things. This was my best find:

At a flea market in Busan

There was also an imitation Oscar, which in hindsight I really wish I had grabbed.

We also checked out Gukje market, one of Busan’s biggest. The first thing I saw in the market was a stand selling pig’s heads!!! I was totally disgusted, as I had never really come across the severed head of any animal (I don’t think), let alone something as big as a pig, let alone several severed pig heads. The market was packed with vendors selling all kinds of clothing as well as western-imports like Quaker Oats and Jack Daniel’s. Luckily there were some souvenir shops as well, perfect for finding Christmas gifts.

The market neighbored Busan’s main shopping district, Nampdong. “All I Want For Christmas” blared out of speakers lining the street. Crowds of people bustled in and out shops and department stores. It felt a lot like Christmas shopping at home.

Nampodong all decked out for Christmas:

Christmas in Nampo-dong

That evening there was a Battle of the Bands in the Kyungsung University area (Busan’s other going big going-out neighborhood, generally full of university students and foreigners). Paul and I went with our friend Mark, where we ran into more people Mark knew from Busan and other people Paul and I knew from Ulsan (it’s a small world for English teachers over here). The bands we saw were a Korean Irish punk band that played covers of The Clash and Flogging Molly (as well as a bunch of Irish traditionals in Korean), and a Korean Rancid-style/imitation punk-rock band that covered several …And Out Come the Wolves tracks. Needless to say, I really let my inner 15-year-old out and danced the night away with a bunch of other foreigners, jumping up and down so much my calves hurt for days after.

Caribou Coffee in Korea!
I managed to track down my most favorite coffee shop – Caribou Coffee – in Haeundae Beach, and after 2+ months of drinking bland lattes and watery Americanos, it tasted amazing. The perfect end to a weekend full of reminders of home!