A Whale of a Weekend in ‘Whale Meat City’

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Ulsan is second-best known in Korea for its history of whale fishing and contemporary whale non-fishing, which it celebrates every year with a big Whale Festival. (What it’s best known for is Hyundai, if you were wondering.)

For four days over the weekend of May 25-28, Ulsan went whale crazy with whale drawing, cake-baking, ice sculpting and singing competitions, whale meat tasting, whale watching, and whale hunting re-enactments. It all sounded like some kind of strange county fair. Whale ice sculpting in May and ‘whale singing’ sounded particularly ridiculous. I was also very much looking forward to tasting whale meat, as I’ve never had the opportunity before.

Also, I realize this whaling tradition is a bit controversial. I attended the festival with a curiousity as to the cultural and traditional aspects of whaling in Ulsan. But more on the controversy later .

The festival was in two parts of the city – downtown on the Taehwa River and at the Whale Museum over on the ocean. On Saturday I checked out the Taehwa part of the festival, where I found they were running lots of dragon boat rowing races.

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This was the first time I’d seen the dragon boats in action, as for the past 8 months they’ve been sitting under the Taehwa Bridge. On the river there’s a big picture advertisement with a bunch of young, buff foreigners rowing. Unfortunately, the racers we saw were all old.

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The festival grounds had all kinds of whale decorations.

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You know what makes whales better?
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Avatar.

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I’m not sure what this smurf is reaching for, or what they’re doing in the middle of this whale.

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This one doesn’t even have a whale. It’s like they’re just trying to violate as many copyright laws as they can in one place.


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One section of the festival was full of straw huts, supposedly used by the prehistoric whale-hunting Koreans. A bunch of people dressed in very authentic leopard-print costumes put on a drumming and jumping/dancing performance with some big traditional masks and lots of neon. It ended with them going to the river, getting into a dragon boat, and attacking the big floating mechanical whale (see top of post). It was …interesting, to say the least.

One of Ulsan’s biggest attractions for out-of-town visitors are some petroglyphs depicting this prehistoric whale fishing. A very popular tent at the festival was handing out simple ink prints of the petroglyphs, and there’s also a big copy of them up at the Whale Museum in Jangsaengpo. The historical aspect of whaling in Ulsan seems to be a pretty big deal.

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I’m not sure if this guy was a part of the festival, or if he just decided it was a good day to take his horse for a ride down the river. But I like the juxtaposition in this picture. Sometimes Ulsan can be a very strange place.

The festival left plenty of space for lounging around the park, and it was a perfect day for a picnic. My friends and I found some familiar foreigners who offered us some of their leftover whale meat. Apparently they had been selling fried whale and whale burgers earlier on, but had unfortunately stopped. I tried a bit of fried whale, and it tasted pretty good. The meat inside was very dark. It kind of tasted like a fish stick, but a bit heartier. Should you ever come across some, I suggest you try it.

While enjoying my fried whale, a local rock band played on a small stage. I was quite surprised to hear them play “Creep,” “Best of Me” by the Starting Line, and “American Idiot.” Radiohead and Green Day are in all the noraebangs and pretty popular, but the Starting Line?? I hadn’t heard the Starting Line since sophomore year of high school, and considering they were never all that big in the US, I never thought they would’ve been popular here. The audience seemed to be mainly older people who had sat down for a rest, and a few groups of adults clustered around tables of fried chicken and soju, who had to no idea what any of the music was. I appreciated hearing those high school favorites quite a bit.


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On Sunday I went out to the coast, to “The Whale’s Hometown” in Jangsaengpo, an area of the city I had never ventured to before. For good reason – the only things out that way other than the Whale Museum and “Whale Experience Hall” are the immigration offic and tons and tons of factories.

The Whale Museum had an excellent view:

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…of a port full of factories. Lovely.

The coolest part of the day for me were these giant trash-sea creature tricycles:

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Looks like they borrowed some of the animal print spandex from the prehistoric whale-hunting performers at the Taehwa. I think these fish-bikes pull it off much better.

Of course, Jangsaengpo was ridiculously whale-themed as well:

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The ticket office.

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A whale and dolphins swimming down the side of a building!

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This looks a bit more like a dolphin. Or maybe a beluga?

Of the two museums, I thought the “Ulsan Whale Experience Hall” was much cooler. It was basically a mini-aquarium with some extra whale info thrown in.

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Dolphins swimming over my head. Check out the ajosshi in the suit, hat and sunglasses. Total baller.

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I got to ride a dolphin!

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The entire community coming together for the whale carving. There were lots of somewhat graphic whale carving pictures.

The downside to the “experience hall” was seeing way more dolphin fetuses than I ever wanted to see. They were pretty gross, and contributed very little to my whale learning experience for the day.

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This was in the whaling museum. Konglish, or art school student’s attempt to BS a modern art description? Hmmm….

Along the main road through Jangsaengpo were several whale meat vendors. I didn’t partake, as I wasn’t that hungry and it seemed a shame to waste a plate of whale for just one taste. But it looked like it was raw, cut from various different parts of the whale in all different shapes and colors.

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Only 10,000 a plate!

I ended the day at the main stage, where I was very disappointed to find the “whale singing competition” was neither people singing like whales nor actual whales singing. Talk about false advertising! But luckily there were still some music oddities to behold, like as this funk/elevator-jazz/traditional Korean fusion group:


There was also some great drumming.

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Although my favorite part was watching this little guy dance and try to eat bubbles:
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After a weekend filled with whale-everything, there was one thing I had left to try – whale bread! It was nothing special, really – just the typical read-bean filled waffle dough pressed into the shape of a whale. But quite tasty. And cute!

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After consuming my red-bean-filled whale bread, I officially hit my whale saturation point for the weekend. While I didn’t really come to understand any more about Ulsan’s stance on whaling, I would say all the oddities of the festival made me appreciate my little city that much more.

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Inspired by the festival, and this restaurant down the street from my apartment (one of many I’ve come across in the city), I did some research on the subject.

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(Whale meat)

The most interesting article I came across on the topic is from the The Korea JoongAng Daily, a newspaper I’ve never heard of before. This article gives Ulsan the name “Whale Meat City” (another thing I’d never heard before).

In 2005, Koreans were consuming about 150 tons of whale meat per year, 80% of which happens in Ulsan. This is nothing compared to Japan though – they ate 4,8000 tons! Although there are about 3 times as many of them than there are of Koreans.

I was interested to read that whale meat has apparently been getting increasingly more popular. In 2009, the number of whale restaurants in the city quadrupled to over 100. The one near my apartment seems to be recently shut down, or otherwise inactive since I moved in last October (maybe it’s a front for something else?). None of the Koreans I’ve talked to seem to be really into eating whale, so I was pretty surprised by that statistic.

Commercial whaling was universally banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. Which means the whale served in restaurants has to have been caught “accidentally” in fishing nets intended for something else, or from whales washed up on shore. But there’s quite a bit of controversy as to whether or not this is actually upheld, of course.

The government has said it will pay people $10,000 to report any gray whale sightings to discourage fishing. Although there does seem to be a bit of incentive for fishermen to keep fishing – a 6-meter-long (19.6 ft) whale sells for 25 million won ($21,000). Wow.

I was very curious as to whether I’d see any protesters at the festival, but there didn’t seem to be any. In years past, Greenpeace has been out:

While I certainly don’t agree with whale fishing, I was happy to participate in Ulsan’s whale culture for the weekend, including tasting whale meat. And I’d do it again. Although perhaps if I watched The Cove, I would feel otherwise.


One final final thing in closing: another clip of the traditional music and dance performances from Jangsaengpo. Jazz lady had a killer voice.

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