Sunnyside Up

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Sunnyside Up

New Yorkers have been celebrating it for years in Times Square. Parisians traditionally ring it in on the Champs Elysees. The Japanese go to Tokyo's Shibuya district. Koreans? They gather downtown in Jongno on New Year's Eve for the famous bell-tolling ceremony at Bosingak.

But joining the seething masses to sing auld lang syne isn't for everybody. Some people prefer tranquil and serene places. Others venture beyond their living rooms and go somewhere to take in the beauty of nature. Here in Korea, a new tradition along those lines is on the horizon. A TV drama of about five years ago popularized a quiet town, Jeongdongjin, on the east coast, and busloads of Koreans, especially couples, have been going there ever since to see the first sunrise of the year. On recent New Year's Eves, many entrepreneurs have gone about in downtown Seoul at 10 or 11 to sell bus rides to the coastal hamlet. The folks who choose to do the supposedly fun thing usually regret it, though, when they find themselves in a stuffy bus stuck in a highway traffic jam.

Nevertheless, Jeongdongjin has become the spot to watch the sunrise - at any time of year. That reputation took hold when the town of some 1,100 residents, which had depended on coal mining but whose deposits had been depleted, was saved by a moving scene in a 1996 TV mini-series. The drama, "Moraesigye," or "The Hourglass," was one of Korea's most popular ever. The writers of the show were looking for an unknown but quaint place to shoot a suspenseful scene in which the actress Goh Hyeon-jeong waits frantically to board a train to escape the police. They chose Jeongdongjin and the town was reborn as a tourist destination.

Oddly, if you plan your trip right and make it to the town's train station at a pre-dawn hour, your chances of taking in a brilliant sunrise are still pretty slim. Locals concede that the town averages only 30 clear mornings per year. But if you can beat those 10 to 1 odds, you'll be rewarded with an unforgettable display of heavenly light. But more on that later.

Jeongdong means "directly east." From Seoul, if travelers go directly east from downtown Gwanghwamun they come to Jeongdongjin. Fortunately, you can eschew the bus and get there by train; every Friday and Saturday night a couple of trains bound for the town leave Cheongnyangni station in northern Seoul at 11:30. Both of the trains are the lower-class Mugunghwa variety. The class is named after the national flower, but doesn't smell nearly as good. Also, these trains aren't so English-friendly, so having someone competent in Korean in your group is advisable.

I took one of the Mugunghwas from Seoul last weekend, which arrived punctually at Jeongdongjin station at 5:40 in the morning. The station is right on the coast, so it's the best spot to watch the sunrise. I took a seat on the platform and began my solar watch. Up until 6 the sky was slightly overcast, so the outlook was bleak. But 20 minutes later a marvelous dawn-color phenomenon began: both the sky and the sea took on hues of purple and lavender. Then at 6:40 the tip of the sun broke the horizon and the sea turned crimson, enchanting the spectators.

Ironically, a tour guide had encouraged us spectators upon our arrival to breakfast at a local restaurant - which has no view - on hard-core Korean dishes like seolleongtang (soup made with beef stock, rice and clear noodles) or haejangguk (a broth featuring congealed cow's blood). Had we accepted his offer, we would have missed the solar spectacle. "Consider yourselves super-lucky," the guide said later.

The guide's agency offers bus tours of the interesting spots around the area: a sculpture park near the station, a beautiful cave network in Mount Deokhang, to the south, and the port town Mukho. At 7:30 a.m. I got on the bus and was taken to the sculpture park, which, apart from a cafe in the shape of a huge ship, was unimpressive. Most of the other people on the tour stayed on the bus and slept for the hour there. Then the bus left for the cave, an hour away. The bus driver recited a tour guide spiel as he drove, upsetting the would-be sleepers. But he was just doing his job, and introducing outsiders to his hometown, so we indulged him.

I arrived at the foot of Mount Deokhang at 9:30 a.m. The path up to the limestone cave is beautiful, especially with the fall colors adorning the route. After a tiring 50-minute climb, I reached Hwanseon cave. Legend has it that a young woman who was discovered bathing by some rogues ran away and hid in the cave, where she became a nymph. The cave, said by the locals to be the biggest in Asia, has dazzling flowstone formations with stalactites and stalagmites. The fantastic journey through the cave took about an hour. Highlights of the tour's five main areas include a heart-shaped hole in the wall where couples traditionally pledge eternal love to each other.

Back on the bus, and by early afternoon we were at Mukho Port for lunch. The driver took us to a "special" restaurant that features raw fish dishes. The word was that the eatery was in cahoots with the driver, and suspicions were supported by the prices on the menu: a dish of flounder ran upward of 60,000 won ($46), which everybody knew was a rip-off. The more frugal choice was a hot peppered fish soup, maeuntang, which was only 20,000 won and served two. The wisest choice, though, would have been to venture somewhere else. A short walk toward the downtown area will get you to a snackshop selling gimbap (rice rolls with veggies and meat wrapped in seaweed). The port also has a good fish market where you can examine the catch of the day, some still alive and swimming. At 2:30 p.m. I was back on the bus, bound for the Donghae train station, which is about 100 kilometers down the coast from Jeongdongjin. By 3 p.m. I was heading back to Seoul.

Through December the sun rises after 6:40 a.m. If you want to be there next Jan. 1, plan early, bring your own champagne, and don't be surprised if the weather gods don't cooperate.

The price for the train tour to Jeongdongjin costs 50,000 won ($38) for an adult. For more information, call 02-717-1002 (Hongik Tour Agency) or 1544-7788 (Korean National Railroad).

by Chun Su-jin

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