A rosy excursionJINHAE, South Gyeongsang province
lmost every road leading into this port city this week is bordered in pink.
Cherry trees are on the verge of blossoming into their full glory in this compact East Sea city, where the 41st Jinhae Naval Festival burst into action Saturday.
Peering down from one of the highest points, the snug city below resembles a patchwork of pink ribbons here and there. Jinhae appears to be living up to its reputation as having the nations’ greatest concentration of cherry tree blossoms.
At every corner, street poles are plastered with placards, flags and other decorations welcoming visitors to the annual 10-day Naval Festival, aka Cherry Blossom Festival. Although the signs are catchy, their use of glow-in-the-dark pinks, yellows and blues creates a somewhat tacky atmosphere.
But Lee Kyung-hee, a tourist from Seoul, has no complaints. “This is a countryside city, so you can’t expect something as design savvy as what you see in Seoul,” he says. “Anyhow, people come here to cavort amid the cherry blossoms rather than be impressed by the sights and sounds of the city.”
The Jinhae Naval Festival began in April 1962 to commemorate Admiral Yi Sun-shin, a legendary 16th century naval commander who played a key role in repelling Japanese invasions. The festival later became identified with cherry blossoms thanks to the profusion of flowering trees along city streets each April.
Members of the Admiral Yi Sun-shin Spirit Promotion Association join Jinhae city officials to organize memorial rites and naval tributes to honor the national hero every year. Alongside it are events celebrating the magnificence of the city’s cherry blossoms. This annual festival also includes parades by the Korean Navy, which has headquarters here.
Adding to the festivities, food and trinket vendors sell their wares from white tents set up on the roadsides, not far from carnival game stalls and those dealing in fake Fendi and Burberry bags.
The hawkers motion and shout at passersby to inspect their peculiar goods. “Beetles for sale! They make great pets!” says one vendor. “Boiled pupa for extra strength” goes another.
On these bustling streets, the diversity can be startling: one can bump into a fake ivory salesman from India or a German engineer who works at a factory in Changwon on the same corner. Carriages festooned with flowers whisk riders away, while cotton candy and balloon salesmen roam about selling their sweet bounty to children with a few coins in their pocket. Adding to the levity, “Yeonggu,” Korea’s version of street clowns, attract crowds to their comic mimes and charades to the throbbing street music. Jinhae has perfected the art of the festive mood.
There is lots to do between today and next Monday, when the festival closes. The Korea Naval Academy and the Republic of Korea Navy headquarters invite the public to stroll along their campus and admire the cherry blossoms.
Inside the Academy, a replica of Korea’s own Armada, “The Turtle Ship,” sits on the dock. This 34-meter (112-foot) long battleship, armed like the original with a metal roof and spikes, was crucial to routing Japanese forces nearly five centuries ago. Whether coming as families, couples or friends, visitors here are religious about taking photos in front of the ship or with sailors in cute Navy uniform.
Bang Gi-mi, 64, a first-time visitor to Jinhae who came with 30 others from her nursing home a three-hour drive away, was in a great mood. “It’s so nice and cozy to be among the cherry blossoms here,” says Ms. Bang. “A very cozy atmosphere.”
Australian English teacher Stephanie Arnold agrees that the cherry blooms are gorgeous. “I’ve never seen so many in my life.”
The opulence of cherry blossoms here can be attributed to Japanese who planted them during the colonial period of 1910 to 1945. Originally, the Japanese turned some local farmland into a cherry blossom garden, possibly as a reclusive getaway for colonial masters. After Korea gained independence, Jinhae residents began chopping these trees, considering them reminders of their colonial overlords.
But by the early 1960s, botanist Park Man-gyu changed people’s attitudes by revealing that the cherry trees originated from Jeju island. Since then, Jinhae citizens have diligently planted more cherry trees and protected older ones. At last count, the city had at least 200,000 cherry trees; city officials believe the cherry blossoms will peak by the middle of next week ― perfectly timed with the festival’s major events.
A large stage had been set up with lights for Saturday’s opening ceremony at Jungmun Rotary, a roundabout where eight streets converge around a fountain surrounded by a chromatic flower bed.
Rows of chairs for VIPs and some lucky people are arranged in front of the main Jinhae Post Office, a circa-1912, Russian-built building whose copper-plated roof came from cannonballs.
For hours, the Navy band has been playing military songs as well as Korean folk songs such as “Arirang.”
As the ceremonies finally begin at 5:40 pm, thousands gather around the stage. Opening remarks are followed by a drum performance by local schoolchildren, a ceremonial show by Navy guards, and other pomp and circumstance.
Finally, Kim Jong-mun, president of the Admiral Yi Sun-shin Spirit Promotion Association, announces the commencement of festivities.
“We pay tribute to the patriotic spirit of Admiral Yi through this tradition-bound regional festival... and hope that it will provide strength and courage to all of you,” says Mr. Kim.
After more speeches by the mayor and other dignitaries, a fireworks show sets the crowd jamming. Jinhae native Lee Sang-eun was watching the pyrotechnics with her husband, and daughter. “The fireworks are better than I thought,” she says. “And it’s much more lively to be out here in the crowd than at home.”
Salute an admiral, swill soju for a prize
1. Chungmugong Victory Parade:
Starting at 2 p.m, a street parade commemorating the victories of Chungmugong (Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s aristocratic title) in navy battles. The march will include the Navy’s police troops, the Navy band, ceremonial guards, a Korean traditional music troupe, a life-sized model of the Turtle Ship, flag bearers, and Joseon style militia among others. The parade will form at the Jinhae city park and tour key areas of the city for about two hours.
2. Chungmugong Memorial Service: Thursday
Special rites will be held at 2 p.m. at the Bokwon rotary to pay tribute to the patriotic spirit of Admiral Yi. Besides the performance of a military band, various ceremonies will be held to honor the spirit of Korea’s premier naval hero. “This year’s service has been upgraded to include royal musicians’ performance and instrumental music of the peasants of that era,” says Jinhae city official Lee Seong-cheol.
3. Fringe events:
At least 40 events await tourists and citizens alike. These include a traditional classical music contest, face painting on the streets, photo and history exhibits, a soju drinking contest, a cherry blossom photo contest and poetry readings.
Picnic with tanks, nibble on a sparrow
1. Korea Naval Academy and Republic of Korea Navy Headquarters:
Since Jinhae is the naval port city of Korea, visiting the headquarters and seeing the warships, tanks and planes from the past is worthwhile. Photography at the naval base is restricted for security reasons but strolling down the byways filled with cherry blossoms on the base is permitted, as is picnicking. Visiting the Navy Museum and taking a peek inside the “Turtle ship” is a must.
2. Jaehwang Mountain:
It takes 365 steps in all (yes, the same number of days in a year) to reach the 90-meter-tall hill, which boasts a panoramic view of the entire city and the sea beyond. On the way up, you will see fortune-tellers reading people’s palms along the stairway, along with portrait artists. The Jinhae Tower awaits at the summit, plus an observation deck that doubles as the city museum, featuring relics and cultural assets dating back as far as Neolithic times.
3. Eight Province Specialty Market:
Specialty foods from all over the peninsula (hence, the eight provinces of Korea) can be found in this market area, everything from roasted hogs on an open grill to crabs, oysters and even cooked sparrows. The pungent aromas will satiate one’s olfactory senses.
4. Jangboksan Mountain & Parkland:
This mountainside is known for its abundance of cherry blossoms, which form a “tunnel of pink flowers” to those crisscrossing the area. Great place to take photos. For those with young children in tow, visiting the Parkland amusement park nearby will be a fun way to spend some free time.
The 41st Jinhae Naval Festival (aka Cherry Blossom Festival) runs from March 29 to April 7. By car (about 5 1/2 hours), take the Gyeongbu Expressway and exit at either Masan or Changwon, cities that are about half an hour away from the port city. Buses (4 1/2 hours) leave every 15 minutes from Gangnam’s Express Bus Terminal to Masan. Trains (5 hours) to Masan Station leave Seoul every hour or so. From Masan, there are shuttle buses and intra-city buses conveying visitors to Jinhae. Taxi fare from Masan or Changwon to Jinhae is about 15,000 won ($12). For more information, call (055) 548-2114 or 548-2281 or visit Website: www.jinhae.go.kr. English available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
by Choi Jie-ho