Greeting the dawn of a new yearWhile the rest of the world honks car horns, blows whistles, hugs and kisses, or drinks a champagne toast to begin the New Year, for Koreans it’s auspicious to spend that time watching the year’s first sunrise.
Every New Year’s Eve, thousands of families and couples hop on a train to see the first sunrise in Jeongdongjin, a tiny port on the East Sea, which has become a popular destination since a famous soap opera was filmed there.
“It gives us an excuse to reflect back on our lives,” says Jeong Tae-yong, a 31-year-old computer engineer in Seoul. “You don’t get that in the city. You see the sun rise every day, but you discover it in new ways on the seashore. It’s really different.”
The East Sea, where you can catch the first sunrise on the peninsula, is an ideal spot if you manage to go early. But a few villages on the Yellow Sea (West Sea) offer an alternative that is just as good.
Need an excuse for visiting the Yellow Sea? Let’s just say it’s to pursue radical change for once by ignoring what is considered “common sense.”
Favored West Coast Destinations
Ouemok Village in Dangjin, South Chungcheong province, is one of those destinations on the western coast.
Ouemok came to the public’s attention about six years ago. Until then, the villagers were practically indifferent to what they’ve seen all their lives ― an elaborate sunrise above the horizon.
A few veteran travelers started visiting Ouemok, and news about the place spread. This tiny seaside village became an instant tourist attraction on the first day of the millennium, when over 200,000 people came to see the sun rise. Since then, an average of 100,000 people have come every New Year’s Eve.
Now, the village looks like a typical seaside tourist site. The shore is lined with motels and seafood restaurants. When asked the average room charge for New Year’s Eve, one motel clerk said reservations for all rooms were booked two months in advance. While acknowledging that the motel has a few rooms left for last-minute guests, the clerk said the charge would be about 100,000 won ($95) per person.
He suggests that travelers can watch the sunset in Anmyeondo, drive to Ouemok ― about an hour away ― late at night, have some sashimi and chat with companions until sunrise. He recommends this strategy on New Year’s Eve because accommodations are limited in villages such as Ouemok, making it inevitable that motel owners will charge higher rates.
Dori Wharf in Muan, South Jeolla province, also offers ideal conditions for watching the sunrise. Muan is actually more famous for its food than its tourist attractions. One of the regional delicacies is “fainted” octopus, a notorious recipe in which chefs make live octopuses unconscious by rubbing them with salt, and then dip them in a chili sauce; they are served raw. A mullet dish is also popular here.
Dori Wharf is also a national historical site, being so designated in 1995, when over 630 blue celadon pieces were found in the sea there.
About 10 minutes from the wharf, along Highway 24, is a spot called Holtong, where nature photographers gather to take snapshots of the sunrise. Gaetmaeul Hoetjip (064-454-7448) is a sashimi restaurant that sells raw mullet for four people for 30,000 won. On the menu is a dish called “Bureupdegi,” which roughly translates as “one with glaring eyes.” A chef explains that the fish was so named when a local fisherman looked at the size of one and said it was even smaller than a mullet. The fish got angry and glared at the fisherman.
Among veteran travelers, however, Maryang Wharf in Seocheon, South Chungcheong province, is considered the destination with the finest sunrise.
Before the opening of the Seohaean Expressway, this small village was considered remote for people living in Seoul.
The wharf, which is in the shape of an arch, boasts a dramatic landscape, though the locale is on the verge of rapid development. The best spots to watch the sun are the seawall of the wharf or the rooftop of the Marine Museum in Seocheon.
A grove of camellia trees, which is five minutes away from the wharf, is also one of the best sites to see the sun rise. A pagoda called Dongbaekjeong sits on a small hill surrounded by the trees.
There is also a way to watch the sunrise in Seoul. After all, the sun comes up in the city as well, we are just not aware of it as much. Check out the 63 Building (www.63city.co.kr) on New Year’s Day. Its observation floor opens at 6:30 a.m., and admission is 6,000 won for adults. The rooftop deck also offers an ideal spot to take a photo of the sunrise. Reservations must be made in advance, however. Hangaram, a Korean restaurant in the 63 Building, offers rice cake soup for 7,000 won. Call 02-789-5663.
Avoiding Traffic Congestion
Of course, there are no rules about where and how one should watch the sunrise. Some people decide to watch the last sunset of the year on the Yellow Sea and drive straight across to the East Sea, just in time for the first sunrise. These are extremists, of course.
Driving might be the most convenient way to make any trip, but one can take advantage of the travel packages that are available as well. Remember, traffic congestion on roads leading to popular sunrise destinations across the country around the New Year is sometimes even worse than on long holiday weekends in the summer. Trust the travel agencies in order to avoid the problem ― they know better in situations like this.
The train is often the fastest way to get to a destination. KTX Tourist Leisure (02-393-3100) offers a two-day train tour package to Jeongdongjin for 49,900 won on weekdays, 56,600 won on weekends. Vitamin Travel Agency (02-736-9111) offers a sunrise package from Seoul Station to Gyeongju for 63,600 won on New Year’s Eve. A package from Seoul to Mokpo via KTX train and a ferry ride to a nearby island costs 89,000 won.
For hikers, a number of groups are planning events on New Year’s Day. Night hiking is still forbidden in most national parks on the peninsula, and there is a 500,000 won penalty for breaking this law. However, Mounts Taebaek and Deokyu accommodate night hikers. Two hiking groups, Cheongam (02-2246-4858) and Garim (02-2275-8333), will head for Mount Taebaek. Membership fees range from 30,000 won to 40,000 won. Riding a gondola at ski resorts is another alternative. Muju Resort (063-322-9000) in South Jeolla province operates its gondola from 6 a.m.
Ulleung Dot Com (1544-7644) offers a travel package to Ulleung Island, leaving on Dec. 31 for two nights, for 265,000 won to 357,000 won. Nextour (02-554-0644, www.nextour.co.kr) is offering a sunrise cruise package for 300,500 won, departing Dec. 30 for two nights.
Hana Gangsan (02-736-7400) has a sunrise package, which includes stops at Geoje Island, Ouedo, Suncheon Harbor and Namdo, leaving on Dec. 31 for three days, at 143,000 won.
But, as a popular Korean song says, the sun will rise tomorrow, and the sun will rise tomorrow. If you can’t get away, television networks will broadcast throughout the night, showing pictures of the first sunrise at various locations in Korea.
After all, you are in the Land of the Morning Calm.
by Sohn Min-ho, Park Soo-mee