Heading eastLong before the name “East Sea” became a symbol of nationalism for Koreans, the body of water between here and Japan merely meant a place for a quiet summer getaway.
By today’s standards, the beaches and piers on the east coast may not come close to offering the luxury of Guam or the Maldives, which have become the preferred vacation destinations for Koreans who can afford it.
But for years, the summers in Donghae ― the Korean word for “East Sea,” which is also the name of a city in Gangwon province ―were considered quite good enough, pampering local visitors with the scent of the ocean, great seafood and generous giveaways from merchants at whatever shops one happened to drop into.
The cities along the east coast still offer some of the nostalgic pleasures of a fishing village, but only if you visit during the right time of year, which is now through early July, when the beaches really become crowded.
Donghae, known as the “city of the sunrise,” hosts an irregular crowd of visitors all year round.
For the New Year, thousands of families and couples take trains here to catch the year’s first sunrise. During July and August, the high vacation season, the area becomes a scene of pandemonium; the pictures of the swarming vacationers often make the front pages of Korean newspapers.
But during the rest of the year, the beaches along the east coast make for an ideal spot to camp out with the family and enjoy fresh plates of seafood at reasonable prices.
For my family and me, a recent trip started in Donghae City. If you take the Yeongdong Expressway from Seoul, you see a wide expanse of ocean ahead of you shortly after you get onto Donghae Expressway, which is part of National Highway No.7 and runs parallel to the east coast. The water is a sign that Donghae City is close by.
If you have the time, it’s not a bad idea to start your trip way down in Sokcho or Jumunjin, two other popular destinations along the east coast. But if you’re looking for a short weekend trip, you won’t miss much by cutting right through to Donghae and starting from there.
There are many reasons to visit Donghae, but one of the most sensible is the city’s great seafood.
For those who want to make an extra trip, Mukho Seafood Market, just a few meters away from the city's downtown, makes for a nostalgic visit to a countryside market.
At Mukho (an old name for Donghae), visitors can bargain with merchants over live seafood at about a fifth of the price one would normally pay in restaurants in Seoul.
Popular East Sea delicacies like squid can be had for as little as 20,000 won ($20) for a whole boxful. For those who want smaller portions, merchants will chop it up fresh from the tank, and give you some chili paste dip to take back to your hotel along with it.
Mackerel and flatfish are common catches in the early summer. Other kinds of fish, like the small, red nolami, are more expensive, costing up to 40,000 won a piece. The price varies by size, but for something as common as squid, the market has set a fixed cost and written it on a board on a main pathway, to discourage merchants from overcharging.
One merchant at Mukho complains that the pickings have been slim lately.
“We are just thankful these days when we catch anything in the sea,” she says. “It’s an old saying that East Sea is half fish, half water.”
Another major attraction at Donghae is Mangsang Beach, a popular vacation spot in the summer. The spacious, sandy beach stretches for about 1.4 kilometers (0.9 miles). It’s a perfect place for kids to play. In 2002, the city hosted the World Camping Caravanning Fair at Mangsang Auto Camping Resort (033-534-3110), a large RV park facing the beach that’s funded by the city, complete with cabins and American-style cottages.
To be frank, however, the tourist development around the beach has been hastily done; it’s surrounded by tasteless complexes pitching various entertainment services like karaoke and cafes. The facilities around the beach have become a cheap camping spot for high school students.
If you want to avoid the crowd on the east coast, there are other options.
Samcheok, which for years has been a symbol of rural fishing, overlooks a beautiful sea along the Donghae Expressway. The seaside drive leading from Donghae City to Samcheok is truly exquisite. It’s still quiet in June, which makes the scenery even more pleasant.
Interest in Samcheok these days has been fueled by the “Yonsama” crowd, mostly middle-aged Japanese women who have been coming to the town to get a glimpse of the Korean star Bae Yong-joon filming his next movie, “April Snow.”
At Hotel Palace (033-575-7000), where Bae Yong-joon and other cast and crew have been staying since March, Japanese women can be found dozing in the lobby at 3 a.m., hoping to see the actor when he comes back to his hotel room after shooting.
To accommodate Bae’s fans, the hotel staff has prepared a list of useful Korean phrases for Japanese tourists who want to visit the film’s shooting locations in Samcheok. One phrase on the list is “Please take me to Samcheok Medical Center,” which is where most of “April Snow” takes place.
“This is my fifth visit to the city since March,” said Ryu Yoshie, a woman in her 50s from Chiba, who was overwhelmed to briefly see Yonsama’s face in the lobby at 7 a.m. “I love it here. I found out about the place after it was covered in a Japanese women’s magazine. People are so friendly here.”
Another attraction that attracts hundreds of Korean tourists to Samcheok every summer is, quite curiously, its caves. Ever since Samcheok hosted the World Cave Expo in 2002, the city, which has more than 50 caves (including an “ice cave”), has dubbed itself “the world’s cave city.”
It may sound strange to newcomers. But every summer, the caves at Samcheok host a substantial crowd of vacationers from other cities trying to avoid the heat.
Driving down from Samcheok on National Highway No. 7 for about an hour, you arrive at Uljin’s Deokgu Hot Spring, one of the only natural springs in the country where the water is hot enough to use fresh from the ground, without having to heat it up further.
Alongside the alkali hot spring, there is a giant forest with oriental oaks, zelkovas and wild grapevines. There is a lovely walkway through the forest that eventually connects to Hyeongje Waterfalls.
The water at Deokgu is high in minerals, making it extra-slippery. In the spa, there is a large sign that warns the visitors to pay extra attention when they walk, because the floors are more slippery than those at other hot springs.
Just a few kilometers past Pyeonghae City in North Gyeongsang province is another hot spring, Baegam, a sulfur spa, which borders Mount Eungbongsan.
Since Donghae Expressway was widened recently, the east coast has become an even more convenient destination for visitors traveling from Seoul. But again, if you want to enjoy a sea of clear water and not a sea of people,you’d better pack your bag and leave now.
by Park Soo-mee