WHEN it comes to viewing cherry blossoms, Japan is the destination that comes to mind for most people.
However, when I saw pictures of South Korea’s largest cherry blossom festival, Jinhae Gunhangje Festival, I knew I had to go there for my first encounter with the famed pale pink flower that blooms in full force only for a short period of time each year.
The port city of Jinhae sits on a mountainous stretch of the country’s southern coastline and sees few visitors other than during the two-week period when the festival is held and the cherry blossom trees are laden with flowers.
Each spring, an estimated 340,000 trees cover the city in a beautiful pink blanket. The city’s reputation of being Cherry Blossom Central within the country is well reflected in its emblem — a single cherry blossom flower.
After a short bus ride from Busan, my friend and I made our way towards the city centre and were greeted with cherry blossom trees in full bloom lining the streets.
“What a pretty sight this is,” I thought to myself as I paused every few steps to snap photos of the delicate flowers.
We were not prepared for the sight that greeted us as we turned the corner — a pink canopy over every surface — from the streets to the surrounding mountains.
In the middle, where the main festival was taking place, red and white tents were packed with vendors selling a great variety of food — from seafood pancakes to silkworm snacks — and performers crooning the latest tunes to the crowds walking by.
Following the crowds, we made our way to Gyeonghwa Station. Service to this small railway station has been discontinued since 2006, but it still continues to draw people because of the picturesque view here during the cherry blossom season.
Rows of trees line the railway for 800m and lean towards tracks, forming an arch. When a train passes by, the gust of wind gently shakes the trees, causing petals to flutter down onto the tracks.
As the station is a distance away from the hub of festival activity, we settled down at a small street stall to enjoy some food and admire the scenery.
Our next stop was Yeojwacheon, a location that has been made popular by Korean drama Romance and is also now known as Romance Bridge.
It certainly lives up to its name. The small flowing stream is flanked on either side by cherry blossom trees and yellow canola flowers. Crowned by a series of wooden bridges, it forms a dreamy scene.
Even my friend, who had hardly taken any photos till then, whipped out her phone and started snapping away. As the sun set, the lights hanging over the stream cast a warm glow onto the cherry blossom trees, painting a very different, yet no less beautiful picture, that had us clicking our cameras yet again.
Not having had our fill of cherry blossoms yet, Gyeongju was the other location on our itinerary. We had overheard a tourist declare while on the bus: “Every year, I make it a point to go to Gyeongju to see the cherry blossoms at Bulguksa Temple. It’s a lovely sight and there aren’t crowds to contend with.”
She was right. The park outside Bulguksa was filled with trees bearing cherry blossom flowers, more concentrated than in the rest of the city, with far fewer people jostling for space as compared to Jinhae.
Many locals had packed picnic bags and were enjoying their rice and kimchi in the shade of the flowering trees.
Gyeongju, commonly known as a “museum without walls”, was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla, which lasted for nearly 1,000 years. The Bulguksa Temple was initially built in AD528 for King Beop-Heung’s queen to pray for the welfare of the kingdom.
The temple is one of the most important temples in Korea and among the few remaining examples of Silla architecture. It is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art.
Over the years, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times but the foundations and the historical pagodas, Seokgatap and Dabotap, are original.
Wandering through the temple grounds and taking the 33 steps that symbolise the 33 steps to Buddhist enlightenment to the main shrine, I couldn’t help but marvel at the intricate and masterful handiwork as well as the craftsmen’s attention to detail.
Not to be missed either is the Seokguram Grotto. Built at the same time as Bulguksa, the temple made from granite contains a round main hall that houses a huge statue of the Buddha looking at the sea, surrounded by portrayals of gods, Bodhisattvas and disciples. The many historical sites, including the old tombs of Silla royalty and palace ruins, as well as Buddhist artefacts and ancient relics, make touring the city a lesson on Korean history. However, to delve deeper into the history of the Silla Dynasty, a visit to the Gyeongju National Museum is a must.
Many of the original artefacts have been removed from the original locations where they were discovered and rehoused here, with 3,000 of the 10,000 artefacts the museum possesses on display.
Get a glimpse of everything — from everyday household items to Buddhist sculptures and glittering crowns — to gain an understanding of how people lived in that period. Though we were originally on a quest for cherry blossoms, we left with a whole new appreciation for Korea’s history.
I flew on Vietnam Airlines to Incheon Airport, transferred to Gimpo Airport and took a domestic flight on Busan Air to Gimhae Airport in Busan.
- Be prepared to queue for buses to and from Jinhae in Busan during the Jinhae Gunhangje Festival. The line is long but buses move quickly to accommodate the expected crowds.
- The local speciality of Gyeongju is Hwangnam bread, which is a round pastry filled with red beans. Though you can find many stores selling it, locals will point you to the original store, also called Hwangnam Bread, where you can get it fresh out of the oven. As no preservatives are used, it must be consumed within three days.
- As most of the sites in Gyeongju — other than Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple — are relatively near one another, you can rent a bicycle to make your way around.
Source: SG Travellers © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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