BUSAN, South Korea — If you’re as tired of this frigid winter as I am, and you were unable to join the
bastards snowbirds in Bangkok, Bali or Boracay for a little reprieve, you’re probably really looking forward to spring.
Spring is a brilliant time of year in Korea. In Busan, spring arrives right on time – we often enjoy our first jacketless days in March – but it usually checks out early, as the hot summer weather may encroach well into June, or even May. Though spring often gets the squeeze here on the southern end of the peninsula, it is distinct enough from both winter and summer to merit its rightful place as one of Korea’s fabled four seasons.
In spring, Busan transforms. The local population sheds the surgical masks they wear in winter to prevent the spread of cold and flu…and then immediately don them again to protect against pollen and the dreaded yellow dust from China; young women lose their leg-warmers and go right on wearing miniskirts as they did all winter, bless their hearts; mountain trails swell with colorfully-attired walkers, hikers, hawkers and bikers. If you’re like me, you find yourself in a more generous, affable mood. Your walking pace slows. You swear less. You sit and sip coffee outdoors and watch the big city loudly clear its throat and groan and lurch to irrepressible life.
The February-March calendar is marked with variety of holidays and festivals to warm your winter bones. Seollal, otherwise known as Lunar New Year, fell on February 2-4 (Wednesday – Friday) this year, which made it a “perfect Seollal” because it gave everyone a five-day weekend. (Conversely, a Seollal that falls on a Friday-Saturday-Sunday is known locally as “a horrible, horrible tragedy”.)
On Seollal, children bow to their elders and receive tidy little wads of cash, which is the number one reason why Seollal handily trounces Christmas and Chuseok in the informal “What’s your favorite holiday?” polls in English classrooms around the country. Families get together and enjoy traditional foods like rice cakes and ddeok guk (soup made from thinly-sliced rice cakes). Many folks play games like yutnori, where players cast four split wooden dowels to determine the advance of tokens around a board; Neoltigi, which is a kind of jumping seesaw that was once popular among women, but has tragically been rendered obsolete by the miniskirt; and Super Mario Brothers, in which players attempt to navigate a crude, but likable Italian caricature through a maze of magic mushrooms, murderous tortoises and coin-dispensing bricks in order to rescue a severely pixilated princess.
In early March, it seems as if every city of any size in Korea has some sort of flower-related festival, from the canola blossom festivals of Cheju, to the cornus fruit blossom festival of Icheon, to the too-famous-for-its-own-good Naval Port Festival of nearby Jinhae, which features what may well be the largest concentration of cherry blossoms in the known universe.
Many of Busan’s neighborhoods and mountains have also been abundantly planted with cherry blossoms. One of my favorite places to enjoy them is at the Samick Beach Apartments at the end of Gwangan-li Beach, where for one short week of the year, the narrow residential streets are vaulted by an unbroken canopy of pale pink blossoms. Many university campuses in Busan are also ablaze with cherry blossoms in late March, and likewise offer a relatively peaceful place to admire their fleeting glory. Leave Jinhae to the multitudes; lace up your walking shoes and stroll unmolested through one of Busan’s many unsung local marvels.
Korea has some other unique springtime experiences in store for the more intrepid. Seoul has a full marathon tentatively scheduled for March 20th. Last year’s event was described on the official Korea Tourism website as a “unique opportunity of running a full-course marathon through the streets of Seoul in safe conditions”, and it attracted over 30,000 participants, who were drawn by both the challenge of a marathon, as well as the surreal spectacle of several hours of “safe conditions” on the streets of Seoul.
March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, and while it is not a Korean holiday, it is an increasingly popular fixture on the Korean social calendar for expatriates of many nations, and Koreans who are looking for some good craic. The Irish Association of Korea has been hosting a St. Patrick’s Day festival in Seoul for ten years and counting. Past IAK festivals have included a parade, concerts, cultural performances, contests, games, and, um, I’m forgetting something – what was it? – ah yes: drinking frightful quantities of whiskey, beer and Bailey’s. Several of Busan’s pubs and bars will be getting their green on as well with drink specials, musical performances, and assorted shenanigans. Check the Haps St. Paddy's Day Guide for current information as the date approaches.
Lastly, as a baseball fan, one of the first words that pops into my head when I hear the word “spring” is “training”. In March, the Lotte Giants will be shaking off the rust to prepare for another season beginning in early April. Win or lose, it’s hard to beat the atmosphere at Sajik Stadium when the Giants are in town. The crack of the bat, the shwack of beer cans opening, and 20,000 voices belting out the moving, minor-key strains of Busan Galmaegi; these are the sounds of spring in Busan.
Cherry Blossum Forecast by Region
|Jeju's Seogwipo||3. 24|
|Yunjung-ro in Seoul’s Yeoui-do||4.8|