Cherry Blossoms Festival in Jinhae, Korea

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Cherry Blossoms Festival in Jinhae

Every spring, millions of people visit this quiet port town on the southern coast of Korea for the Gunhangje Festival (April 1 to 10, 2014), when the town is awash in falling cherry petals and strolling couples. Be sure to bring your camera, because it just doesn’t get any more picturesque than this. This cherry blossoms festival is also a rare opportunity to visit the Republic of Korea Naval Academy, which opens to the general public during the festival.

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Cherry blossoms everywhere

Located about 40km from Busan, Jinhae sits on a fine natural harbor that is further protected by a screen of outlying islands, making it the perfect naval base. This was quickly appreciated by the Japanese, who developed the harbor into a naval station soon after occupying Korea in 1910. Evidence of the Japanese occupation is still easily seen in the town’s many exotic-looking buildings, especially around Jungwon Rotary in the historic downtown. The most notable of these is the handsome post office, built by the Japanese in Russian style in 1912.
The best-known imperial legacy, however, are the cherry blossoms, which the Japanese planted in great numbers to beautify the town. After Korea’s liberation from colonial rule in 1945, some of the cherry trees were uprooted as many considered them a painful reminder of brutal colonial rule, but in the 1960s, Jinhae began efforts to preserve the trees and plant more, especially after Korean botanists determined that the town’s trees were native to Jeju Island, not Japan.
Some parts of town are especially famous for the beauty of their blossoms, but be warned—during the Gunhangje Festival, they can get quite crowded. The most famous site is the Yeojwacheon Stream, a lovely waterway lined by spectacular cherry blossoms. The single-most photographed sight here is the Romance Bridge, which instantly became famous after appearing in a popular Korean drama. It’s beautiful both in the day and at night, when it’s lit up for the benefit of evening strollers.

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Another popular spot to see—and photograph—the blossoms is an 800m stretch of railway near Gyeonghwa Station. Here, trains pass under a virtual tunnel of cherry blossoms, and the wind the trains generate causes a picturesque “rain shower” of pink petals. It’s an image used in many films, TV shows and advertisements, and a sight you won’t easily forget.
Downtown has some great cherry blossom walks, too. The historic alleyways around Jungwon Rotary are lined by cherry blossoms. For a bird’s eye view, climb the 365 steps of Mt. Jaehwasan, a steep hill overlooking both downtown and the port. If you don’t want to walk it, you can take a monorail that goes to the top. Another wonderful spot is Jinhae Environment Eco-Park, which is also great in autumn.

A proud naval tradition

While the Gunhangje Festival is most famous for its flowers, it is more properly a celebration of the Korean Navy—the name translates as “Military Port Festival,” and in fact began as a memorial ceremony to 16th century naval hero Admiral Yi Sun-sin in 1952. When Koreans bid Imperial Japan good riddance in 1945, Jinhae became an important naval base for the fledgling Korean navy. It was here that both the Korean navy and the Korean marine corps were born. The Korean navy is now one of the most powerful in Asia, and Jinhae continues to be an important station, home to a major naval shipyard, the headquarters of the Naval Logistics Command and, most famously, the Republic of Korea Naval Academy.
During the festival, the Republic of Korea Naval Academy is open to the general public. Before visiting the academy, most visitors stop at the Bugwon Rotary, where you’ll find Korea’s oldest statue of Yi Sun-sin, erected in 1952. From the rotary, follow the cherry blossom-lined street to the academy.

The Republic of Korea Naval Academy has plenty to see. The museum has hundreds of artifacts dedicated to Admiral Yi, the founding of the Korean Navy and the history of the academy. Just next to the museum is a replica of the geobukseon (“turtle ship”), the ingenious warship used to great effect by Admiral Yi to defeat the Japanese in the Imjin War of 1592–1598. Naval buffs will want to see the mast of the ROKS Baekdusan (formerly the USS PC-823), an American sub chaser transferred to the Korean navy in 1949. Depending on the situation, you might be able to board some of the Korean navy’s current warships as well—during a previous festival the massive amphibious assault ship ROKS Dokdo was open to the public. This is a military facility, so be sure to ask before taking any photos.
If you can put together a group of 20 or more and pay for your own bus, there are tours to other navy-related sites as well. Go to http://naval.changwon.go.kr (Korean) to apply. Foreigners should apply at least 10 days in advance; Koreans should apply three days in advance.

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