Sunday, April 3, 2016

Holy Hai Festival in Busan

Holi Hai Festival in Pusan is a big attraction to the young foreign crowd in Korea, and Seoul Hiking Group, Adventure Korea, WINK Travels, Goh Travel Korea, CIK (Climbing in Korea), and I am sure there are others, cashed in on the demand for entertainment and scheduled multiple overnight buses leaving Friday night from Seoul to arrive in Pusan in the early a.m. for a weekend of fun. The colorful Holi Hai Indian celebration wasn't to be held until Sunday, so the various foreigner-only travel groups planned attractive itineraries to lure in the foreigners and entertain them.

The group I've started participating in is Seoul Hiking Group. Compared with the others, Seoul Hiking gets more involved in the natural landscape of Korea. While there is of course the focus to entertain, the organizer Warren is passionate about hiking and drinking magkeolli but he emphasizes that hiking is the purpose for the fun so not to drink too much. A very homey, down-to-earth approach which I like, and a quick way to get to far away places without trying to catch a series of public transportation which take forever, esp when going to distant secluded areas.

I wasn't particularly keen to go to the Holi Hai event but was lured in by the posted schedule of waking up on Saturday morning for an early sunrise experience at Yonggungsa Temple, the only temple in Korea that's built at the edge of the sea. The temple name translated means "Dragon Palace Temple" and the temple is said to embody the harmony between the sea in its foreground, the black dragon that ordered the temple built, and the Great Goddess Buddha, the protecting temple deity. I'd never been there but heard it was beautiful, especially at sunrise, so I joined the go-to-Holi-Hai event. Hmmm, we did get to Yonggungsa but not at sunrise. I got some pictures but not the mystical pictures I was hoping for with an early sunrise experience. Bit disappointed, but the Holi Hai festivities were pretty good fun and a new cultural experience so it was a good weekend.

The Meaning of Holi Hai

Holi has become perhaps India's biggest festival and probably its least religious. Holi is a Hindu annual festival that is based on Hindu mythology and used to be an agricultural festival. However, now it is just a celebration of spring and its coming colors and return of vibrancy. During the typically two day festival (used to be five) social norms between the castes, classes and genders are relaxed and everyone indulges themselves in merrymaking and the throwing of water and colored powders, hence the festival name "festival of colors". In the relaxed atmosphere which is typically controlled by rigid rules of decorum, language becomes ribald and behavior even wild and licentious, but what is commonly heard during Holi is "Bura na mano. Holi hai" (Don't feel offended. It's Holi."

I don't really know why Korea has started embracing the Holi Hai festivities, but there are a lot of middle-easterners and maybe their community at one time had a big festival for themselves and others watched and wanted to participate. Anyway, Holi Hai has been celebrated since 2010 in Korea. Last year (2015), 1,500 people participated in the event!

Pusan Sight-seeing Options

Our bus arrived in Busan around 5 a.m. Saturday morning, and after our 10 a.m. stop at Yonggungsa Temple and check-in at our pension, we were free to join the beautiful coastal walk at Igidae or do our own thing elsewhere in Busan.

Warren, the tour leader, gave us a lot of options and tentative time schedule for planning our away-from-the-group activities. Warren's travel tip: "The easiest way to get somewhere is to walk and get exercise and see more!" Haha, that's Warren!
After hike, Sunset Mountain Skyroad Driving for night scenery which was chosen as one of the best night sceneries in the world (1hour), and Vivid Night Fish Market (1hour) 
B. JANGSAN MOUNTAIN: 장산, best view of Haeundae (2 hrs) 
You don't have to go all the way to the tower or pay money to take the elevator up! The mountain is right behind the subway station and is similar to the mountains in Seoul, commanding great views of the city, especially the whole area of Haeundae. And if you don't want to hike all the way up, just walk for 30 minutes up through the village and pass a temple. The mountain paths are scenic in their own right! 
C. HAEUNDAE TRADITIONAL MARKET: taste local food! (1~2 hrs) 
The Haeundae area is famous for the market alleys. You can find several 소머리국밥 "someori gugbap" (beef stew with rice) places. You can pretty much walk into any crowded restaurant and everyone will be eating this same style of stew! On the restaurant walls there is usually a bunch of autographed photos of celebrities who have visited. There are of course other choices, but this is the only stew with rice in it or rice on the side. Or, if you're feeling more adventurous and want something more unusual, try 선지 해장국 "seonji haejangguk," a stew made with beef blood jelly. Sounds gross but is actually really good! 
D. CENTUM CITY & BUSAN FILM FESTIVAL (2~4 hrs; subway from Haeundae 15 min) 
Busan has the monstrously huge Centum City Department store, which won the Guinness Book of World Record for biggest department store in the world in 2009! You can see the award monument in front of Shinsaegae. It has one of the biggest saunas in Korea, Spa Land (스파 랜드), and if you're a fan of saunas, this is a must-do! Very near Centum City (a block on foot) is the facility where the well known Busan Film Festival is held; it  has great architecture. Film exhibitions and some performances will be at Centum, for those interested. 
E. JALGALCHI FISH MARKET & TAEJONGDAE - 자갈치 & 태종대: (4~6 hrs; subway from Haeundae, 1hr) 
Jagalchi fish market is a great place to feel the vivid energy of coastal life. A person can explore not only the market but the nearby 광복동 "Gwangbokdong" fashion street, and 남포동 "Nampodong" which is kind of the old downtown Busan. For enjoying a view, just walk up towards 용두산 "Yongdusan" Park to also see a statue of admiral Lee Sun Shin . As the lord high admiral of the Korean fleet in the Choseon Dynasty, Lee Sun Shin led the fight against the Japanese during their invasion of Korea in 1592. Busan was hit the hardest by the Japanese invasion and occupation being the closet port to Japan.

From Jagalchi, take the city bus to 태종대 "Taejongdae" Marine Park (about 40 min) to enjoy a pebble beach, and eat live octopus. Adventure on hiking paths, stroll to a lighthouse.

F. BEOMEOSA TEMPLE & GEUMJEONGSAN FORTRESS - 범어사 & 금정산: (4~5 hrs; 1 hr by subway) 
Hiking starts from Beomeosa station where there is a trail to the temple. At the top, hike a loop which will take about 3 hours (very light hiking) to explore the mountain area around the fortress. 
Geumjeongsan is kind of like the "Bukhansan" of Seoul -- very popular, many trails, and any of the trails take you back to some part of the city, so even if you get lost, you can explore and end up finding more interesting places. Walk along the ridges of Geumjeongsan for 1~2 hours. There is also a trail which leads you to 금강공원 "Geumgang gongwon" (park) and a cable car to the top. The bottom of the park where the cable car starts is the 온천동 "Oncheondong" (spa town), well-known for 동래온천 "Dongrae oncheon". All the roads are lined with spa motels, including one of the oldest and biggest in Busan. The closest subway station to this area is Dongrae (동래) station. 
G. OBSERVATORY & EULSUKDO ISLAND - 을숙도: Eulsukdo Island (2 hrs; 1 hr 10 min travel time) 
Where the end of Nakdong river merges into the ocean is an excellent spot for bird watching. Here, many birds rest during their long migration, and can be seen in the observatory. There is also the new Nakdong estuary eco center 낙동하구체험센터 for feeling, seeing and tasting some of local culture. The closest subway station is Sinpyeong station (신평역). 
H. GAMCHEON CULTURE VILLAGE - 감천문화마을: (2 hrs; subway ride 1 hr) 
This untouched (for 30-40 years) town is located within a steep hill and is far from downtown. It is similar to 개미마을 village in Seoul. Winding roads in a valley crevice full of colorfully painted houses and murals. A super interesting contrast of old and new. The whole village has a view of the ocean, so all the houses are densely crammed into a small space! Start explorations here from Jagalchi station (자갈치역) or Toseong (토성) station.

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