My favorite part of Korean spring is the blooming of the cherry blossoms. I adore the gorgeous pink and white blooms that fill the cities and countryside for such a brief time. While the cherry blossoms are a delicate beauty, they are also a very ephemeral beauty. Cherry blossom season only lasts about seven to ten days, so it’s nearly impossible to see all the places where cherry blossoms bloom in one spring season.
Last year, I confined most of my cherry blossom hunting to around Seoul, but this year I pushed farther afield. I decided to make a trek down to Hwagae. I went the week after their official cherry blossom festival, hoping to avoid the hordes of crowds I read about. Of course the danger of going the week after the festival, is that I missed peak blossoms, but there were still enough to enjoy plenty of color. I also took the advantage to combine a few sightseeing places into one trip. I was able to see the Hwagae cherry blossoms, the Ssanggyesa Temple and Buril Falls in Jirisan National Park in one long day trip.
Hwagae is fairly easy to reach by bus from the Seoul Nambu Bus Terminal. There are numerous buses per day, and it takes about three and a half hours (traffic depending) to reach Hwagae. I wished I had taken the first bus out of Seoul, which would have given me an extra hour and a half in Hwagae, but I was able to see everything I wanted to see (albeit not at the most relaxed pace).
Hwagae is a tremendous opportunity to see a bulk of the cherry blossoms. There is an approximately four kilometer stretch of road from the town of Hwagae to Ssanggyesa Temple, and most of the road is lined with gorgeous cherry blossom trees on both sides. It is a very easy walk on flat road by a river (just pay attention to the traffic, though it was often so backed up that I was moving faster than some of the cars), and it is a great opportunity to get your cherry blossom fix. The opportunity for beautiful nature viewing and nature photography are abundant.
The end of this road is Ssanggyesa Temple (follow the signs), which is a small Buddhist temple complex originating in the year 723, but was rebuilt in 1632. I didn’t spend an extraordinary time at the temple, because I was pressed for time, but it was pretty nonetheless.
The last sightseeing part of my day was Buril Falls, which is on the edge of Jirisan National Park. The hike from Ssanggyesa Temple to Buril Falls is only about 2.4 kilometers. The hike is considered an “easy” hike, and I suppose it is by Korean standards. Most of the hike to the falls is uphill, sometimes over the uneven terrain I am so used to, but the most strenuous part of the journey is the first 500 meters from Ssanggyesa Temple and the 100 meters up very steep stairs on the return trip from Buril Falls (your knees will probably feel both the uphill and the downhill of that climb). Then the uphill levels out a bit and becomes easier and it took an hour and twenty minutes to reach the falls, and an hour to return, less if you are a faster walker. The trail ends at Buril Falls, which is considered one of the 10 scenic beauties of Jirisan National Park.
Retracing my steps was fairly quick, and soon enough, I was back to the temple and cherry blossom road to hike back to Hwagae. It was only a one hour walk back to town, and the sun was approaching sunset, giving the cherry blossom trees a beautiful, soft, pink glow.
I was hoping to take the direct bus back to Seoul, but that wasn’t happening. There were large groups of people waiting at the bus stop and all the buses back to Seoul were sold out for the night. But all was not lost. I caught a local bus to the town of Gurye (about 20 kilometers away) and then took a taxi to the Gurye-gu KTX station to catch a train back to Seoul. Of course all seats on the train were sold out, as it often happens on the Sunday evening trains back to Seoul. Thankfully for me, you don’t need a reserved seat to ride the train. You just need to be willing to stand for the few hours to get back into Seoul.
I highly recommend Hwagae as a lovely day trip from Seoul. Even though the crowds will be thick that time of year, it is definitely worth your while to go during cherry blossom season. There are few places you can see so many cherry blossoms in one area, and there are so many other sites to visit at the same time.