By Chung Joo-won
JEJU, April 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's first cherry blossom festival of the year kicked off on Jeju Island Friday, with visitors hailing from around the country and overseas gathering to celebrate the origin of the globally cherished flower.
The 25th "Jeju Cherry Blossom Festival" officially launched at Jeonnong-ro, about 3.3 kilometers east of Jeju International Airport, and will run through April 10. The festival is being hosted by the municipality of Jeju and organized by Jeju Tourism Association.
"Spring feast in Jeju, the home of wild cherry blossoms" is the main slogan of the event. The wild cherry refers to two species of "wangbut tree" or "king cherry" that are native to the well-known island and grow wild on Mount Halla. The two wangbut trees were classified as the country's 156th and 159th natural wonders on Jan. 31, 1964.
This year, the main venues for the festival have been divided into three areas so more neighborhoods can take part. Additionally, it will cut back on traffic congestion and littering.
From April 1-3, the feast takes place in Jeonnong-ro, with the light-up ceremony and free evening concerts under the cherry blossoms.
On opening night, families, friends and couples came hand-in-hand under the fully-bloomed wangbut trees. The cherry blossoms glowed in white and light pink, swaying gently in the spring breeze with a galaxy of chorongbul, or Korean traditional lamps wrapped in blue-and-red mulberry paper.
Street musicians and flea market vendors added to the festivities, making jokes at the merry by-passers.
The street bustled with visitors of all walks of life, ethnicity and gender, happily lost in a number of hand-craft activities ranging from assembling portable mirrors with cherry blossoms and carving bamboo bows, to making light emitting diode (LED) lamp with mulberry paper, graciously colored with natural dyes. Another popular show was the magician's bubble show and the traditional dance performance by haenyeo, or the native seawomen of Jeju Island who dive into the sea and collect precious sea shells.
At the hanbok corner, some couples tried on "hollaebok," or traditional wedding gowns, and take a pile of fancy couple selfies for their blogs and social network accounts.
From April 2-3, visitors are invited under the shade of lush cherry blossom trees in Aewol-eup, west of Jeju International Airport. The venue offers a number of family events, including live concerts, a singing competition and children's hula hoop competition. There will also be rousing games of "yutnori," a traditional board game with four wooden stick-type dice, played by many families in Chuseok holiday.
On April 9-10, selfie-lovers and families with children are expected to gather under the cherry blossoms around the front gate of Jeju National University in Ara-dong, southeast of Jeju International Airport.
The Jeju Cherry Blossom Festival is one of the most celebrated festivals of its kind. However, South Korean cherry blossom festivals still have public controversy to overcome. The peninsula has been divided over the historical context of the cherry blossom, which long has been the national flower of Japan.
Amid ongoing political rows between Korea and Japan, some South Korean villages even chopped down the cherry trees in disapproval of the emblem of imperialist Japan and its suicide-attack air force, the kamikazes.
However, government institutions, including Jeju, botanists and local industries have supported the aesthetics and marketing power of the beautiful plant. To them, pouring a feud onto trees, which they stress originated on South Korean soil, is a zero-sum game without gains.
"The wangbut is one of Jeju Island's trademark icons of tourist resources. We hope to elevate the economic value of the tree and entertain the whole nation and international tourists," a spokesperson of Jeju municipality said.
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