I hail from Hawaii, a place where winter means lows of 18 degrees Celsius (65 °F), so I’m immediately suspicious of anything that involves being outside during the frigid Korean winter. Enter the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival—a smorgasbord of ice fishing, sledding, snow sculpting, ice sliding, zip-lining, and anything else one can possibly do for fun on a frozen river—to make me realize what was lacking from my unfrozen, tropical childhood.
Step into the winter wonderland of the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival for an experience as idiosyncratic as its slogan, “Unfrozen Hearts, Unforgettable Memories.”
Hwacheon County claims to have Korea’s fastest freezing ice, which, depending on your source, can either be attributed to Eolgomi the Ice Bear (mascot of the Ice Festival) fanning the ice or the fact that it gets pretty darn cold when you’re up north a mere nine kilometers from the DMZ. Every January the river running through town freezes, Sancheoneo mountain trout are plopped in, and Hwacheon becomes host to one of the world’s four largest winter festivals.
More than a million visitors will pass through this rural town (civilian population 24,000, military population 35,000) during the three-week run of the annual festival.
The signature event is catching Sancheoneo mountain trout with your bare hands. Don’t be fooled by the festival posters and brochures sporting pictures of tourists gleefully embracing docile, live fish in their hands. You will pay 10,000 won to get dressed in a bright orange uniform, paraded out with the other naïve fishermen, step into a pool of freezing water, and be expected to capture terrified fish, as a large and eager crowd gathers to delight in your predicament. You will cry from the sheer pain. You will curse the fish for swimming so fast. You will be bewildered and disgusted if a slimy creature somehow finds its way into your frozen grasp and realize you were never given a bag to put it in. You will love it.
Victory will have never tasted so sweet. For a nominal fee of 1,000–2,000 won per fish, you can barbeque, bake, or turn your prize into sashimi and consume it on the spot.
If hypothermia’s not your thing, there’s always ice fishing through pre-cut holes in the ice. After purchasing an ice fishing ticket (8,000 won), international visitors can head over to the morbidly-named “Resting Place for Foreigners” tent to borrow free fishing poles and lures. There is also a special section of the river designated for foreigners which is much less crowded and where the fish-to-fishermen ratio is theoretically in your favor.
Even after spending two days at the festival on opening weekend, there was still much left to see and do. The river itself hosts ice skating, snow sledding, ice sledding, bobsledding, ice soccer, and cross country skiing. The Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival may present the only opportunity you’ll ever have to drive an ATV on the ice or play mini golf in the snow.
Along the river and around town, there are also giant ice and snow sculptures (5,000 won), a snow maze, and an atelier to create your own hanji Sancheoneo fish lantern.
As the largest winter festival in Korea, the event provides a significant annual boost to the local economy in this largely agricultural area. Although last year’s festival was postponed and then cancelled due to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among livestock, the event is back this year in full force.
As the temperatures drop, fight the urge to hibernate. Head up north to Gangwon-do and step into the winter wonderland of the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival for an experience as idiosyncratic as its slogan, “Unfrozen Hearts, Unforgettable Memories.”
If you go
When: The Hwacheon Sancheoneo Festival runs daily through Sunday, January 29, 2012.
Getting there: All visitors arriving by public transportation will need to first find their way to Chuncheon, then take a 50 minute bus from the Chuncheon Intercity Bus Terminal to Hwacheon (4,300 won, leaves twice an hour, first bus at 6:30 a.m., last bus at 9:20 p.m.)
From Seoul, Hwacheon is two and a half hours away. Subway trains run at 10-20 minute intervals from Sangbong Station (line 7) in Seoul to Namchuncheon Station. The ride is about 1 hour and 20 minutes and costs 2,600 won on your T-Money card. It is a 5 minute walk from Namchuncheon Station to the Chuncheon Intercity Bus Terminal, where buses to Hwacheon leave twice an hour.
Intercity buses from most major cities in Korea run to and from the Chuncheon Intercity Bus Terminal. Additionally, express buses from Daegu and Gwangju arrive and depart from the Chuncheon Express Bus Terminal, which is a block away from the Chuncheon Intercity Bus Terminal.
Where to stay: Motels, home rentals, and pensions are listed on the Hwacheon county website. Additionally, there are many motels near Namchuncheon Station if local lodging cannot be arranged.
Tips: Admission fees for many events come with complimentary Hwacheon Love Gift Certificates which can be used like cash at the festival and at restaurants, gas stations, and businesses around town. For example, the 10,000 won International Visitor ticket for ice fishing comes with a 10,000 won gift certificate to spend on food or merchandise around the festival.
Catching Sancheoneo with your bare hands is offered three times a day on weekends and twice a day on weekdays. Register early to secure a spot.
You will find yourself standing and walking on ice all day. Wear sturdy shoes.
Visit the festival website for more information.