The Oncheoncheon (온천천): Returning to Nature?

When I first moved to Korea in 2007, I was happy to find that my apartment was in easy walking distance of a running path. The path stretched through most of North Busan and continued further south, and if you were to run the whole thing (I never did), you’d get a very good workout.

Here’s a shot on Flickr (not mine) showing the Oncheoncheon from a nice high angle:

The path followed two things simultaneously: Line 1 of the Busan subway and the Oncheon-cheon (온천천), which translates roughly as the Hot Springs Stream. The stream takes it name from the famous public baths at Oncheonjang, the largest bathhouse in Asia apparently. Not surprisingly, a stream that flowed under a raised subway line was not a thing of aesthetic beauty. The streambed was pure concrete and the banks of the stream, as well, were strictly gray stretches of identical concrete. As a running path, it did the trick, but as a site for a leisurely stroll, you’d have done better to go elsewhere.

At some point in 2007 or 2008, however, construction began on the Oncheoncheon. The concrete streambed was section by section hammered to pieces; the concrete banks were destroyed; islands of plants were situated mid-stream and alternating stretches of natural rock and green growth replaced the concrete on the river banks. It was a long, slow process which made for a highly noisy jogging environment, with plenty of obstacles to be avoided on the way, but running on a daily basis became largely a study in the slow change of the Oncheoncheon from an urban blemish to an inviting urban oasis in a city sorely in need of such places. Today, especially on the stretch between the Dongrae (동래) subway stop and the Busan U. of Education (교대앞) stop, the Oncheoncheon is a lush place with plenty of ducks and cranes/egrets (I’m not sure which) to provide a real feeling of nature.

Building nature

However, I decided to write this particular piece when I saw the new construction in the Beomeosa (범어사) area of Busan, near the end of the subway line and below the famous temple of the same name. Here too, the Oncheoncheon had been for a number of years an ugly, gray stretch of concrete. Now, it is similar in that it still is quite uniform, but it’s uniform in a much more aesthetically-pleasing, natural array of rocks. (see below).

The Oncheoncheon's rocky new bed.

Smooth, uniform: much the same as before, and yet undeniably more appealing (unfortunately I don’t have a “before” shot). Just north of here, the apartments give way to forest, and below you see the last well-manicured steps of the new Oncheoncheon.

Where man meets nature.

Finally, you can see the Oncheoncheon in its natural form, untouched by man, and winding its way up into Geumjeong Mountain (금정산).

The natural Oncheoncheon heading up into the mountain.

The Oncheoncheon exemplifies alot of the efforts towards “greening” Korea. They are almost always a compromise between nature and man, a restoration of nature, but a nature trimmed of its odd angles, unpredictability and sheer wildness. There is no large point here; the Oncheoncheon is a much nicer place to run, walk, play basketball, etc now than it was 5 years ago. What I find interesting is the arc of development. It wasn’t long ago that Busan north of Dongrae was forest strewn with large boulders. Only in the wake of WWII was Busan National University placed on the side of Geumjeongsan, and so it is that only in the last 65 years has the Oncheoncheon gone from being purely nature to wholly urban & man-made, and now it has looped back to find itself somewhere between where it started and where it went. I’m curious to see where it could go next.

One response to “The Oncheoncheon (온천천): Returning to Nature?

  1. Pingback: Cherry Blossom Season & a Rainy Election Day | Matt Kilbride

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