Busan is the second largest city in South Korea after Seoul, and we started our journey there from Gimpo airport in Seoul. The flight took us only 1 hour and cost 38 eur per person, including the luggage.
Busan, which used to be called Pusan, was inhabited already in the 2nd century, and in the 15th century it was a major trading port with Japan. In the 19th century it became the first international port of Korea. Nowadays it is the 9th busiest port in the world! The surrounding Southeast Economic Zone ir the largest industrial area in South Korea, with developed manufacturing, IT and financial services industries. During the Korean war Busan was the temporary capital of the South, as it was not occupied by the forces from the North, and the people running away from the war could find refuge here. It is only 50 km from Japanese island (six times as far til Seoul!) and it has a very mild climate – the coldest record is -14Cm the hottest +37C (in 2016). Usually it only snows about five days per year, but from what I am hearing, the traffic comes to a complete stop then!
Busan is a large city with 3.5 million inhabitants. Turns out, the largest department store in the world, Shinsegae Centum City, is here, and it has over 300 thousand square meters of store space! Also the headquarters of Renault Samsung Motors is here. No surprise that there is a car on display at the airport!
We spent two nights and three days in Busan which is enough for a basic overview of the city. It was the beginning of the August, to it was really very hot and humid! First thing we saw when we excited the airport was the light rail transit that connects airport to the other metro lines. The ticket costs around 1 euro. Transportation in Korea is not expensive and metro definitely is the easiest way to move around! It’s easy to understand where you need to go, as every station has automated ticket machines. What is different from Seoul is that the machines only accept small denomination bills, so all the stations have bill exchange machines where you can get smaller notes.
Our hotel, Ibis Ambassador, is not far from the metro, so we walk there. Once we exit the station, we see a an unusual depiction of the world map. Well, unusual for us, as Korea is in the middle of the world!
We walk nearby the market area, so a lot of vendors are on the streets as well, selling fruit, dried roots and there are a lot of small clothing racks, the prices are very low! Us, both at 6 ft, are too tall for the local stores, so we don’t buy anything. With all the vendors around, the streets seem a bit narrow for the large suitcases, but we manage! I catch myself thinking that it feels like a small town, if compared to Seoul. If I felt like I could live in Seoul, I am not sure sure of Busan. Perhaps, it is the proximity of the market to the hotel, but the streets seem dirtier and the feeling is not as futuristic as in Seoul. But I remind myself that with metropolitan area, Busan has over eight million inhabitants, which is more that all of the Baltics together.
Our hotel occupies only few floors in the building, in Busan same as in Seoul, it is customary for the reception to be on one of the higher floors, next to the hotel restaurant, and then rooms on other floors. The rest of the building is apartments and offices.
The Bay 101, Haeundae
We rest in the hotel, eat and then take 2nd metro line to Dongbaek station, where we head to the sea. Riding the metro takes significantly longer than we expected, so we get there with the last rays of sun. The stops are relatively far from each other and distances in general are not too close to each other, so this really is a very large city. We walk by the skyscrapers and I remember how a Korean colleague told me that they prefer to live in apartment buildings and not private houses, as it’s more convenient this way. Again, many of the floors are occupied by apartments and offices and some are hotel floors here as well. One of the buildings in the area is Trump tower.
When we reach the sea, we see a boy fishing and the brightly lit Gwangan bridge. The 7.4 km long bridge is the longest two story bridge over the ocean in Korea, supposedly a really beautiful view can be seen from the top. We just see the bridge itself and it looks stunning in the evening. There are no rails by the sea in this section, but a wide white wall that reminds me of the Greek Santorini. Actually, the one place that is often called Santorini Machu Picchu or Cinque Terre of Korea, the Gamcheon Culture Village, is something we will visit on the next day.
Right next to the promenade (but still quite a walking distance) is Haeundae beach, one of the most famous beaches in Korea. It is bustling with life even in the late evening, cafes, restaurants open, there is an aquarium and many large chain hotels. This is the location for beach resort vacation. Busan is sometimes called the summer capital of Korea, as there are six beaches in the city to attract visitors from all over the country. It is a popular honeymoon and romantic getaway destination and we frequently see couples holding hands and wearing similar or even the same clothing!
Some of the street performers are European, and they have a sign inviting donations for them to be able to continue travelling the world. Their performance isn’t too great and this leaves us disappointed, as we have just read about these kinds of tourists who sell bad quality photographs, play instruments or just beg for money on the streets in Asia. As an acquaintance of mine from Asia once said – “I have to submit my bank account statements, return ticket, all hotel bookings to apply for a visa, which I may even not get after all this, and these people simply arrive and beg for money, often from people who are way less fortunate and in cultures where it is not culturally acceptable”.
Most of the people we see on the streets are Korean, but we hear Russian from time to time. Later we learn that the former Chinatown of Busan can be almost called Russiantown now, as around 1990-2000 it has seen a rise in Russian speaking population. Although some say officially there are only 200 Russians living in town, with few more hundred sailors and those on working visas or visiting, there seems to be more. Turns out, there used to be a large settlement of Koreans in Vladivostok that were forcibly moved to Central Asia during Stalin’s rule, and with Soviet Union collapsing, they moved back to Korea, so their heritage is Korean but they also speak Russian.
We return to Haeundae on the next day as well, again towards the evening, but at least we see the beach. There are some people lounging in the shallow waters near the stones, but as soon as someone tries to go deeper, the lifeguard’s whistle. We are not quite sure what is the reason for that, is this because of the late hour or waves?
Right next to the beach is the Dongbaekseom island. Now it is a peninsula, as the sediment has connected it to the mainland, but it is still referred to as the island. Dongbaek park is a nice place for evening strolls, just beware of the mosquitoes! The pathways on the island lead you up to the peak, which also happens to be tsunami evacuation area. It is very quiet at the top, and not much to see, but at least we replenish our water supply at the fountain. The little lighthouse at the foot of the mountain attracts children and adults, and on the opposite side you can see a sculpture of a mermaid, dedicated to the legend of the Princess Hwagok, who looks in the distance, missing her homeland. In the distance you can see a green hill behind the skyscrapers. The taxi driver tells us it is magnificent in spring, as it is covered in cherry blossoms. I’ve heard people saying that Korea is no less impressive in sakura season than Japan!
We start the next morning by going to Beomeosa temple. It takes a while to get there, first metro (line 1, exit 5 on Beomeosa station), then a little climb up the hill (turn right after exiting the metro) and after three minutes we reach a bus stop where we take bus Nr 90. If in metro it is all easy, as the stop name is always displayed in English too, here we are not so sure where we have to get out. After riding for ten minutes we exit at the stop where everybody else gets off, and it is the correct place!
We walk for about 10 minutes through a forest, passing some children on inflatable mattresses in the mountain stream (I had never seen a scene like that!). Beomeosa temple is considered to be one of the most beautiful and well known Buddhist temples in the country. It was established 1300 years ago, but a major part was destroyed during the war. It was renovated in 17th century to the present glory. The meaning of Beomeosa is “heavenly fish temple” and the origins of the name are described in Korean tourism information as follows: “There is a well on the top of Mt. Geumjeongsan and the water of that well is gold. The golden fish in the well rode the colorful clouds and came down from the sky. This is why the mountain is named Geumsaem (gold well) and the temple is named ‘fish from heaven’.”
When we walk in the territory we notice that most people are staying in one area, where the chanting is the loudest, or in the cafeteria. Some locals invite us for a meal in the cafeteria as well, but we are not hungry. Many of the locations here had signs that visitors should not be entering, and those areas accessible for tourists were actually the most quiet ones. It was a bliss to drink from the fountains at the temple on the hot day of the visit! This place is yet another one suggested to visitors in spring, as May brings wisteria blossoms to this place. What I will always remember from this place is the loud cicadas, chanting and unusual bell sounds from this place. The beautiful bamboo forest and deserted steps is another place to remember.
Gamcheon Culture Village
We also visit the most well known attraction in the city, the famous Gamcheon Culture Village. Again, it takes a while to get there. First we take metro to Toseong station, exiting at the 6th, and then pass by the hospital to the bus stop. Here you need to take either bus nr 2 or 2-2 and exit at Gamcheon Elementary School. The bus was driving up the steep hills and we felt lost, as no signs or any indication of where we were, could be seen. We started asking other passengers at the bus, and finally someone said we should get out at the next stop. The place really is the one, and taken aback from the beauty of it, we start walking closer to it. Turns out, you actually have to go back from the stop to the correct entrance. But at least we got a map at the little booth down the street to collect stamps in. This is the best way to explore the area, as the stamp spots will bring you to places you would not have found otherwise yourself. If you collect a certain amount of stamps, you can get a postcard, which you can either send via regular post, or special slow post, to reach you only in a year. The regular post still took two months to get to it’s destination! If you are looking for stamp spots, pay attention to fish signs on the sides of the buildings, they will guide you to the right direction!
Gamcheon used to be one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, but after money was given to renovate it, the walls painted the bright colors they are now and artists invited for makeover, it has changed to become one of the most well known places in Korea! It is a very artsy place – parrots with heads of human look at you from the top of the houses, murals invite you to think, you can take a picture with the Little Prince (but be prepared to wait in a really long line!), or pose at the book stairs in school uniform (can be rented right there). Another poop cafe is here, doll hotels, cute postboxes and a nice cafe with AC and post it notes on every surface. Sure, we leave ours there too! Although the place is relatively new, one might say, artificial, it is still very much worth the visit, even in the hot day of +35C when we visited (and got sunburnt despite the semi-cloudy sky).
Another very famous temple is also located in Busan. Most of the Buddhist temples are in the mountains, but not Yonggungsa, located right next to the sea! Of course, it takes a while to get there. We head back to Haeundae (metro line nr 2), and next to exit nr 7 is a bus stop. Bus 181 or 9 will take you there in about 20 minutes. Well, nearly there, as you still have to walk for 15 minutes til the temple. We walk, quite tired from the busy day, and listen to more cicadas. When we finally are there, the place is full of people! Vendors selling street food and souvenirs, tourists walking by, it is a crowd! First we pass by 12 Chinese zodiacs (each has a donation box of its own), then traffic safety pagoda and some pagodas for success in higher education, again, people leaving coins there. We climb down 108 steps to the temple, as 108 is a significant number in Buddhism, representing 108 feelings, 108 beads or 108 questions.
The wind blows from the sea, and while it is pleasant to feel the breeze, it ruffles our hair and makes our clothing stick to the skin even more. We sit down for a bit before exploring the temple further. It was built in the 14th century, and it is the place where people come on the New year’s day to see the sunrise and make a wish. It is very popular in spring too, for the cherry blossoms and truly one of the busiest places in Busan we have seen so far! After the walk it feel really nice to climb into a taxi with AC and get back to Haeundae!
The final place we visit on our short trip is the Bujeon market next to our hotel, as we have some time to explore on the morning before leaving the city. As elsewhere in Korea, we feel perfectly safe, as no one is trying to sell us anything aggressively here. But it is a market after all, and the odor is here. Fish and seafood section definitely isn’t for everyone. You can buy live fish and live octopus here. Eating small live octopus is a Korean tradition we don’t try. Apparently, several people die every year after attempting it, and in order for one not to suffocate on the octopus, you have to chew it really, really carefully! We only see large octopus here, and already cooked seafood. Eating at the market is popular across Korea, as we saw similar small tables with 2-3 chairs in Seoul as well for one to eat the food right away. We are kindly offered the foods but we politely decline. If Korean food isn’t for your, there are plenty of international options as well, including the most well know fast food chains. I must admit, we visit a few of those as well, as kimchi and various seafood isn’t our usual selection.
Some say Busan is a nice place to start to get to know Korean culture. I do get a feeling that it is slightly different Korea here anyway, not the same as ultra modern Seoul. The city is still grand, and offers everything a major Asian metropolis can, and it can be excellent place to get to know Asia, if you have never been. Unusual foods, different culture, but very organized and safe surroundings with no tourist traps!
Where to stay in Busan? We stayed in Ibis Ambassador, 50 euros per night, no breakfast
How to get to Busan? Flight: Seoul-Busan one way flight ticket on Eastar Jet cost us 38 euros per person, with luggage. Next we head to Jeju, so we don’t need a return ticket. You can also come by train, but we thought it was easier to fly.
Metro and bus tickets cost around 1 euro. We bought metro tickets before every ride in the machine and at the driver in the bus.
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