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The Traditional Korean Tea Ceremony

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As we were saying goodbye, the instructor continued to praise our skills. “You did so very good! Very talented at pouring tea, the traditional Korean way!” We sheepishly accepted her acclaim, but I knew what she was really thinking. “Get these clumsy oafs out of my sight, so that I can finally start laughing my ass off!”


The Tea Ceremony Experience is offered for free, three times a day (except Fridays and Mondays), in the Busan Museum’s Cultural Center. Our instructor, who was geared up in a hanbok (a traditional Korean dress), motioned for us to take seats in front of trays on the ground. Sitting Indian-style doesn’t present a problem for me, but Jürgen’s 6’6″ frame and lanky legs always require a couple minutes of painful twisting. The instructor looked on patiently while he arranged his body into the correct position. “Clearly”, she must have been thinking, “this lesson will present more of a challenge than usual”.

For the next twenty minutes we learned the procedure of a traditional Korean tea ceremony. Every movement is completed very particularly, from raising the napkin off the tea set and folding it, to pouring the water into the teapot. We were expected to be very calm, very exact; our instructor told us that the whole process is a form of meditation. While pouring and drinking the tea, you remain silent and still, concentrating on nothing but the simple tasks at hand, trying to complete them as perfectly as possible.

After three rounds, we were almost able to complete the ceremony without a mistake: grabbing the cup with the wrong hand, pouring out too much water, or laying the napkin on the floor upside-down. Our instructor was pleased enough, and after the torturous spectacle of watching Jürgen disentangle his legs and stand up, we said our goodbyes. I doubt I’ll be working a tea ritual into my daily schedule, but I can certainly appreciate the moment of collected quiet that it provides. And the tea wasn’t bad, either.

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July 27, 2012 at 1:56 am Comments (4)

The National Maritime Museum

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Busan is always at work on itself, more so than any other place we’ve lived, erecting new buildings, improving on its image and expanding its cultural offerings. We visited one of the city’s latest achievements just days after it opened: the National Maritime Museum.


The gleaming white building itself is impressive enough to warrant a visit. Found on the northwestern coast of Yeongdo Island, it looks a little like an enormous toilet bowl. Not a very appealing comparison, I suppose, but I don’t mean to be negative — that’s just its shape! Plus, there’s the association with water, and the fact that it’s filled with all sorts of crap.

The museum and the park surrounding it occupy nearly 500,000 square feet. There are eight permanent exhibitions, a special children’s museum, a rooftop observation deck, a massive maritime library, a walk-through aquarium, a 4D theater, an auditorium and a variety of restaurants and cafes. In other words, don’t go expecting to spend just a short amount of time there — even if you’re quick about it, this place will consume hours.

Amazingly, the museum is free. The exhibits are uniformly interesting, detailing both Korea’s relationship to the sea, as well as the global situation of the oceans. The aquarium was small, but there were a few sharks and mantas swimming around in there, which are the only things I ever care about anyway. And the hands-on exhibits were fun, especially for children. Perhaps the best part was the rooftop observation deck, where you have a great view over the harbor and the Oryukdo Islands.

The museum is easy to reach with public transportation; bus #66, leaving from Nampo-dong (exit 6) goes straight there. And it’s definitely worth the effort of visiting.

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July 23, 2012 at 8:36 am Comments (9)

The Busan Museum

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Opened in 1978 at the western end of the U.N. Park in Daeyeon, the Busan Museum takes visitors on a journey through the history of the city and its region, from paleolithic times to the modern day. We visited recently and found it to be the perfect rainy-day activity.


Busan Museum is quite large, well-organized and, like most museums in the city, completely free. Busan as a city has a relatively recent story; up until the late 19th century, it was a mere fishing village, nowhere near as important as nearby Gyeongju or Daegu. Not until 1876, when its port was opened to international trade, did Busan become a city of any importance.

But that doesn’t mean that its history isn’t interesting. Starting in the late Paleolithic period, with the first documented appearance of humanity around the mouth of the Nakdong, visitors are slowly brought to the modern age. There are two floors of fascinating exhibits which have excellent English translations and shed a light on life in the various phases of Korean history.


Our favorite section detailed the period of the Three Kingdoms (around 57 AD – 668), when the various tribes of the peninsula were organizing themselves for the first time. One exhibit showed how the people of that day used primitive body-modification techniques to give themselves flat foreheads or pointy feet. On the second floor of the museum, there’s a room dedicated entirely to the relationship of the Japanese to Busan, which is more even-handed (and therefore, more interesting) than the “Japan=Villain” equations of the Modern History Museum.

How much enjoyment you get out of this museum is entirely a function of your interest in history. Nicely presented, informative and with plenty of information in English, we thought it was well done.

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July 19, 2012 at 10:01 am Comments (2)

The APEC House and Dongbaek Park

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The Nurimaru House was built for the 2005 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit, which brought together the leaders of its twenty-one member nations. With a striking location in Dongbaekseom Park overlooking Haeundae Beach, the house now serves as a memorial to the meeting.

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Dongbaekseom used to be an island, before a natural accumulation of earth and sand attached it to the mainland. The suffix -seom means island, and the dongbaek is a kind of tree. Today, the park is a beautifully wooded nature preserve, offering a number of trails and unbeatable views of Haeundae Beach. A popular coastal path connects the beach to the APEC House, which is found among amid camellia and pine trees.

Along the coastal trail, the large statue of a forlorn mermaid is unmissable. According to legend, this is the Princess of Topaz from the Kingdom of Naranda, found far beyond the sea. She was married off to the King of Mungungnara, and now sits immobile, crying for her lost country. Her name comes from the topaz bead given to her by her grandmother, which she grips during her endless lamentations for home. It would be hard to imagine that this story isn’t an allegory for the Koreans who left home during the struggles of the Japanese occupation and Korean War.

The Nurimaru APEC House was built for one solitary purpose and, like the Mermaid, now sits frozen in time. During the 2005 APEC Summit, leaders from the countries of the Pacific Rim discussed a number of topics of common interest, such as Copyright Protection and Aviary Flu defenses. Possibly its most notable achievement was to get George W. Bush into a Korean Hanbok. I don’t like the guy, but this isn’t actually a bad look for him.

Touring the APEC House was kind of strange. We got to see the round table at which the various heads of state sat, and were able to admire one of their meals. There was some information about what was discussed, and about each member state. But that was about it. By now, this incredible house, which showcases Korean architecture in a pristine location, should have found new life — it’s not as though the 2005 APEC Summit was a meeting of such historic importance that it needs to be forever memorialized. Put a plaque up or something, and move on!

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July 16, 2012 at 7:57 am Comments (3)

Busan’s Very Own Madame Tussauds

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Is there anything more thrilling than standing next to a wax figure of a celebrity? Say, Lady Gaga? Of course not, what a stupid question! Wax museums are among humanity’s most transcendent achievements, allowing us to indulge in fawning celebrity worship without the actual physical presence of the celebrity! There’s nothing the least bit ridiculous about that. Nothing; right, Gaga?

Isn’t that right, m’lady? … Gaga? [poke] Oh that’s right, you’re wax, hahahahahahhahaha!! You just look so realistic, hahahah! Hah. Hehm.


We were among the first to visit the new Madame Tussauds, which just opened on the sixth floor of the Shinsegae Department Store. Because we love wax figures so much that we simply must be the first ones to see them… or because we just happened to be walking by and noticed it. This is a temporary exhibit, though there’s a chance it will become permanent. Madame Tussauds’ website threatens the good people of Busan, thusly:

Even though this is a temporary attraction, if South Korean residents and international visitors enjoy it as much as the other 13 Madame Tussauds attractions around the world, then we will look at making it a permanent feature in the future.

Hear that, South Korea? You better get to worshipping wax figures of Western celebrities or the huffy Madame will take her toys away! Entrance to the rather small exhibit costs a whopping ₩9000 ($8.10), which is about the same price you pay for four hours at Spa Land (also in Shinsegae).

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July 9, 2012 at 9:05 am Comments (3)

Busan’s Trick Eye Museum

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The only thing which Koreans love more than taking pictures is having their picture taken. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find in Busan an entire museum dedicated to the art of posing for funny photos. But still… I was surprised. The Trick Eye Museum, underneath the Heosimcheong Spa, is one of the most bizarre places we’ve been in a long time.

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If you don’t like having your picture taken, stay far away from the Trick Eye Museum, which is also not recommended for anyone who’s overly serious, or those who have any semblance of pride. Basically, if you’re not willing to act like an idiot in front of the camera, you won’t have any fun here. But everyone else, and especially kids, should prepare for a good time.

The entire point of this “museum” is to provide setups for funny pictures. An upside-down room makes it look like you’re standing on the ceiling. Stand in front of Mona Lisa with a paintbrush. Lay down on the floor and hang on for dear life to the painting of a cliff. Peer into a gentleman’s briefs. Wrap yourself in the coils of a serpent. Crawl into bed with a surprisingly buxom Mike. Will the hilarity ever stop?! No, it won’t… it goes on and on, for room after room after room. This place is huge and if you haven’t had your fill of funny-posing pictures by the end of it, then you, my friend, have some issues.

Juergen and I visited right after a three-hour session in the Heosimcheong Spa, and were loosened up enough to throw ourselves into the picture-taking with abandon. After all, we’d just spent hours prancing around naked in front of other men, so screwing up our faces for a silly photo wasn’t exactly a tall order. Please enjoy our photos … if you can stomach the sad spectacle of two grown men acting without dignity.

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June 28, 2012 at 8:46 am Comments (37)

The Busan Aquarium

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Busan’s aquarium is one of the largest in South Korea. With a unique location underneath Haeundae Beach, and a vast array of marine life in tanks which hold over three million liters of water, it’s little wonder that the aquarium is considered one of the city’s top experiences.

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More than the sharks, penguins, otters or jellyfish, there’s one wild species which stands out in the aquarium: the Human Child. This unpredictable creature travels in schools of up to thirty, and emits high-pitched squeals to communicate with others in its pack. Though harmless in appearance, this animal can be dangerous; using its diminutive stature, it will often hide itself near your legs. Should you unwittingly kick it, the creature will unleash its hideous sonic cry.

When we visited, there were at least nine separate groups of toddlers in the aquarium. Very cute, but they seriously hindered our appreciation of the exhibits. I mean, I’m not going to shove the three-year-old away so that I can gawk at the soft-backed turtle. (I might nudge her, though). And we could forget entirely about the special shows, such as the shark- or penguin-feeding.

Children aside, the aquarium was cool. Not as large as I’d expected, but there was a lot to see on its two floors. The tanks were made of spotless acrylic glass, perfectly-lit, and easy to see into. The exhibits were well-maintained, the water was clean, and there was plenty of information in English. The massive main tank is reached through a glass tunnel, and holds giant sharks, beluga whales, and a variety of fish which apparently don’t taste good to sharks.

Our favorite exhibit was the jellyfish room, with a huge collection of them held in colorfully-lit tanks. I’d never heard of the Upside-Down Jellyfish, before. Other favorites included the giant octopus, the sea horses and a section called “Dangerous Fish of the Ocean”.

At ₩19,000 ($17.10), the aquarium isn’t exactly a bargain, but for anyone with an interest in the marine, it offers an interesting and well-designed experience.

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June 17, 2012 at 5:16 am Comment (1)

The Busan Museum of Art

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We visited the Busan Museum of Art the day after our bizarre excursion to the Snow Castle indoor ski hall. And here, again, was a cavernous building of steel, completely devoid of people. But whereas the Snow Castle has shuttered its doors forever, the art museum was open for business. Just… there was no business.

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The BMA is found in a busy section of town, near the Shinsegae department store and the BEXCO convention hall. It’s free and even has its own subway stop. The rooms are spacious and filled with interesting modern art. But for reasons known only to the finicky hive-mind of Korea, there wasn’t a soul when we visited, on an early Friday evening. Amazing. And kind of disquieting.

The Busan Museum of Art should really call itself a Museum of Modern Art, because all of its works are from the mid 1900s and on. I had been hoping for a primer on the history of Korean art, but these were very abstract, modern works — mostly Korean, but not entirely. There was even a portrait of Andy Warhol, a man whose presence in an art museum almost always sends me screaming for the exits.

While I was checking out the paintings and sculptures, Jürgen was engrossed with the shapes and angles of the building itself. A lot of thought and skill obviously went into the architectural design of the BMA, which is perhaps its own best work of art.

Despite our relative indifference to modern art, we had a good time in the museum, possibly because it felt like we had the run of the place. It’s a great spot to get a little culture before heading out for more shopping, or sunning on the beach.

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June 12, 2012 at 9:01 am Comments (2)

The Busan Modern History Museum

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On the northern side of Yongdusan Park is the Busan Modern History Museum, which takes visitors on a stroll through the recent past of the city. It might as well call itself the Busan Museum of Japanese Aggression, because that’s basically the focus of every exhibit.


Modern history has given Busan plenty of reasons to dislike its neighbor to the east. Korea has always been battered about back and forth between the powers of Japan and China, who took turns possessing, threatening, attacking and pillaging the over-matched peninsula. Busan is the closest point of entry for the Japanese, so it makes sense that this city has borne the brunt of their abuse.

According to the museum, the modern history of Busan begins in 1876 with the opening of the port to international trade. Right away, the anti-Japan slant begins, as the we learn that the opening of the port was forced by the aggressive island empire, who wanted to obtain a foothold on the continent. Soon enough, Busan was on the losing end of unequal trade, and seeing large settlements of Japanese citizens replace their own.

The opening of Busan to the world should have been an exciting chapter in the city’s history, but the museum paints a grim picture of life under the influence of the Japanese. The foreigners came to control most of the city, giving optimal land to their settlers and converting the Dongrae area from the city’s historic center to their own pleasure park. As the years wore on, Koreans were conscripted into Japanese armies, and even sold into sexual slavery — an outrage for which, the museum notes, “Japan has never apologized”.

Surely there’s more to Busan’s modern history than Japan, and I kept waiting for the museum to move beyond its fixation. There’s a small room dedicated to the American-Korean relationship, following the Japanese expulsion at the end of World War II, and a little information about Busan’s growth, including a neat interactive panorama showing how much land has been reclaimed from the sea. But the focus is clear.

There’s no denying how evil and aggressive Imperial Japan was, and life in Busan must have been awful under their yoke. But history is never black-and-white and, for all their crimes, Japan also brought Busan into the modern age. Technology never before seen on the Korean peninsula was introduced, railways were built, bridges were constructed, streets were modernized, and so on. A case could be made that Busan lived a sort of golden period under the Japanese influence.

Regardless of your point of view, or what lessons you glean from its exhibits, the museum is fascinating and well worth the hour it takes to tour its two floors. And it’s free. When you exit, you might be in the mood to violently berate the next Japanese person you meet, but please try to remember: this is history. Let’s move on!

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June 9, 2012 at 1:17 am Comment (1)
The Traditional Korean Tea Ceremony As we were saying goodbye, the instructor continued to praise our skills. "You did so very good! Very talented at pouring tea, the traditional Korean way!" We sheepishly accepted her acclaim, but I knew what she was really thinking. "Get these clumsy oafs out of my sight, so that I can finally start laughing my ass off!"
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