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The Olympic Park and Busan’s Seoul Complex

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A collection of sculptures found near BEXCO and the Museum of Art, Busan’s Olympic Sculpture Park pays homage to the city’s involvement in the 1988 Summer Olympics and provides a place to check out some bizarre modern artwork. We paid a short visit to the park after a day of shopping at Shinsegae.

Shape of Beauty

The massively successful 1988 Olympics were held in Seoul, but Busan’s Yachting Center hosted the sailing events. The Olympic Park commemorates the Games with an array of weird sculptures sporting names like “Organic Shelter” and “Life of Excrement” (seriously). It’s an interesting place and we enjoyed our walk through it, but what any of these works have to do with the Olympics is beyond me.

While trying to admire/understand the sculptures, I kept thinking of the inferiority complex that Busan suffers from. The second-biggest city in South Korea is constantly measuring itself against its big brother up north, and that’s a battle it’s always going to lose. I’m not sure why I was thinking about it here — maybe it was the environment; Shinsegae (the World’s Biggest Department Store, Guinness Certified!) and the Busan Cinema Center (the World’s Biggest Roof, Guinness Certified!) are right across the street from the Olympic Park, which itself is full of artwork that seems to be trying too hard.

I’ve lost track of how many bewildered Koreans have asked us why on Earth we would choose to stay in Busan for 91 days, as opposed to Seoul. “It makes no sense”. “This city is dull”. “91 days here?! You’ll be bored in a week.” And these are the people from Busan, some of whom have lived here their whole life. Never have we visited a place with such little pride. There’s a real sense among the people, and even somehow exuded by the city itself, that Busan isn’t good enough, because it’s not Seoul.

I feel like we have to keep cheering Busan up. “Come on, buddy, you’re a great city on your own! Look at all the incredible things we’ve done here! Do you think Münich wrings its hands because it’s not Berlin? No, Münich certainly does not! Does Chicago look wistfully at New York and think, ‘gosh, I’m no good’? Ha!”

“Now look at the mirror, and keep telling yourself that you’re beautiful until you believe it. Soon, you’ll see the amazing Busan that we’re witness to every single day.”

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July 5, 2012 at 2:09 am Comments (0)

The Hike to Songjeong Beach

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At the far northeastern end of Busan, Songjeong Beach is a more beautiful and far less popular stretch of sand than the city beaches of Haeundae or Gwangalli. Although you can get there with bus or taxi, the best way to arrive is over a gorgeous three-kilometer hike through the woods.

Busan Beaches

The hike begins near the Jangsan metro station and, like all walking trails in Korea, is well-marked and easy to follow. There’s some workout equipment along the way, but the real reason to tackle the hike is for the amazing views over the sea and the forest valley.

Halfway through, the peaceful silence we’d been enjoying was interrupted by an outlandishly loud alarm coming from somewhere down the coast. After it had sounded for a few minutes, a woman came on the loudspeaker, saying something in Korean. We waited hopefully for an English translation, but it never appeared. And then, the alarm again for at least five minutes. We were all alone in the woods, unable to judge the reactions of others. Were people in the city running in panic for the nearest bunker? Had North Korea pressed the big red button? Had the woman provided instructions on surviving the imminent nuclear holocaust?

Eventually, we saw a family hiking on the trail, at a calm, un-panicked pace. The Korean government tests the alarm system about once a month, bringing all traffic to a standstill, and this must have one such time.

Songjeong Beach awaited us at the end of our hike. Unlike the city beaches, there were no other foreigners here, just big groups of college-age kids playing organized games, and throwing girls into the water — with somewhat more brutality than we Westerners employ. We watched them for awhile, waving off their attempts to get us to join in, and walked to the end of the beach.

A small, wooded peninsula called Jukdo Park caps the beach, providing a shaded relaxation area and a pavilion for views which stretch out over the sea and back towards the beach. There’s less development here than at Busan’s other beaches, and the result is a much prettier panorama. So far, this is one of our favorite spots in the city, and definitely worth the effort of reaching. And if you’re not feeling up to the short hike, a taxi from Jangsan costs about $2.50.

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June 25, 2012 at 12:23 am Comments (0)

Suyeong Park

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Before visiting Suyeong Park, we had no idea what to expect. Despite its central location, with Bexco and Shinsegae visible just over the Suyeong River, this ramshackle neighborhood is definitely not on the normal tourist itinerary. But we had a great time in the park, which was filled with historical monuments, sacred trees and people playing chess, exercising and just relaxing.

Double-Gate-Korea

Suyeong Park occupies the former site of the Joseon Empire’s naval base, which was used mostly for operations in the East Sea against Japan (the body of water which separates Japan from the continent is referred to by most of the world as the “Sea of Japan”, but this designation has been aggressively contested by Korea for years, who believe “East Sea” should be the name of record. We’re on Korea’s side by default, at least for this 91 days, so “East Sea” it is!)

There are a number of historical remnants in the park, such as the South Gate of the former citadel: two arched gates which lead into the park, guarded by a pair of stone dogs who watch for Japanese pirates. And there’s the Euiyonjeinbi monument which commemorates the deaths of 25 patriots during the Imjin War with gravestones set in front of a large shrine. But my favorite object in the park wasn’t man-made; it was the 500-year old Pujo tree, which stands out with its sheer size and distinctive shape. According to a sign, locals believe the spirit of an old grandmother resides in the tree, bringing luck to those who remember her.

The park also houses the Suyeong Folk Art Center, with a large circular arena where we read that cultural performances “regularly” take place. I asked the girl working there, and it turns out that “regularly” means twice a year, with the next performance sometime in the fall. That’s an incomprehensible waste; this could be a great outdoor theater for the summer.

The best part of Suyeong Park was the number of people who were there enjoying it. Along with the usual array of gym machines, there was an area for Korean Chess where a bunch of matches were being hotly contested. It’s a game I’d like to learn, and I watched one particularly fast-moving game for awhile. But I had no clue what was going on; it looked to me like they were just randomly shuffling the pieces around in between swigs of soju… which, even if that’s the extent of it, would still be a fun game.

Our day ended with a walk through the surrounding neighborhood. Despite being smack in the middle of the city and so close to ultra-modern structures like Shinsegae, there’s an appealing old-world vibe in Suyeong. No skyscrapers or giant apartment buildings, no Starbucks or western-style shops. Everything looks just a little run-down; the shops are old and cluttered, and the restaurants are cheap, humble neighborhood joints. It’s definitely an interesting corner of Busan.

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June 18, 2012 at 9:30 am Comments (0)

Open-Air Foot Spa in Oncheon

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Walking around the Oncheon neighborhood toward the north of Busan, we happened upon a curious little pond where a bunch of Koreans were soaking their feet. A dragon’s head was mounted on the wall of this open-air foot spa, like the prize of some mythical hunter.

Busan Outdoor Spa

Looked like fun, and we wasted no time in removing our shoes and sweaty socks, while the locals apprehensively monitored our oafish intrusion into their peaceful world. The mineral water was piping hot at around 104° (F), and by the end of our 20-minute soak, our feet were bloated and red as beets. And they felt great.

There are a ton of spas around the Oncheon area, which is well supplied with natural mineral water from the nearby Mt. Geumjeongsan. So far, we’ve been a little too nervous to try a real spa (jjimjilbang), so this free foot-soak was a good, and very literal, way to put our toes in the water.

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June 11, 2012 at 10:51 am Comments (0)

Whatever Happened to Snow Castle?

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We first spotted Snow Castle while doing a little aerial reconnaissance of our neighborhood on Google Maps. A big, curvy building on the end of Hwangryungsan mountain? Interesting… and what’s that shape on the ground? [zoom] Is that a… [zoom]… yes that’s definitely a giant skier in front of the hall.

Snow Castle Busan

A little further research (ie: switching from Google Maps to Google Search) revealed that this was Snow Castle: an indoor ski slope which opened in 2007. Awesome! It’s been years since we hit the slopes, and now we had a ski hall in our neighborhood. Not comparable to a snowy mountain resort in the Alps, by any means, but whatever. Skiing with Koreans in a giant golden building during the middle of summer definitely wins on bizarro-points.

It was a grey, rainy day that we chose to visit Snow Castle and, upon arriving, all of our optimism and excitement vanished. There were no people, here. No cars. No discernible sign of human life. Just encroaching weeds, rubbish and a clammy sense of dread. Up in the woods of sparsely populated Mt. Hwangryungsan, the abandoned Snow Castle complex looked like the kind of place a well-organized and ambitious clan of serial killers might call home.

Closed Snow Castle

But what happened? Snow Castle had obviously been a major investment… there’s a giant fake waterfall in the plaza, a three-story parking garage and stone engravings of skiers and snowboarders lining the road in. The park only opened in 2007, but looks as though it’s been shuttered for ten years, not five. We circled the giant building, peering into windows and doors left curiously ajar, but weren’t able to find any clues. And when a cat jumped out of the undergrowth, scaring the bejeezus out of us, we decided to leave.

Snow Castle still appears on VisitKorea’s list of things to do in Busan, and we can’t find any information as to the reason for its closure. Someone told us that Koreans don’t like to focus on failures, or even acknowledge them. Maybe that’s the case here, too.

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June 11, 2012 at 8:30 am Comments (4)

Return to Mt. Geumjeongsan

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On our first visit to the top of Mt. Geumjeongsan, we had ascended in a cable car and hiked from the South to East Gate. It was an all-day excursion, but we were only able to see a fraction of the gigantic mountain fortress which extends across the summit, and so vowed to return. Our second trip would start at the Northern Gate, bring us to Godangbong Peak and end with a well-deserved feast in the village of Sanseong.

Geumjeongsan-Hike

A trail found on the side of Beomeosa Temple leads through a bizarre rock field in the forest, before turning uphill. We climbed for nearly an hour until arriving at the fortress’ North Gate. Our legs were already rubbery and the day of hiking hadn’t yet begun! Before setting off, we took a break at the ancient gate, which is topped by a gazebo and had recently been renovated.

From the North Gate, the walk to Godangbong Peak took about 90 minutes. Halfway there, we took a detour to the Geumsem “Golden Well”, a rock formation in the shape of a bowl which collects rain water. This is where the golden fish who gave Beomeosa Temple its name descended from heaven. We had to use a set of knotted ropes to get up and over the rock. On the way down the other side, my foot slipped and I came crashing down. Luckily, I escaped with just a skinned elbow and bruised ego, but have made a mental note to remove “Mountain Climbing” from my list of future activities.

Natural Climber
Looking good, 3.54 seconds before slipping

At 801.5 meters above sea level, Godangbong Peak is the highest point on the mountain, and the views over Busan were stunning, even though the day was somewhat hazy. From here, you can see the walls of the fortress and gain a good sense of its immense size.

After returning to the North Gate, we continued on to the Fourth Watchtower, passing Wonhyobong Peak along the way, which is a hill most notable for its amazing view of the curving fortress wall. The path connecting the North to the East Gate is extremely popular — there were a ton of other hikers, and this was on a Tuesday; it must be awful on summer weekends. But at the Fourth Watchtower, we took a detour to the south and the crowds disappeared. The path to Jangdae led us softly downhill through some beautiful forest areas. Jangdae is found roughly in the middle of the fortress and served as its command post. Today, it’s a secluded and comfortable place to take a rest, which is exactly what we did.

From Jangdae, we found the road which brought us to Sanseong Village, famous for its cuisine. Black goat, duck bulgogi and a rice liquor are the local specialties. We grabbed a bottle of the liquor, ordered a heaping portion of duck bulgogi and sat down outside at a great restaurant overlooking the river valley, to eat our richly deserved meal. We had combined this hike with our visit to Beomeosa, making this an unforgettable, but very, very long day.

Location of the North Gate | Godangbong Peak | Jangdae

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June 8, 2012 at 5:52 am Comments (2)

Songdo Beach and Amnan Park

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Armed with a map of Busan’s best walks, a bottle of water and bellies full of doughnut-power, we set off on a long hike through the peninsular neighborhood of Amnan-Dong, southwest of Nampo. The seven-kilometer route would bring us over the Namhang Bridge to Songdo Beach, and down the coast to Amnan Park.

Korean Baywatch

We got out of the bus at the foot of the Namhang Bridge, where fishermen were throwing lines into murky-looking water. The bridge crosses the western end of Busan’s port and, after ascending in an elevator to the pedestrian walkway, we had a great view of the Jagalchi Fish Market and the heavy maritime traffic bringing in the day’s fresh catch. Construction on the Namhang began in 1985, but it only opened to the public in 2008, due to delays caused by financial difficulties.

At the western end of the bridge, we found Songdo, which was Busan’s first public beach. There were a couple whale statues in the water, but nobody on the sand, save a couple optimistic foreigners taking in the sun. The swimming at Songdo didn’t look all that inviting, thanks to the huge number of barges right off shore, but the beach itself is beautiful; horseshoe-shaped and surrounded by an never-ending supply of restaurants, most of which specialize in fish. I’d bet that when the lights come on at night, it’s a cool area.

Songdo-Beach

On the far end of the beach, we picked up the Songdo Coastal Walkway, which hugs the ocean and offers some incredible views back over the bridge and down to red-colored cliffs. Midway through, there was an open lot with a long line of fishermen on the rocks, and a makeshift market where their wives (I’m assuming) were selling the freshly caught octopus, squid, oysters and sea squirts. Each stand had a small eating area in the back; you probably couldn’t find this kind of meal cheaper or fresher anywhere else.

After the market, the walkway increased noticeably in difficulty. Up and up and up, and then down, then up some more. By the time we reached Amnan Park on the southern extreme of the peninsula, we were exhausted. There was a great view, and some interesting modern sculptures were strewn haphazardly around the park, but we were mostly just happy to be finished, and found a taxi to take us back to Nampo-Dong.

Busan is amazing for hiking — while in the woods along the coast, with nothing but the sound of the ocean for company, it’s hard to believe that you’re still in the middle of a major metropolis. In how many cities of Busan’s size can you feel totally secluded in nature?

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June 3, 2012 at 2:21 am Comments (0)

A Day in Buk-Gu, Northern Busan

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Buk-Gu, whose name translates to “Northern District”, is one of the fifteen administrative zones which make up Busan. We spent a morning wandering around the area and checking out some of its touristic sights: the Fishing Village Folk Museum, a riverside park, and the Gupowaeseong Japanese Fortress.

Busan-Fishing-Village-Folk-Museum

The Busan Fishing Village Folk Museum, our first stop in Buk-Gu, was exactly as boring as its name suggests. We went on a whim, and I would bet that we were the first and only foreign tourists to ever step foot inside. The guide was clearly stunned to see us, and stammered out a memorized welcome speech, in English. It was clearly an agonizing couple minutes for the poor guy, and I felt like congratulating him when he finished.

The exhibits weren’t really all that bad, but nothing was in English. We spent a few seconds at the dioramas of fishing scenes, put together a puzzle, and looked at fish in the first-floor aquarium. In and out in ten minutes. But the price was right (free) and if you’re already in the neighborhood or have an interest in the folk traditions of Korean river people, by all means, enjoy.

Nakdong-Bridge

Leaving the museum, we went to the nearby Hwamyeong Riverside Park: a long stretch of sports facilities and nature walks with good view of the Nakdong Bridge. We passed through fields of high grass, perfect for hiding a corpse, and a couple of fitness stations. Busan has an absolute abundance of these community workout areas and the equipment is always top-notch. Clean, fully-functional. Some even have benchpresses with actual weights. It’s a testament to the respect with which Koreans treat their community. Equipment like this wouldn’t last twelve hours in an American city.

Gupowaeseong-Fortress

Eventually we made it to Deokcheon Park, a hill near the Gupo Bridge. Searching for a way up the hill to see the Gupowaeseong Fortress, we entered a small and colorful Buddhist Temple where a monk showed us to a clandestine staircase leading into the woods behind the main altar. On the way up, we passed a few people tending to small vegetable gardens, all of whom grunted “hello” at us. The remains of the fortress weren’t wonderfully upheld, but given its origin, that’s understandable. Gupowaeseong dates from the Imjin War against Japan, but was built by the Japanese and not the Koreans.

On the other side of the hill, we found a field with a towering Buddha statue and an altar where offerings had recently been made. Our next stop, the nearby Guryongsa Temple, was buzzing with activity. Little women were darting furiously about, apparently in last-minute preparations for some sort of festival. But although we were clearly in their way, they were gracious and encouraged us to kick our shoes off so that we could enter the temple buildings. There, we admired wonderfully carved wooden walls, strange paintings from Buddha’s life, and ancient statues.

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May 31, 2012 at 5:38 am Comment (1)

Hiking through Igidae Park

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The mountains and hills of Busan are easily its best feature, both helping to confine the city’s sprawl and offering parks and natural refuges for residents to escape the stress of everyday life. Among Busan’s wide range of nature walks, the one spanning Igidae Park is among the most popular. We hiked along its 5.2 kilometer coastal trail on a sunny afternoon.

Igidae-Hike

Jangsanbong Mountain occupies the stretch of coastline just south of Gwangalli Beach, and had been under military control until 1993. The whole mountain is now open to the public, though nearly all visitors stick to the popular coastal walk, which takes about two-and-a-half hours. It’s a perfect hike, with magnificent views over the ocean and city, and only slightly strenuous.

Possibly even more than the beautiful nature, the path’s flawless infrastructure most impressed us. Steps and handrails in perfect condition, plentiful information posted in a variety of languages, modern suspension bridges, benches wherever the view is especially good, and even toilets are found along the trail. Busan has clearly invested a lot into Igidae Park, and it’s heartening to see a city so concerned with improving the quality of life of its citizens.

The name “Igidae” comes from a legend set during the Japanese occupation of Busan. Shortly after conquering the city, the Japanese had a victory celebration at the fortress on Jangsanbong Mountain. A few Korean “entertaining women”, or Gisaengs, were brought along to dance for their new lords. Two of them, possessed by nationalistic furor, grabbed one of the drunken Japanese officers and jumped off a cliff, sacrificing themselves for a small taste of Korean revenge (which I bet tastes like kimchi). The name “Igidae” refers to the “two Gisaengs”.

The hike went by in a flash. The park was decently crowded for a weekday afternoon, mostly older people out for a bit of exercise, but we also spotted a lot of fishermen along the coast. Though clearly marked, the path allows for digressions up into the hills, or down to the water. On one of these, we found an expanse of rock marked by the footprints of an Ultrasaurus — an awesomely-named dinosaur native to Korea. Further on, there was a curious rock formation, said to look like Buddha carrying a baby. To me, it looked like an old Korean woman with a bundle on her head. You judge:

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As we approached the southern end of the hike, the Oryukdo Islands came into view. These five rocky islands are just offshore, and uninhabited. They can be circled by ferry — an adventure we would soon embark on.

Igidae is an excellent, stress-free hike, easily accessible from the city. If its popularity on a Thursday afternoon is any indication, I’m guessing the narrow paths can get claustrophobic on a sunny summer weekend. But regardless of the number of other hikers, an enjoyable day out is almost guaranteed.

The Location of the Hike’s Start on our Map
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May 21, 2012 at 7:54 am Comment (1)

Jungang Park and the Chunghon Tower

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Set atop Daecheong Mountain, one of Busan’s most central peaks, Jungang Park offers visitors an unparalleled view over the city and its port. Inaugurated almost twenty years ago, the park and its crowning Chunghon Tower are dedicated to the memories of the service personnel who gave their lives in the Korean War.

Chunghon-Tower

During the war years, the slopes of Daecheong Mountain hosted many of the refugees who had flocked to Busan, fleeing the carnage in the north. The mountain was an ideal shelter for the newcomers, central enough to be practical, but also separated from the city’s regular life by its sheer altitude.

At the center of Jungang Park is the tall, circular Chunghon Tower. A long set of stone stairs leads up to it; around the tower’s base is a series of photographs detailing the atrocities of North Korea and the heroic deeds of the South. More than a bit propagandistic, but I suppose they earned the right. The tower itself is impressive for its size, if a little abstract. A statue, apparently of the policemen and soldiers whom the monument lionizes, was hidden behind a tarp for cleaning when we were there.

KNEX Flame
The, uh, Eternal Flame of Democracy!

Adjacent to Jungang Park is the enchantingly named Democracy Park. We visited on a Sunday and the park was filled with kids playing hide-and-seek, old ladies dancing and singing (for real), and groups of men engaged in games of Korean Chess. A bizarre set of sculptures decorate the park, along with a couple memorials dedicated to great moments in Korean Democracy, such as 1960’s uprising against the country’s corrupt government.

The centerpiece of Democracy Park is a large spiral-shaped building called the Memorial Hall. Out of its center rises the Democracy Flame, which looked to me like a semi-collapsed tower built of K’NEX; as though the kid building it had a moment of clumsiness, then couldn’t muster the energy to repair his creation. A subtle nod to the fragile, time-consuming and frustrating nature of democracy, so often abandoned? I doubt that’s what the artist had in mind, but the metaphor works.

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May 16, 2012 at 10:44 am Comment (1)

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The Olympic Park and Busan's Seoul Complex A collection of sculptures found near BEXCO and the Museum of Art, Busan's Olympic Sculpture Park pays homage to the city's involvement in the 1988 Summer Olympics and provides a place to check out some bizarre modern artwork. We paid a short visit to the park after a day of shopping at Shinsegae.
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