Perhaps the fact that that some Busan’s best sightseeing can be done inside of shopping centers says something profound about Korean culture. Nampo’s giant seaside Lotte Department Store offers enough to entertain a tourist for hours, including a wonderful rooftop garden with views over the neighborhood, and the world’s largest indoor cascading fountain.
The show kicks off every hour and is quite impressive. Unlike most fountains, this one showers down from nozzles in the ceiling five stories above. The precision is amazing, with the layers of water sprayed in time with the music and, at the show’s end, even spelling out “Busan” and “Lotte”.
Should you get restless during the ten-minute show, you can always amuse yourself with shopping. I picked up a shirt on the sale rack set up near the fountain, completing the transaction and returning to Jürgen’s side while the show was still going on. Juergen was so absorbed in videotaping that he didn’t even notice I had sneaked off.
The lids of my right eye had been forcefully pulled apart by a circular metal device. While a voice near my ear whispered “relax, relax”, a microkeratome blade made its incision. I was able to see everything that was happening (“just relax”), and watched as a flap of my eye skin was peeled back like the filmy skin of a hard-boiled egg. Everything went completely out-of-focus. And then the lazers started. Relax, you say? Sure!
I’ve had terrible vision since I can remember. Glasses, contacts, waking up every morning blind… severe myopia has played a major role in my life and always been a part of who I am. When I first heard of LASIK technology, probably twenty years ago, it sounded like a dream from some futuristic fantasy world, too good to be true. “But one day”, I thought. “I am totally doing that.”
The day finally arrived. Bolstered by Jürgen’s entirely positive experience at the Good-Gang-An Hospital, I decided to get my eyes zapped. South Korea is a country with supremely advanced medical techonology, and the procedure is far cheaper than it would be back home. Plus, it was my 35th birthday — a better present than perfect sight could hardly be possible.
We chose the Sojunghan Nun Ophthalmology Clinic, largely because of their advertisement in Busan Haps, the city’s English-speaking magazine. After my initial visit, any concerns I’d been harboring had vanished. This was a super-modern, obviously affluent clinic with a ton of equipment and a large staff of friendly people. My eyes were measured, and the doctor explained the Wavefront-guided LASIK technique which would be used. “Keep your contacts out, and come back in a week”.
A week later, I was back. They gave me another round of tests, then sat me down in a cozy massage chair so that I might relax before the surgery. When it was time, three nurses came to fetch me, leading me through an air shower into the operation room where the doctor was waiting. I laid down on the bed and, ten minutes later, it was done. Besides the mental anguish of watching my eye skin be peeled back, there was no pain.
The doctor asked if I could see him, and I almost let out a sob of joy upon answering “Yes”. It was hazy, but I could see things far away, sharply. After another rest in the massage chair, this time with tea and cake, the clinic provided a private driver to take me home. The next morning, I returned to have the protective contact lenses removed, and confirmed that my new vision was 20/20. The doctor said it would probably improve even more over the next couple weeks.
The incredible service, cutting-edge technology and perfectly executed procedure cost a grand total of ₩1,300,000 ($1170) for both eyes. About a fourth of the price I’d have paid in the states. The cost also includes all of my follow-up visits.
To say we’re head over heels with Korean healthcare is a huge understatement. Even more than the price, it’s the service and the attention to comfort that astound us. In hospitals in the US, Germany and Spain, we’re accustomed to being treated like nuisances, sometimes with an attitude that approaches contempt. None of that in South Korea; it’s as though they recognize how important comfort and ease of mind is to the recovery process. And that’s something we completely appreciate.
The largest market in Busan, and almost definitely the biggest I’ve ever visited anywhere, is in the central neighborhood of Bujeon. Calling it a market town is no mere hyperbole — just the covered portion comprises a full grid of streets and alleys, and you can easily get lost in its chaotic, densely crowded streets.
If Bujeon were closer to our apartment, we’d be there daily. Everything under the sun is sold at the market, from food to household goods and electronics. We saw a woman peddling puppies (presumably as pets), a flea market of vintage clothing, bakeries selling sweets, squiggling octopuses and squids. Pots, pans, aprons, fruits, spices. Everything a Korean kitchen could ever possibly need. Should your kitchen need a cook, I’m sure you could talk one of the thousands of sweet old ladies working there into coming home with you.
And it’s unbelievably cheap. A bag of chili powder which was twice the size of the bag I’d just bought from a supermarket was half the price at Bujeon. For less than a buck, Jürgen and I shared a strange rice-cake which was shaped and served like a corn dog, complete with ketchup and mustard. Then, after being offered samples, I picked up two delicious green-tea doughnuts for about $0.60.
Bujeon has its own subway stop, and is within easy walking distance of Seomyeon, which is basically the apex of downtown Busan. Definitely worth a look.
The largest fish market in South Korea is found in downtown Busan, next to the busy shopping area of Nampo-dong and adjacent to the Lotte Aqua Mall. That it occupies such a valuable, central location speaks to how important the fish trade has always been to the city.
The market is massive and seems to go on forever. Thousands of stands with what must be billions of fish compete with each other for customers, and there’s no doubt who’s in charge: the hardened, crafty women known as the Jagalchi Ajumas. “Ajuma” means “married woman”, and these ladies conduct almost all the business at the market, whether that’s the business of beheading a fish, prying open a clam, or haggling with a customer. Most likely, they could do all of these things simultaneously.
We were amazed during our visit; the Jagalchi Market is like an aquarium, with every sort of fish imaginable and some species I’d never seen before. Among countless others, I saw colorful shrimp the size of trout, blowfish, shark, sea urchins, monkfish, mollusks, and the slightly off-putting penis fish.
Of course, the big difference between this and an aquarium is that these fish are waiting to die. To be ripped apart in the most horrific ways imaginable and then consumed. I saw a group of eels who had been skinned alive, still squiggling around in their pail. There’s enough material here to fuel a thousand gore flicks… just substitute “human” for “octopus”. That’s what was running through my head, as I watched a group of plucky octopuses working together to climb out of their bucket, only to be whacked in the head by their insidious Ajuma keeper. Soon, she would choose one to hack to pieces and then serve as a still-twitching meal. Hollywood, take note.
There are a few different sections of the Jagalchi market. We started in the outdoor zone, with a nice view over the port, and then moved into the Dry Fish area, where dried sardines, kelp and cod are sold in unbelievable volume. The centerpiece of the market, though, is the new Shindonga building, built in 2006. The exterior design features white winged shapes, creating the impression of giant seagulls descending onto the building. Inside are yet more stands and restaurants where you can eat sashimi; similar to the Millak sashimi hall we visited, but on a different scale.
We had a great time in Jagalchi — it’s one of the absolute highlights of Busan.
It’s been five months since Jürgen and I lost our French Bulldog to cancer. We’ve been able to distract ourselves with travel, but every once in awhile (and especially after seeing a French Bulldog on the streets), I’ll feel that empty pang of sadness, and start wishing I had a dog again. Luckily, there’s a place in Busan where I can go to purge myself of such silly whims.
Across the street from Exit 3 of the Jangsan Metro, there’s a pet store. On the bottom floor, it’s just your normal shop selling puppies and pet supplies. But upstairs, chaos reigns. This is the Puppy Cafe, where about twenty dogs of every species, age and size are running around, vying for human attention, wrestling with each other, pissing, barking and generally acting insane.
On entering the cafe, we were greeted by a deafening chorus of barks. “NEW HUMANS!” Of course, it was the biggest dogs who wanted to jump on us; a golden lab who needed to lick our faces (“I must!”) and a heavy black lab that almost knocked me down. Over the noise, the waiter (attendant? nanny?) asked us for the ₩8000 ($7.20) entry fee, then prepared a free coffee while we acquainted ourselves with the gang.
Let’s see, there was Stinky, Stanky, Stupid and Stonky. We sat down on chairs and pet whatever dog forced his way between our legs. The big ones were more successful in this, particularly the black lab who got to know my crotch on a rather intimate basis. One nasty little white dog in a coat decided to try adopting me, and sat at my feet shivering and snarling at anyone else who got too close. I didn’t really want to cuddle with her, but felt bad shooing away something so rotten and alone.
We moved into a separate area for the smallest dogs, and I found my favorite of the day: a snow-white Pekingese, so soft, cuddly and pliable. He had no problem with me picking him up, and immediately settled into a comfortable position on my lap. Jürgen welcomed a little pinscher onto his lap — two Korean girls who were there petting poodles told us that the pinscher was, and I quote, a “whore”.
The cafe was a blast; the dogs were cute, funny and friendly, and we had a great time playing with them, although we did stink like hell when we left. I’m surprised that more doggie stores don’t offer a place for people to sit and play with their dogs. Especially in a city like Busan, where apartments are small and schedules are hectic, dogs are a luxury that don’t fit into most people’s lives. A place like this, where you can come and get your puppy fix, seems like a no-brainer. And I’m sure the dogs love it.
Not far from Eatery Alley, we discovered Bookstore Alley: a tiny road jam-packed with an insane number of used bookshops, cafes and shoppers. With a history going back 50 years, this is one of the coolest corners we found in Busan, and a great place to spend a spare hour… even if you don’t read Korean.
Although the overwhelming majority of the books in the alley’s fifty-odd shops are in Korean, there are quite a few English titles on the shelves, and it turns out that they’re amazingly easy to spot. It’s not like having to discern between French and English, for example. Amid all those completely foreign characters, your eyes gravitate right toward the familiar. For example:
해리 포터와 불사조 기사단
Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man
노르웨이의 숲 (소설)
Yes, Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man was one of the books I found hiding on a dusty old shelf. Picking it up, I was mentally transported back to 1986, when I would sit on the kitchen floor with a magnifying glass and a book of my hero’s adventures opened in front of me (hey, I wore glasses and didn’t have a lot of geeky heroes to choose from). I’m certain I had the same edition as the one in this Korean bookstore.
The shops in Bookstore Alley are fun to browse, but so catastrophically full that they’re difficult to move around in. I dared to ventured into one store and bumped into a towering stack, very nearly toppling it. Under the watchful gaze of the owner, I carefully backed out and contented myself with the tomes visible from the street.
We hadn’t even discussed it with each other, it was just understood. An unspoken contract between me and Jürgen, sealed the very moment we learned of its existence: the first place we would visit in Busan, before any temples or museums or beaches, was going to be Shinsegae Centum City — the world’s largest department store. That title is Guinness-certified and uncontested. Shinsegae is three times the size of Macy’s, which was the previous record-holder.
Finally, the fateful day arrived! You have to understand. After three months in Sri Lanka, where most shopping is done in dusty streets, we’d have been excited about any department store, and the thought of visiting the world’s largest made us delirious. We stepped through Shinsegae’s massive sliding doors, and spent the first air-conditioned minutes hooting like dazzled apes at the sheer size of the place. Fourteen stories! Over 3.1 million total square feet! An ice rink! Four food courts, and a ridiculous number of restaurants! A “Spa Land” with 22 tubs and capacity for 1600 people! A cinema, a water bar, a rooftop park, a bookstore, an art gallery! A driving range with 60 tees!
What to do first?! Exactly as clever as the apes we were unconsciously mimicking, we wandered from the lower-level food court into the four-story parking garage and promptly got lost. “Hngh?” I asked. “Mrrng!” came Jürgen’s frustrated reply. You know you’re out of “shopping practice”, when the first thing you do is lose yourself in the mall’s parking lot. I don’t know how to explain it… we thought there was a special elevator to the top floor at the end of the lot, but misunderstood the maps. And then we couldn’t get back. It was all in Korean! We were jet-lagged! We’re idiots: that’s probably the simplest explanation.
Shinsegae lacks for nothing. Relaxation, food, entertainment… there are coffee shops and theaters, a rooftop park with green grass, and a daycare center. A person could live quite comfortably here, and I’m fairly certain that some do. Everywhere we looked, there were old women on benches, gossiping with each other. Businessmen were taking breaks to whack golf balls. We sat down at the ice rink with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and watched kids learn how to skate. On the fifth floor, we browsed the huge bookstore, and then checked out the view from the upstairs park, where there were actually people picnicking.
We spent about five hours inside the store, which is more time than we’ve dedicated to certain cities. As we were leaving, we stopped by the information desk to pick up parting gifts, ours simply for being foreigners. We just showed our passports and proof that we had bought something. I had bought a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, so I got a free bag, and Jürgen had bought a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, so he did too. Not a bad deal, and not a bad day out.
We're Jürgen and Mike, from Germany and the USA. Born wanderers, we love learning about new cultures and have decided to see the world... slowly. Always being tourists might get lame, but eternal newcomers? We can live with that. So, our plan is to move to an interesting new city, once every three months. About 91 days.