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.
A man-made pond in the middle of Gyeongju, Anapji has been impressing people for over thirteen centuries. We strolled along the pond while the sun was setting, when the park is at its most gorgeous.
Anapji was built in 674 by the great King Munmu of Silla, who used it as a pleasure retreat from his nearby palace. The lake fell into disrepair after the fall of Silla, but was completely recovered and restored to its original state during the 1970s.
Five traditional pavilions surround the pond, which is now enclosed by stone walls. At night, the lights come on, bathing the woods, water and pavilions in beautiful color. This is the most popular spot in Gyeongju for a nighttime stroll; we were shocked by the line of people waiting to get into the park. Definitely worth penciling into your evening plans when you’re in the city.
Okay, Busan’s Light Rail Transit (also known as The Purple Line) isn’t exactly as fast as light — and I suppose that in this instance, “light” is used in the “not heavy” sense rather than “beams from the sun”. Whatever, it’s still a cool name for a cool ride.
The Light Rail connects Busan and nearby Gimhae, itself a sizable city of 500,000 people. It’s most useful as a direct connection to the airport, and actually the only time we’ve ever used it is when we were completely lost, after hopping on the wrong bus and ending up in a city that definitely wasn’t Busan.
This small above-ground train is conducted automatically and only opened in September, 2011. We sat in the very front, and had a great view of the scenery south of Busan.
One of South Korea’s three horse-racing tracks is found just outside Busan, and we decided to check it out on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We knew that we’d have fun, since we have fun anywhere that gambling is involved, but the Busan Gyeongnam Racecourse Park exceeded our expectations.
To reach the racetrack, we took a free shuttle bus from the Jurye Metro Station (Green Line) and, upon arriving, were surprised by how large and how full the parking lot was. This is apparently a popular weekend activity among Busanites. The park is new, clean and well thought-out; it’s been designed as a entertainment zone for the whole family, and not just hard-core gamblers.
Koreans bet differently than Americans. In the main building, which felt more like an airport terminal than a betting hall, we waded through hundreds of people crouched down over racing papers and notebooks. The mood was quite serious — each bettor seemed to have their own formula for predicting winners, requiring advanced calculations and intense concentration. Whereas in the States you’d have people drinking, laughing and sharing tips, here it was like being in an office full of nervous physicists puzzling out some quantum mechanics problem.
Jürgen and I eschewed such careful logic, and went with the trusty old “look at the horse” method of betting… and ended 0-4 for the day. But our bets were just ₩1000 ($0.90) apiece, so no biggie. It’s safe to assume that most of the sweating Horse Physicists at the track, emboldened by foolproof calculations, make somewhat larger bets. The stairwell, we noticed, is protected by a net, to prevent any big loser from ending it all.
The racing and gambling was fun, but what really sets Busan’s racetrack apart was the family fun park called “Horstory Land”. (Obviously named by someone without a full grasp on English. I know what they were going for… “HORSE-stery”, but I couldn’t divorce my mind from the idea of children running around Whore Story Land. And why would I want to?)
There were rides and horse-themed activities, such as a Wild West theater where each kid sat in a saddle and was equipped with a gun to shoot at the screen. A giant slide with eight separate lanes so that kids could race each other down. International sections dedicated to the history of Italian, American and Mongolian whores horses. And the genius bit: betting stations conveniently spaced all about the park, so that Mom and Dad could continue betting while the brats amuse themselves.
The center of the racing track was also a part of the park, accessed via tunnel. Here, you can bike or rollerblade around a lovely pond while the horses gallop around you. After we were done betting, we sat down in a gazebo in this section of the park and watched the races from the inside out.
For particulars such as transportation and a full list of facilities at the park, check out the comprehensive article at Horse Racing in Korea. Even if you’re not a gambler, you can still have a great day at the races in Busan.
With a prime location where the Nakdong River empties into the East Sea, the small, sandy island of Eulsukdo has long been a paradise for migratory birds. However, our trip there couldn’t have been more poorly timed, since the birds only visit in the fall and spring. But we’ll be gone by August, and didn’t want to pass up a visit to this interesting bit of nature.
Upon arriving at the island, we toured a couple of sparkling new ecology centers. The first was dedicated to the Nakdong, the longest river in South Korea, with exhibits that underline its importance. The second center was focused on the Eulsukdo Sanctuary. Spanning two floors, with an observatory on top, this was an exhaustive collection of the various birds and animals which can be found here. Decently cool, but there were a ton of schoolkids there, and the place was sweltering hot, so our visit was very short.
Once outside, we discovered with some disappointment that most of the sanctuary was off-limits — the paths were nearly all closed for renovation, and much of the park is permanently inaccessible to tourists. It’s understandable; Eulsukdo Island has been heavily affected by human tampering. Fifty years ago, this was Asia’s most active location for migratory birds, but only a small number still visit today. Although the island is now protected, construction and land reclamation projects in the latter half of 20th century did irreversible damage to the ecosystem.
So, we walked up and down the one path we were permitted on, saw a couple swans and a crane, and called it a day. Eulsukdo is quite beautiful, but probably only worth visiting in the fall or spring, when the number of visiting birds increases dramatically.
If you’re in Korea, asking whether you love or hate K-Pop is kind of futile. It’s not like you’re going to escape it, regardless. Could you “hate” the color yellow? Oxygen? Gravity? I suppose you could, but what’s the point? These things are just immutable parts of life, and it’s best to have a healthy, positive relationship towards them.
On arriving in Busan, I found it a little strange that Korean Pop has its own term. I mean, pop in Germany or Spain is just “pop”. You might talk about Swedish pop (when referencing, for example, how genius it is), but it’s not like Swede-Pop is a genre unto itself. But now that I’ve been here awhile, I can kind of understand why K-Pop deserves the distinction.
K-Pop is best understood as an industry, rather than a musical style. From a very young age, auspicious talents are brought to Seoul where they’ll dedicate their childhoods to the dream of becoming superstars with one of the Korean talent agencies — most hopefully S.M. Entertainment, which is the biggest. For the lucky few who get a spot in one of the pop groups, a life of unbelievable fame awaits. K-Pop stars don’t just rule the radio-waves here. They’re cast on TV shows, hired as models, and appear in basically every advertisement produced in Korea.
We tend to work in cafes a lot, in order to escape our tiny apartment, and a constant stream of K-Pop hits has dug its way into our brains where I fear they’ll be forever imprinted. The songs aren’t ever very good — this isn’t transcendent, boundary-pushing pop — but neither are they very terrible. The best word to describe the general K-Pop song is “fun”. Here are the songs which have provided the bouncy, danceable soundtrack to our time in Busan. These aren’t necessarily the best K-Pop songs, but they’re ours.
*ROMANCE TIME* Busker Busker – A Cherry Blossom Ending
*BOOM-SHAKA-LAKA TIME* Bigbang – Fantastic Baby
*SULTRY TIME* JYP & Ga-In – Someone Else
*WACKY TIME* Ulala Session – Beautiful Night
You have to be patient with this one … it doesn’t really kick in until about the 2nd minute.
*GOTH-POP TIME* 4Minute – Volume Up
*MJ TIME* SHINee – Sherlock
*TIME TO SHUT UP* Girls Generation – Twinkle
My earlier claim that K-Pop songs are never entirely terrible isn’t exactly true — I had forgotten about “Twinkle”, a song which sends me into fits of rage every time I hear it. On the other hand, I really love 4Minute’s “Volume Up”, SHINee’s “Sherlock” and especially “Like This” from the Wonder Girls which makes me want to jump up out of my chair whenever it comes on. If you want to learn more about K-Pop, check out the well-informed and frighteningly dedicated blog EatYourKimchi.com, run by a Canadian couple obsessed with the scene who have been in Korea for years and are obsessed with the scene.
Straight across from Busan Station, a traditional Chinese-style gate welcomes you into Shanghai Street — the nexus of the city’s Chinatown. We visited this hectic and very un-Korean neighborhood during its annual celebration.
The Chinese and Koreans have had a rocky relationship since long before the founding of either nation, but the contemporary Chinese presence in Busan only dates from 1884, when the city officially established diplomatic ties with Shanghai. A Chinese school and a consulate were established in the present-day Shanghai Street, which resulted in a number of Chinese settling here permanently.
A couple months ago, I would have never been able to tell the difference between a Chinese and Korean street, but now it was immediately clear. As soon as we passed through the Shanghai Gate, we found the street signs and restaurant names written in bewildering Chinese instead of the simple Korean characters we’ve learned to recognize. And mixed in among the Koreans wandering the neighborhood and partaking in the festivities was a noteworthy number of… Russians?!
Yes, even more so than the Chinese, it’s the Russians who now inhabit this area most prominently, particularly along a specific strip of Chinatown known as Texas Street. The name comes from the days when US soldiers used to prowl the neighborhood in search of cheap booze and cheaper sex. The Americans are now gone, and Texas Street has been thoroughly Russified, with advertisements for vodka visible among the numerous sex dens. I’m glad we were walking around the neighborhood during the day, as it can get pretty seedy and dangerous at night.
Russians on Texas Street in a Korean Chinatown. It couldn’t get much more internationally jumbled than that, unless they were all wearing lederhosen and eating burritos.
Because of the rain, we didn’t stick around the festival for long; just enough to catch the end of a musical performance, and the beginning of that ancient and revered Chinese ritual of noodle-speed-eating. This was fun, especially when one of the contestants began laughing uncontrollably, shooting noodles out her mouth and nose, all over the table. She didn’t win.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.