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The 40 Steps

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Busan is a city with its sights focused firmly on the future — which makes sense, because its past has been so fraught with hardship. But among the glitzy department stores and new constructions, there are a few memorials to bygone days. One of the most poignant is the 40 Steps, found near Yongdusan Hill.

40-Steps-in-Busan

In 1950, when South Korea was swiftly overwhelmed by the North’s surprise attack, Busan became the country’s provisional capital — not that there was any choice; it was the only city of any size to withstand the communist onslaught. As the war ground on, the city became the de facto place of refuge, where South Koreans fled to escape the brutal fighting ravaging the rest of the country.

During the war, hundreds of thousands of refugees crammed into Busan, especially in the areas of Yongdusan Hill and the port. Among such a desperate crush of humanity, many families found themselves separated, lost among the crowds disembarking the overly-packed trains and ships.

Getting separated from your family in war-time Korea wasn’t the minor inconvenience it would be today. There were no phones, no possibility of communication. You lose your mommy, and she’s going to stay lost. But among the newcomers, word spread of a spot in Busan where families could reunite. Anyone looking for a missing child or wife should head to the 40 Steps. This is where people could find each other again.

This small section of town, which meant so much to so many families, has today been memorialized with statues and a cultural center. Even without its history, it’s a cool area, with nice cafes and a lack of traffic. The statues hearken back to the 1950s, when accordion players would entertain the lost families, and children would wait for the popcorn cannon to produce their treat. It’s one of the most atmospheric corners in Busan, and definitely worth a look.

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July 30, 2012 at 3:10 am Comments (2)

The Cascading Fountain of Nampo’s Lotte

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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.

Lotte-Fountain-Busan

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.

Location of Lotte Gwangbok on our Map
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July 30, 2012 at 2:31 am Comments (5)

Seokbulsa Temple

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We’ve heard people claim that Seokbulsa is not just the best Buddhist temple in Busan, but the most lovely in all South Korea. Although we’re in no position to judge, Jürgen and I are in agreement that Seokbulsa is the most amazing temple we’ve seen during our three months here.

Seokbulsa-Temple

Found high up Mt. Geumjeongsan, Seokbulsa (석불사) is difficult to reach, but well worth the effort. We began our journey by returning to the cable car we’d ridden during our first ascent up the mountain, on one of our very first excursions in Busan. Back then, we had been visiting the Geumjeongsanseong Fortress, but this time we headed off in the opposite direction. An easy, downhill path led us through South Gate Village (남문 마을) and then followed a stream for a couple kilometers. It was a beautiful walk through the woods, fairly crowded with other hikers.

Eventually, the path ended at a T, and we immediately knew that we’d have to take a right to reach the temple. No, we’re not master navigators, nor did we have a map — there just happened to be a gray-clothed Buddhist monk sitting on a stone, up towards the right, bald head buried deep in a book. When you’re searching for a temple, a monk in the woods is a good sign you’re on the right track.

Monk-Friend-Friends

The final twenty minutes of our journey was steeply uphill, and very difficult. But the sight that awaited us made up for the sweat. Seokbulsa is a small temple lodged unforgettably into the side of a mountain. There are a number of buildings and cave altars to explore and, probably because of how hard it is to reach, not many other people around to detract from the experience. In fact, we were completely alone during our visit.

The altar buildings are impressive, and from the courtyard you have a superb view over Busan, but the highlights of Seokbulsa are the massive, 30-foot Buddhist figures carved out of the mountain rock. I don’t know who any of them were, Bodhisattvas of some sort, but my ignorance didn’t make them any less incredible. Past the figures, you can visit a small altar and squeeze through a narrow opening in the rocks to another cave where candles have been set.

Our trip to Seokbulsa was the only time we’ve experienced that sense of adventure that went hand-in-hand with exploring the ancient Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka. Not only is the temple itself worth the effort of hunting down, but the beautiful hike and entertaining cable car ride combine to make this one of the most rewarding excursions in Busan.

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July 26, 2012 at 12:59 am Comments (7)

The Grand Children’s Park

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It was about ten minutes after our entrance into Busan’s Grand Children’s Park before we realized something was amiss. The park was crowded with senior citizens playing go-stop and full-grown adults hiking or playing badminton. But one thing was conspicuously missing from the Children’s Park: children.

Busan Art

Found near the Samgwangsa Temple, the park surrounds a beautiful reservoir which is fed by a cascading stream and ringed by heavy woods. It’s yet another spot in central Busan where it’s impossible to believe you’re in the middle of a metropolis; so serene and quiet. And the tranquility is definitely enhanced by the utter lack of squealing brats.

And this would be a great place for kids and families to spend some time! There’s a zoo, an amusement park, a practice driving course and an entire three-floor science museum. Of these, we visited only the Science hall. And we had the run of the place. I had long suspected how much better the world would be without children, but never truly understood. While the museum’s staff watched us with either contempt or boredom (surprisingly difficult to tell between the two), we played with all the awesome toys that stupid children normally hog.

This is Korea, so the games and exhibitions were guaranteed to be more modern and ten times better than in science museums back home. We spent a long time battling each other in Robot Soccer, then moved over to the simulation bike ride through Korea. We walked through a space tunnel and played with awesome mechanical contraptions designed to show off concepts like electromagnetism.

Having had our fill of fun, we left the museum and took a nature hike around the reservoir. Gorgeous; this was perhaps the most scenic park we’ve yet visited in Busan. The woods, the stream, the wooden path built high up off the ground, the peace and quiet. If you need a break from city life or just want to escape the presence of children, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place than the Children’s Park.

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July 24, 2012 at 5:59 am Comments (3)

The Brilliance of the Yogi-Yo Button

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Of all the technological marvels we’ve seen in ultra-modern South Korea, only one has completely wedged its way into our hearts: the Yogi-Yo button. Found on tables in many of Busan’s restaurants, it is utter, blissful genius. Press it, and your waiter appears like magic. Leave it unpressed, and you’re left alone.

Yogi-Yo-Button

There are plenty of advancements in Korea which the USA could sorely use. Bullet trains. Affordable, first-class health care. Efficient public transportation. A low crime rate. These are all important, to be sure, but if I could bring just one thing with me back home, it would be the Yogi-Yo button. My lord, do we need this.

“Yogi-Yo” approximately means “Hey, over here”! It’s what you would shout in a Korean restaurant to get your waiter’s attention. But with the Yogi-Yo button, you don’t even have to shout. If you want another bottle of soju, you don’t wait patiently for your server to come by. You just press this magical button and she’ll come running.

Our first few times eating out, we were too shy to actually use the Yogi-Yo button. It felt too pushy, and I’ve been conditioned by my American upbringing to treat waiters with meek politeness, rather than as the servants they are (heh, that little quip ought to win me some spite!) But now, in our third month in Korea, we press the Yogi-Yo button without hesitation. Sometimes, I’ll gobble up all the kimchi, not because I’m extra-hungry, but because I want to hit the button again and watch the waitress come scurrying.

Yes, the Yogi-Yo button must enter the American dining scene as soon as possible. And while we’re at it, we should also import Korea’s tipping policy. That is: no tips ever, not even pocket change. America’s waiters have gotten a little too entitled in the past decade. 20% now standard?! Yeah, I don’t think so. “Yogi-Yo, buddy. Get me another beer and, no, I’m not going to pay you extra for doing it”. That’s the way it should be.


All joking aside… after over ten years living outside the US, I find our tipping culture to be horrifying. Twenty percent is absolutely ridiculous, and found nowhere else in the world. It’s out of all proportion — the staff is simply performing the service they’re being paid to perform. Customers should expect to receive good service regardless of the “tip”. Am I right? And sure, waiters earn a pittance, depending on tips for their real wage — but how is that my fault? Restaurants ought to pay their employees correctly. After so much time living in other countries, the idea of paying somebody extra just because they carried food to my table seems completely insane.

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July 22, 2012 at 5:51 am Comments (9)

Hiking at Taejongdae

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At the southern extreme of Yeongdo Island, a thick forest suddenly gives way to soaring seaside cliffs. This is Taejongdae Park, one of the most emblematic spots in Busan, and a popular place for a walk or, if you’d rather, a scenic ride in a tourist train.

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We arrived at Taejongdae after a lengthy hike along the southern coast of the island. Our day started at a collection of tents set up along the water, selling and preparing clams, mollusks and sea pineapples. We didn’t have any appetite and after our experience at the Millak Raw Fish Market, the sight of a sea pineapple makes me nauseous, but this was a cool area. Sometimes, the waves would crash so high that they’d drench the plates of seafood. I suppose a little sea water on your clams isn’t all that bad.

Our path now went straight uphill, and continued through the woods for a few kilometers. Every once in awhile, we’d get incredible views over the sea, and there were very few other hikers around to spoil the tranquility.

Foggy Hike

The solitude, though, came to an abrupt when we reached the entrance to Taejongdae Park. Even though it was a regular workday, there were a ton of people here. Mostly young couples wearing matching t-shirts. This “Partner Look” is a phenomenon which has amused us since our arrival — often, it’s not just the same shirts, but whole outfits arranged in a complementary fashion. A guy wearing a shirt in the same light-blue color of his girlfriend’s skirt, and both wearing the same baby-blue sneakers. (I shouldn’t smirk too much. Jürgen and I tend to dress alike, too: dirty t-shirts and ratty jeans.)

Most of the people didn’t join us on our walk through Taejongdae, instead waiting for the “tourist train” which circles the park and hits the various sights. There was a lot to see — sculptures, temples, flower gardens. The highlight, though, is the lighthouse and observatory at the far end of the island. With unbeatable views of the nearby Oryukdo Islands to the north and rocky cliffs to the south, this is an amazing area. We climbed out onto the rocks, and took a break before heading back to the park entrance.

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July 21, 2012 at 6:00 am Comments (3)

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.

Apec Building Busan>

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.

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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)

The Eulsukdo Island Bird Sanctuary

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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.

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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.

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July 6, 2012 at 9:32 am Comment (1)

Busan’s Chinatown – Shanghai Street

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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.

Chinatown Korea

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.

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July 2, 2012 at 12:36 am Comments (2)

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