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.
We hadn’t expected to have such a great day out in the northern neighborhood of Oncheon-dong. After discovering a popular open-air foot spa, we walked back toward the subway through a boisterous food and goods market. Maybe it’s the collegial atmosphere generated by the closeness of the stands, but people working in these markets always seem to be happier than their counterparts behind the cash register of a grocery store.
Has the lady behind the machine at Mega Mart ever offered you a taste of black pig intestine, just to get a laugh? Or tried and drag you into a conversation about her niece who lives in Vancouver? These things are common-place in the markets of Busan, which are fun places to spend some time in, and rife with great photo opportunities.
Do you remember that one scene in Oldboy? The scene which, after you watched it, you never forgot and needed therapy to recover from? You know, that scene, the one where Oh Dae-Su eats a living octopus? Well, our lunch at the Millak Raw Fish Market brought me as close to the experience of being Oldboy as I ever need to get.
On entering the world’s largest sashimi hall, I was strangely giddy, but also nervous. Jürgen and I had eaten sushi, but never full plates of sashimi, which is just sliced-up raw fish. Luckily, we had a trump card up our sleeves: our friend Young-mi was visiting from Germany. She runs Kimchi Princess, the most popular Korean restaurant in Berlin, and with her at our side, we could eat anything! (Not only would she reassure us with her knowledge, but shame us with her mockery. Like all good friends, Young-mi has no problem letting us know when we’re being wimps).
The bottom floor of the building is a live fish market, with twenty stands run by scheming, curly-haired ladies, who are honed and merciless hawkers. As soon as we entered, the three nearest the door sunk their claws into us, yelling and selling, refusing to recognize negative responses. There seemed to be no difference between the various vendors — the prices were about the same, as was the selection. We resisted the first two fiery fishmongers, but succumbed to the third, who laughed victoriously at her enemies while completing the sale.
We chose a flounder (do-da-li) and a mullet (sung-eo), with an octopus, and a bunch of sea pineapples (meong-ge) thrown in for free. This all cost ₩30,000 ($27) — which, for that much fish, is unbelievable. She laid the mullet on her table and hacked into his head with a huge knife, then told us to go up to the second floor to await our meal. The building has ten stories and, from the upper levels, the view of Gwangalli Beach is unbeatable. But what floor you’re sent to depends entirely upon the vendor from whom you buy your fish — we didn’t know that until after completing our purchase.
Once upstairs, we didn’t have to wait long for our meal. Which makes sense, considering that nothing is being cooked. The flounder and mullet were cut into thin slices and piled onto plates. The sea pineapple was chopped up and served in a bowl of its own juice. It looked horrendous — just alien and awful. The octopus had been hacked into pieces, and set into a dish full of sauce. Its nerves were still firing like crazy and, despite being completely dismembered, the tentacles were crawling around on top of each other, searching for escape.
I downed a shot of soju, grabbed onto a thrashing tentacle with my chopsticks and threw it into my mouth, viciously chomping and chewing so that it couldn’t suction onto the side of my throat as I swallowed. And then another shot of soju. And now, I could think about what had just happened. It was frightening, but once you get past the creature’s frantic motion, its slippery texture and its being raw, the octopus actually tasted rather good.
The whole meal was like that. As had been the case with the octopus, my first bites of flounder and mullet were terrifying and quickly accomplished, without allowing time to think or second-guess. The following mouthfuls were more considered. I had to concede that, against all odds, sashimi is delicious. The taste and smell of the thin slices weren’t fishy in the slightest. They tasted good. Strange. Like nothing, but then again like something cold and healthy and alive. We wrapped the sashimi up in leaves, or just dunked it into soy sauce with wasabi and ate it straight.
Sigh, yes, I see you over there Mr. Sea Pineapple, waving your ugly little red nubs, impatiently awaiting your turn for my approval. Well, you won’t get it. You, my friend, are an abomination. Just the thought of you, your texture and flavor, is making me sick. Ammonia mixed with horse puke. That’s what you taste like. Go to hell where you belong.
In all, it was an exciting meal, and not entirely as scary as I had been anticipating. The hardest part was bargaining with the fish ladies on the bottom floor, and getting over the waves of disgust when that slithering octopus tentacle first touches your tongue. But we were in Busan. Eating sashimi is one of the quintessential experiences in this city. If you have the chance, it’s not to be missed.
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.