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The National Maritime Museum

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Busan is always at work on itself, more so than any other place we’ve lived, erecting new buildings, improving on its image and expanding its cultural offerings. We visited one of the city’s latest achievements just days after it opened: the National Maritime Museum.

The-National-Maritime-Museum-Busan

The gleaming white building itself is impressive enough to warrant a visit. Found on the northwestern coast of Yeongdo Island, it looks a little like an enormous toilet bowl. Not a very appealing comparison, I suppose, but I don’t mean to be negative — that’s just its shape! Plus, there’s the association with water, and the fact that it’s filled with all sorts of crap.

The museum and the park surrounding it occupy nearly 500,000 square feet. There are eight permanent exhibitions, a special children’s museum, a rooftop observation deck, a massive maritime library, a walk-through aquarium, a 4D theater, an auditorium and a variety of restaurants and cafes. In other words, don’t go expecting to spend just a short amount of time there — even if you’re quick about it, this place will consume hours.

Amazingly, the museum is free. The exhibits are uniformly interesting, detailing both Korea’s relationship to the sea, as well as the global situation of the oceans. The aquarium was small, but there were a few sharks and mantas swimming around in there, which are the only things I ever care about anyway. And the hands-on exhibits were fun, especially for children. Perhaps the best part was the rooftop observation deck, where you have a great view over the harbor and the Oryukdo Islands.

The museum is easy to reach with public transportation; bus #66, leaving from Nampo-dong (exit 6) goes straight there. And it’s definitely worth the effort of visiting.

Location on our Busan Map
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July 23, 2012 at 8:36 am Comments (9)

The Busan Museum

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Korean History Books

Opened in 1978 at the western end of the U.N. Park in Daeyeon, the Busan Museum takes visitors on a journey through the history of the city and its region, from paleolithic times to the modern day. We visited recently and found it to be the perfect rainy-day activity.

Face-Shell-Korea-Busan

Busan Museum is quite large, well-organized and, like most museums in the city, completely free. Busan as a city has a relatively recent story; up until the late 19th century, it was a mere fishing village, nowhere near as important as nearby Gyeongju or Daegu. Not until 1876, when its port was opened to international trade, did Busan become a city of any importance.

But that doesn’t mean that its history isn’t interesting. Starting in the late Paleolithic period, with the first documented appearance of humanity around the mouth of the Nakdong, visitors are slowly brought to the modern age. There are two floors of fascinating exhibits which have excellent English translations and shed a light on life in the various phases of Korean history.

Byeonhan-Skull-Crushing

Our favorite section detailed the period of the Three Kingdoms (around 57 AD – 668), when the various tribes of the peninsula were organizing themselves for the first time. One exhibit showed how the people of that day used primitive body-modification techniques to give themselves flat foreheads or pointy feet. On the second floor of the museum, there’s a room dedicated entirely to the relationship of the Japanese to Busan, which is more even-handed (and therefore, more interesting) than the “Japan=Villain” equations of the Modern History Museum.

How much enjoyment you get out of this museum is entirely a function of your interest in history. Nicely presented, informative and with plenty of information in English, we thought it was well done.

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July 19, 2012 at 10:01 am Comments (2)

Further Afield in Gyeongju

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We’d spent the first of our two day trip to Gyeongju within the city confines, and dedicated the second day to sights further afield. After a breakfast of questionable nutritious value at Dunkin’ Donuts, we hopped on the bus that would take us to the sea.

Underwater-Tomb-of-King-Munmu

The Underwater Tomb of King Munmu had such an evocative ring to it, that we put it on our itinerary without bothering to do any research. How could something called The Underwater Tomb of King Munmu be anything other than fascinating? The bus ride to the coast took well over an hour, and deposited us on Bonggil Beach. There were a couple restaurants, some watermelons left on the sand, a group of large stones protruding out of the ocean, and a few people camping nearby.

We asked the campers where we could find the tomb, and they pointed at the rocks in the water. The King had apparently asked for his ashes to be scattered there, so that he might one day arise as a dragon to protect Korea. Quite a disappointment. I suppose I had been expecting something more like the Mumm-Ra’s Tomb:


Mumm-Ra vs. Munmu – the names are where the similarities stop (Image Source: toyarchive.com)

After waiting nearly an hour for the bus to return, we made our way to Bulguksa Temple, which is possibly the most important Buddhist temple in the entire country and definitely among the most beautiful. Seven of Korea’s official National Treasures are found here, including a pair of stone pagodas which date from the temple’s original construction in the 8th century. It’s a large complex with a perfect setting in the forested hills east of Gyeongju, and extremely popular with Korean tourists.

Historic-Sights-Korea

We spent a long time exploring the grounds at Bulguksa and, on finishing, found ourselves presented with a dilemma. Should we do the two-hour round-trip hike to the Seokguram Grotto, or return to Gyeongju and visit the National Museum. There was only enough time for one, so we wussed out and chose the museum. This has enraged the Korean friends we’ve told, as most rank Seokguram “unmissable”, but Jürgen’s ankle was still healing. And we were tired from the trip. And… and… and… excuses are easy to find when you’re trying to avoid physical activity.

Face-Gyeongju

And anyway, we were happy with our choice. The Gyeongju National Museum was fascinating. Dedicated to the Silla Kingdom, whose ruins we’d just spent two days exploring, this was a fitting final chapter for our trip to the former capital. Split up into five different halls concentrating on ancient architecture, art, and recovered artifacts, you could easily spend a couple hours here.

Locations on our Map: Tomb of King Munmu | Bulguksa Temple | Gyeongju National Museum

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July 14, 2012 at 1:00 am Comments (2)

Busan’s Trick Eye Museum

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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.

Trapped By Snake

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.

Location on our Busan Map
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June 28, 2012 at 8:46 am Comments (36)

The Busan Museum of Art

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We visited the Busan Museum of Art the day after our bizarre excursion to the Snow Castle indoor ski hall. And here, again, was a cavernous building of steel, completely devoid of people. But whereas the Snow Castle has shuttered its doors forever, the art museum was open for business. Just… there was no business.

Korean Artist

The BMA is found in a busy section of town, near the Shinsegae department store and the BEXCO convention hall. It’s free and even has its own subway stop. The rooms are spacious and filled with interesting modern art. But for reasons known only to the finicky hive-mind of Korea, there wasn’t a soul when we visited, on an early Friday evening. Amazing. And kind of disquieting.

The Busan Museum of Art should really call itself a Museum of Modern Art, because all of its works are from the mid 1900s and on. I had been hoping for a primer on the history of Korean art, but these were very abstract, modern works — mostly Korean, but not entirely. There was even a portrait of Andy Warhol, a man whose presence in an art museum almost always sends me screaming for the exits.

While I was checking out the paintings and sculptures, Jürgen was engrossed with the shapes and angles of the building itself. A lot of thought and skill obviously went into the architectural design of the BMA, which is perhaps its own best work of art.

Despite our relative indifference to modern art, we had a good time in the museum, possibly because it felt like we had the run of the place. It’s a great spot to get a little culture before heading out for more shopping, or sunning on the beach.

Busan Museum of Art – Website (English)
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June 12, 2012 at 9:01 am Comments (2)

The Busan Modern History Museum

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On the northern side of Yongdusan Park is the Busan Modern History Museum, which takes visitors on a stroll through the recent past of the city. It might as well call itself the Busan Museum of Japanese Aggression, because that’s basically the focus of every exhibit.

Busan-Modern-History-Museum

Modern history has given Busan plenty of reasons to dislike its neighbor to the east. Korea has always been battered about back and forth between the powers of Japan and China, who took turns possessing, threatening, attacking and pillaging the over-matched peninsula. Busan is the closest point of entry for the Japanese, so it makes sense that this city has borne the brunt of their abuse.

According to the museum, the modern history of Busan begins in 1876 with the opening of the port to international trade. Right away, the anti-Japan slant begins, as the we learn that the opening of the port was forced by the aggressive island empire, who wanted to obtain a foothold on the continent. Soon enough, Busan was on the losing end of unequal trade, and seeing large settlements of Japanese citizens replace their own.

The opening of Busan to the world should have been an exciting chapter in the city’s history, but the museum paints a grim picture of life under the influence of the Japanese. The foreigners came to control most of the city, giving optimal land to their settlers and converting the Dongrae area from the city’s historic center to their own pleasure park. As the years wore on, Koreans were conscripted into Japanese armies, and even sold into sexual slavery — an outrage for which, the museum notes, “Japan has never apologized”.

Surely there’s more to Busan’s modern history than Japan, and I kept waiting for the museum to move beyond its fixation. There’s a small room dedicated to the American-Korean relationship, following the Japanese expulsion at the end of World War II, and a little information about Busan’s growth, including a neat interactive panorama showing how much land has been reclaimed from the sea. But the focus is clear.

There’s no denying how evil and aggressive Imperial Japan was, and life in Busan must have been awful under their yoke. But history is never black-and-white and, for all their crimes, Japan also brought Busan into the modern age. Technology never before seen on the Korean peninsula was introduced, railways were built, bridges were constructed, streets were modernized, and so on. A case could be made that Busan lived a sort of golden period under the Japanese influence.

Regardless of your point of view, or what lessons you glean from its exhibits, the museum is fascinating and well worth the hour it takes to tour its two floors. And it’s free. When you exit, you might be in the mood to violently berate the next Japanese person you meet, but please try to remember: this is history. Let’s move on!

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June 9, 2012 at 1:17 am Comment (1)