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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The beginning of the summer has hit Busan, and the city seems to be celebrating with a raft of festivals. There’s the International Car Show, a River Sports Festival, an International Dance Festival, a Port Festival, and a Traditional Folk Festival… and this all in the first week of June! We felt a little guilty skipping out on all of them, so decided to check out the Sand Festival at Haeundae Beach.
It was one of the first sunny weekend days of summer, and the beach was packed with people. Not too many of them were there for the Sand Festival, though, and it quickly became apparent why. Where we had expected huge statues made of sand, the sculptures weren’t much more than “paintings” in the sand, carved out of big mounds.
Some of them were quite well done, but we weren’t too impressed and quickly abandoned the festival to spend an extra hour laying on the beach. But we got some great photos worth sharing, and the atmosphere on the beach was a lot of fun… even if we can classify the Sand Festival itself as “skippable”.
Among the best experiences we’ve had in Busan have been our visits to Sajik Stadium to watch the Giants. Any American baseball fan who’s ever complained about their team’s high ticket prices, expensive food and drink, or paltry attendance, should definitely pencil in a day at the park while in Busan. This is the stadium experience perfected.
First off, tickets are super cheap. We paid ₩7000 ($6.30) for seats in the outfield. Better seats down the lines aren’t much more, though they can be difficult to get ahold of. The Giants are incredibly popular, and home games sell out quickly. On a sunny Saturday, we showed up two hours early and tickets were already gone. Luckily, plenty of scalpers hang around and we were able to score a couple tickets for a big markup (₩15,000 instead of 7000).
You can get tickets at Busan Bank on the day before the game (note: not the day of). They only sell general admission (outfield) entries, but at least you’ll have them in advance and not have to wait in the frustratingly long lines at Sajik. Alternatively, you can get tickets on the Lotte Giants website, but only if you’re a Korean or have a Korean friend who can do it for you. It’s not just the language — they actually restrict online sales to citizens.
Once you’ve got your tickets, you might want to do some shopping before entering the stadium. This was the single most shocking thing to me about baseball in Korea. Spectators are allowed to carry in whatever food and drink they want, and everybody does so. We watched in awe as fans arrived with stacks of pizza, cases of beer, plates of sushi, buckets of chicken. Compared to the US, where they’ll search your backpack and confiscate half-empty water bottles, this is amazing. I couldn’t get over it.
We didn’t bring anything on our first trip to Sajik, but were well prepared on the second. There’s a superstore called Home Plus near the stadium, and inside is a chain called “Redcap” which has stacks of pizzas ready to go for hungry fans on their way to the game. We got one, and picked up beer and chicken in the supermarket. And now, properly supplied, we could march into the stadium like pros.
But even if you show up to the stadium without any of your own beer, there’s no worry. Inside the park, they only cost ₩2000 a can ($1.80). Food is cheap, too.
So, we’re already having a great time before any players take the field, but the atmosphere really improves once the game gets going. The Giants are the most popular team in Korea, continually setting attendance records, and their fans are wild about them. Jerseys and hats are requisite gear; based on the numbers worn in our immediate vicinity, the most popular players seemed to be #12 (Kim Joo Chan) and #47 (Kang Min Ho). We also saw a weird amount of Cleveland Indians t-shirts and hats. Busan-born Shin-Soo Choo is their right fielder, and Busanites have accordingly turned themselves into boosters of the Tribe. Hey Cleveland, did you know you’ve got a big fan base in southern Korea?!
We seem to be good luck charms for the Giants, who’ve won both games we’ve attended. In the first inning of the match against the Nexen Heroes, they even hit a grand slam. And we got a video of it! There were three home runs in this 8-0 blowout, and the crowd was going wild. The atmosphere inside the stadium rocks. People dancing in their seats, cheering on the big stars, watching the sexy cheerleaders jiggle to K-Pop between innings, booing opposing pitchers when they check the runner at first, and doing the wave.
I’ve never seen a slow-motion wave, and in fact have never heard of one; I wouldn’t have considered such a thing possible and, in the US, it probably wouldn’t be. But here, the crowd fully participates in this amazing feat of coordination, slowly standing out of their seats when the snail-paced wave finally reaches them. Then, when the wave hits the “Exciting Section” (really, that’s its name), it kicks into super-speed. It’s fun, especially when the game is an 8-0 blowout which doesn’t require a lot of attention.
“Lotte”, by the way, is the name of a major company here in Korea. In the US, we might name our stadiums after corporations, but not our teams! It’s kind of weird to see a crowd full of happy families and impressionable children singing “Lot-te Lotte LOTTTT-te!”; the company’s coporate overlords must be delighted about the mass brainwashing going on in Sajik. Towards the end of the game, plastic orange Lotte shopping bags are distributed throughout the crowd, who tie them onto their heads. Again: a tradition of putting plastic bags onto childrens’ heads? It would never happen in the States.
So, though I never would have expected it, baseball in Korea turns out to be an amazing experience. Don’t pass up a chance to visit Sajik Stadium, when in Busan.
We first spotted the Oryukdo Islands toward the end of our hike down the coast of Igidae Park. A string of rocky and uninhabited landmasses, these islands are the most notable feature along Busan’s coastline. In order to get a better look, we took an evening ferry trip which looped around them.
The ferry left from the Mipo terminal at Haeundae Beach, and cost ₩19,500 ($17.55) apiece. A little expensive for the hour-long round trip, but the views of Haeundae, Gwangalli Beach and the Diamond Bridge were worth it.
For the fishermen and merchants approaching Busan from the sea, the Oryukdo Islands have always been the city’s symbol. The profile of the five (or six) islands is certainly memorable. The name “oryukdo” comes from the fact that, depending upon the tide, there appear to be either five (o) or six (yuk) islands (do). Except for the furthest in the chain, on which a lighthouse has been built, the islands are completely barren. Nothing much could be built on these craggy hills of rock.
The evening ferry runs approximately once an hour from Mipo and more frequently during the weekends. We left at 17:10, but could have delayed our journey by an hour in order to see the sun set behind the city.
The Busan National Gugak Center opened in 2008 with the mission of bringing Korea’s culture to the masses. We went to an incredible Tuesday night performance which introduced us to some of the peninsula’s traditional music, dance and drumming.
We weren’t sure what to expect on taking our seats in the Gugak Center’s comfortable Yegi-dang (small hall). At just ₩6000 ($5.40) apiece, the tickets were cheap and the hall was packed full with Koreans of all ages. We were the only foreign faces in the crowd of around 300, despite the fact that foreign residents get a discount. The show got underway at 7:30pm and, over the course of its 90 minutes, brought the house down.
Act One: Percussion
As the lights came up, a group of seven drummers were seated in front of traditional percussion instruments. Five barrel drums, a gong, and two horrid things I’ll call “metal clang pots”. This act lasted at least forty minutes and I don’t really know how to describe it. Imagine the sound of 50 sugar-fueled five-year-olds equipped with metal spoons and their parents’ best pots and pans, just banging like crazy, non-stop for forty minutes. Except they’re very talented and keep an amazing rhythm. The drumming got softer and louder, building up into exhilarating crescendos or descending into asynchronous cacophony, but it never stopped.
It was awesome, but the drummers in charge of the ridiculous “metal clang pots” prevented us from truly enjoying the music. And we were way toward the back of the theater! I have no idea how the old women seated in the front rows weren’t covering their ears and screaming in pain, but they weren’t. They were clapping, squealing, dancing in their seats and generally behaving like Mötley Crüe groupies. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a bra thrown on the stage.
Act Two: Pihyang
Things quieted down considerably for the second act, a graceful court dance featuring a solitary performer. Dressed in a flowing red robe with overly long sleeves, the woman glided around the stage to the sounds of drums and flutes. I’m not sure whether this dance is actually called “Pi-hyang”… it’s listed in the program as 비향, but we couldn’t find any information about it online. Regardless, it was a pleasant intermission between the riotous first and third acts.
Act Three: Pangut
Pangut is a traditional rural dance of South Korea, featuring a troupe of drummers wearing hats with long white ribbons affixed to them. As they drum and dance around the stage, they rotate their head or twist it from side to side, causing the ribbon to spiral above and behind them. The skill which needed for this, I can hardly imagine. Not just the complicated drumming, but an intricate dance and — on top of that — knowing when and how to twist your head to induce the correct ribbon swirl. Amazing.
Act Four: Geumho Drum Dance
For the fourth act, an additional pair of dancing drummers joined the stage. These two were wearing bizarre giant feathery hats which made them look like human ice cream cones. One all in white, and the other in a mix of red and green. It was about the last thing we’d expected and, while they danced around in their poof-hats, I wasn’t sure whether to take it seriously or die laughing. And then six other featherheads joined them on stage, and I couldn’t help myself. This was hilarious.
But my mirth wasn’t out of place; this was clearly a joyful dance and, as it concluded, the troupe pranced out into the audience and encouraged us all to follow them outside. For fifteen minutes, performers and spectators danced and drummed in the Gugak’s courtyard.
Quite a night. We hadn’t been expecting to have anywhere near that much fun, and began to plan our next trip to the Gugak Center during the subway ride back home. What a great way to experience traditional Korean culture.
Crescent-shaped Gwangalli Beach is one of the most popular hangouts in Busan, offering fine sand, good swimming, and an exorbitant number of cafés, restaurants and bars. We were lucky enough to call it home for three months and spent a lot of time on the its entertaining promenade.
Gwangalli is known as “Café Town”: a well-deserved nickname. If you’re looking for a caffeine fix, there’s an endless supply of cafés to choose from. Angelinus Coffee even has two branches here. These cafés, very Western in style and selection, share the beach front with a large number of bars and clubs, including a few which are known as “foreigner bars”.
By our second weekend in Busan, we’d already spotted three foreigners (almost definitely Americans) passed out on Gwangalli Beach. One girl, still her in Saturday clubbing outfit, was laying completely immobile, face-down on the sand at 1pm on Sunday afternoon. Sigh. We Americans aren’t exactly known for our drinking prowess, but that’s something else. It’s a good thing there’s not much crime in Busan.
At the northern end of Gwangalli is a live fish market and the world’s largest sashimi house, which we visited. An unmissable Korean experience; you choose your live fish from one of the vendors, then take it to one of the upstairs restaurants where it’s sliced up and served fresh.
As much fun as Gwangalli can be during the day, it’s especially lively at night when the promenade fills up with love-struck couples and groups of friends meeting up, for a night on the town. The atmosphere is festive, with lights of the bars and cafes matched across the water by the lights of the sparkling Diamond Bridge. Gwangan Bridge is Korea’s second-longest, measuring in at a jaw-dropping four miles, and the way it encircles the bay is quite beautiful.
Beach season gets underway at the beginning of July, and the swimming at Gwangalli is fantastic. A selection of watersports, such as jet skiing, are available from the nearby Busan Yachting Center. This was a great area to be living in during the summer.
Busan or Pusan? The name is spelled both ways on signs around the city. Before arriving, I’d have bet that the official name was Pusan, but I would have been wrong. In 2000, a new method of transliterating Korean was implemented and the name changed overnight to “Busan”. The Korean character ㅂ represents both “b” and “p” (which, when you think about it, are nearly the same letter anyway). For the city’s residents, there’s no change at all. 부산 remains 부산.
To my ears, “Pusan” sounds more like what people are actually saying, but it’s a close call. Regardless, Busan is a lot easier for Western tongues than the city’s original name, Geochilsanguk! Here’s a quick look at Busan’s long, tumultuous history:
The earliest evidence of humanity in Busan dates from around 18000 BC. Pottery and shell middens mostly found along rivers and the coast indicate a fishing-based society.
2nd Century AD
The town is organized for the first time as “Geochilsanguk”, under the administration of the Jinhan Confederacy.
After being absorbed into the powerful dynasty of Silla, the city’s name is changed to Dongnae, still the name of one of Busan’s neighborhoods. Silla was one of the Three Kingdoms of ancient Korea.
The Goryeo Dynasty (whose name would evolve into “Korea”) had succeeded in uniting the Three Kingdoms, and renames Dongnae to Busan-po. “Busan-” means “kettle”, referring to the shape of the city’s mountain, and “-po” means “harbor”.
Busan is designated an official trading post with Japan, leading to the formation of a large Japanese population in the city.
Busan becomes the scene for the opening strike in the Imjin War, during which Japan invades Korea. The Japanese have a new technology in firearms, and overrun the city in two days.
Busan becomes Korea’s first international port, and the city expands rapidly from a fishing village into a major center of commerce.
In 1910, Korea was annexed by an aggressive imperial Japan. Not the finest moment for the country, but Busan flourished under the Japanese administration, and technological innovations not seen in the rest of Korea are introduced here.
Following WWII, Koreans are outraged by the unilateral Allied decision to split the country into two protectorates (American to the south, Soviet to the north). Railroad workers in Busan strike, kicking off the Autumn Uprising, which quickly spreads throughout the country.
Busan serves as Korea’s provincial capital, after most of the peninsula falls under Communist control. The Battle of the Pusan Perimeter lasts 45 days, sees 120,000 casualties and ends in a successful US-led defense of the city.
N. Korean POWS in Busan (Dept of Defense)
After a period of steady post-war economic progress and urban development, Busan is promoted to a Metropolitan City, giving it the same status as a province.
And Beyond… Construction continues in Busan at a furious pace, with giant retail stores, housing, and business centers sprouting up all over. It’s hard to imagine Busan sprawling out even further, but we probably shouldn’t underestimate the city’s hard-working, optimistic populace.
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.