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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.


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 Busan Museum

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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.


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.


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)

Suyeong Park

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Before visiting Suyeong Park, we had no idea what to expect. Despite its central location, with Bexco and Shinsegae visible just over the Suyeong River, this ramshackle neighborhood is definitely not on the normal tourist itinerary. But we had a great time in the park, which was filled with historical monuments, sacred trees and people playing chess, exercising and just relaxing.


Suyeong Park occupies the former site of the Joseon Empire’s naval base, which was used mostly for operations in the East Sea against Japan (the body of water which separates Japan from the continent is referred to by most of the world as the “Sea of Japan”, but this designation has been aggressively contested by Korea for years, who believe “East Sea” should be the name of record. We’re on Korea’s side by default, at least for this 91 days, so “East Sea” it is!)

There are a number of historical remnants in the park, such as the South Gate of the former citadel: two arched gates which lead into the park, guarded by a pair of stone dogs who watch for Japanese pirates. And there’s the Euiyonjeinbi monument which commemorates the deaths of 25 patriots during the Imjin War with gravestones set in front of a large shrine. But my favorite object in the park wasn’t man-made; it was the 500-year old Pujo tree, which stands out with its sheer size and distinctive shape. According to a sign, locals believe the spirit of an old grandmother resides in the tree, bringing luck to those who remember her.

The park also houses the Suyeong Folk Art Center, with a large circular arena where we read that cultural performances “regularly” take place. I asked the girl working there, and it turns out that “regularly” means twice a year, with the next performance sometime in the fall. That’s an incomprehensible waste; this could be a great outdoor theater for the summer.

The best part of Suyeong Park was the number of people who were there enjoying it. Along with the usual array of gym machines, there was an area for Korean Chess where a bunch of matches were being hotly contested. It’s a game I’d like to learn, and I watched one particularly fast-moving game for awhile. But I had no clue what was going on; it looked to me like they were just randomly shuffling the pieces around in between swigs of soju… which, even if that’s the extent of it, would still be a fun game.

Our day ended with a walk through the surrounding neighborhood. Despite being smack in the middle of the city and so close to ultra-modern structures like Shinsegae, there’s an appealing old-world vibe in Suyeong. No skyscrapers or giant apartment buildings, no Starbucks or western-style shops. Everything looks just a little run-down; the shops are old and cluttered, and the restaurants are cheap, humble neighborhood joints. It’s definitely an interesting corner of Busan.

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June 18, 2012 at 9:30 am Comments (0)

Christian Korea

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Just like baseball and pop music, there’s another aspect of American culture which Korea has adopted, and then taken to the next level: in-your-face Christianity. I can’t get through a single day without encountering another proselytizing Protestant, whether in the street or the subway. They invite me to their church, push “Jesus Loves You” fliers into my hand, and pray aloud for my eternal soul. They lure me in with free orange juice, and only then reveal their true intentions. They’re trickier, these Korean Christians, and more determined than their American brethren. They see my soul, and they want it. They want to gobble it up.

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If you add up the Protestants (18%) and Catholics (11%), Christians outweigh Buddhists in Korea by a healthy margin, 29 to 23%. Their churches might not be as lovely or traditional as the Buddhist temples we’ve visited, but there are plenty of them, often advertised with a gaudy neon red cross. The world’s single largest Pentecostal church is in Korea: Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, with a congregation over a million strong.

Christianity was introduced to the peninsula in the 17th century by European missionaries. The ruling Joseon Empire was highly suspicious of all foreign influence, and targeted Catholics for abuse and murder, up until their dissolution in 1910. Which, of course, only provided the persecuted religious minority with martyrs.

During the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of Korea, Christianity came to be identified with Korean nationalism — Japanese beliefs were being forced onto the subjugated country, including the demand to worship Japan’s Emperor as a god. Christians refused to do this out of religious principle (it’s Commandment #1, after all) and thus won a lot of respect from their compatriots, who assumed they were refusing because they loved Korea so much.

Christianity only strengthened its foothold after the Japanese occupation ended, and the period of US influence began. The menace of North Korea was looming, and the religion was thought to be a sort of spiritual immunization against communism. In the aftermath of the Korean War, Christianity was aggressively evangelized, particularly among the poor and distressed, who were in great number. South Korea would recover and grow into an international financial powerhouse, and Christian faith was thought by many to be a key factor in the transformation.

All of which goes a long way in explaining why Christianity is so popular here. What I can’t figure out, is why they so desperately want to sign me up. I suppose it’s a nice gesture, being concerned with my eternal soul, but still. Buddhists kind of just leave you alone and do their own thing. That appeals to me a whole lot more than the constant public preaching.

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June 15, 2012 at 9:30 am Comment (1)

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.


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)

Jungang Park and the Chunghon Tower

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Set atop Daecheong Mountain, one of Busan’s most central peaks, Jungang Park offers visitors an unparalleled view over the city and its port. Inaugurated almost twenty years ago, the park and its crowning Chunghon Tower are dedicated to the memories of the service personnel who gave their lives in the Korean War.


During the war years, the slopes of Daecheong Mountain hosted many of the refugees who had flocked to Busan, fleeing the carnage in the north. The mountain was an ideal shelter for the newcomers, central enough to be practical, but also separated from the city’s regular life by its sheer altitude.

At the center of Jungang Park is the tall, circular Chunghon Tower. A long set of stone stairs leads up to it; around the tower’s base is a series of photographs detailing the atrocities of North Korea and the heroic deeds of the South. More than a bit propagandistic, but I suppose they earned the right. The tower itself is impressive for its size, if a little abstract. A statue, apparently of the policemen and soldiers whom the monument lionizes, was hidden behind a tarp for cleaning when we were there.

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The, uh, Eternal Flame of Democracy!

Adjacent to Jungang Park is the enchantingly named Democracy Park. We visited on a Sunday and the park was filled with kids playing hide-and-seek, old ladies dancing and singing (for real), and groups of men engaged in games of Korean Chess. A bizarre set of sculptures decorate the park, along with a couple memorials dedicated to great moments in Korean Democracy, such as 1960’s uprising against the country’s corrupt government.

The centerpiece of Democracy Park is a large spiral-shaped building called the Memorial Hall. Out of its center rises the Democracy Flame, which looked to me like a semi-collapsed tower built of K’NEX; as though the kid building it had a moment of clumsiness, then couldn’t muster the energy to repair his creation. A subtle nod to the fragile, time-consuming and frustrating nature of democracy, so often abandoned? I doubt that’s what the artist had in mind, but the metaphor works.

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May 16, 2012 at 10:44 am Comment (1)

A Cable Car to Geumjeongsanseong Fortress

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Turns out that Busan is the kind of city which can have a giant mountain right in its center, topped by an ancient fortress, accessible by cable car… and it’s not a big deal. We were shocked when we learned of the cable car up Mt. Geumjeongsanseong, and Busan was all “Oh yeah, that. I forgot about that.” It doesn’t even appear in the various “must-do” lists we’ve read for Busan, while in most other cities it would be the top highlight!

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The origins of Geumjeongsanseong Fortress lie obscured in the past, but it’s thought to date from the Three Kingdoms period of Korea (57 AD – 668), when Busan was part of Silla. Rebuilt in 1707, it’s the largest mountain fortress in the country, spanning 3.2 square miles. A wall in various states of repair marks the perimeter, with gates and watchtowers spaced along its length. Nowadays, the interior of the fort is used for hiking (an über-popular Korean pastime) and nature retreats.

The cable car up the mountain was fun, although the day was so hazy that our view was severely limited. It takes about five minutes and runs for over a kilometer. On arriving, we had to hike twenty minutes uphill to arrive at the fortress’ South Gate, which has been recently renovated, as have long stretches of the wall.

After passing through the gate, our day really started. We had underestimated the size of the park, and immediately realized that our planned hike to the North Gate wouldn’t be happening. We walked along the eastern wall for a couple hours on a well-marked but very hilly path, dodging the caterpillars hanging from trees, and enjoying some incredible views over the city.

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For a mountain fortress on a Tuesday morning, this was a surprisingly busy place. We encountered a ton of other hikers, and every single one of them was completely outfitted in Ultimate Hiking Gear. The pants, the jackets, the backpacks, gloves, sticks, caps, etc. It was like we had landed in a commercial for hiking clothing and equipment.

On the way back to the South Gate, we got lost — getting lost seems to be a pattern for us in Busan. We were within 500 meters of the exit, but turned right instead of left, ignoring the sign for something called “Nam Mun” and continuing for an hour before finally pausing and thinking, “… wait a second”. Turns out, Nam Mun means South Gate. Oh silly guys, how did we not recognize the sign that so clearly pointed the way to “남문”?!

Although we were completely exhausted by the time we arrived back home, it was a great day out and I think we’ll be back. The Western Gate of the fortress is supposed to be impressive, as is Godangbong, the city’s highest peak. There’s enough to see on Geumjeongsan Mountain to occupy days.

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May 10, 2012 at 9:41 am Comments (5)
The 40 Steps 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.
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