Beautiful Busan: Bustling with fun

Travel

Beautiful Busan: Bustling with fun

by: Story and photo by Simone Armer | .
www.SimoneArmer.com | .
published: April 03, 2018
Gukje Market
 
“Get the vision, get the vision, get the vision, come -,” I executed the last of The Kills’ new album with a tug of my earphones when we touched down on the tarmac, breathing a small, happy sigh of relief. We had finally made it to South Korea. Or had we? The 55 minute flight from Fukuoka to Busan is odd; it takes that long to fly to Osaka and then you’re still in Japan. I blushed at the hangul winking at us through the window as we skated towards the gangway. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore.
 
This only became more apparent as we made our way though immigration, and then customs. “Everyone’s so tall!” I observed out loud to Madelyn. She nodded, smiling. It was my first trip to an Asian country that’s not Japan, and I couldn’t help but compare. “Wait till you see the trash!” Sure enough, empty coffee cups and soda cans were spilling out of the tops of every rubbish bin in the arrivals hall.
 
It was surprisingly refreshing to be somewhere where there was a bit of disorder. It reminded me of home.
 
Our 3-day getaway would be a much-needed break for the both of us; Madelyn wanted to splurge on one last trip before she heads back to Canada at the end of the month, and I needed to come up for air. The stresses of living in a foreign country for three years have their way of creeping up on you. Busan was a natural choice – close enough to Japan for a short holiday and light enough on our yen to be able to spoil ourselves a little.
 
We had decided to taxi the hour’s drive from Gimhae International Airport to our Airbnb on Gwangalli Beach, which, if my research was sound, would only set us back about ₩30,000 (approximately 3,000円, or $30). I leaned back into the leather chair of the Hyundai van and stared out into the gray.
 
Busan is gorgeously weird. The port city, located on the south-eastern-most tip of the Korean peninsula, sprawls beneath 18 mountain peaks, spilling down into narrow valleys between the Nakdong and Suyeong Rivers, and over the edge of its six beaches. Overlooking it all are the perfectly spaced tower apartment blocks that monopolize the city’s skyline. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
 
“I feel like if I saw a spaceship come over that hill right now I wouldn’t even be surprised,” I said to Madelyn. The inside of the taxi was just as futuristic looking – a dashboard full of lights and dials, and a warning pulsating from the GPS for every time the driver ignored the speed limit.
 
When we finally reached the apartment building of our AirBnb and paid the taxi driver (it came to just about what we had anticipated), we dropped off our bags and headed down the block for a quick bite to eat. Over brunch, we decided that since the taxis were so cheap, we’d head to Nampodong that way as well.
 
Busan’s central commercial and shopping area in the Jung District is home to Busan Tower and Yongdusan Park, and host to the Busan International Film Festival. It also boasts a variety of retail stores, restaurants and one of South Korea’s biggest traditional markets.
 
Gukje Market, also known as Nampodong International Market, began during the Korean War as a place for refugees to make a living. It has since grown from its humble beginnings into a large-scale attraction that is popular with both locals and tourists.
 
Likened to Seoul’s Namdaemun Market, Gukje’s narrow alleyways are crowded with stalls selling everything from electronics and machinery to linen and kitchen appliances, all at wholesale prices. Connected to the smaller Bupyeong market nearby, it’s the perfect place to hunt for bargains.
 
Since 2014, Gukje has also enjoyed popularity with fans of the movie Gukjesijang, in which the main character, a refugee of North Korea, escapes to Busan and is taken in by his aunt who runs a stall in the market.
 
A special tour introducing the film’s shooting locations in and around Gukje Market runs for free every Saturday and Sunday at 1pm. Weekday tours are also available for groups of 10 or more.
 
We had our taxi driver drop us off at Busan Tower and navigated the rest of the way from there. After the clouds opened up, we popped into a shoe store to pick up some umbrellas that were on sale and ended up ducking into Nampo Station when the rain really started to come down hard.
 
We confirmed directions with the friendly staff at the station’s information center and then cut through the Nampodong Underground Shopping Center. At exit 5, we emerged above ground again, just 300 meters away from the market’s entrance, relieved to find it fully covered.
 
Madelyn was in search of a Korean dolsot and some spoons, while I was content to just browse for trinkets.
 
A collection of lacquered jewellery boxes caught my eye. Inlaid with cranes and pine trees, each box turned out to be two boxes clasped together. When you undo the clasp, the twin boxes swing open to reveal a set of velveteen drawers on each side.
 
In the end, I settled on a norigae pendant and set of handcrafted cards depicting traditional hanbok.
 
The market has everything you could possibly want or need: bathroom and lighting fixtures, clothing and accessories, jewellery, bags, stationary, crafts, linen and towels, eyeglasses, electronics, woodwork, umbrellas, fans, and crockery and cutlery.
 
The prices are incredibly reasonable, and even then haggling is expected. For souvenirs and gifts, it’s definitely the place to beat; I saw the same twin jewellery boxes which were on sale for ₩40,000 at the market, for double and triple the price elsewhere in Busan.
 
A block away from the market is the Gwangbokdong Food Street which offers a variety of delicious Korean, Japanese and Chinese street foods at ridiculously cheap prices. If street food isn’t your thing, there are about 20 restaurants in the area too.
 
Still satisfied from our brunch earlier in the day, we grabbed a coffee at a Starbucks overlooking the street instead, enjoying the action from the counter at the window.
 
We popped into ArtBox next, a Korean brand store and every stationery lover’s dream. The quirky shop offers an impressive selection of novelty items, cosmetics, notebooks, stickers, lamps, umbrellas, bags, stuffed animals, postcards and travel accessories.
 
By the time we started making our way back to Busan Tower, I could feel the hum of the energy that dusk in a city brings. We were both exhausted, but too excited to head back to our apartment, and so we pushed on.
 
Yongdusan Park
 
“Almost there!” I panted over my shoulder. The narrow escalator that carries people from Gwangbok-ro Street up to Yongdusan Park was under maintenance so we were walking up the several hundred steps instead.
 
Located atop one of Busan’s most famous mountains, Yondgusan, the park of the same name is said to offer impressive views of the port city. We weren’t sure how much of it would be accessible after dark, but since we were already in the area we figured we’d give it a go.
 
As it turns out, Yongdusan Park at night is one of Busan’s best kept secrets.
 
I reached the top first. “You’re gonna freak,” I yelled back to Madelyn. Two purple waterfalls sat guarding the final staircase that leads to the second tier of the park, the grey silhouette of Busan Tower looming in the background. What an entrance!
 
Yongdusan was first called Songhyunsan, named for its view of the ocean through the trees of its forest. It was thought that the peak, 69 metres above sea level, resembled the shape of a dragon’s head and was believed to possess the power to defeat enemies at sea. The temple was renamed Yongdusan, or “dragon head mountain”.
 
During the Korean War, Busan experienced an influx of refugees as one of only two cities in South Korea not captured by the North Korean army. The sudden increase in the city’s population saw houses being built all the way up its peaks.
 
When the structures on Yongdusan were destroyed by fire, the city decided to turn the area into a park and planted replacement trees on the bald mountain. Today, the park contains 70 different species, covering an area of 69,000 m² (226,377.95 ft²).
 
At the top of the final staircase, everything turned to yellow and orange; bright streetlamps illuminate a Buddhist temple and a statue of the war hero Admiral Yi Sun-Sin.
 
At the time of Japanese colonial rule, a shrine was built on Yongdusan, but this has since been replaced with monuments dedicated to Korean War victims, peace in the country and the April Revolution.
 
There is also a bronze dragon sculpture, a stone bust of activist An Huije, a flower clock, citizen’s bell, literary monument and a museum of folk instruments.
 
The park’s main attraction, of course, is the 120 metre-high Busan Tower. Unlike most towers with observation decks, Busan Tower was built solely for entertainment purposes and contains no transmitting equipment.
 
We each bought a ticket and had to wait just a few minutes before one of the tower’s high speed elevators sent us hurtling to the top.
 
The observation deck has two levels (or three if you count the one closed off to the public). The first, named Sky Lounge, serves coffee, snacks and ice-cream and has stools and counters where you can sit and enjoy the view.
 
The wall encircling the two elevators is covered in small tile magnets decorated with hearts and messages of love. There are also thousands of love locks tied to the fence at the base of the tower and several illuminated hearts where people can pose for photos. We concluded that the park has become a significant place for couples, which is not surprising. It’s a pretty romantic place.
 
And if you can ignore the harsh reflection of the cafe’s fluorescent lights on the windows, the 360˚ view from the tower is a fairy-tale itself.
 
The second level is accessed via a hobbit-like staircase, which won’t be fun if you suffer from claustrophobia, but the lights here are dimmer so you’d probably be able to get a few decent shots. Eventually, I put my camera down and just tried to enjoy the city twinkling up at me.
 
After taking the elevator back down, we looked around the souvenir store for a bit and then slowly made our way back to the park’s entrance. Madelyn was still carrying her dolsots from the market, and we were both bordering on hangry, so we hopped in a cab and headed back to Gwangalli Beach for dinner.
 
Both Yongdusan Park and Busan Tower are open all year round. Entrance to the park is free, but admission to the tower is ₩5,000. The observatory is open from 09:00 – 22:00 (ticket office closes at 21:45). 
 
From Nampo Station, take exit 7 and turn left onto Gwanbok-ro Street (광복로). The escalator is about 150 metres away, on your right (look for the Nike store across the street).
 
Gwangalli Beach
 
As I waited for Madelyn to finish freshening up, I watched night descend on Gwangalli Beach from the window of our Airbnb. Directly below, talking moths swarmed around the glow of giant red and yellow umbrellas.  To the left, neon signs advertising the many bars and restaurants that line the strip buzzed to life, one by one in a domino line, toppling into Gwangandaegyo.
 
The largest ocean bridge in Korea, Gwangan stretches 7.4 km over the East Sea from Suyeong-gu to Haeundae-gu. Its colourful lights began to flicker, from pink to purple to blue, their paint bleeding into the black water and streaking with the tide as it raced to shore.
 
The energy rising from the street was palpable; it was calling me to the ground.
 
“You ready to go?”
 
As we came out of the apartment building, traffic officers were setting up the roadblocks for the night. On certain days during the summer, the street running alongside Gwangalli Beach is closed for an unofficial party.
 
The night before, we had enjoyed live music and street performers from our patio table at one of the restaurants on the strip. Now, as we walked in the opposite direction, we spotted a night market and tables set up for playing Jenga.
 
Skateboarders weaved in and around artists sketching portraits and magicians performing tricks. One man with a remote-controlled toy truck that doubled as a set of speakers was dueling with a smaller, gold car, much to the distress of the few dogs nearby.
 
The strip seemed to be especially popular with canine owners, many of whom let their well-trained pets roam free.
 
On the beach, a singer belted out lyrics in Hangul on a small stage, while groups of friends let fireworks off nearby.
 
During the day, the 1.4 km long stretch of white sand is popular with volleyball players and sunbathers. The pristine waters of the beach, the result of a special cleaning program, make it popular with swimmers, jet skiers and windsurfers too.
 
But at night, its chaos turns romantic, literally illustrated by the four, giant, red, neon letters that guard one part of the pavement: L; O; V; E.
 
It was kind of odd to see so many couples, and also so many couples engaging in PDA; here in the countryside of Japan the sight of two people just holding hands is a rarity.
 
But who could blame them, really? Gwangalli Beach has all the makings of a Before Sunrise-esque tale. I bet you’d even find a man willing to write you a poem about milkshake.
 
I had a man whisper sweet nothings to me instead; at least that’s what his offer of a giant, turtle-shaped dalgona sounded like to me. We’d found some sugar after all, just less of the colloquial kind.
 
And then the sugar found us; we were pulled into an impromptu dance party by a group of boys spilling out from a pub who had caught us giggling at them gyrating to songs of their own concoction.
 
As I let one of them spin me around, I felt a blanket of melancholy wrap around me. It was our last night in Busan and I wasn’t ready to go back.
 
“Maybe I should have moved here instead”, I wondered to myself. It was always my plan, and then, somewhere along the way, my plan changed.
 
Japan has been good to me, no doubt, but there was something about being in Busan that was speaking to my soul: for the first time in three years, I didn’t feel like a bull in a china shop.
 
The temple by the sea
 
“Do you have a bathroom?” I asked breathlessly.
 
“Eh?” A woman and two men sat at a table in the restaurant, presumably waiting for customers to start their day.
 
I had rushed in when the conbini across the street turned out to not have a loo, but now realised I had no idea how to ask to use theirs in Korean.
 
“Bath-room,” I crossed my legs in pantomime.
 
“Bark-roo?” One of the men repeated questioningly.
 
The woman smirked and pointed to the corner of the room.
 
“Oh, thank you, thank you!”
 
I hurried in and closed the door on the sound of the man giggling.
 
I silently berated myself for not having learnt the simple, and obviously essential, phrase before our trip.
 
As relief flooded (out of) me, I looked up to find the toilet doubled as a storage space, with paper towels, cleaning supplies… and a pile of pots and pans staring back from a shelf above me.
 
“Hygienic,” I thought to myself.
 
The night before I’d been introduced to the South Korean custom of not flushing toilet paper, but leaving it to mellow in a (usually overflowing) bin instead. Also very hygienic.
 
No time to judge though – I yanked up my drawers, shoved my hands under the faucet and ran out of the restaurant yelling “kamsahamnida!” over my shoulder.
 
We couldn’t miss another bus.
 
Madelyn and I had been waiting for the orange 1001 a little way down the street that would, hopefully, take us from Gwangalli Beach to Haedong Yonggungsa Temple near the Haeundae District.
 
We had missed the first 1001 bus to stop on our side of the street, and then decided to cross to the other side when we saw the same 1001 bus stopping there. But by the time we reached that side and its second 1001 bus had stopped, we realized it was going in the wrong direction and we were right to be on the side where we had been waiting all along.
 
We were back waiting on the right side of the street for the fourth 1001 bus when the lemonade and coffee I chugged at breakfast had caught up with me.
 
After 14 stops on the orange 1001, we’d have to change to a blue 100 bus. I said I’d count the stops while Madelyn cross-checked the Hangul on Google maps with the LCD characters above the driver’s head, but I lost track eventually and the names on the screen weren’t matching up to Madelyn’s phone anymore.
 
After about an hour, the driver pulled into a bus yard and ordered everyone to get off; it was the last stop on his route.
 
“Wait…what? This can’t be right.”
 
“Maybe we should get back on the next 1001 bus and get off somewhere we can find wifi.”
 
“Or we could take the 100 bus and see how we go.”
 
And so we did. After precisely 7 stops we saw a giant sign on the other side of the road: Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.
 
“OMG bb, we made it!”
 
I nodded, and then smiled meekly, “I need to pee…again.”
 
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is situated on the coast of the north-east region of Busan. To get there, visitors have to walk up a small hill and down a long flight of stairs.
 
I hurried us through a row of souvenir shops and past the temple’s 12 zodiac stone figures, down the 108 Steps and across the Half Moon Bridge. Next to the main hall, I spotted a sign for the ladies room and made a beeline for one of the stalls. Instantly, I wished I hadn’t.
 
As I squatted over the hole in the ground, I looked down and realised I was staring at several deposits made by the stall’s previous visitor on the stone floor below. I tried not to gag as a small breeze carried the stench of disinfectant up to my nose.
 
For the first time since we’d arrived in Korea, I really missed Japan.
 
The view made up for it though. The cliff-side temple is a rare attraction in Busan; most in South Korea are located in the mountains.
 
Haedong Yonggungsa is considered one of three sacred places of the Great Goddess Buddha of Mercry, or Guan Yin, who is believed to live in the sea and often depicted riding atop a dragon.
 
The temple was built in 1376 by a monk named Naong who was an advisory to King Gongmin during the Goryeo Dynasty.
 
Naong was practising asceticism at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju when a deadly drought spread across the kingdom. Desolate crops led to famine, and everyone implored Guan Yin to send rain.
 
The East Sea Dragon came to Naong in a dream and told him that if a temple was built on Bunhwang Mountain and the people of the kingdom prayed there, they would once again live in a time of peace.
Naong chose to build the temple on the side of the mountain facing the sea, where people could pray in the morning and then get their answer from the sea dragon in the evening.
 
In 1592, the temple was destroyed by fire during war with Japan. Three hundred years after it burned down, the monk Wunkang of Tongdosa Temple began its reconstruction.
 
In his own dream, Wunkang saw a clear image of the white-robed Guan Yin riding the back of the East Sea Dragon. He renamed the temple Haedong Yonggungsa, or the “dragon palace”.
 
Today, it is believed that if you pray with all of your heart at Haedong Yonggungsa, at least one of your wishes will come true.
 
Mine manifested in the parking lot of the Fisheries Science Museum that sits next to the temple as we made our way back down to the bus stop: a block of Western toilets.
 
The Goddess of Mercy lives on.
 
Admission to the temple is free.
 
From Gwangalli Beach, take the 1001 bus (orange) to the end of the line, then the 101 (blue) bus to the Yonggungsa Temple Bus Stop.
 
From Haeundae Station, take the 181 bus to the Yonggungsa Temple Bus Stop.
 
Park
 
“Almost there!” I panted over my shoulder. The narrow escalator that carries people from Gwangbok-ro Street up to Yongdusan Park was under maintenance so we were walking up the several hundred steps instead.
 
Located atop one of Busan’s most famous mountains, Yondgusan, the park of the same name is said to offer impressive views of the port city. We weren’t sure how much of it would be accessible after dark, but since we were already in the area we figured we’d give it a go.
 
As it turns out, Yongdusan Park at night is one of Busan’s best kept secrets.
 
I reached the top first. “You’re gonna freak,” I yelled back to Madelyn. Two purple waterfalls sat guarding the final staircase that leads to the second tier of the park, the grey silhouette of Busan Tower looming in the background. What an entrance!
 
Yongdusan was first called Songhyunsan, named for its view of the ocean through the trees of its forest. It was thought that the peak, 69 metres above sea level, resembled the shape of a dragon’s head and was believed to possess the power to defeat enemies at sea. The temple was renamed Yongdusan, or “dragon head mountain”.
 
During the Korean War, Busan experienced an influx of refugees as one of only two cities in South Korea not captured by the North Korean army. The sudden increase in the city’s population saw houses being built all the way up its peaks.
 
When the structures on Yongdusan were destroyed by fire, the city decided to turn the area into a park and planted replacement trees on the bald mountain. Today, the park contains 70 different species, covering an area of 69,000 m² (226,377.95 ft²).
 
At the top of the final staircase, everything turned to yellow and orange; bright streetlamps illuminate a Buddhist temple and a statue of the war hero Admiral Yi Sun-Sin.
 
At the time of Japanese colonial rule, a shrine was built on Yongdusan, but this has since been replaced with monuments dedicated to Korean War victims, peace in the country and the April Revolution.
 
There is also a bronze dragon sculpture, a stone bust of activist An Huije, a flower clock, citizen’s bell, literary monument and a museum of folk instruments.
 
The park’s main attraction, of course, is the 120 metre-high Busan Tower. Unlike most towers with observation decks, Busan Tower was built solely for entertainment purposes and contains no transmitting equipment.
 
We each bought a ticket and had to wait just a few minutes before one of the tower’s high speed elevators sent us hurtling to the top.
 
The observation deck has two levels (or three if you count the one closed off to the public). The first, named Sky Lounge, serves coffee, snacks and ice-cream and has stools and counters where you can sit and enjoy the view.
 
The wall encircling the two elevators is covered in small tile magnets decorated with hearts and messages of love. There are also thousands of love locks tied to the fence at the base of the tower and several illuminated hearts where people can pose for photos. We concluded that the park has become a significant place for couples, which is not surprising. It’s a pretty romantic place.
 
And if you can ignore the harsh reflection of the cafe’s fluorescent lights on the windows, the 360˚ view from the tower is a fairy-tale itself.
 
The second level is accessed via a hobbit-like staircase, which won’t be fun if you suffer from claustrophobia, but the lights here are dimmer so you’d probably be able to get a few decent shots. Eventually, I put my camera down and just tried to enjoy the city twinkling up at me.
 
After taking the elevator back down, we looked around the souvenir store for a bit and then slowly made our way back to the park’s entrance. Madelyn was still carrying her dolsots from the market, and we were both bordering on hangry, so we hopped in a cab and headed back to Gwangalli Beach for dinner.
 
Both Yongdusan Park and Busan Tower are open all year round. Entrance to the park is free, but admission to the tower is ₩5,000. The observatory is open from 09:00 – 22:00 (ticket office closes at 21:45). 
 
From Nampo Station, take exit 7 and turn left onto Gwanbok-ro Street (광복로). The escalator is about 150 metres away, on your right (look for the Nike store across the street).

 

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