For every South Korean and seasoned expat here, North Korea’s recent bluff of war was as much a part of everyday life as a side dish of kimchi. Both Koreas are proud and stubborn nations, born of tradition and eager to show it off.
But one thing is changing: tourism. I’ve lived in South Korea for nearly two years, and in that time the number of annual international visitors has jumped double-digit percentages to 11.1 million – almost double the number for Japan, India or Indonesia.
This is in part thanks to YouTube phenomenon Psy (who’s gotten so huge that the Korean Tourist Organization recently appointed him tourist ambassador, replacing his hilariously chosen predecessor, Kenny G), but there’s also something to be said for the country’s combative history and middle-ground cost as an Asian destination: It’s pricier than Thailand, but still half the price of Japan.
Most travellers head straight to Seoul, but I wanted to show a visiting Halifax friend the best of Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city.
It sprawls around five towering mountains and lies sandwiched between six sunny beaches, and generally feels cozier than its big brother’s mercilessly wide streets.
And since it remained mostly untouched during the Korean War, Busan managed to retain an engaging cultural landscape that’s equal parts modern (we’ve got the world’s largest department store) and historic (also Korea’s largest conglomeration of fishmongers).
Getting to Busan is as easy as buying a $50 ticket from Seoul for a 21/2-hour ride on one of the world’s fastest bullet trains.
My friend bought his return ticket for the next day, so we needed to make quick use of our time.
Our first destination is Nampo-dong, two subway stops west of Busan’s main train station. The city’s “old downtown” is divided into two shopping districts – a luxurious main road lined with gold-coloured statues, and the Bupyeong Market, a swarming selection of earthenware kimchi pots and farm-fresh produce.
A quick stroll through Bupyeong’s vintage clothes market leads us to BIFF Square, named after the Busan International Film Festival, Asia’s largest. It’s also home to the best of Korean street food, and we devour rice cakes doused in chili pepper paste as well as hotteok, a thin pancake filled with cinnamon, brown sugar and chopped nuts, all for less than $2 each.
We walk north for 10 minutes to reach Bosu-dong Book Street, one of my favourite Busan sites. It’s hard to get more traditional than Bosu-dong, which was born by an impoverished elderly couple selling used books to get by after the Korean War. It’s since evolved into an alleyway flooded in rare paperbacks and magazines, all run by a collection of around 60 utterly devoted book-lovers who can be seen, under their green and yellow canopies, unpacking their stock each morning.
After browsing the few English selections (SAT prep books and Goosebumps novels), we relax with coffee and tea in the adjacent café of Yeonhap Bookstore, which houses hundreds of musty art books in its claustrophobic basement.
As real hunger starts to set in, we head down to Busan’s most worthwhile tourist spot, the Jagalchi Fish Market, just a 20-minute walk south. Equal parts touristy and traditional, it’s full of old women skinning eels next to massive aquariums of squirming octopuses trying to escape.
We opt to lunch on a hefty king crab (around $90, but it’s good for three people) after the hostess draws us in with the promise of free grilled fish as an appetizer. An hour later, we agree that the soft crabmeat is on par with any Halifax lobster we’ve ever tried.
Our bellies full, we ride a bus for 20 minutes southwest to Gamcheon Culture Village. Gamcheon has been poor and remote since the Korean War, when a man named Cho Chol-je began drawing in displaced refugees under the banner of a religion called Taegeukdo. He helped foster the neighbourhood from a few hundred citizens to roughly 10,000, inspiring Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to hire professional artists in 2009 to transform it into a free interactive art “gallery.” Vacant shacks became cafés, artists erected outdoor sculptures and locals helped by repainting their homes vibrant yellows, blues and reds.
After hours of walking, we don’t bother waiting for the bus, and instead hitch a cab northeast to Seomyeon, Busan’s core. I can’t let my friend enjoy any of the area’s trendy cafés or cheap restaurants without first introducing him to World Arcade, a city-block of games that never closes.
After lightening our pockets of coins, it’s time to eat. My friend is a vegetarian, which is difficult in Korea and eliminates barbecue, one of the country’s staples.
I take him to a hole-in-the-wall called Seokae Cheonbool, where we dine on equally traditional grub: pajeon and makgeolli, a.k.a. green-onion pancakes and rice wine. Koreans claim they go together like spaghetti and merlot. We order a few kimchi pancakes and golden pots of the home-brewed milky alcohol to get the night going.
A 15-minute subway ride lands us at the campuses of Kyungsung and Pukyong universities, where cheap Korean beers are downed over rounds of darts at Kino Eye, an expat-friendly dance bar wallpapered in movie posters. I have half a mind to drag my friend down the street to a basement joint called Monk, one of Korea’s most famous jazz clubs, but we need to keep the energy up.
Maybe the most crucial Korean tradition is the combination of soju, Korea’s famous rice liquor that tastes like sweet vodka, and noraebang, literally “song room,” which Canadians know better as karaoke.
For this finale we head to Haeundae Beach in the east. Haeundae boasts 1.5 kilometres of white sand and is one of Asia’s most touristy beaches; from a bird’s-eye-view during peak summer months you can’t see the sand for all the umbrellas.
We prefer to go at night for the abyss that is the Pacific Ocean after sunset, not to mention the small crowds and cool breeze.
There’s no shortage of noraebangs in the surrounding neighbourhood, either.
We choose one at random and fill it with soju, beer and potato chips, singing One Direction and Lion King classics until the sun comes up.
Our final Korean ritual is an especially significant one: watching the sunrise from Haeundae Beach. Thousands of Koreans flock to Haeundae to witness the first sunrise on New Year’s dawn, but tonight we’re joined only by a few dozen university students and empty bottles of soju.
The sky was, not unusually, too dusty to spot the actual sun rising, but the slow blueness that grew overhead confirmed that we’d made it. The subway had opened again. And my friend, half-asleep, was happy. After all, there would be plenty of time for sleep on the train back to Seoul.