Korea’s biggest fish market, best food, sooooo many street markets, quirky street art, vibrant nightlife. It’s South Korea’s second largest city, with a population of 3.8 million, and as a general rule we don’t find big, modern cities appealing, but Busan was a blast.
The port is South Korea’s biggest, and more than 30% of the country’s fish production passes through Busan’s 165,000 square metre fish market.
If it’s from the sea and is potentially edible, you will find it in the retail area still swimming, wriggling or squirming. As well as fish, prawns, crabs, oysters and shellfish, there’s more exotic fare like sea squirts, hagfish and cuttlefish.
The only cases with lids are the octopus. They will try to escape and eat the other produce unless confined.
You can buy whatever takes your fancy and one of the restaurants upstairs will cook it for you. Can’t get fresher than that.
But outside is where the real action is. An open air market stretches for at least a kilometre with seafood at every stage from live to freshly killed to dried.
And after that, tarp-covered stands serving cooked food which seem to stretch out forever.
Eating in Busan seemed to be organised into precincts. If you don’t like seafood, there’s pigs feet alley, pork and rice soup street, wheat noodles street and on it goes. Tented street stalls sell sweet and savoury snacks from dusk until late into the night.
We rather liked these waffle flavoured pastries cooked in moulds on the spot and which come filled with either mashed red beans or custard.
Busan has the world’s largest department store, Shinsegae Centum City, a phenomenal 294,000 square metres of high end retail therapy. Designer crocs, anyone?
And a labyrinth of underground shopping arcades snaking around and between the metro stations. Not sure this would get traction at home. The lights obscure it, but the shop is named ‘Middle Aged Woman Brand’.
There’s fun street sculptures everywhere.
Some of them are seriously cute.
This one was tucked inside a doorway and at first glance, we mistook her for a real woman.
Heard the expression ‘In heaven they have harps, in hell they have piano accordians’? Seems the church here didn’t get that memo.
In the 1920s and 30s, as part of a port expansion project, city authorities ‘relocated’ working class people living around the port to a nearby hillside. Gamcheon Village was born. Dense housing was stacked up the hillside along narrow lanes.
After the Korean War, resident numbers boomed with an influx of refugees. As Busan expanded around it, the area remained poor and disadvantaged. In 2009, the Ministry for Culture began a renewal project which included sponsoring art students, professional artists and residents to beautify the neighbourhood with public art, and establishing spaces for retail outlets and museums.
In one of the most ridiculous branding efforts we’ve ever come across, it’s been nicknamed ‘Korea’s Santorini’ or ‘Busan’s Machu Pichu’. It bears zero resemblance to either, although it is quite dramatic.
And the project has been phenomenally successful. Gamcheon is now one of the most visited tourist sites in Busan.
A couple of K-pop stars were born here, so they are local celebrities.
And for some reason, domestic and Japanese tourists flock here to take selfies with this statue of the Little Prince.
Across town, on a more sobering note, we visited the United Nations Memorial Cemetery Korea (UNMCK). The Korean War is the only one in which the UN committed troops to fight for one side. (All engagements since have been peacekeeping missions, not active combat.) And this is the only United Nations cemetery in the world. Established after the war, it contains remains gathered from temporary cemeteries established on battlefields and includes many recovered from North Korea under a reciprocal exchange of war dead in 1954.
Over a beautifully manicured 14 hectare site, 2,300 graves of the dead of 11 countries are arranged into sections according to the nationalities of the buried servicemen.
We found the Australian section.
And the New Zealand section.
There were many moving memorials, including this one dedicated to a 17 year old Australian, the youngest of all those buried here.
There are several instances of widows who chose to be buried with their late husbands, including one Australian woman who died in 2010. Her plaque reads “finally beside the love of her life … 60 years after they last parted ways”.
Nearby is the National Memorial Museum of Forced Mobilisation under Japanese Occupation. From 1910 to 1945, Korea was under the rule of the Empire of Japan. By the 1930s, the Korean language was banned. Newspapers, books and other publications were required to be in Japanese. In schools, Japanese language, history and culture were taught in place of Korean. Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names. In what is now recognised as attempted cultural genocide, Japan aimed to subjugate Korea by eliminating its culture and convincing its people, by force if necessary, that they were really Japanese.
When Japan entered the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, it began a concerted campaign of forced mobilisation of Korean labourers to Japan and Manchuria to work in mines and the industrial sector. Conditions were appalling and many died or were maimed in accidents. They were prohibited from leaving their assigned workplaces, prevented from returning to Korea, effectively working as slave labour.
Unlike the Nazis, the Japanese didn’t keep meticulous records of their nefarious deeds, but it is estimated that up to 7.8 million Koreans were subjected to forced mobilisation, including 300,000 ‘comfort women’ shipped from Korea to Japanese army posts across the empire between 1937 and 1945.
This era remains a controversial one for South Korea as there were many local collaborators, the vast majority of whom faced no consequences after the country was liberated. But in 2015 the Foundation for the Victims of Forced Mobilisation by Imperial Japan established a museum in Busan dedicated to that era.
Busan was chosen because almost 25% of the conscripted workers were from the province surrounding it, and almost all of those shipped to Japan or its other occupied areas were mobilised via Busan port. The museum comprehensively explains the process of forced mobilisation, the conditions faced by victims and the difficulties faced by those stranded in faraway places at the end of hostilities.
Sadly, although Japan and Korea began talks to normalise relations between the two countries in 1951, and some payments were eventually made in recognition of the harm done to Korea during those years, the issue of compensation for individual victims remains unresolved.
It’s a worthy addition to the slew of museums in Busan: Busan History Museum, Modern Art Museum and the Busan Museum of Movies, which is Korea’s first museum dedicated to film and includes an interactive green room, sound room where visitors can do a voice-over of their favourite film clips and a virtual reality room. We ran out of time to see all these.
But this is Korea. There must be a temple to visit, right?
Hidden in the forest in the hills on the edge of sprawling Busan, Beomeo-sa literally translates to ‘Temple of the Gold Fish from Brahma Heaven’, a reference to a rock pool near the mountain top which is revered as being home to a golden fish with mystical qualities.
With Haeinsa – home of the Tripitaka Koreana wood blocks described in our post on Daegu – and one other, Beomeo-sa is considered one of the three major temples in South Korea.
Despite this, and Lonely Planet’s description of it as ‘Busan’s best sight’, John was unconvinced but agreed to tag along. The setting, against the autumn forest, was quite beautiful.
The various buildings in the complex date to the 1500s and 1600s.
The temple is still very active with worshippers.
It was a beautiful place, although to our unknowledgeable eyes, not a lot different to Haeinsa or other temples we’ve seen in Korea.
Very different, though, was Seokbul-sa. This Buddhist hermitage is not ancient. In fact, it was only built in the 1930s but is renowned for its rock carvings. It’s a bit of an odyssey to get here. We caught the metro to the suburbs, walked through to a park at the base of the mountains, then caught a cable car to an observatory point high above the city.
Then it’s a 2.5km hike through the forest. Just before the entrance, we weren’t sure if this pool has magical properties or the guy just had sore feet.
The odyssey to get here was worth the effort, for this was unlike any other temple we’ve seen in Korea. And we both have a soft spot for rock carved temples.
To demonstrate the scale of the carvings, John helpfully agreed to a rare photo.
And lastly, Busan has beaches. Seven of them, in fact. Hyundae is the most famous, and attracts throngs of beach goers in the summer, but it’s Gwangan that comes alive after dark. Every evening at 7pm and 9pm, the sky lights up with a drone show.
Synchronised drones form patterns in the sky. It’s pretty damn cool. At the moment, the show is being sponsored by a gaming company so the designs were a series of gaming images.
Like the boxes in games arcades, an enormous claw appears in the sky and tries to pick up a teddy bear.
There were punching bags and basketball hoops.
There were fruit machines, a whack-a-mole and a whole lot more. Until it was….. GAME OVER.
As it also was for us. Next, off to Jeju Island.