Busan. Wow. This place was one of the coolest places I’ve ever been to and was by far my favorite city from our entire trip. It is located on the southeastern-most tip of the Korean peninsula with a population of around 4.6 million (including some of the closely neighboring villages). We stayed in the Haeundae Beach area in a hotel (which was a nice change of pace from sleeping on the literal floor in Gyeongju). We had some trouble finding our hotel from the bus station and had to enlist the help of some very nice Koreans on the street that thankfully, spoke perfect English. The location of the hotel was really nice once we found it. On one side, we were right on the main strip of beach which boasted restaurants, coffee shops, and the boardwalk where there were street performers and family-friendly events/activities. The other direction hosted streets of food vendors and a beach town vibe unlike anything we see at home. We packed a lot of activities into our 2 ish days in Busan so strap in, this is going to be a long ride.
The beach is an interesting place to be in Southeast Asia. The obsession that Korean and Japanese cultures have with pale skin is almost overwhelming. Everyone hikes the beautiful mountain landscapes in head to toe cover with not so much as a fingernail exposed. The beautiful beaches in Busan were relatively void of people even on peak leisure days. If there were people on the beaches, they were walking the boardwalk or under the shade of large umbrellas – certainly not in the ocean. On our first day, we spent some time exploring the beaches, watching street performers, and sampling from the many food vendors that lined the streets. Out hotel room had a washer/dryer so we all took the opportunity to wash as much of our clothing as we could. This was such a convenience as we leaned into the back half of our trip in Japan.We did three main activities in Busan aside from roaming around town exploring. The Haedong Yonggungsa Temple was the first. Katie and Clay decided that we were going to wake up at 4am and get there before the sun rose at 6am. Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is a Buddhist temple that was built in 1376. The main sanctuary of the temple was reconstructed in 1970 much like many of the historic sites in South Korea (due to war and the Japanese occupation). The temple was built on a cliff overlooking the ocean. There are few temples that are seaside like this. Situated just in front of the main sanctuary is a three-story pagoda with four lions symbolizing joy, anger, sadness, and happiness.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that one thing I absolutely am not is a morning person. In an ideal world, if I could wake up at 10 and be to work by 11, I would be immensely happier than getting to work at 8 or 9 but we were talking about 4am here (aka my normal bedtime). I reluctantly heard our alarms buzzing and dragged myself out of bed at 4am. We sauntered downstairs and out into the brisk morning to find a cab to take us up to the temple. Buses were running pretty infrequently during such early morning hours, so we cabbed to make sure we didn’t miss the sunrise. When we got there we walked through vendor stands that were still closed up from the day before; their owners had not even opened them yet. We walked through statues of the Korean Zodiac and down stone lantered lined stairs (108 to be exact) to the beat of drums and chants from the monks. We heard them before we saw anything. And then, like something out of a movie, the trees gave way and the temple was stretched out before us towering over the ocean waves breaking on the sides of the cliff. This was truly a moment I will never forget.
We spent more than an hour here climbing through the temple grounds, on the cliffs, and watching the sun bring forward a new day. This was perhaps one of the most transcendent experiences I have ever had. There were only 2 other people at the temple when we were there; we were largely alone. Near the end of our visit, women started emerging and setting up for the undoubtedly large crowds that would follow later in the day. Listening to the monks work through their morning prayers while the ocean breeze washed over us and the first rays of morning light warmed our faces was the single most zen moment of my life. This place was that of legends, of movies, of storybooks that I never thought I would live. It’s hard to describe just how beautiful it was so, I’ll show you instead.This is quite possibly the best photo I’ve ever taken. If you look closely, you can probably spy a Clay out on the rocks watching the sunrise without another soul in sight. Click to zoom. After we were done here we walked back down the hill we’d cabbed up earlier that morning and walked right on to a bus that took us a block from our hotel. Perfectly timed on this perfect morning.
Our second main attraction was all about retail therapy. Busan is home to the world’s largest department store, Shinsegae, in an area called Centum City. Centum City holds several attractions in addition to this department store one of which is the Busan Cinema Center. We wanted to see both and hopped in a cab to try and get in before closing time.
Shinsegae has several other locations throughout the country but the one in Busan is the biggest. We explored floor after floor (16 of them) of any and every store you could think of. Floors were organized by item type (i.e. “romance”, “casual”, “sports”) with two main wings of shops. There were also various pockets of art installations and attractions throughout. There was an ice rink, a pirate ship, tons of restaurants, and a section on the roof that had a life size dinosaur playground complete with T-Rex. This place was awesome.
Outside of Shinsegae, the Busan Cinema Center, a gargantuan installation/building/outdoor theater that was designed by an Austrian design firm back in 2011, stands flashing and moving. The building itself is like a huge warped movie screen of lights and pictures. You can walk among this on a path that twists around and up ending at the top of the center which holds a restaurant. We played around in here for a while walking all available paths and watching kids skateboard in the plaza below. This city is so full of innovation, history, and promise. I would very willingly go back someday and see what else is yet to come.
The final thing we did in Busan was visit the Gamcheon Culture Village. It is located in the Gamcheon-dong district of the city and is known for its steep streets, twisting alleys, and brightly painted houses. Residents live in these houses full time but visitors are free to weave through the streets and alleys to get a view of all the colorful houses and discover hidden art installations. This was really just one of those attractions you could easily kill half a day winding through with no real agenda whatsoever. We only had an hour or two before we had to board our ferry to Japan so we didn’t get through everything, but what we did see was pretty damn cool. The streets remind me of San Francisco with short but very steep hills that roll through the village. One minute you are struggling to not tumble downhill and the next you are wishing you were back shaky-legged and downhill facing as you huff and puff up what feels to be a 90-degree incline.
We found some nifty vendors selling various trinkets and souvenirs as well as some interesting art. One art installation called “constellation” was a pitch black room with one light bulb, there were statues of the characters from The Little Prince, and a giant gold elephant head just to name a few. This was a great way to close out our Korean half of the trip before heading to Japan.
Well, that wraps up Korea. Looking back on it all, we did A LOT of moving. We switched locations almost daily (aside from Seoul) while carrying everything with us everywhere. It was stressful, exhausting, and exhilarating all at once. What a great experience to have with my family in the place where everything started. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it for the world.
In case you missed it:
On deck: Kyoto, and Tokyo.