Busan, South Korea in 3 Days
We took the bullet train from Seoul to Busan for a three day stay in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city with 3.5 million people. This city, located in the southern area, is extremely important due to its port and location near Japan. Tourism makes up 80% of its economy.
Our first stop was the Nampodong Jagalchi Fish Market for lunch with fish fresh off the boat that morning. (Note: Every meal is served with many small dishes of kimchi. My favorite was cucumber kimchi. I think, though I have no scientific evidence, that the reason we didn’t gain weight from all the delicious food was the delicious vinegary kimchi we ate at every meal.) After lunch, and in spite of the rain, we continued our visit through the international market, Gukje. Unfortunately, many of the vendors had closed due to the increasingly hard rain, but we were able to see some of the many clothing stores. We also walked through BIFF Square, an area that features Busan’s global film presence. Of course, we had to stop at one of food trucks to sample Chal Bori Bbang, a luscious pastry of fried bread stuffed with nuts or red bean paste.
A stop at Gamcheon Culture Village was another highlight of the day. The area was built in the 1920s and 30s but expanded quickly in 1955 after the Korean War. Many refugees moved from northern areas further south for safety. In 2009, the government converted the village into a cultural arts area to improve living conditions. The colorful art and buildings provided great photo ops—even with the presence of unrelenting rain. (Umbrellas, raincoats, and ponchos were invaluable in South Korea!)
We ended our very wet day in a way that was unusual for us—we ate in the hotel restaurant. (We try to always eat at local places, but we were very wet at this point.) The Park Hyatt Hotel’s dining options were wonderful. The food was excellent and the service fantastic. They made us feel comfortable from our arrival until our departure. (The Food and Beverage Director, Jan Bruggemann, made our entire stay wonderful—from the service everyone provided to the individual care he gave.) Unfortunately, the monsoon season began while we were visiting so the rain and wind were often horrendous; therefore, we ate “in” more frequently than usual. Fortunately, all of the restaurants at the hotel proved to be equally excellent.
Haedong Yonggung Temple, Dragon Palace Temple, was a beautiful way to start our second day in Busan. Stone statues of the zodiac, stone lanterns, and colorful paper lanterns lined the path to the gate and the stairway, all 108 stairs which symbolize the 108 steps to enlightenment, leading down to the “Temple on the Coast.” The seaside location is extremely rare for Buddhist temples, but the peaceful hillsides and scenic overview of the rocky shore make this an ideal place to worship.
Our next stop was the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) building constructed for the APEC meeting in 2005 when leaders from the 21 member countries met here. The building has tremendous views over the water and the island itself offers beautiful trails. We were unable to walk down to Haeundae Beach due to—you guessed it--the rain that had flooded the area.
Mia (Huiji Shin), our guide, took us to another fantastic meal, this time for Leftover Stew which originated during the Korean War when food was extremely scarce. We were able to walk off a small portion of our meal at the Igidae Park with its beautiful scenic overlooks of downtown Busan and the surrounding cliffs. We did not have time to make the entire walk, but we drove to Jangsanbong Peak to wander out onto the Oryukdo Skywalk, a glass platform 115 feet above the cliff and the rocky shore below. (Don’t worry. It is extremely strong glass! In addition, you are given shoe coverings to keep the glass clean for clearer viewing—something you may not want if you are scared of heights.)
We followed the nearby path to Sunrise Park which is one of the first places to view the sunrise in South Korea. On New Year’s Day, people come early to see the first sunrise of the year. The views from the park highlighted the dichotomy: New skyscrapers in the background and gorgeously green mountains and deep blue water in the foreground.
Our next stop for the day was at the United National Memorial Park. A short video in the beautiful chapel introduced us to the park which was built as a memorial to all soldiers who died in the Korean War. Soldiers who fought in the war can also choose to be buried in the memorial park. The park is a soberingly peaceful respite in the midst of Busan’s towering skyscrapers. The graves lay almost flat against the ground in the perfectly manicured area. Flags from all countries who lost men wave overhead to guard and honor the graves. The memorial monument lists all the names of those who died in the Korean War. The koi-filled stream that runs through the park is dedicated to Australian Daunt who, at 17, is the youngest soldier buried in the memorial park. The appreciation that South Koreans have for those defending them from North Korea is still evident in their attitudes and words.
We drove to Gyeongju, which was the capital of Silla during the Three Kingdoms Period, 57 BCE-668 CE. Local tribes began building fortified towns which then grouped together for safety and expansion. Our first stop was at the Seokguram Grotto and the beautiful Bulguksa Temple, both World Heritage sites. After walking up the requisite 108 steps, we discovered the grotto that contains a massive Buddha carved from granite along with other carved statues. Because of damage from condensation, rain, moss, and wind, the area has been sealed off with a glass.
The magnificent temple stands at the top of two stairways—one for the gods and one for the people. Unfortunately, both are now closed off, but we were able to go around and enter the temple complex. Both the grotto and temple were built by Mr. Kim. When he was little, a Buddhist monk told him to donate something to the temple and he would get more back. He and his mother donated land. The little boy died shortly thereafter, but he came back a few days later as a baby to a rich family. He somehow remembered his previous family and brought them to live with his new family. Mr. Kim built the grotto for his old parents and the temple for the new. The peaceful atmosphere, the gorgeous temples, the carefully crafted Buddhas all magnify the specialness of this place.
Lunch was a traditional meal that would be served for special family gatherings. The number of side dishes was overwhelming and everything was delicious. (One of the side dishes was jellyfish which was also good.) Mia, our guide, always found great restaurants featuring Korean foods.
After this terrific meal, we visited Cheomseongdae, the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in Asia. It was built during Queen Seondeok’s reign (632-647 CE) and was used to forecast the weather. Cheomseongdae, like most of Gyeongju, is a World Heritage site. Because of this city-wide designation, even new buildings such as gas stations are required to be built in the traditional style.
A visit to the Daereungwon Tomb Complex was next on the agenda. With 23 ancient tombs dating from the 5th and 6th centuries, the complex is an interesting and peaceful place to visit. During the excavation of the Cheonmachong Tomb in 1973 many artifacts were unearthed including the Gold Crown from Cheonmachong Tomb which is the largest crown discovered in South Korea.
The Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond were our final stop in Gyeongju. The manmade pond has yielded thousands of relics during dredging and excavation. The pond and palace complex also date back to the time of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Some of the palace buildings have been restored to their former glory.
Back to our hotel and then…the rains returned.
We were supposed to fly to Jeju Island the next morning, but flights were cancelled so we decided to spend one more night in Busan before taking the early bullet train to Seoul so we wouldn't risk missing our flight home. Flexibility is a necessary word when traveling!
And, finally, back to Seoul and then on to home. Another wonderful place and great memories!
To see our visit to Seoul, click here.
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