There are a few places that I’ve been told that I have to see when I’m in Korea. The coast, the mountains, the small villages have been mentioned but they’re on the more vague side of “where should I go this weekend?” It’s a little hard to become super excited about “we’re going to the mountains!” “Where?” “Just, the Mountains!”
More specifically, Busan and Jeju have been repeated time and time again. “You have to see Busan, it’s awesome.” “If you don’t go to Jeju when you’re here, then you missed out on Korea completely.” Now, those statements are a little strong. I think I’ve seen my fair share of Korea, and Seoul has provided me with a lot of fodder to really get a good grasp on Korean Culture. Either way, I will be visiting both of these places – Busan two weekends ago, and Jeju about a month from now.
Busan was one of those towns that I heard a lot about, both in terms of “you must go” and also “it really isn’t worth it.” It seemed strange to have a place so entrenched in dualities – but it turns out the whole experience played well to that major and minor chord. Set at the Southeastern tip of the peninsula, Busan is an international port city built in between the rifts and valleys of pointed mountains and the sea that comes to meet those majestic hills. It’s a beach town and town of commerce. It’s vacation and business. It’s Korea meets China meets Japan meets Russia. This place is teaming with both restaurants and fast food and food stalls and convenience stores and grocery stores. It’s international, but not 2011 international in a lot of ways. As you can tell, Busan is most certainly worth seeing.
Friday night, after a long day of work, I decided to tag along with two friends hopping on a midnight bus to Busan from Seoul. It was a comfortable ride until the end, where – at 4am – the bus driver yelled at all of us to get off the bus. No gentle rising, but a stern yelling. Busan, ruined – we thought.
After finding some coffee we hopped in a taxi heading to a Buddhist temple in the mountains on the outskirts of town to watch the sunrise. We may have gotten there a little late for sunrise, but it was just in time for a tranquil day awakening.
Walking all over the temple with soft feet, quiet urges from one to another to just come see this or watch out for that monk, we found ourselves trekking up the rest of the mountain upon which this temple was placed. Taking a little under two hours, conversations that meandered from topic to topic, thoughts about coffee and breakfast, and small breaks for nature’s admiration we found the peak and a group of already tipsy Koreans. The views, as you can see, were surreal, tranquil, and filled with a beauty that I’ve missed living in a major city.
The rest of the day was dedicated to exploring the beaches, the markets for which Busan is so famous, piers, boardwalks, and relaxing. For all that we cared, we wanted to relax. There is always, when traveling, a duality established: do you see everything that there is to see, or do you enjoy every moment, even if that means just sitting on a beach with some good Korean corn snacks, good conversation and the occasional nap?
Another group of friends showed up around noon to encourage us weary travelers of only four hours of sleep to find food, drink, and conversation. As the day wore on, we grew tired, but more than anything: hungry. Our group of seven broke into two: one to find dinner at a Mexican place overlooking the ocean, and one to find fresh eel in a food tent down the way right outside of the fish market.
Which do you think I went to? But of course.
The Eel and clams that we ordered were amazingly fresh (but cooked!), grilled to perfection, and went ever so well with the spicy red chili paste and kimchi they set at our table. They, being so nice, knew that us foreigners probably had never had such fresh seafood, so they brought out a free dish of clams covered with cheese. I think sometimes, if Koreans aren’t sure if foreigners will like their food, they just cover it in cheese. I wasn’t complaining in the least… and neither were my dinner mates. Sitting under an orange tent, indulging on fresh sea food probably caught that day, laughing loudly, and being a part of the tent-dinner culture kept us enraptured for hours on end – we ended up spending the better part of two hours feasting with our eyes, ears, and satisfying our stomachs.
The next day, we rose early in search of another temple – this one slated as “the best in all of Korea” since it wasn’t set in the typical mountain setting, rather on craggy cliffs overlooking the ocean. It was beautiful, and crowded like no other temple has been crowded thus far. Tiny Buddha statues sat all around the temple as the ocean waves soundtracked our whole time there. It was touristy and tranquil. Yet another duality. Tally Ho Busan!
The rest of my time, I have to say with a little pride and shame, was spent on the beach just… sitting. Sure I made my way on a few runs from beach, but for the most part, it was my weekend away from the hustle and bustle and stress and noise of Seoul. Ah, to just sit. Again I say, Tally Ho Busan!