There’s an awful lot to like about BUSAN (부산), Korea’s second city, which has emerged from the provincial shadows full of pep and character. By turns brackish, glamorous, clumsy and charismatic, it prides itself on simply being different from Seoul, and many travellers end up preferring it to the capital. The locals alone make it worth a visit: more characterful than those from the capital, Busanites talk almost as fast as their city moves, spouting provincial slang in a distinctive staccato that many foreigners initially mistake for Japanese.
Busan is not just Korea’s second-biggest city, but the fifth-largest container port in the world – its salty fringes tumble away into a colourful, confetti-like jumble of corrugated containers. This connection to the sea is evident at two of Busan’s most visited areas – Haeundae, a busy stretch of beach sprinkled with five-star hotels, and Jagalchi Fish Market, quite possibly the smelliest place on earth. There are plenty of temples and mountains to amble around, and you can shop till you drop at a variety of places from grimy markets to designer shopping malls. In the evenings, the setting sun throws the ships into cool silhouette on a sea of gold, and Busan’s youth come out to paint the town red. While the nightlife here is second only to that in Seoul, for sheer verve there’s no contest – Busan is the champion.
Even before it became the whirring economic dynamo that it is today, Busan played a pivotal role in the country’s history. Though it was once part of the short-lived Gaya kingdom swallowed whole by the Silla dynasty, it was at that time little more than a collection of fishing villages. In the fifteenth century it benefited from its proximity to Japan, when a trade treaty opened it up as a port to international trade – up until that point, most goods had been leaving the area as loot on pirate ships. This competitive advantage promptly swung around and hit Busan squarely in the face when the city was attacked by the Japanese in 1592; under the astute leadership of Admiral Yi Sun-shin damage was limited, but still devastating.
Outside Busan’s largest museum is a stone “stele of anti-compromise”, whose Chinese characters read “All countrymen are hereby warned that anyone who does not fight against the Western barbarians is committing an act of treachery”. Little did they know that Korea would eventually be consumed by its closest neighbour – the Japanese annexed the peninsula in 1910 – then fight a bloody civil war, only to be bailed out both times by said barbarians. Busan was at the forefront of the Korean War; indeed, for a time, the city and its surrounding area were the only places left under Allied control, the North Koreans having occupied the peninsula up to what was known as the Pusan Perimeter (Pusan being the correct romanization at the time). At this point, up to four million refugees from elsewhere on the peninsula crowded the city, before General Douglas MacArthur made a bold move at Incheon to reverse the tide of the war.Read More
On the eastern side of Busan, and about 25 minutes away by subway, HAEUNDAE (해운대) is without a doubt the most popular beach in Korea. Whether it’s the best or not is open to question – in the summer it draws in families, teens and bronzed beach bums by the bucketload, though at only 2km in length, space here is tighter than a Brazilian’s Speedos, while the sand gradually becomes a composite of cigarette butts, firework ash and other debris. Like it or not, it’s an interesting place – Haeundae is not just the name of the beach, but also its surrounding area, one that attracts all sorts throughout the year. The Pusan Film Festival, one of the biggest in Asia, rolls into town each October with a cast of directors, actors, wannabes and hangers-on; the super-fit come to splash and dash out a triathlon course each October; hungry Koreans come to chow down on raw fish and throw back a few bottles of soju from the comfort of a plastic chair; affluent expats, trendy locals and the international convention crowd populate the many luxury apartments and five-star hotels, while youngsters come from all over the country to spend a starry night on the beach. If you catch it at the right time, Haeundae can be quite magical.
Busan hosts an incredible number of festivals, and many of them are quite incredibly bad – those dedicated to anchovy-rubbing or egg-rolling might sound comical, but they’re really not worth the effort. However, there are a number of good ones – the most popular is BIFF, the Busan International Film Festival (whttp://www.biff.kr), which takes place over a week or so each October. One of the biggest such events in Asia, it draws the cream of the continent’s talent, and has recently expanded its scope to please non-mainstreamers too. Most of the action takes place around Nampodong and Haeundae, with the latter a great place to star-spot – you could even find yourself pitching ideas to a director over soju. Also interesting are the Busan Biennale (whttp://www.busanbiennale.org), a festival of contemporary art that takes place on even-numbered years, though in seemingly random months, and the International Rock Festival (wrockfestival.co.kr), which takes place in early August on Dadaepo Beach. The Polar Bear Swim Contest sees participants splash through the cold Haeundae waters each January, and is followed by the Straw-Heap Burning Festival, an event that does what it says, ostensibly to ward off evil. Worth mentioning for the name alone is the Mass-Media Cutting-Edge Marine Fireworks Festival, an event that sees things go bang over Gwangalli Beach each November.
Jagalchi fish market
Jagalchi fish market
Every single person in Korea knows about Jagalchi (자갈치 시장), the largest and most popular fish market in the country. It has been used as a set in numerous movies and dramas, and is atmospheric in a wonderfully salty kind of way. Mid-October is the best time to visit, since this is when the Jagalchi festival is held, offering a rare shot at hands-on fish preparation and a whole slew of freebies to munch.
Most of the dishes here will be utterly confusing to the average Westerner; easiest on both brain and palate are the fried slabs of tuna (참치; chamchi) served at the outdoor stalls. The truly brave should make their way to the large indoor market for some raw seafood action. Its ground floor, swimming with seawater, is a truly hectic place full of tanks and baskets and thousands of fish. This is a place for buying, not eating, but whatever you purchase can be prepared (for a fee, of course) by chefs on the restaurant-like upstairs floor; alternatively, you can order a mixed set for around W15,000 per person. Here are few of the items you may well see on your plate, both in Jagalchi and at harbours, beaches and fish markets around the land:
Chamchi 참치 Tuna
Gaebul 개불 Sea worm
Galchi 갈치 Hairtail
Godeungeo 고등어 Mackerel
Gwang-eo 광어 Flatfish
Hoe-deop-bap 회덮밥 Sashimi on rice
Jangeo 장어 Eel
Kijogae 키조개 Pen shell
Meongge 멍게 Sea squirt
Ojingeo 오징어 Squid
Sannakji 산낙지 Baby octopus