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.
Busan has plenty of choice at the top end of the accommodation range. The five-stars are almost all in Haeundae, the beach district far to the east of the centre that’s by far the most interesting place to stay; here you’ll also be able to find simple guesthouses that are dirt-cheap for most of the year, but raise their prices for the summer season. There are cheap motels all over the city; if you want to go out at night you’re best basing yourself in Seomyeon or around the university drinking areas, whereas sightseers should head for the cheap areas around the train station or ferry terminal. There are now a few hostels kicking around – more often than not, merely regular apartments kitted out for backpacker use. If you really want to save cash you can get a night’s sleep for less than W10,000 in a jjimjilbang.
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 (wwww.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 (wwww.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.
Busan’s cosmopolitan nature is reflected in its culinary options. One of the most interesting eating areas is opposite the train station – no five-star paradise, but rather a motley crew of snack bars catering to sailors and assorted night-crawlers. Here, “Shanghai Street” provides a wealth of safe but relatively expensive Chinese restaurants, before merging effortlessly into “Texas Street”, home to a lower-key choice of outlets; despite the American name, the most appealing food here lies in the cheap, cheerful Filipino snack-halls. The area running from the station to Jagalchi Fish Market is uninspired, though Korean staples are easy to track down, while the student areas are predictably cheap – take your pick from innumerable meat houses or izakaya-style Japanese restaurant-bars. If you’re looking for something a little classier head to one of the five-star hotels around Haeundae beach.
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.
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:
Busan has an excellent and varied nightlife scene, spread in uneven clumps across various parts of the city – a single evening can see you sipping soju over raw fish at sunset, rubbing shoulders with Russian sailors near the train station, throwing back beer with students in one of the university areas, then dancing all night at a beachside hip-hop club. To do this, however, you’d be spending plenty of money on taxi fares – best to simply pick an area and root down for the night.
The two main student areas – Busan National University to the north, and Kyungsung University west of Haeundae – are among the most interesting places to go out, and certainly the cheapest. Weekdays can be tame, but on weekends the partying goes on until the wee hours. The same can be said for the two beach areas – Haeundae and Gwangalli – which cater to a more upmarket crowd, and throw a couple of clubs and cocktail bars into the mix; there’s also the option of buying some cans at a convenience store and drinking on the beach. Central Busan is markedly less interesting: Seomyeon has a few clubs, though these can be full of soldiers, with fights breaking out on a regular basis, while the bars around Busan station tend to be populated with Russian prostitutes and men in the market for them.