Busan: City of Surprises

Busan: City of Surprises

This intriguing city balances the modern and the traditional By: Kathy Bryant & Molly Montgomery
Busan is known for its brightly colored traditional architecture. // © 2013 iroha
Busan is known for its brightly colored traditional architecture. // © 2013 iroha

South Korea’s port city of Busan, framed by mountains and the Pacific Ocean, is a city of sharp contrasts. Uber-designed contemporary skyscrapers flank crowded shopping areas packed with designer boutiques and street-food vendors.

The city is the home to Shinsegae Centum City, the world’s largest department store, adjoining Spa Land, one of the largest spas in Asia. For around $12, visitors can spend the day relaxing and bathing. The Busan Cinema Center has the longest cantilever roof in the world, with both outdoor and indoor seating and an annual film festival. South Korea’s second-largest city is trying hard to be a city of the biggest and the best.

While most of Busan’s residents live in soaring apartment buildings, Gamcheon Culture Village is a reminder of the past. Built in the hills of Saha-gu, this quirky, colorful village was home to thousands of war refugees, who fled here for safety in the 1950s. Houses were quickly constructed with any available material. In 2009, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism stepped in with an innovative idea: Rather than tear down the village as some developers wanted, they hired artists to paint murals and artwork, some with the residents’ help, creating a conceptual art piece on the spot.

I had an almost child-like feeling of delight when I first saw Gamcheon with its brightly colored houses, some with roofs sporting human-faced bird sculptures peering down at me. The village is toured by walking up and down narrow steps and passages. Walking shoes are a must because bannisters are few and walkways can be tilted or slick.

Still, this entertaining tour is like exploring a kaleidoscope, with colors, sculptures and houses that are full of surprises. Some houses are open to visit; some are shops for tea, books and art; others are complete art pieces on their own. I received a map of the village — unfortunately only in Korean — that helped lead me through the village, as did the fish sculptures pointing out special stops.

I experienced even more sensory-overload at the nearby Jagalchi Fish Market, where the past and present collide. I had never seen a fish market so large, teeming with every kind of seafood imaginable, most of it still alive. There were crabs trying to crawl out of their cages, octopus hitting the sides of their crates and eels undulating in water. Visitors can pick out their sea creature of choice, buy it and then follow the seller (carrying the squirming purchase) upstairs to a restaurant to prepare it for a tasty meal. You can’t get any fresher than that.

Leaving the market, we walked by stalls full of dried octopi and other seafood delicacies on our way across the street to a street market where we could purchase walnut cakes, kimchi, designer clothing, watch knock-offs and much more. Visitors can also stop at one of the many coffeehouses and just enjoy people-watching.

Park Hyatt Opens
The newest addition to Busan’s hotel scene is the Park Hyatt Busan Hotel. Here, a real attempt has been made to blend the past with the present. Pritzker Prize-winner Daniel Libeskind designed the high-rise hotel adjacent to Haeundae Beach, and it features a curvilinear geometry that is inspired by the wind-filled sails of a ship, the ocean’s waves and the camellia flower, a symbol of Busan.

From the minute guests enter the lobby — with bamboo planted in granite floors instead of planters — they know they are in for a special experience. The interiors show an affinity for the past with a collection of Korean art on display in all of the 269 rooms and 69 suites. Guests never forget they are in the 21st century, however, since rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the ocean, Gwangan Bridge and the yacht marina. Rooms have French oak flooring, granite bathrooms and a home-like feeling through the muted colors and plush furnishing.

The public spaces are especially inviting, located on the top three floors of the 33-story hotel. The Living Room, Dining Room and Lounge have Korean art on display as well as clever design features, such as a wall papered with stacked books and one space featuring a celadon vase, the green vase perfected by Korean artisans.

Even though the Park Hyatt is a state-of-the-art hotel, it has a Zen-like peacefulness to it, especially when you visit the Lumi Spa & Fitness center that spans three full floors and has a 65-foot, indoor, glass-enclosed swimming pool and whirlpool with ocean views.

Busan is a city of surprises. Once visitors sample its local flavor and quiet sophistication, they will surely come back hoping to discover more of the city’s secrets.

Destination Resource:

Korea Tourism Organization

Local Favorites

Gwangjang Market
Founded in 1905, Gwangjang Market is the oldest permanent traditional market in Korea. The market, located in downtown Seoul, contains more than 5,000 stores, which feature delectable Korean dishes, handmade crafts, traditional and vintage Korean fashion, bedding, furniture and more. Visitors looking for a treat can try the bindaetteok (mung bean pancake) and mayak gimbap (seaweed rolls). Also found at the market are hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and Ibaji food, which newly-wed brides give to their in-laws. The market retains a historical feel; some of the noodle shops and hanbok stores have been open since the market’s beginning. www.visitkorea.or.kr

Jeju Olle Walking Festival
Each year, Jeju Island, off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula, welcomes visitors for the Jeju Olle Walking Festival. This year’s festival will be held Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. Participants in the festival have the opportunity to walk the Jeju Olle trail, a coastal trail that circles the island with spectacular views of the ocean. Visitors will appreciate the beauty of the island’s landscape, including its oreums (small volcanic mountains) and quaint stone walls. They will also experience local culture as every village along the festival’s course offers local culinary treats and traditional performances to visitors. Registration for the festival is $18 per adult. www.visitkorea.or.kr

Seoul’s Flea Markets
Seoul’s Flea Markets, which take place on the weekends, offer great deals, whether visitors are seeking handmade crafts, clothing or a delicious lunch. At the Hongdae Free Market, open Saturdays from March to November, visitors will find unique knickknacks handcrafted by college-age artists, many of whom attend the nearby art school Hongik University. Items sold at this market include hair ornaments, bags and other accessories, drawings and even CDs with original music. Another market, the Daehangno Filipino market, which takes place every Sunday, offers a dose of Filipino culture and food. At the Seocho Saturday Flea Market, visitors can purchase used clothing, accessories and electronic goods at discounted prices. www.visitkorea.or.kr

Jagalchi Market
Busan’s famous Jagalchi Market is the largest seafood market in Korea. At this market, visitors can buy fresh fish and seafood from female vendors, who are called Jagalchi Ajumma (Ajumma means middle-aged woman in Korean). Among the types of fish offered at the market, mackerel, and sea squirts (ascidians) are common. Visitors can observe the bustling lifestyle of Busan natives while also sampling some fresh raw fish. www.visitkorea.or.kr

New and Noteworthy

O-Train and V-Train
Korea Rail’s new sightseeing train lines, the O-Train and the V-Train, take tourists into the heart of the Korean mountains. Opening up routes to inland areas that are not easily accessible by car due to the area’s rugged terrain, these trains, with their breathtaking views of Korea’s natural landscape, are an attraction in their own right. The O-Train, named for the circular route it takes, departs from Seoul and stops at 13 stations including the major railway stations Jecheon, Taebek and Yeongju. The V-Train, named for the valleys it traverses, travels at a leisurely pace of 17 miles per hour for better sightseeing and connects to the O-Train at Cheoram, Seungbu and Buncheon stations. www.korea.net

The new K-Shuttle tour offers visitors a chance to tour Korea by bus. Designed specifically for tourists, this bus service travels to every corner of the country, offering them a chance to experience lesser-known areas of Korea.  The tour company offers several different packages all departing from Seoul, with stops at 15 different cities. The specific itineraries depend on the package. Routes range from an overnight trip to a five-day tour and include breakfast, admission to select attractions, accommodations and other amenities. Each bus has professional tour guides proficient in English, Japanese, Chinese and Russian. Prices range from $239 per person for an overnight tour to $549 per person for a five-day, four-night tour. www.k-shuttle.com

Sungnyemun Gate
Sungnyemun Gate in Seoul recently reopened following its restoration after a fire destroyed the gate in 2008. The gate has been reconstructed with construction methods similar to those used in the 14th century. Its reconstruction used some of the recovered material from the gate and required 35,000 carpenters and stonemasons. The gate was originally built by King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty. http://english.visitkorea.or.kr

Hotel News/Packages

Through Templestay, visitors can experience life at a Buddhist temple in Korea. A typical package includes an overnight stay at a temple and participation in Buddhist rituals, including chamseon (Zen meditation), yebul (a ceremonial service),  barugongyangi (a monastic meal) and dado (a tea ceremony). Templestay offers experiences at numerous temples around the country, including the mountain temple Woljeongsa, which is two hours from Seoul, and the International Seon Center in Seoul. Visitors can book reservations online. Prices start at $27 per person for an overnight stay. www.templestay.com

Westin Chosun Seoul
Westin Chosun Seoul is celebrating its upcoming centennial with special offers for guests. The hotel was built in 1914 and was the only Western-style hotel in Korea for many years. As a part of its Memory of 1914 “100 Days Festival,” which extends to Oct. 10, the hotel will give away prizes for ordering from its anniversary menu. Guests who order the 100th anniversary menu at three of the hotel’s restaurants will receive a Shinsegae Shopping Voucher. Guests who try the anniversary menu at all six restaurants receive a Business Deluxe Room Voucher. www.westin.com

Event Calendar

Chungju World Martial Arts Festival
The Chungju World Martial Arts Festival is located in the city of Chungju, a hub for Taekgyeon, a traditional Korean martial art. The festival will feature demonstrations of martial arts from all over the world, including the Korean martial arts Taekgyeon, Taekwondo and Hapkido. The festival presents martial arts performances and competitions by teams from 16 countries. There will also be exhibits of the history of different martial arts and hands-on programs teaching the basics of various forms of martial arts. (Sept. 6-10)

Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival
The Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival is an annual lantern festival held in Jinju by the Namgang River. The origins of the festival date back to 1592, when lanterns were lit and floated in the Namgang River as a military strategy to prevent Japanese invaders from wading in the river. The modern-day festival features colorful floating lanterns of all shapes and sizes, which, legend has it, carry the wishes of those who release them. The festival includes lantern exhibitions, a lighting ceremony, lantern-making programs and a fireworks display. (Oct. 1-14)

Busan International Film Festival
The Busan International Film Festival, the largest of its kind in Korea, will feature more than 300 films from 70 different countries. Its main programs include several different themes such as A Window on Asian Cinema, New Currents, Korean Cinema Today and Korean Cinema Retrospective. Visitors can buy tickets for screenings online or in person at on-site ticket booths. (Oct. 3-12)

Formula One Korean Grand Prix
This October, racers will go head to head at the Formula One Korean Grand Prix, which is one of the 19 Formula One car races held around the world. The Korean International Circuit at Jeollanam-do Yeongam-gun will host the race. This circuit, at 3.49 miles long, is the longest circuit in Asia and the fifth-longest in the world. The circuit also features an ocean view in the background. Tickets for one or more days of the event can be booked online. (Oct. 4-6)

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