Stepping off the ferry in Busan was like a homecoming for Roman and I. We’d spent our first year of marriage teaching English to kids in Gimhae, a suburb of South Korea’s second-largest city. We’d even taken this same ferry once, when we visited Japan on our New Year’s vacation from work. This is why we’d chosen to return to Busan rather than Seoul, South Korea’s capital. Seoul is a great city; however, with only a week in the country, we wanted to revisit our old haunts.
Our airbnb was located near the port terminal and Busan Station, near Chinatown and Texas Street. This was a very central location, but maybe not the nicest neighbourhood to stay with kids. I think a better name for the area would have been “Russian Street”; I haven’t seen so many Russian shops and restaurants since we left Brighton Beach in New York. We got a kick out of that.
As we walked to our airbnb, it all came back to me: old ladies squatting in front of their wares on the side of the road; modern city streets with glass towers; the occasional whiff of sewage as you’re walking down the block; rows upon rows of identical apartment buildings, distinguishable only by the numbers painted on the side. Even the flowery soap in our apartment’s bathroom smelled distinctly Korean.
Some things had changed. There were a lot more American chains than before, from Pizza Hut, to McDonalds, to Starbucks – they were everywhere. The cost of living was more expensive than I remembered. When I arrived in Korea in 2008, I was amazed at how much cheaper life was here, and I was looking forward to that financial beak after four months in North America and Japan. On the whole, I think South Korea was less expensive than Japan, but not by much.
When we ate Korean food in non-chain restaurants, we noticed the savings, paying only about 35,000 won (under $40 CAD) for a meal of BBQ meat, and much less for Korean staples like kimbap, bibimbap, and spicy ramen; however, if we were tempted to buy a coffee and pastry, or if the kids wanted Subway sandwiches for lunch, we were paying a noticeable premium. The grocery store was at least as pricey as the one in Japan. Admission to the Busan aquarium cost an arm and a leg, but many of the other things we did in Korea were free or inexpensive, and transportation on the bus and subway was cheap and easy to navigate.
We had only seven days to get our fill of South Korea, and to show our boys what we love about this country. Here are some things we did:
The Haedong Yonggungsa Temple
This is perhaps the most famous temple in Busan, and it draws huge crowds. The temple is located in Haedong (in the north-east part of the city), and is built on a cliffside, with the waves breaking dramatically below. The temple complex includes several buildings, and there is plenty to see. You can donate coins to your Chinese zodiac sign, or ride the golden pigs for good luck in wealth. There is a giant golden Buddha, a staircase to a towering, serene Kanon statue, and a serpentine dragon. Nearly ten years ago, we were taken here by our colleague Joanne, and I didn’t think twice about rubbing the belly of this Buddha in the photo “of granting a son.” A few weeks later I discovered I was pregnant with Peter. So be careful whose belly you rub!
On our walk back from the temple to the bus stop, we passed the Fisheries Science Museum where admission is free. We did not spend much time there, however, because the kids were completely distracted by the nearby tide pools. They joined dozens of Korean children who were also exploring the tide pools with plastic shovels and small buckets, looking for hermit crabs, slugs, and other sea creatures. Using an empty water bottle to both dig and capture/release their critters, Peter and Sam lifted rocks, prodded the seawater, and hopped between the pools. This was the unexpected highlight of the day, and we barely pried the boys away.
Jagalchi Fish Market and Nampo-dong
When we visited Tsukiji, Tokyo’s world-famous fish market, Roman and I just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. We’d been spoiled by Jagalchi. At this mind-boggling market, there are tanks of writhing octopi, squid and eels, innumerable species of fish and seafood for sale, giant, long-limbed crabs crawling all over each other. The kids wandered around wide-eyed, pointing in disbelief. It was like visiting the Osaka aquarium — only these creatures were meant for the dinner plate. It’s disconcerting from a sustainability standpoint, to think of the hundreds (or even thousands?) of sea creatures caught and sold daily at this single market, but it’s also a striking and unforgettable sight.
We came here in the evening of our final night in Korea. Many of the vendors are also restaurants – they will cook and serve the freshly caught seafood. We stepped into one of these restaurants and ordered blindly from an all-Korean menu. We were brought a giant plate of assorted fried fish, with soups and side-dishes, all for just 33 000 won.
As we began to eat, the kids were awed by all the fish-bones. They had never eaten a whole fish before! We had been talking about vertebrates in our homeschooling lessons, and when Peter pulled out the fish spine we had an impromptu science discussion.
Jagalchi is near Nampo-dong, a bustling neighbourhood with a huge, sprawling street market that sells everything from clothes, to electronics, to posters of Korean boy-bands. There is also an underground shopping area that spans four subway stations, so we walked back to our airbnb without having to step above ground until the very end. I know that Montreal boasts an “underground city” but nothing in Canada compares to the extensive below-ground shopping networks in Asian subway stations!
The jjimjilbang (The Korean bathhouse and sauna)
The Korean bathhouse and jjimjilbang (hot room) is just the best thing ever. After soaking in the gender-separated baths, you can relax in the unisex area where everyone wears standard-issue pajamas. We went to two well-known jjimjilbangs in Busan: Spa Land and Hurshimchang. The experience warrants its own post. Read about it here.
Hike in Guemgang Park to Seokbulsa Temple
Unlike the very popular and very crowded Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Seokbulsa is a hidden gem. Getting there was quite a steep trek through Guemgang Park, but that made it all the more worthwhile when we finally reached the temple. I won’t say too much more about it, as Roman plans to make a post about this magical place.
DVD bang (room)
Apparently DVD rooms have a bad rep in Korea because teenagers like to make out in them, and some are allegedly seedy. Roman and I did not know this when we lived in Gimhae, and we went to DVD rooms all the time to watch English movies. We never had a bad experience. A DVD room is like a video store. There are hundreds of movies to choose from, many of them in English. You pay for a small, private room (about the size of a karaoke room). It has a couch, a large projector/screen, and a high-quality sound-system. It’s inexpensive, and it’s a way to watch movies in a cinema-like experience that are no longer available in theatres. There are limited drinks and snacks available for purchase, or you can even bring your own food from outside. We took the kids to a DVD room twice; it was a great way to get away from the bustle of the city and watch a cheap English movie on a big screen.
The Sea Life Busan Aquarium
I took the kids to the aquarium while Roman was working. It was not as impressive as either the Osaka aquarium or the Vancouver aquarium (maybe we have just seen one aquarium too many). There were a lot of fancy techno effects, flashing lights and computerized displays, but in the end, all the theatrics detracted from the actual animal exhibits. We did get to watch a shark-feeding show set to American hip hop. The best thing about the aquarium was its location on beautiful Haeundae Beach.
Peter and I came here together on one of our parent-kid dates. What is a parent-kid date? It’s a chance for the boys to have some time apart by doing solo activities with one parent. These are necessary every once in a while when Peter and Sam have had a bit too much of each other.
Peter chose to go up Busan Tower on our date. What he enjoyed most about the tower was the popcorn I bought him at the base. Busan Tower reminds me of our own Calgary Tower, in that it is not really very tall compared to some of the other buildings around, and the view is not particularly impressive. However, after descending back to the base, we did walk through a set of cool glowing/flashing exhibits that changed colour every few minutes, and I thought those were pretty neat.
Of course we had to go back to Gimhae, the small city we’d lived in. We tried to find our old apartment, and took some photos in front of a building that may have been it (it’s difficult to tell when all the buildings look alike). We ate at our favourite little restaurant near our home, which remains unchanged even as most of the other business on the block have turned over. We were amazed when the owners recognized us! Afterwards, we walked to LCI Kids Club, our old school, which is no longer there. We explored the empty office space and reminisced.
There is a coffee shop by our school where all the expat teachers used to get our caffeine fix. It was a LaVazza, but is now called Yellow Coffee. We sat at the familiar outdoor table and sipped our coffees. It was like nothing had changed — except for the two boys with fistfulls of chocolate muffin in their hands.
Finally, as the sun began to set, we went to the shopping mall where our local jjimjilbang (bathhouse) used to be – but alas! It had also closed down or moved (hard to imagine when I think of how huge that place was). This was a big disappointment all around. Instead, we went to the movie theatre on the floor below, and Roman took the kids to watch the new Thor movie which was playing in English with Korean subtitles.
The week drew to a close, and we found ourselves heading to the airport to catch our flight to Hong Kong. As we took the train to Gimhae International Airport, we said goodbye to South Korea for the second and probably last time in our lives.