To celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary, and since Randy was exhausted after everything that’s been going on over the past six months, we decided to take make a long weekend and go away. Thanks to kayak.com‘s Explore feature, we found tickets to Busan, South Korea. Actually, we found tickets to Okinawa and Guam, too, but Busan won.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I’d never heard of Busan before. If you’d said that name to me I would never have been able to tell you what country it was in…hell, I might have thought Busan was the name of a country. Alas, it’s a city in southwest Korea…and it’s huge. The population is 3.6 million, it’s got a large subway system (only 5 lines, but there are 40 stops on one line alone), and it’s going through an insane building craze right now. I really should have heard of it. But more on that later.
So, despite Busan being under 2 hours from Tokyo by airplane, it took us over 7 hours to go from apartment to hotel after taking everything into account (train to the airport, being at airport 1.5 hours pre-flight, 2 hour flight, lunch at the airport, then train to the hotel). Needless to say, we arrived at the hotel and took a short nap.
Busan is known as Korea’s summer capital since it’s a city with large, sandy beaches. Our hotel was on Haeundae Beach, the most popular. Our room faced a short section of the beach with some of the city skyline as the backdrop. Since it was raining the first day we opted to go to the Busan Museum of Art. This was the strangest museum I think I’d seen. First, it’s free (score!). Second, it’s large, yet when we were there we were the only visitors (at least for the first hour). Third, there wasn’t much art; just three floors of atrium and galleries with modern pieces by Korean artists.
The next day it rained again (this is their monsoon season, which is ironic for a city known for it’s summer beaches). Anyway, we decided to head to the city’s new downtown, Seomyeon. The best way to describe this area is chaos. Narrow streets, illuminated signs going up every building from top to bottom, crowds on every sidewalk, street vendors set up everywhere selling food (including cooked insects), and a persistent stench of sewer. Despite all that, we had lunch at a Korean place, explored the area some more, then headed back to Haeundae Beach.
At night our hotel offered free cocktails and food in the executive lounge so we did that every day. On this evening, we sat next to another American couple and started chatting them up. We discovered that they were also from Massachusetts (Fitchburg) and were expats now living in Shanghai.
The next morning they joined us visiting a rare Korean temple that was built on the ocean instead of high up in the mountains. The main temple was quite spectacular, with incredibly detailed painted ceilings, a 3-story gold Buddha, and throngs of tourists.
That night, Randy and I headed to Busan’s second most popular beach, Gwangalli. WOW – it was unlike any beach I’d seen. Even at 11 o’clock at night the beach was packed. Looking out over the water you had a glimpse of the Gwangan Bridge (a few miles long with high towers like the Golden Gate, but completely illuminated from end to end). Where it reaches land, it meets up with a long string of mid and highrise buildings equally illuminated from top to bottom. In fact, in every direction where there was land, was a wall of lit up buildings. Such energy!
Speaking of buildings, this city is growing…and fast. Near Haeundae Beach is a complex of 70, 75, and 80 story residential buildings surrounded by other buildings in the 40-50 story range. Now, Boston has 2 buildings over 42 floors. Just two. Right near our hotel was a construction site where they are building a 99 story apartment building. In another area I recall a sign saying that the world’s 5th tallest building was going to be built. How pathetic that I’d never heard of this metropolis before.
On Sunday we decided to check out Busan Tower (located atop a hilly park near Nampo-dong). It was from here that you could see how the city just spreads out for miles and miles. Like I said, it’s a city of 3.6 million people. But because the region is very mountainous, development took place in the flat areas and throughout the city there are plush green mountains with no buildings. This also explains why there are only 5 subway lines for a city this large…they follow the valleys where development took place.
From there, we thought we’d check out one of Busan’s biggest attractions: Taejongdae Park. This park sits at the tip of one of the many peninsulas that stick out from the city. It’s very hilly with tall cliffs and lots of woods. Unfortunately, it’s highly over-rated. There isn’t much to see but a long and winding (and hilly) road that circles the park mostly inland so you can’t see much. We did hike a bit up and down some cliffs along the water, but they weren’t exciting enough to warrant the energy it took to get there.
Fully exhausted from the park, we decided the next day (our last) would be our beach day (which, in our minds, was the whole point of the trip in the first place). We lounged on the beach for most of the day, then headed out to do some shopping that night.
In between all of these activities, we visited the world’s largest department store (Shinsegae), witch was unlike any I’d ever seen. The roof on the 9th floor has a large grassy park with tall trees and views of the city, mountains, and river. There were also taller portions of the building housing golf ranges and racquet ball courts.
One of the best features of our hotel was the natural hot spring and spa. Unlike most hotels with a small pool and, if lucky, a hot tub, the entire sixth and seventh floors of this hotel were dedicated to pool, spa, and gym. The men’s spa was quite luxurious, with lockers, a shower area, a cool tub, hot tub, and hell tub, floor to ceiling windows overlooking the beach, a hot dry sauna, a hell hot dry sauna. a steam room, and a lounge to relax overlooking the beach and to drink smoothies. Needless to say, we took advantage of this every day we were there.
All in all, we both enjoyed ourselves, but were hoping for more. Unlike other cities we’ve visited, there just weren’t that many attractions. And the attractions they had were just too spread out. We both like walkable cities and this is definitely not one. On the plus side, the people of Korea are so freaking friendly it’s scary. It seemed that every time we were on the subway, a Korean would walk up to us to talk…usually, it seemed, to be friendly and practice their English, twice to preach to us about God. Apparently, Korean’s are Christian. too.
It was also interesting to see the differences between the Koreans and the Japanese despite their close proximity. Korean’s are much more individualistic…a ride on the subway shows people with colorful clothing, dyed hair, and tattoos. In Tokyo, everybody is wearing black pants and white shirts (business attire). It was definitely more relaxed.
Toward the end of the trip (as always happens to me when I travel), I start getting restless and look forward to returning home. For the first time, that “home” I was looking forward to was our apartment in Tokyo. I guess I really do feel at home here.