The reason why I haven’t posted anything in the last 6 months or so is linked to the biggest event of my 2018, and possibly of my entire life so far: thanks to a scholarship won with a contest held by my University, I had the chance to study at Sungkyunkwan University, in Seoul, for one semester as an exchange student. Even though I had promised myself to keep up with my blog project, life, fortunately, hit me harder than expected: there wasn’t a day I was given to rest, I fully lived any single moment and experience I was offered. If on one side this meant to set aside the blog for months, on the other I collected so many memories that now I have plenty of topics and places to talk about in my digital diary.
Given the necessary introduction, I want to make my comeback today with a travel chronicle of my trip to Busan, in the hope it can usher in a new chapter of my blog!
My first encounter with Busan was through the opinion of a dear friend of mine: “it’s the Korean version of Napoli” was her warning. This statement clearly made me laugh, aware of what her words could possibly mean: Napoli, in fact, is a city that commonly recalls the chaos, the most delicious food ever tasted, a lively, proud and loud population that speaks with a strong accent and, above all, it recalls a place which stands out and diverges from the other Italian realities for its eccentric soul. Napoli is a mix of beautiful traditions and negative aspects, but every single side of this city combines to make it the unique place it is.
This is why, as soon as I heard that single opinion, I fell in love with Busan and I took the first possible chance to travel there, despite my full-time university schedule. And this is how it went: during the Easter weekend, together with a small group of friends, I took a 5 hours long bus ride which brought me to the “Korean version of Napoli”, where people are loud and speak with a strong accent.
To be fair, the first impression I had of Busan wasn’t exciting at all: we reached the city after dinner time on a Friday night and, once we got past the jammed bus station, quietness surrounded us. The guesthouse we were staying at was in a fairly central area, Beomnaegol, but later we discovered not enough central to be immediately immersed in the acclaimed Busan night-life. Actually, we just needed to walk straight for 25 minutes or take the metro and literally get off to the next station to reach Somyeon, one of the hottest areas of the city.
We finally headed out for dinner as soon as we were done with the check-in – which has not been without incidents, caused by some technical mistakes which led to an initial misplacement in an already-occupied bedroom and the consequent adjustment of our reservation, lastly ending up in a room awkwardly situated in the floor for male guests (and where the bathroom was shared with the other hosts, as expected in a hostel). In spite of all, we reached Seomyeon at night, a lively and colourful area full of shops, restaurants and activities for the nightlife. Pervaded by an uncontrollable hunger, we immediately stopped by Lotteria, the ultimate South Korean fast-food and the only cheap meal option we found open at 10pm.
Once our stomachs were fulfilled, we took a final look around the area and then we headed back, ready to go to bed and gain all the necessary energies to go through our first and only full day in Busan. However, before falling asleep, we spent some time talking and discussing our first impressions of the city, and I could understand we all agreed on one point: people were much louder compared to Seoul. That night we indeed had to take the metro twice, and both the times we could notice that people actually had conversations during their ride, breaking a silence considered sacred the Capital. As a matter of fact, passengers on the subway in Seoul are extremely quiet and it’s absolutely rare to see someone talking: if it happens, be sure 80% of the times is a foreigner doing it while being attacked by tens of annoyed stares – mainly coming from the elderlies. I experienced myself the embarrassment caused by this kind of unspoken scoldings, and it took a while until I got used to keeping my mouth shut in order to not provoke the oldest passengers on the train.
In this regard, I was fairly pleased by the absence of the unwritten rule to not talk on the public transports in Busan: it made me feel more like at home, plus there already was a point in common that proved a certain similarity to Napoli. Sure, talking (usually loudly) on a public vehicle connects Busan to Italy in general and probably to many other European cities, but my point is different: Napoli is nationally perceived as a black sheep, where people are disrespectful and careless of common rules respected all over Italy, and this aspect definitely relates to Busan. By the Korean people I have talked to, Busan was indeed described as an uncommon reality: although in our Italian or European perception talking to a friend on the bus or metro is normal, in South Korea it is deemed to be unacceptable. People in Busan definitely keep a lower tone when talking on public transports, don’t play music nor scream, but they definitely break a social rule valid in all other parts of the country. This is why I saw a definite similarity with Napoli, it relies on its implicit rebellion.
해동 용궁사 HAEDONG YONGGUNSA
The following morning we headed to 해동 용궁사 Haedong Yonggunsa, the second most famous but definitely the most scenic Buddhist temple in South Korea.
I do not have to specify the beauty of this site, the photos I have taken definitely help to have an idea of the unicity of this religious building which stands out on the seashore, but my morality makes me feel obliged to warn my fellows: reaching the temple is incredibly hard, a proper adventure which tests the most impatient travellers.
Poor are the chances you are going to sleep in an area close to Haedong Yonggungsa: it is in fact situated at the edges of Busan and the most convenient solutions (from the economic and physical point of view) definitely are in the city centre. This means you have to expect a very long travel to reach Haedong Yonggungsa: first thing first you’ll need to take the metro, which will bring you to the third last stop of the green line, Haeundae (and the ride can be very long, mine was of 55 minutes) and once out of the station you need to take the bus 181, the only option for those willing to reach the tourist site and who don’t like to rely on taxis (always-on-a-budget team here!). The bus is another hour-long ride, packed and boring if you consider your journey had already started one hour before. Bearing in mind that in the summertime there surely is the chance get hampered by the tourist flows (unless you leave at the crack of dawn, then problem solved), the journey to Haedong Yonggongsa is up to minimum 2 hours, if everything goes for the best. Last but not least, consider the weather-factor: during summertime, South Korea gets illegally hot and humid and the walk to the entrance of the temple from the bus stop is definitely not eased by the high temperature. I was extremely lucky because during my stay, the weekend in the first week of April, the weather was simply perfect… I was even welcomed by the first cherry blossoms of the year! But the walk is quite long, the path is not too well repaired by trees and I can definitely imagine how hard it can be to walk there on a hot and sweaty summer day. However, any effort needed to reach the temple is worth the struggle: the place is astonishing and never in your life you’ll see a marvel of this kind. Art, nature, spirituality and saltwater smell combine in one single reality, giving the chance to the visitor to truly experience magic and beauty.
THE 호떡 HOTTEOK INCIDENT
After spending a few hours walking up and down the temple, my friends and I headed out and joined the foot traffic of the open market situated right at the doors of the temple. Strong smells and intense colours hit our senses and I took the chance to try one of the most typical and notorious foods in Busan, 호떡 Hotteok, the most deceiving and traumatic culinary experience I had in South Korea. It wasn’t just about not meeting my taste, the crime committed by this so-called “dessert” was to cruelly kill my taste buds: if once I believed that even stones could be delicious if fried, that day I did learn that pine nuts and other kinds of not recognized seeds can make a fried things taste incredibly bad.
I’m that kind of person who tastes anything and likes everything I put in my mouth, but this acclaimed street-food simply met my most genuine hate. It never happens, but I had to leave and give away the food to my friend after the second bite, after being mentally and physically damaged by that experience.
해운대해수욕장 HAEUNDAE BEACH
Later on, while travelling back from the temple, we stopped by the popular 해운대해수욕장 Haeundae Beach, which was surprisingly nice although we visited it in the offseason. Obviously, the experience wasn’t as authentic as it could have been if I visited Busan in the busy summertime, but the stop was definitely worth the while. I could indeed enjoy the warm spring sun while breathing the saltiness and taking part in the joyous atmosphere typical of a Saturday afternoon spent on the beach. At the same time, I couldn’t refrain myself from taking a snap in a cute and typically Korean pose, in an effort to fully become part of my host country’s culture.
감천문화마을 GAMCHEON VILLAGE
The second important visit of the day was at the 감천문화마을 Gamcheon Village, another must for those travelling to Busan. Compared to the Haedong Yonggungsa, reaching the village is much faster and easier, marking a good start of the tour.
If you mention the famous Little Prince scenic photo spot, the hidden alleys and the joyful colours and drawings decorating the walls of the neighbourhood, there is little left to say. However, I feel I shouldn’t unveil too much of this village, more than the photos I chose to share already do. I’d rather let you discover this lively place on your own, without ‘spoilers’: this is what I did at the time and the fact I didn’t know what to exactly expect gave me the chance to fully take part to this real-world fairytale, told by this neighbourhood through its vibrant colours.
자갈치시장 JAGALCHI FISH MARKET
Finally, to conclude our day in Busan, we headed to the final stop of our little travel plan: the 자갈치시장 Jagalchi Fish Market. The reason why we were so eager to stop by this place was simply directed by our high-class appetite: we wanted to try 회, the Korean sashimi. Obviously, this being simple raw fish, it’s not much different from the Japanese counterparty, but you can’t leave Busan without trying its seafood: it’s pure blasphemy. And what better place than the biggest and most famous fish market in town? The experience is truly unique and typical, considered it’s not a spot invaded by tourists yet: other than eating on a raised platform, sitting on a pillow with your legs stretched under a tiny table; you’ll be surrounded by the sounds of joy and vivacity of the local population, indirectly sharing the meal with you. Next to our table, we indeed had a group of ajummas (aged women) sharing an abundant dinner and an even more abundant quantity of soju (the Korean alcohol par excellence): as soon as they noticed us they started a conversation and they offered us to drink with them, careless of the language and cultural differences, in the spirit of conviviality where the alcohol definitely played a certain role. And once again, the cordiality and loudness of the people who gathered in the market warmed my heart, emphasising once again how Busan could be similar to Naples in the beauty of its people.
The rule to eat raw fish in Jagalchi market is simple: you go to the restaurant area situated on the second floor and you DON’T sit at a table without previously asking for the menu indicating the prices. Why? Because we are in a market and the hosts will always try to take benefit from tourists’ ingenuity and language misunderstandings. To avoid any swindle caused by our disadvantaged position, just ask for the menu before sitting: this way you already set a price and there is no way to be hustled. On this matter, we had to skip 4 restaurants before finding our final choice, given the fact the waiters refused to show us the menu.
My friends and I eventually paid 60,000won for our plate of codfish: all my Korean friends agreed on the fairness of the price, considering the location. So, in case you’ll take note of my suggestion and you’ll end up eating raw fish at Jagalchi fish market, try to keep in mind the price I paid and be guided by it in your choice.
DWAEJI GUKBAP AS A SPECIALITY IN BUSAN?????
After dinner, we had a walk in the area where the market was situated and fully satisfied our stomachs with a shared bowl of 돼지국밥 Dwaegi Gukbap, a soup with pork meat and white rice, another speciality in Busan that was suggested as a must-try dish. The reason why this plate is considered a speciality is pretty obscure in my eyes, considered that eating a pork-based dish in a coastal city doesn’t sound right. However, we followed the suggestion and marked another V on our list of things to do in Busan.
광안리해수욕장 GWANGALLI BEACH
To conclude, I’m left mentioning the final place we visited before taking the bus which would have sadly brought us back to Seoul. The following morning we headed to 광안리해수욕장 Gwangalli Beach, from where you can see standing out 광안대교 Diamond Bridge, the symbol of this beautiful city. Once again, visiting a beach in the offseason made the experience extremely pleasant, having avoided the big crowds and used the opportunity to take photos which wouldn’t have needed the help from Photoshop to remove the unwanted figures in the background (bearing in mind I have no clue about how photoshop works).
Is Busan the Korean version of Napoli? In my humble opinion, it is.
Obviously, you can’t expect the same chaos and vulcanic vitality you would find in the actual city of Napoli, but if you went to other parts in South Korea before visiting Busan then yes, you’ll definitely see a clear difference. People here are more lively, friendly, willing to talk and to know about you despite the language barriers. Multiple were the times when people, especially ajummas, started a conversation with me and my friends intrigued by our ‘foreign look’, something which is sadly rare in Seoul. Moreover, people in Busan are extremely proud of their culinary tradition that, if on one way represents a common feature for South Koreans, it is taken to the extreme in Busan, as perceived by their compatriots. This is how people in Busan and Neapolitans are definitely on the same page when it comes to praising their cuisine.
That being said, I truly loved my short but intense stay in Busan and I would definitely love to go back there to discover all those places my tour didn’t cover and, especially, get to better know its beautifully loud people.
Have you ever been to Busan? If yes, what are your thoughts and what did you like the most about the city? If you have any suggestion about places to visit or things to do on my next trip, please leave a comment below! I would love to know more about this city 🙂
I hope you enjoyed reading about my trip and I wish you a nice and safe travel. See you in the next blog post!