Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Busan, Korea: Full Moons and Seafood


Busan, South Korea from the Busan Tower


In the picture above, you are unconsciously viewing the fifth biggest port in the world, so you should start by giving yourself a pat on the back. That is no small feat in a world where industry rules, and globalization is no longer a phenomenon, but an established world habitat. Busan is a major metropolis in Korea (Second to Seoul) and feels even larger than statistics would suggest. It officially clocks in around 3.6 million, but the greater area brings that number up another million or so. I also have a strong suspicion that there may be an even greater unregistered population, but Korea's precision in almost everything would suggest that I'm probably dead wrong on that hunch. Simply put, Busan is an absolutely massive city(and don't forget I'm from Toronto). I managed to traverse quite a bit of the said city, but wondered often if I was still within its boundaries. I knew that I geographically was, but the different areas varied so much that it was almost hard to believe. One minute you were in the strictly urban core of the city, and next you were at a Buddhist temple on a serene mountain, but you may find yourself sleeping right next to a bustling beach.

We headed over to Busan from Seoul over Chuseok (essentially Korean thanksgiving) on an utterly impressive bullet train. The train has the capacity to travel around 350km/h although I only personally witnessed it traveling at just under 300km/h. It was also quite comfortable, but look out the window for too long and you may find yourself with butterflies in your stomach for all the wrong reasons. We were able to arrive in Busan in under 3 hours from departure time, and this was all around impressive to me. Perhaps more impressive was the city we arrived in. It wasn't a city that immediately made my travel senses tingle, but when I left I was surely impressed with all that I had experienced.
The view from Marubee House Hostel off of Hauendae Beach

We stayed in Marubee House (http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Marubee-House/Busan/45722) right on the most famous beach in Busan. It is also undoubtedly one of the most frequented beaches in Korea with millions flocking to it throughout the summertime, and sometimes racking up those numbers in just a single day. The hostel itself is just what the doctor ordered. It is a clean place with a nice pressurized shower (can't take that for granted!), great owners, an incredible location, a quality price ($20-25 a night), and a curious cat named "Mint". I can safely say that Haeundae is the quintessential area to stay in when visiting Busan, so the name of the game for this hostel is location, location, location. Not sure if I sounded too much like a real estate agent with a stutter there, so let's move on.

We settled nicely into the hostel, then headed off to the beach for a day of sun. I swear the temperatures felt like a sweltering summer in mid-September. The humidity in Asia (as my poor White self learned in China in 2009) really takes a toll on me. I've adjusted nicely to it though now, and by next summer Korea will have nothing on my Irish skin. After the stint on the beach we headed out to explore the Haeundae nightlife. We met three fellow teachers from around Korea who joined Bri and I for a night out. We gleefully spent a majority of the night enjoying the festivities on the beach. The atmosphere was fantastic due to all the excitement surrounding the holiday. Also, there was a dance floor on the heart of the beach that was used for everything from mamba, tango, hip-hop and even electro throughout the evening. However, there was one moment that trumped all. An impromptu flash mob began on the dance floor, and it starred a courageous old Korean woman with contagious energy. I attempted to post the video to the blog with no avail, but rest assured it will appear on Facebook at some point.

The Korean bartenders at the Fuzzy Navel in the Haeundae area redefine the word "flare". I had a stint as a bartender at Queen's University, but I have never seen flare like this. I've seen some impressive tricks in my day with a bottle, and I can safely say I haven't ever seen them done with the bottle lit on fire. I also was able to grab another obscure and hilarious T-shirt at this bar with the quote "Love Fuzzy Navel - LET'S PARTY TIME" on it. It is safe to say that my first night in Busan was a smashing success.

The following day we left the excitement of the beach and kindly traded it for sublime spirituality. We headed to one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Korea - Beomeosa. It was constructed in the nearly inconceivable year of 678, and quickly became recognized as one of the ten great temples of the Hwaeom sect. However, it underwent some involuntary renovation along the way, namely in 1592 when a fire found its way on the grounds during the Japanese invasion. The buildings may not date back to 678, but the feeling certainly does. An ancient air looms around the locale and intoxicates you. It is by no means a relic either as it still serves as a prominent urban temple in Korea. You can feel the history, and hear the present as processions continue around you. The setting of the temple is nothing short of remarkable. It sits perched on the slopes of the pristine Geumjeongsan Mountain. It would be easy to see how spiritual men of the past would have chosen this location as their haven. I walked the grounds in silence and marvel, and thus it seems inappropriate for me to merely explain the feeling when I can show you. It's a place that takes your breath away, and replaces that breath with more than just oxygen.

This place provides a subtle sort of inspiration. There's really something unique about Buddhist sanctuaries. Bri and I are currently looking into a "temple stay" that occurs throughout Korea. It involves a weekend "vacation" in which you observe and live as one would in a temple. It would include a Yebul Ceremonial Service (devotional chanting), Chamseon (Zen meditation), ceremonial meals, and a variety of other intriguing opportunities. The bottom line is that we are in Korea to appreciate their culture and this is a fine way to do that. I had the divine opportunity to be at a Buddhist Temple while in Tibet, and the memories of that event have never faded. I've also wanted to study more Buddhist ideology for quite some time, and what better place to do that?

After we visited Beomeosa we decided to get some traditional Korean food near the bottom of the mountain. We elected to try a dish entitled "Pajeon". It's a pancake-like dish with green onions as the prominent ingredient. The version we tried also featured some squid (we aren't entirely sure if it was squid or cuttlefish. Sometimes you just have to let it go) and a cracked egg . I may or may not get it again, but it certainly gave my body some needed energy after a lengthy exploration on Beomeosa. Food is a seriously underrated way to explore a country's culture, so I eat my heart out. Although, some who know me would merely see that as an excuse as I tend eat more than a famished oxen. We took the bus back to our humble abode near the beach and there we resided for the evening. Of course we had a beer or two from a bar with a great view, but that is only to be expected.

On our last day in Busan we began our journey by heading off to Korea's largest fish market - Jagalchi Market. If you look at the picture at the top of my blog you can spot Jagalchi immediately as the building that ironically appears to have seagull-like wings. I have never seen so many fish in one place in my entire life. The quantity was certainly astonishing, but the quality also appeared absolutely unmatched. Don't believe me? Then look at the size of the crabs in the picture located just to the left of this text. I haven't seen crabs this big on the show "Deadliest Catch" let alone while wandering through a fish market. Well, sight is great and all, but who in their right mind would come to the fish market without a little taste? We caught(no pun intended) the dinner buffet on the 5th floor of this monstrous structure, and the word "regret" lay heavily sheltered from my thought process. There were delicious traditional Korean dishes scattered throughout the buffet. It was also by far the most elaborate buffet I have ever witnessed. I took the opportunity to try a plethora of dishes I wouldn't have otherwise been able to try. Also, there was a steaming trough of unlimited crab that could(and does) make your mouth water like a waterfall. So, you know how at a buffet there would usually be a roast? (perhaps ham or roast beef). Well, here they had a full fledged tuna that was being mercilessly carved for sashimi lovers. It melts in your mouth like a Lindor chocolate. Bri and I have since reminisced fondly on the joyous occasion of the legendary buffet.
Before we left Busan, we figured it was a must to go up the Busan Tower. The tower itself is nestled into the famed Yongdusan Park which occupies around 69,000 square metres of this packed city. Going up to the top of the tower allowed an opportunity for reflection on all that we had done in the previous days. We could literally see almost all of the sites that we had visited. More importantly, it gave us an opportunity to visualize what else we want to see in this metropolis. Living in Korea has afforded me the luxury of re-visiting destinations, and that is simply something I didn't have when I was rogue with a backpack in Europe last summer. On October 21st, the Busan International Fireworks Festival will be held, and that seems like as good an opportunity as any to head on back to Busan. Hey, the trains here are as fast as bullets anyways.

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