Busan: Things to do and see

I haven’t visited Busan for some time now, but it’s a city that’s still dear to my heart because I lived only an hour away from it for 2 years. It’s more chilled and laid back than the capital and people are generally friendly and willing to help. Overall Busan doesn’t have as many attractions as Seoul, but there is still plenty to do and see there, ranging from shopping to festivals to beaches to cultural attractions.

In no particular order, here is a list of some things to check out in Busan.

1.    Busan International Film Festival

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South Korea has a well known and internationally respected film industry, with Old Boy being a cult classic and recently the film Snowpiercer enjoyed critical acclaim and a U.S. release. BIFF is the largest film festival in Asia and a great time to watch Korean and Asian films, as well as some Western releases. The festival is held every October and has a lively atmosphere, certainly one of the best times to be in Busan. Tickets for the popular movies can be very hard to get, but I managed to get tickets for the less popular releases on the BIFF website when I went in 2014. I got tickets for 3 Korean films and one Vietnamese, though I ended up not being able to see the Vietnamese one. I also got a ticket to see a few short films, with one being American, one Thai and one French-Cambodian. The theater for the short films had only a few people.

There’s also Midnight Passion tickets, where one can see a few horror movies back to back after midnight, but these tickets can also be hard to come by as they sell out quickly.

The films are shown in various theaters mostly in the Haeundae area. Accommodation sells out incredibly quickly and gets very expensive in the festival time so book early to stay in Haeundae, or stay in a different area (like Seomyeon) and commute by subway.

2.   Gamcheon Culture Village

This is a very cute art village with an interesting history. Busan was one of the few places in South Korea not harmed by the Korean war and briefly served as the capital when Seoul was taken by North Korea during the war. Therefore refugees from other parts of the peninsula fled to Busan, and Gamcheon was a refugee area and filled with tiny shanty houses and remained poor after the war was over. In 2009, there was a project to improve the living of the Gamcheon residents so the homes were painted and decorated with murals. Today Gamcheon is a popular tourist place with local Koreans (especially couples and photographers) but remains pretty off the radar for foreign tourists.

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Gamcheon is usually compared to Santorini or Cinque Terre, but it seems to me to more closely resemble colorful shanty house neighborhoods in a place like Mexico or South America (from photos I’ve seen, I haven’t actually been to either yet). It’s a great place to walk around and check out the murals, but for me the best part is wandering up the hill through the tiny painted alleys. Bring water and be prepared to walk a lot uphill, some of which is a bit steep. Also, try to go on a sunny day as the pictures would probably turn out better than mine (it was cloudy when I went).

It’s pretty easy to get to as well, just take the subway to Toseong Station and come out exit 6. There’s a bus stop in front of a hospital where buses 2 and 2-2 go to the village. The ride is only a few minutes long. There’s a tourist information center in the village that has English maps.

3.  Haedong Younggungsa Temple

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This is one of Busan’s most famous temples, and it was the first temple I visited in Korea. Even after visiting more temples this one was definitely one of my favorites. The location by the sea is amazing and very refreshing in the hot weather. The temple does attract a crowd but it didn’t have a negative impact on my experience. Leading up to the temple are plenty of stalls selling Buddhist trinkets and some street food. There’s also Buddhist music and statues leading to the gate. The temple was founded by a monk in 1376 but was reconstructed in 1970, so the buildings and statues are hardly ancient but it’s one of the few temples in Korea near the sea. There’s plenty of great photo opportunities on the grounds and a great view of the temple and ocean up the hill. There is a bus that services the temple that leaves from Haeundae station, but I went with two friends so we took a taxi. From what I’ve heard, the bus drops off pretty far from the temple so taking a cab would probably be the best choice if with a group.

4. Gwangalli Beach

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Haeundae may be the most popular beach in Korea but I prefer Gwangalli. It’s cleaner, not as crowded and has plenty of restaurants around it as well. Gwangan bridge is also beautiful at night and the whole beach has a nice vibe at that time, with people setting off small fireworks on the beach and musicians playing on the stairs. My friend and I went here on Chuseok one year and it was peaceful and not too busy.

5. Nampo Dong Christmas Festival

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Nampo Dong is a big shopping area in Busan, and BIFF square is located near here, which has street food and some movie theaters. Nampo has plenty of discount shops and restaurants to enjoy. The best time to come here is in winter during the Christmas lights festival. It gets crowded of course but the crowds actually make the place a bit warmer, at least. The lights and trees are everywhere giving the place a great festive atmosphere.

6. Dongbaekseom Island

Dongbaek island isn’t actually an island — it used to be but is now attached to the mainland, so it’s really a peninsula. It’s very small and gets it’s name from the trees that grow there, called dongbaek. There’s an easy walkway around the peninsula that has some great views of the ocean, Gwangan bridge, and Haeundae beach. Dongbaekseom honors a Silla-era scholar with a large statue of him at the top. The APEC house (meeting place for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) is located here. The APEC house served as a meeting place for world trade leaders in Asia in 2005. There’s a good photo opportunity here of the house and and bridge. It’s accessible by subway, just get off at Dongbaek station and walk 700 meters.

7. Busan Aquarium 

I haven’t visited many aquariums in my life, so I’m not really sure how this compares to aquariums in general but I did enjoy this place. Has plenty of sea creatures including giant Japanese spider crabs, sharks, and a pool to touch starfish. The entrance fee is 18,000 won per person. It’s walking distance from Haeundae beach so easy to reach, and provides an escape from summer heat.

8. Yongdusan Park

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Yongdusan Park has a couple of things to see, such as a statue of the famous admiral Lee Sun-sin and a Buddhist temple, but the main attraction is the view of Busan from Busan Tower. There’s an escalator up the mountain and it’s located in Nampo Dong so it’s easy to reach. The tower had a long line but a good view of the downtown and the ocean and cargo ships.

9. Shinsegae Department Store

The world’s biggest department store more resembles a mall as this place is enormous. Huge amount of stores and restaurants. It attracts tons of people but it’s air conditioned so great to go in summer. It’s also home to Spaland, a famous jimjilbang with several different baths and saunas.

There are several notable omissions from this list, such as Taejongdae Park, Seokbulsa temple, Beomosa temple, Geumjeongsan fotress, UN memoral park, a few other beaches, and Samgwangsa temple. The reason why they are not included is because I never managed to visit them, but they also look like worthwhile places to go. I left out Jagalchi fish market because I never had much interest in going there as I don’t care for seafood. But I did see it from the outside and it does look huge so I’m sure it’s a good spot if you like fish.

If staying in the Haeundae area, I can recommend Hostel the New Day. It’s location is amazing, just a two minute walk from the Haeundae subway. It’s also walking distance from Megabox Haeundae which was great when I stayed in Busan for BIFF. The staff are very friendly and speak great English, the whole place and rooms are clean. The main drawback was that the bed in the 6 bed dorm was pretty uncomfortable, but I switched to the 4 bed during my stay and for some reason that bed felt better. The showers are also communal which I know can be uncomfortable for some.

I do wish that I had  gotten to a few more attractions in Busan while I lived near there, but the film festival, Yonggungsa, Gamcheon and the Christmas festival were highlights for me.  It has a different vibe from Seoul, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

Haesindang Park (aka Penis Park)

One of the more strange and offbeat destinations in Korea is Haesindang Park, or “Penis Park” named for the several phallic sculptures in the park. The reason why the park has so many penises is because apparently they placate a dead girl’s spirit.

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Mural of the girl, on the way to the park.
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Near the entrance.

The legend is that a maiden was engaged to a fisherman, and she went out to the ocean to harvest seaweed, but a storm came and she drowned before her husband-to-be could save her. After that, her spirit was apparently so angry that she died before she could get married that the fishermen were unable to catch fish. Therefore, the villagers carved a bunch of penis statues to calm her down, and it worked. The fish came back.

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I guess it’s happy the villagers can eat again.

Haesindang is located in a small fishing village called Sinnam, which is about 40 minutes from Samcheok terminal. At the terminal, there is a local bus stop where bus 24 leaves for the park pretty frequently throughout the day. I went early on Sunday because I knew the trip from Samcheok back to Gapyeong would take several hours.

I took the 7:20 bus and got off at Sinnam bus stop. From there, it’s a short walk to the park. The Korea tourism web site says Haesindang opens at 9 a.m. but luckily I was able to get in at 8. They had the gate open and I paid a small entrance fee. Because it was so early, there were very few people there, which was nice.

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There’s a small shrine dedicated to the maiden. And lots and lots of penis sculptures.

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Nearly everything is penis shaped.

The grounds are pretty nice but the flowers are no longer in bloom. Spring or summer would be more ideal to visit, but of course the sculptures can be enjoyed any time.

 

The park is obviously nearby the sea, and there’s several view points.

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There’s a constant breeze coming from the ocean that would be especially nice in warm weather.

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According to the Korea Tourism page on the park there are still folk ceremonies held in Sinnam in honor of the maiden.

Haesindang is definitely a must see in Samcheok, and must see in Korea in general if you are looking for something strange, unique and different from the usual temple.

Caving in Samcheok

Samcheok, located on the east  coast in the southern part of Gangwon-do, is a beach city very popular with domestic travelers in summer. Other than its beaches, the two attractions it is most well known for are two caves located in its mountains and Haesindang Park, otherwise known as “Penis Park” among foreigners.

I had hoped to visit Samcheok in the summer, as the coolness of it’s caves and it’s beaches make it a popular summer holiday choice but never got around to it then. Samcheok’s main cave, Hwanseongul, was on my bucket list of places to visit in Korea before leaving so I made the trip recently in late November.

Getting to Samcheok was quite time consuming. Although, getting to many places can be time consuming for me since I live in a really small town, but Samcheok took more time than other cities on the east coast I visited, like Sokcho and Gangneung. This is because the bus from Chuncheon makes a stop at Gangneung (an hour north of the city) and Donghae before stopping in Samcheok. Usually a bus from Chuncheon to the east coast takes about 2 and a half hours, but for Samcheok it took almost 4 hours each way. Then after Chuncheon I have to transfer buses for my small town in Gapyeong.

I spent one night in Chuncheon Friday night to cut the trip in half the first day, so I could have more time to see the caves on Saturday. Samcheok has two caves, Daegeumgul and Hwanseongul. Daeguemgul can only be seen by riding a monorail for 90 minutes and is typically booked in advance, and the booking is only in Korean so most foreigners only visit Hwanseongul. I didn’t make a reservation for Daegeumgul but I thought I might try to buy a ticket straight at the office if possible, since I went in the off-season. However, I didn’t end up having the time.

Both caves are about 40 minutes outside Samcheok city in the mountains. The scenery is really quite beautiful here:

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There’s still some fall colors to be seen, but most trees are bare now. Winter is coming. :/
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Bat shaped ticket booth.
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Enterance to Daegeumgul.

The buses to the caves leave right from the first platform in the Samcheok terminal but the buses are really infrequent, only 3 a day. I narrowly missed the 10:30 bus and ended up waiting for the 2:20 one, so I only had time to see Hwanseongul. The woman at the Samcheok tourist office is very helpful and speaks English. She gave me a schedule of the bus times for the caves and for Penis Park.

Hwanseongul requires either a trek up a steep hill or a monorail to reach. I took the monorail for 7,000 won round trip. Since it wasn’t peak season the line wasn’t long.

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I haven’t been to many caves (before this one, I’d only been to the lava tube on Jeju) so it was amazing to enter a huge limestone cave like Hwanseon. It was massive with a stream flowing throughout. Visitors walk up and down metal stairs. The cave is very wet, so I held on to the rail closely. It was cool but actually not as cold as I expected. I was wearing a large down jacket so that may be why.

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Some of the neon lights are a bit garish, but the descriptions of the cave formations in English are rather amusing. Many of the cave formations have names of things they supposedly look like such as “the Great Wall of China” or the “Virgin Mary.”

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After about an hour, I finished walking through the cave. I managed to catch the next bus back to Samcheok without having to wait for long.

There are plenty of motels near Samcheok terminal. The woman in the tourist office will call motels to ask if they have a room. I stayed in a place called Moon Motel which was really nice. It’s 50,000 won during the weekend, 40,000 during the week. It comes with the standard amenities of love motels: shampoo, conditioner, TV, computer, fridge with drinks, toothbrush, a condom, etc. Apart from getting  a free condom, the Moon Motel actually doesn’t come across as much of a “love motel” as the decor isn’t gaudy like most. Also, I noticed a Korean family with a young child was staying there. There’s an actual door to the bathroom in this one unlike most love motels which usually have a clear bathroom door. The lady at the front desk was nice and they will store bags before check-in.

The next day, I was up early to check out the infamous Haesindang Park, which will be a later post.

Nami Island’s Tree Lined Streets

Nami Island was the filming location of the very popular Korean drama Winter Sonata, which aired in 2002 and is credited with starting the “Korean Wave.” The Korean Wave refers to the popularity of K-dramas, K-pop, and Korean movies throughout Asia. Due to the drama’s success and it’s billing as a place of natural beauty the island is one of Korea’s top tourist spots.

Nami island was created as a result of the building of the Cheongpyeong dam. Although it is considered a part of Chuncheon city, it is actually closer to Gapyeong station than it is to Chuncheon. Though I’ve lived in Gapyeong for several months now, I never visited Nami island until this past Sunday. For one thing, I wasn’t super interested in going there since I haven’t seen Winter Sonata. For another, I heard it gets extremely crowded over the weekend and it didn’t seem like it was worth waiting in long lines for.

However, after seeing some pictures of the island in autumn, I decided I had to go. After all, it’s right near my house and November has just arrived, so in a matter of time fall will be over.

I asked a friend if she wanted to go with me but she couldn’t make it so I just went solo. I’ve been to several places in Korea solo before and generally don’t mind it but I was a bit concerned I might stick out more than usual since Nami is extremely popular as a date spot for couples.

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The famous metaseqoia road, which is a popular photo spot, not only for couples, but everyone on the island.
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Picture looks better over people’s heads.

Although it’s not too common for folks to go alone to Nami (most people seemed to be in a couple, group, or family) I actually didn’t feel too weird. After all, a lot of places in Korea tend to be popular with families and couples so I’m used to that. Plus the views of all the tree lined streets on Nami are the best in this season.

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Korean Pine lane.
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Ginkgo Tree Lane. The ginkgos are now bare but the leaves cover the ground with yellow.
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Maple street. 

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Aside from the several lanes of trees, Nami has plenty of public art around, most of it made from recyclables. Most of it is pretty cute while some is a tad weird.

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Like this one, for example.

There’s also plenty of different gardens and fountains around. It’s not a large island so it’s easy to walk throughout the whole place. I found it fun to explore and the autumn colors are vibrant.

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The southern tip of the island.

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A lot of these little squirrels roam around the island.

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There’s also the pen of ostrichs.

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I thought the passenger train was cute.
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Plenty of sitting areas are equipped with books.
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Tomb of General Nami, who the island is named after.

Nami also has plenty of food choices, though they can be a bit pricey. I had a stick of lamb skewer and vegetable pajeon for lunch. The lamb was 3,000 won and the pajeon was 10,000. There’s also a pizza restaurant, a few Korean restaurants and an Asian restaurant with dishes from several countries.

I had hoped to get to Nami early to avoid the crowds but wasn’t willing to get up early enough for that. On Nami itself the crowds weren’t a huge problem since the island is spacious enough, although it can be an issue for photographs. The lines to the ferry were long but moved pretty quickly. The only time the crowds were a problem was the long wait at Gapyeong station in line for a cab to the ferry, and then another long line for the bus back to the station.

To get to the island, get to Gapyeong station either by ITX or by the Gyeongchun line. Then take a taxi to the wharf (line may be long) for about 4,000 won. There’s also a bus but the line for that was even longer than the taxi line.

There’s a zip line to the island for 38,000 won, but I took the ferry since it’s much cheaper. Round trip ticket plus entrance fee is 8,000 won for foreigners.

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Go through “immigration” since Nami is an imaginary country (called Naminara Republic).

There’s one hotel and a few bungalows to stay the night, if wanting to check out the Garden of the Morning Calm or more of Gapyeong the next day. Nami is cute for what it is, a little romantic tourist park. Not a bad place to go exploring for a day from Seoul, but earlier is better.

The Garden of the Morning Calm in Two Seasons

The past two weekends, I went outside my town to check out autumn scenery at Seoraksan and Maisan. However, my town of Gapyeong is actually very beautiful and colorful in fall, and makes a great autumn destination in itself. It’s a rural county about an hour and a half from Seoul with a few attractions making it a popular day or overnight trip for Seoul residents.

Gapyeong’s most popular tourist attraction is The Garden of the Morning Calm, a large garden founded in 1996 by a garden professor at Sahmyook University. The purpose of creating the garden was to increase worldwide recognition of Korean gardens and attract visitors to the beauty of Korea.

The plan was largely successful, as the garden is quite popular with international visitors and its proximity to Seoul makes it a common day trip. I first visited the garden the first time in March, while the winter lighting festival was still going on.

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I had planned to visit again in May, but ended up forgetting to go, so decided to wait until autumn to see the fall colors.

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They didn’t disappoint, though I forgot my camera this time around and had to use my cell phone, which tends to not photograph well in light, but I did my best.

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There are many different types of gardens to check out — a Korean garden, a Bonsai garden, a sunken garden, and many others, as well as flower rooms and greenhouses. It took me about two hours (including getting lunch) to walk around and explore it all. The big centerpiece of the garden is the large juniper tree.

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The garden has two restaurants and a cafe to eat at. I’ve only eaten at the Korean restaurant, and I noticed it has a few vegetarian options. Although I am not a vegetarian myself I know that it can be hard to find such meals in Korea so I was a bit surprised.

I wish I had remembered to check out the garden again during the flowers of May, but still, the lighting in winter is certainly magical and would be especially so when it snows a bit. The colorful mountains and blue skies of autumn added on to the beauty of the place in fall. The garden is open every day throughout the year, and costs 8,000 won admission during the week and 9,000 on the weekend.

The best way to get there from Seoul would probably be best to take the ITX (50 minutes from Yongsan) or the Gyeongchun line (about 1.25 hours from Sangbong) to Cheongpyeong station. From there, walk 15 minutes to Cheonpyeong bus terminal (the KTO page on the garden has directions). Then take bus 31-7 or 31-17. There’s also the Gapyeong shuttle tour bus that runs to the tourist spots in the area (Petite France, Namiseom, Jaraseom, and a rail bike). This costs 6,000 won, but it’s a bit more expensive if not going anywhere else in Gapyeong. Nami island, at least, shouldn’t be done on the same day as the Morning Calm garden in my opinion, it would be way too tiring. Both can easily be done in an overnight trip if staying in town. There’s a couple of hostels in Gapyeong-eup, the main town and plenty of pensions and motels near the bus terminals and tourist attractions in the county.

If I didn’t live in Gapyeong and had to choose one season to visit, between winter and autumn I would personally choose winter just because the lighting festival is truly spectacular and it would be most worth the trip from outside town.