“The Busan”


On arrival at Seoul station around 10 am I ascended the escalator and was greeted by the usual unmelodious noise of gaggling commuters. Met with the ubiquitous signage issues I still found my way to a Tourist Information Centre to ask how I could find the platform for my 11 am KTX departure to The Busan.  I already had a ticket as my co-worker had kindly ordered this for me online. At Tourist Information no one spoke any Englishy but I was guided to the KTX platforms and unceremoniously shown the station floor. From my understanding of the gestures made I was encouraged to survey the Digital notice board at regular intervals. I was in a mild state of panic as by 10.45 am instructions had not been forthcoming and alas the digital display was in Hangul. At exactly 10.50 am the display refreshed and I recognised a number which matched another on my ticket. It seemed to say platform 9 and so I approached another information desk where I was ushered to platform 9 and a successful  rendezvous with the The Busan KTX.

The KTX is a TGV imported from France and the one I travelled in, whilst efficient and comfortable, was looking a little frayed at the edges. We hurtled through Seoul and its environs emerging amongst the flat Korean paddy fields with mountains to the East some distance away. Reaching top speeds of 330 km per hour it is the best way to travel between major cities in Korea but sometimes taking the bus (Gyeongju/Chungju) can be faster because of the need to change modes of transport.  We had scheduled “on time” stops on  the way, arriving in Busan 2 hrs and 40 mins later. Busan, the second city of Korea, is a bustling metropolis of approximately 3.7 million resident and is located on the Southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula. Its geography includes a coastline with sandy beaches and scenic cliffs, mountains which provide excellent hiking and extraordinary views, and hot springs are scattered throughout the city.  From Busan station I made my way on the metro following the instructions from Sam Won Jang guesthouse.

After a quick shower I headed out into the searing sunshine to get my bearings. My hotel was adjacent to the Jagalchi Fish Market but I wanted to visit the market early morning the following day.

I had spotted Busan tower as I emerged from the metro and armed with a local map I decided to head in that direction. The tower is located in Yongdusan Park in the Nampodong area of Busan. In Korean ‘yongdu’ means dragon’s head and ‘san’ means mountain  hence Dragon’s Head Mountain Park. The mountain (or hillock) looks like a dragon’s head from the sea. On the way to the park I passed through a vibrant shopping are known as Gwangbok-ro Fashion Street! There were many food stalls and vendors selling tacky souvenirs alongside all the main Korean High Street stores.

As I headed in the direction of the tower I noticed an escalator rising from the high street, curiosity overcame me and I suddenly realised this was the old guys stairway to heaven, that is the park summit and tower. Around half-way up the escalator, which rises in three stages, there is a small exercise terrace and a Buddhist Temple. On alighting the escalator you are greeted with what look like beach huts, these have been converted into mini art-gallery’s where local artists display their  wares, either side of these huts a road winds its way around the mountain providing vehicular access. Straight ahead a flight of steps leads to a plateau which marks the top of the hill and which contains a series of monuments. This is a favourite place for elderley males to meet and play baduk. Immediately in front of the visitor is a statue of Korea’s 16th-century naval hero, Yi Sun-shin (이순신), the bust of writer Ahn Huijae (안희제) and a monument marking the April 19th anti-government student protests, the park is home to Busan Tower, a 120-meter high pillar with a pagoda-like top.

I walked to the collection of buildings which form the base for the park’s tower to escape from the heat and then went up the Busan Tower.  The lift stopped at one-hundred, at this level there is a cafe and viewing area, although to reach the proper observation deck near the top of the tower I ascended up one more floor via a very narrow staircase. The views were spectacular,  Busan had treated me to a clear day with blue skies and I could see for many miles in all directions including a glimpse of the Japanese island of Tsushima. I stayed around an hour taking in the views and imbibing some very delicious blueberry frozen yoghurt from the cafe.

Back at the bottom, I was met with sun and the desire to find my way to a temple that I had spotted from the top of the tower. I watched young couples fixing love tokens to the railings as they had done at Seoul Tower, taking pictures and posing on the love seats. I observed the baduk games for a while then took a winding tree laden path down to the foot of the park.  This path was a welcome escape from the searing heat and was lined by a multitude of benches all of which supported an army of comatose Korean’s of all ages.

Emerging from the park I took a left, ignoring the temptation of another Cafe Bene blueberry smoothie, and saw I was in an area of stylish boutiques selling individually created garments. Alongside this area is a maze of small streets alive with colour and home to hundreds of small shops selling everything from vintage clothing to pots and pans. Originally formed by Korean War refugees, this downtown market has grown into Busan’s largest. Here you can find the best wholesale prices for clothing, silk, linen, curtains, bags, glasses, and many imported items. Similar to Namdaemun Market in Seoul, the stores are small and the vendor-filled alleys are narrow. Kukje Market spills out into the streets and continues into Kwangbok-dong & Namp’o-dong. I wandered around these streets fro a while noticing a Thai restaurant and an Indian restaurant as I was becoming increasingly tired of the same kimchi laden Korean fare. I also came a across the temple I had spied from the summit of the tower, it was somewhat disappointing. After showering and unsuccessfully trying to catch up with the Lympics on TV (they show only Korean competitors) .

I headed out to the Arun Thai resataurant. I had an excellent Thai Chicken Soup (Tom Ka Gai) followed Red Thai Curry complete with rice Teddy Bear. It had been a long day so I retired early ready to spend the Friday trekking to Seokbulsa temple.

I’d seen and read numerous blogs which claimed that Seokbulsa is not just the best Buddhist temple in Busan, but the most stunning in all South Korea. I had coveted this excursion since I started my research for my current trip.

Found high up Mt. Geumjeongsan, Seokbulsa (석불사) is difficult to reach, but well worth the effort. I began our journey by accessing the subway at Jalaglchi and fifty minutes later I arrived in Oncheonjang 온천장. I took a taxi to the cable car station in Geumjang Park where I waited with a group of elderly walkers and a mother with two young kids.  One of the elderly  group bought me a coffee and offered me rice cake. The views as the cable car ascends the mountain are spectacular. From the cable car station a well signposted path takes you into a wooded area and some 30 minutes later South Gate.

South Gate has been reconstructed and for a part of Geumjeongsanseong Fortress much of which was damaged during the Japanese Occupation.  I have to take this opportunity to damn the Japanese who seemed intent on destroying every inch of Korean culture whilst here, one palace in Seoul was used as a zoo! From the gate a downhill path led me to South Gate Village (남문 마을) and its shanty town style restaurants and derelict tennis courts. I then followed a stream for a couple kilometers passing waterfalls and feeling my weathered knees before coming across a narrow steep road with campers setting up residence alongside the stream.  There was a brown sign pointing right so I knew that the temple climb was about to begin. The twenty minute climb was steeply uphill, and very difficult, the sight that awaited made up for the sweat and toil. Seokbulsa is a small temple nestled into the natural rock formations of the mountain.

Arriving at Seokbulsa (석불사), also known as Byeongpung-am (Folding Screen Hermitage), the tranquility is unearthly, the air is quiescent, the serenity just washes over you.  Seokbulsa is not a temple made of stone, It is hewn from the mountain, embedded on the side of Geumjeongsan, a vesicle for quiet contemplation. A monumental Buddhist figure stands poised in front of a polished stone prayer platform. The trumvirate of carved walls stand 40 meters tall and are embellished with elaborate carvings of six Buddhist figures. The central figure that everyone is praying to on their mats, is Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). To the left are two of the Heavenly Kings.  Beside these two Heavenly King Guardians is a Buddha. On the right side of the U-Shaped stone enclave are the other two Heavenly King Guardians.  And beside these two, again, is another image of a Buddha. Two small caverns house unobtrusive shrines where prayers and alms can be made. The cave walls are algid and vaporous the tenebrosity dissected only by the quivering flames of candles and the sunlight discharged through the entrance.

The altar buildings are impressive, and from the courtyard you have a superb view over Busan. To the immediate left is the monk dorm.  Beside it is the two storied stone main hall.

On the first level is where the solitary Seokgamoni-bul resides. Above him, on the second floor, are hundreds of small Buddha statues, with Birojan-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy) at the main altars centre.  On either side of him is Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). Instead of having any paintings adorning this rock temple hall there are stone sculptures of dragons and phoenixes with smaller sized Buddha and Bodhisattva statues in the eaves. To the immediate right of the two storied stone main hall is a stone building dedicated to Chilseong (The Big Dipper god).

After spending some time taking in the stupendous views I headed towards a spring to take on some water. At this point I was beckoned forward to take lunch with some elderly ladies.  I believe the temple provides free lunches on certain days and I humbly accepted their offer of delicious Bibimbap and Watermelon. After this I headed down the mountain and some 60 minutes later my journey ended after a contemplative and satisfying walk down to Dongnae subway. I headed back into town, one of the best places I have ever visited.
On arriving back in downtown Busan the contrast was immense.  I wandered back to Yondusan Park to join the comatose Koreans on the sheltered benches.
Rising early the next day I had to buy my bus ticket to Gyeongju and I thought quite sensibly made enquiries at the local tourist information office. Easy question really “there are two bus station, which one for Gyeongju, Nopo-dong or Sasang-gu (Seobu)”. I was told definitely Sasang which was a healthy 20 subway stops but I needed to pre-book my ticket as intercity bus get full very quickly. I set off with the intention of going to Taejongdae coastal park later that day. I arrived at Sasang and quickly entered the bus station to find a row of 40 metre queues, 2 of which were signed, “express inter city”. Grand I thought bit of a wait but sound. Sound it was not Gyeongju buses do not leave from this station they leave from Nopo. Delerious with happiness I was not, hitting the low end of Maslow’s route to self-actualisation. I heade back into town knowing that I had 13 stops plus another 19 to Nopo, the guy in tourist information would be re-christened NOBO in honour of his monumental cock-up. I fell into a trance like state, it was akin to existing in a parallel universe, why am I attempting to improve the Korean’s Englishy when those who speak it well and harbingers of useless information. Suddenly though my pessimism was replaced by guarded but near euphoric state.  If I re-scheduled my plans for the day I could visit Beomeosa Temple, which initially I had pidgeon-holed as it could never compete with Seokbulsa. And so endeth the lesson, never use tourist information in Korea, they either speak no Englishy and sit you on the floor of monumental transport hubs or they speak great Englishy but endow you with useless inaccurate information, they should carry government health warnings.  I picked up my ticket in Nopo and headed for the temple.
Beomeosa Temple  범어사 (“Fish of the Buddhist Scripture Temple”) is the largest and most important temple in all of Busan. Beomeosa Temple was founded in 678AD by the monk Master Uisang-josa. Much of the original temple was destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1592-93, but not before priest Seosan had defeated a Japanese army here. Most of its present buildings date from the 17th and 18th century, and they typify mid-Joseon Dynasty temple architecture. It is a busy place, as the path leading to the temple serves as the northern starting point for trails across Geumjeongsan (Mt Geumjeong). Beomeosa is considered one of three great temples in the Yeongnam area (the southeastern region of Korea).  Since Beomeosa is built on a mountain slope, the temple buildings are arranged on three elevations of the mountain, low, middle and high. The first thing that you’ll notice as you step into Beomeosa is the substantial Iljoomoon (One Pillar Gate). The gate is built upon four gigantic foundation stones, and with a majestic roof crowning the top, from any perspective it looks just like a practicing monk, standing with unmoving mind regardless of what appears. Once you set foot in the Daeoongjeon (Main Buddha Hall), you can really sense the devotion of many people over the years. It’s certainly true of the people you see ardently chanting and praying in the Buddha Hall, and it’s also true of the meticulously depicted wall paintings that cover every corner of the building’s interior.
I wandered around the array of buildings and at every turn I saw real characters, some temples like a feeling of spirituality but Beomeosa is one of the most dynamic I have visited. You can sense the importance that this temple plays in the lives of Buddhists in Busan. Throughout its history, Beomeosa has been famed for its fighting monks, who helped fight off Japanese invaders in the 1500s. Fleeing in defeat, the Japanese managed to destroy the temple, but Beomeosa was eventually rebuilt and would become a center for monkish resistance during the 35-year Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). The fighting monks practiced a secret martial arts style based on Zen called Seonmudo. I felt the most significant hall was San Ryoung Gak (the Hall of the Mountain Spirit) dedicated to the god who protects Mt. Geumjeongsan. It looks older and is set higher on the hill than the other halls, and is distinguished by the fact that it has little to do with Buddhism, it panders towards local pagan beliefs. Inside, there’s a painting of the god alongside a tiger. The various halls and structures, such as a three-story pagoda, stone lantern and bell tower, are impressive. But the best of Beomeosa is its gorgeous mountain scenery and the views over the valley below. It’s no surprise that the temple has won fame as a center for foreign students. A huge section of Beomeosa is dedicated to “Temple Stays”, which allow tourists and the curious to experience what life at a Buddhist temple is all about. My feelings about NOBO whilst founded in irritation and were perfectly reasonable melted into insignificance during my visit to Beomeosa.
As I left the temple I spent some time watching the myrriad of activity in and around the stream that runs near to the temple entrance, I then flagged a cab back to the subway some 4km away.
Arriving back in Busan I went to see NOBO and put his very inaccurate tourist information to the sword.  Poor boy was so apologetic and I found out he was on a work placement from university.  I gave him a solid handshake and told him not to worry, after which he bought me an ice-cream, lovely! As I was now running short of time for the first occasion in my life I was persuaded (by NOBO) to take a City Bus tour which would pass through my favoured destination Taejonggdae. The tour is hop on-hop off but I only intended to disembark for a couple of hours at the coastal park.
It was an incredibly hot afternoon and this idiot did not have a hat, hence the picture! Whose called NOBO now? The guy wearing Phillip Treacy is the sensible one.  The tour demonstrated what a sprawling metropolis Busan is; its ugly side well viewed on this tour.  I have read that Busan may apply for the 2020 Olympics….I can’t see it myself. The beaches at Gwangali and Haeundae were I am sure extremely beautiful in the past, whilst now are reminiscent of the Black Hole of Calcutta, extremely over subscribed with members of our humonoid clan.  I was told that on a busy summer day Haeundae can have a half million visitors crammed onto that one beach. Not for me baby!
Please agree that this picture is more frightening than my burnt bonce. The bus continued through built up areas passing spectacular new Skyscrapers, one being a Hyatt Hotel,  stopping of at the Worlds largest department store and a mammoth exhibition centre.  We then crossed over a stunning bridge with dynamic views before nestling back at Busan Train Station prior to the journey out to the coastal park.
The coastal park at Taejongdae is beautiful, fantastic ocean views and a rugged coastline. A train takes the infirm to the less accessible areas of the park.  The park is located at the southernmost point of Yeongdo Island which has an accessible 9.1km coastline.

I headed back on the City Tour Bus to Busan and watched a concert in the central park before heading back to the hotel to pack for the Sunday journey to Gyeongju. Goodbye Busan both ugly and beautiful at the same time. I didn’t fall in love with Busan but I did fall for Seokbulsa and I could spend two days in Taejongdae so one never knows I may return again.