I have often found that the first impression is insufficient or incorrect. I may also just have poor sense of judgement. In any case, I usually rework my opinions once or twice before finding one that I feel comfortable settling with. Busan, Korea’s second largest city, was no exception.
We first arrived in Busan in late October, having taken the Camellia Line ferry from Fukuoka, Japan (for how to book it, look below the pictures at the end of the text). The six-hour trip over calm waters was quite unremarkable. We shared the rather empty vessel with Koreans and Japanese, most of whom slept through the journey on the floor in their cabins. (However, one solo singer made use of the karaoke room.) After having said farewell to Japan on a misty, grey day, we spent the rest of the trip eating noodles and sorting through photos.
Arriving in Korea was spectacular. Along the coast, we saw apartment buildings of 25-30 stories, much higher than we were used to in Japan. We sailed past numerous large ships and an impressive bridge before arriving in the harbour where we were greeted by a beautiful sunset. Immigration was a piece of cake, like boarding the Eurostar heading for London.
So far, so good. But then we got off the boat and stepped onto the shores of a country very different from the calm, quiet, polite and orderly Japan we had gotten used to. (Japan is many things and not only these, but at that moment, these were some of the contrasts that struck me.) It was dark, we had problems getting cash from the only ATM we found, the drivers were more aggressive and the side streets full of people, fruit stands, barbeque shacks and random piles of construction rubbish. The motel we had booked looked dark but neon-lit, dirty and run-down. Yet we got a warm greeting from the English-speaking owner who gave us some dinner suggestions and joked that we had picked too cheap a room. We ate at a small restaurant where the staff wasn’t shy to correct our mistakes. The waiter squeezed hot sauce into Christophe’s dolsot bibimbap and then took his spoon to stir it all around, finally explaining, we think, that you eat this with the spoon, not the chop sticks. We left the next day on the mugunghwa train for Seoul to meet the older Nyman generation, joining us for a holiday.
To be honest, we felt intimidated. Something that we hadn’t felt since the start of our trip, when we took that first actual leap out into the unknown. It didn’t take us long to get comfortable in Korea, but we associated that feeling with Busan.
After visiting Seoul and making a tour of the east of Korea, we returned to Busan, located at the opposite end of the country seen from the capital, to get to know the town properly. Adding to my first impression, we started by looking for yet another motel past its glory days down a dark, eerie downtown street between the railway station and the marina. We began to wonder if this was all the country’s number two had to offer.
We had organized to meet Peter, who we got to know on the Ulan-Ude-to-Birobidzhan train a few months earlier, and he took us out for barbeque and then drinks near Haeundae beach. We squeezed ourselves in among trendy young Koreans on the outdoor patio in front of a row of glitzy new skyscrapers, watching the lights come on. The city wasn’t just threadbare apartment buildings and pushy street vendors after all.
On it went. The next days we walked on one cute street after another, often with arty decorations, up and down the city’s many hills, past (nice and moderately pushy) salesmen and fortune tellers, a large fish market with live and dead catch, along the craggy coastline, up the surprisingly Russian Shanghai Street and down the oddly quiet Texas Street. We haggled with sharp old women to get a good price on socks, watched the sun set on Gwangan beach, a plot of light, fine sand and relaxing waves in the middle of steel, glass and neon development, as well as on a quiet pebble beach, next to some women closing up their seafood stalls. We visited the temple Beomeosa, hiked up to the Geumjeong Fortress and onto the 801.5-meter Geumjeongsan peak, from which we had a foggy 360-degree view of the city. Descending on the other side of the mountain, we found ourselves in a tiny village which could have been in the middle of nowhere, but which existed in a pocket of greenery in a metropolis of millions. Gamcheon Culture Village, a spruced-up mountainside slum with colourful houses built not to ruin the neighbour’s view became one of our favourite areas (although I wonder what the tourism and gentrification means to people living there).
That’s probably what we enjoyed the most about Busan: The diversity of the city. It has mountains, rocky coast, crowded and quiet beaches, a lively art scene, chaotic university nightlife, different villages with unique personalities and typical, high-tempo city neighbourhoods. Even the train station area has its own charm, once you’re used to it. And if you don’t like one part, you can choose another.
At first we wanted to limit our time in Busan. We felt sure we wouldn’t really like it. Finally, we ended up prolonging our stay and still being sad to leave. You may never get the chance to make another first impression, but impressions #2 and #3 might just be worth more.
How to get to Busan from Japan by ferry:
We found two options:
The Beetle: There are three per day and the crossing takes three hours. The rack-rate for a one-way trip is 13,000 yen.
Camellia Line: Sails once a day and the crossing takes just over six hours. We bought the tickets in Korean won, although we booked them in Japan. The rack-rate for a one-way trip was 90,000 won (so about 9,000 yen), but book them online and you can get a great discount. We paid half price.
However, booking with Camellia for cheap isn’t done in five minutes. If you do it by phone or over the counter, they’ll give you the official tariff. If you want the discount you need to book online. First, you need to find the correct website in English, not the obvious English version which will only give you a hard-to-navigate info document. Try en.koreaferry.kr/
Then you create your own profile. The questions are in Korean, but use a translation tool and fill out the blanks in English. Funny bit: You get to create a version of your own name in Hangeul (the Korean alphabet). Then book your tickets. We struggled most with the payment. We couldn’t pay with a non-Korean credit card, so we were given a bank account number. However, we never got any confirmation that our payment had gone through and our tickets disappeared from our profile list. After several phone calls, we got our tickets, but had to pay an extra transfer fee in cash before boarding. The key might be to make sure to take all charges on you already when making the payment, don’t split them.