After over a week in glorious, wonderful, amazing Seoul (Seriously, stop reading this and get on a plane. DO IT. NOW) we boarded the high speed KTX train to Busan, South Korea’s second largest city located on the southeast coast. When we left our hotel, the guy at the front desk asked where we were going. When we said we were going to Busan he said “Oh. Never been. Very far.” ‘Very far’ is relative I suppose because it’s only 2 hours and 40 minutes on the train (which travels at 300 km/h!!!!). Also, it only costs about $50 per ticket, so it’s not like it breaks the bank either. Oh, and there’s cheap beer and free wifi (TAKE NOTE, AMTRAK),
Whereas Seoul is cool, hip and sophisticated, Busan is grittier, though no less fun loving. The main attraction in Busan is the seafood market which is one of the largest in all of Asia and it truly is an amazing thing to behold. There’s also famous Hundae beach which is quite nice and brimming with life even on cold, gray days in early Spring.
Busan is incredibly close to Japan (you can take a hydrofoil between the two countries), so the city gets lots of Japanese tourists. It was gratifying (in a schadenfreude-y way) to see Japanese struggling to communicate in Korean just like us. A very fun thing to do is to eat at one of the many “restaurants” at the market (really just platforms with low tables where you sit on the floor). We selected one mostly randomly (it was just the place where the auntie that runs it was most aggressive about hawking us in), took off our shoes, and sat at our table.
We were handed an “English” language menu (what I often refer to as “The dumdum menu), which had some loose translations of some things. We decided to order the “spicy seafood stew” (seen on the left in your photo) and the “raw seafood plate” (on the right). The seafood stew was pretty good. Nice fishy broth, lots of shellfish in there (including 2 HUGE sea snails).
There were no photos on the menu but we just assumed that with the raw seafood plate we’d be getting some clams or scallops or mussels. Maybe some oysters if we were really lucky. What showed up was this:
There are two kinds of sea creature on this plate. I have no idea what they are. We later saw the orange guys for sale at many of the stalls in the market. Before it’s cut up and taken out of it’s shell it looks like a red oblong shaped ball with big lumps all over it and a long scraggly beard coming out of one end. The texture was kind of like an oyster mixed with a mussel and the taste was salty and briny with a bitter mineraly aftertaste. I love weird food and I will eat anything but, honestly, this was not my favorite. Kat had a few pieces and declared herself finished. She reused to even try the other sea creature on the plate (we’ll get to HIM in a moment). I gamely ate a bunch of orange guy trying to will myself into liking it, but I too eventually gave up. Also, it turned my tongue orange, which was cool but maybe not worth the money.
Now….other guy. It looks basically like a beige, unctuous mussel shell. It was really hard to chew because the texture was basically like bone cartilage. It had a slightly briny taste to it but honestly didn’t taste like much. Things improved once I put on a dollop of the ubiquitous red, spicy pepper paste that Koreans put on EVERYTHING, but it still wasn’t great. I ate a few pieces (and tried without success to force Kat to try one) and then gave up and focused on the stew. Kat at one point looked at the brown things and said “Um, I think one of them is moving.” I looked at it and it was NOT moving, so I told Kat she was just being dramatic and a baby about not wanting to try a new food. She looked at it again and agreed that, no, it was not moving…but she still wasn’t going to try it.
About 10 minutes later, Kat says to me again “I SWEAR that thing on the plate just moved.” I was still a bit miffed that she wouldn’t even try the (relatively expensive) seafood plate. So to prove to her that, no you crazy person, that thing, whatever it is, is NOT alive, I took my chopstick and poked one of the creatures on the plate. Well….the second I did that, the thing spasm-ed and wrapped itself around my chopstick. I could see on one end a little mouth opening and closing in a tiny perfect circle. Kat yells at me, horrified but clearly pleased about being right (NOTHING she likes more than that) “YOU SEE! YOU SEE! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ATE THAT!” I am beginning to imagine these poor things wriggling around in my stomach, drowning in a hot dark vat of acid. I sort of felt bad for them. Then I felt a little sick. It didn’t help that this was breakfast at around 9 am. At that point, our appetites were pretty much gone. We paid the bill and left. I am sure the ajummas (aunties) that run the joint were puzzled why we even ordered the damn thing in the first place, but they were too polite to say anything. I am sure it was no surprise to them to see most of the plate left over.
With our stomachs fortified with living mollusks, we decided to take a stroll along the beautiful Hundae beach. In the summer, this is Korea’s top destination and apparently there’s not a free square inch of sand. On this cold, gray day there were still tons of people enjoying the beach, walking along in coats and hats. Teenagers played live music on the boardwalk (Always a duo of two guys, always one with a guitar and one with a bongo drum. I don’t know why) and families picnic-ed on the sand.
They’ve got a pretty lively boardwalk, which was only disappointing in that it was mostly just a walking promenade with no food to buy or carnie games to play (though just a block or two away from the beach, you could find tons of those things). They had some fun “interactive” art on the walls too:
Busan’s a tough city to describe. It’s very spread out and, like, Seoul, there’s no single “downtown” area. There’s the beach area, there’s a going out area, which is something like a smaller Seoul but not exactly. It was interesting to contrast Busan and Seoul because it gave us an idea of just how much of an anomaly Seoul is. It’s representative of Korea the same way that New York City is representative of America. We were in Busan for long, which is good because there’s not a ton to do there. We packed up our bags and took the bus to Busan airport (with the unfortunate PUS airport code), had one last (pretty good, actually) bibimbap.
Lots of white people teach English in schools in Busan and the city doesn’t get a ton of white tourists, so people just assumed that we also lived there. At the airport when we checked into our flight, the lady at the desk asked with a huge smile “When you come back Korea!?” thinking we were only going to Japan on holiday. I told her, “Not sure. We’re on a big trip around the world.” Her smile faded and she said simply “Not come back? Oh….” And my heart broke a little bit. Because her warm, welcoming smile that said “I REALLY want you to LOVE Korea as much as I do. Please stay!” is something I will cherish and miss forever. Korean people are so excited for you to be experiencing their culture and they SO BADLY want you to have fun. We’ve said it over and over again, but it’s the people that make a place great. We will miss you Korea and I promise you, we WILL be back.
As a postscript to our Korean adventures because I KNOW you are going to ask, YES we went to Gangnam. Here’s proof:
Here’s a Seoul tourist pro-tip: Don’t go to Gangnam. It’s super boring there. It’s just office buildings and some luxury stores that are really spread out. We got out, walked around for 5 minutes and then got back on the subway home.