Southern Korea – Where Tradition Lives On
It was Thanksgiving and I was sitting on the warm white sands of Haeundae Beach in Busan, South Korea. Cargo ships swam out on the horizon of Korea’s largest port city, and numerous small islands seemed to wave in the breeze while old ladies moved slowly to the rhythm of their Tai Chi instructor. The area is very cosmopolitan with expensive condos and exclusive shops lining the beach, but behind the glitz and glam, the city thrives on old-fashioned courtesy. Busan is reminiscent of San Francisco with houses on snaking green hills that drop down into both the Yellow and South Seas. But we didn’t come for the hip and the new; we came for the old and set out to find it.
Two blocks from our condo we found the old market that has been in this exact place for hundreds of years. Street food is the name of the game in these alleyways. The smell of saucy chicken dumplings, spicy rice cakes, steamed kimchi buns, and fresh-off-the-boat fish filled the air. We sampled supple sushi rolls wrapped in fresh seaweed, humongous beef sticks, and warm shrimp tempura that filled our bellies, yet left us wanting to sample more. Small family-owned shops glistened with celadon pottery and coral jewelry, while small stalls sold medicinal herbs and barks, which beckoned us over for a look. But we hustled by as it was time to catch the 181 bus out to Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.
Haedong Temple was first built in 1376 during the Goryeo Dynasty. Perched on the hills and sporting breathtaking views, it is probably one of most beautiful temple locations I have ever visited. For hundreds of years the faithful
have pilgrimaged here to pray. Sadly, the Japanese destroyed the temple during their occupation of the country, but in 1970 the complex was completely reconstructed using both original and new materials.
As you enter the temple grounds you are greeted by 12 larger-than-life zodiac figures that protect the entrance. Beyond it is the eight-story pagoda, the purpose of which is to pray for traffic safety. Heading down the 108 steps to the temple, which are lined by stone lanterns, we soaked in the beauty before us as soft turquoise waters came into view. We passed by the Yacksayeorae Buddha, with mentally and physically ill praying before it in hopes of having their ills healed. Further down, the Golden Buddha guards the sea and protects those whose livelihoods depend on it.
Crossing the Half Moon Bridge, we arrived in front of the dragon, which represents the divine god of the East Sea, whose job it is to protect the colorful temple itself. We removed our shoes as we viewed the altar, which held more golden Buddhas, while richly hued carvings and paintings lined the walls. The temple was truly a sight to behold as the silence was deafening out of the respect for the deity.
We took the 181 back into the city as the mountains climbed before us. I then headed over to the World’s Mystery Library, the first of its kind in the world. More than 17,000 mystery books, many first editions, line the walls of this five-story building. The bottom floor houses a café in which patrons snack as they peruse the mystery of their choice.
The next day we contemplated a visit to a jinjilhang, a traditional communal bath and sauna, but were out-voted by the kids who insisted on a trip to the Busan Aquarium. Small and compact, this “jungle of the sea” has many hands-on exhibits and more than 35,000 species of fish, amphibians, and other sea life. But the best exhibit is the glass tunnel that you walk through as sharks and other sea creatures swim above you. It’s a great way to get up close and personal to your favorite sea critters.
We enjoyed dinner at a traditional Korean barbecue, where you cook your meat (bulgogi-beef) on a grill at your table. The bulgogi is then wrapped in lettuce leaves, stuffed with rice and pepper paste, and the entire thing popped into your mouth; oftentimes, the waitress forces the food into your mouth for you. Numerous side dishes of rice, kimchi, pickled garlic and cucumber, lettuce leaves, and other delectables are served. Korean barbecues are numerous and almost any one you pick is sure to be a winner.
After several days, we said goodbye to Busan and took the KTX bullet train straight southwest across the country to the city of Mokpo. I loved the bullet train; it was comfortable, clean, and we arrived at exactly the minute printed on our tickets. We found a taxi to take us to the Fontana Beach Hotel across from the “boardwalk.” As it turned out, our hotel happened to be straight across from the Mokpo Dancing Sea Fountain, which turns water and light into something amazing when the lights go out in the city. Mokpo, a seaside community, is located in the non-touristy part of Korea and gives off a very different vibe of tradition and respect for one’s elders, which is doused with a slight suspicion of modern Korea.
After checking into our rooms, we headed to “Museum Row.” Here you will find the National Maritime Museum, The Natural History Museum, the Ceramic Livingware Museum, and the Modern History Museum, amongst others. We started with the dinosaur exhibits at the Natural History Museum. It’s a small collection that leads into taxidermied birds, butterflies, and animals of the region. There is also an impressive rock and crystal collection and some fascinating fossils of the area. Humorous translations of the English language are sure to invoke a laugh or two.
We then headed across the street to the National Maritime Museum. Sitting directly on the water, it has stunning views of Mokpo’s port and the West Sea. Reminiscent of the Vasa in Stockholm, the museum hosts two large ships dating back to the 11th century, along with the relics found with them at the bottom of the ocean. A replica of a traditional Korean fishing village is on view as are a wide array of Korean ships from ancient times. If you are looking for true Korean treasures to take home, the gift shop here is stocked with traditional Korean handicrafts and is a great place to shop.
When looking for a place to eat dinner, we skipped the jangeoh tang (spicy eel soup), the nongeo twigim (fried skate balls), and nakji tangtangi (chopped live octopus) for chicken; luck was on our side as we devoured the best chicken we have eaten anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, we did not get the name of the restaurant, but I can remember the exact location. This was some of the best chicken to be found on the planet, and we went back several times just to be sure.
The southern region of South Korea gives you a completely different perspective about the country than mighty Seoul, the capital of South Korea in the northern region. It is more relaxed and the people carry an air of calmness and intent in all that they do. In addition, there are tiny island communities to visit along the coast, each one offering a different feel and their own unique culture. Jeju Island, which lies south between Busan and Mokpo, is the Hawaii of the nation with beautiful hotels and beaches to delight any weary worn traveler. These are the places to visit in South Korea if you want to experience Korea at its best and most traditional.
Unlike Seoul, which is large, fast-paced, and loud, Southern Korea is a gentler and kinder place. People here still give up their seats to the elderly, they invite strangers home to dinner, and they are helpful and kind to tourists. This is the part of Korea that holds fast to the kind of tradition and culture that Asia was once known for and can still be found. Go south; you won’t regret it!