When was the last time you picked up a leaflet from a tourist information office that read like a taunt from a James Bond villain?
I'm guessing you can spot the subtle subtext in the typography here. Even when you've just come from Japan, a country notorious for the impenetrability of its address system, Korea turns out to be operating on a whole other level. It's difficult enough finding out Korean addresses in English, but then you find that Google Maps is incapable of calculating walking routes - you'll either be told one doesn't exist, or made to take a three-mile detour along a motorway and back just to get across the road.
That's why, as we enter the Korean section of this year's holiday, you can expect to see lots of GPS co-ordinates shown for all the places we visited. Slap them into your phone mapping application of choice - maps.me is still my personal favourite on my vintage Blackberry - and you may be in with a chance of retracing our steps. Cool? Cool.
The Beetle journey isn't too bad, although we find out far too late that the trick is to bring your own bento lunch on board, as the snacks on sale aren't particularly exciting. What's more alarming is the weather, which we can see getting more miserable as we get further away from Japan. When we arrive into port in Busan, we've been told that there's a half-hourly courtesy bus to the nearest station: it's not signposted at all, though, and we eventually get to the bus stop just as a bus is pulling out. It's only a fifteen minute or so walk to the station, but we're doing it in the pissing rain and have to cross a ten-lane stretch of high speed traffic along the way. By the end, I'm considering giving up on Korea altogether: thankfully, it gets better.
The first thing we need to do at the station is organise how we pay for transport. A quick note on payment generally: unlike Japan, Korea has wholeheartedly embraced the idea of a cashless society, though there are one or two minor exceptions to the rule. A lot of the smaller shops, as well as the country's entire public transport system, run on one of two competing pre-payment cards - T-Money and Cashbee. Based on our experience, Cashbee is the main one used in Busan, while T-Money is the most popular in Seoul, but they're both as interchangeable as MasterCard and Visa. The important thing to note is that you can only top these cards up with cash, not credit from your credit card. So our first task at the station (with the help of a friendly station guard) is to use one of the machines to buy a card, and then top it up with enough credit to get us through the first few days of buses and subways. This is the point where we have to start getting used to the ridiculous orders of magnitude of Korean pricing: our initial topup is ten thousand won each, which is a little under seven quid in real money.
We're hitting the metro at rush hour on a Friday night, which doesn't really help, but eventually we find the right exit out of Seomyeon station and check into the Soho Hotel [35.158588,129.06166]. It's a pretty boutique-style place with stereotypically good and bad points coming out of that. Good points: it's a bright, cheerful room featuring a big shower and a big telly. Bad points: instead of a wardrobe we get two hangers on a hook, and the light by the front door is motion controlled and can't be disabled, even in the middle of the night when you're trying to avoid it on the way to the loo.
For our evening meal we go off in search of Jeynai Jjajang [35.156643,129.05743], a restaurant mentioned in Lonely Planet, which - as the guidebook doesn't give you the address for anything here - we eventually track down using a combination of GPS navigation and The BBG's newly-acquired skill of being able to read the Korean alphabet. It turns out to be rather great as a first meal in the country - black bean noodles and fish soup, plus an introduction to Korea's cooking beer Cass, all for KRW 22000 or under a tenner a head. There's an awkward moment when The BBG points out she can smell durian, I mishear the word as 'urine', and the conversation quickly spirals out of control before we realise what's happened:
BBG: I guess they probably use it in the cooking here.
STM: <spits noodles halfway across room>
It's only on our walk back that we discover that our hotel's been on the outskirts of the entertainment district all along: bars and restaurants everywhere, and people out on the town on a Friday night. Curiously, most of the ads outside the bars are for the Czech beer Kozel, which is as inexplicably popular here as, say, Tennents Extra is in Italy. Obviously, we're in the mood for something more artisanal, and we find it at Galmegi Brewing [35.157301,129.06194], one of a lovely collection of bars run by a local brewer. Six hours earlier, I was prepared to write off the entire country on the basis of a thunderstorm and a missed bus. Funny how quickly things can turn around, isn't it?
By the Saturday morning, the weather's perked up enormously, and will remain bright and sunny until just before our departure on Monday. The Soho Hotel is a little too minimalist to offer you anything as formal as a breakfast, so our first act of the day is to track one down, even though The BBG has read in a guidebook that Koreans don't believe in the concept of breakfast. We assume that an area known to the locals as Jeonpo Cafe Street [35.155413,129.06387] will fit the bill. It's not quite as useful as we'd hoped, as a lot of the cafes seem to be shut early on a Saturday morning, but eventually we find a branch of local chain Coffeesmith [35.155325, 129.064011] who can do us coffee and enormous pastries. Outside Coffeesmith, we're stopped by a group of students who are asking any westerners they find to stand in a line with them and have our picture taken, for their art project. It's possible this anecdote has some sort of punchline, but I guess we'll never find out what it is.
With the weather being so nice, it seems like a good time to get a few hundred metres between us and the ground, and see what the city looks like from high up. That, in a very real sense, is what Busan Tower [35.101227,129.03231] is for. All elevated viewing platforms tend to merge into one after a while, so you start spotting the quirks that make this particular one unique: here, it's the set of cartoon mascots for the tower which are plastered everywhere, most irritatingly on the windows you're trying to look through. There's also a live video link with the tower's close relative in Seoul, but the process of turning it on has been made into a motion-controlled video game that's virtually impossible to get right. (Ah, we'll see the real thing soon enough anyway.)
Lunch is at the Jagalchi fish market [35.09673,129.03024], a large warehouse full of fresh seafood that seems overly pleased with itself if you've visited Toyosu just a few days earlier. This one's a lot more geared towards the casual punter, either buying some fish to cook yourself or have one of the upstairs restaurants cook it for you. The latter are as pushy as the curry houses on London's Brick Lane, with waitresses hassling you and upselling at every possible opportunity, but our lunch at Shin Cheon - a grilled fish assortment plus seafood pancake, sashimi and a couple of beers - works out all right, though you should be aware that the market is one of that tiny number of Korean establishments that doesn't take plastic. We walk it all off with a trip to Biff Square [35.098003,129.02898] - not as violent as it sounds, it's a pedestrian area paved with the handprints of movie stars who've visited the Busan International Film Festival - and a stroll around the nearby markets, mostly selling catering-grade kitchenware, including a huge array of knives laid out on tables like so much fruit and veg.
For our Saturday night entertainment, we're off to Gwangan Beach [35.151713,129.11733]. To do this, we have to go to Geumnyeonsan on the number 2 Metro line, which seems almost custom-built to flummox tourists with its pairs of similarly named stations, including the ones at the start of the line (Jangsan) and the end (Yangsan). As you're aware, The BBG and I aren't beach people: but Gwangan's apparently become the focus for craft beer in Busan, so we have a small bar crawl planned. It starts off well at the flagship bar of previously-mentioned Galmegi Brewing [35.147548,129.1127], with the brew tanks clearly visible in the back: it then takes a surreal turn when we walk through the door of The Owl And The Pussycat [35.148165,129.11429] to be confronted by not so much a bar, more a totally hollowed-out and deserted building site. (Spookily, we return an hour later to cheekily use the loo, only to find that the door's been locked while we were away. If their Facebook feed is to be believed, it might now be a brunch restaurant called Cow & Beef.) It's a slight disappointment, as we've been told that this bar has the best view of the sunset over the Diamond Bridge: but its close neighbour Baobab [35.148476,129.113958] is a fine alternative, giving us a window seat (in an otherwise deserted bar) to watch the view over beer and fried things.
What's so good about this bridge? Well, we've been told to expect some sort of light show on it at 8pm. Unfortunately, 8pm comes and goes with no sign of anything like that. It turns out not to be a problem, as there's the Gwangali Fishing Village Festival going on on the beach anyway. We get a tunnel of paper lanterns, a group of locals having a disco in traditional costume, and fireworks accompanied by free soju and kimchi. And then it goes nuts: everyone runs for a pair of ropes leading out of the sea, collectively hauls an enormous fishing net onto land, and then gets into a massive fight over who gets the fish inside the net. It's obviously a traditional ceremony of some sort, with this scene of total chaos accompanied by two competing sets of drummers. In the middle of all this, nobody notices that the bridge light show has finally started. We have to go to Gorilla Brewing [35.152747,129.1161] for a nightcap beer just to get our pulse rates back down to normal again.
Can Sunday live up to the excitement of Saturday? Well, the combination of unexpected beach festival and fisherman fight is hard to top, but we give it a shot. Apart from breakfast at Brooks Bakery [35.156764,129.059908], most of our day is spent within walking distance of Centum City station, an area notable for two things: the Busan Cinema Center [35.171167,129.12719], and the Shinsegae shopping mall [35.168571,129.12929], reputed to be the largest in Asia.
Busan Cinema Center is a stunning building with a spectacular cantilevered roof, and you'd imagine it's the place to be during the Busan International Film Festival. We're not there for that, but by accident we've turned up in the middle of the next best thing: the Busan International Short Film Festival. We catch a screening of three shorts vying for the Korean Competition award, and it's fun seeing how they do things over here: each short is followed by its own Q&A session, with audience members being awarded with chocolates for asking good questions. They're obviously prepared for an international audience - two western press delegates are allocated their own translator during the Q&A, and all three films have English subtitles. We start with Park Jeeyoun's Skin and Mind, a surreal animation about a woman who feels all the men in her life are changing for the worse, and into animals. That's followed up by Lee Seungkyu's On My Way Home, about the awkward car journey undergone by a father bringing his daughter home from a stay in juvenile detention. Both of them are okay as far as they go, but it's the final short - Lee Seungju's Morning Of The Dead - that blows everyone's socks off. A man in need of quick cash is trying to sell his DVD collection as a single unit, but a schoolgirl has a special interest in just one item, and will go to extreme lengths to get hold of it. It's a perfect expression of cinema geekery, with in-jokes for those that'll get them and delightful character studies for those that won't.
As for the Shinsegae, it's more or less your standard mall, just on a gargantuan scale. The restaurants inside are fine - The BBG makes a beeline for Villa de Spicy and is not disappointed by their topokki stir-fried rice cakes. But we're actually there for Spa Land, the mall's public bathing complex, to see how it matches up against the Japanese equivalent. It's quite similar to Tokyo's Oedo Monogatari in terms of its size and procedures. You put your shoes inside a locker, and then use the wristbanded key from it to store your clothes in a second locker, as well as to charge any extras you may want during your stay. To be honest, you probably won't need any: it's enough fun just heading to the gender-separated bathing areas and wandering around nude between pools of various temperatures, plus a couple of saunas.
The biggest difference from the Japanese experience is what happens when we put our complementary robes on and meet in the non-segregated area, which has a bewildering array of clothed experiences for you. The outdoor footspa is familiar: less so are the several indoor dry saunas, some shaped like giant tagines, based on various degrees of pseudoscientific bollocks - pyramids, sound waves, healing minerals embedded in bricks and so on. Many of the hot rooms come with warnings that 'your cellphone will explode,' and watching virtually everyone ignore those warnings doesn't help your relaxation. Nevertheless, it's easy to spend nearly four hours in there without really thinking about it, by which time most of the nearby restaurants are closed and The BBG has to make do with the fishcake soup that's the token non-chicken option at Dagiya Chicken Bar [35.172843,129.129958]. (My skillet full of fried chicken bits covered in cheese works just fine, thanks.)
We have a Monday morning to kill before we finally leave Busan, and sadly this is the point where the weather turns nasty on us again. Which is awkward, because we've dropped off our bags at Busan station before heading off on a longish excursion - a metro out to Beomeo-Sa (a route long enough for hawkers to be wandering the carriages trying to sell us rainmacs and toothbrushes), followed by a 90 bus out to the temple of the same name [35.283746,129.06851]. After a weekend of relatively painless metro travel, we're not sure how Cashbees work on the buses - do you just tap in when you board, like with London buses, or do you have to tap out on the way out too? We find out much later that b) is the answer: if you go with a), your card is charged double fare just to be on the safe side - like with London tubes, in fact. It's also difficult to work out which stop you're at, and we spend the first few minutes after alighting at the ticket office stop uncertain if we've alighted too early or not. By now, it's bucketing down, but we still manage to get in a decent circular stroll around the temple grounds before getting back on the bus where we got off - it's a circular route, just to keep things confusing - and abandoning it at the first subway station we see, at Nopo.
At Busan station, we find that the fingerprint ID we gave at the left luggage lockers - oh yes - works surprisingly well, so before too long we're on an express train from Busan to Seoul, in a direct reversal of the plot of the popular film. No zombies spotted, thankfully. As for what we did see... well, that's another story. Let's just say for now that the number 63 will feature heavily.
[to be continued]