A Tiny Travel Guide to Busan, Republic of Korea

A part of the series titled 'Tiny Travel Guides,' this travel guide is a quick overview that focuses on several places to visit while visiting Busan, South Korea. South Korea's second largest city, Busan has many places for the tourist to visit, including my top two locations of Beomeosa Buddhist Temple (absolutely exquisite!) and of course Gamcheon Cultural Village. Both make excellent day visits. And if you have the time, definitely visit Haeundae Beach! It has wonderful nightlife and famous for it's street entertainment. There are also suggestions for photographers on what kind of shots you can and should perhaps focus on when visiting these wonderful locations!
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A Tiny Travel Guide to Busan, Republic of Korea

Imagine . . . It was hot! And and it was muggy!

It was hot! Almost 100 degrees!

And I mean it was really muggy! Over 95% humidity!

It was MISERABLE!!! But hey, it was August and the middle of summer in Busan, and it is very hot and very muggy!

And as I sat on the seat of the bus heading back down into Busan from the monastery, I was very thankful for the air conditioning of the bus as sweat poured down my face.

I was very uncomfortable in the incredibly muggy air, but very satisfied with some of the shot’s I had gotten at Beomeosa!

We had just walked up the 4+ kilometers up  the road to Beomeosa Buddhist temple and monastery complex, on a very windy and very steep roadway. And after several hours wandering around Beomeosa, we were now heading back to downtown Busan to take the subway back home.

In spite of my personal challenges (I really, really hate heat and humidity!) I found that I really love Busan!

It is a wonderfully busy city full of sights and sounds that are just incredible! It is a vibrant cosmopolitan area I’d compare to any European or American city any day (I am showing my limited experience of the world here in this statement, but roll with me on this one, thanks)!

And on a side note – you can’t buy deodorant in Korea without a doctor’s prescription!

I was intrigued by this fact, but it seemed that the Koreans were very well adapted to the heat and the humidity – unlike me! ;-(

Welcome to Busan, South Korea’s Second Largest City!

For those who have never been to Busan, it is a modern Asian city. I liken the overall experience of the city  to that of a vast number of ‘large forests’ of 30 to 40 story apartment buildings in the valleys between mountains coming down to the sea.

Busan is the largest port in Korea, so there is a lot of shipping and manufacturing that takes place there. It is Korea’s second largest city, second only to Seoul in the north.

 

A view of the high rise apartment buildings along Gwajeong-Ro in Busan, Republic of Korea. [Photograph taken with Samsung Galaxy Note 4]
A view of the high rise apartment buildings along Gwajeong-Ro in Busan, Republic of Korea. [Photograph taken with Samsung Galaxy Note 4]

It is a large city, with various valley’s and surrounded by beautiful and steep mountains, and the usual urban blight that plagues all large cities.

But even with it’s rough edges, Busan does not fail to delight. I know that one of my favorite places to shop in Busan is the popular “Walmart” of Korea – HomePlus – with in store signs in English as well as Korean. It is very easy to find what you need and at some great prices! I really enjoyed shopping there with my daughter!

Getting Around Busan

Getting around Busan is made relatively easy by a fairly extensive subway system that will get you to most locations.  We took the subway to Beomeosa (Orange line, stop #133) and to Haeundae Beach (Green line, stop #203), as well as to Gamcheon Cultural Village (Orange Line, stop #109).

Busan Subway Map. In English! Click on the map above and it will take you to the HUMetro website for Busan, Korea.

 

The cost wasn’t too bad, it was about 1200 won ( approximately $1.10) round trip for the two of us from Yeonsan station to Beomeosa station and back.  The kiosk where you purchase your tickets has instructions in English, complete with voice prompts which made it fairly easy to use.

Beware though, the ticket kiosks only take 1000 won bills.  I tried to put in a 10,000 won bill but the machine kept rejecting the bill.  There was nothing (at least in English) which informed me of this little detail.

However, there are transit folks on site which know some English, so I was able to figure it out with a smattering of English and some hand gestures.  There are bill changers, but you have to look for them, not all the ticket kiosks have bill changers nearby.

The trains themselves were very easy to use.  All stops are announced in both Korean and English – both at the station as well as on the subway trains – and the signs for each stop are in both Korean and English.  This made getting around pretty easy.  And each stop has a number, which added to the ease.  The signage at street level had both the color of the line, the stop name and the number in English as well as Korean.

Buses, on the other hand are a mixed bag.  Some have stops both announced in Korean and English, as well as displays noting the upcoming stop in both Korean and English.  And some buses just have displays in  Korean and no announcements.  Your mileage will vary depending on how much you are willing to explore and get lost!

Also, as a side note, most if not all street name signs are blue, and in both Korean and English (see first picture above).  So finding what street you are on is fairly easy if you have map to help you not get lost.  It is easy, with all the side alleys which also have street names, to get lost.  You need to have a map, which you can buy at the airport when you arrive.

The two places you definately need to visit is the Beomeosa Buddhist Temple and Monestary complex (범어사로) to the northwest of the city, and the if you have time, the Gamcheon Culture Village (감천문화마을) located in southern Busan.  If you have time and want to hit the beach, then Haeundae beach to the east is a sure bet. You can’t go wrong with any of these locations, and there are of course many more.

But I want to highlight two specific locations worthy of a day visit each – Beomeosa Buddhist Temple and Gamcheon Cultural Village.

Beomeosa Buddhist Temple

Even though I was in Busan to visit my daughter, I was able to get some photographs of the Beomeosa Buddhist Temple (범어사로) in Busan. Beomeosa is huge Buddhist temple in the hills to the north of Busan. I made two visits there, the first after getting off the subway, where we (I was with my daughter) walked 4 kilometers up the mountain side in 90+ degree heat with 90+ percent humidity. Twice a bus passed us by, and by the time we made it to the actual temple complex I was completely soaked. And very tired, no doubt from the lack of hydration.

The second time we were smarter than the first, and we realized that bus #70 was the ticket to easy transportation to the top of the mountain where Beomeosa is located! Not too bad for an American (LOL)!

But once we arrived, we found that the monks were finishing evening prayers. And as we waited we got to see the monks process down and into the central area from the prayer loft above us. It was pretty cool to watch and it reminded me of the number of times I had witnessed monks leaving the choir loft next to the altar in many Catholic and Anglican monasteries I had visited during my travels.

I found the temple itself to be very colorful, the three gates as you move up the mountain side to get to the inner temple precincts, as well as the small chapels (I am using Christian language here as I am not sure what they are called in Buddhist terms, let me know in the comments below as I am always interested in learning more about various religions) scattered around the central square which were also very brightly painted.

This was a stark difference from the Buddhist temples in Japan. In Japan color is not the norm, but more intricate carving of the wood using more natural earthen colors of the exposed wood and stone seems to predominate. The Japanese temples had carved wood features where the Korean counterparts used colorful painted decorations – but each communicated it’s own sense of what Buddhism means to each culture.

The first gate, called the one pillar gate because from the side it looks like there is only one pillar instead of four, is your first hint of the colorful beauty that is in store as you move deeper into the Temple precincts. The blues, greens, reds, pinks and teal were simply stunning and provided lots of visual interest.

I have read that the colorful treatment to the decoration of these sacred spaces is a result of the influence of Korea’s northern and western neighbor – China.

Gate details at Beomeosa Buddhist Temple in Busan, Republic of Korea.

The second gate had four guardians, two on each side, protectors of the temple precincts, and they shared the same bright and colorful scheme as the gates themselves.

Once you pass through the third gate, you are climbing up the stairs until you are under the prayer rooms used by the monks for prayers. The stairway continues up into the plaza that is the temple precinct.  The large prayer room opens out onto the temple precinct and faces the main temple sanctuary. There are a lot of smaller temples or ‘sanctuaries’, not unlike the small chapels one finds in a large Roman Catholic cathedral.

The drum, horn, chimes and cymbol tower at Beomeosa Buddhist Temple in Busan, Republic of Korea.

 

And directly across the courtyard from the large prayer room is the primary temple to Buddha. It is a beautiful sanctuary with a golden Buddha of the present, as well as Buddha of the past and Buddha of the future and monks and others in prayer and mediation.

A Buddhist Monk at prayer at Beomeosa Buddhist Temple in Busan, Republic of Korea. Click on the image to view print purchase options!

There were a number of little shrines along the primary temple precincts, and every now and then I was able to take some photographs of gates and gardens. I tried to be respectful and not take pictures of the various shrines, and only captured the one above using my 70-200mm lens from a distance so not to disrupt nor distract from the spiritual practices of the practitioners.

Photography Tips for Beomeosa

Remember, Beomeosa Temple is a place of worship, and regardless of your religious or non-religious affiliation, you should be respectful of the place and those who come there to worship.

At Beomeosa, the majority of those who visit are Buddhist adherents, and as such, when taking photographs you should be discreet so as not to interrupt those who come for prayers.

I did the majority of my photographing between groups of visitors. I was very tuned to those who were visiting and worked hard not to be disruptive to them.

Beomeosa Temple is located at the top of a winding road that comes up the side of a mountain, and as such, the area is beautiful as it is in the mountains. Unfortunately, I was not able to take any scenic or landscape photographs as the weather was not very cooperative on either visit. It was cloudy and overcast, and it was difficult to get a good landscape photograph. So I stuck pretty much to photographing the beautiful temple buildings that were all around.

There is plenty of enough interest in the temple buildings themselves to make anyone happy. I spent a lot of memory space taken up by images of close-ups of the gates with all the bright and vibrant colors as well as photographs of various objects.

The third gate, known as the gate of non duality at Beomeosa Buddhist Temple in Busan, Republic of Korea.

I was able to go around the gates and take photographs from various angles always hopeful to find an angle that would result in a pleasant photograph.

If the weather is cooperative, you may be able to take some photographs of the valley with the homes lit during sunset or sunrise, which would give one a nice photograph.

One can also take images of the valley from the temple gates, using the gates as frames. I tried a few of these, but again, the weather wasn’t all that cooperative as there was a thick haze in the valley and poor light from the overcast skies.

I was able to take a few shots of people in worship, and the best locations to take these are from underneath the large prayer room before you ascend to the temple courtyard. This is where I took the photograph of the monk in the main sanctuary. Standing on either side of the 15 foot wide entrance stairway will keep you out of the way of most people entering and leaving the courtyard area.

I felt that once I was in the courtyard in front of the various shrines that my options for photography shrunk dramatically as I was observed by those in the courtyard. Your mileage may vary.

Again, it was more my comfort level and realizing that most of those present were there to pray and offer devotions and were not tourist.

How to get to Beomeosa Temple

Depending on where you start, you will have to get to a transfer station for the Orange line (line 1).  Take the orange line and get off station #133, Beomeosa.  Head towards exit #5 to get to street level. Once you are on street level, head north to the corner and take a left onto Cheongnyongjejeon-Ro and walk up the hill to next major intersection, at Geumgang-Ro 754Beon-gil.

This intersection is a ‘T’ by the way, so Geumgang-Ro 754Beon-gil feeds into Cheongnyongjejeon-Ro. Across the street to your left you will see a covered bus stop for the #70 bus.

This is the ONLY bus that goes to Beomeosa Temple.  At the temple you will return on the #70 bus as well, and it will take you directly to the covered bus stop where you were picked up.

Gamcheon Cultural Village

The second place I would definitely visit if in Busan is the Gamcheon cultural village (감천문화마을). Located on both sides of a deep valley, this means that it is a steep up and down and around kind of place to visit. If you want to get in some serious exercise, this is the place to visit.

If you are not all that physically able, you might want to opt for the easier to get around Haeundae Beach which is found on stop #203 of the green line (line 2) of the subway. Very easy to get to!

If you do visit Gamcheon,  which I strongly recommend, you want to take the orange line (line 1) to stop #109 for Toseong. And once off, just follow the signs and head up the hill. When you get there, you’ll understand.

You have to walk up the hill to get to the crest of the valley where the cultural village is located. (See subway map at the beginning of this blog post for the subway stop).

Once there, your eye’s will be immediately assaulted – in a good way – with the variety of colors which the home owners have painted their homes. This was one location I have wanted to visit in quite some time having seen a photograph of the kaleidoscope of colors that can be found.

Colorful houses of Gamcheon Cultural Village in Busan, Korea.

And there are a large number of art installations everywhere you look. The streets are narrow and windy, and the restaurants are excellent and fun.

Art display along a section of wall and stairs at Gamcheon Cultural Village, Busan, South Korea.

This is a fun place, and you will have fun exploring the nooks and crannies that make up this place. You will find really neat places tucked away, and the over all feel is an invitation to come and explore!

Photography Tips for Gamcheon Cultural Village

When you enter the village, you will enter most likely on the eastern side of the slope of the valley.  Just follow along for a few blocks and look on your right hand side for some stairs heading up the hillside. You will see up above you some places at the very top with people looking down upon the slope. This is where you want to go to get a good shot of the village and the multicolored homes that make up Gamcheon.

Mea culpa (Latin for “I confess”), I have to be honest, this is what I went to Gamcheon for – to get these shots of the village and the variety of colors of the homes there. I really love the colors of the buildings and was lucky to be there during the late afternoon when the light was just perfect and provided for some shadow – some visual interest in the scene.

Another view of the the colorful homes of Gamcheon Cultural Village in Busan, Korea.

Once you get the beautiful colors of the building down the hillside out of your system, you can then focus on the individual art installations and the windy and steep streets and byways.

Artwork of Charlie Chaplin at Gamcheon Cultural Village in Busan, Korea.

And as you are taking some great shots of the various art installations, don’t forget to stop by some of the small restaurants and shops and enjoy your time there. You will be glad that you did and you will have a wonderful time as you explore and photograph the many scenes before you.

So there you have it!

So there you have it, the two places I’d definitely visit if visiting Busan, South Korea!

As a bonus, you could also visit Haeundae Beach which has a wide variety of street entertainers and an overdose of restaurants.

It was at Haeundae beach that I experienced my first Korea BBQ. On that note, you really need to do a Korean BBQ, unless you are a vegan, in which case they do have veggie options. Otherwise, you really have to like pork as that is the primary meat for Korean BBQ (not a problem in my life, but my daughter, the vegetarian on the other hand, well it wasn’t her thing)!

But oh my, Korean BBQ is wonderful both in the flavor department and in the fact that you get to cook your own food! And the kimchee! I didn’t realize the many types and kinds of this uniquely Korea garnish that is present for most Korean meals!

Personally, I would visit Beomeosa during the day, visit Haeundae Beach at night, then visit Gamcheon the following day. This will give you enough flavor of the city to give you a sense of the city and vibrant communities that call it home.

After two visits – one during the summer and once during the winter – I can’t wait to visit again!

Bright lights of Busan, Korea.

 

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A little bit about me . . .

Back in 1982, my Air Force roommate was in desperate need of some cash, and he had a camera. And I was in the market for a camera as I had TDY (Temporary Duty) orders for Cyprus and was looking for a good camera to take with me. So over some beers and some negotiations with my roommate (and a few hundred dollars later), I found that I had become the owner of a brand spanking new Canon AE-1 camera with an assortment of lens, including a Canon 50mm, a 35mm lens, as well as a telephoto lens.

Fast forward to today, and I am now an owner of a Canon 5D Mark II (looking to upgrade, but can’t decide on my next camera) and a bunch of Canon glass and I am primarily a landscape and travel photographer. Yea, that means that I get up before the sun rises and am out after the sun sets. Makes for interesting times!

Thank you for joining me on this photographic journey and hope to hear from you!

Peace,