When I originally applied to EPIK way back in January 2018, I listed Busan as my location preference.  Not knowing anything about Jeollandamdo, where I currently happily live, I was intrigued by Busan’s profile as a seaport city surrounded by mountains, dotted with Temples, and the apparent offer of an interesting city life without the bustle of a metropolitan area like Seoul, where nearly half of the South Korean population of 50 million lives.

Busan is South Korea’s second largest city, and I mentally compared the prospect of living there with my experiences living in Perth, Australia and Brno, Czech Republic – major cities in their respective countries, but cities that are nonetheless off the radar of most tourists.  With 3.6 million people living in the Busan metropolitan area, it is a distant second to Seoul in terms of its significance, but is in fact much larger and busier than Perth and Brno.  It is a major tourist destination for Koreans, particularly during the summer months, when beaches like Haeundae get quite crowded.

I was lucky enough to have a 3 day weekend due to my school’s birthday (yes, schools have birthdays in Korea).  I had been waiting for such an opportunity to visit Busan, which is not the easiest place to travel to from Jeonnam, as I’ll describe below.  We ended up having a very nice experience, centered on the off-the-beaten path Dadaepo Beach.  While this was a slightly inconvenient base in some ways, it soon became clear to us why this beach had – by far – the best TripAdvisor reviews of any beach in Busan.

Getting There

Getting from my small town in Jeollanamdo to our final destination at Dadaepo Beach ended up being about a six and a half hour journey.  For future reference, I now know that I can keep the journey down to about 4-5 hours if I stay nearer to the central bus station.

First, we took a local bus from Nampyeong to Gwangju.  This took about 45 minutes.  While we could have taken another bus and arrived at the U Square bus station in about 25 more minutes, we opted instead to take a 10 minute taxi ride for about $5.  From Gwangju, we took a bus booked through Kobus to Busan’s “Central Bus Terminal.”  This was about a 3 and a half hour journey, with a 15 minute stop at a rest stop along the way.  From the bus station, we had to take the orange line on the subway from the very beginning to the very end of the line.  This took about an hour and a half.

Despite the length of the journey, we were very happy with where we ended up.  Since Dadaepo is off the beaten path, we found an Airbnb there that cost us about $35 each for the entire three day weekend.  This was, of course, very afforable, and gave us the chance to see a side of Busan better known to locals than tourists.

Dadaepo Beach

When we arrived in Busan on Friday evening, it was cloudy, cool and rainy.  The first half of Saturday was not looking much better.  Luckily, things cleared up after lunch, and we got to spend a great day at Dadaepo Beach.  As mentioned above, Dadaepo Beach had better reviews than the more famous Haeundae and Gwangali Beaches.

I assume this is because it is farther away from the city center, and thus less touristy, less crowded, and more quiet than some of the others.  As I understand it, Koreans have the mentality than a particular, arbitrary date is the beginning of “beach season.”  I’ve usually heard that this is some time in July, even if it is 90F/30C in June.  Similar arbitrary dates apply to things like wearing shorts and short sleeves.  I don’t believe that we had reached that date yet when we went to Dadaepo, and so the beach was not crowded at all.  Surrounding the beach was a very nice public park with lots of open fields and walking trails.  If you are traveling with children, they will appreciate the sprinklers in the park area.  The park also offers showers, restrooms, and other convenient facilities.

The neighborhood surrounding the beach is mostly residential, though there are some restaurants with excellent views of the sunset as you walk inland and uphill.  The picture below was the view from Holly’s Coffee.  If you are in the area in the evening, I strongly recommend taking in a sunset.

BIFF Square

BIFF stands for Busan International Film Festival.  As you’ve probably guessed, this is the part of town where said film festival takes place each year.  This is a loud, crowded and bustling part of town.  There is plenty of excellent street food and nice restaurants ranging from holes in the wall to more upscale places.

Need socks with celebrities on them? BIFF is the place for you!

If you are into shopping (disclaimer:  I’m not), this is surely the part of town for you, with lots of opportunity to shop for clothing, technology, souvenirs, and whatever else you are interested in buying.  Street vendors outnumber actual storefronts, and the benefit of buying from them is that prices are negotiable.  Don’t feel bad about playing hardball with your negotiations.  The vendors certainly won’t!

Wasting time at “Kakao Friends”

As is the case throughout the rest of Korea, there were a million 노래방 (noraebang) places, which translates literally to “singing room.”  In other words, they are karaoke places.  If you enjoy karaoke as much as I do, you will be in heaven in Korea.  That is, unless you are the type that loves to ham it up in front of strangers.  In Korea, you go to these places with your group of friends and rent a private room for an hour.  No doubt that is due to the shyness of the Korean people and their fear of losing face for singing badly in front of people they don’t know.  Public Service Announcement:  the rooms are NOT sound proof, so if you find yourself screaming like a hyena, people can hear you!  Surely you won’t be alone.

Jagalchi Fish Market

I don’t have an especially strong sense of smell, but let me tell you, the smell of this place is unmistakable!  Given Busan’s status as Korea’s major port and oceanfront city, fish and seafood are big business here.  At this market, the vendors straightforwardly offer the fishermen’s catches of the day.  In Korea, there is no culture of carefully packaging fish and seafood like there is in the United States, so prepare to see giant fish staring up at you, as well as whole octopuses, squids, and other mysterious creatures of the deep.

Since I have not gutted a fish in 27 years and had no interest in starting during this weekend, we decided to have dinner at one of the many small restaurants surrounding the market.  We chose to have clams, when ended up being probably the largest clams I’ve ever seen or eaten.  They were delicious but expensive – the meal cost us about 15,000 won per person (plus the cost of soju!).  Still, if you enjoy seafood, it is very much worth it to stop by the restaurants surrounding this market during your trip.  My guess is that if you picked one at random it would be very good!

Beomeosa Temple

When we first arrived at the Busan Central Bus Terminal and boarded the orange line subway to head towards Dadaepo Beach, I noticed that the first stop we passed was for Beomeosa Buddhist Temple.  A quick search of TripAdvisor showed that this was one of the major attractions of the city, and I made the decision that we would visit on Sunday as we were heading back to the bus station.  It did not disappoint.

As a former philosophy major who studied Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in Taiwan during university, I am always interested in seeing and experiencing sacred sites like this.  Beomeosa is one of the major temples of the Jogye school of Korean Seon Buddhism: a form of Mahayana Buddhism similar to Japanese Zen in many of its beliefs and practices.  There are some major differences, however, including the fact that Korean Seon monks are expected to remain celibate while Japanese Zen monks often have wives and families.  During the Japanese occupation of Korea, there was a push to force the Japanese style of Buddhism on the Koreans.  As a result, Korean Seon is quite conservative and traditional today.

Like the vast majority of Buddhist temples in Korea, Beomeosa is located in a picturesque mountain setting.  During the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), Confucianism was the official state philosophy.  Buddhists were persecuted under this regime for over 500 years.  One of the ways that they were persecuted was that monks were forbidden from entering the cities and villages to spread the teachings and confined to the monasteries and temples in the mountains.

During this time, the number of Buddhist monasteries in Korea went from several hundred to 36.  The level of antagonism between Confucianism and Buddhism in Korean history was strange to me, because in Chinese culture they are considered to be two of the “three teachings” – along with Taoism – believed to be harmonious with one another by nature with each enhancing the wisdom of the others.  Not so in Korea, at least not historically.  Perhaps this is due to the general absence of Taoism, which was suppressed even more than Buddhism during the Joseon Dynasty.  Unlike Confucianism, which emphasizes a very particular hierarchy and social order, Taoism emphasizes a sense of flexibility and harmony with nature, characterized by “taking the path of least resistance” and “fidelity to the Way” (or Tao).  Today, virtually no religious Taoists live in Korea, although Taoist ideas still do have some impact on the culture.  However, the idea that Buddhism and Confucianism can have a “yin-yang” relationship, where their opposing qualities lead to a more harmonious overall viewpoint is not one of them.

The Beomeosa complex comprises much land on Mt. Geumjeongsan.  It was first established in the year 678, and its name “Beomeosa” literally translates to “Spiritual Fish Temple.”  This title is based on the creation myth of the temple.  The story goes that there is a well with golden water at the top of Mt. Geumjeongsan.  According to legend, golden fish rode a rainbow down from the heavens in order to inhabit this well.  Much of the temple was destroyed during a Japanese invasion in the 1590s, and was rebuilt.  During the 20th Century, the temple complex was expanded and renovated further.  What has resulted is a dazzling display of colorful art and architecture, in an awe-inspiring natural setting for meditation and reflection.  The chants of monks and faithful practitioners can be heard from many of the buildings, and there are others where practitioners meditate and do prostrations in silence.  Many of the buildings do not permit pictures to be taken, so please pay attention to the signs when you visit.

Most especially, remember to remove your shoes when you enter any of the buildings.

Keep in mind:  if you visit Beomeosa between 12-1 PM, a vegetarian lunch is served to guests!  We unfortunately missed it, but from what I hear Korean temple food is delicious.  I’ll report back when I have the chance to try it.  There is also a small free museum with various artifacts from temple and an overview of its history.  The exhibitions themselves are all in Korean, but a pamphlet with an English translation is available at the entrance!

As you can probably tell by the amount I’ve written about it, the visit to Beomeosa was the highlight of my trip to Busan, and I’m really looking forward to visiting the city’s other notable temples the next time I visit.