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Busan, South Korea

Last weekend we did a quick trip to Busan to eat, drink, and break up our routine.  We accomplished all of the above, and learned a little about another part of Korea in the process.

We took just an hour flight over the Sea of Japan on Jin Air, a low-cost carrier out of Korea that we had never tried before.  They were pretty casual – the flight attendants wore golf shirts and tight jeans – but the price was right and we were completely satisfied.  

Once we arrived at Busan airport, it was an easy transfer to the train and subway systems, and there was no need for a car.  It is nice traveling in Asia and not having to worry about fighting traffic.  

One thing we noticed right away is that there wasn’t very much English around.  In Seoul there is a lot of English – signs, menus,  train schedules, everything.  Although it wasn’t completely absent, there was a sharp drop in the number of English words that we saw.  Everything was in Hangul, and since I have only been studying it for a couple of weeks it took a long time to read everything.  Even after reading it, I didn’t know very much Korean vocabulary, so it wasn’t that helpful.  Luckily the little  it of Korean that we did know was enough when combined with English keywords.  At one place we even were able to use Japanese to order, which was a first for our travels.

Our primary goal of the trip was to eat lots of delicious food, and we got right down to it.  Kuniko had spent a long time researching the most interesting foods and restaurants to try, and she had programmed everything into her smartphone so she guided us around the city effortlessly from one gourmet stop to the next.  

We had lots of great food and it would take too long to describe all of it, but some of our favorite dishes were the “mandu”, the Korean version of gyoza.  We had three different versions, all delicious.  One version was made up of tiny bite-sized dumplings that were boiled and splashed with sesame oil, and another were giant sized dumplings, about half the size of my fist, with perfectly balanced flavor.  The last version were more traditionally sized, but they were filled with glass noodles instead of meat, and some vegetables and spices to liven them up. All of them were great, and I think I liked the mandu the best of the trip.  

We also had a lot of noodles this trip.  The clear glass noodles seemed to be the most popular, although we saw other kinds as well.  We had our noodles mainly cold to fit the warm weather outside.  I was a little surprised that the noodles weren’t as spicy or garlicky as I had expected – but we were always able to add our own spices to liven them up even more.  One shopkeeper grew frustrated watching Kuniko stirring the noodles and took the bowl back from her, took it aside, and stirred it “correctly” for us.  She tasted a noodle from our bowl to make sure it was good, and then gave it back to us.  

Our last meal of Saturday night was outside at a food stand that was set up along a busy street.  The street was lined with food stands like these, with comfortable seats around the outside and a stainless steel bar to lean on while you ate.  The weather was perfect for outdoor dining, and watching people walk by while enjoying a bottle of Soju.   

There were two cooks at our food stand, but one of them spoke Japanese and we were able to order various foods.  We had fried egg, egg with sausage, pork and kimchi stir-fry, and a little plate of fruit “on the house”. We also ordered some octopus at the end of the meal, and we were surprised when the entire octopus arrived steamed at our table.  The staff gave me a pair of scissors and a plastic glove, and told me to get to work cutting it up.   I did my best, and left the head behind, knowing that was where all the yucky stuff lay in wait.  With the octopus came two different dipping sauces, and we really liked one made simply with sesame oil, garlic, and lots of salt.  

After a while the staff noticed that I hadn’t cut up the head so she walked over and started cutting it.  Just as she did she must have hit a pocket of octopus brains under pressure, and it sprayed a significant amount of goo onto her own blouse.  I was glad I hadn’t done it myself!

We over-ordered a little bit, but I think we just didn’t understand how much food was in each dish.  The portion size was quite large, and there was no warning from the staff that maybe we wouldn’t be able to finish everything.  Of course, we had been eating all day before arriving so maybe that had something to do with it.  We finally had to give up. The staff gave us a little grief for leaving a few pieces of octopus behind (especially since one staff was wearing a lot of our octopus innards on her shirt), but we settled up and left.  They overcharged us quite a bit (perhaps to cover the blouse cleaning bill?) but we were happy with the experience and dragged ourselves to our hotel to sleep off the big day.

A very impressive feature of Busan is its beaches.  We visited two, one larger and more famous, another smaller and more picturesque.  Both had clean white sand, plenty of space for everyone, and clear, clean water.  It was something I didn’t expect, and therefore was a pleasant surprise.  We walked around the beaches taking pictures and enjoying the fresh air for a long time.  One beach had a compressed air hose system set up to blow off the sand from your feet instead of using a water shower.  Very nice idea!

We also spent time walking through the street markets of Busan. There are some big “official” markets, filled with every sort of local meat, vegetable, tofu, fish cake, and spice that you could imagine.  Near our hotel was one that I thought was quite large, at least six square city blocks, but later we found another that made up almost an entire town, with shops focusing on clothes, seafood, and toys for kids.  Outside of these big markets were small stands set up just about anywhere on the street, and operated by entrepreneurs who were looking to make a quick buck.  The idea of selling stuff on the street was big in Busan, and it seemed like everyone was doing it.  

On the second day we walked through a huge fish market, and enjoyed seeing all the different sorts of fish on display.  Despite being an enormous market we could kind of understand that there was a limited selection of fish – and different shops were selling the same kinds of things.  I didn’t understand how you could have ten shops in a row selling the same dried fish for the same prices, but here they were.  Mysterious!

Our last meal in Busan was at a grilled meat restaurant. It took a while to find one since we were in the neighborhood of the fish market and most people came there to eat fish, not beef.  Eventually we found one, and had a really nice brunch of rib meat grilled with garlic and then wrapped in lettuce with spicy vegetables and ssamjan. The staff at the restaurant stayed at our table most of the time and cooked and distributed our food.  She was an older lady who knew that we didn’t understand her but didn’t seem to mind.  An old guy suddenly came into the restaurant with an empty cup and tried to get us to give him beer, but our helpful lady chased him away. With crab soup, and bowl of cold noodles in sweet and spicy sauce, and two big cold beers, we were in heaven.

We headed off to the airport afterwards, but due to some kind of technical misunderstanding with our reservation we had an extra couple of hours at the airport to kill.  Of course, we continued to eat and drink.  We had a cream puff stuffed with ice cream and sprinkled with green tea powder, a shaved ice dessert with mango, apple and cheesecake on top of ice and ice cream with condensed milk over the top, and we even sat outside on a patio on the rooftop and drank cold beer to kill some time.  The airport was great for hanging out and doing nothing, and soon enough it was time to catch our flight.

The whole trip was great, and just what we needed to refresh ourselves a little bit the rest of June and most of July.  I don’t know if we’ll be back soon, but Busan was just what we needed at just the right time.

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