South Korea Presentation
South Korea operates as a semi-presidential republic with a representative, multi-party democratic system. In this setup, the president, who is directly elected by the citizens, serves as both the head of state and the head of government.
The nation covers the southern part of the Korean peninsula and is mainly characterized by mountainous terrain, interspersed with small valleys and narrow coastal plains. Its population exceeds 51 million people.
This marked my second trip to this Asian nation. You can find details of my first visit in the article about Seoul. During this visit, accompanied by Ji Hun, I explored Busan and Jeonju.
However, before delving into those adventures, I’ll share with you some other fascinating aspects of Seoul that I hadn’t had the chance to experience during my previous trip.
I hope you like it
Suguksa is the sole golden temple in South Korea, tucked away to the north of Seoul. This hidden gem isn’t your typical tourist spot; you won’t find it in any travel guide, adding to its unique charm.
Just to clarify, when we say “temple” here, we’re talking about a collection of structures. Suguksa Temple comprises four buildings, with one currently undergoing renovation.
Unlike Japan, South Korea allows photography and filming inside most temples, which is great because these places are truly magnificent.
Inside the first building, you’ll find not imaginary, but real people who once lived – you can even read their names under each figurine.
The bigger ones are known as Arahans, considered to be like demigods.
The last two photos show a building used for soul cleansing and the table with the steps for the ritual. As you can see, it kicks off at 7 p.m. on the first day and wraps up at 9 a.m. on the third day.
The ritual involves a series of bowing, meditation sessions, and prayers, and you need to book ahead because only one person is allowed at a time.
What a lovely surprise it was!
Now, let’s take a look at Seooreung Cemetery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that holds five royal tombs dating back to the Joseon Dynasty.
Here, when we say “tomb,” we’re talking about a specific arrangement of structures, and you’ll find this same setup repeated five times. It all begins with a Korean torii (if you’d like, you can draw a comparison to the Japanese ones I mentioned in my previous post) and a stone-paved pathway. Interestingly, this pathway is meant to be walked only from the right side, as the central path is reserved for those who participate in the annual remembrance ceremony.
At the end of this pathway, you’ll encounter a structure known as a jaesil, which serves as the tomb keeper’s house. You can find more details about this in the inscription featured in one of the photos.
In all my articles there must be at least one museum, and the one you shouldn’t miss is the Seoul Museum situated right next to SeokPaJeong, which used to be the royal residence during the Chosun Dynasty. It is necessary to specify it because there are numerous ‘Seoul Museums’ scattered throughout the city.
This museum is all about modern art, and it showcases some fascinating pieces.
For instance, there are paintings that come to life thanks to inner light bulbs embedded within the frames, creating a captivating sense of depth in the artwork.
Worth mentioning are also some sculptures that make sense when a light strategically placed in a specific spot casts striking shadows on the wall.
The garden is very pretty and conveys a sense of peace.
One day, during one of our tours, we walk past what used to be the residence of the previous Presidents of the Republic until just a few months ago.
It’s interesting to note that the second-to-last president, a woman, and the third-to-last president, a man, are currently serving lengthy prison sentences. This highlights that even in South Korea corruption is not unheard of, but it’s reassuring to see that politicians here do face consequences when they mess up.
Anyway, we decide to visit the residence, since we are there, however, we discover that making an online reservation well in advance is necessary for security reasons. Yet, when the guards see me, there is a sort of meeting involving the ticket and security personnel, until they decide to issue us a pass right there on the spot.
Ji Hun is quite surprised, but I’m not, as every time I travel to Asia, I seem to encounter unexpected acts of kindness towards me.
Now, let’s pause for a quick food moment.
I had some pretty big expectations for this seaweed snack, but sadly, it turned out to be quite plain and overly greasy.
The taste is a bit like prawn crackers… without the prawn!
The Korean melon is roughly the same size as an orange. It looks pretty, but I have to admit, it left me a bit disappointed.
It takes quite a bit of effort to clean and peel, yet in the end, you don’t get much to eat, and the taste is somewhat bland.
If you’re still wondering about the importance of chili in this place, just take a look at the supermarket shelves stocked with bags weighing 2.5 kilograms and even more.
Those intriguing rings you spot in that massive bag are Korea’s take on popcorn. They use the same ingredients, but they throw in a bit of rice flour.
Jogyesa Temple in the heart of Seoul is a must-see, especially during Buddha’s birthday celebrations when the lighting is absolutely amazing.
Different temple, more pictures.
This time, we’re up on one of Seoul’s many hills, checking out Myogaksa Temple.
To wrap up this second part of my Seoul adventures, let’s venture to Seongnam, a suburb of Seoul well-known among locals for its expansive food market that sprawls across several city blocks.
Stepping into this place feels like a journey back to my days in China. I am frequently approached by folks who are curious about my origin, as there wouldn’t be many Western tourists around. This market is a treasure trove of edibles, with even mushrooms that seems more like rocks than food.
The second picture showcases a laboratory dedicated to crafting Oriental medicine remedies, a practice quite popular in South Korea. Inside the market, you can also grab a bite to eat in an atmosphere that evoked memories of the Italian ‘Festival dell’Unità’, where everyone strikes up conversations, and the cooks share banter with their patrons.
I manage to pique the interest of fellow diners there too. When they notice me downing makgeolli like there is no tomorrow, they begin sending specially ordered dishes our way, encouraging me to try a bit of everything. The only puzzle for them is how a missionary priest can hold his liquor so well. According to their thinking, an Italian who appears to be having such a great time among them can only be an emissary sent by the Vatican 🙂
Have you ever wondered how puffed rice is made?
The traditional method is still used in Seongnam, and you can see it in the video below.
All waiting for the bang from this sort of pressure mixer
I finally succeeded in grabbing a cup of coffee at one of those dog-friendly places that offer a menu and provide a seat at every table to our beloved pets.
In Seoul, it’s usually quite a challenge to snag one of these spots because they’re incredibly popular, and I can understand why.
You must know that years ago I watched a movie called ‘Train to Busan’.
The issue is that the train to Busan never reached its destination because, along the way, those pesky zombies devoured everyone, including the train’s driver!
It was at that moment when I made up my mind – I had to discover what Busan was like, and I was determined to do it myself. Whether I’m getting there by plane instead of train is irrelevant; the important thing is that I’m ready to take on any zombie that crosses my path!
By the way, Ji Hun and I flew to Osaka with Air Busan, and now we’re on our way to Busan with Jeju Air. The only thing left is a journey to Jeju with Air Osaka, and it will bring everything full circle.
Busan, with a population of 3.5 million, ranks as South Korea’s second-largest city. Its growth story is somewhat sorrowful, but I’ll share more details later.
Overseas, it’s primarily recognized for its film festival, and one of the prominent figures in the film industry who’ve left their mark on its main streets is the Italian maestro Ennio Morricone.
In Japan, you might need three cards just to travel around one city, but in Korea, you can hop on public transportation in any city with just one card, thanks to their awesome nationwide transportation system.
So, we waste no time and use our card to hop on one of the six subway lines heading downtown.
Extremely comfortable travel, but that’s no surprise
Surprisingly, within just a few hours, we’ve traveled from Seoul’s Chinatown to Busan’s. However, at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, Busan’s Chinatown is still pretty quiet and lacks the liveliness we we hoping for.
So, we decide to make our way to the harbor, where we find numerous fishing boats. As expected, the fish market here is massive, with an outdoor section stretching along a street that’s approximately 1.5 kilometers long. Inside, it’s just as impressive, featuring several aisles, each about 200 meters in length.
The biggest I’ve ever seen, and one of the biggest in the world
We opt to grab lunch down at the harbor, even though it’s just 11:30 AM, but trust me, it’s totally worth it.
We dig into a tasty combo of fresh raw fish and crispy fried octopus, along with the usual spread of about 200 little dishes.
There’s all sorts of goodies, like mushrooms, sweet potatoes, kimchi, rice, tofu, and a couple of tasty sauces to dip into.
In early 1951, over 500,000 individuals sought refuge in Busan, which, along with Daegu, was the only city not occupied by Korean forces from the North during the initial three months of the Korean War. These people were accommodated in hastily constructed homes, and some found shelter in the Gamcheon district.
Back in the 1920s, the Gamcheon district had sprouted, when the Japanese administration decided to relocate thousands of working-class individuals who weren’t employed at the port. This led to Gamcheon resembling a favela in many ways, as many of these new residences lacked basic amenities like running water, electricity, and sanitation.
Today, after extensive renovations, Gamcheon has transformed into a popular tourist destination, although many people continue to call it home.
Both a ‘favela’ and a tourist attraction
After this fascinating visit, it’s time to check out Busan Tower.
Even though it’s just 120 meters tall, it provides an amazing view of the city, and you’ll find some pretty cool ‘psychedelic’ rooms inside.
When we arrive at the AG405 hotel, Ji Hun has another fantastic surprise for me.
Not only the bathroom has my beloved Japanese-style toilet, but he also reserved a room with a breathtaking view of Busan Bay and the impressive 7.5-kilometer-long Gwangan Bridge, which is particularly stunning at night.
After dinner, we immerse ourselves in the vibrant nighttime party vibes of this part of Busan, which are truly hard to describe adequately. I trust that the photos and videos will do the talking for me.
I particularly appriciate the girls and boys who choose the waterfront as their picnic spot, because they are not overly loud and they are not seeking for attention.
What if I told you I would have spent a week in that hotel just so I could enjoy this view every night?
To those who love the sea and skyscrapers as I do, this place is like paradise
Like Seoul’s university quarters, on the beach
By now you should know that I love to watch and listen to kids performing on the street
The next morning, we hang out in the hotel district, where the headquarters of the International Film Festival and one of South Korea’s biggest shopping malls are located. This mall is so massive that it’s among the largest in the world, and it’s spread across multiple buildings.
By the way, the title of the world’s largest single-structure mall still goes to the New Century Global Center in Chengdu (I talked about it at the beginning of my article on Sichuan), which stretches a mind-boggling 500 meters in length, 400 meters in width, and soars to a height of 100 meters. These structures are so gigantic that even with a wide-angle lens, capturing them entirely in one frame is next to impossible.