Sergio Bersanetti

My South Korea

2 April - 17 May 2023

Corea del Sud South Korea map

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.

Presentation article on South Korea

I hope you like it

South Korea: Seoul, part two

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.

Suguksa temple in Seoul

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.

Just behind the jaesil, or sometimes to its left or right, you can find an untouched little hill where the bodies of the king or queen and their partners lie at rest. These hills are completely natural.

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.

Jogyesa Temple

Possibly one of the most enlightened temples in South Korea, during Buddha’s birthday celebrations

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 🙂

Moran market in Seongnam

No chance to starve here!

Moran market restaurant area

I repeat: No chance to starve here!

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.

Puffed rice production in Seongnam

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.

South Korea: Visiting Busan

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.

Fly to Busan

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.

Metro from Busan airport

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.

Fish market in Busan

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.

Gamcheon village

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.

Busan Bay view

What if I told you I would have spent a week in that hotel just so I could enjoy this view every night?

Millak-dong Busan

To those who love the sea and skyscrapers as I do, this place is like paradise

Busan nightlife

Like Seoul’s university quarters, on the beach

Beach performance in Busan

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.

IFF building in Busan

One of the world’s most important international film festivals takes place in here

As you are probably aware, Asian malls are a real treat, not just because of the multitude of stores they house. In this particular mall, landing a job with the most renowned and luxurious brands is no small feat. The prerequisites are extensive and quite demanding, which adds to the allure of these spots.

The line to get into these stores can stretch up to 50 meters, and as is typical in Asia, you might even stumble upon a skating rink.

Over the past day, I’ve been pondering how intriguing it is that Busan can be divided into two areas that are so distinct from each other that it’s almost hard to believe they belong to the same city.

The western part is characterized by the port and the ‘favelas,’ and it’s where the poorest and least educated residents reside. Nearly all of them are employed either at the port or in activities related to the fish market, such as stores, restaurants, and processing factories.

In contrast, the eastern part is the domain of the affluent, where technology and modernity reign supreme.

The physical separation between these two worlds is quite evident. To travel from the port to our hotel area, you need to cover a distance of 34 bus stops, and each stop isn’t exactly close to the next one.
That’s inevitable: if a city has a limited expansion potential towards the mountains in the North and obviously none towards the sea in the South, it has to expand significantly in both western and eastern directions.

But now, let’s shift our focus to something else: I’d like to share some photos of Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, which was constructed in 1376. It’s one of the few temples in South Korea that’s situated right by the ocean.
This temple is particularly popular among young couples who write messages of good wishes on golden heart-shaped cards and then affix them to the railings.

After enjoying the temple view, we take a stroll down to the beach, where we spot dozens of surfers eagerly awaiting the perfect wave to have a blast.
I can’t help but admire the patience of these folks. During the roughly 20 minutes we spend watching them as we walk along the shore, we only see about two waves that are rideable.

Our leisurely walk culminates at the Daritdol Observatory, a structure that offers a breathtaking view of the ocean.

From there, we take the small train that rides along part of Busan’s coastline and takes us to ‘Busan X The Sky.’

Train to Busan (no zombies)

A cute little train that runs along a section of the coast in Busan 

Busan X The Sky is a tower that opened in 2020, providing a view of the city from a height of 412 meters.

View from Busan X The Sky

Not for those who suffer from dizziness

Also notable is the elevator, which reaches the 100th floor in less than 60 seconds.

Busan X The Sky elevator

The usual spectacular elevator of Asian towers

A fresh day means a new adventure, and today, it’s all about taking a ride on a ferry-boat. The wind is really strong, and you’d think it’s a good idea to stay indoors, but when there are two kids without supervision on board, guess where they end up? Yup, we’re braving the wild wind outside the whole way!

While Ji Hun channels his inner Jack Dawson, I’m doing my best to find some shelter. That green patch you spot in the Google map picture? That’s actually part of Japan, just a mere 50 kilometers away!

Mini cruise in Busan

Shame for the stong wind…

Our last visit, before heading to the airport, is to the songdo cloud walk, a series of small bridges that offer an interesting view of the beach and its surroundings.

Goodbye Busan

I have to admit, as much as I had a great time in Busan, I’m quite relieved to be back home in Seoul, primarily because of the daily commute. To be honest, the traffic in Busan can be a nightmare, and the buses there are quite old. They jolt so much when starting and stopping that you feel like you might tumble over.

What about the six subway lines? Aside from the ride from the airport to the western part of the city and back, we hardly used them. The fact that the buses are always jam-packed makes me wonder if the metro routes are even all that practical. It doesn’t help that Busan is wedged between the sea to the south and mountains to the north, although they’ve built numerous bridges to connect different parts of the city more conveniently.

About the photos: it amuses me how Koreans, as soon as the weather warms up a bit, stroll around in flip-flops, even when they’re traveling by air. The ones in the photos are already fancy, almost like sandals, but you’ll see many folks wearing simple pool flip-flops!

Ji Hun has this thing for taking pictures of me walking around with stuff on my head, usually paper cups. I’m starting to wonder if I should be concerned…

The video of the landing in Seoul should give you an idea of how extensive the city is.

Bear in mind that I deleted the first two minutes so as not to make it too boring, but we were already flying over the capital.

Landing at Gimpo Airport in Seoul

Certainly not the smoothest landing in my life….

South Korea: Trip to Jeonju

I must admit that I had never come across the city of Jeonju before, perhaps it’s because it’s not known for zombie sightings.
In fact, Jeonju is renowned for its historical sites, lively festivals, but most importantly, its local cuisine, which earned it the title of “City with the Most Creative Gastronomy” by UNESCO in 2012.

The Seoul bus station we’re departing from isn’t your run-of-the-mill station, but I’ve grown accustomed to such quirks by now.

As usual, even though the bus ride is a breezy three hours, with a 20-minute pit stop halfway through, Ji Hun has gone all out, booking tickets for a bus that feels like the first-class section of an airplane.
Thankfully, it doesn’t dent the wallet too much, coming in at less than €20 this time, so I don’t feel too guilty.

While the Scudetto celebration for Napoli is happening on TV, we decide to start exploring the city, with our main goal being to find a restaurant!
The local buses turns out to be a pleasant surprise, brightening up our rainy day.

As we enter the restaurant, a photo on the wall already hints at how seriously they take their cuisine here. They immediately bring us the 200 side dishes, and it’s worth noting that I never quite clarified this: they serve these as soon as you sit down at your table, completely independent of your actual order, and they’re free! You can keep asking for more whenever your saucer is empty.
My mischievous side couldn’t help but think that in theory, you could order a three-euro dish and keep indulging in these side dishes until you couldn’t eat anymore. Ji Hun even confirmed that the restaurant owner couldn’t do anything about it.

The soufflé is delightful, with the perfect texture, and the meatloaf is very enjoyable as well.
However, Jeonju is renowned throughout Korea for its bibimbap, which originated right here. This particular restaurant servs it without the egg, and although I usually prefer it with the egg, this version definitely lived up to the hype.

In Korea, each major city has its own version of makgeolli, and the one we tried in Jeonju might just be the best I’ve had so far.

Having eaten anything that was brought to out table, as usual, we head over to Jeolla Gamyeong, a historical government complex that traces its roots back to the Joseon Dynasty. This place served as the hub for managing administrative, judicial, and military matters in Southwest Korea for over five centuries, kicking off in the late 1300s. Among the various buildings, one of them used to be the governor’s residence.

In the last photo, you’ll catch a glimpse of PungNamMun, the sole surviving gateway to the ancient city despite enduring wars and other disasters. Unfortunately, it’s off-limits for entry, so we can only admire it from the outside.

The following photo deserves a special place because it serves as a tribute to the countles ladies called ‘comfort women,’ who endured abuse at the hands of Japanese occupation forces.
If you’d like to learn more about this heartbreaking chapter in history, I encourage you to click on the link provided in the previous sentence.

Comfort woman monument Jeonju

Gyeonggijeon is home to the only surviving portrait of King Taejo, who founded the Joseon Dynasty between 1398 and 1910. This place also houses the complete documents (annals) of the dynasty, which are incredibly valuable and protected by UNESCO. Interestingly, these documents have been defended at great cost, with many people sacrificing their lives to protect them from the various invaders who have attacked Korea over the centuries.

You may remember my previous visit to Suwon, where I saw the city walls that have been reconstructed to match the originals.
This reconstruction was possible because of the detailed information contained in the dynasty records, which include everything from royal activities to some rather personal details, such as the king’s bathing habits and their length.

What is particularly fascinating about these records is that kings were not allowed to read the annals of their predecessors or even what was written about their own reign. This was to ensure objectivity and to prevent kings from punishing writers for recording things they disliked.
Sometimes, a forgetful king would ask not to record something and this would be duly noted in the annals as: “The king just asked not to write down what he is saying right now.”

The Hanok Village, a collection of traditional Korean houses in Jeonju, experienced a sharp decline starting in the late 1970s, turning into an area plagued by mischief and disease due to neglect and filth.

However, everything changed when the 2002 World Cup was awarded to South Korea (and Japan), and some of the matches were scheduled to take place right here. This prompted local authorities to embark on a significant redevelopment effort, transforming the village into a popular tourist destination.

Many argue that this transformation has gone too far in terms of commercialization, nearly erasing the village’s authenticity.
It’s undeniable that some streets are now dominated by rows of souvenir shops, while others feature unique stores where you can find services like palmistry or purchase performance-enhancing alcoholic extracts for those intimate moments.

The National Intangible Heritage Center is quite fascinating because it showcases the rich traditions of rural Korea from a few decades back through objects and movies.
It covers everything from festivals and rituals to musical performances. Plus, you can get in for free, and there are even some rooms where kids can have fun.
But what really captured my heart were the masks. Even though most of them look pretty bizarre or even spooky, I couldn’t help but want to take them all home with me.

National Intangible Heritage Center

How to play some traditional Korean instruments

National Intangible Heritage Center

Overview of one of the beautiful rooms

National Intangible Heritage Center

Because children (and others) deserve to have fun, too 

Equally fascinating is the Museum of Alcoholic Beverages, as it uncovers the history and crafting of Korea’s most widely enjoyed drinks, nearly all of which are derived from rice. This includes my beloved makgeolli and soju, of course.

The elegantly adorned white containers were employed by families who clandestinely brewed alcohol at home. Their clever ploy was to pass them off as decorative items in hopes of deceiving the authorities.

The last two photos showcase the making of makgeolli and soju, respectively. The former refers to the liquid left behind at the pot’s bottom after an enzyme, activated by rice and dissolved in water, triggers a chemical reaction. Then, by subjecting makgeolli to distillation, steam is generated, which later condenses and becomes soju.

Being a big fan of sports, especially ice sports, I couldn’t resist the temptation to check out the local ice rink. This place boasts two separate rinks; one for field hockey and the other for various activities.
Interestingly, this facility is quite a hot spot for international short track and speed skating events. Over the past few years, it has even hosted two Four Continents figure skating events.
When competitions are not taking place, the field hockey rink isn’t open for spectators. However, luck is as usual on my side, as the lady at the entrance kindly allows us access. She seemed impressed that we hadn’t just stumbled upon the center by chance, but had actually planned our visit there.

By the way, I’m eagerly looking forward to visiting South Korea one winter to catch a short track competition in Seoul!

Ice rink in JeonJu

Who knows what future short track champions are training right now?

Since we’ve got some time before we need to head to the bus station, we check out one of the three stadiums designed for soccer and athletics in the city.
The most significant one, of course, is the venue that hosted the 2002 World Cup. This the second largest.
Pretty impressive for a city with just a little over 600,000 residents!

South Korea: End of the trip

And that wraps up my second visit to South Korea, during which I explored more than just Seoul.

In my closing thoughts, I don’t have much to add beyond what I previously shared in my Seoul article. Whether it was good or bad, everything I mentioned earlier still holds true.

If you enjoyed this post or have any other questions you’d like me to answer, please feel free to leave a comment below. Thank you!

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