After spending a few days wandering around Busan, I’ve begun to view Korea as a nice cultural average taken between Japan and China. Japan is a spotless country whose citizens are obsessed with manners and etiquette, where everything is clean and efficient, and where everything is impossibly expensive. China on the other hand is covered in garbage, people don’t seem to place much emphasis on manners, and everything is so inexpensive that even your average Joe from the United States can live like a king.
To me, Korea seems to be right in the middle: reasonable prices, friendly people, and a pleasant (i.e. not filthy, but not sparkling) look. It without a doubt has that “Dense Asian City” feel, but somehow isn’t quite as overwhelming as many of the other spots I’ve been to.
Of course, this could just be because I’ve already gotten used to living in Asia.
Still, Chie and her brother expressed their disappointment with the state of the country that I was witnessing. As I arrived on the Korean New Year, the streets were much more littered than usual and most of the interesting shops and restaurants that they wanted to show me were closed. Plus the sky was completely overcast, which is of course nothing that anyone can control but somehow leaves less of a “wow, this place is so beautiful!” impression.
I assured them that they needn’t worry though, and that I was finding every little street vendor and supermarket endlessly interesting. I think it was interesting for them too, to see their home through the eyes of a total stranger. Every little thing that they would never take notice of was picture-worthy to me. A stranger in a strange land. That’s me.
Our exploration of the city began with an area called Nanpodong, an extremely lively place full of street vendors, video arcades, restaurants, bright lights etc. It had exactly the energy and feel that I love, and I couldn’t stop expressing how awesome I thought it was that they live right in the middle of it all. The action began quite literally five steps from their front door.
Once it got dark we continued to a Venice-like beach boardwalk called Gwanganri where we launched some fireworks out over the ocean, witnessed a famous/huge/illuminated bridge, enjoyed some cotton candy, and watched some children playing a traditional Korean “carnival game.” With the bright lights on one side, the sound of the waves on the other, and the smell of cotton candy filling the air I was very impressed with this environment as well.
After a few minutes of walking on the sand, Chie’s brother pointed out something interesting. Neither her or I noticed it, but apparently almost everyone who passed by gave good, long stare at our odd group before proceeding. I guess the sight of a white guy speaking Japanese to a girl who would in turn speak Korean to a Korean guy is not the most common of sights in Busan.
Speaking of Japanese, it’s been interesting using no English at all over the past four days. Because I still interact with foreigners on a regular basis in Kyoto I still use English at least as often as Japanese there, but since coming to Korea I don’t think I’ve said so much as ten English words. I didn’t quite realize how much Japanese I was using until one of Chie’s relatives asked how to say something in English, and I realized that it felt strange to be using anything other than my Japanese pronounciation.
Anyways, from the beach we headed off our final destination of the evening: my very first Chimjilbang (aka Korean Bathhouse).
When I first entered the male-only section with Chie’s brother, I thought it was no different than any of the other Japanese Onsen I’ve been to. You shower, soak in some hot communal mineral baths, shower again, and sit back and enjoy the rejuvenating effects.
But as it turned out the real interesting part doesn’t come until after leaving the bathing area completely. The males and females rejoin in a huge room containing a number of igloo-shaped saunas with all different temperatures and themes – one with salty air, one with soft floors that you can sleep on, one where the walls are decorated with crystals of all different colors, even an “ice room” for if you get too hot in any of the other igloos.
And in the main room, people recline on little mats all over the headed floor. Everywhere you look someone is listening to music, watching TV, sipping drinks, sleeping, reading comic books, etc…all on the floor. It somehow reminded me of the Eloi in the 1960 movie The Time Machine, where everyone just bathes in the sun and relaxes all day without a care in the world.
This is where I spent my first night in Korea: sleeping on the floor of a Chimjilbang. To be honest, the overly heated room combined with a rock hard surface made it a bit difficult to sleep, but it was still a really interesting and unique experience.
We woke up the next morning to the view of an empty beach lit by a morning sun, had breakfast inside the Chimjilbang, took one more mineral bath, and headed off to our next destination.**