BY MICHAEL FRAIMAN
Seomyeon is the new Nampo, Kyungsung is the new PNU, Haeundae is where white people live, yadda yadda. If Busan is starting to feel a bit stale (i.e., you’re sick of hearing “Want to go to Seomyeon?” / “Sure, meet at The Spot?” or “Fuck it, let’s just go to Thursday Party”), you should know that there is, in fact, a world beyond Blue Monkey and the Wolfhound. It is with this in mind that I have scoured the city, literally walking from Seomyeon to Sasang (it took two and a half hours, but—but—journalism!), riding across the “Who Actually Uses This Thing?” Blue Line to deliver what I consider, in no meaningful order, the five most underrated districts in Busan.
(Point of clarification: districts automatically eliminated due to popularity among Westerners include Seomyeon, Nampo-dong, Jagalchi Station, Kyungsung University campus, Haeundae-gu, Geumjong-gu [Beomeosa, PNU, etc.] and anything touching Gwangali Beach, because I bet you ten bucks you’ve been drunk in all of them already.)
1. BEOMIL-DONG (@ BEOMIL STATION)
Expats may recognize Beomil Station most from its infamous Dragon Dream bar (a.k.a. “The Cave Bar”), a tiny literal hole in a wall that serves excellent rice wine and scallion pancakes under a roof of dripping rocks. It’s a terrifically cozy spot, especially unique across Korea, but to leave Beomil-dong after having just a few bronze bowls of the ol’ milky white would be a mistake: benchmarked by the towering Hyundai Department Store, Beomil-dong’s massive network of street markets sprawls out from its vastly open central intersection, laced with vendors selling cheap food and socks. The market maze is divided into specific retail areas: the Jewelry Wholesale Market, for example, or the Beomil Tool Market, which is really just three blocks of men hoarding mountains of seemingly obsolete power tools who will furiously overcharge you for a screwdriver if presented with the opportunity. It’s kind of fun in a touristy sort of way. Past that, Beomil’s charismatic side streets offer a huge array of seafood and barbecue restaurants; and if you’re inescapably craving a heavier night out, you can always take the pleasant 20-minute walk along the eastern-border river that leads right into Seomyeon.
2. DONGNAE-GU (@DONGNAE & MYEONGYUN STATIONS)
Frantic, high-towered and full of life, the middle of Dongnae feels like the middle of a city—in large part because it was once, when it was the bustling centre of Dongnae City, before being absorbed into the industrial port-based Busan during Japanese occupation. Stepping out of the cartoonishly-yellow Dongnae Station today, one finds an understated uptown neighbourhood with city architecture that is a uniquely successfully combination of “developed” and “charming”, with waves of railing-clad walking paths weaving over and under traffic. The excellent use of space is exemplified by its main attraction, a pedestrian path that runs along the Oncheonjang River, lying sunken roughly 20 feet below street level. Though the water is brown and shallow, it is nevertheless a relief just to see a natural respite inside the city, rather than on a mountain two hours away, and is one of the only in-city areas where joggers and cyclists roam free. Tall yellow reeds shoot up against badminton and basketball courts on the sides, where Korean boys in their teens and 20s try carefully not to throw the ball over the merely-seven-foot-tall neon green fence and into the pukey-coloured river. For an added bonus, follow the path north until Oncheonjang Station to find the massive Geumgang Park to the west, near the famously luxurious Oncheonjang Hot Springs at Onjeong-ri.
3. DEOKCHEON-DONG (@ DEOCKCHEON STATION)
The first thing you might see when you walk out of Deokcheon Station is the inexplicable alien spacecraft-looking thing that marks the entrance to the Gupo Market, one of the cleanest, richest street markets in Busan. Wander down its narrow corridors and you’ll find usual market fare: pickled this, dried that, something that maybe once lived in the sea. But in addition to being one of Busan’s busiest food markets, it offers within it a stretch of restaurants that serve up arguably the city’s best signature pork soup, dwae-ji-guk-bap (the secret: a teaspoon of ground black pepper, kimchied lettuce and a tablespoon of gochujang sauce which, when mixed in, colours the broth a uniquely rusty orange). Leaving the market, Deokcheon looks like any other centralized neighbourhood—a 24-hour Lotteria across the street from a McDonald’s below a noraebang, itself below a pool hall—but beneath all that lies Deokcheon’s supporting star, the Deokcheon Fashion Street. You must first walk down a set of stairs that seem just a little too steep and narrow (walking down them gave me the feeling of that old psychological prank where my desk chair’s legs were being shaved by a half-centimetre every day), but once downstairs, you’ll find wide square tiles of red, green, yellow and blue, brightly lit in a floor waxed often to reflect the wealth of yellow pot lights above. The walls are lined with clothing shops that actually allow you to walk inside and breathe, a welcome distinction from Seomyeon’s Daehyun Primall, which is sized more for rodents than humans. Cheerfully coloured coffee shops and fortunetellers’ tents pepper the hallway every fifty metres or so, and between the widescreen TVs that hang from the ceiling and the wayfinding poles that indicate where bathrooms are in the manner of a street sign, one can’t help but wonder how much this underground mall cost, which I suspect is what the architects wanted. (Lastly, as a sort of begrudging but valid postscript, this emphatically male reporter will add that Deokcheon’s Fashion Street is notably uninspired when it comes to menswear, with exception granted to “At Home” and “The Leader”, which are at best really sophisticated and at worst awfully expensive.)
4. NAM-GU (@DAYEON STATION & YONGHO-DONG)
It is perhaps unfair to place Nam-gu on this list, because Dayeon-dong is not really underrated at all; it is in fact one of Busan’s top tourist destinations, featuring a cluster of grandly designed buildings and parks which expats may recognize from a visit to the solemnly well-groomed UN Cemetary, or a performance by Busan’s Philharmonic Orchestra at the Cultural Center. But southern Nam-gu is what we’re looking at here, the mini-peninsula, which offers much more: the road to Dayeon-dong’s main intersection is paved with chicken restaurants and upscale cafés, and if nature’s your game, you can follow it to the impressively large Peace Park, or else head further east through Yongho-dong to find the inconspicuous Igidae, one of Busan’s greenest getaways. And odds are you’ve overlooked the largely overlookable Busan Museum, which—aside from looking like a high school built in the 1980s due to its dirt-grey carpet tiles and dimly-lit cement walls—traces Busan’s history in exhausting detail, from 5th-century B.C. “Hammer Stones” (read: very old pebbles) to the number of households in Dongnae near the end of the Joseon Dynasty (answer: 5641) to extensive, begrudging details of Japanese colonization. (Another postscript: It’s worth noting the obvious here, that the Japanese are unilaterally portrayed as racist sex-hungry bullies in said museum. This is most prominently featured in the “Education of Japanese Colonial Rule” exhibit, which is a fundamentally creepy and dark space large enough to fit maybe eight people who can peer through the glass and into a dollhouse model of a Korean classroom, whereupon a projection of real-life actors, one inch tall, reenact the scene of an angry teacher screaming at his students and beating them with a stick. I’m still not sure what to make of it.)
5. DONG-GU (@ BUSANJIN & JWACHEON STATIONS)
The autumn sun was just beginning to set when I saw the deer on the mountain. It was a mid-sized buck (or stag? Whatever), and as if I were a truck on a highway, it gawked at me, wide-eyed and bemused, for a full three minutes before I took a step forward, causing it to turn and disappear into the bushes. I remember this moment distinctly because I was astonished it occurred on Sujeong Mountain, an at-most 200-metre-high walk (hardly even a “trek” by mountain standards), tucked away near central Busan in an area called Dong-gu. The mountain height pales in comparison to Busan’s flashier mountains, and bleeds into the mightier Eomgwangsan and Gubongsan ranges to the southwest, making it largely overlooked by native Busanites and expats alike. This is for the best, I think. Sujeong Mountain is no great beauty, and overlooks some of Busan’s slummier southern neighbourhoods, but it’s an easy, peaceful nature walk that is one of the few paths virtually undisturbed by other people. Head down one of the mountain’s more popular central paths near Busanjin-dong to find Dong-gu’s “downtown core”, a surprisingly busy swath of restaurants, noraebangs, bars and a street market modest in both size and pricing, which, like the Sujeong Mountain and pretty much everything else about Dong-gu, is charming in its smallness.