I must have been a sight for sore eyes.
I was starving. I couldn’t – correction: can’t – read Korean. But that night, my stomach was leading the way.
In Japan, chances are good that not only will there be a menu with pictures, but there will also be a display out in front with plastic replicas of the food to entice passersby…so at worst I figured I could just point and choose. Right?
As I walked through what I assumed was a restaurant filled part of the neighborhood, I passed bars; I passed grocery stores. But if there were restaurants, there were no plastic models attesting to that fact, nor any signs. Even if there had been signs saying, “We have food! Tons of it!” I wouldn’t have known in any case.
After what seemed like an eternity to my complaining stomach, I decided to throw caution to the wind and just step inside the next building which seemed like it might have had food. Even if I was wrong, I would be able to ask for directions…
I stepped through the sliding door into the darkened wooden interior of what appeared to be a restaurant, or at the very least a bar which hopefully served something solid. I was greeted by six or seven surprised faces, by whose expressions I could surmise were shocked to see a shivering foreigner suddenly straddling the entrance.
“Are you looking for something?” finally asked a middle-aged Korean woman who spoke fairly good English.
“Well, we have food here, but its really traditional Korean food…”
You had me at food! I thought.
That evening, I treated myself to an impromptu dinner with some unexpected table companions. At some point, perhaps once the drinks began flowing, the woman offered to show me around the city the next morning. I agreed to meet her by the metro station close to my hostel. We exchanged contact information. Not having any working number in Korea, I gave her the hostel’s contact number.
The next morning I was awoken by the owner of the hostel informing me of a ringing phone.
“I looked up your hotel and I decided to pick you up. I’m waiting outside the gate.”
Well now there’s no escape, I mused as I replaced the phone onto the dock.
True to her word, the woman had parked right outside the gate.
“I have until evening,” she said as I hopped in.
Great, a free tour guide! I thought.
We arrived at our first destination, Jagalchi Fish Market. My guide showed me around the market. We then found a comfortable, cozy restaurant.
“I hope you like fish,” she said while translating the menu for me.
“Love fish!” I declared.
While I’m adventurous with food, I delegated the selection of food to my guide. That turned out to be a good idea; she ordered for us a savory fried filet of fish.
From the kitchen flowed forth numerous ashtray-sized dishes, each filled with spiced, pickled, or otherwise prepared portions of meat, root, or vegetable. As well as a whole fish head! These were arranged in the center of the table. The pièce de résistance was of course the fried fish, served still sizzling in foil on a gas grill.
After lunch, we walked through Gwangbok-dong, a shopping district near Busan Tower. Running down the entirety of the center of the streets, which on both sides housed restaurants and fancy boutiques, were stalls with cheaper fare, including scarves and coffee.
“Watch out for your wallet,” she warned.
We turned down a street which was filled to the brim with students holding “free hugs” signs.
I ran the gauntlet.
Next we decided to ascend the tower, which is located in Yongdusan Park. From the top, it was possible to get an amazing view of the whole city.
Among the beaches, mountains, and bridge-linked islands, one colorful, densely-packed sector of the city caught my eye.
“What’s there?” I asked.
“Taeguk Village, I hadn’t planned to take you there, but if you’re interested we can go.”
“You don’t have anywhere else to be today?” I asked as we drove down towards Taeguk, “It’s Christmas after all, so maybe you have family?”
“Christmas in Korea isn’t for families. It’s a really popular day for couples to go on dates though. Besides,” she continued, “My husband has the kids today.”
The multicolored facades of the countless houses clashed like the squares on a checkerboard.
“This part of the city used to be very poor, but recently the city began fixing it up and it’s gotten very hip.”
True to her word, it was impossible to see anyone other than couples strolling hand-in-hand. Some appeared to have coordinated their outfits. High school and college aged couples in matching shorts and shirts littered the street.
We navigated the winding alleyways, which curved in accordance to the mountainside on which the neighborhood had been constructed.
“We probably wouldn’t have had time to come here if I hadn’t driven you,” my guide informed me.
Indeed, it had been about a ten minute drive from the tower to the lot where we’d parked, just at the edge of the neighborhood.
“By the way, have you had makgeolli?” she asked me.
We set foot in a narrow, unkempt restaurant which seemed like a cross between a convenience store and a greasy fast food joint. We ate tteokbokki, a popular and cheap dish made from soft rice cake, fish cake, and sweet red chili sauce – still my favorite Korean food (and favorite Korean word!) – and ordered two bottles of makgeolli. Half-pint sized plastic bottles filled with milky rice liquid came to our table. I eyed the small flakey mixture and drank. Still my favorite Korean alcohol!
The sun was starting to set. My guide drove us to Taejongdae Park, a lush island with beautiful cliff-side views of the sea. We took a walk around the length of the island, trees on either side. Night fell just as we reached an opening in the trees, overlooking a lighthouse which had just begun its rounds for the night.
I clutched my jacket tightly, regretting that I hadn’t worn a sweater underneath. I was eager to get back for some food.
“Thank you so much for showing me around today,” I thanked the woman.
“Of course, it was my pleasure. Would you like to get something to eat?” she asked.
“I’d love to! But don’t you have to get back to your family?”
“No, it’s okay. I really enjoyed showing you around. Where would you like to go? It’s your choice!”
“In that case, I’d like to get sushi, because I heard that the best sushi in Korea is here in Busan!”
“That’s right, it is!” she boasted.
Our final stop was Gwangalli Beach. We strode along a charmingly illuminated seaside lane.
My guide led us to a multi-story seafood restaurant called Min Rack Hui Town (In Korean: 민락 회 타운).
“This is the best sushi in Busan,” my guide claimed.
We entered the building by the parking lot and took an elevator to the basement.
“Why are we going down?” I asked.
“We have to pick our fish.”
The basement looked like the fish market we had seen that morning. Large water-filled basins hosting fish, shellfish, and impossible to categorize, seemingly-edible sea life. My guide led me to a woman with whom she appeared to be acquainted.
“Now, pick your fish.”
This was probably as close to shooting fish in a barrel as I would ever get. It was harder than the saying goes, mainly because I had no idea what any of the fish were. Finally, I pointed at a large, healthy looking fish with multi-colored scales.
We took the elevator up to the restaurant floor. An ornate table for two in the corner was our dining destination that evening. As with lunch, a large assortment of miscellaneous edibles decorated our table, along with bottles of my beloved makgeolli, and some Korean so-ju.
Minutes later, out of the kitchen came dishes of raw sea life. Our fish followed, a massive plate of sashimi sliced and ready for consumption.
“Do you know how to eat this?” my guide asked, pointing at the still moving octopus tentacles, “Eat it first, then drink it down with alcohol.”
We mixed some so-ju and water into an ice-filled glass and enjoyed. The octopus pinched my tongue and the back of my throat prior to swallowing. The sashimi, well, it was magnificent!
Through the woman’s kindness and companionship, I was able to explore – and eat in – places which I would not otherwise have found. She also presented to me a sliver of her life in South Korea. Without a doubt, it’s thanks to her that I became enamored with Busan: the food, beaches, people, and atmosphere.