This weekend was the Korean holiday of 석가탄신일, commonly called Buddha’s Birthday by Westerners. The Korean name (seokga tansinil) roughly translates to Buddha’s birthday, but the holiday also goes by the name 부처님 오신 날 (bucheonim osin nal), meaning “the day when the Buddha came.” Our schools were closed for three days, and Melanie and I lucked out and were able to buy a reservation for a three-day, three-night stay in Busan, right in the Haeundae-gu district famous for Haeundae Beach (해운대해수욕장). If you haven’t heard of it, look up the name in the Guinness Book of World Records and you’ll find it under the beach with the most umbrellas in the world (covered end to end with 7,937 umbrellas).
We took a late express bus from Gwangju to Busan on Thursday night after school let out. The bus trip is about three and a half hours, with a 15 minute stop along the way for bathroom and food. On any holiday weekend, it’s always a smart idea to buy your tickets ahead of time just to make sure your preferred time isn’t sold out. By nine o’clock that night we had arrived at the Busan Seobu Bus Terminal (부산서부시외버스터미널). Being from North America, I’m still amazed at just how small South Korea is land-wise: a few hours on a bus and you can cross the country from west to east.
Busan is South Korea’s second largest city, so it has a much more elaborate public transit system than Gwangju. Gwangju has a single subway line with runs across the city from west to east. Busan has four subway lines that cover every direction through the city; there are also two intercity bus terminals, the Seobu Bus Terminal and the Dongbu Gyeongnam Bus Terminal. Once we arrived in Seobu, it was a quick walk to the Line #2 subway station, and one transfer onto Line #1 at the Seomyeon Station, and we were at Haeundae Beach about an hour after arriving in Busan (like I said, it’s a big city).
We were booked at the Hello Guesthouse, a short 5-minute walk to Haeundae Beach. The guesthouse is a hostel, catering to foreigners, and the combination of affordable price, ideal location, and friendly staff, make it a good choice for travelers on a budget. We got settled in our room and promptly passed out.
Our first day in Busan dawned bright and sunny. It would be a nice warm day with lots of sun and few clouds. The Guesthouse started serving breakfast at 9am, so Melanie and I headed out to Haeundae Beach early to get our bearings on the area. The beach was relatively empty when we arrived. I was immediately impressed with the high-rise buildings across the landscape. While Gwangju has a population of 1.5 million people, it’s still considered a small city, and growth here is outwards instead of upwards. Other than the apartment complexes, most the high-rise buildings in Gwangju are restricted to the downtown financial districts. But in Busan they seemed to be everywhere.
The beach was beautiful and the weather perfect, so we continued our walk along the beach until we reached Dongbaek Park (동백공원). This small island, now connected to the mainland, is a lovely greenspace named after the dongbaek trees which thrive in the park. There is a system of boardwalks and trails which covers the rocky shore and the hilly interior of the island. For its size, Dongbaek Park is a must-see side-trip to any visit to Busan. If you’re in the Haeundae-gu area, its definitely worth a stop.
We took a short walk along a wooden boardwalk hugging the shore of Dongbaek Park. The cool breeze coming off the ocean, and the plentiful shade provided by the dongbaek trees, made for a peaceful walk as we explored the area. Near one of several observation decks on the boardwalk, a large statue of a mermaid sat vigil over the crashing waves. There was a nearby plaque which relayed the legend of Princess Heo Hwang-ok (허황옥), the first queen of the Geumgwan Gaya (금관가야).
We cut our walk short, deciding the head back to our hostel for breakfast. Along the way back to Haeundae Beach, I did manage to spot a Pacific reef-heron flying past the mermaid statue. The only other birds present were dozens of black-tailed gulls and a few brown-eared bulbuls calling in the forested interior.
After breakfast we got directions to our target destination for the day: the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (해동 용궁사). Unlike most Buddhist temples, Haedong Yonggungsa was built right on the shore, providing breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and the dynamic rocky coast of South Korea. And on account of it being Buddha’s Birthday, the temple was decorated in multi-colored lanterns to celebrate the occasion.
The Temple can be reached by taking the #181 bus to the Yonggungsa Temple stop. Be advised, this is the only bus that makes its way out this far, so it will be crowded during Buddhist celebrations, weekends, etc. It may be worth taking a taxi to the site: you’ll pay more, but it’s better than being crammed into an overcrowded bus or simply being repeatedly passed by several buses that are overloaded with passengers.
There was a long line at the entrance to the Temple, but it moved fairly quickly and there was plenty to see along the way. The walkway leading to the entrance was lined with towering stone statues of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. A large prayer pagoda was near the entrance to the Temple. Beyond there were 108 stairs leading down the rocky coastline to the Temple itself. Along this winding walkway were carved Buddhas overlooking the procession, and everywhere the greenery pushed through. As we waited in line, a heard the comical call of a common cuckoo from somewhere nearby. I say “comical,” because for those who know this call, it sounds exactly like a cuckoo clock chiming the hour. They don’t call them cuckoo clocks for nothing.
The walkway became a stairway, and suddenly the Temple was right before us.
Photos don’t do the Temple justice. Haedong Yonggungsa was built in 1376 by the Buddhist teacher Naong, during the Goryeo Dynasty. It was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and was rebuilt in 1970. Special attention was made to recreate the Temple as close to the original as possible. From what I saw, this attention paid off spectacularly. The whole area gave off a feeling of eternity, as if the Temple had always been here.
After exploring the Temple, we headed off to an open area on the rocky shore, where a large golden Buddha stood watch over the Temple. There were a few vendors selling refreshments, and many Koreans enjoying the scenery and environment, taking advantage of the weather to have a picnic near the Temple. Melanie and I spent some time here, enjoying the view and the calming sound of the waves crashing against the rocks below. Black-tailed gulls were plentiful flying around the Temple grounds, and I happened to notice a little egret flying out over the water, and an eastern spot-billed duck flying over the Temple towards the north. As we were heading back to the entrance, I managed to grab a few photos of a brown-eared bulbul that was trying to grab some leftover crumbs from some nearby picnickers. To date this is one of the best photos I have of this species.
It’s hard to top such a beautiful place, so we didn’t try. It was a long (and frustrating) wait for the bus to take us back to Haeundae Beach, and we eventually broke down and flagged a taxi. Late afternoon traffic proved to get the better of us, and by the time we made it back to the hostel, we decided to call it a day and spent the rest of the evening having dinner and relaxing.
Tomorrow would bring some serious birding.