As soon as we stepped off the ship in Busan, it felt like we had gotten a shot of adrenaline. We’ve been traveling along the less developed western coast of Japan visiting smaller cities with elbow room between them. Busan is a city of four million wedged up against mountains. The city’s population burgeoned after the Korean War as refugees streamed south. There was nowhere to put them all and people built little shacks with whatever they could find on the hillsides. Today there are no more shacks, but people are living cheek to jowl in high rises. It’s not quite as congested as Hong Kong, but you get the feeling that it could be. There was no space to built a beltway around the city, so the highway was elevated. Our departure from the port was over a bridge so high and winding, my knuckles turned white.
As we drove north to Gyeongju, our guide talked about how Korea has no natural resources except for water and its hard working people. It also does not have enough land to grow the crops needed to feed itself with the exception of rice. Korea is justly proud of the economic success it has achieved, importing raw materials and adding value in some way. We drove through a city of 500,000 that is the company town for Hundai. When the factory closes to retool for a new model year, the whole town empties out. We were docked next to busy shipyards constructing all sorts of new vessels. Containers were stacked everywhere; a forest of unloading cranes above. Our guide said that this was the small container port; a new much bigger one had just opened twenty kilometers away.
Korea has always been in a tricky position, located between the giant China and Japan, which was always looking for more territory. Japan calls the water we have been sailing on the Sea of Japan; China calls it the Sea of China. Korea refers to all the seas around it as the East, West and South Seas. No need to offend anybody.
For about 1,000 years ending in 900AD central Korea was ruled by the Silla clan. As they began their reign they had learned how to make bronze and pottery and by the end, they were making fabulous items out of gold. As they became more sophisticated, they traded with more and more of the world. Some of their wares have been found as far away as northern Europe. When their rulers died, they were buried in huge mounds along with their personal treasure. In the early days, young men and women were killed and buried along with them to serve them in the next life. Eventually, ceramic figures like the terra cotta warriors of China were used instead.
When Japan conquered Korea at the beginning of the 20th century, nearly all of the known items from the Silla empire were taken away and many are still in Japanese museums. But there were so many burial mounds, many remained unemptied. Local folks liked living among the mounds. They knew there was treasure inside, but had no way to get it out. They liked the karma they got from living around all the dead royalty. After World War II the Koreans started over recovering and documenting their patrimony. The burial mound area was turned into a national park and the residents were paid to move away. The Japanese gave back a few things. We visited a wonderful museum with lots of English signs, that displayed some of the items recovered from the mounds since 1945. There was also a special exhibit containing remains from a tomb excavated in 1973. It made us think of the King Tut exhibit.
Our final stop was the Bulguska Buddhist Temple, which was built in the 700’s by King Pobhung, who wanted it to be a quiet spot for his queen to pray for the welfare of the kingdom. This popular spot wasn’t very quiet today as tourists circulated from building to building, but the grounds were huge and temple buildings impressive. I must confess that In enjoy the gaudiness of the Buddhist temples, much more than the somber natural look of the Shinto ones.
After a wonderful buffet lunch which allowed us to sample all sorts of Korean items like the infamous kim chee as well as some food that we really liked, we were entertained by a dance troop. At the port another gathering of entertainers performed similar dances, drum routines and modern music. K pop is a cultural sensation in this part of the world. Because our ship was in a secure area, the locals were not allowed to come inside and wave good by as they have in Japan, but the singers and dancers waved and sang until their voices grew faint as we sailed away. Asians really know how to make us feel welcome.