Field Report: Three Days in Busan, South Korea – Day 3 Part 1 (06 June 2017)

Before I came to Busan, I’d been quietly nursing a preconceived image of this bustling port city: namely, that of a boring industrial area with little to offer in the way of history or culture. On the last day of an incredibly rewarding 3-day visit, a clutch of sightseeing spots north of the city centre completely dissolved the last remnants of that misguided view – and, in the process, firmly cemented Busan’s position amongst the places in Korea I’d like to visit again as soon as possible.

From Busan Station, I rode Line 1 of the city metro up north to Dongnae Station. Note that the “Dongnae Station” I used is the one served by the Busan Metro system (specifically Lines 1 and 4), not the identically-named station on the KORAIL Donghae Line.

There’s a detailed map of the district (as well as a PDF guidebook) available on the Dongnae-gu local government website. The area’s not particularly difficult to navigate, but there’s a fairly dense concentration of streets and buildings out there – laid out, it would seem, in a completely organic and unrestrained fashion (i.e., with absolutely no regard for urban planning logic) – so getting properly orientated could spell the difference between a focused, efficient exploration and hours of aimless wandering.

Not that there’s anything bad about a bit of aimless wandering now and then … but I’ve got a flight to catch and the clock is ticking. So not today. (^_^)

Right, let’s head out.

The area is remarkably rich in historic sites and archaeological treasures, but one thing in particular is responsible for drawing my attention to this corner of Busan. At some point during my travels (can’t remember exactly where or when), I learned of an important discovery that was made in Dongnae: scores of tomb chambers dating from the time when the Gaya Confederacy (1st-6th centuries A.D.) ruled this part of the Korean peninsula. The hilltop burial ground, fenced off and kept safe from being overrun by urban development, is now known as the Bokcheon-dong Gobungun (복천동 고분군).

At first glance, there was little to suggest that this grassy hill at the heart of Dongnae was anything more than a public park.

As I climbed up to the top, I began to notice several low hedges of carefully trimmed shrubbery. Each one marked the outline of an excavated tomb chamber, with further details supplied on black stone markers positioned nearby.

To give visitors a better idea of what the underground chambers once contained, tomb numbers 53 and 54 were preserved as they appeared after excavation – with artefacts in situ – underneath a protective canopy in the middle of the landscaped burial site.

From the top of the hill, I looked north towards my next stop: the Bokcheon Museum (복천박물관, Bokcheon Bagmulgwan). Opened in 1996, the museum houses artefacts excavated from the nearby burial ground, along with a host of related historical exhibits. If you’ve just been to see the tombs, keep walking until you reach the northern end of the burial ground – there’s a pedestrian bridge that leads directly into the museum compound.

In addition to its permanent exhibits, which include detailed descriptions and models of the different types of burial chamber found at the neighbouring Gaya-era cemetery…

…the museum also hosts special temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit, there was a rather splendid display consisting of life-sized replicas of three Goguryeo-era tombs. All of them now lie within North Korean territory, so the exact recreations offered me an excellent opportunity to admire and appreciate – in complete safety – these magnificent examples of Goguryeo funerary art. (And yes, ashamed though I am to admit it, one couldn’t help but do a bit of clandestine Indiana Jones roleplaying whilst walking through the tomb chambers, haha.)

After leaving the museum, I walked down to the street in front and followed it uphill, moving northwest towards one of the gates of Dongnae-eupseong (동래읍성).

Walls and other fortifications are believed to have existed in some form here since the early days of Korean history, but the appearance of the reconstructed stone barrier we see today reflects an 18th-century restoration undertaken by the Joseon government. The fortress – along with so much else in Japanese-dominated Korea – was mostly demolished in the early 20th century, but recent restoration work has brought back the original appearance of a large portion of the circuit wall.

Before approaching the wall itself, I spent some time in the nearby Dongnae-eupseong History Hall, the centrepiece of which is a meticulously crafted model depicting the fortress at the height of its glory.

I returned to the access path and resumed my uphill trek, passing an old monument erected in honour of the official who oversaw the rebuilding of the fortress in 1731.

Further on, I encountered Dongnae-eupseong’s formidable northern gate, Bukmun. Good walkers with plenty of time could follow a long hiking path that runs alongside a long section of the fortress wall – but I was running short of time and had to be contented with darting through the gate, taking a quick look at the wall, then darting straight back in.

I’d love to do a longer walk around the walls someday, but the clock was ticking and my evening flight loomed closer with every passing moment. I descended back into town and slowly began making my way towards Dongnae Station…

…whilst making sure to allow time for just one more stop.

Believed to have been founded (though perhaps at a different location) not long after the Joseon Dynasty came to power in 1392, the Dongnae Hyanggyo (동래향교) was one of many Confucian shrine-schools established at major towns across the kingdom. The compound we see today – mainly the result of an 1813 reconstruction – served as a shrine honouring Confucian luminaries, and at the same time functioned as a school with lecture halls and living quarters for students.

Now that was an absolutely rewarding excursion, one that completely obliterated my obsolete – and, I’m now happy to admit, utterly mistaken – preconception of Busan as a boring, hopelessly industrialised corner of Korea (at least in comparison to Seoul). Indeed, all that I’d seen so far on this day, and on this 3-day excursion as a whole, only served to whet my appetite for a future return to this incredibly historic and culturally well-endowed city.

Ah, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the day is done! I was due to fly home that very evening, but there was just about enough time to see one last attraction in the heart of the city…

…and we’ll have more to say about that in my next post.

Till then, cheerio.

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