Since arriving in Korea five months ago, Alex and I have been trying to do things the Korean way. We’ve sacrificed burgers and fries for live octopus and samgyeopsal. We’ve foregone shopping malls for immense, age-old markets. We’ve ignored Gap in lieu of streetside clothes hawkers (um, mostly).
So when it was time to plan our first New Year’s in Korea, we wanted to do it old-school. That means a pilgrimage to Pohang, where a gigantic statue of a hand emerges from the East Sea to cradle the first sunrise of the New Year. Stay up all night, take in a few traditional dance and musical performances, eat rice cakes and shiver on Homi Cape while the symbolic first sun of 2011 comes up. Unfortunately, foot-and-mouth disease had another plan.
So, instead we headed to Korea’s coastal party capital, Busan. Here are a few of the highlights — the must-sees, the can-dos, the be-prepared-fors.
Tip #1: Arrive early. We hopped the 5:50 KTX train from Daegu, and by the time we arrived at 7 p.m., downtown was already in full swing with musical offerings, contests, street food vendors, swarms of people, and, of course, lights, lights, lights.
Tip #2: Stay warm. As a Florida native, I’m new to this concept of cold, so I might be overstating the case when I say that I was freezing my buns off for 14 hours straight. I think the temps were hovering somewhere in the 20s, but try wandering the city and beach for the better part of a windy evening, and you’ll understand why I recommend thermal underwear. Of course, if you do bundle up, you’ll be the only one (especially us ladies). Apparently impervious to little things like below-freezing temps, Korean gals will all be wearing miniskirts, tights and sky-high heels, topped off with a puffy, fur-trimmed jacket. Damn your cuteness, Korean girls. Making me look bad.
Tip #3: Go to Yongdusan Park. Starting around 11 p.m., seemingly half the city congregates in “Dragon’s Head Mountain Park,” just a few steep flights of stairs away from famed PIFF Square and Jagalchi Fish Market. Volunteers hand out free coffee and balloons to be released at midnight. There’s music and merrymaking, and you can rub elbows with Busan’s mayor, who rings the giant Korean Watch-Night bell at midnight. Then there’s the obligatory fireworks show and everyone heads to …
Tip #4: Hit up Haeundae. If you’re willing to drop a few ten thousand won notes on cover, we hear there are some fantabulous parties to ring in the New Year inside the numerous clubs on the strip. From techno to hip-hop (and, honestly, not much in between), if you’re looking to dance, Haeundae is where the party people are at. Being the cheap-os that we are, we took refuge in a warm bar with cheap(ish) beer called 88 in Miami. That way, when we were finally kicked out at 5:30 a.m., we were close enough to…
Tip #5: Watch the first sunrise of the New Year at Haeundae Beach. It’s cold. We’ve have at least five or six cups of coffee apiece. We’ve spent the last few hours prying our eyes open at our last source of refuge, a nearby noraebang.
But it’s finally here. It’s 7 a.m. and everyone in Busan who hasn’t fallen into slumber’s sweet, sweet embrace has trudged their way to Haeundae Beach to watch the indescribably beautiful seaside sunrise. Camera crews, monks tapping out a steady tune asking for alms, bleary-eyed foreigners, kids in pajamas and ajumma in track suits, and the ever-present mascots — they’re all here to start the Year of the Rabbit together. Depending on your frame of mind, it’s an awe-inspiring sight or something straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.
It’s a rough road — we lost a lot of people along the way to the siren song of sleep — but it was worth it. Especially when I passed out in a nearby McDonald’s a few minutes later. (Hey, I deserved hash browns after all that.)
A few quick hits: Eat hodduk in PIFF Square, where the street stand rumored to have originated this salivatingly sweet stuffed pancake fries up hundreds of the tasty treats every night. Play sa-gu in any one of the hundreds of billiard bars (a misleading name, as they often don’t serve alcohol). And eat the tiny, meat-filled, mandu-like packets of noodle goodness at No. 18 Wandang, where you can get a front row seat to watch the artisans rolling and stuffing the noodles for their famous traditional soups.