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What is it about traveling to Busan in South Korea that encourages a change in perception? At first glance Busan is the less cosmopolitan sister of Seoul—but to think that means you have just missed the best of what Busan has to offer.

Busan basics

Not many people know about Busan, the same way that few people know about Osaka or Kyoto, or about Cebu. Those who do, know it for being the venue of the Busan International Filmfest, which is regarded as the Asian version of the Cannes Filmfest. A cursory Google search reveals that Busan is South Korea’s second biggest city; being next to the sea, it has the biggest port in the country—the fifth largest in Asia.

But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Few other cities in the world can offer you a combination of the cosmopolitan and the bucolic; a glance outside your hotel window will show you the city on the left—almost indistinguishable from Seoul or Tokyo—and the beach on the right. It’s a constant reminder that Busan isn’t the kind of city you can stereotype—not that you’d want to.

Our group’s residence for three days in Busan, the Sea Cloud Hotel, is one of the tallest in the city and is best for getting these dual views; its serviced apartment style will surprise you as, while it is more affordable than the traditional hotel, it boasts of spacious rooms with kitchens. And if you do wish to cook in your room, just rent the utensils you need from the front desk. It’s a subtle reminder that things are going to be interestingly different.

You see many reminders of the different experience the city offers everywhere. It has the same back alleys filled with people and interesting shops as Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

It has the same bustling population as can be found in Kuala Lumpur, Manila or Bangkok. Tourists flock to the Jagalchi Market to experience the thrill of seeing live seafood one moment then seeing it at your table the next. Don’t skip Busan specialties—blowfish soup and sea eels broiled or grilled.

The more observant tourist, though, will notice that something is different—and it is. Start by noticing that from Manila, there’s a direct flight to it via Cebu Pacific four times a week—and this is a carrier known for taking Pinoys to off-the-beaten-path yet nonetheless interesting destinations. Yes, Busan offers the usual touristy experience: market, fresh produce and so on. But you’ll soon notice that you’re slowly yet gently being moved out of your comfort zone, especially if you live in a Westernized country.

Take the food, for example. We’re familiar with shabu-shabu, but made with soup stock—meat, fish, the vegetables we’re used to, with a taste like umami mixed with salt, pepper, ginger, garlic and perhaps even peppers. In Busan, the setup is the same—large pot, boiling water, ingredients piled on a serving dish—but the soup base is made with lemon slices, and the tartness contrasted with the fresh seafood is a taste that has to be experienced for oneself. We Pinoys generally have a salty-sweet palate, and to be given this twist on a familiar dish can be quite the eye-opener.

Neither are we strangers to exotic food, but some may be taken aback when served the Busan specialty of live baby octopus chopped up at your table and served, still squirming. There’s also the odd little creature known as a sea squirt, which resembles a sponge. Once you get over the initial surprise, though, the unique flavors will win you over.

If you’re not adventurous with food, shopping is the usual comfort activity, and Shinsegae Department Store, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest department store in 2009, is as urban an experience as you can get. While it’s got the usual features—clothes, potpourri, electronics and the like—Shinsegae also houses the four-floor Spa Land.

Water, water everywhere

You read that right: four floors. But don’t expect muted music, dim lighting and a hushed ambience as attendants pound, roll and knead your flesh into relaxation because massages and the usual beauty treatments aren’t de rigeur here. The big thing is to sit in sauna rooms and have toxins exit your body through perspiration; massages and beauty treatments are adjuncts to it. You can enjoy both the Korean traditional spa or jimjilbang, and the Japanese-style hot spring or onsen. Spa Land also has 13 distinctly themed hot steam rooms and pools filled with two different kinds of all-natural spring water pumped up from underground: the sodium bicarbonate hot spring and the sodium chloride hot spring.

Perhaps the premium placed on water treatments shouldn’t be a surprise, as water has much to do with Busan; the city literally kisses the sea, and many tourist spots involve water. Take the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, dramatically perched on a cliff beside the sea. Its architecture and the breathtaking views aren’t what you expect to find in a city.

Another top spot, Taejongdae Park, commands magnificent seaviews, perfect for taking unique panoramic shots you can show off on Facebook. Perhaps that’s what attracted King Taejong Muyol of the Shila Dynasty, who was so infatuated with the scenery, he made frequent visits to the area.

If you prefer beaches, try Haeundae Beach—but don’t expect the usual palm trees, tiny crabs, white sand and crystal-blue waters of the tropical beach experience. Busan nudges you when you reach

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