I departed Shimonoseki, Japan aboard the Hamayuu, a ship operated by Kampu Ferry. The ‘kan’ in ‘Kampu’ is an alternative name for ‘Shimonoseki’, and ‘pu’ is an abbreviation for ‘Busan’. In some ways, using an international ferry is simpler and more relaxing than boarding an international flight. For example, I had only reserved a spot on the ferry the morning of the date of departure.
Shimonoseki is the port on Honshu (the largest island of Japan) which is closest to South Korea, and Busan likewise is the point on mainland South Korea which is closest to Japan. Much more frequent (and faster) than Kampu ferry are the several ferry services between Busan and Fukuoka, which is in northern Kyushu, and is the largest Japanese city which is not on Honshu. Lots of people in Busan/Fukuoka visit the other city for a weekend, a day trip, or even just a few hours of shopping (apparently, if you can get discounted ferry tickets, it’s something cheaper to cross the Tsushima strait and buy something in other country than to buy it within the country you’re already in). When I told people that I came to South Korea by ferry, most of them assumed I came by Fukuoka, not Shimonoseki.
I spent over an hour on the deck as the ship left Japan, passed through the Kanmon strait, and slowly left the glittery lights of Yamaguchi and Fukuoka Prefectures behind. I had spent nearly three months in Japan.
Most of the passengers on the Hamayuu were Korean tourists returning home, but I ended up in a cabin with middle-aged Japanese women. It was the first (and only) time I’ve bathed in a public bathhouse on a ship. I freaked out a bit when the ship anchored at night by Tsushima island (the Japanese island closest to Korea) and stopped moving for a while. I figure they deliberately spend a few hours anchored at Tsushima to a) allow for delays b) so that the ship does not depart late at night and c) so the ship will not arrive before Busan Port customs and immigration is open.
Watching Busan appear in the distance was also an experience. I had wanted to go to South Korea for years – and it was finally happening! South Korea was literally appearing before my eyes.
Going through immigration and customs at Busan Port was the fastest and easiest time I’ve ever had going through immigration/customs check, and that includes Macau and entering the United States with a US passport.
But then I was in the Busan International Ferry Terminal, and had to figure out what to do.
Naturally, once I got some cash from an ATM, I went to my hostel to check in, and the most logical way to go was by subway. What I did not appreciate is just how big Busan is. Busan was, up to that point, the second largest city by population I had been in that year (Hong Kong was the largest), and Busan is a lot more spread out than Hong Kong’s urban core. That means that going from one part of Busan to another by subway can easily take more than an hour.
Furthermore, almost all of the signs are in hangul (the Korean writing system). There were almost no Chinese characters, and this made me a bit nervous, even though the subway’s audio announcements are made in Korean, English, Mandarin, and Japanese. I had, up to this point, spent over three years exclusively in parts of the world where Chinese characters are all over the place. Even in Japan, where I could only speak a little of the local language, my Chinese reading ability helped me decipher many a sign. But here I was in a place where Chinese characters mostly would *not* guide me, and it was a bit intimidating. It’s interesting I was thinking ‘they don’t use Chinese here!’ rather than ‘they don’t use English here!’
In the afternoon, I went to Igidae park, where most of the photos in this post were taken.
A few days later, I visited the Busan Museum of Modern History (warning: some of this history is disturbing). It’s not a coincidence that one of South Korea’s largest cities and busiest port is so close to Japan. Busan had not be a significant commercial center until Japan started to annex Korea. During the late Joseon era, Japan gained control over a small part of Busan – the part where Busan port is now located – and Japanese merchants established themselves there. When Korea was a colony of Japan, Busan was a highly segregated city – it has lots of modern technology and comfort, but most of it was reserved for Japanese residents, with most of the Koreans living with little material wealth outside of city center.
Most of the commercial activity in Busan during this era was resource extraction – Japan wanted cheap rice and other things which were abundant in Korea, and they were willing to trample over the rights and interests of Koreans to suck it out. One of those resources, especially during World War II, was labor. Many Korean slaves were forced to work in Japan, and many died in slavery, and many who survied had no means of returning home. For many of them, Busan was the last of Korea they ever saw.
The most horrible form was sex slavery, and a disproportionate number of the Korean women the Japanese captured to use as sex slaves came from Busan and Gyeongsangnam (the province around Busan). Today, Busan and Gyeongsangnam Province have more surviving women who had been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese than anywhere else in South Korea.
According to the museum, the opening of the Busan-Shimonoseki ferry route over a hundred years ago was a step towards deepening the abusive economic relationship between Japan and Korea.