Text and Photos by Cecille Santillan-Visto

No small thanks to a movie featuring a charismatic actor and a train full of zombies, Busan has caught the interest of tourists the world over.

But this port city at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula is more than just about Gong Yoo (although he has since become its “face”), the Korea Train Express (KTX), and being perceived as the last bastion of hope. Beyond its film depiction, Busan has its own subdued appeal, different from Seoul but equally fascinating.

It was my fifth time in as many years to visit Korea but the first time to take a Busan detour. The timing was perfect as it was celebrating the Busan One Asia Festival (BOF) from Oct. 1 to 23 and I fortunately caught the tail end of the celebration of Korean music and Asian culture. Witnessing the BOF closing ceremonies and catching a glimpse of the fireworks festival by the Gwangalli Beach made up for missing the highly anticipated Busan International Film Festival.

The two-and-half-day trip to Busan was well worth the effort.

From Seoul, we decided to take an overnight bus to Busan and opt to reserve the KTX ride for the return trip. The luxury bus to Busan left from the Express Bus Terminal in Seocho-gu at 1 a.m. and tickets cost 37,600 Korean Won each (around P1,600). The reclining seats were comfortable but curiously, the air conditioning was switched off. While it was around six degrees outside, the lack of air circulation was a bit stifling. As soon as we reached the pit stop midway through the four-hour trip, I inquired from the driver if the aircon will be switched on. The driver replied: “Oppseoyo.” (There is none.)

Other than minor discomfort, the trip to Busan was uneventful. The bus cruised at a constant speed, lulling the riders to, judging by the snoring, deep sleep.

To have a quick look at what Busan had to offer, we took the red line city tour bus that brought visitors to such landmarks as the UN Memorial Cemetery, Busan Museum, the posh Centum City, and the Museum of Art. As a Korean drama aficionado, time was mostly spent at Haeundae Beach, the location of many romantic Korean telenovela.

The water was too cold for dipping but I was happy to bask in the Busan sun and to feed the dozens of pigeons that playfully teased tourists by the beach. An interesting sidelight was that the Superhero Comic Dash was being held at Haeundae that day, with runners wearing their favorite superhero costumers joining the five- and 10-kilometer run. I had the cutest encounter with participants dressed as Bubbles and Blossom of the Powerpuff Girls amidst the throng of Ironman-, Superman- and Wonder Woman-wannabes.

Not to be missed in Busan are the Gamcheon Culture Village, the “Machu Picchu of Busan,” where cotton candy-colored houses are built like a staircase on the foothills of a coastal mountain. While I generally shun malls during trips overseas, a quick visit to Shinsegae Centum City, the world’s largest department store according to the Guinness Book of World Records, was too hard to resist.

Bustling, bewitching Busan
The Busan One Festival stage

But on Oct. 23, all roads led to the Busan Asiad Main Stadium for the BOF’s culminating activity, One Asia Dream Concert, which was the main reason for my Busan visit. The Busan Tourism Organization (BTO) left no stones unturned to prepare for the glitzy gala in the complex that accommodates up to 54,000 spectators.

It was the first time that BTO and Busan Metropolitan City put together a month-long festival that featured not just one but five K-pop concerts, fan meetings, and shows with some of the biggest names in Korean pop music. It was a testament to Hallyu’s potency as a promotion tool. The Korea Tourism Organization’s Manila Office raffled off tickets to Filipino tourists who were in Busan during the closing ceremonies and kindly arranged coverage of the event. With 19 Korean pop groups performing and actors Kim Min Seok of the hit drama Descendants of the Sun, and Gong Seung Yeon hosting, it was a very rare treat even for paying K-pop fans.

Bustling, bewitching Busan
Bangtan Boys, the undisputable crowd drawer

The lineup was mostly comprised of male groups such as Monsta X, KNK, SF9, BTOB, Halo, Big Brain and NC.A but the ladies were ably represented by A Pink, AOA, Mamamoo, Twice, GFriend, Mixx, and Red Velvet. Easily the crowd drawers were GOT7, Bangtan Boys, the three-man sub-unit of phenomenal group, EXO, Infinite, and the curtain closer, SHINee.

Bustling, bewitching Busan
SHINee headline the K-pop festival

Save for the newbies and EXO’s Chen, Baekhyun and Xiumin, who sang the official sound track of the hit drama, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryo, the groups performed two songs each. It was a packed three-hour concert with hit after hit — BTS’s “Blood, Sweat and Tears” and “Fire,” Twice’s “Cheer Up,” AOA’s “Good Luck,” Red Velvet’s “Dumb, Dumb,” and A Pink’s “LUV.”

Bustling, bewitching Busan
The girls of AOA

GOT7, who is expected to soon return to Manila for a series of shows, owned the stage with “Hard Carry” and “Fly” while BTOB thrilled their fans with “It’s Okay.” The classy ladies of Mamamoo were so chic in “New York.”

Bustling, bewitching Busan

Infinite did not disappoint and powerfully dished out “The Eye” and “Bad.” SHINee wrapped up the show with its recently released “1 of 1,” a single with an ’80s vibe, and “Prism.”

The stage was spectacular and the stadium was a sea of various colors, representing the different K-pop performers. The BOF strategy was simple but effective — Entertain foreigners and business and tourism will surely not be far behind. The formula is paying off.

Those not as keen on K-pop surely enjoyed fireworks festival held the previous night. Gwangalli Beach was full to the brim.

Busan may well be Korea’s land of festivals. It has unique celebrations for every season. I look forward to seeing what’s in store during the Haeundae Sand Festival, the Busan International Rock Festival, Polar Bear Swim Festival, Busan Nakdong River Canola Blossoms Festival, and even the Joseon Tongsinsa Korean-Japanese Cultural Exchange Festival.

There is so much more to Busan and a return trip is definitely in order. On the journey back to Seoul, there were only very friendly Busanites, not zombies, who accompanied me on the train.