The train to Busan: Don’t miss this cultural gem in Korea full of Instagram-worthy stops

As we continue our series marking the 120th anniversary of Korean immigration to Hawaii, we visit an historic village south of Seoul.
Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 3:54 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 16, 2023 at 5:41 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Most visitors to South Korea see Seoul, but Busan on the southeastern coast has fast become a popular tourist destination.

Busan is a three-hour bullet train ride from the capital city. It’s a comfortable and smooth trip to South Korea’s second largest city, known for its white sand beaches and breathtaking scenery.

Like the ones at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

Thousands of visitors flock to this seaside temple to pay homage to the Sea Goddess Buddha of Mercy and enjoy stunning views of the temple against a cliff and crashing waves.

It’s a serene setting for spiritual renewal.

But it wasn’t always this peaceful.

During the Korean War in the 1950s, when North Korean forces invaded South Korea, an estimated one million refugees from across the peninsula fled south to Busan.

Many set up homes on the mountain, like 81-year-old Moon-saeng Kim who fled North Korea and came to Busan with his three siblings after their parents died.

“I was 8 years old. And on the journey to here half of the session I walk down here sometimes I asked U.S. Army let me ride their trucks,” Kim said, through an interpreter.

“It took almost five years from my hometown to Busan.”

Kim made his way to Gamcheon, where homes were wooden and steel huts nearly stacked on top of each other connected in a maze of narrow alleys, no larger than a room and without running water or toilets. Residents fetched water from a well very day and used community toilets.

After the war, many refugees returned to their hometowns. The village sat empty until a wave of young people arrived in the 1970s to work at the nearby port.

But over the years, their children moved away for school and work, leaving homes empty again.

In 2009, the Korean government launched a public art renovation effort to preserve the village.

Artists painted the buildings bright colors, upgraded infrastructure, set up retail spaces and created art installations — many Instagram-worthy — like scenes from the book “The Little Prince.”

Perhaps the most popular attraction: a mural of Busan-born members from K-pop group BTS.

Among the trendy coffee shops and art galleries, fortune vending machines with paper scrolls that predicted your future.

In 2019, three million people visited Gamcheon Culture Village, bringing in money that helps 6,000 residents — mostly seniors. About half are original residents like Kim, and many not as mobile.

“Korea has been developed so well. So I made quite money and then to change the living condition,” Kim said. “I had to crawl in to the house and crawl out but nowadays I have electricity and then tap water in my house so I feel so happy about that.”

But Kim hopes visitors don’t just buy souvenirs and take pictures, but actually take time to learn about the village’s history and how important Busan was for so many people’s survival.

It was the last South Korean stronghold during the war.

That’s a message echoed in the 2016 Korean zombie apocalypse film “Train to Busan,” which happened to feature the Hawaiian song Aloha Oe.

And it’s not the only Hawaii reference tied to the city.

While walking through Gamcheon Culture Village, we see a chalk board and right in the middle of it are the words “aloha wau ia oe” written among phrases in other languages that translate to “I love you.”

Aloha found in the hills of Busan.

View more episodes of HNN’s special series “Focus on Korea” here.