Street Food in Busan: You are what you eat

Some experiences happen behind the eyes, and a little downwards. I recently had an experience whose astounding visual impact was surpassed by its mouthfeel.

The day we arrived in South Korea, we were very tired. The boat from Japan had traversed a rocky sea, and I had been too frightened to sleep very well. Still, we had only one day in Busan so we decided to plow through the fatigue and hit the streets.

A friend recommended the Jagalchi area for seafood, so we headed there. We emerged from the subway onto a narrow sidewalk, the road illuminated by neon signs. The pedestrian walkway was crammed with foot stalls, each consisting of a stove and a small counter, tented over with clear plastic. We saw customers eating oysters and snails, stir fries with meat and vegetables, and soup. We found a stall that smelled good and sat down, displacing a grumpy woman’s purse.

“Move your purse,” I imagine the stall’s proprietor, a stout woman with smart eyes, said in Korean.

“Ah, but those smelly tourists have plenty of room!” The grumpy woman might have replied. We sat down in the space her purse vacated.

There were empty snail shells and oysters covering the counter. We couldn’t understand the lines and circles of the handwritten menu, so we decided to look around and point at what looked good. Before we could do that, though, the chef held up a plastic bag filled with water. Looking more closely, we could make out a mauve octopus drifting around. It’s head was about the size of my fist, and its muscular arms explored the limits of its transparent cage.

“Ok!” Andres approved. Fresh octopus, pan fried and served up with some chives, maybe. That could be delicious!

The chef put the writhing octopus on her cutting board and with a few swift chops cut it to pieces. She swiped the disassembled mollusk onto a plate, sprinkled it with sesame seeds, and placed the plate in front of us.

Immediately, a tentacle started trying to crawl off of the plate. Others waved around and knotted together. Our meal was shaking hands with itself on the plate in front of us. Maybe it was my fatigue, or the soju we had been sipping, but it seemed at that moment that the only possible plan was to pick up some chopsticks and start eating, before the whole meal escaped.

The tentacle did not want to be eaten and put up a fight. They gripped the plate with their suction cups. It was impossible to pry one off of the plate, instead it had to be slid sideways to the edge. The tentacle squirmed in my chopsticks, and in my mouth. It sucked onto my teeth and onto the inside of my cheeks and the roof of my mouth. I chewed many times to ensure the octopus wouldn’t suck onto my throat and choke me from within. A man across the stall lifted his arm and made his biceps pop. The octopus is strong, and I am strong for eating it.

Eastern Dream: The ferry between Vladivostok and Sakaiminato

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We have arrived in Japan. It is warm and sunny, and the pointy hills have a coppery glow on their green slopes. I feel clean and hopeful and surrounded by artful, whimsical beauty.

But first things first things first: How is it possible that we are in Japan? Weren’t we just lumbering across the flat grassy expanse of Siberia, passing the idle hours wondering how close we were to China’s northern border? Only days ago, weren’t we sitting on the cold metal seats of the Trans-Siberian toilet, hoping for a breath of fresh air at every 20-minute stop and disappointedly searching the smoke filled platform for that elusive wintery breeze? Yes, that was life less than a week ago. But the train arrived at the energetic and hilly city of Vladivostok, our final destination. There, we hopped on a boat, skirted North Korea and paused in South, and hopped off again here, to green hills and warm toilet seats of Japan. I’d like to share a few of the details of how that all transpired.

It all started a year ago, when the idea of taking a boat out of Russia at the end of our Trans-Siberian journey first occurred to us. A little research confirmed that such a boat exists, and is called the Eastern Dream, run by the Korean company DBS. The DBS website is helpful in that it supplied information about the different sleeping arrangements and the ferry’s once-a-week schedule, but it doesn’t have any readily available information in English about making reservations. If you are like me, making plans for such an unprecedented trip so far away from home is a bit stressful, especially when the expiration date of a Russia visa looms. It was easy, though, and definitely worth it. Here is what we did and what I think you can expect if you decide you want to make the Eastern Dream part of your trip.

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Step 1) Research the ferry schedule and the different types of rooms available on the DBS website. In addition to the number of roommates you want, you can choose between bunk beds or the options to sleep on a mat on the ground. We chose the “1st class” (4-berth) room and had a spacious room with 4 mats all to ourselves the first night, and on the second were upgraded to a pretty uncomfortable “Western” bed in the Junior Suite. We heard from other travelers that the humongous economy room of bunks is quite comfortable. The larger rooms with mats seem to be very social, so you if you’re in one of those you might not get to choose when you sleep.

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Step 2) E-mail Olga (dbsferry@dbsferry.com) with the date and sleeping arrangement you want. She will ask for a copy of your passports via email (her email to us said SEND ME COPY OF PASSPORTS and left us a little worried, but it turned out ok). After you’ve sent those she’ll send you your PDF tickets, which prove your spot is reserved. **Check your spam folder, Olga’s emails to us often ended up there.**

Step 3) Make sure you have enough cash rubles to pay for your fare and the exit tax. In Russia, the ATMs often only let you take out 6,000 rubles at a time (less than $100), so if you don’t plan ahead you might have to do multiple ATM visits. Alternately you can ask a bank teller to use your debit card to take out one large amount (we did this successfully at Rosbank). **While you’re banking, plan for how you will buy things on the boat. In Vladivostok we exchanged some rubles for Korean won at банк Приморье (Рrimor’ye Bank) but I think that on the boat they also accept US dollars, and maybe Japanese Yen and even Euros (but not rubles!). You can also charge purchases to your credit card unless you’re really far out to sea.**

4) If you have time the day before your boat leaves, scope out the ferry port, which is by Vadivostok’s train station. If you take a taxi, you’ll arrive at the bottom floor and have to follow signs through a nondescript metal door, up a few flights of stairs, and through a souvenir mall before you find the DBS ticket office.

5) Two hours before the ferry’s departure, go to the ticket office to buy your ticket. This is when you’ll hand over all of your rubles, in exchange for a very long and tearable ticket. Two hours will probably give you a lot of time to kill, because boarding isn’t scheduled until 30-60 minutes before the departure. We didn’t start boarding until 14:00, the departure time, and we rushed to stand in a very annoying line. It might be better to wait until the crowd passes, but definitely buy your ticket earlier because at some point the ticket office closes.

6) The immigration procedure is very annoying and convoluted, but nothing unexpected.

7) Once you’re on the boat, everything is easy. Get out on the deck and enjoy your last look at the golden domes of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the tree covered hills of Vladivostok flanked with fascinating ships. Watch the sun set over what might be North Korea. Make sure to check out the night club for a wild night of dancing. If you are going all the way to Japan, do get off in South Korea for a few hours if there’s time. Donghae is a pretty city.

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8) And stay in Sakaiminato/ Yonago if your trip allows! We stayed at an AirBNB by Kaiser Onsen and enjoyed two peaceful days of soaking in that healing water before heading into the madness of Tokyo.

We’ve now gotten from Bulgaria to Japan without taking a single airplane, and with every shift between time zones and culture, I realize how wonderful this method of travel is (if you’ve got the time). The Eastern Dream is one of the vessels that make such a trip possible, and what’s more, you experience a boat the Russians, South Koreans, and Japanese all use to carry out their lives. It’s a fun mix!

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