Nampo-dong, one of Busan’s alluring attractions, is a massive market area that infuses antiquated shops with modern ones. It is also the host of the Busan International Film Festival (Quinten Tarintino attended last year, I read).
Walking down the streets and tiny alleys teeming with consumers can make you feel claustrophobic, given passersby’s closeness and the amount of brushing against and bumping into you experience. However, overpopulation has made this common in Korea. This is a part of the charm of Nampo-dong and one of its countless fascinations, along with hordes of street merchants selling wildly famous Korean street cuisine, thrift clothing and accessories — most of which are imported.
It is suggested on Visitkorea.or.kr that Nampo-dong’s popularity is owed to the long-standing film festival that has been drawing substantial crowds and businesses to the area for around 15 years. It’s also, presumably, the reason behind the clashing of the old style street market and the sleek, contemporary department stores and designer shops.
In the shadow of the tremendous Lotte sky mall department store — which is complete with fountains used for water shows, a dinosaur-themed park and a petting zoo that has peacocks, pigs, prairie dogs, chipmunks and cocker spaniels — is the traditional, rustic fish market building near.
Walking through the dated, bright blue halls of the fish market are eager customers choosing which live, sea-dwelling creature they’d like cooked up from hundreds of tanks lining the walls. Upstairs is a restaurant and merchants — largely older women who sit with one another telling jokes — throw your seafood (whether it’s lobster, crab, octopus, squid, sea urchin, sea slug, flatfish or eel) into a rickety metal shaft that’s approximately 12 inches by 12 inches and shut the door. The creature is then elevated up to the restaurant, where it is promptly cooked for you to eat.
On the backside of the building, near the darkened sea, is a small strip of old, seemingly abandoned, brightly colored houses line a small mountain. Fishing ships from the 1970s rise and fall in the waves, and sea fowl gather at the edge of the pier, watching for scraps of chum that the elderly women may throw from neon green buckets.
Not too far off, across a few streets, are pretty and primped streets with shops featuring products by Tommy Hilfiger, Doc Marten, Dolce and Gabbana, Chanel, Guess, Gucci and Northface, as well as tons of camera and electronics stores. Young people gather here to show off outfits that are the product of hour-long contemplations to other young people. The area’s unofficial title is Fashion Street, and at night it glows from the bright neon colors and flashing restaurant signs. Young men and women stand on either side of the street waving signs in a fury to advertise skin creams or shoe sales. A little farther and the streets become littered with trash bags, pizza boxes and empty soju bottles, and rich with second hand shops that sell cheap electronics. Golden colored pots and pans line the streets, placed tactically for passing shoppers.
The alleys that make up this area have been unofficially named by foreigners to make them easier to navigate – for example, Clothing Street, Book Alley (multiple book stores line this alley and put many of their products outside on beaten shelves, making for an outmoded atmosphere), Tin Can Alley (a street where unused goods from the American military base were sold), and Knock-Off Steet (where all the nonsense English shirts and defective electronics end up).
Finally, after powering through scores of dated books and records shops and carts and shirts with grammatical errors, visitors can find the impressive food street, which has every Korean street snack concentrated into a quarter mile. Most of the pigeons in Busan are there too, walking the streets with hungry customers or watching jealously from above.
Old women stand behind wheeled carts and sell Egg Toast sandwiches (cabbage, spam, egg and cheese between grilled bread), Tokkebi hotdogs (double battered hotdogs on a stick), Jeon (griddled pancakes with diced vegetables and sauce wrapped around hotdogs), various croquettes (fried hotdog buns stuffed with cabbage, mayonnaise and mustard), the revered Bundaeggi (boiled silkworm larva from Korea’s silver age), tteokbokki (spicy rice and fish cakes), hotteok (corn starch on leavened dough with sugar inside that’s sprinkled with peanuts and sesame seeds), soondae (intestine packed with rice or sweet potato noodles in pig blood), bongeobbang (fish-shaped bread with red bean paste inside), hotba (fried fish paste on a stick with ketchup), odeng (boiled fish cakes on a stick), dried octopus (which is kind of like beef jerky), egg bread (sweet bread with a hardboiled egg somehow baked into the middle), and walnut bread (baked batter in a walnut-shape with red bean paste inside).