One of the more impressive cities I have seen on this cultural learning trip sits on the southeastern corner of the Korean peninsula. Busan is wedged between the mountains and the sea and is Korea’s most important port. It is the closest part of the country to Japan, giving it the misfortune of being the center of lots of conflicts. Today it is a bustling seaport building with some of the most immense towers I have ever seen, some as high as 100 stories! Given that there is little land that is flat in Korea, most people live in these gigantic buildings that soar up into the clouds. Imagine living on the 99th floor, getting in your car, and remembering you left your cell phone back in the apartment.
In the middle of the city is the largest department store in the world, Shinesgae. It is huge, towering up several stories as well! On the first floor, I was invited into another world, Spa Land. I was hesitant (after all, this is a working trip). But I was persuaded that this was an important part of understanding Korean culture, and I dutifully submitted to my hosts.
All I can say is that I have never seen, experienced anything like this. It is actually called shimspa, “a space in between to let it all go.” And I sort of did. It is the mother of all oases. I don’t know how else to describe it. There are 22 baths, hot and super hot, and cold and really cold, and jets that massage, and body scrubs that get rid of the old skin. And after these, there are 13 distinctively themed “Jjimjilbangs”, steam rooms around various themes-Finnish, Yellow Earth (good for mental stability so I stayed a long time), Roman, Pyramid (where energies are collected), Wave Room, etc. I tried to visit all of these. It took four hours to submit my body to the rigors of Spa Land (truly one of the roughest days of my life). After a major climb up towards Mt Hallasan on JeJu Island the day before, in a constant mist and rain, this was a welcome relief.
Two more things stand out. First, I have been finally converted to Korean food. I take back the insulting language I have used up till now. Something happened around my sixth day. Maybe it was starvation. But now, Bibimbap, Bulgogi, Pork Kimchi, fish heads—bring them on! The lettuce wraps over here put PF Chang’s to shame. I am even thinking that my next car should be silver. Something is happening to me. I walk in small stores and go for the rice drinks. I even walked by a rare Outback Steak Restaurant and sniffed at it.
The other part, and really the best experience in Busan, was sitting down with the director of Far East Broadcasting. He is an amazing visionary, seeking to reach Busan (some 4 million people) with the gospel through radio. About 10% of the population here are believers. Most of the rest are Buddhists or secularists. FEBC is an international Christian radio network that has ten centers in Korea, reaching 3.1 billion listeners (from North Korea to the underground church in China, to Russia, and beyond to nearly every continent). There are some 400,000 believers just in North Korea, many of whom depend upon this ministry. It is the only station that broadcasts 24 hours a day in Korea, so late night taxi drivers, many of whom are Buddhists, call in and give their lives to Christ. One of my great privileges before leaving this city was to be part of an interview on FEBC, and on it I shared the story of our church, Village (I am discovering that multicultural ministry is of great interest over here).
Following Busan, and after a very brief visit at Bulguk-sa (perhaps Korea’s most spectacular Buddhist temple), you can see and feel the spiritual war at work here. Seeing people bowing to Buddha, to a worthless idol, it made me so grateful I serve a living God who hears and sees and knows and loves and forgives me.