South Korea: Slow welcome

✍️: Erin πŸ“Έ: Jan & Erin

Gray-blue sea surrounds us now that Japan has faded off the ship’s stern. We’re alone, walking the windy port-side deck while awaiting the first glimpse of South Korea. A uniformed sailor appears in the windowed passageway above us. His stance — legs wide, hands clasped, eyes locked on us through sunglasses — signals we’re a bit too close to the lifeboats.

We’re about to enter a new country from the sea, which I love, because it offers a slow, anticipatory view of the travels ahead. I’m also fresh off what may have been the best nap of my adult life, lulled to sleep by calm seas and lapping waves, while resting on a sunlight-warmed lounging mat.

Once again, Japan doesn’t disappoint the budget traveler.

The not-so-ferry ferry

We’re in economy class on the Camellia Line ferry, which is more of a ship than a ferry. It has at least four decks, a restaurant, sitting rooms, a spiral staircase and — of course — a bathhouse.

The ferry takes passengers across the Sea of Japan — or the East Sea, if you’re coming from the other direction — between Hakata, Japan, and Busan, South Korea. I assumed we’d spend the nearly six-hour journey sitting in hard-backed chairs bolted to the ground or politely jockeying for a stiff couch to fake a nap. ‘Twas not the case.

We’re assigned to a spacious, clean room where two walls are divvied into six cubbies. Each personal cubby has a protected shelf above for luggage and space below for lounging. The unexpectedly plush sleeping mat, pillow and soft coverings are neatly folded underneath.

We’re paired with a friendly couple from Switzerland also traveling for a year, with their three elementary school-aged daughters. The girls are curious, painfully adorable and, apparently, incredibly quiet if an odd American is drooling and possibly snoring nearby. Nary a peep did I hear during my blissful, face-smooshing snooze.

Jan’s been roaming the Camellia Line. So after I wake up, smile, and fall back asleep again, I finally get up and find him reading in a sitting room overlooking the bow (while most everyone around him is sleeping or nodding off). We’re about three and a half hours into the voyage, so we venture outside to await the coastline view.

Slow, anticipatory welcome

First, a sliver of dark gray peeks above the horizon, noticeable only because it’s stagnant against the sun-reflecting waves. The sliver slowly widens and darkens, inching taller. Soon the silhouettes of mountains appear through the fog. The hills deepen, multiplying in shades of gray-green.

Light gray columns appear in the foreground, the narrow blocks sharpening as each catches a different angle of sunlight. The clouds shift, and the blocks slowly focus into skyscrapers bunched together between the forest-covered peaks. A brightening of greens and whites and yellows reveals the hills, buildings and rows of port cranes.

Then a port boat pulls up along side, under the South Korean flag, to guide us into Busan, a city on the southeast coast.

The trip took us the expected time of about five and a half hours from port to port. The ferry also saved us money compared to a one-way flight.

Including taxes (which you’ll pay when you check in … surprise!), one second-class ferry ticket cost 4,500 yen, or about $43 U.S. A second-class ticket is the cheapest available. Before taxes, a ticket costs 2,500 yen — but if you’re not a Japanese or Korean citizen, you’ll have to pay another 2,000 yen in cash when checking in to cover various taxes: 500 yen fuel charge, 1,000 yen “international tourist passenger tax” and another 500 yen port tax. We weren’t aware of these fees — which nearly doubled the cost — until we arrived at the port. Here’s a photo of the sign informing us of those costs:

We purchased our tickets in July 2019. You can check the ferry’s reservation site here for current prices, but note the taxes may not be reflected. Again, we didn’t know about them until we were checking in.

Getting there

The only drawback to taking the ferry is getting to the Japanese port in Hakata. We opted for an overnight bus from Hiroshima because it was less expensive than taking the train. It also saved us a night’s hotel stay.

The trip is only about 177 miles (285 kilometers), so the bus makes a long stop during the night. Still, it wasn’t the most comfortable mode of transport.

The seats are small with little leg room and don’t fully recline. In other words, we’re too big for Japanese buses. Unless you’re the type of person who can fall asleep anywhere, we’d recommend taking the train. Our 14-day Japan Railway passes expired when we arrived in Hiroshima, otherwise we would have used them to take the train to Hakata.

But we got to see the sunrise from the bus and, for the first time, be on a highway in Japan. There was hardly any traffic.

Note: This photo above was taken before the drive started, thus the smiles. At 5’5″, I need to shrink a few inches before taking another overnight bus in Japan.

Pro-tip: While traveling in South Korea, we used a T-Money card (yes, that’s also the name of an American rapper). It’s a rechargeable card you can use on buses and trains, and in some stores. You can reload it at most train stations. We used it without problems in Busan, Geojedo (Geoje Island) and Seoul. There are other cards available, too, including one geared toward tourists. You can find more information about the cards here, on South Korea’s official tourism website.

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