Seoul to Busan by Bicycle! Mostly…

The infrastructure on the 600+ km Cross Country Trail is frequently jaw dropping

South Korea’s rapid industrialization in the past 40 years has been astounding. It’s an economic success story and now the 15th largest economy in the World. In addition to technology and manufactured goods, it now exports its pop culture, with K-pop and K-culture huge global influencers, especially in other Asian countries. Taiwan was visibly crazy for all things Korean when we visited in January.

Getting ready to tour at the Sunbee Hotel in Insadong, Seoul
Ready to go. We picked up rental panniers the day prior so we could pre pack and then drop our excess baggage at the shop to be forwarded to Busan. Very convenient.
A quiet Saturday morning subway ride to the bike shop

We are really enjoying Korea, but for different reasons than Japan. There is an somewhat frenetic energy here combined with a refreshing lassiez faire attitude towards many aspects of life. And again I’ve been awestruck by the differences in cultures just a few hundred miles across the Sea of Japan. Completely distinct cultures. Queues and formalities matter a bit less. And we’ve enjoyed exploring a vast array of Korean foods that we’ve never encountered in our limited Korean food dining in the U.S. There is so much more than Bibimbap and BBQ.

Rental bikes ready outside BikeNara. Now how do we get to the river?
On the North Side of the Han River Path. Now this is nice!

We haven’t found as much of the coziness and singular intensity of Japan here yet. It’s certainly here, but not as prevalent. And the young folks seem to have a very different outlook than their parents, and they are visibly two worlds away from the Korea their grandparents grew up in.

We’re bike touring again, yea!
The amazing infrastructure begins as we cross to the path on the South Side of the Han. Complete bike and ped paths run on both sides of the river through Seoul for over 20 miles!

They’ve also built some amazing infrastructure, including a massive national flood control program to tame the four largest rivers and make life in their paths more predictable. Part of this dam and flood control program included building long distance bike routes. The complete Cross Country Route is the most famous and runs about 650km from Incheon to Busan. We’ve wanted to check it out for a long time and luckily, there is a bike shop in Seoul that rents touring bikes and panniers, which was perfect as our beloved touring bicycles are half a world away now in France.

Pop up convenience stores and cafes along the busy stretches of the paths in Seoul. Very cool.
And benches to take a break to watch the kitted out roadies of Seoul on a Saturday
Convenience store Kimchi Gimbap rolls (pork
or tofu) became a staple for me along the route…a little less for Cheryl.
But add a crunchy Bugle-like corn snack to the top of the Gimbap and you’ve got a winner.

The challenge for us was the fact that, short of about four days on bike shares in Japan and one speed clunker rentals in Sri Lanka, we’ve been off the bikes for 4 months, and 7 months since last touring! So, after a few days exploring a bit of Seoul, we set out by subway to the bike shop, and traded one consolidated piece of luggage for bikes and panniers. We had the bikes for 8 days, but well over 600km to cycle. Yikes.

Still smiling despite a pretty fierce headwind on Day 1.
A big Sushi dinner after a shortish first day due to wind, a stop at Decathlon, and lack of identifiable lodging for another 50km.
Ready to start Day 2 after our first night in a love hotel in Hanam City, still in the massive Seoul metro area.
Sneaking out the discreet parking access of another love motel.

We had both brought along one pair of good fitting Lycra bike shorts from SF, as well as a long sleeved Jersey that served Cheryl hiking, and outer shorts that have served me for workouts and hiking in our travels. But that’s it for touring gear, as we didn’t want to lug a bunch off extra items for 4 months, just for a week of touring. So we bought gloves (can always use another pair) a few water bottles, and I picked up a new touring jersey with back pockets (a must touring IMO).

A bit of construction along the way, but always accommodated.
Although this was worrying.
But Day 2 amazed us through the most spectacular infrastructure stages of the route.

So fitness was one challenge, lack of kit another, and third, and most importantly, the fit of the bikes. My Giant aluminum bike fit me ok as the XL frame generally worked for reach and height, but Cheryl’s bike had too long a reach and low handlebars. Of course, both bike seats were new to our rear ends, which can always have unpredictable results…

Covered cabanas with river views.
So many bike bridges.
And 10 tunnels restored from the old rail line.
With artful lighting inside.

But the bikes were otherwise decent, with good disc breaks, tires, a decent gear range, and a rear rack. We missed our Ortlieb front handle bar bag and fenders, but bought a some cheap top bar bags at a Decathlon.

Multi-modal corridors along a lot of the River basins
The official signs helped navigate the Four Rivers Path (aka Cross Country Trail).

The cycling was about 75% on separated pathway and the route was beautiful and varied. Bridges, tunnels, dams, viaducts, and boardwalks were everywhere, making the route really fun to ride. It’s an impressive network and we felt like we saw so much of the untouristed interior that most people miss, especially once beyond massive Seoul.

Just when I need a sign.
Convenience Stores are everywhere in Korea.
The spring beauty continues along the Namhangang River. The flowers are lovely too.
Lunch stop…yup, Gimbap again!

It was mostly pleasant, but a few stretches were very industrial, including many of the larger cities with lodging along the way. You really get a taste for the vast mountains of Korea, and the vast industrialization that has powered their unprecedented rise to the first world.

Airplane or flood control…the taming of the four rivers takes a lot.
This engineer is impressed.

There were also some surprising challenges with finding lodging, as we were booking on the fly to allow for weather and other variations on daily mileage in an unknown world. But without a Korean Credit Card, only Agoda worked for booking. Other sites exist but have few listings. And we could do a whole post on Korean Love Motels (often called Hotels) but let’s just say they are a staple of lodging outside the biggest cities and vary from unsurprisingly cheesy to a more streamlined business feel. If you cycle tour, you will likely stay at one (or three as we did). They are generally clean and safe, and many rooms resemble super hi-tech man caves more than a honeymoon suite in the Poconos. One of our rooms was pretty nice, including amazing 65” UHD smart TV!

And the day ends with a rewarding dinner in the SunValley Hotel in Yeoju, not a Love Hotel and bike friendly!
Day 3 right onto the path outside the hotel

But we soon got into the groove and really enjoyed 5 days of challenging riding. On Day 6 though, we decided to look at bus options to get us closer to Busan as we were both a bit tired and didn’t want to risk longer long term effects of tendinitis in my knees or Cheryl’s wrist (our weak points). We had figured out that we wouldn’t make it comfortably to Busan in time to return our bikes, and wanted to avoid the last day of heavy rain predicted. So we rode to the main bus depot in Gumi and caught a bus to the outskirts of Busan, saving us 150-200km of the trail.

Wow, more flood control awesomeness
The trail profile is deceiving as many places have small ups and downs that add up, a few stretches that require dismounting.
Slight Detour to our favorite convenience store chain in a farm town.

A great thing about cycling in Korea is that almost all long distance buses take bikes without charge or hassle. You just throw your bikes in the luggage compartments underneath. You’re usually no more than 20 or 30k from a bus depot, although they can be off the trail a few km or 30 depending on the segment. There is lots of info online about buses and routes, and I found KoreabyBike.com useful for an overview and general info related to the long distance trails.

Signage was sometimes tricky.
We ride on, a little flatter but still some headwind…but we could use a boost…
Like a surprise dumpling cafe on the trail!
And then met some friendly Australians (living in New Zealand) to chat away the clicks!
Kate and Pete were great fun and energetic, and had a friendly Korean film crew following them for days in a tourism plug. We’ll see if we made the cut and hope to meet them again.

Another great thing is that water, bathrooms, and convenience stores are frequent. The surfaces are generally smooth and road grit and glass was not a big issue (No flats or mechanicals for us -:). This all makes it less stressful, and makes up for the challenges of language barriers, quirky lodging, and unfamiliar food in small cities and towns.

Awesome bathrooms Korea.
The glamorous start of Day 4 from another love hotel parking lot in Chungju.
Day 4 brought rain, cold, and two mountain passes…plastic bag travel hack being installed in a great bus shelter (with sliding doors!).
Up the big climb of Ihwa Mountain pass in a welcome lull of the rain. There was so little weekday traffic that we could easily ride in the smooth road instead of the patched bike lane.
And up.
Plastic bag booties on our feet and under our bike shorts helped a bit on the 43/6c decent in the rain…but it was cold.
The days profile…Ihwa mountain pass is sort of the N-S continental divide of South Korea; separating the Han and Nakdong drainages.
A chance to warm up climbing to one of the many cultural points of interest along the way, such as these ancient Buddha cave carvings.

But we are so glad we did the ride and are happy that we were able to get back a bit into our favorite touring groove. Nothing beats rolling down a winding path through unfamiliar terrain, never knowing who or what is around the bend.

A surprise public hot spring foot bath saves us for the home stretch of Day 4. We took about 20 minutes to thaw our feet and hands.
More rain but always surprises to keep you going.
And some pork and tripe stew to warm us back up that night.

By the way, navigating in Korea is not always easy as Google Maps does not really work due to strict server data hosting laws. Google maps won’t give you cycling or walking navigation. And the two most popular Korean Apps, Naver and Kakao, only take a bit of English, so you need to try to constantly cross reference names and Hangul script. Or, pick something near where you want to go on the Korean apps that is identifiable. And note we found the cycling routes suggested by Komoot in the cities to be better than Kakao, as Kakao often routes bikes on arterial sidewalks.

Day 5 into Gumi includes a kilometer of river viaduct and finally a strong tail wind!

To be honest, at first brush, Korea felt a little harsh to us after Japan and Sri Lanka. We also have been disappointed to see Korea’s embrace of long distance paths, but not urban and everyday cycling as a culture or significant solution to transport in cities, even small ones.

Bus tickets to Busan
And no zombies on the bus.

It was often a bit hairy off the paths, especially in Busan, as there is very little accommodation for cyclists in most places. And consequently very few urban or suburban cyclists riding for transport. This a huge difference from Japan, where cycling in small cities was a staple, albeit on somewhat substandard shared sidewalk paths. They have some shared sidewalk paths in Korea, but most are too narrow and too pedestrianized to be practical.

The paths and countryside are so nice, but haven’t extended to city infrastructure
The main bus station was 18km north of our hotel in Busan, so we were glad to be able to ride some of the Oncheoncheon corridor
It reminded us of the amazing Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, but you can cycle the Oncheon. Both were restored in the 2000s
Off the trails, there was little space for bikes
Day 7 smiles as we rode another 18km to the bike shop…Busan is huge.
Backstreets are your best bet in Busan
Easy return at the partner bike shop.
Bikes and panniers gone, now back to the subway.

But the country and its people have really grown on us. Cheryl will share more about our other experiences, including our 10 days in Seoul, a city that has way more to offer than it first presents. We are also pleased to see that President Yoon and his wife visited the Bidens recently in Washington DC and that the two countries have strengthened a strategic partnership and resolve to protect democracy.

The Busan Chicken was everywhere, plugging for Busan’s bid for the 2030 World Expo
Enjoying the buzzy Busan nightlife in Seomyeon.

South Korea is a great friend to keep close, and not just because they are so much fun to hang out with.

Happy travels and happy pedaling!

The blessings of volcanic activity: hot springs and public footbaths.

One of the longest public foot baths in Japan, the Sakurajima Volcanic Shore Park and Footbath, with Sakurajima, an active volcano and the source of the hot water, steaming away in the background. Kagoshima Prefecture.

There are things you know about a country before you arrive and are looking forward to – food, specific sights, cultural norms that are different from your own and therefore fascinating – but the things that catch you by surprise are the gifts of travel.

Shimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture, is known as the city where Koi swim in the canals, full of plentiful spring water.

Plentiful water. Still a mind bending notion to someone raised in Southern California. The city of Shimabara has a castle, a lovely neighborhood of samurai houses, and so much free flowing water. Water under tea houses where koi appear to float in midair, a visual trick of the crystal clear water. Water running between houses in fern lined canals. Water fountains with ladles handy so you know the water is drinkable. So much water. And yes, some of it hot thanks to Mount Unzen, an active volcano which rises and steams and bubbles a short bus ride away.

The sight and sound of running water is calming. No koi in this canal, they are only in specific controlled areas.
Just a street. With a canal. Folks walk by. Locals garden. The postal workers do their jobs. Me: OMG! Water! So much water!
A tea house with floating koi.
How much water is there in town? So much that even your lunch spot will have a tiny stream running through the restaurant.

After admiring the water in one neighborhood, we had lunch, a lovely set menu which is a wonderfully easy thing to order. Then we headed to a spot on the map marked as public foot bath. So far all the water had been cold and clear. Foot bath? That sounds interesting.

Yutorogi Foot Bath. This water is hot. Maybe 36c/99 f. It comes out of this stone trough.
The hot water fills the basin.
The people sit and soak their barking dogs
Aaahhh. It’s not a fancy place. Just a nice spot next to a parking lot where anyone can sit, relax, and put your feet in water warmed by a volcano.
Right next to the foot bath is this public fountain. The sign tells you the mineral content and that it’s safe to drink.
So I did. It’s hot, look at how pink my hand is. You can see the mineral deposits here and in the foot bath.

Feet refreshed and ready for more walking we headed off to see the neighborhood of samurai homes. The canal which runs through the neighborhood was a perk for these high ranking, hereditary, military nobility.

But first, we must drink from every fountain we pass. No ladle, some were removed during Covid.
Ladle! Drink on.
Replace ladle when quenched.
And walk on to the samurai street. Note the walls of volcanic stones.
The houses are occupied, but several have opened the front historical parts to curious visitors.

We headed back to our hotel, craving a proper onsen soak, but first we had to pass another fountain, and stop for another drink. How could we pass up this lovely landscaped fountain, which seemed to be part of the neighboring house’s garden.

Ladle and sign- all good. Drink!
How can we drink so much water, you ask? Plenty of restrooms in Japan, we reply.

One easy bus ride from our waterfront hotel took us winding up the mountain. The bubbling mud and steam clouds of Obamachounzen quickly let you know this volcano is not playing around. “An eruption in 1991 generated a pyroclastic flow that killed 43 people, including three volcanologists. “ The slopes of the mountain down to the sea will look familiar to anyone who has visited the big island of Hawaii. Lava field slopes.

An awesome sound, bubbling and steaming.
Oh! Kitty!
Popular sights in Japan frequently have cute cats to distract you from the sight.

Even though we hadn’t done much walking yet, just a few kilometers around the steamy and bubbly area of Obamacho Unzen, we headed right to the public foot bath.

A pleasant setting.
Some very pink feet. This one was hot. Probably 110f/43c. Hot enough that you took your feet out to cool quite quickly.
Rich enjoying his foot bath.

We did a lovely hike after the foot bath and enjoyed the views of the volcano while having a picnic on an observation platform – keeping a wary eye on the plumes of steam. Then it was a bus back to the hotel, a lovely relaxing onsen and outdoor rotenburo soak at our hotel, and dinner at a local Izakaya. It was time to move on to Kagoshima, which was a ferry ride and train ride away. But first – foot bath by the ferry terminal!

We walked from our hotel to the ferry terminal, got our tickets, and headed over to the footbath.
This water was warm, not hot, and quite clear compared to others. We guess it was 90f/32c.
You can see the ladle behind Rich. If you so choose you could drink this warm water – before it enters the foot bath.
Again next to a parking lot. But quite a bit of seating space. The bath is emptied and cleaned each morning, it opens at 9 am. It was just refilling when we arrived.
That face says no, I don’t want to leave the foot bath.
But our ferry awaited, and we got a fantastic view of Mount Unzen as we headed out.

The blessings of volcanos. Hot springs. There are more than 27,000 hot springs in Japan. The volume of water that flows from them is 2.6 million liters per minute. I was a volcano fan before this trip to Japan, now I’m a volcano fanatic. And we weren’t done yet! Next up, a ferry from Kagoshima to see the slopes of Mount Sakurajima and yes, another foot bath.

Cute mascot, but this active volcano erupted in 2022 and triggered evacuation orders. Rocks fell as far as 3 kilometers/1.8 miles away.
The city of Kagoshima behind Rich and his happy feet. This foot bath was hotter near the source, and cooled down as you moved further away from the spigot.
Looking the other way, towards the active volcano. The visitors center showed the helmets school children have to wear on eruption risk days as they walk to school.
This water was not as clear, maybe more mineral content? But it felt wonderful on this cool cloudy day. Quite warm but not hot.
The happy travelers, we took a bus to the observatory to have a closer view of the volcano.

We’re in Korea as of today, but still catching up on all the fun we had in Japan. I was struck by the relationship the Japanese have with their volcanos. The idea of the blessings of volcanoes, and the use of the hot spring water, gives the volcanoes a different feel. Yes, potentially deadly, but also useful and part of life. Japan has the potential to harness this geothermal energy, mostly unrealized so far, but what an additional blessing that could be. But our feet were happy to take advantage of the blessings of the volcanoes.