Being on the Market in Busan

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It is an imposing modern building on the waterfront in Busan in the south-eastern corner of Korea. The sides are green plate glass; the roof is swooping steel and evokes a flock of gulls in flight. The ground floor is the main hall of the Jagalchi Fish Market, the biggest in South Korea. Above it are six floors of restaurants, below it a two-storey car park.

Casual visitors browse the stalls alongside the trade buyers; they choose their fish and take it upstairs to one of the restaurants, where the chef will gut it, skin it, slice it and send it back to them raw with half a dozen side dishes. This is hoe, South Korea’s answer to sashimi.

The market spills out into the surrounding streets and extends for several blocks. The first world slickness of the main building disappears outside, where the stalls have all the picturesque chaos of a traditional Asian street market.

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A man sits on an upturned crate, his face hidden behind a wide-brimmed hat, gutting and salting mackerel. Formidable ladies in visors and wellingtons squat at stalls under colourful umbrellas either side of the lanes. Behind them are haphazard piles of Styrofoam boxes, plastic bowls, carrier bags and filleting knives.

There are fish laid out on plastic sheets draped over planks balanced on buckets: grey mullet, red snapper, flounder, porgy, halibut, shark. There are octopus kept alive in bowls of percolating water; and baskets of fish heads; and every sort of seafood: shrimps, prawns, mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, abalones, sea snails, occasionally squirting jets of water at passers-by like kids with water pistols. There are stacks of jars with baby crabs fermented in chilli paste; and racks of dried squid; and bowls of seaweed, and bottles of chilli sauce.

Shoppers amble up and down the lanes, stopping to look a fish in the eye, peel back its gills, open its cavity, question the woman on the stall. Sometimes a scooter bullies its way noisily through the crowd.

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There are seafood restaurants, where the stalls peter out, with little rooms inside and big tanks outside, piled high with spider crabs and lobster, or a writhing mass of eels. It is rare to find English spoken or written and you are reduced to pointing and guessing, but whatever you get is bound to be fresh and will probably be cheap.

Jagalchi is not – yet – a tourist attraction on the scale of Tsukiji across the Sea of Japan in Tokyo, much as the tourist board tries to talk it up. It is just as rewarding; but no one important, as of yet, has endorsed it as a Must See sight, so it never appears on bucket lists and the tourists come in twos and threes instead of by the coachload. There is no need to restrict entry to certain times or hand out English language maps at the gates or post lists of things which the visitor should refrain from doing.

I was the only Westerner there and the only visitor with a camera. The rest were just trying to buy dinner, and I was trying not to be annoying.

© Richard Senior 2015

Cappuccino with the Cats in Korea

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The girls at the cat café spoke no English but by pointing and miming got me to understand that I had to take my shoes off at the door and sanitise my hands.

A haughty Persian lay on the counter resting its eyes; a silver tabby stood behind it, inspecting the accounts. In the middle of the room there was an activity centre lined with soft carpet for the cats to climb on, sharpen their claws against or curl up asleep in. Next to it there was a rug for them to roll about on and cardboard boxes to play in and toy mice and things on strings for customers to dangle in front of them.

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Modern life is too often too busy, too cramped for pets, and cat cafes are a compromise. There are rabbit cafes as well. Maybe you would love a cat of your own but your apartment is too small, or your lease stipulates against animals, or you spend all day and half the night at the office and all your free time out of town; so you can go to the cat café, buy a drink and stroke their cats instead. They started in Taiwan, became hugely popular in Japan – where there are now owl cafes and goat cafes – and spread across Asia to the West. This one was in Busan, in the south-eastern corner of Korea.

I first heard about them sometime last year when one opened in Shoreditch and thought they were a lovely idea but worried that the cats might be exploited, or at least not get enough quiet time to themselves. But, at this café, there were places for them to go where the customers couldn’t, and the customers left them alone when they wanted to sleep or were not in the mood to be stroked. They looked healthy and happy and properly fed, neither scrawny like feral cats nor fat from over-indulgence.

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I am good with cats; they like me. I can usually persuade the toughest of toms to come and say hello. I have had them climb on my shoulders all over the world, and purr and poddle and roll on their backs to have their tummies tickled. But these Korean cats were indifferent to me, until the girl handed me a packet of fish-flavoured treats and I instantly became the most popular guy there. The little white kitten which had, until then, just wanted to curl up and sleep on the activity centre now tried to badger me into letting it eat the whole packet. But while I was feeding the kitten – far less than it wanted – a tabby climbed up my leg and meowed and gave me its best wide-eyed, heart-melting look, so I fed it as well, and then a black and white cat strolled over and muscled out the tabby.

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Once I had fed them all, and they grudgingly accepted that I was telling the truth when I said there were no more treats, they sat on my table or on the sofa beside me and were happy to have their paws and noses stroked. It seemed as if we were friends for life. But, being cats, they would of course have abandoned me without thought if another customer had opened a packet of fish-flavoured treats.

© Richard Senior 2015