A Slice of Japan in Korea

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Over the years, whenever I’ve felt the urge to get out of Busan for a breather, one of the places I’ve consistently headed to is Japan. For one thing, it’s close and easy to get there. For another thing, I like Japan. There, I said it. Lest I be accused of comparing Japan favorably to Korea, let’s just say Japan is pleasantly different and, as many Koreans, I enjoy visiting there. Sometimes that little bit of difference is all we need to recharge the batteries.

Having a wife and kids makes it a little harder these days to just board the ferry on a whim for my little Fukuoka getaways. Instead, my wife and I escape to Minami, an inviting little corner of Japan where you can say sayonara to Busan at the door.

Minami is actually two bars – Minami 1 and 2 – a few hundred meters from each other on the street behind the Grand Hotel in Haeundae Beach. Minami 1 opened in 1997 and immediately became a hit with Koreans who had worked or studied in Japan and were craving a taste of old Nippon. Not one to mess with a winning formula, the owner opened another bigger bar in exactly the same style (Minami 2) right down the street.

Minami 2 was another instant hit. It opened in 2002 and has been packing them in ever since. Despite its larger size, it maintains the same warm vibe as its elder brother. Sturdy wooden tables surround a central sit-down bar in the Japanese dajinomi style. The bar wraps around a large grill and vats of broth where odaeng (fish cake) simmers. Wooden beams and the rising steam of the odaeng vats lend a warm, unpretentious atmosphere. Minami 2 can seat around 120 (Minami 1 maybe half that), but even at full capacity, it feels more cozy than crowded.

Minami serves up 10 varieties of sake ranging from 15,000 won to 130,000 won a bottle, as well as draft Asahi beer (8,000 won for a 400cc reminder of what draft beer should taste like). They also serve soju (3,000 won) and baeksaeju (8,000 won) if you’d like to keep one foot in Korea and some money in your pocket for the taxi ride home.

If you’re looking to nosh, Minami serves up popular Japanese standbys like yakisoba (13,000 won), mixed odaeng (13,000) and my own favorite, okonomiyaki (15,000) served on a hot plate right off the grill. If you’re looking for a bit more than a side dish they offer a range of grilled fish, as well as sushi, California rolls, deep-fried shrimp in chili sauce, jumbo prawns, and many other fine options to make sure the booze doesn’t land on an empty stomach.

The staff at Minami are friendly, quick, and attentive, but be prepared to speak Korean. The crowd is an eclectic mix of young and old, groups and couples, blue-collar and high roller. During the last film festival for example, you couldn’t swing a cat in Minami 2 without hitting a celebrity, yet sitting at the next table, hunched over five empty bottles of Chamiseul was Davy, who’s still in the navy, and probably will be for life…

Actually, the cheesy Billy Joel reference is apt but a little out of place here because there is no music playing in Minami – a rarity in Busan’s boisterous bar scene – so be sure to bring someone you don’t mind talking to or you’re in for a long night. Or bring a date; Minami is great for a late bite or an intimate after-dinner drink if you’re in the mood for a little getting-to-know-you.
Whatever your occasion, Minami is a great little place to step out of your routine and get your fix of that little bit of difference, Japanese style.

To get there: From Haeundae Beach, walk with your back to the beach down the small street between the Grand Hotel and the as-yet-unopened Guerin Narae Hotel. Make the first right for Minami 2 (It will be a few steps further on your left) or make the first left for Minami 1 (It will be a couple hundred meters up on your right.) They are open from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m.

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