Busan, South Korea (CNN) — At first glance, Ami-dong looks like an ordinary village in the South Korean city of Busan, with colorful houses and narrow alleys set against looming mountains.
But upon closer inspection, visitors can spot an unusual building material embedded in house foundations, walls, and steep stairs: tombstones bearing Japanese characters.
Also called the Tombstone Cultural Village, Ami-dong was built during the depths of the Korean War, which broke out in 1950 after North Korea invaded the south.
Within South Korea, many civilians also fled to the south of the country, away from Seoul and the front lines.
A tombstone on display outside a home in Ami-dong, Busan, South Korea, on Aug. 20.
Many of these refugees headed for Busan, on South Korea’s southeast coast — one of the few two cities never occupied by North Korea during the war, the other being Daegu, 88 kilometers (55 miles) away..
But newcomers had a problem: finding a place to live. Space and resources were scarce and Busan went to great lengths to accommodate the influx.
Many of the tombstones are inscribed with the names, birthdays and dates of death of the Japanese deceased.
“In an urgent situation, when there was no land, there was a cemetery and people seemed to feel they should live there,” said Kong Yoon-kyung, a professor of urban planning at Pusan National University.
Former refugees interviewed in Kim’s 2008 newspaper—many elderly people at the time recalled their childhood memories in Ami-dong—described tearing down the cemetery walls and removing tombstones for use in construction, often discarded ashes in the process. The area became a center of community and survival as refugees tried to support their families by selling goods and services in Busan’s marketplaces, Kim said.
“Ami-dong was the boundary between life and death for the Japanese, the boundary between rural and urban areas for migrants, and the boundary between hometown and a strange place for refugees,” he wrote in the paper.
Busan looks very different these days, as a thriving seaside holiday destination. Many homes in Ami-dong have been restored over the years, some with fresh coats of teal and light green paint.
But there are still remnants of the past.
As you walk through the village, you can see tombstones hidden under thresholds and stairs, and on the corners of stone walls. Outside some houses they are used to hang gas bottles and flower pots. While some still bear clear inscriptions, others are weathered by time, the text is no longer legible.
Many of the tombstones are no longer legible after decades in the open.
And the complex history of the village – at once a symbol of colonization, war and migration – also looms in the imagination. Over the years, residents have reported sightings of what they believe were ghosts of the Japanese dead, describing figures dressed in kimonos appearing and disappearing, Kim wrote.
He added that the folklore reflected the popular belief that the souls of the dead are tied to the preservation of their ashes or remains, which had been disturbed in the village.
Busan’s government has made an effort to preserve this part of its history, with Ami-dong now a tourist attraction next to the famous Gamcheon Culture Village, accessible both by bus and private vehicle.
An information center at the entrance to Ami-dong provides a brief introduction, as well as a map of where to find the most prominent tombstones. Some walls are painted with pictures of headstones in a nod to the village’s roots – although several signs also ask visitors to be quiet and respectful, given the number of residents who still live in the area.
As you exit the village, there is a sign on the main road: “There is a plan to build (a) memorial site in the future after collecting the tombstones scattered everywhere.”