Before I first came to Korea to teach English in 2001, I was told that I’d be living in the suburbs of Seoul, and I imagined something like Marin County or Long Island: detached houses, shopping malls, people with cars. Then I ended up living in an area more densely populated than most of Brooklyn.
So what makes a suburb? In Korea, even though these outlying areas have more or less the same apartment towers, the same main roads with the same office buildings and coffee shops, the same back streets with little restaurants and bars, there’s nevertheless a different feeling from the more central distrits in Seoul. It’s hard to pin it down exactly what’s different, but my two companions — a Colombian and an American, neither of whom has spent much time in these kinds of neighborhoods — were strangely exhilarated by our walk through a typical stand of Korean apartment towers, as we passed the usual convenience stores, laundries, an English school and a kindergarten or two.
Soon we cut between two buildings and headed up into the hills of Ujangsan Park, thick with forest. It’s not a high mountain, and in a few minutes we were at the top, where we found what you usually find at the top: a gym.
Everything old is new again
After a steep scrabble down a not-quite-legit trail, we were out on the main road again, heading north until we passed Yangcheon Hyanggyo Station and entered into a bit of a historical district, though historical in a distinctly Korean way.
First we came to the looming Hongwonsa Temple. Part of Korea’s main Jogye order, it’s nevertheless built in an unusual style, and I learned from a monk that the abbot was inspired by his experiences with Southeast Asian Buddhism.
Just beyond the temple is the ancient Confucian school that gives the nearby subway station its mouthful of a name. According to a sign inside the school, Yangcheon Hyanggyo was founded in 1411, in the early decades of the Joseon Dynasty, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything physical that actually dates back to the 15th century. I did find a foundation stone dated 1980 for the main building.
Like most traditional buildings in Seoul, these have obviously been rebuilt numerous times, most recently during the restoration boom of the late 20th century, when South Korea’s economic strength caught up with its national pride and it became possible to recreate the heritage that had been lost during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. (Don’t underestimate how many historically important buildings were destroyed by the former rather than the latter.)
Also in the neighborhood is the Gyeomjae Jeongseon Art Museum, which is full of replicas of the paintings of a particular artist who once lived in the area, along with a diorama of what the little village once looked like.
This artificiality can be disappointing if you’re attached to a Western romantic idea of authenticity, of the aura of the thing in itself. But there’s something poignant about it too: a Confucian school that has survived for centuries and remains active — there was a group of school girls there when we arrived, getting lessons in etiquette from a woman in a hanbok — persisting not through its physicality but on the strength of its ideals and the traditions upholding them. And, to be fair, I’m a proud graduate of Columbia University, which was founded in 1754 as King’s College, and good luck finding any physical remnant of that event on today’s campus in Morningside Heights.
Building the future
If the area around Yangcheon Hyanggyo is a bit run down, that’s probably because of the massive LG Science Park that’s under construction on the western edge of the district. For now, landowners are probably holding out and holding off, waiting to sell or upgrade until the opening of the enormous new R&D campus. It’s an interesting move for LG, shifting from the tech corridor in Seocho and south of Gangnam to the western districts, out by the airports, that have for some time been trying to build themselves up as Seoul’s future, but so far haven’t really taken off.
We made an attempt to get to the Han River, but we dead-ended in an apartment complex and decided to call it a day. We hopped a local bus back to the subway station, stopped for a rest at a little cafe that sold Guarneri-brand Korean microbrew, and then headed home.
Dongdaemun is best known for its fast-fashion discount malls and the futuristic Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza, but its markets sprawl in every direction. Head south and west, and you get to Seoul’s Central Asian district, with signs in Cyrillic and restaurants that serve horse meat. Head east, and the new gives way to the old.
From Dongmyo Station to Sinseol-dong Station is a vast district of indoor and outdoor antique shops and secondhand markets selling everything imaginable: old stereos, electric guitars, furniture, statues, piles of discount clothes, real and fake designer handbags, practice butterfly knives with dull blades, LED batons for guiding traffic, a framed portrait of dictator Park Chung-hee, celadon pots, terrible ink-brush paintings, toy cars, Harley Davidson leather vests, shoes with springs for soles, Japanese candy, life-size bronze statues of scantily clad women playing instruments, Southwest-style steer skulls, toy guns, Bowie knives, old Korean post boxes and school desks, stuffed animals, socks, watches, AM radios and hi-fi systems of every vintage, industrial detritus, tents, VHS pornography and a CRT TV to watch it on, Air Supply on LP, bronze bells with dokkaebi faces. For a start.
Need a poster of dictator Park Chung-hee?
Need a post box?
The patrons, too, are vintage, with a median age hovering around sixty. (In that way — and only in that way — it’s like shopping in Scottsdale, Arizona.) Sinseol-dong isn’t quite Seoul as it once was — there’s an awkward simulation of that on the top floor of the two-story indoor Seoul Folk Flea Market (서울풍물사장), where we started out our day — but it’s more than just a market. Dongmyo is a place to come if you want to surround yourself with the things you remember from when you were young and the people who remember them too. The air of rough-and-tumble nostalgia is a respite from Seoul’s relentless new-and-shiny transformations and trendy upgrades. The going soundtrack is trot, Korea’s bouncy downmarket schmaltz-pop for the poorly educated elderly, and you can pull up a blue plastic stool at an outdoor food stall for some fish cake and a little makgeolli, or let yourself be entertained by the hawkers and hucksters shilling their wares on the street.
And it was packed. You hear that Korea has a demographic bulge of middle-aged people, but you don’t really feel it in Seoul’s more fashionable areas. Here, though, throngs of older Koreans filled the streets and alleyways. There were hardly any foreigners — not even from Asian countries — and only a scattering of young people in search of a vintage come-up. But there were older Koreans by the thousand.
Into the hills
After a few hours of crowds and musty things, we popped out onto Jongno, the main road, and spied a traditional pavilion up a steep hill to the north, in an area I’d never been to before. We started up into one of those precarious Seoul neighborhoods where the streets narrow down into uneven concrete staircases between the old houses. There are oddities tucked away in these areas: we passed a Buddhist temple, and also a hagwon for people who want to learn Hebrew, before emerging into the open space of Sungin Park (숭인공원).
One of the pleasures of Seoul is that you can see it from above, taking in its vast density from the rocky promontories that rise up out of it. It was a misty, dusty day, but we could see south to Namsan Tower, north to Bukhansan, and west to Inwangsan, picking out landmark skyscrapers in the basins far below us.
From the pavilion, the park extended northward and upward to several viewpoints, the highest of which was graced with an open library and a pretty extensive array of weights and gym machines, because that’s what Koreans like to put at the tops of mountains.
We decided to continue on to Daehangno, an art and culture district not too far away to the west. The path took us along a road that neatly divided new and old Seoul: on one side, elegant new apartment towers; on the other, brick buildings clinging to the mountainside, full of makeshift extensions, green plastic-lined roofs and mismatched brown earthenware onggi pots.
We emerged from Naksan Park onto Naksan-gil, which has to be one of the cutest streets in all of Seoul. It’s a steep climb down, lined with galleries and boutiques, and I was delighted to stumble on U-noh Gallery. A few years ago I bought a couple of U-noh’s energetic flower paintings at the Hongdae Free Market for the paltry sum of 70,000 won. He now has a full gallery up above Daehangno, where he also does leather work and makes gorgeous painted handbags. It’s art you can probably afford and one-of-a-kind artisan leatherwork. Go check it out!
We rounded out the day with a tasty meal at Grill Thai Noodle & Steak, where you pick out your own veggies for your pad thai, and a little shopping at Hands Market, where I got bootleg Gentle Monster sunglasses for 14,000 won, plus a very profound hat.
I had been to Mullae once before, on the coldest night of the year, to go to the Mullae Arts Center and see what turned out to be an outstanding performance by drummer Kim So Ra. But I decided not to count that hustle through the darkened neighborhood as a full visit, and on a dusty Sunday I headed back.
Inside the subway station, there’s a spinning wheel — a mulle (물레), a cute little visual pun on the name of the neighborhood.
The most interesting section of Mullae is taken up with row upon row of grungy old machine shops, a kind of Dongdaemun Market for welders. As happens with these kinds of industrial zones, artists have begun to move in, finding cheap space where no one will mind if you’re hammering away at midnight or producing clouds of toxic fumes, because so are your neighbors, except they’re putting together storage racks while you’re making a space dinosaur. The area is still pretty run down and gritty, but punctuated now with hip little cafes and the occasional gallery, not to mention plenty of murals and street sculptures. Sunday afternoon is probably not the best time to go — a lot of places were closed — but we were still able to get sense of the area.
The Mullae Arts Village, which is still very much also the Mullae industrial zone, is actually a pretty small area, hemmed in by a school and a nice new park and a river to the south. Leaving Exit 7 and heading south along the main road, across the street from the park, you know you’re there when you see the Mullae Arts Village sign, the metal horse, and the giant welding mask.
The scale of the workshops, industrial and artistic, is also small. These are one-story DIY outfits, very different from the soaring and spacious commercial warehouses that artists took over in New York’s SoHo and DUMBO. There are places like this in New York — those strange mashed-up-car zones in Queens are probably the closest approximation — but so far artists haven’t moved into them. The result, in Mullae, is an area that lacks the visual grandeur of those New York artists’ districts, but that feels surprisingly intimate and handmade, with odd old boarded-up doorways and random openings.
Because the existing buildings are small and hinky, they’re not likely to get turned into fancy lofts. If the neighborhood goes residential, it’ll do it by tearing everything down and putting up beige apartment blocks. But I hope that doesn’t happen. Seoul should hang on to at least some of its grit and funk.
We lingered long enough for curries at Gyeongseong Curry (decent, sign only in Korean) and coffee at The Warrior Coffee Roasting Lab (tasty).
From there, we crossed the main street and wandered further south, passing one of the more interesting, and larger, buildings in the area, which is covered with murals and has the very appealing-looking Old Mullae brewpub inside.
From there, we headed back toward the station and a visit to Homeplus.
If you live in Korea, at some point you find yourself at Emart or Homeplus, much as anyone in America eventually winds up at Target or WalMart. The grocery sections of these big-box stores are still thriving, but the housewares are beginning to look a little threadbare. For small conveniences, people go to Daiso now — a branch of the Japanese chain is always nearby — while delivery websites like Coupang have cut into the business for big-ticket and bulky items.
I suppose that Emart and Homeplus have always been exhausting — my ex-wife used to get Emart headaches back in my earlier Korean life in 2001-2o02 — but they seem somehow worse than they once were. On the plus side, though, the girls who hawk candy and canned goods are no longer forced to dance in ridiculous outfits. In any case, my attempt to buy more stylish dishes than the ones Samsung gave me was thwarted by Homeplus’s near total lack of dishes. So I ordered some dishes from Coupang instead.
And thus ended Adventure #3. But for your viewing pleasure, I hereby offer you this stunning masterpiece of ajossi fashion from the subway ride home. Who says Korea’s got no style?
For my second Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure, I stayed closer to home — so close, in fact, that I never actually rode the subway. On a holiday Wednesday, my Korean friend and I set out from Gangnam, which is home, and walked over to Brotherhood Kitchen for what they call “American Home Food” and I call soul food.
Now, I’m no expert on either soul food or Southern food, but what they cook up at Brotherhood is at least tasty. We had the fried chicken and waffles, which is salty and sweet and decadent, with a weird gooey cheese sauce on top. But I think I liked the roast chicken with chili and yellow rice better.
Little houses on a hill
We headed up the hill that starts behind Gangnamdae-ro, an area you’d think I’d know pretty well, but I don’t yet. It’s upscale, with stylish cafes, little shops, and here and there actual detached houses that look like they’ve been around for a while.
One of the most interesting of these houses, just past Eonju Station, is the Nonhyeon flagship store of Gentle Monster, whose sunglasses are amazing, and whose stores are more amazing than the sunglasses. The store in Nonhyeon has an actual ship attached to it, and the interior contains an astonishing array of strange art machines. And some sunglasses, including a line in partnership with Tilda Swinton and some glasses they did with Hood By Air, which is pretty impressively hip company to be keeping. I tried on many a pair, but I still haven’t found the Gentle Monster pair that calls to me. Someday, though, I will get a pair. Surprisingly, while they’re not cheap, they don’t cost any more than a pair of Ray Bans or Oakleys.
Saddles and chairs
We made our way to Hakdong Station, and from there we followed Hakdong-no to Nonhyeon Station. The whole stretch is full of furniture stores on both sides — not the typical Korean places, but the sorts of places where you can get, say, hideous French-inspired kitsch for $10,000, or a coffee table by Jean-Paul Gaultier. There’s some good stuff in there too, and not all of it at insane prices, but it’s certainly high-end. Still, it’s considerably more stylish and diverse than the sort of stuff you find in the big department stores here.
If I had a lot of money to spend making a very large apartment look like a hip urban hotel, I would come here. Realistically, though, if I’m gonna spend a lot on furniture in Korea, it will probably be on very Korean furniture, like an antique chest of drawers or something. To me, that’s exciting and different. My Korean companion, though, was fascinated by a display that looked like something my Grandma Hannah or my Aunt Belle would’ve gone for, all flower prints and swoopy Victorian curlicues. She grew up in a house full of old Korean furniture, which doesn’t much interest her. What’s exotic, to her, is the sort of Western stuff she wasn’t around very much because no one under 90 decorates that way. She responds to American granny gear the way I respond to weird old statues and tombs here.
Maybe the oddest shop along this stretch is Balio, which is where you go if you want fancy horse-riding gear. Why is it here, in Gangnam? I have no idea, except that people must come here to buy stuff. I wonder if the Choi Soon-sil scandal’s equestrian connection has been bad for business?
Fire and rain
With that, we headed back to my neighborhood. By evening, it had started to rain, so we decided to sit by some blazing coals in a neighborhood restaurant that offers unlimited beef barbecue (no more than two hours and a 5000-won charge for leftover meat). The initial course was something like six thin steaks and a big pile of chopped up rib meat, so we never even got around to asking for more. It was smoky and delicious and a fine way to end the day.
In feng shui (pungsu in Korean) the ideal location has a mountain to the north and water to the south, providing protection from Siberian winter winds and an open avenue for summer monsoon rains. That’s why both Gyeongbokgung Palace and the presidential Blue House sit at the southern foot of Inwangsan Mountain, facing Cheonggyechon Stream.
On the ass end of Inwangsan, out beyond the perimeter of the old city walls, is the opposite sort of place. Gaemi Maeul (개미마울) — The Ant Village — gets its name from the tenacity and hard work of its 400 or so residents, who’ve been crawling up and down the steep slope to their shantytown since the end of the Korean War. It’s also, perhaps, a statement about their relative importance in Seoul’s grander schemes.
Between a rock and a fast place
I came to The Ant Village on my first Seoul Subway Randomizer adventure, which began at Hongje Station on Line 7. My goal was to go look around in parts of Seoul I wouldn’t otherwise be likely to see, and Hongje was an excellent place to start.
Sandwiched between Inwangsan to the south and a highway to the north, Hongje has either fended off or been overlooked by the developers who’ve converted much of the surrounding area into especially soul-crushing variants of Korea’s ubiquitous vast apartment blocks. Its narrow, winding streets are still lined with the small brick apartment houses that Koreans call villas, and it looks as if no one has updated much of anything in the past forty years. Buildings and signs have old spellings — 자전차 (jajeoncha), an old word for bicycle, or a sad old apartment building called 만숀 (manshyon) instead of the more modern 만션 (manshyeon), the Konglish term so absurd it’s almost an insult.
My Korean friend and I made our way to Inwang Shijang, a traditional market that despite its typical array of Korean products — seafood, mystery twigs — had a torpid squalor that felt more like out-of-the-way markets in Vietnam or Myanmar than like anything I’ve seen before in Seoul. As we sat down for tteokbokki and fish cakes at one of the market stalls, my friend told me the place reminded her of her childhood in Daegu in the 1970s.
Up the ant hill
As the road began to climb, we came to the first of the old houses, an uneven concrete slab with a roof of corrugated metal. It’s the sort of thing you see on the outskirts of cities in developing countries all over the world, or in their neglected pockets — down by the river in Hanoi, say — and I have a Vietnamese friend who grew up in something similar in Saigon in the 1980s. But it was jarring to find this sort of house still operating as a going concern in Seoul in 2017, especially after starting the day in the LED-lit hypermodernity of Gangnam.
I suppose, though, that I was just coming face-to-face with a concrete (pun intended) manifestation of the poverty I see every day and mostly ignore: the old woman who sits on the steps in Gangnam Station every day, selling gum when she’s not drifting off to sleep; the old folks limping along as they push their filthy old carts past the Porches and Rolls Royces, collecting garbage to recycle. Next to my posh Gangnam apartment complex is a dingy brick apartment house above a parking garage, junk piled up in the narrow verandas you can see from the street.
In Seoul, it’s the elderly who seem to end up destitute most often. In an economy that has modernized as quickly as South Korea’s, it’s inevitable that a good part of the older generation would be left behind. In what is now one of the best-educated and most technologically advanced countries in the world, those who grew up during the Korean War and its aftermath may not ever have gotten past sixth grade or developed the kinds of skills a modern economy demands. What’s not inevitable is South Korea’s minimal social spending, which is among the lowest of any developed country. The scandal and disarray engulfing Korea’s conservative party might be an opening for a new direction; for now, the ants are still part of Seoul society, scurrying along the margins and subsisting on scraps.
The Ant Village
The Ant Village proper is a peculiar hybrid. Built by people with nowhere else to go after the Korean War, the worst houses are old and poor and dangerous, makeshift and constructed to no code, heated with the old yeontancharcoal bricks that produce carbon monoxide and occasionally kill people in their sleep, as happened to one of my Korean friend’s high school classmates. (Draftiness could, I suppose, be a lifesaver.)
But the residents — some of them, anyway — haven’t wanted to leave, and they’ve kept developers at bay, all while updating some of the homes into fairly plausible structures. Around 2010, some art students from the area got the idea of painting murals on the walls, and the village is now something of a tourist attraction, though the flowers and puppies are fading. And the neighborhood has not just electricity and bus service, but solar-powered street lamps and a new pavilion and residents with smart phones, not to mention government-issued wayfaring signs for visitors. Down the hill, the newly built middle school is actually pretty grand.
As an outsider, it’s hard to know what to make of all this. What little information I have is gleaned from blogs. Who lives here now, and why? How poor are they? Is the ownership in dispute? What does the future hold? I have no idea, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions of the few residents we saw around. When you find yourself having a cheap holiday in other people’s misery, sometimes it’s better not to pry.
Tea at the temple
At its top, The Ant Village opens out onto the trails crisscrossing Inwangsan Mountain. Had we been feeling ambitious, we might have made the long hike up and over to the Jongno side of the mountain, descending into trendy Hyoja-dong. The sun and relative warmth were enticing, but it was already afternoon, and we decided instead to stick with our chosen neighborhood, walking through the woods, past an open view of Train Rock — it’s a big rectangular rock, basically — and down a long staircase to Hwanhuisa Temple.
As we approached, a group of women of a certain age were gathered out front, along with a Buddhist nun, all talking and laughing. I said hello, and they all cooed at how well I spoke Korean, something that used to happen a lot when I lived in Anyang, outside Seoul, sixteen years ago, but rarely happens now until I’ve at least demonstrated something beyond annyeong haseyo. It was another throwback, and a reminder that foreigners probably don’t get out this way all that often.
My friend noted the feminine touches to the temple — Dalmatian figurines and the like — and decided it must be run by nuns. Soothing piano music played from outdoor speakers, mingling with sound of the Korean-style wind chimes. As we sat and rested on a small pavilion, a woman brought us a tray of tea and tteok with marmalade. Later, as we looked for somewhere to return the tray, we heard more women’s laughter coming from inside the main building. We set the tray down inside a doorway and continued on.
A little further on we passed another small temple, then emerged from the mountain into one of those vast, dispiriting apartment complexes that dominate so much of the Korean landscape. Director Bong Joon-ho’s first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, from 2000, centered on stunted lives in an apartment complex much like this one. It was, in material terms, a step up from the drafty, poorly built villas we’d seen earlier, but I could see how people might choose the human-scale lumpiness of life in The Ant Village, or down among the old brick villas, over this different sort of ant farm. Koreans seem to have recognized the grimness of life in these sorts of massive apartment blocks, and newer complexes tend to be made up of clusters of slender towers, with only a few apartments per floor and spaces in between the buildings.
At last we found our way back to the main street, after passing a small English school that made me feel sorry for whatever English teachers have ended up in this strange little corner of the city. We stopped in at a Paris Baguette for some coffee and a rest, watching the old woman squatting outside the window as she roasted sweet potatoes. Across the street was the district headquarters for the conservative party, emblazoned with a huge Korean flag that loomed above several fortune-telling shops marked by swastikas. A few blocks on, past more fortune tellers and glimpses of the old city wall at the top of Inwangsan, we came to Muakjae Station, where we boarded the train and headed back to Gangnam.
How do you get to know a new place? I was in New York for many years before I finally started exploring the outer boroughs, and I’ve still never been to Canarsie.
Now that I’ve moved to Seoul, I want to jumpstart the process of discovering those out-of-the-way places that aren’t on the usual leisure circuit. What’s out there? The best way to find out is to go. At random. That’s why I’m creating The Seoul Subway Randomizer Game!
Create a list of Seoul subway stations.
Randomize the list.
Yes, I will almost certainly wind up with a few disappointing trips to apartment complexes and highway interchanges, but what else might I find?
I’ll let you know.
Rules I: The list
The Seoul Metropolitan Subway System is the largest in the world by track length, if you include all the lines that extend beyond Seoul proper. For the sake of sanity and to avoid three-hour journeys to not-yet-built suburban housing developments, the list of stations will include only those that are actually in Seoul itself. That still leaves 284 stations.
I’ll randomize the list several times, and I’ll select one of the randomizations based on how interesting I think the first five stations will be.
Stations that I have already visited will be skipped.
A visit to a given station only counts if I get off the train and go outside, obviously.
The return trip should begin from a different station, or from a bus stop that’s similarly far from the station. That means getting out and walking from one station to another. However, the walking requirement can be called off if the station turns out to be somewhere really unwalkable, like a bunch of train tracks and a bus station or something.
Arrival at a second station counts as a visit to that station as well; it will be removed from the list of future visits.
Visits outside of the game don’t count as part of the game, but they do qualify for taking stations off the list.
Rules III: My game
This is my game. Traveling companions will of course be welcome, but I’ll pick the stations, and a visit counts when I go. You’re welcome to start your own game.
I can skip stations any time and for any reason, because this is for fun.