Jeongdong Road (정동길)

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There’s a superstition that if you walk down Jeongdong Road, the road following Deoksugung Palace’s southwards facing wall, with your boyfriend or girlfriend you’ll break up. I guess you could say my girlfriend and I took a a leap of faith and walked it anyway, joking along the way that it was a final parting stroll. Neither my girlfriend nor I knew the origins of this, so I looked it up on Jungu office’s website where it’s written:

“There are three theories that explain the origins of this saying. One theory holds that the spirits of court ladies, who were obliged by their status to renounce marriage, still reside in the neighborhood, while another theory says that the family court used to be located nearby and couples had to walk along this street to get divorced. The third theory says that the street is so long that couples easily get bored and end up arguing with each other.”

I can understand the first two. The third, which seems most practical, is a bit of a stretch in my opinion, as the street’ really not that long. I guess if you’re out of shape or already prone to arguing it could hold true. Anyway, like the quoted article states the road is, ironically, ideal for dates. In the fall, the tree lined road is cast with a orange/gold glow and the shadows of the trees leave speckle the palace’s outside walls. Following the wall, you eventually end up in Jeongdong, a neighborhood famous as Korea’s entry point to the Western world. Up until the 1880s, true to it’s nickname “The Hermit Kingdom”, isolationist polices (instituted during the Joseon period) kept Korea largely untouched from foreign influence. Before that time foreigners weren’t allowed to live within Seoul’s city walls. With the first American envoy being allowed entrance in 1884, this city section began to undergo major changes, becoming a conduit for the introduction of Western style education, architecture and religion. Jeongdong, congregated by many foreigners, was soon after referred to as “Legation Street” or “European Quarter” by locals (Koreanet).

Today, despite the passage of time, Jeongdong’s history remains intact to see, from the Seoul Museum of Art (formerly the Supreme Court of Korea), Chung-dong First Methodist Church, the central hall of the Salvation Army (completed in 1928), to the Russian Legation (where King Gojong and the crown prince sought refuge in for a year after Queen Min’s assassination). This is a history not easily observed in a country long characterized by such isolationist policies and preservation of it’s own architecture/culture, contrasted with the early adoption of Western attire/Architecture by Korea’s close neighbor, Japan. So, while walking around the leaf-strewn streets with Winnie, sounds of a mock-procession of the guards in front of Deoksu Palace in the distance, I was reminded of the Western-Asian mix of Shanghai’s streets; stain glass tiled windows on the nearby church and sharp angles of Western buildings juxtaposed against the iconic Korean style curved tiles marking the Palace’s wall.

Seoul’s cafe craze, it’s obsession with coffee and the European cafe aesthetic, blends really well with the surroundings in Jeongdong. Sometimes modern style cafes, flushed with white, modern interiors, can feel out of place in neighborhoods packed with Korea’s pervasive neon signs, old pubs and cheap eateries, but here, set among the wide, tiled street, the western style cafe’s blend into the surroundings naturally. Winnie and I stopped by Jeongwangsu Coffee House, a small chain in Seoul before heading on our separate ways. As usual Winnie ordered a sweet iced latte and I ordered black coffee (or “poison”) as Winnie likes to call it. Afterwards we made our way back to City Hall station, along the way passing a group of older Korean men clad in Joseon-era apparel, in between shifts performing in front of the palace. A picture with one of these men is a classic souvenir from Seoul, but something I’ve never felt compelled to get myself. Yet, while passing I caught eyes with one of the men, dressed in red garb with a large red hat, suggesting “yangban” status (the privileged upper class of old Korea). He smiled and waved for me to come by his side. I laughed and posed for a shot. Fitting that this would happen in Jeongdong.

Wonjo Ssambab Jip (원조쌈밥집)

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Somewhere hidden along this street is Wonjo Ssambab Jib, a meat restaurant included amongst Baek Jon Won’s plethora of chains. Yet, at first glance, you’d have no idea his name’s attached, famous more as a successful businessman than a food connoisseur/cook, his restaurants are staples amongst the Korean food scene. A shabby looking place like this doesn’t quite evoke images of the clean and polished exterior’s of his more recent additions, BaekDabang (Dabang being the name for old style Korean cafe’s and Baek his name), and Chadolbaki Jeonmunjeom (Chadolbaki being a type of thin sliced beef and Jeonmunjeum meaning “specialty house”)…The restaurant itself is hidden down a tight little side alley…As we approached a foul smell emanated from the door and inside multiple large table spreads were covered with food left uncleared. I’m pretty adventurous but I’ve had enough bad experiences with unsanitary food in Asia to become a bit hesitant around places like this. At first glance you’d be hard pressed to place the name Baek Jon Won with the interior and atmosphere, yet that’s not to completely bash on the place either. It had a old style charm to it and a cozy atmosphere, with wooden lockers and keys to drop your shoes in before sitting down. On the wall were cliche spread posters of ancient Tigers and electronic bells (like doorbells, common at Korean restaurants) on the walls, indicted by squiggly lines drawn around them in red marker.

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The food came out fast and it was good, albeit likely low end in quality..Consisting of a wide wooden tray of lettuce and other green leafy vegetables (for wrapping the meat), the standard doenjang jjigae (soybean soup), and a seafood ssamjang paste (a paste added to the meat consisting of gochujang (pepper paste) and doenjang (soy paste) combined with added bits of squid and octopus. Two servings of thin sliced beef was probably enough, but the food was good and the atmosphere pleasant so we chose to go for a third round of samgyeopsal (pork belly, like thick cuts of bacon), before heading out to walk off our full stomachs.

Wonjo Ssambab Jib’s not a easy find, tucked in the backstreets of Dongdaemun. Nor is it ideal for those picky about cleanliness, but it offers a peak into old Seoul, or as Winnie put it..into a “very old school Korean restaurant”. Give it a shot, and if you get lost along the way, there’s no lack of other options nearby as you can see by the picture above.

 

Shanghai: Old and New (상하이, 현대와 옛)

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I’m back now in Seoul after a short trip to Shanghai last week. It was my first time to China. I’ve been meaning to travel there for a long time, but kept putting it off due to the visa process for Americans. Being in Seoul, I’m just a stones throw away from Shanghai and Beijing. I figured it was about time I get my visa and open the door to explore this vast country. Originally I didn’t have much interest in China. I was turned off by the bad air, the authoritarian government, the bad reputation of Chinese tourists, etc. Yet, as time’s passed for me in Asia I’ve become increasingly curious about the country. China figures predominantly in the current American political narrative and it’s undeniable that China is quickly becoming the strongest country in the world economically. I wanted to get a taste of what it’s all about, so I booked a round-trip flight to Shanghai and spent four days there.

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Now that I’m back, I’m about just as confused as before I went. Shanghai struck me on first impression as an impressive mix of new and old, like Seoul, but on a more exaggerated scale. The modern areas of Nanjing Road, The Bund and Pudong, reminded me of New York , and the European architecture of France. Yet, right around the corner from these spots are small, windy streets and old homes, cluttered, busy neighborhoods where older people can be seen cutting vegetables on the street and aromas from small restaurants and shops permeate the streets. I’ve always seen Seoul as a city, like Shanghai, caught between new and old. Yet, the dichotomy between the two worlds is more profound in Shanghai. Since I came to Korea three years ago, Seoul has changed fast. It’s always changing, both for good and bad. So many neighborhoods have quickly become gentrified, bringing along with the tide new cafe’s, book shops, clothing stores, etc., leaving a lot of old homes and history behind. In it’s move to modernize sometimes it feels in Korea like the governments willing to leave all remnants of history behind. In Shanghai, these two worlds felt a bit more intact, existing side by side, rather than the old fading away rapidly into the new. I wonder if Shanghai will follow along with Seoul and do the same or if the history will be better preserved?

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(Dog I met in the streets of Old Shanghai)

Either way, it was good to get some time away from Korea and see somewhere new, somewhere I imagine I’ll be going back to again. China’s such a large country with so much to offer in terms of history, nature and culture, so as long as I’m here in Korea, I plan more trips back.

 

 

Neon Seoul

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The first thing that I’m always struck by when I first come back to Korea from the States are the neon signs. Before coming back I always look forward to the food, the public transportation, certain spots in the city, the experience, but I never think about the lights that signal Seoul’s insomnia; that point out, “the days not over yet”. Most of these signs are for suljibs (bars), or hofs (pubs) or noraebangs (Karaoke rooms). In the picture above you can also see illuminated store front signs with vertical scrolls advertising certain soups and foods. In the foreground you can see a Cass beer poster, the Budweiser of Korea, describing the enlivening experience of a sip from it’s can. These are the fuel for Korea’s sleeplessness: alcohol, food and karaoke (not to mention 24-hour PC gaming rooms). Karoake itself comes in many forms, from simply rooms to sing in, to rooms with women to join. Hong Sang Soo’s 1998 film The Power of Gangwon Province includes a memorable scene where the two lonely friends spend a drunken night singing songs together and fooling around with 2 naked women in a karaoke bar in the Northeastern province of Gangwondo. So, the signs symbolise energy, life, insomnia, vice. They’re the light that keep the misadventures, conflicts, and doldrums alive at night . But there’s something also beautiful and magical to these old neon signs. Something I don’t think is only particular to me but to many, as evidenced by Vegas. Not to mention, for Westerners, the lights have become, through popular culture, a symbol of East Asia.

Before I first came to Asia, I remember watching Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and marveling at the images of a multi-colored, multi-faceted Tokyo; the arcades, the fashion, the flashing lights and neon signs, the Karaoke room floating above the busy streets below, the chaotic and loud Pachinko parlors. At the time, all these sights were foreign to me, and Tokyo and Asia still held, in my mind and heart, a place of mystery and fascination. It’s all these images of a futuristic yet retro Asia, symbolized by this pulsing sea of lights, that I’d held in my mind for so long. This picture I took when walking through the streets reminded me of that Asia. The Asia I don’t think about so often anymore. The Asia of Blade Runner and Akira.

I was walking around Myeondong, a cultural and arts area of Seoul during the Japanese occupation, when I took this shot. Myeongdong is now a symbol of consumer culture and one of the largest shopping and tourism districts in Seoul. To my surprise, I’ve spent a lot of time there lately. When I first came to Korea, I hated Myeongdong. It felt, when I first visited, like the Asia I’d seen in the movies, but I couldn’t enjoy it the way I expected I would. I was right in the center of the madness. Hoards of people squeezed together in dense streets, smells from food carts wafting through the air, lights in every direction and music blared from all corners. As I walked through, I remember hearing the young Korean women standing in front of cosmetic stores advertising in loud, high pitched voices for special deals. I remember looking across the sea of faces and bobbing heads and feeling dizzy and overwhelmed. It was too much for me and I was turned off by the lack of any real traditional culture.  So, my surprise comes from the fact that I’ve come to enjoy Myeondong. I enjoy it for the food, the energy, the busyness – all the things at first I couldn’t stand. Maybe that means I’ve gotten used to the frenzy and chaos of Seoul? Or maybe I simply am looking for different things? The practical explanation is I happen to be in this area a lot lately, between attending a private school here for Korean and attending a new gym nearby.

Between the proximity to Myeondong and the heat of the day, I’ve spent a lot of my nights after class and after workouts getting bites in the area and taking strolls. It’s been so incredibly hot that I haven’t wanted to spend too much time outside during the day. In turn, the nights have been my time to get some air and simply enjoy a walk. The other night, as I passed by this street, I was reminded of that feeling of returning to Seoul and feeling at home again, at home in the glow of the neon lights. So, in contrast to my home back in the states, marked by it’s stillness and quiet at night, broken occasionally by the sound of a passing car and punctuated by the creek of crickets in the dark, the neon signs of Seoul are what grab me first to say “you’re back”. Now, rather than being overwhelmed, I find the sight of the signs and their colors, despite whatever type of drama or vices they might be hiding, to be comforting.

Hongje Stream (홍제천)

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Hongje Stream flows through the western side of Seoul, notably past World Cup Park (the site of the 2002 World FIFA World Cup) and Peace Park. Since I first came to Seoul, the stream’s been a regular place I return to to walk and take some time for myself, to breathe and unwind. On a sunny, clear day it’s a gorgeous. Each side of the stream is lined with greens, flowing over into the walking paths and the stream below. Every so often along the trail are stones set in the water allowing you to pass, the classic Korean stream bridge. On the weekends when the weather’s warm, the walking path is full of bikers, kids on scooters, roller bladers, and couples taking strolls. And despite the weather, there’s always older Korean men riding their bikes, classic trot (the oldest form of Korean pop music) from the 60s and 70s blaring from speakers on their side.  It’s a place, like other streams scattered throughout the city, to get a taste of nature and reconnect with the surroundings…A good place for a bottle of makgeolli (korean rice wine) with friends, or a stroll at night for a couple.

I remember distinctly, during a run  there back in Seoul in 2013, running past a group of elderly Koreans..a large group, both men and women, sitting alongside the stream…Trot music was blaring from a boombox while the older women (probably in their 70’s-80’s) danced passionately without shame, as the men sat around watching sharing drinks. I remember being surprised at the time to see people that old behaving just like kids…But that’s something I’ve come to find true of the older generation here…A while back I asked a friend why that is and she said, “I think in Korea, when you’re young, you have no time to just be a kid and have fun like Americans…So, once people get old, they celebrate their wild 20s then”. Whatever the reason, it’s an admirable sight…A reminder to stay active and and to keep having fun. For me, Hongje stream is one of those places…Where I can just unwind, relax, and connect back to the earth. Today was a bit cloudy and muggy, and my best camera was at home charging, but it was a nice walk nonetheless.

Sanmotoongi (산모퉁이)

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Looking across towards the western ridge of Mt. Bugak, Seoul, from Sanmotongi Cafe.

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Winnie trying out the telescope, looking across towards Mt. Ingwan.

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Balcony seating, offering a panorama of Northern Seoul, nestled amongst the hills.

    I’m back in Korea after a little over a month in the states. My trip home was great, affording enough time to reconnect with friends and family and enjoy far too many burgers, yet it’s good to be back in Seoul. Arriving back in Seoul in mid July, I was suddenly reminded of just how hot it can get here…each day since I’ve been back has been humid and damp. Outside, it feels like a sauna and I’m perpetually sweating. So, while I expected I’d be out exploring every day as soon as I got back, in reality I’ve been taking it pretty easy and enjoying air conditioning whenever and wherever it’s available.

     The day after my arrival was date day with Winnie. We spent it wandering around Buamdong, a quiet neighborhood north of Gyeongbokgung palace and saddled between Mt Bugaksan to the East and Mt Inwangsan to the West. We made our way to Sanmongtoongi (meaning, “corner of the mountain”), a small cafe up on the hills offering views of Seoul, particularly the neighborhoods spread amongst the valley below. The cafe’s famous as a location where a famous drama was shot (forget the name), and for it’s unique location, off the well worn path and described as one of the harder cafe’s to find in Seoul by some. Spent most of the time chatting with Winnie while sharing cups of tea, rather than taking shots, but here’s a few I took. The cafe itself is cozy and welcoming, with a rock wall exterior and wooden floor interior, with wide wall sized windows facing south. Outside was a patio space, where Winnie and I tried the binoculars there…surprised to find we could watch people hiking alongside Inwangsan in the distance as well as people sitting inside there offices through the binocular’s view.

    When there, you might feel like you’re far removed from downtown Seoul, but it’s really only a short bus trip away from Gwanghwamun and the city center. Besides this cafe, Buamdong is full of other cafe’s, restuarants and galleries…all warranting more trips back. Definitely worth a trip to see a quieter, yet sophisticated side of Seoul.

Lounge 6 (라운지식스)

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The other day, after waking up, I decided to make my way to Myeongdong. I had some time to kill before my afternoon appointments, so I figured I’d look for a nice cafe in Myeongdong as a place to start my day…Somewhat of a challenge in Seoul, if you exclude Starbucks and other 24 hour chains. Seoul, unlike Taipei, Hong Kong and other asian cities, is rather dead in the morning…the city never sleeps, but the city is slow to get started the next day. Since most Koreans eat breakfast at home and quickly run off to work or school, there isn’t a strong culture of breakfast restaurants and cafes. Really, breakfast joints are few and far in between and most cafe’s open their doors at 11.

So it came as a surprise when I found a restaurant in Myeondong selling curry rice and Udon soup meal sets at 9:30 AM. I expected, at most, to find a cafe selling coffee and muffins…but while looking around Lounge 6’s sign caught my eye…faded photos of Japanese/Korean fusion breakfast sets, marked with a “6F” on the side. I looked up and couldn’t tell where the cafe might be, but stepped in the musty, glass panelled elevator and got off at floor 6. The cafe, or lounge, was empty, and a bit dark, so I wasn’t sure if it was open…an older woman came out and I asked her if it was too early for coffee or curry. She said no and to take a seat, ushering me outside. I made my way to an outside seating area, crowded with plants and small buddhist-style statues, overlooking the streets of Myeondong. Shortly after, the curry set and coffee I ordered came out…The curry was nothing special…but good enough, similar to curry I’d make at home..but the coffee was surprisingly good. Rich, smooth and served in a pitcher offering 3-4 full cups.

I was surprised to find such a unique, quiet spot, in the middle of Myeondong…more surprisingly, offering a full meal as early as 9AM. On the way out, I looked around, and saw a mini-stage, with an amp and microphone. Thanking the woman for the meal, I grabbed a business card and noticed the restaurant/cafe’s name: Lounge 6. On second glance, it made sense…the environment was more a lounge environment than anything…with a plethora of liquor bottles behind the counter. It had the atmosphere of an old lounge that might attract middle aged and later aged customers, a bit out of view from hot-spots for the young crowd…I’m curious, so maybe I’ll make a trip back for a late night drink to see what’s going on…If not, it’s a great place in Myeondong for a quiet coffee in the morning…somewhat of a niche in Seoul.