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.

 

Namhansanseong (남한산성)

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A few weeks ago I made a short trip out of Seoul to Namhan Mountain Fortress, or Namhansanseong in Korean. Being a Vermonter, my roots are in the country. I grew up spending a lot of time outside, playing in the woods, biking, hiking, etc. When I first came to Seoul, the city life was overwhelming to me. I felt rushed, overstimulated and even little things like taking the subway and going to the grocery store, packed beyond what I was used to back home, felt like small adventures. Yet, after just about 3 years, this urban life has become normal to me. Recently I’ve come to miss the country. I’ve felt a desire to re-connect more deeply with nature and take more excursions outside of Seoul. I’d heard many times of Namhansanseong. I’d heard it’s a good day trip from Seoul, but my expectations were low. I thought it might provide a nice rest from Seoul life, but didn’t expect more.

I left from Seoul on Line 3 from Apgujeong on a Sunday afternoon, arriving at Namhansanseong 45 minutes later, where I took a bus up to the base of the mountain fortress. I was expecting a short, relatively flat ride, not anticipating the steep winding route the bus would take. As the bus inched, or rather zoomed, up the side of the mountain, views of the surroundings below expanded into the horizon. I was reminded of hikes I did in Hong Kong, where just getting to the trail head required long rides up the sides of mountains. The bus arrived at the base, where the old mountain palace is still in tact, nestled underneath the surrounding peaks and the fortress wall along their ridges. On the way to the North Gate, where I started the hike, were various cafes and restaurants selling anything from Sundubu (Tofu soup), various cuts of meat to Sanchae Bibimbap (Mountain Vegetable Bibimbap). There was a surprising amount of character and charm to this area and cozy, hanok-stye (traditional Korean architecture) cafe’s were pocketed away in the forest.

After reaching and passing the North Gate, I slowly made my way along the fortress wall towards the South Gate, where I’d finish my loop. I was hoping for the sky to clear. The air that day was extremely foggy and filled with smog. I brought my camera in hopes that it’d somehow clear up, a somewhat futile wish. Unsurprisingly by the time I reached a lookout providing views of Southern Seoul and the new Lotte Tower, the sky had barely changed. A dense haze/fog hung over the surroundings offering only a faint view of the buildings/landscape below. Nonetheless, the fortress itself was impressive. As I walked along the wall, images kept coming to my mind of battles between the Mongols and Koreans, stationed along the wall fending off incoming groups with arrows. I recalled a story about how Korean troops stationed at this fortress were able to fend off the incoming Mongols from this location, whereas elsewhere in Korea the Joseon elite were forced to flee to Ganghwado (an island west of Incheon) to escape the invasion.

On the way down I stopped by a local restaurant at the mountain’s base for a bowl of tofu soup before heading back to Seoul. I ate in a more relaxed, slower pace than usual, taking in the fresh mountain air and quiet; something harder to find in Seoul, allowing myself to be recharged by the energy of the mountain, before returning to my apartment nestled in the concrete jungle of Seoul. The trip turned out to be more than a simple excursion. I was impressed by the architecture and breadth of the fortress, enough to make me want to go back to try a new hiking route and hopefully catch a better view of Seoul.

Summer Heat

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It’s been a really hot summer in Seoul so far. I’ve experienced this type of heat during summer each year since first coming to Korea, but this year’s been especially rough. I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and he was saying how lately the weather forecasters in Korea can’t get anything right. As we talked over a cup of coffee he told me that people are starting to ignore anything the forecasters say. This week’s been no exception. The weather agency kept saying this week would be the beginning of a drop in the heat and humidity. A few days in and it’s been just as hot if not hotter than the prior weeks. One article I saw on a news stand here said something along the lines of, “In contrast to predictions, Seoul this week is a sauna”. It’s not just the heat itself but the humidity that can make Seoul summers so hard to endure. So it’s spaces like the subway and buses that offer some respite. It wasn’t always this way though. A few students of mine were telling me about growing up in the 80s and 90s when air conditioning wasn’t so common in Korea. They were saying how people would flock to the banks during hot days to cool down. During that time, banks were one of the few public spaces where air conditioning was used. So people would go without any particular motive other than to escape the heat.

Seoul’s changed a lot in a short amount of time, as an older man working at a tteokbokki shop reminded me last night. There’s no lack of air conditioned spaces now…as most cafes and restaurants are kept chilled, or at least have many fans on. Understanding how expensive electric bills can be for apartments in Korea I was curious why so many small businesses kept their cafe’s so cool. My friend described to me, while sharing some patbingsu (a summertime dessert food, made from ice cream, condensed milk and red beans on top of shredded ice), that in Korea businesses are charged very cheaply for electric costs relative to residents of apartments. So, the people get the short end of the stick. Meanwhile a lot of the old generation slog and sweat through the summers in old-style apartments without AC. I’m living in a rooftop apartment now. Anyone whose lived in a Korean rooftop apartment during the summer will say the same thing, “mot salgessoyo” (“can’t live”). Without AC, it’s like living in a sauna. Fortunately, I have a fan and AC to get me through, but without it I’d be looking for a way out soon.

Everyone handles it differently, but the sentiment is shared. This has been a long, hot summer. It’s clearly not just Korea…according to a recent study, it seems that this month was the hottest month in recorded history of the Earth. Couldn’t be global warming? Right? Anyway, the philosophy of many older Korean’s is fight heat with heat. So, certain body warming foods like samgyetang or yukgaejang (ginseng/chicken soup/spicy beef soup) are enjoyed to get a sweat going, with the idea the sweat will cool you down while releasing heat. I can see this, and I’ve enjoyed eating these foods and sweating profusely but this summer I’ve taken the opposite approach, eating lots of cold buckwheat noodles and fruits and iced drinks. Yet, I’ve also chosen to try and embrace the heat as best as I can. I usually moan and groan my way through humid summers. I won’t lie and say I didn’t do the same this year, but I’ve had many times too where I’m walking the streets at night, sweating and just enjoying the experience of moving and taking on the heat….Until it’s time for bed…Then on goes the fan and cross my fingers I’ll wake up alive (Kidding…but “fan death” is a superstition here).

Late August

It’s that time of year again in Seoul. War-game season. Since I first came to Seoul, my concerns about a possible escalation of violence on the Korean peninsula have lessened in terms of anxiety around the news. I’ve now been here through countless missile tests (both successful and unsuccessful) from the North, numerous threats of reducing Seoul to a “sea of ash” and at times the talk of an escalated war. I’ve adjusted to this as a normal part of life here. Coming from Vermont, about as safe and peaceful as it gets, I was a bit sensitive to the politically volatile landscape of Seoul at first. Yet, for me, there was always a fascination, albeit depressing, with the whole story and history.

What I have learned, and didn’t take long to learn, was that these threats and chest pumping from the North come routinely. There’s a pattern, as the North is typically using threats and displays of military strength to both boost national pride and cohesion amongst its people and create the right environment for appeasement through financial/economic support. Being the poorer of the two countries, with massive issues of hunger, now facing a sever drought, and next door to the South, with a distant hope of re-unification, the North has relied on military might as it’s main prop to stay economically afloat and safe. There’s a reason and rhyme behind what they do…but that is not to dismiss that a real danger does exist. Most of my Korean friends admit that there is a genuine degree of danger, but it’s so removed from the daily reality in Seoul that it’s out of mind for most people most of the time.

Anyway, I’m reminded again of this cycle as September approaches and the annual US-Korea joint military drills begin. This year they were preceded with NK accusations that the drills were cover for a secret attack. Last year during this time was a long drawn-out conflict involving land mines, K-Pop and other Korean drama audio clips being blared over the border with loudspeakers and tanks lined up alongside the NK border. Since these drills have just started, there’s a good chance for more to come this time around. Living here, the seasons are marked by these escalations. This afternoon was another mock-drill where a siren sounds at loud volume across the city and cars are told to park and the subway shuts down.

I looked outside from my Win’s apartment, up on a high floor of a tower in central Seoul as the siren blared. People below were walking around talking on their phones. The streets looked a bit quieter than usual, but beyond that, it’s like the blaring siren was simply background noise. It’s just another day of life for people here. As a foreigner, we have the privileged position of looking in, without the same concerns of this land being our foundation, our absolute home. Obviously, the longer I’m here, the more that changes. But for now, I still often feel like I’m looking in, not truly understanding what all this uncertainty means to the people around me. It’s part of the package being in this part of the world. There’s probably a lot of change to come in East Asia these next 5-10 years. For the time being, I’ll stay hoping for peace.

 

 

Gamcheon Cultural Village – Busan (부산 감천문화마을)

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My first visit a few months ago to Busan, the southwestern port city of Korea, was accompanied with great weather. The early spring weather brought with it a slight, refreshing breeze, hinting at warmer weather to come. With the clear air and sky, the conditions were perfect for a visit to Busan’s Gamcheon cultural village, the iconic mountainside slum ever-present in flyers and brochures for the city. While now a colorful smorgasbord of clustered homes, the hillside neighborhood wasn’t always so bright. This breadth of shades and colors is unique to Korean architecture, and more a reflection of youth culture than of traditional Korean design.

This area became a tourist attraction after receiving a makeover by young Korean artists, who, in 2009, were given permission to brighten up the streets/homes and staircases with touches of color, arguably at cost to the peace and quiet of its residents, as can be seen by the numerous signs saying “please be quiet” scattered along the walking courses. I’d seen photos of the village many times before Busan and had really wanted to visit one time myself. I, however, wasn’t expecting how touristy it’s become since its original makeover. The bus stop was crowded with hoards of young couples and women taking selfies at every stop, holding out long selfie sticks, striking cute poses. My friend, somewhat embittered by possibly too much time in Korea surrounded by selfie-frenzied young Koreans, lamented this state of affairs in dramatic tone…mocking this obsession with selfies and social media. The rest of us nodded, amused with his passion on this topic.

Yet, nonetheless, he had a point. The area was beautiful, but having become such a touristy place, lacked some of the feel it might once have had….of being a unique cultural enclave, home to families living real lives. It wasn’t until we descended into the labyrinth of side streets below the major lookouts and main street of shops selling ice cream and churros, amongst other treats, that we could really feel what it might be like living in such a neighborhood. Like other hillside communities in Seoul, the narrow alleyways and winding streets were lined with parked motorcycles, the major form of transportation living there, as cars simply wouldn’t fit. For this reason, we had to keep our eyes wide while walking around. As anyone who’s spent even a short time in Korea knows, the motorcyclists expect you to move out of their way, not the other way…so, unless you want to end up limping back to your hostel, don’t make any strong stands for your “right of way” while sightseeing in Korea.

On the way down the hill to bus stop, we passed a variety of small shops selling gimbap (Korea’s version of sushi rolls…a common snack), small family run convenience stores, fried chicken shops and laundromats, with locals going about their daily lives, few and far in between. Korean flags were waving in the wind, suspended from the sides of houses, a reminder of the beginning of Korea’s independence from Japan, celebrated on that very day…the day when Korea’s independence fighters gathered in Seoul to organise in protest against occupying Japan…What would those freedom fighters have thought having seen Korea now, a major economic power, drawing tourists from all across Asia to places such as this? Would they be happy with what they see? I guess I’ll have to ask the next elderly man I see here…

 

 

Suwon Hwaseong Palace (수원화성해궁)

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I first visited Suwon back in 2014, as a way to kill time during a free afternoon. At the time, I went with the aim to visit Suwon’s famous Hwaseong Fortress wall, stretching a total of 5.52 km and dating back to latter period of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The Fortress Wall, demarcated at the four cardinal directions by four gates – Janganmun (nort), Paldalmun (south), Changnyongmun (east), Hwaseomun (west) – and the Sumun gates. which flank the point where the stream meets the palace, is a highlight of the remaining Joseon history in Korea, and provides a great day-trip from Seoul. Yet, at the time, I didn’t make it to the palace itself, seated below the iconic Hwahongmun pavillion. The palace was used as a temporary palace, to retreat from war, by the king and royal family during the Joseon era. Aside from this function, the palace had a particular purpose and value as a place for King Jeongjo to worship his father’s tomb, housed in one of the palace’s quarters.

This rich history, however, wasn’t what brought me back to Suwon. Rather, it was Hong Sang Soo (a famous Korean independent film-maker)’s 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다), that planted the thought in my mind. While watching the film, one quiet night in my apartment, I recognized the film’s background. The two main characters meet, at the start of the film, inside the palace, followed by an awkward exchange where the male protagonist (Jung Jae-young) asks Kim Min-Hee’s reluctant Yoon Hee-jung for coffee. “Insists” might be a better choice of words than “ask”, typical of the desperate male characters that appear in his films. Later on the two characters meet at a cafe and end up drinking soju, paired with sashimi and sushi at a small sushi bar near the palace.

With only a plan to visit the palace, I unexpectedly stopped by the sushi bar as well. I met my friend Jun-ho one afternoon, and we spent time catching up while walking along the fortress wall, meandering our way towards the main palace, where Jun-ho explained to me both the palace’s history and unique architectural characteristics. We spoke together, mixing English and Korean, helping each other find the words we needed at times, as the language used in describing palaces and Korean history can be uncommon and complex. While a lot of what I learned has since left my mind, one image remains. It was Jun-ho’s description of the chimney’s used in the palace…To the western mind, it’s hard to imagine a chimney without a thick cloud of black smoke ascending from it’s mouth. Yet, these palace chimney’s were designed in a way so that the heat emerged clear. Jun-ho described the interior of the chimney as being composed of a complex tube system which cools/alters the smoke in such a way to reduce it to clear heat. Again, science isn’t my specialty, so I don’t quite remember nor understand how it works..but the image stuck in my mind, as another example of Joseon-era innovation.

After our walk around the palace, we stopped by the sushi bar I previously mentioned, sharing a beer over a mixed sashimi/sushi platter, as the day winded down. Scenes from Hong Sang Soo’s movies repeatedly sprung to mind as I ate, a experience I’ve repeatedly had in Korea, having watched many Korean films prior to first arriving here. The sushi was okay, nothing to rave about, but the quiet atmosphere and the cold beer made the meal a pleasant end to the day.