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.

 

Dean – “130 Mood: TRBL” (딘 – “130 무드 투러블”)

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(Album Cover -Dean: “130 Mood: TRBL)

        After eating some Seollangtang (설농탕 – Ox bone soup) in Myeongdong the other day, I stopped into a small record store to see what CD’s were on sale. Since I first came to Korea people have always asked me if I’m into K-Pop. I’d always say no. Both the K-Dramas and K-Pop never appealed to me. It sounded all the same to me and I didn’t sense any creativity in it. My tastes in art and music have always drawn me towards artists outside the mainstream and styles such as jazz, electronic and hip hop. I found the heavily made up, and often plastic surgery “enhanced” faces, of the dancers (or icons) on TV, dancing in perfect unison, to be interesting, but I was never moved or attracted to the music. Yet, as time has passed in Korea, and the more of my surroundings I can understand through the language and culture, the more I’ve become curious about the world of K-pop and K-Drama.

Recently, I’ve been following the famous show “Unpretty Rapstar” (언프리티 랩스타) every Friday night, the female alternative to “Show Me the Money”, an American Idol-style music competition show based around hip hop. Each week the rappers take turns preparing solo performances, battles or freestyles and each week a member or two is voted off. Along with the hosts of the show, each week a celebrity (either a famous Korean rapper or producer) is chosen to participate as a judge. The winner of the week then has the opportunity to make a song with said producer/rapper. Through following these shows I’ve started to learn more about the world of Korean rap, and thanks to the Korean subtitles played along with the raps, can follow a decent amount of what’s going on/being said. While rap is far from the easiest medium to practice my Korean listening skills, it’s still the form of music I’m drawn most to, both in American music, as a big hip hop fan, and here in Korea as well.

Back to my original point, I went to this small music store the other day, looking for a Korean hip hop CD to take home. I asked the woman working at the store if she had any recommendations. She said she doesn’t listen to music the young people are into these days, but prefers slow ballads and classic Korean rock/trot. I asked her, then, if any particular hip hop artist/CD was especially popular lately or selling well. She pointed both to EXO’s new album and Dean’s EP “130 Mood: TRBL”, saying “I’ve sold a lot of these lately”. The name “Dean” came to my mind, but I didn’t know where…then it occurred to me that I’d seen him on “Unpretty Rapstar”…”Ah, right….that guy at the penthouse who had all the girls eyeing and gawking at him…”. A few weeks ago, Dean was introduced as a special guest. Apparently he’s considered pretty hot amongst the female rappers, as they all hunkered around him, flirting and giving cheers while sharing beers together. I looked at the purple-drenched, fuzzy album cover and thought “What the heck?”. First, I asked the woman if I could by chance listen to the album first. She said no. I thought out loud, “Blind buy?”, deciding to go with it since it was relatively cheap. The woman, smiling, offered to give me a poster of Hyeona (현아), a really famous female singer here. The poster was in celebration of her most recent album “Awesome”, and pictured a side shot of her face, looking up at the sky, hair draped across her cheek, her features emphasised by layers of makeup. The woman asked “Can I give you this as well? She’s pretty, right?” I responded, jokingly  “Since she’s pretty, sure”.

As for the album, it’s less rap than R&B. Dean’s style reminds me a bit of Drake, with soft vocals and slow hip hop beats, and a bit of a drawl to his delivery. It’s good though. The album carries a bright, bouncy vibe that’s evokes images for me of clubs and night life, of neon lights and late nights dancing. It’s sound and texture, like the cover is synthetic, but the flowing beats and synths create a spacious, soft tone and feel. Overall, a good listen, and memorable enough to make me want to explore more of what Dean and other Korean rappers have to offer. I guess, this time, the blind buy worked out. I told the woman at the store I’d be back. Maybe next time with a better knowledge of what’s in, what’s new, and what I’m looking for.

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).

Hoe in Sindang Jungang Market (신당중앙 시장, 회)

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(Flounder sashimi)

When most people think of Sindang, a neighborhood located in central Seoul, they think of tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes the area’s famous for. Yet, there’s more to Sindang. I’d argue even that tteokbokki isn’t the true highlight of the neighborhood, history aside. Jungang Market, right next to Sindang Station Line 2, is home to many small restaurants offering foods ranging from jokbal (pigs feet), to kalguksu (literally “knife noodle soup”, made with wheat flour noodles), to dried fish. However, just exploring the upper level of the market it’d be easy to miss what’s underneath: a large seafood market in the shape of one long hallway, extending the underground length of the market, shops stretching into the distance across from each other.

Walking down the walkway towards the lower level I had to duck my head to avoid hitting the low hanging ceiling. After turning the corner into the lower floor, the dark, low lit atmosphere of the upper/ground level market floor was replaced with stark white light (reminiscent of lighting in large supermarkets). The walls and floor, too, were all white, as is traditional in many Korean fish/seafood markets, and older Korean women and men were sitting around in each restaurant sharing drinks, eating fish, laughing, yelling, all the above. A typical scene at a Korean market.

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(Banchan, including: sea snails, quail eggs, squash, shrimp, tofu, corn and grilled mackerel..)

We went for Hoe (or “sashimi”), cuts of raw fish served with banchan (small side dishes with assorted meats/vegetables). I’ve never really been a huge fan of seafood, particularly fish, but I’ve been wanting to expand my horizons and try a larger variety of Korean food so when Winnie suggested we try Sindang’s raw fish market I was all game. A smiling middle aged woman ushered us into her restaurant where we sat and looked over the menu, deciding on the 40,000 won (around $35 USD) set, which included a platter of raw fish with a variety of banchan, 8 sushi rolls and followed by maeuntang (a spicy seafood stew). I ordered a soju (the ubiquitous (and notorious) green bottled 1 dollar sweet potato vodka Korean’s are known to drink like beer) as I thought it’d complement the meal well. Winnie doesn’t drink so I poured her an empty shot glass of water and we cheered to our meal.

Shortly after it came out, first with the banchan then followed by the large platter of sliced, raw flounder (광어회, gwangeo hoe) served with a soysauce dipping sauce and wasabi (or in this case, died horseradish). After talking and eating our way through the main course, the maeuntang came out (literally “spicy soup”), consisting of a wide variety of vegetables, mostly strong and pungent in flavor, such as hot peppers, chilli peppers, onions, garlic, ginger and mushrooms along with red snapper fish, clams, and shrimp over a pepper sauce based broth. Everything was good, but I wouldn’t call it great. Being someone who’s never been inclined towards seafood, I wasn’t expecting to love it, so I wasn’t surprised. Yet, nonetheless, we both ate well and the experience itself was worth the trip. When going to Sindang, I’d recommend not simply limiting yourself to the famous “Tteokbokki Town”…For two reasons. One, I think there’s much better tteokbokki all across Seoul than what you can find in that area. Two, the market itself and surrounding restaurants have a lot of great food to offer. While I’m not a huge seafood guy, this market’s definitely worth a visit as well as the ground level where you can find lots of tasty street snacks and soup restaurants.

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.

World Fireworks Festival and Gaecheonjeol (세계 볼꽃 축제와 개천절)

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I took this photo yesterday while on the bus across Han-gang river. I’d met up with a group of the friends and after buying some fried chicken. We were on our way to watch some fireworks in Seoul. Yesterday was Gaecheonjeol, translated as “Opening of Heaven”, marking the day when Hwanung, a mythical deity, was said to descend to Earth to live with humanity. It’s a long fable, but the important piece is he is said to have fathered Dangun, the founder of Korea according to legend of the Gojeon Period. So, in other words, yesterday was “Korean Foundation Day”, marked each year by a fireworks show along the Han River, “international” because teams across the world participate along with a Korean team. This year, America and Philippines started the show with Korea last. The Korean show stood out with the most impressive fireworks, including a section where a major bridge crossing the river was illuminated from underneath with a waterfall of fireworks, creating a golden-yellow stream like, flowing glow. Yet, the Korean segment was also strange for me as an American viewer. It lacked the non-stop flow and momentum of an American show. Rather it proceeded at a plodding pace with gaps in between, at times waiting 30 seconds to a minute before another firework was shot off…At times the fireworks would shoot in one direction of the river, then in another. I was reminded at times of a battlefield, where shots are fired, with intermissions in between. It had somewhat of a theatrical element to me.

All in all, it was a fun night with new friends, eating chicken and sharing beer in the cold evening air. It was cold enough that a cashmere sweater and hoodie didn’t keep me warm and an older Korean man walked amongst the crowd selling blankets. On the way home, we moved slowly across Mapo bridge, packed like sardines in a hoard of Seoullites heading home for the night. As I walked with my friend, we read the Korean phrases printed across the side of the bridge, lit up at night by panels of light. The phrases along the hand rail say things like “People love me”, “How about we eat some noodles?”, “I understand you”, etc, made in an effort by the government to discourage suicides, as the bridge is infamous for. It wasn’t necessarily a somber walk, as we laughed at some of the funny phrases and chatted on our way back to Sinchon, closing the night with a shared coffee and a few beers.