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September 28, 2016

A Girl's Guide to Dongdaemun

Imagine a place where you can buy everything you need at a reasonable price. In one convenient location. At any time of the day.

While such a fantasy land might only seem like the stuff of dreams, in Korea, it's a reality and it goes by the name of Dongdaemun. Here, mammoth modern shopping complexes filled with thousands of small shops tower high into the sky, glowing like beacons in the blackness of late night, when the place really starts to get hopping.

As one of the biggest fashion retail and wholesale areas in the entire world, both fashionistas and designers flock here when the rest of the city is settling down for bed to buy fabrics and decorative materials for garments, making it a great place to spot imminent trends.

It’s also a place to find quite literally anything, from second-hand junk to vintage Chanel. But it’s not only the major shopping malls that keep crowds around until daybreak. There are plenty of other food and entertainment facilities that beckon serious shopaholics undeterred by time and unaffected by exhaustion.

Shop Till the Sun Comes Up

It can be a bit overwhelming to decide where to start in Dongdaemun, an area that consists of approximately 30 shopping centers and some 30,000 stores spread throughout 10 blocks, but the Lotte FITIN Building is a good place to start.

With one of the more eye-catching facades in Dongdaemun, shoppers are enticed by the complex’s mesmerizing media facade. Surprisingly, its funky interior design is just as wow-inducing, as are the items for sale in the shopping complex’s mid-range stores. It’s far less chaotic than other malls in the area, making it a better alternative for those who are overwhelmed by the idea of browsing hundreds of small shops in a single sitting.

If your trip to Seoul doesn't coincide with any big K-pop performances, you can still get in on some YG action at Klive, on the ninth floor. Utilizing the nation's latest technology, this performance hall of sorts is one of the only places you can catch incredible one-hour shows of your favorite artists in hologram form.

As far fetched as it sounds, high-resolution images, and the splendour of a 270 degree panorama view make the shows the next best thing to actually seeing performers like Big Bang and 2NE1 live, especially since visitors get to be front and center.

While you wait for the show to start, take some time to explore the K-pop art gallery, cafe, souvenir shop and star lounge, where fans can shoot and print snapshots with their favorite idols. Don’t miss the amazing outdoor panorama view of Dongdaemun while you’re at it.

Another “apparel mill” worth visiting is Goodmorning City. The mall consists of 23 floors (!!!) with practically every kind of product—from cosmetics to electronics. Goodmorning City is a truly comprehensive facility that gives visitors an amazing shopping and entertainment experience. But it’s not only for shopping.

On the ninth floor, Megabox Dongdaemun, a state-of-the-art movie theater with 1,680 seats, offers a special late-night movie package on the weekends called “Movie All Night.” For a relatively low set price, movie-goers get access to three back-to-back movies, disposable slippers and complimentary blanket rentals.

For an additional few thousand won, you get a combo meal to ensure you won’t go hungry during the movie marathon. What better way to enjoy the late night facilities of this 24 hour neighborhood?!

Soothe Your Shopper's Fatigue

Sweat out your shopper's fatigue at Sparex, a jimjilbang (Korean-style spa) located on the third basement floor of the Good Morning City Building. Open 24 hours a day, Sparex is a great place to freshen up with a hot bath, take a nap or even get a massage.

Because Sparex is frequented by international visitors, the majority of its staff is comfortable communicating in English, so they can walk you through the process if you're a bit intimidated or hesitant about the Korean spa experience.

Although not as grand as some of the city’s other spas, Sparex is clean and pretty with all the standard spa facilities and then some. In addition to the segregated wet saunas and steam rooms, the place boasts a pretty big common area with dry saunas, an ice room, an internet cafe and snack areas, making it a great spot for couples.

If you're feeling really adventurous, opt to get a body scrub. For an additional fee, barely-clothed attendants will vigorously scrub down every inch your body (literally every inch) with a coarse towel to remove dead skin. The result, though temporarily excruciating, reveals soft, smooth skin, and is totally worth it. After all, beauty is pain.

Get Cultured 

Take a break and enjoy the mellow sounds of yesteryear at the Forest of Music, a cafe and bar not far from Good Morning City. With shelves upon shelves of classic LP records, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear any K-pop here.

You, might, however, spot your favorite idol’s autograph, as it is a popular spot for celebrities like G-Dragon, who appeared in an episode of “Infinite Challenge” that was filmed here. The rustic interior, also featured in the popular throw-back movie “Sunny” in both inviting and nostalgic, while every bit of decor is a reminder of the past. Grab a beer, or better yet a coffee, and get ready for more shopping.

Explore the other fashion mills such as hello apM (young fashion), Migliore (cheap Kpop merchandise) and the oft visited Doota Mall, widely known as a gathering place for trendsetters and a complex sells a wide variety of fast fashion items on eight floors.

Don’t miss the nightly dance and music performances on the outdoor stage, which add to the area’s animated atmosphere. Pick up a coupon book at the information desk on the first floor for special deals.

Bargain Hunting

While these gigantic malls, which would take days to fully scour, are great for finding the best in Korean fashion, don’t neglect the streets. Dotting the framework of Dongdaemun are clumps of outdoor stalls selling designer imitation shoes, bags and jewelry at discounted prices. Distinguished by their yellow canopies, these vendors set up around 9pm and operate until dawn. Try your bargaining skills to get even better deals.

Additionally, across the street from Doota, behind the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park, sits an undiscovered shopping heaven. Here, the pavement is covered with big sacks full of wholesale purchases from buyers who come from all over the peninsula. Although this is mostly a wholesale area, many vendors may not sell single items; on the other hand, there are some that do, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Architecture to the Extreme 

While you’re at it, take a walk through the other-worldly Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). The plaza’s futuristic architecture, seemingly transported from another galaxy, was dreamed up by world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid and took four years to build. It has quickly become one of the most representative structures of the area, a stark contrast to the traditional landmarks which stand nearby.


The glistening exterior of the DDP structure is made of over 45,000 differently shaped shimmering panels, which appear as if they might open and unveil extraterrestrial passengers at any minutes. While the fictional (and oh-so-handsome) alien Doh Min-joon (portrayed by Kim Su-hyun) might not be present, scenes from “My Love from the Star” were actually filmed here.

Situated on the second basement level of the main structure, the Art Hall acts as a springboard for the country’s creative industry. Here, conventions, exhibitions, concerts and performances are held, with some of the more notable being the Esprit Dior exhibition and Seoul Fashion Week.

Image & Image

If you want a glimpse into what the area was like before all the shopping complex and neon, check out the Dongadaemun History Museum. The museum aims to preserve and exhibit over 2,770 historical relics excavated from the site during the construction of Dongdaemun History and Culture Park.

A Little Bit of History

After the Korean War, refugees gathered at Pyeounghwa Market to sell clothes made from US army uniforms. It was this market that paved the way for Dongdaemun Fashion Town, which was later further developed by the influx of early post-Soviet entrepreneurs who flocked to the area in the 90s to buy clothes cheaply and resell them in Russia. Spread over a vast area, this historical clothing market may no longer by the epicenter of fashion, but it is still worth a visit, if only to look.

Pyounghwa Market is also home to a second-hand book street, which is located on the first floor of Pyeonghwa Market. While Seoul has plenty of book shops, this place is a great (and cheaper) alternative to the major franchises. For more than 30 years, vendors here have been selling a wide array of publications, including novels, magazines, foreign language titles and rare books.


With so much shopping to do, it can be difficult to squeeze in time to eat, which is why surrounding pojangmacha (street food tents) are so popular. Those that prefer a real meal should follow the tiled murals along the Cheonggyechon that illustrate interesting facts about the area to Meokja Golmok, or “Let’s Eat Alley.” Wedged between Dongdaemun Market and Jongno, this frenzied, cramped street is most celebrated for its dakhanmari (whole chicken) restaurants.

In operation for over three decades, Jinokhwa Halmae Wonjo Dakhanmari is said to be the first to open in this area, and is a good place to try. After ordering (one dish can serve two), a giant bowl of broth is served with an entire chicken, potato slices and rice cakes.

Let it boil, and add gochujang (red pepper paste) to taste.While waiting for the chicken to cook, mix the available condiments such as soy sauce, vinegar and garlic to create a tasty dipping sauce. Add a serving of noodles for the ultimate deliciousness. Be sure to get here before 10pm, which is when the restaurant closes.

If you manage to stay out until the wee hours of the morning, store your bags in the lockers in the subway station, and head past Heunginjimun (also known as Dongdaemun Gate) to Sunseonggil, a walking trail that snakes along the Fortress Wall of Seoul and connects the major four gates of the old city. Walk as far as Hyehwa’s Naksan Park and grab a spot on the wall to watch the sun rise over the city. It will most certainly be one of the more memorable moments of your day.


Get There: Take the Seoul subway to Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station (Lines 2, 4 and 5). Walk through Exit 11 or 12, and continue walk to the connected passage to reach Lotte FITIN.

Tip: Many of Dongdaemun's shops are closed on Mondays, so plan accordingly.

Interactive Map:

Words by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized. 

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September 22, 2016

5 Reasons to FALL in Love with Korea in Autumn

I can feel it. There's a crispness in the air that whispers fall is close.

So close, in fact, that the first hints of autumn colors can be seen streaking the mostly verdant leaves that canopy the green spaces of Seoul. The aroma of roasting chestnuts permeates the busy streets downtown.  Sweaters take over the storefronts of Myeongdong, Dongdaemun and Sinsa, the shopping havens of the city.

Yes, I can feel it.  And I'm giddy.

You see, there's something about autumn that makes my heart beat a little faster.  There always has been.  When I lived in America, it was tailgating and trick-or-treating that did it for me.  But here in Korea, there are a number of things that instil a sense of infatuation that keep me eagerly waiting for this beautiful season all year long.

These are a few reasons why.

1. Mountain Hikes

For one, the country is painted with a palette of autumn hues: burning crimsons, vibrant oranges, and rich browns.  It's the perfect time of year to enjoy the outdoors of Korea, whether it's taking a walk at the park or hiking one of the nation's famous mountains. One of the most well known places to see the foliage is Seoraksan National Park in the city of Sokcho, situated on the east coast of the peninsula. Inwangsan and Dobongsan Mountains in Seoul are two other beautiful and even more convenient spots.

Hikers enjoy the fall foliage at Seoraksan National Park in Sokcho.

Beautiful autumn hues paint Shinheungsa Temple in Seoraksan.

Scenes from Seoraksan

2. Fall Colors at Seoul's Palaces

The palaces of Seoul are also great destinations to witness the colorful transformation of Korea during its most aesthetic season. The images of traditional buildings and reflecting ponds draped in the colors of fall lure photographers, artists and romantics from all around the country.

When visiting the palaces, one can almost make out the kings and queens of past dynasties reflectively sipping tea under the vivid maple trees, enjoying the crisp chill in the air.

The entrance of Deoksugung Palace is majestic in the fall.

The bright colors of the palace buildings blend nicely with the yellows of the leaves.

Leaves blanket the reflecting pool at Deoksugung Palace.

3. Seasonal Cuisine

Fall is also a time of harvest in Korea and the new crops are rich and delicious. Grains are used for making alcohol and special rice cakes called songpyeon are prepared for Chuseok, but my favorite fall food is the persimmon.

Persimmons, which are a symbol of autumn in Korea, add even more color to the foliage and offer a welcomed sweetness to the otherwise savory spread of seasonal cuisine. They are particularly tasty when hardened, resembling crispy apples.  Persimmons are dried to make sujeonggwa, a punch-like drink.  The dried persimmon is mixed with ginger and cinnamon to create the perfect fall beverage.  Although it is traditionally served cold, I think it's best hot, just like apple cider.

Persimmons are a symbol of fall in Korea and are a tasty seasonal snack.

4. Pojangmacha & Street Food

Street food vendors serve up seasonal favorites like chestnuts and hodduck, a sweet brown sugar-filled pancake. The smells that emanate from the food stalls are enticing to say the least, as are the bright orange colors of the pojangmacha, Korean street food tents.

Although these tents are open for business throughout the year, they are best enjoyed in the fall, when temperatures are ideal to load up on street snacks and swig shots of soju in the open-air atmosphere offered by the tents.

The sights and smells of pojangmacha, street food tents, lure passerby.

5. Happy Seoulites

Finally, people are just happier during the fall.  I'm not sure what it is. The end of the sweltering temperatures, the time spent with family, the simple beauty that can only be created by Mother Nature. Whatever the reason, smiles are contagious and folks are generous.

Autumn is one of the few seasons that is capable of provoking all the senses, particularly in Korea.  It's a short season, lasting only about a month and a half, but is a wonderful time to experience the splendour of the country before the cold winter sets in.

Fall Foliage Forecast

Kweather has forecasted that the first appearance of 2016 fall foliage will be on September 29 in the northeast, at Seoraksan National Park. This will be followed by the central region around October 21, while Jirisan National Park in the south central region will see the colors around October 12 to 24. Usually, the fall foliage reaches its peak when the yellow and red colors of the trees cover 80% of the mountain--about two weeks after the first fall foliage is observed.


Let the countdown to fall begin!

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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September 11, 2016

The Best Things to Do, See and Eat in Insadong

Once the country’s largest market for trading antiques and artwork, Insadong has over the years developed into a bustling yet quaint destination that is now recognized as one of Seoul’s most iconic neighborhoods.

Fairly well preserved and organized to represent Korea’s culture of both the past and the present, Insadong is the premiere locale to sample unique dishes, spend an afternoon in a tea house and wander delightful shops that sell everything from traditional stationary to Super Junior posters and delicate ceramics to cosmetics.

Most tourists only stick to the main strip, Insadong Street, which is quite a shame considering that the narrow side streets that wind through the district are a treasure trove of antique shops, art galleries and tiny cafes waiting to be explored.

One of the best ways to fully experience the real Insadong is to simply lose yourself in the maze of alleys. But for those with limited time, there are still plenty of places to see to get a feel for the area.

Back to the Good Ol Days 

The entrance to the neighborhood, located just outside Anguk Station and a stone’s throw from Gyeongbok Palace, is marked by a giant stone paintbrush, a striking symbol that pays tribute to Insadong’s artistic roots. Here, you can pick up a few additional maps or brochures at the tourist information booth or grab a quick bite to eat at Miss Lee’s Cafe (별다방미스리).

This lively little eatery stirs up nostalgia with its signature lunchbox meal of sausage, kimchi pork and a fried egg sprinkled with seaweed over a bed of white rice. Known as a doshirak in Korean, the lunchbox is to be shaken before eaten, just as school children did back in the good ole days.

The decor, primarily made up of old-fashioned posters and toys, and thousands of love notes left by previous diners, is especially adorable. As such, Miss Lee’s Cafe provided the perfect backdrop as a filming location for an episode of the popular Korean reality show We Got Married.

Just as kitschy as Miss Lee’s is Toto’s Nostalgia Museum and Giftshop, a fun museum cluttered with Korean toys and trinkets from the 1970s and 80s. Although the collection is a bit chaotic, it’s a great place to check out (with your eyes, not your hands) characters and comics unknown outside Korea, mixed in with a few Japanese and American classics. While most of the items are not for sale, you can purchase vintage Korean candy, stickers, stamps and kiddy toys for prices as cheap as the admission (2,000 won).

Get Your Art On

As the art capital of Seoul, it would be a crime to miss Insadong’s galleries that showcase a wide variety of traditional and contemporary art. Many of the neighborhood’s galleries are completely free to explore so be sure to dedicate at least an hour to browsing a few exhibits. Gana Art Space is one of the better known cultural spaces in the neighborhood and is a breeding ground for up-and-coming artists emerging on the scene.

Shop Til Ya Drop 

Down the street, Ssamziegil beckons visitors with its imaginative architecture, whimsical shops and rather bizarre cafes and dining establishments. It has become the beating heart of Insadong since it opened its doors in 2004 and is the perfect place to find one-of-a-kind quality gifts. (Unlike most of the made-in-China wares sold on the bordering streets.)

Follow the spiraling walkway upward from the cheerful courtyard to be treated to a fantastic window-shopping experience as you peer into the glass facades of over 70 shops, many of which incorporate Korean themes into their wares, making them perfect souvenirs for all your loved ones at home. Or yourself. Because you deserve it.

For the Hallyu fan, Pattern Craftshop sells orgel, hand-painted music boxes; some play the traditional anthem “Arirang” while still others feature a variety of K-pop hits. Those with traditional tastes might like something from Art Sense, Korea’s only fan shop that exclusively produces and sells fans. The all-natural cosmetics and skin care products that incorporate Korean herbs found at Skylake will excite any beauty junkie.

Embrace Your Inner Kid 

Upon reaching the rooftop of Ssamziegil, visitors can take in views of the bustling streets below before settling into Ddo-Ong Cafe, sometimes referred to as the “poop cafe.” Here, colorful mini plungers hang delicately from trees, old fashioned squat toilets are placed tastefully throughout the shop and patrons take selfies with borderline offensive poop-shaped dolls.

Yet, the design isn’t too over the top and is worth a visit, if only for a laugh. The ddongbang, or poo-shaped pastries filled with red bean paste, sold outside the cafe also warrant a try.

Also located on the rooftop is a small garden and coffee vendor where couples can purchase love tags and write messages to one another. This also leads into the Alive Museum, a cheesy but fun gallery that engages visitors in a 3D art experience, in which the exhibited works create the illusion that visitors are part of the art.

While you’re at it, try on a hanbok and gather around the Chalcak sticker photo booth studio, where you can use props and wigs, hilarious backgrounds and your very best poses to create colorful stickers that you can take home as a memory of your time in Ssamzigil.

Kids will appreciate the paint-your-own ceramics and candle making studio at the experimental workshops in the basement.

A Taste of the North 

Get a taste of North Korean style dumplings at Gung, a family-run restaurant owned by an kindred grandmother who escaped the North during the Korean war. The Gaesong mandu, stuffed with ground pork, Chinese cabbage and pumpkin, is served perfectly steamed and packs a lot of flavor into each bite.

The dumplings, which are bigger and rounder than the South Korean version, pair well with the restaurant’s bossam, or tender boiled pork slices in lettuce wraps, and kimchi, which is made fresh in front of the restaurant throughout the week.

Don’t expect the dishes at Gung to be overly inventive or even photogenic, as the restaurant is a simple one that captures the traditional tastes of the past, which is perhaps the best thing about this lovely lunch spot.

Tea Time 

Just across from Gung is Kyung-in Museum of Fine Art, a collection of three galleries canopied by trees and surrounded by flowers, a setting that is particularly stunning in spring. The small galleries’ architecture makes use of their surroundings to create a harmony between the indoor spaces and nature. Exhibitions frequently change, but past artworks have included paintings and traditional handicrafts from Korean artists.

The highlight of the artspace is Dawon, the oldest tea house in Seoul, housed in a hanok. In warmer months, it is recommended that you take advantage of the patio, or if you happen to avoid peak hours, the wooden pavilion, to soak up the space’s natural beauty while sipping your tea.

Elusively tucked away on an ivy-consumed alley behind Ssamziegil is Moonbird Thinks Only of the Moon, a lesser known tea house, but one with even more charms. Stepping through the elusive sliding door is almost like stepping back in time to a more simplistic and magical Korea. Shrouded in rustic decor, old household tools and jars of fermenting fruit, one becomes enchanted by the tea house’s charms.

A multi-language menu consists of various homemade fruit and herbal teas, each of which promises a different nutritional benefit. Safe bets include the omija (five-flavored berry) and yuja (Asian citrus) teas, which are served with a complimentary sampling of rice cakes and tea snacks.

The Temple Life 

After exploring the remainder of Insadong Street, continue on to Jogyesa, one of Seoul’s most frequented Buddhist temples, thanks to its central location. Although it may not possess the solemnity of Korea's rural mountain temples,

Jogyesa’s larger-than-life bronze Buddha statues, 500-year-old locust and baeksong trees and chanting monks create a spiritual environment. The temple is a must-see during Buddha’s Birthday, when the grounds are decked out in colorful lanterns and performers from all the world over come together to celebrate the Buddha’s life and teachings.

You can even spend a day in the life of a monk through the Temple Stay program, in which participants engage in activities such as chanting, meditation and service. Night owls be warned: wake-up calls during the stay are as early as 3:30am so be prepared. The Information Center across the street from the temple has plenty of pamphlets and books to assist you in finding the right program for you.

On the fifth floor of the same building is Barugongyang, a modern yet traditional restaurant that serves up customary Korean Buddhist temple cuisine. Strictly vegetarian, this type of cuisine uses only natural flavoring agents such as kelp, mushroom, wild sesame seeds and raw soy bean powder to assist in maintaining nutritional balance while at the same time delivering a simple, clean taste.

Moreover, the food lacks the ingredients usually found in Korean cuisine such as onion, garlic and chili powder; who would’ve thought Korean food could lack this holy trinity of ingredients?

Adorned with minimalist furnishings in natural color schemes and surrounded in floor to ceiling windows which let in plenty of light, Barugongyang exudes a relaxing atmosphere. On the menu is a variety of mid-range to expensive pre-fixed seasonal course meals, each offering up an eclectic sampling of dishes commonly found in formal monastic meals such as dwenjang (bean paste) soup, lotus leaf rice, seasonal salads and fermented vegetables.

For those looking to try temple food on a budget, consider stopping in Barugongyang Kong, a popular lunch buffet, on the second floor.


Although Insadong’s nightlife options are limited — most places shut down around 9pm — there are a few makgeolli (Korean rice wine) pubs that are worth visiting. The best in the neighborhood is Story of the Blue Star, a hidden gem located just a stone’s throw from the subway station.

Adorned by colorful prayer flags, smiling Buddhas and old movie posters (many of which feature the actor-turned-owner’s previous film and theatrical productions), the pub is rustic, unpretentious and popular with rowdy businessmen. Fresh makgeolli is served Korean style, in brass kettles, and pairs well with the kimchi dubu, homemade kimchi and tofu pyramids.

For something a bit less traditional (and less healthy), Brew 3.15 serves up some of the best chimaek in the neighborhood. This dish, which gets its name by combining the words chicken and maekju (beer), has become all the rage throughout Asia in recent years and is a perfect late night meal (or snack).

Start your order with a beer sampler to find the right brew for you; all of the craft beer on tap pairs beautifully with Brew 3.15’s signature fried chicken, which is served up with a variety of homemade dipping sauces. Finish off your meal, and night, with a deep fried chocopie smothered in ice cream. (Yeah, you heard that right!)

To Get There: Take the Seoul subway to Anguk Station (Line 3, Exit 6). Walk straight for one minute then take a left just before the giant paintbrush status.

More Neighborhoods Like This: Seochon Village; Samcheongdong

Nearby Neighborhoods: Myeongdong; Seochon Village; Samcheongdong


Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized. 

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September 5, 2016

Tradition Meets Tomorrow in Seochon

Seochon Village is one of the most historical neighborhoods in central Seoul. Often associated with the middle class of merchants, physicians and translators of the Joseon dynasty, it was once known as the center of Korean literature.

Stretching from the western gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace to the base of Inwang Mountain, it is an area made up of fifteen compact neighborhoods that seem to have dodged the modernization that has affected the remainder of the city. Here, clusters of traditional homes crowd tiny alleyways that have winded through the district for centuries.

While parts of Seochon Village have been converted into commercialized areas, the neighborhood, as a whole, retains its traditional aesthetic. Unlike nearby Samcheongdong, Seochon lacks coffee franchises and crowds, boasting more private, cozy spots that remain more or less a secret to Seoulites.

A Royal Walk Through Time 

From exit 5 of Gyeongbokgung Station, you will emerge right into the main palace of Seoul, which is worthy of an afternoon visit on its own. But for now, start your walking tour of Seochon at the National Palace Museum of Korea, which opened in 1992 and boasts over 20,000 royal artifacts from Korea’s royal sites.

Uncover the secrets of the kings and queens through various exhibits, which are themed around ancestral rites, palace architecture, the sciences of the Joseon dynasty and royal life.

Try a cup of mogwacha (quince tea) and royal tteokbokki, a mild version of the popular street food of today, at Gogung Tteurak (고궁뜨락) on the first floor to experience a bit of cuisine that was favorited by Joseon royalty.

Exit Gyeongbokgung, make your way along the picturesque palace wall and explore the alleys of Tongui-dong Hanok Village (통의한옥마을), the former home of several famous figures including painters Yi Jung-seop and Yi Sang-beom, and poets Yun Dongju and Yi Sang. The majority of these remaining homes are gaeryang hanok, which were largely constructed after the 1910s in accordance with a government housing plan.

Most notable are the wonderful early 20th century doorways, adorned with elaborate metal fittings that spill into courtyards, a trademark of hanok architecture. Some of these structures have been converted into European bistros and independent cultural spaces, including Jean Art Gallery.

This space, which hosts both individual and collaborative exhibitions, is a pioneer of the neighborhood gallery scene. Since 1972, it has promoted contemporary Korean artists in Japan, as well as Japanese artists, such as Kusama Yayoi, in Seoul.

Established in 2003, the small yet intimate Brain Factory is a non-profit exhibition space dedicated to promoting Korean contemporary art and artists. It also functions as an open studio for young artists to cultivate their creativity and confidence through a variety of workshops and training programs. Exhibits, which range from sculpture to photography, are constantly changing and guests are encouraged to browse the works on display at their own pace.

If furniture is more your thing, head down the street to MK2. Two designers run this chic establishment that borders between a gallery and a cafe. Its modern interior is bright and minimalistic, with a focus on its furniture, which changes frequently. Yet, unlike many gallery-cafes, MK2 has a really great menu. Order a radler or a glass of sangria as a pre-lunch apéritif.


A Taste of The Past 

Korea’s traditional markets, which were once on the brink of extinction thanks to the influx of supermarkets and discount stores, have been revived in recent years as a result of an increase in interest in all things traditional. Nowhere can one better experience the vibrancy of these cultural relics than at Tong-in Market, which draws in crowds with its Doshirak Cafe.

This bare bones dining locale gives visitors the rare opportunity to sample a wide selection of Korea’s most iconic cuisine, from dubu buchim (pan fried tofu) to various types of jeon (savory pancakes). Grab a doshirak (lunch box) and a handful of tokens for 5,000 won on the second floor, and exchange the coins for traditional tasty treats, allowing the aromas to lead you from stall to stall.

Walk through the market and take a left onto yet another historical Seochon street that hasn’t seen many significant changes over the years, with many of the businesses having been established for decades.

Dae-oh Book Store 33 Cafe, for example, is the oldest second hand bookshop in Seoul, having opened its doors in 1951, and its worn signboard and rickety yet charming facade validate this fact. After the owner passed away, his wife, Kwon Oh-nam, decided to keep the store open for business and it has since transformed into a cafe that is a popular filming location for dramas such as "Sangeo (Shark)", starring Son Ye-jin and Kim Nam-gil.

Despite the changes, the cafe still resembles the bookstore it once was and has incorporated the original furniture and knick-knacks of the family. Hanji (Korean paper) dolls, an antique wardrobe, wooden sticks once used for ironing and black and white photos all contribute to the homey and nostalgic atmosphere. Order a cup of watermelon juice—the cafe’s signature beverage—and have it served up with a stick of dalgona, old-fashioned Korean candy made from burned sugar.

For something a bit healthier, try the traditional teas at the Tongin Herbal Medicine Dispensary (통인한약국), where two pharmacists will choose the best medicinal herbs for you based on your ailment, whether it be a cold, achy joints or exhaustion (which you might just be experiencing after all your Seoul searching!) It’s hard to miss this traditional gem… just follow the strong but pleasing scent of herbal medicine.

An ideal spot for an afternoon meal, The Story of Lotus (연이야기) serves lunch sets similar to Japanese bento boxes using fresh, local ingredients with a focus on one: the lotus.

Inspired by the beauty and freshness of the flower at a global garden expo, the owner decided to incorporate the flavor into the restaurant’s dishes, which are a healthy alternative for local office workers looking for a quick to-go meal.

Visitors can also dine in at this bright and homey restaurant and will most certainly appreciate the ceramic ware on which dishes like doenjang (fermented bean paste) soup, kimchi, and Hamyang lotus leaf wrapped rice is served. For a few extra thousand won, diners can upgrade their meal to sample delicate Korean sweets which are beautifully presented as if they were small morsels of art.

A Stroll Among Shops 

Swing back around to a Seochon street that has been more commercialized, but still maintains its old world charm. It feels quite similar to Garosu-gil and Gyeongnidan-gil, but with far better prices and smaller crowds. Even if you’re not in the mood to shop, Seochon boasts a slew of charming gift stores owned by friendly proprietors. Clustered together, it’s easy to walk from one to the next and window shop without feeling pressured to make a purchase.

Ladies will love the tiny boutiques, such as Sugamo, which sells gorgeous bags and scarfs, and Kim’s Boutique, which has a great selection of colorful women’s dresses with a haute hippie look, designed specifically by the brand’s owner. Zenana Jam is a tiny shop that specializes in a variety of preserves and scones that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, with flavors such as strawberry curd, green tea milk and garlic. Whether you prefer sweet or savory, there’s a variety for you.

Further along the road, Tomoro (short for Today is More Romantic) sells a nice selection of eco-bags, candles and diffusers. Woo Yeon Soo Jib is another favorite of design fanatics. Though on the smaller side, its wares are eclectic and have all been created by local artists. The shop’s fanciful ferris wheels in the window lure in visitors, and its utterly adorable furry lamas and creative playing cards make for great gifts.

Life’s Simple Pleasures 

Stop in at nearby Flower & Cafe do, a flower shop/cafe housed in a remodeled Korean traditional house. As soon you step inside the door, your mind will be put at ease, thanks to the greenery that colors the room and the scent of fresh flowers that perfume the air. Seemingly straight out of a story book, this enchanting cafe is a nice spot to relax and watch couples and families as they pass.

After experiencing the contemporary contributions of today’s young, hip artists, see how the neighborhood became a hub of Seoul’s art scene. Just around the corner from Flower & Cafe do is the Park No-soo Art Museum, a structure so unexpected and strikingly different from its surroundings that it will elicit a double take... or two. This impressive red-brick home was built in 1937 combining Korean, Western and Chinese architectural styles, and was the residence of the renowned Korean painter Park No-soo.

Donated to Jongno District Office, along with his private collection, it has since become a cherished museum open to the public. Park’s unique style of concise and bold brushstrokes and vivid colors merge with traditional subjects, creating a perfect harmony of the old and the new, much like Seochon itself.

Purchase a ticket outside the house to get access to a selection of his paintings inside the home, which is decorated with Park’s own personal belongings. Just as impressive as the structure is the garden that traces its periphery. Admire stone statues, relax at the pond, or climb up the hill to get an ariel view of the neighborhood.

Tosokchon Samgyetang, a Seochon institution that is without a doubt the purveyor of ginseng chicken soup, is the perfect way to wrap up your visit to Seochon. Using only domestic ingredients, the beautifully designed restaurant with a seating capacity of over 400 attracts diners from all over the country, from presidents to pedestrians curious about the long lines.

The revitalizing samgyetang, which is made with a whole young chicken, glutinous rice, gingko nuts, ginseng, garlic and jujube, as well as 30 different types of medicinal herbs and grains, is especially popular in the summer, as its ingredients are believed to protect the body and mind from the intense Korean heat.

Alternatively, Sejong Village Food Street (also known as Geumcheongyo Market) is a lively place to wander at dinner time, as it is one of the go-to drinking areas of local office workers. This tiny alleyway is chock full of small restaurants with seating that spills out onto the street. Keep an eye out for the elderly woman who stells tteokbokki from an open-air stall with only a stove and a few boxes… trying her version of the street food might will undoubtedly be a memorable experience. Restaurants such as BeeZza, where you can get great pizza and local craft beer, shows the contemporary side of this age-old market area that is ever-developing.

While the new elements of the neighborhood are attractive, the best part about Seochon is its rich history and, as such, should be greatly appreciated, respected and cherished by visitors.

To Get There: Take the Seoul subway to Gyeongbokgung Station (Line 3, Exit 5).
More Neighborhoods Like This: Gyeongnidan/HBC; Samcheongdong
Nearby Neighborhoods: Insadong; Buamdong; Samcheongdong

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized. 

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August 30, 2016

Seodaemun: An Enchanting Journey Off-the-Beaten-Path

Korea may be one of the world’s leading economies and fastest developing nations, but its modern history is a turbulent one. To the outsider, it can be difficult to spot the signs of Seoul’s struggles and suffering through the glitz and glamour of the city’s sparkling facade. But if one looks in the right places, where the traumas of the not-too-distant past have yet to be concealed, its battle scars become more visible.

The area around Dongnimmun is one of these places and a visit here is most certainly one way to better understand the tenacious mentality and steadfastness of the nation’s people.

Tastes of the Past 

A walk down from Dongnimmun Station brings one to Daeseongjib, a hidden gem famous for its doganitang, or ox knee stew, that is hardly known to tourists. Sure, the dish’s name might not be all that appetizing, but this slow-cooked soup of beef and cartilage is just as delicious as it is nutritious.

Served with salt and chopped green onions on the side, it can be seasoned to taste, and pairs well with the restaurant’s spicy kimchi. The hole-in-the-wall atmosphere only adds to the appeal of Daeseongjib, which has been in operation for about 60 years now.

Cross the street and make your way to Yeongcheon Market, where covered stalls offer an abundance of colorful produce. Further down, an unexpectedly large market houses traditional fare: aromatic mountain herbs, jars of ginseng and an incalculable supply of pickled vegetables.

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There are also quite a few atypical wares like finches and goldfish, which make for some pretty interesting travel photos. Snack on the market’s famous kkwabaegi (twisted doughnuts) before exploring the rest of the area.

The Darker Side of Seoul 

Make your way to Independence Gate, from which Dongnimmun Station gets its name.

This triumphal arch was constructed in 1898 to replace Yeonggeun Gate, a symbol of the submissive diplomacy of Korea where foreign envoys had previously been received. The granite stones that comprise the monument, which is modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, remain a symbol of the nation’s strength and steadfastness through that harsh time in history. Near the gate stands a statue of renowned independence activist Dr. Seo Jae-pil, who initiated the construction of the gate.

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Past the arch is Independence Park, a green space with plenty of areas to rest, picnic or play badminton. It is also chock full of memorials and tributes to Korea’s fight for sovereignty. Seodaemun Prison History Hall is the largest and perhaps most important of these.

Once a jail for Korean independence activists during Japanese colonial rule, it's now both a history museum and a monument that celebrates Korea's vigorous fight for freedom, and is dedicated to the movement’s martyrs.

The red brick buildings seem charming enough at first glance, but not enough to hide the terrors that occurred inside them. The prison cells, which have been converted into expansive educational exhibits, display pictures of the torture methods used by the Japanese against the unwavering freedom fighters. A noose still hangs in the building where executions were held and from it emanates a palpable dark energy.

Even more unsettling than the execution building is the corpse removal tunnel near the structure's exit that was only just discovered in 1992. It was here that the Japanese attempted to cover up their horrendous actions. The museum is tragic, but enlightening in that it provides a unique glimpse into the troubles and triumphs the nation endured for their chance at independence.

A Shamanic Stroll

Just a short walk from the Seodaemun Prison is Inwangsan Mountain. It can be a bit tricky to find but the experience is well worth the effort. Follow the signs just outside exit 2 of Dongnimmun Station past the I’Park apartments to the wooden gate of the temple complex. Pass hand-painted murals of terrifying but beautiful tigers and guardians that are meant to ward off evil spirits to get to the main hiking path.

Inwangsan is a mountain not only known for its beauty, but also for its magnificently dressed shamanic inhabitants. Korean shamans, or mudang, are usually women and are seen as the intermediaries between humans and the heavenly gods and nature spirits.

They are easy to spot on the mountain, as they are often chanting or dancing to the cacophonous tunes of traditional instruments, performing gut. These services are held to bring luck, cure illnesses or exorcise evil spirits, and the place you’re most likely to experience one of these ceremonies is at Guksadang Shrine, not far from the complex entrance. The shrine is said to be the country’s most important shamanist structure, as it is believed to house the spirit of King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty.

The otherworldliness of the chanting is only enhanced by the mountain’s eerie rock formations. Seonbawi, or “Zen Rocks,” take the appearance of meditating robed monks and are a popular spot for women praying to have children, as they are associated with fertility. Still other boulders further up along the path resemble skulls and bats.

Despite these rather creepy associations, the mountain offers phenomenal views of downtown Seoul, while the peace and quiet, which is only occasionally interrupted by the ring of a gong or beats of a drum, is refreshing.

From this point, you can turn around and head back to the station or continue along the Seoul Fortress Wall for more fresh air and city views. Just be sure that you wear decent walking shoes and bring along plenty of water, as the trek can get steep and uneven in some parts. Follow the signs labeled “Changuimun Gate” to get to Buam-dong, where mountainside cafes and quaint galleries await.

To Get There: Take the Seoul subway to Dongnimmun Station (Line 3, Exit 3).

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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