The Noryangjin area of Seoul, which nestles against the eastern end of Yeouido, is known above all else for its enormous fish market, one of the country’s largest. And we will certainly get to that, but first we’re going to go on a brief tour of the surprisingly nice neighborhood around the market.
‘Around the market’ actually means, for all intents and purposes, across the street, on the south side of Noryangjin-ro (노량진로), as apart from the market, the north side consists pretty much just of train tracks and highway. This was actually, I’m a bit embarrassed to say, my first time going to Noryangjin in almost three years of living inSeoul, and my assumption was that the neighborhood surrounding a huge fish market would be correspondingly wet, grimy, and smelly. Not so. (Even if you’re simply transferring here and not actually going out into the area you’ll get a glimpse of the neighborhood, as Noryangjin is one of the more unique transfer points on the rail system. Due to whatever tricky logistics they encountered with the market, highway, and rail lines when linking Noryangjin to the new-ish Line 9, one has to actually exit onto the street and make a short walk down the sidewalk to get from one line to the other. It’s less of a hassle than it might sound.)
To my surprise, the air wasn’t filled with the dank smell of fish but with the scents pouring out of the long row of street food stalls (포장마차) lining the south side of the avenue outside of Exit 3, each one with a cartoon bear and sign proclaiming ‘Happy Dongjak!’ at its top. While the usual tteokbokki-mandu-twigim-sundae suspects were all there, the fare here was widely varied and tilted more towards quick lunches than snacks. I passed carts offering bibimbap, bulgogi hot dogs, deopbap, omurice, hamburgers, bokkeumbap, and something that one cart called poktanbap (폭탄밥), or ‘bomb rice.’
This last one was something new to me, so I definitely had to give it a try, especially as the sucker for anything that screams ‘spicy!’ that I am. What I got was a decent-sized bowl of rice with ground beef, sesame oil, a slice of ‘cheese,’ a fried egg, two different kinds of dried seaweed, some fish roe, two generous dollops of gochujang, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Total cost: 2,000 won, less than a plate of tteokbokki will cost you at most stalls. A large serving is just an extra 500. And how was it? Pretty much as you might imagine all those ingredients thrown together tasting – which is to say it falls squarely under the rubric of comfort food.
In general, Noryangjin-dong seems to be a hungry neighborhood, as among the hagwons, cafes, noraebangs, and gosiwons, there was a preponderance of simple lunch joints seemingly popping up every few meters.
If it’s coffee you’re after, however, there’s plenty of that as well, including the place that has wrested away the title of ‘Best Monikered Café in Seoulin Charlie’s Very Authoritative Opinion on the Matter’ from Won’s in a While in Yangjae. Leave Exit 4, hang an immediate left on Jung-angcha-ro (중앙차로), and just a few meters up on your left will be (drumroll)…Coffeesh Café and Roastery. Hey, it’s Noryangjin.
The 2 ½-story café has concrete walls painted a dark gray, some exposed brick, simple wood and black metal chairs and tables, and tall windows looking out over the street. The first and second floors have plenty of seating along the windows in addition to the tables scattered about, and a sizable smoking room occupies that extra half floor, where there’s also a roasting room. One knock on the place, and it’s not a small one, was that when I tried to order the Ethiopian hand-drip I was told that they were out of that blend. When I said, OK, the Kenyan instead, I was told that every single one of the hand-drips were unavailable. I settled for a latte instead. Not exactly the sort of thing that should be happening at a place that does its own roasting, but with that name I’m willing to forgive quite a lot. It helped too that their endearing logo of a fish with a dopey smile reminded me of Goldfish crackers, a childhood favorite.
One more thing before we get to the fish market. Walk east down Noryangjin-ro from Exit 1 of Line 1 (Because of Noryangjin’s unusual configuration, each line has its exits numbered separately instead of the numbers of one station following sequentially from the other. Line 1 only has one exit, however, so this isn’t really an issue.) and after about a quarter-kilometer, just before a pedestrian overpass, you’ll come to Sayukshin Park (사육신공원).
Loyal readers will recall our visit to Changsin Station when we came across Jeongeobwon (정업원), the place where Queen Jeongsun (1440-1521) lived mourning her husband, the boy-emperor King Danjong (단종), after he was usurped, exiled, and murdered at the age of 16 by his uncle Prince Suyang (수양대군), by then known as King Sejo (세조). AtSayukshinPark the sordid little tale comes full-circle. Danjong became king at all of 12-years old after his pops, King Munjong (문종) (The son of some guy named Sejong. Maybe you heard of him.), fell ill and died only two years after taking power. Prepubescent kings have a tendency to suffer complicated relations with their relatives and Danjong was no exception. After his usurpation in 1455 and before his murder, though, an attempt was made by six ministers to restore him to the throne. Their plot was betrayed, however, and while one committed suicide rather than face the inevitable consequences, the other five were tortured and executed, along with many of their family members. They subsequently became known as the Six Martyred Ministers (사육신).
Four of them were buried on the southern banks of the Han River, where the park now stands, and in 1681 King Sukjong (숙종) (r. 1776-1800) ordered Sachung Seowon (사충서원), a Confucian school, to be built there as a memorial to the men’s loyalty and valor. Today the tombs are recognized as Seoul Tangible Cultural Property No. 8.
Entering the park the main path leads directly to a gate marking the entrance to the Shrine to Sayukshin (사육신사당). A traditional Korean building, red and blue lanterns hang out front and inside on a long burgundy altar six simple wood tablets rest. You can’t go in, but just inside the entryway is a table where you can light a joss stick to place in an urn if you so wish. A half-dozen were burning when I visited and their sweet aroma complemented the tranquil setting nicely. A large stone stele (비각) in a wooden pavilion stands in front of the shrine to the north, and across from that, to the south, the hexagonal memorial erected in 1955.
Behind the shrine and through a door in a stone wall is the cemetery (묘역) for the martyred ministers. Four tumuli sit on a grassy knoll surrounded by fir trees, while a few steps northwest sit three more, each with a small stone marker in front of it. Yes, your math is correct. Six ministers, seven tumuli. Here’s the deal: the six martyred ministers were established as being 박팽년, 성삼문, 이개, 유응부 (who are actually buried beneath their tombs), 하위지, and 유성원 (who are not). But later scholars raised doubts about the veracity of 유응부’s inclusion in the group, positing that the sixth man was actually another minister named 김문기. The question could never be answered definitively so in 1977, as a sort of compromise, a seventh tomb was constructed.
Elsewhere in the park you’ll find all the usual facilities – rest areas, an outdoor stage, exercise machines – but there’s also a wildflower garden (야생화정원) and Prospect Point (조망명소) a viewing platform looking northwest out over the river with views of Baeknyeon Mountain (백련산), Bukhan Mountain (북한산), and the golden 63 Building just to your left.
And now, the fish. Ah yes, the fish.
An elevated walkway over the rail tracks connects the subway station to the Noryangjin Fish Market (노량진수산시장), which is housed in an airplane hangar-like warehouse. You enter the market from the second floor, and before descending into the market it’s worth pausing here to take in the spectacle from above, in order to get an idea both of the market’s size and its method.
Noryangjin is Seoul’s biggest fish market and, taking into account the limitations imposed on perspective by the building’s mezzanine and overhead lighting, stretches as far west as you can see when standing at the east end, near the overpass to the subway. From up here it resembles nothing so much as the grid of an urban marine metropolis, divided into blocks by the wet concrete aisles and those blocks further subdivided into lots of individual stalls and those lots divided again into apartments housing all manner of fish and sea squirts and clams and cockles. Men pulling dollies weave in and out of the blocks moving seafood around in uniform white Styrofoam boxes, and small flatbed trucks piled high with huge bags of ice periodically drive by, unloading the material that keeps the entire system in equilibrium. (One wonders how many kilograms of ice the market uses in a single day.) And just like a city, underneath all of this the market has its own sonic hum composed of the faint bubbling of aerators, the squeak of Styrofoam, the rip of packing tape, and the continual chatter of the men and women overseeing it all.
A word on those men and women. If you should ever find yourself desponding at the more superficial aspects of Korean society – the double-eyelid surgeries and the whitening creams – an hour at Noryangjin will serve as a powerful detoxifier, a reminder that those things are but one part of a culture that’s much more complex and varied. Here the dress code tends toward fishing vests,Wellingtons, and rubber gloves. Vanity and the transport of cephalopods may not be mutually exclusive, but they are certainly infrequent associates.
Down on the floor, the wet city comes into full relief. It’s surprising to witness just how neatly the amorphous forms of squid and octopi can be laid out by professionals, and these along with the geometric tanks and tidy piles of clams and oysters make Noryangjin more orderly than you’d expect a fish market had any right to be. Above each little stand hang several lamps and a sign or two with the stall’s name. There are prawns the size of bananas, pulsing squid, and lazily waving octopi. Crabs like bumpy Frisbees that sit so thick in some tanks you wonder where the water is. At some stalls recycling water cascades from one tank to the next like wedding champagne over tiered flutes, and the air is so moist that it feels not so much as if water has been added to every available container that could hold it, as it feels that the space you’re in has somehow had the water removed from it, Moses-like.
Everywhere around you the rubber-armored brigade is busy at work. An elderly woman knifes open clams. Vendors use flat wooden mallets to pound and smooth out the ice. A man uses a band saw to cut frozen fish steaks into fist-size chunks. Middle-aged women operate small stands selling instant coffee and ramen to the workers. Crowbar-shaped picks get swung to lift, to drag, to open boxes, to move fish. Men driving trucks and mopeds zip around, taking things from Point A to Point B, and sinewy porters pulling heavily-loaded dollies do the same. They move quickly and don’t stop, so if you’re wandering through the market it’s imperative that you keep aware of your surroundings. Few deaths would be so ignominious as to be run over and crushed beneath a cascade of frozen herring.
Not all of the warehouse is fish stalls. On the building’s northeast side is the market’s most odiferous corner, where several stands sell various shrimp pastes and fermented fish sauces. Just west of them is a small forest of stacked Styrofoam boxes, each about the size of three shoe boxes lined up alongside each other. This is where seafood gets packed up for its final journey to the various restaurants and supermarkets in the city. And at the west end of the market, in a large open space, is the auction area.
As you’re walking around you’ll likely notice some guys wearing plain baseball hats with a number on their front. These are their IDs for the auction, where the day’s catch is sold off. About 2:30 a.m. a large clatter begins at the west end of the warehouse as hundreds of identical yellow bins start getting unstacked, tossed onto the floor, and filled with water. This is where the lots get placed – one flopping fish each if it’s big; three, four, five of them if they’re smaller; mesh bags filled with dozens of eels. Elsewhere large octopi are laid out alongside sleek, beautiful, meter-long tunas. Unfortunately, if you want to watch the auction you have to either stay out really late or get up really early, as it runs from approximately 4-6 a.m.
Of course what the average person usually comes to Noryangjin for is to eat. Several restaurants line the second floor. Simply buy a fish from one of the vendors in the market and take it upstairs where it’ll be sliced into hoe (회), raw fish, and the leftover bits made into maeuntang (매운탕), a spicy soup. Do bargain over the price of the fish, as this is expected; otherwise you’ll end up paying too much. You do have to pay the restaurant a small amount for the side dishes, prep work, and any drinks, but the larger cost will be the fish itself. Late at night most restaurants are closed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still eat. Quite a few stalls are more than happy to slice your purchase up right then and there, and more than a few have plates stacked up ready to go right next to the tanks.
Noryangjin-dong street food stalls
Exit 3 of Line 9
Coffeesh Café and Roastery
Exit 4 of Line 9
Left on Jungangcha-ro (중앙차로)
Hours: M-F 8 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Sat, Sun, and Holidays 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sayukshin Park (사육신공원)
Exit 1 of Line 1
East on Noryangjin-ro (노량진로)
Hours: 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Noryangjin Fish Market (노량진수산시장)
Exit 1 of Line 1
Take pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks
Hours: Open 24 hours; Auction approximately 4-6 a.m.
Parts of this post first appeared in the August 2011 issue of SEOUL magazine.