Seoul Sub→urban would like to thank Meagan Mastriani for inviting us to and showing me around her work neighborhood of Wangsimni. Meagan writes about food, mostly, and you can check out her take on the local dining scene at her column, Savoring Seoul, in the online magazine Honest Cooking.
I met Meagan on a recent Sunday outside Exit 9 and, being a bit of a foodie, naturally one of the first places she took me was to a small bakery, Bonnie’s kitchen (바니스), that specializes in cakes and cupcakes.
Hanging a U-turn from the exit and then a right on Wangsimni-gil (왕십리길) brought us to the bakery, which looks like the manifestation of a very domestically-minded eight-year old girl’s fantasy: the interior is all whites and pastel pinks, and is decorated with paper chain ponies. Cakes on display in the window ranged from one decorated with the nearby Hanyang University insignia to one topped with a Barbie doll to one bearing the goggled visage of Pororo. Unfortunately the bakery was closed so I couldn’t sample the goods, but Meagan vouches for their deliciousness.
If your interest in cupcakes is as constructive as it is destructive, Bonnie’s also offers baking classes. Your Korean need not be impeccable either, as Bonnie spent time living in New York, where she learned how to bake, and speaks excellent English.
Update from Liz: When I stopped by, Bonnie’s Kitchen was open! Bonnie, who prefers to go by her Korean name, Seo-Young, is super nice and informed me that the kitchen no longer sells cupcakes on the go. You can call and pre-order a minimum order of six cupcakes. She was surprised Seoul Sub→urban was interested in her store, but appreciated the opportunity and voiced her apologies that she no longer sold cupcakes on the fly to the foreigners who used to stop by frequently. We chatted for a little bit while I admired her handiwork and assured her I would be linking her bakery up to our post. For information on how to order her adorable cupcakes or sign up for a cooking class, please visit Bonnie’s Kitchen Blog.
On your way to the bakery you’ll pass the Seongdong Culture Hall (성동문화회관) and the Soweol Art Hall (소월아트홀), but the real attraction is just outside, in the adjacent park where, at all hours of the day, you’ll find old men gathered to play baduk (바둑), the Korean version of Go, and janggi (장기), a Korean version of chess derived from the Chinese Xiangqi. It’s strictly an old boys club, but the dress code is relaxed, ranging from suits to utility jackets. The men congregate around park benches in groups of three or four or half a dozen, but there’s very little chatter. Almost to a man they’re focused on the games, and the most prominent sound in the park is left to the gentle clicking of stone on wooden board.
By far the most dominant feature of the Wangsimni area is the enormous Bit Plaza (비트프라자) complex at the east end of the station, and it’s easy to get your bearings from anywhere in the vicinity by looking for the huge tower with the mother-of-pearl-esque sheen on it. The complex covers a large area and different parts are accessible from different ways, so we’ll break things down by their nearest exit.
In front of the complex proper is a bifurcated plaza, and as you come out of Exit 4, directly across the small access road is a bust of 김소월 (Kim So-Weol), which was the pen name of 김정식 (Kim Jeong-Shik), one of early modern Korea’s greatest and most influential poets. Kim died by his own hand in 1934 at the young age of 32, having published only one book, Azaleas, when he was 25. His poem entitled ‘Wangsimni’ is engraved on a stone slab next to the bust. For a bit more on Kim’s life, you might want to read this short piece in the Korea Times by the always excellent Andrei Lankov.
Behind the memorial is a small black and gold clock tower called the Lover’s Clock, which was erected to commemorate Seongdong-gu’s sister city relationship with Cobb County, Georgia, the placement of the apostrophe suggesting that it’s a rather one-sided relationship. On the same side of the plaza and just in front of the complex is the 빛-물-바람의 길 or 걷고싶은 비트거리 (Road of Light, Water, and Wind or Bit Street That You Want to Walk), depending on which sign you refer to. Just in front of Exit 6-1, it’s a small pathway behind a waterfall sculpture where water tumbles over staircase-like green glass slats. Much better as an art installation than someplace you can actually take a stroll.
Behind Exit 4 or just around from Exit 5 the other half of the plaza features a dancing fountain, where about ten kids were taking advantage of one of the last days that was warm enough for splashing, and behind that is a mural wall with one of those rather cheesy sets of painted angel wings for trick photography that seem to be popping up everywhere in Seoul these days.
Both Exit 5 and 6-1 put you right in front of Bit Plaza, near where there was some kind of car promotion going on and people sifted through bins of discount jeans on the day I visited, but Exit 12 connects directly into the middle of the complex.
Bit Plaza has a huge E-Mart and several floors of everything you’d expect at a big Seoul shopping complex: phone shops, cosmetics boutiques, salons, candy shops, shoe stores, Vietnamese noodle restaurants… The fourth floor has a pretty wide ranging food court – bagels, sushi, hamburgers – and the fifth floor is home to both an indoor waterpark and the CGV with Korea’s largest Imax screen.
On the fourth and fifth floors you also have access to outdoor plazas looking west, from which you can see N Seoul Tower and Doota in Dongdaemun popping up above the apartment complexes.
A sign near the elevators advertised the Sky Plaza on the 15th, 16th, and 17th floors, but when we tried to go up the lift wouldn’t take us any higher than the 9th. An attempt to sneak onto the service elevator was also unsuccessful, as the up button from the ninth floor did nothing.
So what’s on the ninth floor if you get stuck there in your attempts to sneak upstairs? That would be the Golf Dome, a four story (6th, 7th, 8th, 9th) driving range that’s also part of the complex. If you haven’t been, hanging out in one of these indoor driving ranges for a few minutes can be a pretty Zen experience. Almost no one talks, directing all of their focus to the small white orb set between their slightly more than shoulder width feet. There are barely perceptible rushes as clubs split the air, and an almost regular and gentle tick…tick as clubs meet balls, like the dripping of a water clock.
Connected to the main part of the Bit Plaza complex, near Exits 5 and 6-1, is the Enter 6 Fashion Square, a clothing mall with a rather odd Renaissance-y, medieval-y theme. The merchandise is decidedly 21st Century – Nike, Converse, Basic House – but the décor is a mashup of Italian Renaissance, Arthurian and Victorian England, and just anything that looks old and European really. A central atrium holds a red-lit fountain of four topless maidens, around which runs a wall with Renaissance-esque paintings, and a random bust placed next to the Starbucks sign. There were also several people in costume: a girl in a dress that made her look like Little Bo Peep, a guy who was supposed to be a court jester but looked more like a circus clown, and a woman in a red gown with white ruffles who turned back and forth like a robot mime. And, of course, the big screen above them played K-pop videos.
Behind Bit Plaza, via Exit 6, is an area of small streets filled with restaurants, bars, convenience stores, DVD rooms, and lots of goshiwons (고시원) and goshitels (고시텔) (small rooms, about three square meters, that students often rent); in short, everything a college student could want. Nearby is Hanyang University (한양대학교) and this little nook is a lively nightlife area, alive in the evenings with students blowing off steam.
Walk straight back from the exit and from Bit Plaza and you’ll come to Majang-ro (마장로) where, near the intersection with Wangsimni-gil, there is a buzzing arcade filled with video games, Dance Dance Revolution, and a singing booth where you can record yourself onto CD. There’s also a line of punching and soccer ball kicking games lined up outside if you need to take out your aggression on something. Idiosyncratically, you’ll also find a small market tucked in the middle of the area. No more than a dozen stalls, it’s an island of seniors in the sea of twenty-somethings around it.
If all goes well and your score on the punching game or dexterity with the crane is sufficiently impressive, you may then wish to avail yourself of the strip of love motels near Exit 1. Take the first right, on Wangsimni-ro-20-gil (왕십리로20길), and pick your pleasure. Just don’t answer the phone if mom calls.
Bonnie’s kitchen (바니스)
U-turn, south on Wangsimni-gil (왕십리길)
Seongdong Culture Hall (성동문화회관)
U-turn, south on Wangsimni-gil (왕십리길)
Bit Plaza (비트프라자)
Exits 4, 5, 6, 6-1, 12, 13
Enter 6 Fashion Square
Exits 5 and 6-1
Hanyang University nightlife area
Right on Wangsimni-ro-20-gil (왕십리로20길)