My girlfriend and I got off a mid-afternoon train at Jegi-dong Station along with about 40 other people. From a quick scan down the platform, it looked as if we were the only ones under 50. This may not be especially surprising, given that Line 1 runs through older parts of town popular with an older crowd, but of those Line 1 stations, Jegi-dong in particular has a close association and a long history with the elderly, the ill, and the convalescing. This is most apparent at the neighborhood’s well-known herbal medicine market, but the tradition goes back much further.
Northwest of the station, out Exit 1, and right on Muhak-ro (무학로) is Anam Rotary (안암로터리). Now an area packed with cheap restaurants, bars, cafes, cell phone shops, and other things betraying its proximity to Korea University (고려대학교), it was once the site of the Bojewon (보제원), the Joseon royal hospital, as a plaque on the rotary’s southeast side notes. Located in a spot convenient to travelers approaching Dongdaemun (동대문), the city’s east gate, from 1393 to 1895 the hospital gave free accommodation to travelers and provided medicine for the sick, as well as hosting the occasional banquet for a retired statesman.
Those looking to learn more about the history of medical care and Oriental medicine in Korea can visit the Seoul Yangnyeongsi Herb Medicine Museum (서울약령시한의약박물관), a block or so down Wangsan-ro (왕산로) from Exit 3. So you say to yourself, ‘I am not one of those’? Well, I said that too but I went anyway, and I’m kind of glad I did. A visit to the museum begins overdramatically, with a brief video of symbols and herbs whooshing across a wall-size screen, before the screen reveals itself to actually be a door and opens, ushering visitors into the exhibit hall. Once inside, however, things are more modest, and better. For starters, the museum is small. An hour would likely be enough for an exhaustive viewing. (There are additional facilities in the museum where you can sample herb tea, grind your own medicine and get a health checkup.) It’s also neatly arranged and informative, while also recognizing that most visitors aren’t looking for overly exhaustive explanations. Most, though not all, exhibits have basic English explanations.
We were escorted into the exhibit by a smiling, grandfatherly old attendant dressed in everyday hanbok who spoke fluent Japanese and enough English to endear himself. Inside there’s a miniature recreation of Bojewon, old tools and medical tracts, information on famous Korean physicians, and the Dongindo (동인도), an anatomical chart for acupuncture. The most eye-catching display is the jars of all the various herbs and animal (parts) used in traditional Korean medicine, including, but not limited to, seahorses, frogs, geckos, bats, and deer penis.
Considering the inclusion of some rather unique ingredients in traditional medicine, it may behoove potential shoppers to pay the museum a visit before heading to the Seoul Herbal Medicine Market (서울약령시), just outside Exit 2. Past the merchants clustered around the exit selling Korean sweets, fruits, and dried fish, the side streets to the north are about the closest thing to a real-life Diagon Alley you’re likely to find anywhere. Tart-sweet odors fill the air; bundles of sticks and twigs dangle from metal grilles; foot-long dried fish bound together at their tails hang suspended upside-down, their open mouths fanning out at angles in a toothy bouquet; bags of roots, mosses, and dried flowers, the lips of the bags rolled down, sit on tiers outside of shops; elk and deer horns rest on shelves; ginseng floats suspended in bulbous glass vases full of alcohol, their tendrils drooping and splayed like the map of a river delta; and grand wood Chinese medicine chests nearly take up entire walls, segmented into dozens and dozens of identical drawers, each with one or two Chinese characters on either side of a plain knob, concealing the potions kept inside.
Formalized herbal medicine markets were first established during the reign of King Hyojong (1649-59) in Daegu, Jeonju, and Wonju, and were held twice a year, in spring and fall. They spread and then contracted, and now there are two such markets in Korea: the one in Daegu and the one in Seoul. The Jegi-dong market covers 265,000 square meters, has over 1,000 clinics, wholesalers, and resale shops, and deals 70% of the Oriental medicine in the country. Most of the herbs and remedies for sale here come from China, and most things are grown on herbal medicine farms, as a worker at Songgang Oriental Clinic (송강한의원) told me as I looked at five-centimeter diameter cylinders of centipedes tied together. There were some from China, some from North Korea, and some from South Korea, which, I was informed, are the best. Drinking the water that they’ve been boiled in is supposed to be good for your back, rheumatism, and stomach cancer. Or so I’m told. I’m going to have to take that one on faith. Things that may be rather more palatable are what Songgang’s employee told me are good for winter colds and flus: Chinese bellflower (도라지), omija (오미자), and liriope (맥문동).
The Herbal Medicine Market is a vital piece of tradition in the modern city, probably one of the few places where you’ll still sometimes see men strolling about in hanbok, but it’s just one part of an entire neighborhood of markets. The sidewalk in front of the Herbal Medicine Market is a riot of butchers, grain sellers, octopus tentacles on ice, and spillover medicinal goods, like the jagged aloe leaves laid out at one stall. Following the sidewalk and then crossing Gosanja-ro (고산자로) brings you to Gyeongdong Market (경동시장), an enormous place that, much like Jungang Market (중앙시장) at Sindang Station had, stunned me simply by virtue of its existence. It was huge, but I’d never ever heard of it, likely because this too is a locals-only place – northeast Seoulites getting groceries and that’s it.
Dusk and a light rain were falling when I arrived, and bare light bulbs in market stalls were flicking on, giving the streets and interior aisles a sheen. A string of ginseng sellers had roots piled up on tables, as did the chicken seller with dozens of whole raw birds. Ears of corn were half shucked, displaying the purple kernels to passers-by; beans sat in big mesh bags and ruby red apples in cardboard boxes. Chopped-off heads and tails filled a white bag at a fishmonger’s stall, and someone else sold brown arrowroot (생칡즙) and camouflage-green motherwort juice (익모초즙) from the same type of plastic containers that dispense slushees at 7-11. My girlfriend, a born-and-raised Seoulite, said the market felt more like China to her than Korea, and I had to agree.
Gyeongdong runs into Cheongnyangni Wholesale Market (청량리 청과물 도매시장), so that it’s hard to tell where one ends and one begins, but the latter seemed to be a bit closer to Cheongnyangni Station, so we’ll save it for when we visit that stop.
As perhaps is to be expected, much of the neighborhood has a pretty old school vibe, and we first noticed this before we even left the station, where an old 차타는곳 sign hung by Exit 5. Just outside the exit is the Jeongneung Stream (정릉천), lined by old, rundown three-story apartments. We visited its lower stretch when we were at Yongdu Station, and as we’d noticed then, the part near Jegi-dong had a very low water level, trickling through mud and the space between stepping stones. Further upstream it was stagnant and algal. Some older neighborhood residents were using the streamside exercise equipment or reading the paper under a bridge.
Paralleling the watercourse north along Muhak-ro, a block down Wangsan-ro from Exit 1, I first came to Yongdu Market (용두시장), near the corner of the two streets. At Muhak-ro-37-gil (무학로37길) we noticed a little stand holding a baby pine tree that had been painted with an advertisement: 이발 컷트 4,000 (Haircut 4,000 won). The barbershop in question was located in a decrepit-looking building – gray paint peeling everywhere, revealing concrete just a shade darker underneath it like a blotchy rash – that also housed a tiny restaurant and the small Yongdu Market. In addition to 4,000 won cuts, the barbershop offered a 1,000 won discount if you were over 80 and coloring for 5,000.
Surrounding the market were machinists and smithies scattered about in equally old buildings. A group of old men was playing Go Stop inside one doorway and a separate group of old women was doing the same as they cleaned vegetables. Other machine shops were on Muhak-ro on the way north to Anam Rotary, including one where the smooth croon of Frank Sinatra was pouring out of the stereo.
On the southwest side of the Muhak-ro – Wangsan-ro intersection is the Korea Aviation College (한국항공전문학교) and on the street outside, sitting on a wheeled frame was a used turbofan engine, rather banged up, but oddly impressive in a I’ve never actually seen a turbofan engine, let alone just sitting on the streets of Seoul kind of way.
Before you get to that, however, coming from the station (Exit 6) you’ll notice another piece of sidewalk art: a gold-colored statue of a saluting baby squid marking, as is noted on the statue’s base, 용두동쭈꾸미특화거리, Yongdu-dong Jjukkumi Specialty Street. The area around this side of the intersection is known for having a number of restaurants that serve jjukkumi, and my girlfriend and I went to one, 나정순할매쭈꾸미(Na Jeong-sun Halmae Jukkumi) for dinner. As we took our shoes off one of the workers asked us how many were in our party, and before we even sat down the jjukkumi in its blood red sauce was on our table’s burner, cooking away.
The jjukkumi came with sesame leaves (깻잎), and each table had bins of garlic, pickled garlic, chopped carrots, ssamjang (쌈장), and a wasabi and soy sauce. I went through a lot of carrots. I love spicy food, and have a pretty high heat tolerance, but the jjukkumi, like nakji bokkeum (낙지볶음), was one of the spicier things I’ve had in Korea, with a heat that accumulated so that the first bite wasn’t particularly potent but each subsequent one built a little bit on the heat from the last one so that by the end of the meal I was grateful for the bokkeumbap (볶음밥) that used up the rest of the sauce and neutralized much of its heat. And I’d happily submit myself to it all over again tomorrow, a submission I’d hardly be alone in. We arrived just before 6 p.m. and got the second to last table, and the place was ceaselessly full until we left, 나정순 herself steadily turning people away with a brisk ‘No tables!’
Bojewon Site (보제원터)
Right on Muhak-ro (무학로) to Anam Rotary (안암로터리)
Seoul Yangnyeongsi Herb Medicine Museum (서울약령시한의약박물관)
Straight on Wangsan-ro (왕산로)
Hours | March – October: 10:00 – 18:00; November – February: 10:00 – 17:00; Closed Mondays
Admission | Free
Phone: 02) 3293-4900~3
Fax: 02) 3293-4905
Seoul Herbal Medicine Market (서울약령시)
Gyeongdong Market (경동시장)
Straight on Wangsan-ro (왕산로)
Jeongneung Stream (정릉천)
Yongdu Market (용두시장)
Straight on Wangsan-ro (왕산로), right on Muhak-ro (무학로), left on Hanbit-ro (한빛로)
Yongdu-dong Jjukkumi Specialty Street (용두동주꾸미특화거리)
Straight on Wangsan-ro (왕산로)
나정순할매쭈꾸미(Na Jeong-sun Halmae Jukkumi)
Straight on Wangsan-ro (왕산로), left on Muhak-ro (무학로)
Phone: 용두 Branch – 02) 928-0231, 제기 Branch – 02) 957-3310