At first glance, Yangjae might not seem like an obvious choice for getting out and experiencing the beautiful weather that May brings to Seoul. And it’s true: the neighborhood immediately around the station would never be mistaken for the city’s most charismatic, its wide avenues and utilitarian office towers not leaving room for much charm. (The one exception being a coffee shop near Exit 1 called Won’s in a While.) Of mild interest might be the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (외교안보연구원) and the Diplomatic Center (외교센터) down Nambusunhwa-ro (남부산화로) from Exit 8, but my guess is that you won’t have much luck just strolling in either of those places and having a mosey about.
Head south on Gangnam-dae-ro (강남대로) from Exit 7, however, and you’ll find a neighborhood at its very best at this time of year.
Say the word “spring” to someone and it’s all but automatic that the first thing they’ll think of is flowers. Say the word “flowers” to a Seoulite and there’s a good chance they’ll think of Yangjae.
Just before leaving the city for highwayland you’ll see one of the gray-green peaked roofed greenhouses of the Yangjae-dong Flower Market (양재동꽃시장), Korea’s largest. Stepping into the greenhouses is a bit like having a magic door that opens onto, say, ruralBrazil. The temperature and humidity hover around 25 degrees and 26 percent, and a dense green scrim is spangled with vivid bursts of pink, yellow, and magenta. Heart-shaped anthuriums are so red they look spray-painted. The whole thing reminded me of nothing so much as walking through one of the open-air aviaries at a zoo, where a narrow path leads between walls of vegetation.
Potted plants – including miniature Venus fly traps (called 파리지옥, fly hell, in Korean) that are somehow both adorable and menacing at the same time, like a newborn vampire – and flowers are available in the two greenhouses. If you’re looking for a bouquet or other arrangement, though, head to the underground hall.
Here the selection tilts heavily toward show flowers like roses, tulips, and baby’s breath (안개꽃, fog flower), and the floor is littered with clippings and ribbon scraps. Arrangements run the gamut from lovely to impossibly tacky, so whatever your taste, it’s catered to.
The south end of the complex is for gardening and potting supplies, seeds, and bulbs, while the building on the west side does wholesale – its first floor selling flowers, the second dealing in growing supplies and fake flowers; whoever has the nerve to traffic in those surely having to eat at the lunch table in the corner.
The northwest section of the market is where you’ll find both a tree nursery selling saplings and a display lawn offering garden sculptures ranging from topless Greek maidens to giant dragonflies on 15-foot poles to windmills to life-size giraffes. In case you want to class up the joint.
Just north of the flower market is the Yangjae Citizen’s Forest (양재시민의숲), which was built for the 1986 Asian Games and was the largest man-made forest in Seoul before being usurped by Seoul Forest (서울숲). “Park” is a more accurate term than “forest,” but this tree-filled oasis is still a lovely retreat from the urban surroundings and has facilities including basketball and tennis courts, a barbecue area, playgrounds, and a Barefoot Walking Path in the shape of a foot, which, after trying it out, I can only assume must be a relic from more barbaric times that was used as a form of punishment for murderers and thieves.
In the center of the park is the Yoon Bong Gil Memorial Hall (윤봉길의사기념관), dedicated to the Korean independence activist. On April 29, 1932 at a Japanese army celebration of Emperor Hirohito’s birthday inShanghai, Yoon threw a bomb, killing two Japanese officials and wounding several others. He was summarily arrested and executed inJapan, though in 1946 his remains were exhumed and reburied in theKoreanNationalCemetery. The memorial hall exhibits some of Yoon’s belongings and features a simple exhibit on his life, but English signage is minimal, so if you’re more than casually interested it would be a good idea to bring a Korean-speaking friend along.
The south end of the park is the site of three additional memorials, dedicated to the victims of the 1995 Sampoong Department Store collapse, the 1987 KAL bombing, and the Baekma Guerilla Corps, a South Korean fighting group active during the Korean War. It’s also, rather unexpectedly, a popular hangout for cosplayers, as Seoul Comic World holds periodic conventions at the nearby aT Center. (Other events are held at SETEC near Hangyeo-ul Station (학여울역) in Daechi-dong (대치동).) Their events feature contests, performances, and an artist alley, among others.
Though not as popular as in Japan, cosplay is gaining a following here, and on many weekends you’ll see fans dressed in impressive costumes out in the park, taking part in photo shoots. Involvement is also building among expats according to participant Sarah Cox, who’s been involved for several months. ‘People used to tell me that I was one of the only foreigners they ever saw cosplaying,’ she says, ‘but more and more people are showing up from other countries, including non-English-speaking ones, which is cool.’
Unfortunately, local cosplayers sometimes have to deal with the stigma that’s connected to anything thought to be too closely associated with Japanese culture. Another cosplayer we spoke to, Sarah Brice, said that because of this they ‘can only get dressed at the events, not before. Otherwise we sometimes get dirty looks.’ Given the increasing involvement of expats in Seoul Comic World and the interest that many young Koreans have for Japanese culture, however, that stigma will hopefully dissipate. If cosplay’s your thing, or if you’re just curious to learn more, you can check out Seoul Comic World’s website (Korean only).
Along the park’s northern boundary runs the Yangjae Stream (양재천). The waterway is lined with cherry blossom trees and forsythia that turn a vivid yellow in the spring, and walking and bike paths by which to enjoy them. There are also handy signs posted along the paths delineating walking courses complete with trip time and the number of calories that men and women can expect to burn respectively on the various courses. You’ll also find a large swimming pool tucked between the stream and park.
Like your spring outings a bit more surreal? Then follow the stream west, under the Gyeongbu Expressway, to the Culture and Arts Park (문화예술공원), where you’ll find Alicepark, an abandoned Alice in Wonderland-themed theme park. A banner at the north entrance reads ‘Hello Alicepark 2011,’ signaling recent desertion, but many of the facilities look as if they could have been sitting untouched for much longer.
A wooden shoe house, hollowed-out apples, giant mushrooms, and an enormous mosaic-cat house sit in various stages of dilapidation. Playing card soldiers guard nothing at all, and in the middle of a long canopied tunnel sit a row of wild-branched wooden chairs. Wandering through the park all feels very Spirited Away.
If you’re planning on spending the day in the park, instead of catching a bus you may want to make the twenty-minute walk, as it will take you past the main shop of the Neurin Maeul Brewery (느린마을 양조장). You’ll likely smell it before you see it.
Neurin Maeul, whose name means ‘Slow Village,’ is something of a microbrewery for Korean traditional alcoholic beverages, including soju; baekseju (백세주), a rice and herb wine; and sansachun (산사춘), a wine made from the Chinese hawthorn.
Its primary beverage, however, is makkeoli, and the brewery offers varieties made with rice from every mainlandprovinceofKorea, as well as flavored varieties like bokbunja. Makkeoli is also made on site here, in a huge stainless steel brewing tank in the back, and if you’re planning a picnic you’d be well advised to pick up one of 1,000 daily bottles of the fresh stuff for only 2,000 won. Not in the mood for drinking? Neurin Maeul also sells a variety of soaps made with some of the same raw ingredients that go into their beverages.
Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (외교안보연구원) and the Diplomatic Center (외교센터)
West on (남부산화로)
Yangjae-dong Flower Market (양재동꽃시장), Yangjae Citizen’s Forest (양재시민의숲), Yangjae Stream (양재천), and the Culture and Arts Park (문화예술공원)
South on Gangnam-dae-ro (강남대로)
20 minutes by foot, or take bus 140, 405, 407, 408, 421, 440, 441, 462, 470, 471, 4432, or 8441
Bus Stops – Flower Market: aT Center (Yangjae Flower Market); Citizen’s Forest: Citizen’sForest
Flower Market Greenhouse and Supplies Hours: 7:00 – 19:00
Neurin Maeul Brewery (느린마을 양조장)
South on Gangnam-dae-ro (강남대로), 10 minutes by foot
Hours: 10:00 – 20:00
Parts of this post first appeared in the May 2011 issue of SEOUL magazine.