It begins the moment you step off the subway. There, on the platform, a man calls out to passengers, hawking the belts laid out in compartmentalized boxes at his feet. Before you exit the station you’ll pass more people doing the same – with bags, with clothes, with battery-operated toys that flash and clatter – and then you go up the steps and you’re in Dongdaemun, where all this (and seemingly everything else) is happening, all the time.
Acres of wholesale markets pull in old-timers in search of bargains, while the malls that are the wellspring of Korean fashion summon the young and style-conscious. Sleek stores and developments coexist amicably with the gritty shops and restaurants that have occupied the innumerable back alleys for decades. Dongdaemun combines the crusty insouciance of the dockyards with the pulsing strut of the catwalk. Nowhere else in Seoul is quite like it.
The neighborhood is anchored by the eponymous Dongdaemun (동대문) (Great East Gate) (Exit 6) or, more formally, Heunginjimun (흥인지문) (Gate of Rising Benevolence). One of Joseon-era Seoul’s four main gates, it was originally built in 1396, though the current structure dates from an 1869 reconstruction. Besides being a beautiful example of traditional Korean architecture it serves as a useful reference point amid the often hectic surroundings.
The bulk of Dongdaemun’s shopping areas are south of the gate, Jong-no (종로), and Wangsang-no (왕산로), but the area north of here (Exits 1, 2, 3)is worth an aimless stroll as well, and keeping your eyes open rewards you with a series of the one-of-a-kind images that this area always provides. Ajummas with kerchiefs tied to their heads sell peeled garlic outside Nike stores. Mobile carts selling tapes and CDs blare old Korean pop music. Porters with merchandise carriers that look like miniature wooden chairs missing front legs strapped to their backs ferry goods back and forth. A man in a suit and tie pedaling a delivery trishaw loaded down with sacks of beans passes by.
This section of the neighborhood is also a decent place to look for dinner, as many restaurants lie off the main street. In the mood for something gritty and greasy and preferably served up by an ajumma with an ill disposition, I hung a right at Changsin-gil (창신길), the first side street you come to after u-turning from Exit 1, and on the first alley running to the left spotted a sign displaying a disembodied hand holding the tail of a deep red, dangling pig. This was Wageul-wageul Jokbal (와글와글 족발), and the sign, location, and simple metal door looked perfect. Inside was a bit of a surprise, however. I expected floors sticky with grease and soju and a clientele whose ages ran mostly north of 60, but it was clean, well-lit, and filled with a mix of twenty-somethings and, it must be said, admittedly rather stylish middle-agers. The niceness of it actually made me question if the jokbal would be any good. A second look around eased my worries as, despite the nicer than expected surroundings, the place clearly held no pretensions, and with tongues lubricated by alcohol and pig fat the clientele provided a boisterous atmosphere befitting the joint’s name, which, roughly, means ‘hullabaloo.’ The pork trotters we were served sealed the deal.
Another good option for eats would be to leave Exit 9, walk west down Jong-no to Jong-no-40-gil (종로40길), turn left there, and then hang a right at the first alley. A cluster of simple restaurants line this little passage, many specializing in grilled fish and dalkhanmari (닭한마리), chicken boiled in a soup. If you’re looking for a locals-only kind of place to fill your stomach, this wouldn’t be a bad place to do so.
And now, on to the shopping.
Head out Exit 7 turn left before Cheonggye Stream (청계천). This will take you past the shoe section of the market where both here and on the street immediately behind you’ll find store after store of sneakers, dress shoes, heels, and more, many of the kicks on display wrapped in protective plastic.
Much more exotic is what you’ll come to if you continue eastward: an area of pet shops specializing in more exotic fauna, particularly aquariums, and a late afternoon stroll through the area will reveal hundreds of goldfish glinting bright saffron in the setting sun while around you the nervous prattle and coo of songbirds fills the air. Besides fish you’ll find kittens, turtles, rabbits, hamsters, hedgehogs, ferrets, iguanas, roosters, chickens, ducks, parakeets, finches, and cockatiels. If you’re not familiar with Korean pet shops, it should be mentioned that the Korean attitude toward animals before they are bought and turned into part of the family is considerably less sentimental than what Westerners may be used to. While none of the animals I saw seemed mistreated in any way, they are kept in enclosures smaller than you might wish.
Turning north here I arrived in a warren of back streets where more aquarium shops were interspersed with barebones restaurants offering back alley foods like boshintang (dog stew) (보신탕) and seolleongtang (ox bone soup) (설렁탕). Further in (or more directly accessible by turning south after leaving Exit 4) the area is home to the stationary and toy market, making this the potentially most treacherous square kilometer in Seoul for parents. On the other hand, if you have a reliable babysitter, it’s the perfect place to outfit your little guy like a Joseon warrior; pick up kid-size backpacks, hiking shoes, and folding chairs for the budding outdoorsman; or to buy all the school supplies a young scholar could ever need.
Of course what Dongdaemun is most famous for is its place at the center of the Korean fashion industry. For decades this has been where Koreans have come to design, create, and wear the latest styles. If you’re handy with a needle, head to Dongdaemun Fashion Town (동대문패션타운), outside Exit 9. Here you can buy everything you need to be the next Andre Kim: lace, ribbon, bolts of fabric, and all kinds of supplies. Alternatively, buy your very own hanbok here. You’ll also find a selection of housewares here, from curtains to dishes to bedspreads.
Prefer letting others do the work for you? Cross Cheonggye Stream from Exit 7 or 8 to where Korea’s fashion center is centered. Along the stream are the many iterations of Pyeonghwa Market (평화시장), and behind these you’ll find a cluster of malls on either side of Heunginmun-ro (흥인문로). These malls, including Doota, Migliore, maxtyle, and Cerestar, offer several floors each of small boutiques with clothing aimed mostly at the young shopper. Although there are some high-end luxury goods to be had, most prices tend to be reasonable. Quality can vary and many boutiques offer the same items, so it pays to shop around. I personally do a good deal of my own shopping at Doota, which garners bonus points for having stuff that’s generally of higher quality as well as for the fact that its boutiques have changing rooms were you can actually try things on, a rarity elsewhere in the neighborhood.
With so many places offering so much it’s useful that many of these malls stay open virtually all night. And indeed, to experience the full force of the scene’s energy, it’s best to visit on a weekend night, when huge crowds, thumping music, and bright lights make the night come alive in ways impressive by even Seoul’s nocturnal standards.
One rather anomalous feature of the area that definitely won’t be open after midnight is the row of used book sellers running along the south side of Cheonggye Stream west of Heunginmun-ro. Although some of these shops are barely bigger than a walk-in closet you can find English material in several of them.
If the Dongdaemun Experience all gets to be just a bit too much, go out Exit 1, u-turn, and walk towards the main intersection. Near the corner is the Dongdaemun Church (동대문교회), and it’s here that the Naksan Trail starts. The path follows either side of the old city wall (reconstructed), beginning from either side of the church, and your walking experience will vary a bit depending on which side you take. In either case, though, the bustle immediately diminishes.
I went up the west side of the wall, where the path starts from an open plaza where the occasional guy wearing a ball cap, jacket, galoshes, and sparkly bra (outside his dress, oddly) may be sitting on a rock reading the paper. The path on this side is a bit rougher than that on the east, which is paved, but provides nothing more challenging than some large steps. The primary benefit to the western path is that it runs even with the wall, whereas the eastern one lies below it, and therefore provides superior views. From here you can look out over Dongdaemun and appreciate its commotion without being subjected to it.
The wall to your right, on the left is a neighborhood of modest old homes lining small alleyways that just beg to be explored, and indeed, a number of walkers and amateur photographers were out doing just that. It took a considerable amount of willpower not to join them and to simply admire the buildings and the laundry hung on clotheslines from the path, and on most occasions I would have dove straight in, but I was starting my Dongdaemun visit here and wanted to make sure I left enough time for the rest of the neighborhood. There’s always next time.
If you go undistracted by the dozens of alleys beckoning to be explored and arrive at the top of the hill, you’ll be treated with broad vistas of the surroundings from the tiered Naksan Park (낙산공원). You’ll also give yourself a chance to explore the alleys that lead west toward Daehangno and north and northeast into the area around Hansung University. The park has the usual paved plazas, athletics facilities, and groves of trees, but it also has a rather unique (if rusted and somewhat dilapidated) feature: in addition to the largely useless exercise machines so common in Korean parks, there’s a trio of actual weight machines for your lat pulldown and leg extension pleasure should you be so inclined.
Having come up the west side of the wall, I descended on the east, where the entire way is lined with a paved walking path. Great if you’re in heels, but it’s about three meters below the path on the west side and the wall cuts off any view in that direction. It does, however, have a feature missing from its more rustic counterpart and that is speakers placed along the path that provide some walking music, ranging from classical to the old ‘Cheers’ theme song, which immediately took me back to childhood evenings with my parents in front of the rabbit-eared TV in our Blaine, Wisconsin home. Heading back into the city, the path deposited me on a small side street running along Dongdaemun Church’s east side.
Dongdaemun, in its size and scope, can no doubt be overwhelming, if not downright intimidating, and any attempts to understand or even see all of it in one trip will only end in frustration. But keep coming back and this endlessly fascinating neighborhood will reveal new secrets over and over again, surprising you every time.
Dongdaemun (동대문)/Heunginjimun (흥인지문)
Wageul-wageul Jokbal (와글와글 족발)
U-turn, take your first right, then your first left
West on Jong-no, left on Jong-no-40-gil (종로40길), right at first alley
Cheonggye Stream (청계천)
Exit 7 or 8
Shoe and Pet Markets
East along Cheonggye Stream
Stationary and Toy Market
Dongdaemun Fashion Town (동대문패션타운)
Pyeonghwa Market (평화시장)
Exit 7, 8
Cross Cheonggye Stream
Fashion Malls (Doota, Migliore, maxtyle, Cerestar, etc.)
Exit 7, 8
Cross Cheonggye Stream
Used Book Sellers
Cross Cheonggye Stream, right on Jong-no
Naksan Trail and Park (낙산고원)
U-turn; the trail starts from just before the intersection, either side of Dongdaemun Church
Parts of this post first appeared in the June 2011 issue of SEOUL magazine.