Before getting to the post, we’d like to extend an enormous ‘thank you’ to Jiaying Lim, who was a huge help giving us tips for the neighborhood around Hansungdae. (She even hand-drew us a map!) We strongly suggest you check out her blog at xoxoseoul.wordpress.com, where she posts English translations of Korean pop culture articles, song lyrics, and more. Thanks Jiaying!
If the heat and stick of summer life inSeoulis getting to be just a bit too much, but you don’t have the time or means for a weekend getaway, a day around Hansung-dae Station and the Seongbuk-dong neighborhood north of there may provide a reasonably refreshing substitute. Wedged between the Daehangno area and Bugak-san (북악산), it’s a slower-paced, fresher-aired corner of the city.
The neighborhood’s signature landmark is Hyehwa Gate (혜화문), one of the four minor gates built into the original city walls. To get there go out Exit 5, u-turn, and head west down Dongsomun-ro (동소문로). There’s a Beautiful Store (아름다운가게)on the corner, so you might want to pop in to score some second-hand stuff and pick up some karma points in the process. The Beautiful Store is affiliated with The Beautiful Foundation, an organization looking to increase philanthropic involvement inKorea. All items at the store are donated, and all profits from sales go to charity. Beautiful indeed. A very short walk from there will bring you to Hyehwamun. The gate was originally built in 1397 and its gatehouse in 1744. Both were demolished during the Japanese colonial period and a tramway built in their place, but 1992 saw their reconstruction, slightly north of the original location. Today the northeast gate sits impressively above the highway, its emerald green trim jumping out from the gray stones forming its base and the city wall running north.
Looking across Dongsomun-ro from Hyehwamun you’ll notice another section of the wall running south along a ridge. Here a set of stairs lead up to a walking path running parallel to the wall. Several couples and families were out for a walk, passing by bunches of white flowers in bloom, occasionally pausing to take in good views of both Hyehwamun and the neighborhood to the north, across Seongbuk-dong all the way to Bugak-san. Accessible from Exit 4, this path traces the wall south over Nak-san (낙산) and Naksan Park (낙산공원) to Dongdaemun (동대문), hooking up with the section of wall that we covered not too long ago in our Dongdaemun post.
If you don’t get pulled into a wall trek, the area directly around the station is a nice little hood. Just outside Exit 2 an artificial waterfall pours out from a small plaza into the Seongbuk Stream (성북천). Dotted with stepping stones and lined with a walking path and embankments of purple flowers, the stream runs southeast before soon bending around east to flow parallel to Dongsomun-ro. Along the stream is a clutch of simple restaurants and an area of tile-roofed homes bunched around small alleys and, further on, more restaurants, grocery stores, and side dish shops. The area between the stream and Exit 1 is a lively little nook filled with shops and places to eat.
We were recommended a restaurant back across the main street, however, so it was there I headed when my stomach started getting demanding. From Exit 5 a left on Seongbuk-ro-5-gil (성북로5길), just after Napoleon Bakery, will bring you to Dongbangsikga (동방식가) after a block, where excellent duck is barbecued on a clear stone disc. The duck is served with marinated leeks and is eaten wrapped in marinated wild garlic leaves (명이나물, which my girlfriend tells me is the Ulleung-do word for what is elsewhere called 산마늘), something I’d never had or seen before. The sum total was a taste completely new and distinct and completely delicious. Full ducks are 40,000 won; halves, plenty for two people, are 20,000.
Though the neighborhood around the station is nice, the best of the area lies a short bus ride north in Seongbuk-dong (성북동), where items of historical interest mingle with the homes of ambassadors and the affluent, and the whole thing is cradled in fresher air and a more relaxed ambience than elsewhere in the city.
Just past some food stalls along Seongbuk-dong-gil (성북동길) outside Exit 6 is a bus stop where you can take either the 1111 or 2112 three stops to the Hongik Middle and High School stop (홍익대부속중고등학교입구). Get off, cross the road, and take the small street after Deungchon Kalguksu (등촌칼국수), Seongbuk-ro-15-gil (성북로15길). A short ways up on your left will be the Choi Sunu House (최순우옛집), the old residence of the art historian and former director general of the National Museum of Korea. Built in the 1930s, it’s a lovely and simple L-shaped hanok, and the faint murmur of motorbikes and recorded pitches for vegetables pouring from megaphones on the street below do little to break its tranquility. One wing of the hanok displays some of Choi’s personal belongings in a glass case – a pipe, camera, glasses, medals he was awarded – while the other wing shows how it existed as his home: a simple sleeping mat in a corner, a bookshelf, some low tables with dishes and paint brushes. Young bamboo shoots sprout up in a rear courtyard.
Not too far away is Seongnagwon (성락원), a traditional Korean garden, which is supposedly one of the most beautiful places in Seoul. Originally a villa for a Joseon official, it existed as a detached palace for a while before being turned into the garden it is now. I say supposedly one of the most beautiful because the garden is privately owned and operated and is, for the time being at least, not open to the public.
The most straightforward way to reach it is to continue in the direction the bus was going and then turn right on Seonjam-ro (선잠로), right after Seonjamdanji (선잠단지), an altar built in 1473 where Joseon royalty prayed for good years of silkworm farming and made sacrifices to Xiling, goddess of silkworms. Continue straight on Seonjam-ro past a 7-11 until you reach the garden.
Alternatively, you could cross the street from the Choi Sunu House and head down Seongbukro-16-gil (성북로16길) (next to the big yellow sign for 부동산타운). This is the route I first used and it took me past a small granite plaque denoting where the home of renowned poet 조지훈 used to be, just one of the interesting surprises that tend to turn up in this neighborhood, a place where galleries and hat shops will appear next to recycling yards. Now a four-story apartment building, a couple of old men sat on a concrete bench outside playing jangi, a game similar to chess. Continue along this side street until you reach the 7-11, then hang a right. If you see the big gray waves of the SpaceCAN building you’ll know you’re on the right track. (Near here, on my second visit, I passed a family just sitting in their parked car, windows down, enjoying the weather. The mom in the passenger seat had taken her shoes off and propped her bare feet up on the dash. The neighborhood’s kind of like that.)
Though the garden may be closed, a fork to the right leads to the Diplomatic Village, an area where many ambassadors have their official residence, including those fromAustralia,China,Afghanistan, andPapua New Guinea. Quiet roads twist between impressive walled homes, the occasional Mercedes or Lexus drives past, and seemingly every building has a SECOM Security sign on it. If the area weren’t so hilly it’d be excellent for a summer walk, as the only sound you consistently hear is birdsong, and it’s entertaining to pick out the different ambassadors’ residences – like celebrity house sighting inBeverly Hills for the wonk set. (Though you can do some of the ‘traditional’ kind too, as Seongbuk is a popular area forKorea’s rich and famous.) Signs pointing to the Australian ambassador’s residence (huge) show just a kangaroo and arrow.
Returning to the 7-11, take a right, and a long walk down a road lined on either side with brick or stone walls leads to Gilsang Temple (길상사). (If you don’t feel like hoofing it, a free shuttle bus runs from the station to the temple. For details and time tables, please see the website.)
An elaborately painted wooden gate marks the entrance to this beautiful Buddhist temple, made even more lovely during my visit by the green, red, yellow, and pink lanterns strung up all over the complex for Buddha’s Birthday.
Though only dating from 1997 Gilsangsa’s setting gives it the feel of a much older, perhaps even ancient complex. High up on a hill it feels worlds away from the city, though clear views all the way to Namsan remind you that you’re still in Seoul. A library and simple main hall housing a gilt, slightly less than life-size Buddha sit out front, but the further back you go the more peaceful and otherworldly the complex becomes.
Sitting in a forest valley, paths, stairs, and buildings follow the natural contours, and everything is surrounded by trees, shrubs, and bamboo. A tiny mountain stream babbles nearby, and it’s easy to think you’ve stepped onto the set of a Chinese kung fu epic and that at any moment warrior monks will come whooshing through the treetops.
Across the street from Gilsangsa is Hyojae (효재), a tiny shop selling the hanbok of designer 이효재. You’ll also find pillows embroidered with delicate flowers, jewelry, bojagi (보자기, Korean wrapping cloths), and a teddy bear made to look like Korean heartthrob 배용준. Expensive stuff, but one of a kind.
Leaving the temple, I continued northeast on Gilsangsa-gil (길상사길) a short ways before taking a left on Daesagwan-ro (대사관로) at the first intersection. I had to hug the shoulder since there was no sidewalk, but after passing a few more diplomatic residences I reached Seongbuk-dong-gil again, the main street that cuts through the neighborhood and that I started out on when I took the bus from the station. After another left there I soon came to the Diplomatic Residence Complex (외교관사택단지), a complex of posh beige apartment buildings. This is just conjecture on my part, but I’m guessing that a good many non-ambassador diplomats and embassy staff shack up there. A small park area with a lawn, plaza, and the flags of three-dozen countries lay across the road to the west, and further beyond that was Seong-ra-am (성라암), a Buddhist hermitage, which was counterbalanced by another hermitage, Suweoram (수월암) on the corner in front of the residence complex.
A relatively short walk south back towards the station will bring you to Simujang (심우장), the former residence of ‘만해’ 한용운, a poet, monk, independence activist, and one of the 33 national representatives of the March 1 independence movement. Walking south from the Diplomatic Residence Complex, look for a sign around the second right. The way to the house can be a bit difficult to spot, but it is signposted.
Approximately 50 meters up some concrete steps and path, past several rough-looking tin-roofed homes, you’ll see a gate marked with a stone plaque and Chinese characters on your right. This is Simujang, a simple three-room home with lovely views of the hills and Seongbuk homes to the northeast. Most hanok, difficult to heat, face south for purposes of capturing as much sunlight as possible. Simujang, however, faces north, a symbolic decision that Han took in order to turn his back, so to speak, on the Government-General building, the hub of Japanese colonial power.
As beautiful as the Seongbuk neighborhood is, it’s very hilly and requires a lot of walking. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of cafes at which to break and catch a breather. But with so much traditional character in the neighborhood, you might find that a teahouse is more apropos. One of the most renowned of these is the Old 이태준 House/Suyeon Sanbang (이태준고택/수연산방). To reach it from Simujang, continue south on Seongbuk-dong-gil in the direction of the station, and then take the side street that runs north from in front of the Seongbuk Multicultural Center and Museum of Art (성북구립미술관). The teahouse is a few meters up on your right.
The former home of novelist 이태준, Suyeon Sanbang’s conversion into a teahouse was done with a minimal amount of disturbance to what the building once was (perhaps unsurprising since this conversion was undertaken by 이’s granddaughter), so having a cup of tea here feels like having a cup of tea in a novelist’s home.
Old books rest in glass cases, an antique phone and Singer sewing machine sit nearby, and a black and white family portrait – 이 surrounded by his wife and five kids – hangs on the wall.
Several low tables are set up inside the house, and a couple more sit on the lawn out front. The menu, printed on hanji (한지), traditional Korean paper, offers a variety of teas, both hot and cold. I sampled both hot maesil tea (매실차, green plum) and cold omija tea (오미자), and both were wonderful. Set back from the main street and enclosed by a stone wall, it feels miles, and years, away from the city.
Hyehwa Gate (혜화문)
U-turn, west on Dongsomun-ro (동소문로)
The Beautiful Store
Seoul fortress wall walking path
West on Dongsomun-ro (동소문로)
Seongbuk Stream (성북천)
Left on Seongbuk-ro-5-gil (성북로5길)
Bus 1111 or 2112 three stops to Hongik Middle and High School stop (홍익대부속중고등학교입구)
All directions below are from bus stop
Choi Sunu House (최순우옛집)
Cross Seongbuk-dong-gil (성북동길), left on Seongbuk-ro-15-gil (성북로15길)
Hours: April – November, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
North on Seongbuk-dong-gil (성북동길)
North on Seongbuk-dong-gil (성북동길), right on Seonjam-ro (선잠로), continue past the 7-11
Right just before Seongnagwon
Gilsang Temple (길상사)
North on Seongbuk-dong-gil (성북동길), right on Seonjam-ro (선잠로), left at the 7-11, continue approximately 1 kilometer; Alternatively, take the free shuttle departing from Exit 6 – details at website
Directly across from Gilsangsa main gate
Diplomatic Residence Complex (외교관사택단지), Seongra-am (성라암), and Suweoram (수월암)
North on Seongbuk-dong-gil (성북동길); Alternatively, continue on bus to Dongbang Graduate School (3 more stops)
North on Seongbuk-dong-gil (성북동길), left when you see the sign between Deoksu Presbyterian Church and the Diplomatic Residence Complex; Alternatively, continue on bus to Dongbang Graduate School (3 more stops)
Old 이태준 House/Suyeon Sanbang (이태준고택/수연산방)
North on Seongbuk-dong-gil (성북동길), right in front of the Seongbuk Multicultural Center and Museum of Art; Alternatively, continue on bus to Ssangdari (쌍다리) (2 more stops)
Hours: 12 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Parts of this post first appeared in the July 2011 issue of SEOUL magazine.