While walking around Jongno-5-ga a friend remarked on how different Line 1 is from other lines linked to theSeoulmetro system – its rails and stations are noticeably older and more worn than its higher numbered lines’ counterparts. But, as he pointed out, it’s not just inside the stations that you see this. If someone were to blindfold you and drop you at random somewhere in the city, you could probably tell whether or not you were close to a Line 1 station. Since it was the first to be built, Line 1 naturally cut through the parts ofSeoulthat were the city’s focal points at the time, the early 1970s. Trace the first section that was opened, in 1974, and it leads from Seoul Station, down Jongno, through Dongdaemun, until terminating at Cheongnyangni. Despite how muchSeoulhas modernized in the 40 years since, these are still decidedly old-school parts of town – buildings are older, the major traditional markets fall along this line, and there’s a mustiness that clings to the neighborhoods along the line like moss. All of which, really, is fine by us.
What brought us to Jongno-5-ga was a request by the good folks at the Korea Tourism Organization to participate as Goodstay Explorers in their new Goodstay program. The KTO is putting its stamp of approval on motels around the country that meet a number of requirements, which I can sum up thusly: budget motels (under 100,000 won per night) that you’d feel comfortable taking your parents to. As Explorers our task was simple: pick one of the motels, stay there, and write about and shoot the motel and all the stuff we get up to during our stay. So in keeping with the spirit of the blog we decided to stay in Seoul and try out Hotel Lees (리스호텔) in Jongno-5-ga.
Hotel Lees is just a five-minute walk from Exit 1, a few steps west down Jongno (종로) to Jongno-31-gil (종로31길), followed by a right turn and another 200 meters. I called a couple days in advance to test out if they’d have someone able to take a reservation in English, which, unfortunately was not the case. A Chinese who was apparently only some type of part-time worker and couldn’t speak English or take reservations told my (Korean-speaking backup) friend to call back the next morning. When I arrived Saturday afternoon at about 4:30 to check in the receptionist working didn’t speak English either, though, being Japanese her 일본어 was obviously flawless and her Korean sounded pretty great to me. So while the lack of English-speaking staff was a bit disappointing, I didn’t find it unreasonable given the type of hotel Lee’s is and the type of visitors they generally cater to. And the Chinese and Japanese-speaking staff is a big plus for visitors from those countries.
Despite the lack of English, the receptionist was super friendly, helpful, and even complimented me on my Korean. (A total lie! But one that’s nice regardless.) My room wasn’t ready yet, still in the process of being cleaned, and I was asked to come back in an hour. That might sound quite late to someone used to morning or early afternoon check-in times in, say, American hotels, but given my experience with Korean motels that seemed to be pretty normal. So with an hour to kill I checked my bag and set off to start exploring. On the way out I noticed that the hotel had placed a bin of umbrellas near the entrance, free for guests to use. Very nice touch.
The backstreets north of the station exhibit that common Line 1 grittiness. On a quiet weekend day most of the businesses that were open were simple restaurants, most of those with ajummas sitting around idly waiting for customers. There were also some industrial businesses dotted about – metal shops and a warehouse where many coils of ribbed black plastic tubing were stacked up – and a couple hanok tucked in amidst it all. In an empty lot several construction workers were gathered around a table eating and pouring makkeolli. I also passed the Military Evangelical Association of Korea, which sounds absolutely terrifying.
Despite the predominating throwbackSeoulatmosphere, the area is showing signs of gentrifying, the prime signifier being the business that has gone from novelty to ubiquity in about five years: the café. Several small independent coffee shops – in noticeably nicer condition than the businesses around them – dotted the area, including House Coffee, just across the street from Lee’s, where you can grab an iced latte and sit on their small patio listening to John Legend. You could also step inside like I did, where I spotted a small card with a poem on it. This poem touched and moved me, and, if you’ll permit, I’d like to share it with you. Ahem…
C was once a little cake,
So true. So true.
Northeast of the subway station, via Exits 3 or 4, the area is also fairly throwback, but the east side of Daehak-ro (대학로) is more about recreation than commerce. The area has quite a few bars and restaurants, most serving up solidly working-class fare: 메기탕 (catfish soup), 홍어 (skate), 감자탕 (potato and pork bone stew), and especially 곱창 (offal).
Of course, old-school grit brings with it its share of less savory aspects, and if you hang an immediate right down the alley Daehak-ro-2-gil (대학로2길) coming out of Exit 3, you’ll come across something that’s strange and very much off the radar of foreigners. In addition to several inns (여관) and noraebangs, the strip is something of a small red light district, with a number of hostess bars and places where near- or half-naked women stand around in glass windows. But what makes the scene more bizarre is that the businesses here cater specifically to older Korean men. The women are in their forties, signs advertise widows (과부), and several of the establishments are places where a girl will entertain you by playing the janggu drum (장구) or the gayageum (가야금).
Back on the main drag, this stretch of Jongno, especially west from Exit 1 but also east from Exit 4, is lined with pharmacies. Many of the businesses on Drugstore Street have been there for decades, the oldest being Boryeong Drugs, which opened in 1957, according to the JoongAng Daily. The places here are quite a bit bigger than your average neighborhood pharmacy, so if you’re after something that’s hard to find or simply want to cross-check prices conveniently it’s a good place to go.
Before going back to the motel I walked east from Exit 4 towards Dongdaemun, alongside a guy selling three different varieties of dried shrimp from a large wheeled cart and past an old man squatting on the sidewalk, letting the long ash from his cigarette fall onto the bag of bananas situated between his feet.
Shortly before arriving at Dongdaemun I turned left onto Jongno-4-gil (종로4길), where you’ll find the Jongno Flower Market (종로 꽃시장). The market is rather modest, just small stalls lined up back to back on a sidewalk, stretching for two blocks, but there’s a fair bit of variety – flowers, bonsai trees, seeds, pots, cacti, and even shrubs and saplings at the north end. Potted house plants are the most widely available offering here.
Just past the flower market is the rather moribund Chungsin Market (충신시장). Just a block long, the market seemed to consist mostly of restaurants, though some home goods and machine shops were also spotted. At 5:30 on a Saturday almost everything was closed.
Heading back to Hotel Lees I detoured down Jongno-33-gil (종로33길), the first right out of Exit 1. A few paces down is the Doosan Art Center which houses both a gallery and theater space and was where I met up with Liz and her boyfriend Andrew. The ground floor gallery had an exhibition by several different artists that combined painting and photography and hovered somewhere between the playful and the sinister. On the way downstairs you’re greeted by the matching red bronze sculptures ‘Big Boy’ and ‘Little Pig’ by the Chinese artist Chen Wenling. The basement level hosts theaters where until September 4 you can catch Spring Awakening, which won the 2007 Tony for Best Musical. The center also has one of those fun piano floors you can play on.
Back at the motel, room cleaned and ready, the three of us headed upstairs to check it out. It wasn’t big, but it was in good condition and provided all the basics that you’d expect. The big flatscreen TV was a nice extra, but would have been nicer if the remote control for it worked. Basic toiletries were supplied, the bed was really comfortable, and I was quite pleased with how clean the bathroom was (hair dryer didn’t work, though). Best of all, the air conditioning poured out a steady blast of cool air. Like I said, the room was clean, as were the sheets, the floors, and everything except the walls, which had several dead mosquitoes on them that had been swatted and just left there. Now, if I had to pick something in a hotel to be less than perfectly clean I’d go with the walls since, well, you just don’t touch walls very much, but, you know, that should be taken care of. And given the high state of cleanliness everywhere else it was strange that it wasn’t.
The most noteworthy feature of the Jongno-5-ga neighborhood is undoubtedly Gwangjang Market (광장시장), the oldest continually operating market in the country, doing business since 1905. The main entrance is just a few steps from Exit 8 (though Exit 7 will also put you right by one of the side entrances), and when we stepped in we passed a mountain of shoes and a couple stalls selling a potpourri of imported goods – from Planters peanuts to soaps and shampoos.
In addition to its longevity, Gwangjang is most renowned for two things. The first are its textiles, the focus of the bulk of the commerce taking place. You can pick up clothing and fabric here, and check out some of the vintage threads on offer as well. It’s the hanbok, however, that will come to mind when you mention the market to a Seoulite. Many hanbok shops are located within the market’s expanse, and the wedding specialists have dressed countless brides over the years. If you’re interested in having your own custom-made hanbok many tailors in the market will be more than happy to do the job.
You don’t have to be shopping or even come during normal business hours to enjoy Gwangjang Market’s second claim to fame. Gwangjang is home to Seoul’s largest collection of street food stalls: a gochu and oil parade that runs up one aisle and down the next. Lining the center of the main walkways and lit by the hundreds of fluorescent bulbs hanging from the curved metal roof is stall after stall filled with the holy trinity of chewy tteokbokki in spicy red sauce, crisp deep-fried mandu with bubbly golden skins, and long tubes of sundae, twice as thick as what you’ll see elsewhere. A woman at one stall was hand-cutting noodles for honest-to-goodness made from scratch kalguksu, while nearby and old man sharpened knives on a hand-turned sharpener.
The food that the market is most famous for, however, is bindaetteok (빈대떡), a thick pancake made from mung beans, and you’ll see many stalls and restaurants advertising it. The three of us picked one that was crowded with eaters and sat down on one of the wood benches ringing the stall. The cakes get fried up in a thin pool of oil that gives them a crisp golden exterior, while the inside stays softer, the consistency of a boiled potato. While we ate we watched the stall workers scoop mung beans onto a gently-sloped spinning stone wheel in front of us that ground the beans into the smooth pale yellow paste that would then be poured onto the griddle. Served with soy sauce and onion, the bindaetteok was delicious. It’s particularly good in cold weather alongside a bottle of makkeolli.
After our working man’s hors d’oeuvres we set off for our real dinner. Having come across it while exploring Dongdaemun but not having had a chance to give it a try, I wanted to go back to dalk hanmari (닭한마리) alley to taste a dish that I’d never had in three-plus years in Korea and that I almost never saw available anywhere else.
From Exit 6 we took the first left onto Dongho-ro-38-gil (동호로38길). This back street first runs past a bunch of outdoor supply stores carrying all kinds of hiking and camping gear. Several major brands, like Arc’teryx and Nepa, have branches here. The street narrows into a small alleyway and continues past a clutch of gopchang restaurants before you come to the small strip that’s lined with dalk hanmari and bosintang eateries. The three of us got a table at Myeongdong Dalk Hanmari (명동닭한마리) and ordered up.
Dalk hanmari, which just means ‘one whole chicken,’ is the bolder cousin of the more well-known samgyetang (삼계탕). I don’t much care for samgyetang – I find it bland and unappealing – and so was a bit unsure of my impending dalk hanmari experience. After we had ordered, a large metal bowl filled with water, potatoes, rice cake, and onions was set on the burner in the middle of our table. Then the waitress took the whole chicken that was also in the bowl and cut it into chunks while another worker mixed up a sauce consisting of some type of red pepper paste (not gochujang or any of your other usual suspects), garlic, leek, mustard, and soy sauce. After letting the soup boil for a while we dug in. The broth had taken on a pleasantly oily consistency from the chicken fat and on its own was the closest thing to chicken noodle soup I’ve tasted in Korea. But it was that sauce that made the meal. Dipping the boiled chicken and sliced onion in it was a revelation. It was distinctly Korean, yet not quite like anything any of us had ever had before in our combined decade in the country, and it made me wonder why anyone even bothers with samgyetang when there’s dalk hanmari to be had.
After dinner I decided to take a quick wander down to the Cheonggye Stream (청계천), just a block’s walk from Exit 6 or 7. It’s a peaceful scene here, far from its busy head near City Hall and not quite at the bustle of Dongdaemun’s night markets, and the stream flows slow and gentle alongside a wide walking path perfect for an evening’s stroll. I was crossing the street to get to the stream when I saw one of the most uncanny scenes I’ve ever witnessed in the city. Crossing the street in the opposite direction, inch by painstaking inch, was an old woman who must have been at least 80 and no more than four feet tall. Dressed in all white commoner’s hanbok, she carried a simple bag and aided herself with a polished twisted branch that had been fashioned into a walking stick, taller than she was and twisted into a gnarled stub at the top, like a wizard’s staff. The image was absurd, beyond any Orientalist fantasies even the most naïve romanticist would permit themselves, something that a director of propaganda films would dismiss out of hand for being too unbelievable. As she took a full minute to cross a single lane, impervious and indifferent to the traffic she was holding up, her presence felt impossible, as if time had misplaced her. In Jongno, though, there’s seldom a firm divide between the past and the present, and among the high-rises and neon lights, there she was, undoubtedly, until I looked back a minute later and she had disappeared.
Jongno Flower Market (종로 꽃시장) and Chungsin Market (충신시장)
East on Jongno (종로), left on Jongno-4-gil (종로4길)
Doosan Art Center
Right on Jongno-33-gil (종로33길)
Gwangjang Market (광장시장)
Exit 7 or 8
Outdoor supply stores, Dalk Hanmari Alley, and Myeongdong Dalk Hanmari (명동닭한마리)
Left on Dongho-ro-38-gil (동호로38길)
Myeongdong Dalk Hanmari Phone: 02) 2266-8249
Cheonggye Stream (청계천)
Exit 6 or 7
Hotel Lees (리스호텔)
Right on Jongno-31-gil (종로31길), continue approximately one and a half blocks
Phone: 02) 762-4343
Rooms: 50,000 won and up; Double room on a weekend is 60,000
Our Very Unscientific Goodstay Hotel Ratings (out of 5)
Friendliness: 5 – The staff was super nice, and not at all pushy about us being late for checkout. The free umbrellas available for guests was a wonderful touch.
Cleanliness: 3 – Common areas were in great condition, and so was the room for the most part. The dried mosquitoes on the wall, however, were not pleasant.
Comfort: 4 – Won’t be confused with a luxury hotel, but for 60,000 won we felt our room was a good deal. The room was big enough, the bed was comfortable, the shower was great, and the air conditioning worked wonderfully on a hot July day.
Location: 4 – Not especially easy to find, but a quick trip to Google Maps takes care of that. Within walking distance of Dongdaemun, Gwangjang Market, and Jongmyo, and a quick subway or bus ride from many ofSeoul’s other main attractions. The immediate neighborhood is quiet and pleasant.
Tourist Assistance: 3 – No English speakers (at least not that we dealt with) is a bit of a problem, but native Chinese and Japanese speakers on staff are a big help for guests from those countries. A number of tourist brochures were also available in the lobby.
Overall: 4 – At 60,000 won for a double we felt we got pretty good quality for our money. There were some small things we’d like to see improved, but the most important aspects were fine and the staff made us feel welcomed and comfortable.