Nakseongdae is a classical Chinese name meaning ‘the place where a star has fallen.’ It was here, in 948, that the great Goryeo General Kang Gam-chan (강감찬) was born. Depending on which version of the legend you prefer, either his mother gave birth to him after dreaming that a star had fallen to her breast or said star fell when he was born. Either way, that’s some good juju.
So who was Mr. Kang? Good question, as I’d never heard of him before visiting the place either, despite nearly four years living in Korea.
Gang was a scholar and government official and, later, military commander during the early days of the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392). It’s the last of those roles that he’s most famous for, having secured his legacy by overcoming significant disadvantages to lead Goryeo troops to major victories over Khitan forces during the Third Goryeo-Khitan War, thus saving the kingdom.
To commemorate the great leader a shrine was commissioned in 1974 by President Park Chung-hee. The shrine now sits in Nakseongdae Park (낙성대공원), Seoul Tangible Cultural Property No. 4, a lovely spot south of the station off Nakseongdae-ro (낙성대로). The park’s northern corner has a small dirt plaza for recreation, exercise machines, a convenience store in a traditional-style building, and a pair of very modern bright red park libraries. There is also a traditional outdoor theater (전통야외소극장), though it was closed when I visited.
The southern part of the exercise area connects to the main plaza, the primary entrance to which is situated several meters further down the road. The large open plaza is centered around a decidedly bad-ass statue of the general, charging north toward the Khitan on his horse, sword drawn and trailing behind him.
Beyond the statue the park takes a much more peaceful and contemplative tone. At the far end of the plaza is a small lily pad pond, after which you pass through a large red wooden gate to a grassy area where a three-story stone pagoda and stele on the back of a tortoise sit opposite each other.
The pagoda was erected by Goryeo people in (according to Wikipedia) the 13th century at Kang’s birthplace, damaged by the invading Japanese (naturally), restored in 1964, designated a cultural property in 1972, and moved to its current site when the shrine was constructed.
After this area you pass through a smaller red wooden gate and arrive at the walkway leading up to Kang’s shrine, Anguksa (안국사). A monsoon season downpour had just passed, leaving the foliage a brilliant shade of green and coating the stone and tile in a wet gloss. The rain had washed any impurities out of the air, and as I neared the shrine, cutting through the crisp scent of the rain, I could clearly smell the incense drifting out from four joss sticks burning inside a bronze urn set on a low table just inside the shrine’s door. The smoke drifted out of the temple towards the stairs in ghostly ribbons, and with no one else around I sat and watched it spin around itself, its effect otherworldly, like feelers sent out into our misty world from the beyond.
Inside the shrine, a large portrait of the general glares out at you. He’s standing on a tiger rug as if to insist, centuries after his death, that he still is not to be messed with. Below the portrait a simple wooden tablet rests on a wooden chair, and the walls in the shrine interior are covered with scenes related to the general: the falling star, Kang leading his troops into battle, the dedication of the stone pagoda.
The weather no doubt had something to do with the paucity of visitors to the park, but as it’s located in a relatively out of the way spot you’ll likely find it a relaxing getaway any time of the year. The one exception may be October, when the Nakseongdae Inheonjae, a memorial ceremony to commemorate Kang, is held. There’s a reenactment of one of his famous victories, the requisite speeches, and hands-on activities like archery practice. And though it’s on the edge of town, Nakseongdae Park is not difficult to get to. Simply go out Exit 4, walk west down Nambusunhwan-ro (남부순환로) before taking a left on Nakseongdae-ro, and walking until you arrive at the park. It’s a 10-15-minute walk, or you can take one of the number 02 village buses to the Nakseongdae Park stop. Once you’re there, if you’re in a hiking mood you can hook up with the Gwanak-san Perimeter Trail (관악산 둘레길), which loops for approximately seven kilometers through the park and around Seoul National University.
An easier hike can be found north of the station. After a quick swing through the area outside Exit 5 – a pretty typical neighborhood of businesses (bakeries, real estate offices, eyeglass shops) on the main street and 4-5-story red brick and stone apartments on the backstreets – I went north on Solbat-ro (솔밭로) (also labeled Gwandong-gil (관동길) on the station map). Solbat-ro runs flat for a bit before taking a slight curve and going uphill, the sidewalk climbing up above the street past a craggy stone outcropping with grasses growing out the side. After passing under a bridge a small set of wooden steps leads up to the Seoul Citizens’ Good Walking Course (서울 시민이 추천한 걷기좋은코스). This dirt course runs through a wooded area where the trees are thick enough to nearly drown out the sound of traffic and offer sporadic sensations of being in a real forest. Pensioners and dog walkers passed by the occasional pavilion or piece of exercise equipment before rounding a bend and disappearing from sight. You can also cross the aforementioned footbridge to continue following the trail to the west.
En route back to the station I was caught in a summer downpour, but this had the serendipitous benefit of forcing me to duck into Gabean Coffee Roasters just a few steps from Exit 8.
This inviting place is decorated in a scheme of light and dark wood and cream-colored walls, and the tables are surrounded by unpretentiously mismatched chairs. A roasting room sits just inside the entrance, opposite which is a tiny outdoor terrace. Towards the rear you’ll find bookshelves and cushioned benches, as well as a small tree. The bar offers hand-drips and the usual espresso variations. I opted for a cappuccino, and was more than pleased with the result. My one knock on the place was the sometimes too smooth R&B playing on the stereo – not my thing, but maybe it’s yours.
A bit further down the road a left-hand turn on Nambusunhwan-ro-247-gil (남부순환로247길) leads to Seoul Arts High School (서울미술고교). Out front is a row of four garage doors with paintings – high schooler takes on a Picasso-esque cubist style – and on the ledge above is a pair of statues, one of which, a naked woman, must have been on the receiving end of lord knows how many snickering teenage photo ops.
Across the street and down Nambusunhwan-ro-248-gil (남부순환로248길), reached via Exit 1, is Wondang Market (원당시장). If you make the turn here directly in front of you you’ll see a strip of bright umbrellas crowding the small street. Boxes of red and yellow bell peppers were nearly psychedelically bright against the day’s gray backdrop.
The peaches, plums, and chamwoe that were in season jumped out as well, proving the point that the best days to visit neighborhood markets are rainy ones, when everything seems that much more vivid.
The market is a small one, running only for about two blocks along the one street, but it packs in everything you’d want to find, including platters of fresh seafood, patties of greasy ddeok-galbi, and a butcher chopping up raw chicken on an outdoor cutting board.
If you start your exploration of Nakseongdae here you can take a slight shortcut to Nambusunhwan-ro and Nakseongdae Park by walking west down Nakseongdae-geori (낙성대거리) / Bongcheon-ro (봉천로) (again, depending on if you go by station map or street sign name). Here I passed a cigarette-smoking, tank-topped ajeosshi using a hammer to break up a toilet that was sitting in the back of a truck. It looked like a lot of fun, though not something I’d do without goggles, as he so insouciantly was. This walk would also give you a chance to get a caffeine buzz at a take-out coffee place called Coffee Coke (커피코크), whose slogan is ‘Drug your mind!!!’ Well, don’t mind if I do.
Nakseongdae Park (낙성대공원) and Gwanak-san Perimeter Trail (관악산 둘레길)
West on Nambusunhwan-ro (남부순환로), south on Nakseongdae-ro (낙성대로); or take village bus no. 2
Seoul Citizens’ Good Walking Course (서울 시민이 추천한 걷기좋은코스)
West on Nambusunhwan-ro (남부순환로), north on Solbat-ro (솔밭로), up the stairs immediately after pedestrian bridge
Gabean Coffee Roasters
Hours: 8 a.m. to Midnight
Phone: 02) 871-7139
Seoul Arts High School (서울미술고교)
East on Nambusunhwan-ro (남부순환로), north on Nambusunhwan-ro-247-gil (남부순환로247길)
Wondang Market (원당시장)
South on Nambusunhwan-ro-248-gil (남부순환로248길)