Inside Chungmuro Station, near the top of the main set of escalators, is a pair of walls covered in old photographs. The color photos of well-dressed people accepting awards may have faded and aged even more poorly than the black and white film stills around the corner, but this little shrine is the first sign you get of the area’s close association with Korea’s oft-impressive film history.
Some of the earliest motion pictures screened in Korea were shown in the Chungmuro area, and decades later many film companies would set up their offices here. Recent years have seen the nexus of Korean cinema shift to Busan, Jeonju, and the outskirts of Seoul, but Chungmuro still holds more than just a nostalgic association with the silver screen in Koreans’ minds. Wandering around you might even run into a living bit of Korea’s filmic past, like actor Yi Gil Eok, who had roles in the 1969 film Jugeo-do Cho-ah and the 1971 flick Bullye-gi.
To get your silver screen fix head to the historic Daehan Cinema (대한극장), immediately outside of Exit 1 or 2. Founded in 1955, the Daehan is one of the oldest cinemas in Korea, though you wouldn’t know that just by looking at it.
Renovated and reopened in 2001, it’s been turned into a modern multiplex with flood lights illuminating giant posters advertising the mix of Hollywood blockbusters and mainstream Korean films that play on its seven floors. On its eighth floor is the Sky Rose Garden (하늘 로즈 가든), a small rooftop park with great views down Toegye-ro (퇴계로) toward Myeong-dong, though on a recent Saturday evening it was locked.
Also just outside Exit 2 and practically right in front of the cinema is the Daehan Cinema bus stop, where you can jump on the yellow number 2 or 5 bus and ride up Namsan to N Seoul Tower.
There’s much more to the Chungmuro area than just celluloid dreams, though. Walk east out of Exit 1 or 8 and you’ll soon come to Chungmuro Pet Street. Either side of Toegye-ro for a couple of blocks is lined with pet stores, and while Dongdaemun is the place to go for fish or more exotic species, if you’re more of a dog or cat-type person this stretch will likely have what you’re looking for. Large windows on the front of each store display puppies and kittens of all different breeds in glass cubicles, most of them either napping or trying to climb out. If you’re not looking for a new pet and just need supplies you can find those here too, everything from food to collars and from rubber chew toys shaped like tractor tires to the ‘Le Bistro’ programmable feeder that will auto-dispense pet food when you’re away. Leave your camera at home, though, as the owners don’t appreciate people taking photos of the puppies, as Liz was chased away on numerous occasions. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the less than optimal conditions the animals are kept in.
Continue east past the pet stores and the next section of Toegye-ro on down to Hullyeonwon-ro (훈련원로) you’ll find lined with something else that purrs: motorbikes. If you prefer your motorized transport to be two-wheeled, Motorcycle Street is the place to go. Here you’ll find everything from mopeds to sport bikes to cruisers, and not just Daerims and Hondas, but also Vespas, BMWs, Ducatis, and even Wisconsin’s finest: Harley-Davidsons. And if you’re more lace than leather, I even saw one bike with a flower-and-butterfly paint job. Needless to say, you can pick up all your gear here too: helmets, pads, cases, and more.
If photography is your thing, head the opposite direction on Toegye-ro, west out of Exit 5, and turn right on Toegye-ro-27-gil (퇴계로27길). After a couple blocks you’ll arrive at a collection of businesses offering both camera supplies and framing services. Sure, the prices are often cheaper online, but if you’re serious about your camera supplies and value buying them from people who really know their stuff, there’s no better place in Seoul. Pick up cases, flashes, reflectors, tripods, and more. There’s everything from point-and-shoot cameras to industrial-size lighting equipment. Many matting and framing businesses are in the area as well for when you want to show off the finished product.
If you’re a bit less serious about it all, pop into Toycamera, a super fun place located on the second floor above Toegye-ro-27-gil. Look for the yellow door advertising the shop name and Lomography supplies. Here you can get not only those, but also Polaroid supplies, Holgas, spinners for shooting 360 degree shots on 35mm film, Hello Kitty cameras, and a whole lot more.
The backstreets north the station around Motorcycle Street and the camera stores are filled with small printing shops – much like those we found while exploring Euljiro-4-ga – the legacy of an industry that, like cinema, has a long association with the Chungmuro neighborhood, and a wander through the small alleys here will take you past large pallets stacked with bundles of paper and many signs reading 인쇄 (print) and will be accompanied by a symphony of churning printing presses.
Even older legacies are the main feature of the area south of the station. Go out Exit 3, turn right and cut across the GS Caltex station to the diagonal street behind it, and to your left will be Korea House (한국의집), a cultural space created to educate people about traditional Korean culture.
Here you can view traditional music and dance performances and experience court cuisine. (If you feel like making it rain. Not cheap.) Or try your hand at making kimchi, learn to play the janggu drum (장구), or even get married in a bona fide, real deal, no 20-minute in-n-out-quickie-you-want-fries-with-that traditional wedding ceremony, complete with hanbok and 연지 곤지, those bright red dots on the cheek, in case your blushing bride isn’t blushing quite enough. Info on all that and more at the website.
The house itself, something like a hanok mansion, is located on the former site of the private residence of 박팽년 (remember him?) and was built by 신응수, who was designated an ‘important intangible cultural property’ for large-scale carpentry according to Korea House’s website. Judging by the building, 신 earned it.
The house itself is huge, and gorgeous. Its dark brown wood exterior is highlighted by bright white paint, and when you pull on the metal rings and step through the heavy doors you’re met by a bright airy hallway where, on the day I visited, a large group of Japanese tourists was milling about and sitting on several low benches and tables.
The hallways leading back to some of the dining rooms were blocked off by paper screens, but I could see past them and admire the lovely painted ceiling panels separated by smooth wooden crossbeams and spaced with wood and paper lights. The door to the Sohwadang Hall (소화당) at the house’s south end was open, revealing an elaborately laid out dining table, while men and women wearing hanbok moved about ferrying food or attending to some task or another.
And just behind the main entrance hall I could gaze out at the central courtyard, on the right side of which a pair of stone dragon heads spouted water into a square pool. Amid the surroundings it felt easy to imagine that I’d slipped back in time a hundred years, or at least accidentally wandered onto the set of a TV period drama, so it was more than a bit jarring when the auto-door to the men’s restroom silently slid open and someone walked out, like the gaffer inadvertently walking into the shot.
On your way back down to the street you’ll pass Korea House’s gift shop, located in a cool half-basement courtyard accented by a lovely series of two-meter-high panels with mother-of-pearl inlay.
There, if you fancy, you can pick up ceramics, books, cards, and other usual souvenir shop items. Then, if you’re lucky, you might spot a female monk – shaved, dressed in gray, and carrying an umbrella – ducking under the half-closed metal roller-door of the kalguksu restaurant across the street.
For much of the tradition without the price tag go out Exit 3 or 4, U-turn, and head down Toegye-ro-34-gil (퇴게로34길), the small street running south between the exits. This will lead past the hulking Maeil Business News (매일경제) building and Chungjeong Temple (충정사), directly to the Namsangol Hanok Village (남산골한옥마을). The village’s main feature is five hanok homes from different parts of Seoul that were either disassembled and moved here or recreated according to the original design.
Before arriving at the hanok, you’ll come to a large central plaza where kids are often running around playing gulleongsoe (굴렁쇠), the traditional Korean game where you try to keep a metal hoop rolling using a hooked metal stick. To the left is an airy pleasure pavilion, in front of which is a performance stage with some tiered seating across from it, and at the back of the plaza is a pavilion exhibiting various crafts made from woven straw including sandals, egg carriers, baskets for grains, and several ddwari (똬리) a ring shaped pad used when carrying things on your head. You may also be able to watch a couple of old craftsmen at work making these items.
The hanok section of the Hanok Village is a soothing palette of white, ivory, charcoal, ash, straw, and spackled gray, broken only by the green plants and strings of electric lights covered in rectangular red and blue cloth sleeves.
The hanok themselves represent homes across a wide spectrum of income levels and each interior is fitted out with furnishings and accessories as it might have been hundreds of years ago making the village a good place for a starter course in pre-modern Korean life.
Between the homes and the village’s other features – walking paths, an artificial stream, man-made ponds filled with fish or with water striders skimming across the surface – you could easily spend an hour or more lazily walking around.
Or, if the mood strikes you, try your hand at tuho nori (투호놀이), the game where you attempt to toss an arrow into a metal cylinder, or paeng-i (팽이), spinning a top using a small whip.
If you walk south past the hanoks and the open plaza you’ll come to the Seoul Namsan Traditional Theater (서울남산국악당). The facilities here – from lighting to acoustics – have been specially designed for the performance of traditional Korean music. In addition to concerts, the theater also offers instrument lessons and other various cultural activities.
Past the theater, at the rear of the Hanok Village grounds, is a large grassy knoll where the Seoul Thousand-Year Time Capsule is buried. In a ceremony presided over by then-mayor 최병렬, 600 items taken from citizen suggestions were buried on December 12, 1994 upon the 600th anniversary of Seoul’s founding as a city.
The capsule is intended to be opened on the same day in 2394 when the city turns 1,000. Curving paths lead from the top of the knoll down into a basin where the cover of the capsule – engraved with well-wishes from mayors of major world cities and looking a bit like a giant bath plug – sits in the middle of a patch of asphalt. To the south you can see Namsan Tower poking up, but to the north the city is cut off by the basin’s rim and all that’s visible are the clouds in the sky.
After a long tour of the village, back I went to the station, out Exit 4, and down a familiar path taking me west along Toegye-ro and then left on Toegyero-26-gil (퇴계로26길), just before the Hana Bank. A short walk ahead on the right are the offices of TBS, the eFM branch of which has been a great friend to Seoul Sub→urban over the course of the project, having had me on semi-regularly to chat with the wonderfully well-coiffed John Lee on ‘Soul of Asia’. SoA is no longer on the air, but you can check out John’s new show, Re:Play, seven days a week, from 9 – 10 a.m.
Just past TBS on the left is the Seoul International Youth Hostel (서울유스호스텔) and beyond that, at the end of the leafy drive, is Literature House, Seoul (문학의집서울). Housed in a very modern wood and glass building with a terrace and large grass lawn (When was the last time you saw one of those in Seoul?), Literature House hosts a variety of literary events and exhibitions and can also be rented out for those purposes. It may go without saying, this literature house being in Korea and all, that the events and literature contained within are very much not in English, but even if, like me, your facility with Korean lit extends no further than the simplest elementary school primer you can still go and just soak up the brainy vibe with a coffee at the House’s The Story café.
Daehan Cinema (대한극장)
Exit 1 or 2
Bus to N Seoul Tower
Yellow bus 2 or 5 from Daehan Cinema bus stop
Chungmuro Pet Street and Motorcycle Street
Exit 1 or 8
East on Toegye-ro (퇴계로)
Toycamera and Photo Supply Stores
West on Toegye-ro (퇴계로), right on Toegye-ro-27-gil (퇴계로27길), continue about two blocks
Toycamera Hours: Mon-Fri 10:00 – 19:00, Sat 10:00 – 18:00, Closed Sunday
Korea House (한국의집)
Turn right, then left up the diagonal street, Namsan-gol-gil (남산골길)
Hours: Sun-Sat 9:00 – 22:00; For performance hours see website
Namsangol Hanok Village (남산골한옥마을), Chungjeong Temple (충정사), Seoul Namsan Traditional Theater (서울남산국악당), and the Seoul Thousand-Year Time Capsule
Exit 3 or 4
U-turn, south on Toegye-ro-34-gil (퇴게로34길)
Namsangol Hanok Village
Hours: April – October: 9:00 – 21:00, November – March: 9:00 – 20:00; Closed Tuesdays
Guided Tour Times
English: M,W – 15:30; Th, F, Sa – 10:30, 14:00; Su 12:00, 15:30
한국어: 월,수: 10:30, 14:00; 일 12:00, 15:30
Seoul Namsan Traditional Theater
TBS, Seoul International Youth Hostel (서울유스호스텔), and Literature House, Seoul (문학의집서울)
West on Toegye-ro (퇴계로), left on Toegyero-26-gil (퇴계로26길)
Literature House, Seoul
Hours: Mon-Sat 10:00 – 17:00
Parts of this post first appeared in the September 2011 issue of SEOUL magazine.