If you’ve ever been to the top of N Seoul Tower after dusk you’ve no doubt noticed a conspicuous swath of the city to the south where the sparkling metropolis has gone almost completely dark. This is, of course, the Yongsan U.S. Army base, and though it’s not marked on most city maps it most certainly is there, sitting right in the middle of the city.
Tucked between Namsan and the Han River, the garrison occupies some prime real estate, some that has been occupied at various times by Chinese, Japanese, and now American armies. According to the most current deal, the U.S. army will relocate their main base to Pyeongtaek in 2017 (though the move’s date has already been pushed back numerous times), at which time the land will return to the citizens of Seoul and the 2.5 square kilometers that make contemporary cartographers so eager to change the subject will return to the mapped world.
Very few expats and even fewer Koreans have had a chance to go on the base, which requires being the guest of a soldier or military staff member. (Provided that you’re not a citizen of one of the countries barred entry. Pakistani? Cuban? Fuhgeddabouddit.) I’ve had the chance only once, when a reservist whom I’d taken Korean classes with invited me for lunch and a tour. Slip through the MP-patrolled rabbit hole and it’s as if you’ve landed in a small Midwestern town, albeit one where almost everyone is wearing the same outfit.
The base itself is surprisingly pretty. There are more trees than you’d see most anywhere else in Seoul, and the buildings are old and graceful. What’s uncanny are the details, and I don’t mean that most faces you see are white or black or Latino. (I mean, you’ve been to Itaewon. Not much new there.) What I’m talking about and what hung me in a goofy limbo for three hours, caught between nostalgia and befuddlement, are things like all base transactions taking place in U.S. dollars, the smell of 100% genuine Texas barbecue drifting through the air, the aging Randall Cunningham poster taped to the wall outside the gym, or the fact that all Koreans working on base speak good English. Probably nothing excited me as much, however, Wisconsin boy that I am, as the case of Leinenkugel’s beer available at one of the base grocery stores, nor did anything break my heart as quickly as when I realized that I didn’t have enough time to buy it and take it home before going to work.
If you don’t have base access, until the scheduled pullout the best you can do is to get off at Noksapyeong Station and take a wander about, which is increasingly worth it as the neighborhood develops and more Koreans discover its charms.
Noksapyeong Station sits smack dab in between the two halves of the garrison, on its eastern edge. Going out Exit 1 or 4 and walking west towards Samgakji Station takes you down Itaewon-ro (이태원로) as it bisects the base into northern and southern halves. The first sign you’ll see suggesting that this neighborhood is a bit more, let’s say, reclusive, than others are the tall brick and concrete walls topped with concertina wire that run along either side of the street. Despite this fact there’s almost no feeling of menace, as the sense of threat is softened by the ivy climbing up and over the walls, half hiding the razor wire, and by the tall leafy trees on either side that canopy the road. There are even some flowers along the sidewalk. Behind the walls you can make out simple roofs that almost look more academic than military, and if the concertina wire were removed you might guess that it was a leafy college campus and not a military outpost that was hidden behind the walls. Pay attention, though, and you’ll notice the single Korean police officers walking by at regular intervals or the ‘GO HOME’ spray-painted on the sidewalk (in a frankly unintimidating sea green), reminding you that the neighbors wear camo, not tweed.
Exit 3 puts you near the intersection at the west end of the Itaewon neighborhood, and if you continue straight, following Noksapyeong-daero (녹사평대로) south will take you past the giant blue glass ark of the Yongsan-gu Office (용산구청), the rather unpromising-looking location of Club Volume, and the Yongsan Baptist Church where you can get your clap on, all on the east side of the street. A couple of unique shopping opportunities present themselves around here as well. The small street running at an angle behind Noksapyeong-daero , Noksapyeong-daero-26-gil (녹사평대로26길) has several small antique shops, and Noksapyeong-daero-32-gil (녹사평대로32길), the alley just after Savile Row Tailor if you’re coming from Itaewon, is lined with a bunch of surprisingly fashionable women’s boutiques. Aside from English-speaking tailors, Itaewon is not particularly known for fashion, but the small shops here were full of interesting, chic pieces for what I’ll call the brunch demographic: women with confidence and cash, a bit too old for shopping in Edae, but only just.
While there might be some increasingly good shopping available, the thing that the Noksapyeong neighborhood is most known for, Seoul’s version of the Forbidden City aside, is the large contingent of foreigners living there. Spending a Saturday in the neighborhood I heard – in addition to Korean and English – French, Arabic, Portuguese, and an African language I was too ignorant to recognize, and there’s much in the area that caters to this population, making things available here that can be tough to find elsewhere: overseas call shops, Filipino grocers, and Western sports bars. A sure sign this part of town is a bit…different: you’ll see people jogging on the street.
If you’re jonesing for a good read and don’t want to trek to Kyobo or wait for Amazon to deliver, you might want to head to the Foreign Book Store (외국 Book), a used book shop that’s been buying, selling, and exchanging since 1973. The small place is filled to bursting (though, rather heroically, is reasonably well organized) with books lining floor to ceiling shelves and tucked in the recesses below steps. Unfocusing your eyes the brightly colored spines resemble rectangular pixels, like a game of Breakout on, like, level 2 billion. In the grid you’ll find everything from back issues of National Geographic to books in Russian, from the ‘Complete Slow Cooker Cookbook’ to the collected Shakespeare to ‘For Young Women Only: What You Need to Know About How Guys Think.’ You’ll also find a reasonable collection of Korean learning books. To get there, go out Exit 2, walk to the pedestrian underpass, cross, exit out the right side, and walk straight approximately one block. The bookstore is just before the Lexus dealership.
The area around Noksapyeong is often, pejoratively, referred to as a foreigner ghetto. If there’s any truth to this – and after spending the better part of two days hanging about the area I find there’s very little – it’s due simply to the fact that lots of expats have chosen to live near lots of other expats, as expats of every nationality tend to do all over the world, not because Koreans have chosen to pull out. In fact, large expat presence aside, the area ticks almost all the boxes for what you’d want for an ‘authentic Korean neighborhood.’ Despite the large foreigner presence, almost all of the convenience stores are small mom-and-pop shops, not chains, and the community is filled with simple restaurants, dry cleaners, and clothing repair shops. The landmark most frequently used when giving directions is the famed kimchi pots that line the wall at the entrance to Haebangchon. You think Canadians or Nigerians are buying those?
Noksapyeong’s Korean demographic mostly divides along two lines. One is the older working class people who’ve lived and worked here since long before foreigners started making the area their home in large numbers. The other is the young, cosmopolitan generation that’s grown up internationalized and appreciates both the opportunity that Noksapyeong offers to escape the often rigid social structures of Korean society and the chance to hit up its globalized food and drink scene.
This ranges from pan-Asian noodles at Bao to fish and chips at Sydney Seafood to Philly cheesesteaks at, uh, Phillies. Your best bet is simply to walk around and find something that strikes your fancy. If you need a pick-me-up to fuel the search, grab a cup of java to go at Standing Coffee, just outside the pedestrian underpass en route to Foreign Book Store. The name is close to literal, as it’s just an oversized stall where baristas dish up takeaway coffee. In warm weather the place bends the rules a bit, placing five small tables on the sidewalk out front. The place has been busy every single time I’ve passed, a fact that might be attributable to its exceptional people-watching opportunities, to its Coffee Prince-esque strategy of hiring only handsome guys in tight white shirts, or simply to its excellent coffee. As a matter of sociological observation, a casual accounting recorded an approximately ten to one ratio of Korean to expat customers, measured over the course of a tall iced Americano.
Because of the expat presence, Noksapyeong has long been a popular spot for nightlife, though much more restrained than its next door neighbor, Itaewon. And thanks to two relatively new places catering to the more sophisticated drinker it’s now a better spot than ever to spend a weekend night.
I will be the first to admit that, growing up in Wisconsin, I was spoiled when it came to beer. It’s not even the most miniscule stretch to claim, however, that the expat chorus will back me up when I say that Korean beer is, to put it generously, pitiable. I’m not sure if you can apply the adjective ‘scared’ to beer, but that’s exactly what Hite, Cass, and the rest is: afraid to actually be real beer with anything resembling hops or flavor and to trust its drinkers to learn what’s good. (And they would. You’ve seen how the country has made the transition from instant coffee to real espresso.) Korean beer is, simply, the worst I’ve ever had in my travels to more than 30 countries. Actually, sorry, that’s a bit unfair; I should clarify: South Korean beer is the worst I’ve ever had. I’ve had Taedong beer from the North and it’s better, and not just by a little bit.
There is hope, though, and I’m actually optimistic. A number of fine microbreweries have opened in Korea in the last several years, brewing their own beer, and it’s only a matter of time (and perhaps some liberalized trade legislation) until brewing catches on among Koreans the way coffee roasting and the barista profession has. And when that happens, goodnight nurse. Koreans’ single-minded perfectionism , which has resulted in some coffee as good as I’ve had anywhere, is going to produce some very fine brewskies.
Until then, there is Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro. Arguably the best beer in Korea is here, again, under the pedestrian underpass from Exit 2, and just a few steps from the left-hand exit. Craftworks brews six different types of beers – IPAs, pilsners, Hefeweizens – at their brewery in Gapyeong. Each beer is named after a different mountain on the Korean peninsula and each is excellent. If you can’t decide, and it’s hard, the pub offers a sampler paddle with a shot glass of each for 9,000 won. Sadly, it did not come on an actual paddle. Running behind and along one side of the pub is an outdoor patio with some small trees, perfect for warm weather drinking, and the music selection is almost as good as the beer: the Black Keys, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio.
Running the risk of being too much of a good thing, Noksapyeong is home to not only what’s possibly the best place for beer in town, but also what’s arguably one of the best for makkeolli. Go out Exit 2, walking towards the glowing arrow of N Seoul Tower on Namsan directly ahead of you. This time, however, continue past the pedestrian underpass a few meters to the aforementioned kimchi jars and follow them to the left. This is Sinheung-ro (신흥로), the street leading into the Haebangchon neighborhood. After a few minutes you’ll come to a small makkeolli bar on your left, just a couple doors before Phillies.
Here is the rather awkwardly named 다모토리 ㅎ [:h] (Damotori ㅎ), where you’ll find 25 different kinds of makkeolli that come from every one of Korea’s mainland provinces. The walls of the bar are painted a deep shamrock, offset by the dark wood trim and tables. Shelving displays small ceramic bottles, jars, and cups in earth-toned glazes, and the music is kept low so the focus remains the conversation and the drinks, which are served in heavy ceramic bottles. It’s classy enough to be the kind of place where you could take a date, and casual enough to be the kind of place where you could pass an entire night pouring cup after cup of the rice-based drink and swapping stories with old friends, which much of the clientele – mostly Koreans, along with a few in-the-know expats – seemed intent on doing.
Even better, a night like that is affordable. Prices are between 5 and 7,000 won per bottle, or you could get the sampler of cups of five different makkeollis of your choice for the criminal price of 2,000 won, which means you could sample every single makkeolli on offer for just 10,000 won. An assistant drinker and I got a sampler with one makkeolli from each province before ordering a bottle of 찹쌀 누룽지 (chapssal nurungji) from Gangwon Province, which carried the delicious burnt rice flavor of nurungji, and was completely unlike any makkeolli you’d buy in a Seoul grocery store. One of the biggest pleasures of drinking makkeolli is experiencing the enormously varied flavors the drink has from brand to brand and province to province, which is why Damotori is such a fun place to drink. This being a makkeolli jip, there’s of course jeon (전) on the menu, but I strongly recommend their galbi, served with barbecue sauce.
Lastly, if you don’t mind a bit of a walk, Noksapyeong Station offers access to one of the largest green spaces in Seoul: Namsan Park (남산공원). Again, cross the pedestrian underpass from Exit 2 and exit to the left. Take an immediate right onto Hoenamu-ro (회나무로), more often referred to as Kyeongnidan, along with the neighborhood around it. Hoof it all the way to the top, approximately one kilometer, gazing out over the rooftops spreading across the valley below Namsan, and you’ll arrive at Sowon-gil (소원길) in front of the Hyatt Hotel. Turn left there to find one of the many entrances to the park, this particular one surrounded by large beds of wildflowers in lavender, white, and yellow.
The park covers much of the mountain, and an extensive series of walking paths wind through it, with special attractions scattered throughout. One that’s quite near this entrance is the Lotus Pond (연못), just 150 meters in. This peaceful, reed-filled pond offers a great chance to escape from the city a bit and maybe to relax with a bottle of wine, like a group of expats at a nearby picnic table were doing. Just don’t pet the animals that live in the park, as a rather wishfully thinking sign depicting a person giving a rabbit a pat on the head warns. You’ll pay 100,000 for your Bambi moment, or, to put it in more relevant terms, 50 sampler sets at Damotori ㅎ.
Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison
Exit 1 or 4
Women’s clothing boutiques
Cross Noksapyeong-daero (녹사평대로), east on Noksapyeong-daero-32-gil (녹사평대로32길)
Foreign Book Store (외국 Book)
Straight on Noksapyeong-daero (녹사평대로) to pedestrian underpass, cross and exit to the right, straight approximately one block
Straight on Noksapyeong-daero (녹사평대로) to pedestrian underpass, cross and exit to the right
Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro
Straight on Noksapyeong-daero (녹사평대로) to pedestrian underpass, cross and exit to the left, straight on Noksapyeong-daero, the bar will be a few steps past Hoenamu-ro (회나무로) on your right.
다모토리 ㅎ [:h]
Straight on Noksapyeong-daero (녹사평대로), left on Sinheung-ro (신흥로) into Haebangchon, straight about 300 meters
Namsan Park (남산공원)
Straight on Noksapyeong-daero (녹사평대로) to pedestrian underpass, cross and exit to the left, right on Hoenamu-ro (회나무로), left on Sowon-gil (소원길)
Parts of this post first appeared in the October 2011 issue of SEOUL magazine.