And after five years? What then?
The minute someone sits down at a keyboard, sets an f-stop, or turns over a fresh page in a sketchpad and tries to describe a place, it’s already a little bit gone. Unavoidable and just fine really. It clears the way for new records, allows for comparisons (maybe even lessons or conclusions), and staves off obsolescence for at least a few magazines and papers and describers a bit longer. But when a place changes as fast as Seoul does, it can sometimes feel like a new version is needed before the old one is even finished.
Part of me knew that would be the fate of this project before we even started it – that if we ever reached the end, what came at the beginning would likely need a whole new description. I try to reconcile myself with this by keeping in mind that posts at least serve as a snapshot of a neighborhood at a particular moment, even if their expiration date arrives the day they show up. We’ve been back to neighborhoods we’d visited earlier, only to find that a business or a building we mentioned before is gone, and that’s just the way it is with Seoul, some neighborhoods even more than others.
Sangsu for one.
I live just outside of the Hongik University neighborhood and go there at least once every couple of weeks, and quite literally every time I do I notice something that’s changed. Sangsu, which serves the southeast side of the neighborhood, is no different. It may even be changing more quickly than central Hongdae, as the combination of the influence of the school’s vibrant graduates and the rush to capitalize on the cachet the neighborhood has with the city’s young creative class continues to push the boundaries of what can be considered ‘Hongdae’ outward (see Hapjeong).
The area south of the station and Dokmak-gil (독막길) gives an interesting, but subtle picture of what’s taking shape here. When you step out Exit 4 and walk down the main drag and through the backstreets, things look at first exactly as they do in dozens and dozens of other mostly residential areas of Seoul: quietish one-and-a-half-lane roads surrounded by middle class red brick apartment buildings. But then you start to notice little things that betray the influence of the art school just a few blocks away: hip bike shops, vintage boutiques, small galleries, small cafes, small galleries cum cafes.
One of these had an unobtrusive folding sign on the alley outside that almost read like a haiku:
But in a cheeky and very Hongdae touch the little lyric was accompanied by a picture of two stick figures: one on its knees, the other looming over its head, arm raised and baton cocked. They really mean it.
As I walked east down the main drag, past restaurants getting ready for dinnertime business, there was one image that seemed to sum up this side of the neighborhood for me: on the outdoor patio of a café that doubled as a crafts workshop uni kids were sipping lattes and knitting, while just next door a pair of ajummas stood chatting outside a store selling bags of bar snacks the size of toddlers.
If the changes taking place near Exit 4 are subtle, those in the area adjacent to Exit 3 are anything but. Between Dokmak-gil and the river the neighborhood is undergoing a facelift, and looks set for a considerable amount of redevelopment. Walking around, the green, black, and pink striped blankets often put up around construction sites were a common sight, and quite a few small businesses had closed up. Many of these businesses, and many houses as well, had red spray paint slashed across their windows and sides reading 철거 or 철거예장 (demolition or will be demolished). Squeezed between Hongdae and the new developments along the river, these buildings’ days have likely been numbered for quite some time.
If you head south down Wausan-gil after leaving Exit 3 and follow the signs as they point you east on Tojeong-ro (토정로) and then towards a small side street on your right you’ll spot a blue tunnel leading to the Hangang Park (한강공원). The stretch of park here is much more modest than at other parts of the river, not much more than a strip of grass running alongside a bike path and bunches of tan reeds with ash-colored tops that gently swayed in the breeze blowing off the river. In addition, you’re confronted with the Gangbyeonbuk-ro Expressway (강변북로) rising up out of the water and hogging the bulk of the view just in front of you, which kept giving me flashbacks of ‘The Host’ (괴물).
Despite these drawbacks the park was a popular place on the day I visited, the bike path in particular full of Seoulites out for a ride. And if you don’t mind having to gaze through the gaps between giant concrete pillars, the view across the river is an especially nice one, taking in a view of Parliament and the skyscrapers of Yeouido, as well as Bahm Island (밤섬).
The park here also features something that’s a bit of a novelty, something that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Seoul, or Korea for that matter. Walk west from the entrance, and just before you get to the imposing industrial set-up of a water treatment plant you’ll come upon a pair of croquet courts. Huddled under a bridge to protect them from the elements, their flat packed-dirt surfaces were broken up only by the metal hoops on each. One of the courts sat empty, but the other was being used by a half-dozen 50-somethings having a bit of a knockabout.
While the area south of the station drops hints, the area north of it is distinctly part of what’s considered Hongdae. Although the neighborhood near Exit 2 was surprisingly quieter and more residential than I had expected (once I got off Wausan-ro at least), the power line poles on Wausan-ro decorated in Super Mario motifs and tiger stripes left no mistaking what part of town I was in.
One of the neighborhood’s most eye-catching features is the abundance of wall murals and colorful street paintings that pop up just about everywhere you go. There’s of course what’s known as ‘Mural Alley,’ running just south of the university’s main gate, but sections of this have recently been torn down to facilitate development, and I never found the paintings here to be among the area’s best anyway. To check it out, go straight on Wausan-ro towards the university and turn right on the 2nd Wausan-ro-18-gil (와우산로18길) (just before Codes Combine). You’ll see the Simpson family on the left and then one cow standing on another’s back, busy whitewashing a nighttime cityscape. Take a left at the next little alley, go past some murals, and then hook around to your right.
The best wall murals are to be found elsewhere, though. To name just a small sampling of what I saw, scattered throughout the neighborhood are colorful flowers, grinning cats with angel wings, wolves in top hats, dragons and ogres on acid trips, 30-eyed swamp things swinging by on jungle vines, and a mutant ajumma, permed and lipsticked, but also fanged, warted, and bloodied.
This neighborhood of serendipity reaches its peak outside of Exit 1, where an afternoon’s exploration could very likely turn up your new favorite café, restaurant, shop, or all three.
I began by heading straight west on Dokmak-gil, past African, selling, of course, African art and knickknacks; Bella Tortilla, where the long-haired proprietor served up burritos; and Standing Coffee II, the second iteration of the popular Noksapyeong café. This eventually brought me to the south end of Parking Street, which any Saturday night Hongdae reveler is familiar with and which must have one of the world’s highest discrepancies between the coolness of a street and the coolness of its name.
The best way to conduct oneself in this neighborhood – the only way really, since there’s a pretty high likelihood that what’s there today won’t be there six months from now – is to simply wander about, let your ears absorb the ambient music, abandon any notion of trying to find something, and just let the neighborhood come to you.
You might stumble across a place like 차 끓이는 솥 (Boiling Tea Kettle), just a block down Wausan-ro-11-gil (와우산로11길), where hundreds of tea cups, saucers, and pots sit on shelves in the shop’s window. Some are simple, plain ceramic, while others are made of china and have intricate designs of roosters or dragons. Shelves inside are filled with string-wrapped paper satchels of tea, and their aroma completely envelops the shop in a scent that soothes and drags up exotic Orientalistic fantasies that I thought I’d been too seasoned to have any more.
You might also come upon Publique, just around the corner from 차 끓이는 솥, an artisanal boulangerie and patisserie where delicious-looking loaves of dark bread dusted in flour sit in the window, alongside certificates from baking schools in France, evidence that the baked goods here are the real deal. Though it hasn’t been around long, only since April, it seems to have already become a popular spot, as both the tables inside and on its outdoor patio were filled with people snacking on croissants and sipping coffee when I discovered it.
Speaking of coffee, perhaps nowhere has Korea’s newfound coffee-mania hit harder, or resulted in more superb independent cafes, than around Hongdae and Sangsu. Seemingly every other place in the neighborhood is a little café tempting you to come in from the cold and cozy up with a book and a latte for a while.
If the wandering has worked up an appetite, there are literally hundreds of places to eat around Sangsu, ranging from hole-in-the-wall dirty spoons to multi-story restaurants, from down-home Korean comfort food to Vietnamese, Mexican, or Nepali.
I had earlier been walking down a tiny side street east of Wausan-gil when I came across a small place with a sign in Japanese and a sticker in the window declaring it Zagat rated. It was only 5:15, but there was already a line of ten people out the door. I had no idea what the place was, or even what kind of food was served there, but that mystery, and that line, meant I had to try it.
The place is Hakatabunko (하카타분코) and they serve up Japanese ramen, along with a couple other dishes. There are two types of ramen served at Hakatabunko, one in a pork-based broth that’s rich and full, the other a milder and lighter pork and chicken mix. Both varieties are incredibly savory, the noodles cooked to the perfect firmness.
There are about four tables in Hakatabunko, but if you can you’ll want to grab a seat at the bar along with the dozens of small toy figurines – Keroro, Sailor Moon, the Catbus from ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ – that sit on a ledge above it. This is so you can watch the action taking place in the open kitchen right in front of you. With a rolled-up bandanna tied around his head and sleeves pushed up sinewy arms, the chef boiled noodles, poured broth, and garnished dishes in a practiced and seemingly reflexive series of motions, all the while barking out welcomes and dish announcements in a loud Japanese rasp.
So what now? We visited and created this post in November, but in a neighborhood as quicksilver as Sangsu, there’s every possibility that it’s now obsolete. Well…so be it. That’s what makes Seoul, Seoul, and what makes living here so endlessly interesting. You try to know the city, but she’ll never really let you. The best you can hope to do is to keep coming back, keep reacquainting yourself, and remember that there are, in fact, some things about her that don’t change: the slow march of the Han, the sly glee of kids with paint, the midwinter perfection of steam pouring off a hot bowl of noodles in a cozy izakaya.
Hangang Park (한강공원)
South on Wausan-gil (와우산길), east on Tojeong-ro (토정로), follow sign pointing to entry tunnel up ahead on the right
차 끓이는 솥 (Boiling Tea Kettle)
North on Wausan-gil (와우산길), left on Wausan-ro-11-gil (와우산로11길)
North on Wausan-gil (와우산길), left on Wausan-ro-11-gil (와우산로11길), left after차 끓이는 솥 (Boiling Tea Kettle)
North on Wausan-gil (와우산길), right on Dongmak-ro-19-gil (동막로19길), just after the mutant ajumma
Parts of this post first appeared in the January 2012 issue of SEOUL magazine.