There are chickens in Myeongdong. Not stuffed or deep-fried, but real actual chickens, about ten of them, that twitch and peck at the dirt in someone’s small yard. Administratively speaking, they may technically be in Hoehyeon-dong-2-ga (회현동2가) and not Myeong-dong (명동), but with a strong throw you might be able to hit the station with a stone, and if you get a lucky bounce it might tumble all the way across Toegye-ro (퇴계로) to the hyper-electric warren of streets that is what we think of when we think of Myeongdong.
That Myeongdong, the Myeongdong of crowds and shoppers and neon lights and some of the world’s highest real estate prices, wasn’t ever thus. It was once mostly residential, and in the postwar years it would have taken a true visionary to imagine it as it is now. But like the city around it, Myeongdong has transformed, and to trace its development is to come to the conclusion that this single square kilometer may represent more fully than anywhere else the diverging postwar fates of the two Koreas. It’s everything the North is emphatically not: unabashedly international, hyper-capitalist, über-prosperous. Chinese, Thai, and (horror of horrors!) Japanese and American tourists are to be found here at all hours, usually loaded down with shopping bags, eager participants in the whitecapped churn of consumerism as billions of won are made and spent here every day. Which is why those chickens surprised me so much. Rather than the real one, they seemed more at home in some alt-history version of Myeongdong, where MacArthur’s Incheon landing never happened, the North won the war, and Seoul became a dour expanse of factories and subsistence farming.
For the uninitiated, Myeongdong, smack in the heart of the city, is one of Seoul’s main tourist and shopping destinations, a grid of streets filled to bursting with shopping malls, international chain stores, boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and seemingly a million other places where you may quickly be dispossessed of your money. The streets are mostly pedestrian, but don’t let that lull you into believing that you can enjoy a breezy stroll while casually window shopping. The area is always bustling, and on a Friday or Saturday wading through the streets is a slow process that resembles picking your way through the crowd at a club, full of shuffle steps and bumped shoulders.
Adding to that sensation is the fact that walking through the streets of Myeongdong is like walking through a K-pop jukebox set on shuffle. Almost every storefront blares pop music into the street outside, so as you make your way down the street you’re continuously walking through five second snippets of Girls’ Generation, 2PM, and T-ARA. While the fact that every single store does this may render its effectiveness at luring in customers dubious, it doubtless adds to the area’s incredibly high energy. The music, the crowds, the flashing lights, the barkers barking in Korean or Japanese – it all will either invigorate or drain you. For me it does both. When I’m in the mood, there’s nowhere in Seoul that’s more exciting or that makes me love living in East Asia, with all its intensity and drive, more. When I’m not, I feel like a cartoon character who’s just had his bell rung, woozy and disoriented, with flashing stars swirling around my head.
While there are so many places to shop in Myeongdong that singling out one place over another is a bit moot, there is one for which I’m going to do just that. If you follow the main street just outside of Exit 6 (Myeongdong-8-gil (명동8길)) down to Myeongdong-gil (명동길), and then hang a left you’ll come to the Noon Square complex, where you’ll find Level 5, a collection of small boutiques spread over the fifth floor.
While most of the stores in Myeongdong sell the same clothing you could find in New York or Tokyo or Barcelona, Level 5 sells threads that are true Seoul and that are at the leading edge of fashion in Korea. That’s because Level 5 was established (in August 2009) as a dedicated space for promising young designers, to give them an opportunity to work with more established craftspeople, develop their own work, assist with marketing and promotion, and provide a space for them to display and sell their finished product as they work to establish themselves in the Korean and global fashion markets.
Don’t, however, thing of shopping here as charity work. The merchandise, from sunglasses to blazers, from bags to bracelets, and running the gamut from sophisticated prep to urban weekender, is high quality (these are, after all, some of the best young designers Korea has to offer) and truly one of a kind. And as an added bonus, Level 5 is relatively quiet. It’s off the radar of tourists and most Koreans, leaving it primarily to those in the know and resulting in a more relaxed shopping environment.
Back outside, you’re on Myeongdong-gil, which, even by Myeongdong standards, is irrepressibly vibrant. In addition to shoppers, the street is a magnet for the curious, noisy, and eccentric. You’ll usually see several tour groups trailing behind their guides’ bobbing pennants, often wearing matching hats or polos in the royal yellow of the Thai king. Other mainstays are the Christian proselytizers, always wearing sashes and frequently holding up crosses or signs, usually equipped with a megaphone or speakers that blare out hymns or exhortations of conversion, routinely ignored by everyone. The street is also a popular place to air grievances, and from time to time you’ll see a small demonstration, as I did on a recent weekend, where several students from Dongguk University were protesting the closing of the school’s creative writing department. As students at a Buddhist university, they were doing this not with noisy slogans, but by repeatedly prostrating themselves.
If you can find a spot to linger without getting in people’s way (no easy task), Myeongdong-gil is a fun place to stop for a while and just see what happens. And if you get hungry you needn’t ever go very far to get something to eat. The street is lined with food carts, serving everything from sausages to hoddeok to dumplings to strips of dried squid. Prices tend to be a bit higher than elsewhere, but not unreasonably so. Interspersed with the food carts are street stalls that sell cheap accessories – lots of hats, gloves, and scarves in the winter, and belts, caps, and sunglasses in the summer.
In the middle of Myeongdong-gil is a handsome cream-colored brick building, whose modest design can make it easy to overlook among its flashier neighbors. This is the Myeongdong Theater (명동예술극장). The building, dating from 1934, was originally called the Meiji Theater and served as a cinema, primarily for the area’s Japanese residents during the colonial period. It later served a ten-year stint as city hall in the 1940s and 50s before going on to become the home of the National Theater of Korea. It was closed in 1975, not to be reopened until 2009 after renovations were completed. The 552-seat facility now holds a variety of theatrical performances.
Follow Myeongdong-gil east, gradually away from the crowds, and you’ll come to Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral (명동성당), built in 1898. Sitting atop a small hill, this large red and gray brick structure has a 45-meter central tower that ends in a gray-green peak with a thin metal cross atop it all. The cathedral is surrounded by handsome brick church buildings. On the day I went, a Sunday, the walkway was busy with people on their way to Mass and a small choir sang hymns out front.
Inside, the church has a long central aisle with stately gray stone pillars every five meters that meet to form arches above, which crisscross a simple white roof. On either side, intricate and brightly colored stained glass windows allow light in, and below them the Stations of the Cross are depicted in square, monochromatic metal bas reliefs. The windows along the sides depict only abstract floral designs, but in the apse above and behind the altar are more tall, narrow windows whose vertical triptychs display scenes from the Bible. Flanking the apse are large paintings illustrating Christianity in Korea, and on one side there is also a statue of Korea’s most famous Catholic, Saint Andrew Kim Tae-gon. In a rear balcony is a massive pipe organ, its huge metal tubes set in light-colored wood. For the moment it was silent, and the only sounds in the pre-Mass church were rustling papers, footsteps, and the noises of people settling into their seats, mostly families and old women wearing lace veils over their hair, as many older observant Catholic women do in Korea.
The cathedral occupies a large place in Korean history, and not simply because it was the biggest building in the capital when it was constructed. Stemming from its foundations as a sanctuary for Catholics in a country that was not always hospitable to them, the building has had a long association with dissidents and protestors, providing both a staging ground and asylum for them, most notably for pro-democracy advocates in the 1970s and 80s.
Just a few steps past the church as you’re walking from central Myeongdong is a small granite plaque noting the Site of the Heroic Deed of the Martyr Yi Jaemyeong (이재명의사의 거터). It was here that, during the colonial era, 이 ambushed the Japanese collaborator 이완용, stabbing him in the stomach and shoulder after he had left a memorial mass for the emperor of Belgium. The attack succeeded only in injuring 이완용, and 이재명 was caught, arrested, and executed.
Myeongdong is especially popular with tourists from Japan, and if you take a left out of Exit 6 and then your first right onto Myeongdong-8-gil (명동8길), you’ll see a corner of the neighborhood catering specifically to them. Near where the road meets Samil-ro (삼일로), about half of the signs are in Japanese and a series of stores specialize in bulk sales of kim and Korean ginseng, two of Japanese visitors’ favorite souvenirs. I noticed that you can also pick up a Hello Kitty dressed in hanbok if you prefer.
In the other direction, most easily arrived at via Exit 5 and then a right onto Myeongdong-2-gil (명동2길), is what passes for Seoul’s Chinatown. If you haven’t been and are thinking San Francisco or Bangkok or Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City, stop right there. Seoul has about the saddest excuse for a Chinatown you could imagine – one street, about a block long – though it does contain a couple interesting things of note.
After walking a block from Toegye-ro, you’ll spot the Seoul Chinese Primary School on your right, established in 1909 and recognized as the country’s oldest foreigner school. Then, on the left, is an attractive white building with the white sun of the Chinese Nationalists on a blue crest. This is the old Overseas Chinese Meeting Hall, though it now houses nothing more notable than a photo studio.
Between these two buildings, a small side street holds a few Chinese restaurants, but if you’re hoping for authentic Chinese food, as opposed to Korean-Chinese, again, please kindly place your expectations back in your stomach. The word is, though, that you can at least get some of the city’s best jajjangmyeon around here, and while I’m not prepared to rate it, I did get some that was pretty good at Sandong Gyoza, a tiny place with a cozy downstairs and a half upstairs that requires you to walk bent over. More fun might be the string of open air restaurants just past the Meeting Hall, at least when the weather is nice.
If instead of turning right you continue straight from Exit 5, you’ll turn the corner and find the hulking, and controversial, Seoul Central Post Office Tower (서울중앙우체국). Its symmetrical white towers look like a log being cleaved by a splitting maul, an interesting design, but one that’s been criticized for clashing too much with the more classical buildings surrounding Myeongdong Intersection.
While ‘Myeongdong’ makes people immediately think of the area north of the station, there is of course a neighborhood south of it too, with a couple significant attractions.
Leave Exit 1, U-turn, and follow the road as it curves around to the right, past the National Red Cross Headquarters, and up on the left you’ll spot Namsan Art Center (남산예술센터), which houses another branch of Seoul Art Space.
Just beyond the Art Center is the Seoul Animation Center, the city’s temple to all things illustrated. Painted in bright colors (of course), there are also a number of statues of animation characters outside and on the roof, including one of Taekwon V guarding the front of the building.
Inside, displays range from whimsical dioramas of castles and small figurines to a gallery of cartoon-themed art offering takes on contemporary family life. The visitors to the center when I dropped by were, naturally, mostly kids and their parents, and some of them were creating their own work in workshops offered by the center, catching a film screening, or having their portrait drawn by one of the three cartoonists offering caricatures in the lobby. Others played with some of the interactive gadgets, including one kid I watched strain to stand on his tiptoes in order to get the top half of his head in the frame at a Pororo photo booth, not quite realizing that he simply could have backed up a couple steps.
I was, I’m fairly certain, the oldest non-parent there, but despite this, and the fact that I’ve never really been into cartoons or animation myself, I’m pretty sure that I spent the entire visit with a rather dopey grin smeared across my face. At no time was this more true than when I went into the men’s bathroom. Above the urinals was a sculpture of a crowd of characters inquisitively peeking over the ledge to see what was going on down below. But it gets better. The back wall of each urinal was composed of a video screen that alternated between a target, a buzzing fly that taunts and sticks its butt out at you, and an animated Whac-a-Mole.
Next to the Animation Center is the Cartoon Museum, which isn’t quite so much a true museum as it is an archive and library of animation. On the first floor is the Cartoon Library, offering shelves and shelves of comic books, manga, and graphic novels. The second floor holds a huge collection of video animations, everything from South Park to Ghost in the Shell to the old Claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas Special. Anyone is free to come in at any time, pick out one of the videos, and watch it, slouched on a brightly colored chair in front of one of the dozen or so screens that are available. As I walked around, nosing through the collection and the figurines displayed in glass cases, kids and their parents were absorbed in Disney’s Aladdin and episodes of Pokemon.
The area just west of the museum is almost quiet, at least relative to its surroundings, and it was here that I saw the chickens. The neighborhood is dotted with restaurants and small businesses, including many that begin to display signs in Chinese for translators, travel agents, and trading companies as you work your way up Toegye-ro-18-gil (퇴계로18길) towards the Chinese embassy. En route, you’ll also pass the Chojun Textile Art Museum (초전섬유 퀼트박물관).
Although hints of the more modern Myeongdong existed in this neighborhood, in the form of clothing and jewelry boutiques, it was still much the sort of place where you’d likely witness kimchi pots stacked outside buildings, as I did.
The other main attraction on the south side of Myeongdong Station is the cable car up to N Seoul Tower on Namsan (남산). To get there, go out Exit 4, and take a left onto Banpo-ro (반포로) at the major intersection. From there you’ll be able to see the white silver and red needle poking into the sky ahead of you and the thin lines of the cable car, little gray boxes gliding up and down them.
Just before the traffic disappears into the Namsan 3 Tunnel you’ll arrive at an elevator (10:00 – 23:00) that takes you up an inclined track to the cable car proper. The trip costs 7,500 won round-trip for an adult, a fair bit more than the less direct Namsan bus, but it’ll get you to the summit quickly and directly, and provide you with views of the city bettered only by the trip up the tower itself to its viewing platform. Try to time your visit so you arrive at the tower just before dusk. That way you’ll be able to take in the city in daylight, and then watch as the sun sets and Seoul turns itself into a terrestrial galaxy, nowhere more luminous than the electric supernova below you.
L on Myeongdong-8-gil (명동8길), L on Myeongdong-gil (명동길), 5th floor of Noon Square
Myeongdong Theater (명동예술극장)
L on Myeongdong-8-gil (명동8길), at intersection with Myeongdong-gil (명동길)
Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral (명동성당) and Site of the Heroic Deed of the Martyr Yi Jaemyeong (이재명의사의 거터)
L on Myeongdong-8-gil (명동8길), R on Myeongdong-gil (명동길)
Seoul Chinese Primary School, Overseas Chinese Meeting Hall
R on Myeongdong-2-gil (명동2길)
Seoul Central Post Office Tower (서울중앙우체국)
R on Banpo-ro (반포로)
Namsan Art Center (남산예술센터), Seoul Animation Center, and Cartoon Museum
U-turn, follow road as it curves to right
Museum Hours: Tue – Sun 9:00 – 18:00, Closed holidays
Chojun Textile Art Museum (초전섬유 퀼트박물관)
L onto Toegye-ro-18-gil (퇴계로18길)
Namsan Cable Car
L on Banpo-ro (반포로)
Hours: 10:00 – 23:00
Parts of this post first appeared in the February 2012 issue of SEOUL magazine.