For as many times as I’ve been to Sinchon Station – I live practically right down the street – I’d never actually been in the part of the neighborhood south of Sinchon-ro (신촌로), so it was there that I decided to start things. Plus, it was the early afternoon, and things north of the station don’t really get rolling until the sun goes down.
Similar to at Ewha Station, there’s a noticeable difference to the two sides. On Sinchon-ro outside Exit 5 there were several students out and about, some grabbing mandu from a street stall, others watching puppies wrestle in a pet store window. Past them the street was a mix of businesses: clothing shops, a wine store, and a place called the International Wig Dept. Store, where, among more conventional hairpieces you could also pick up a wig in the style of a bald man, a la Dr. Phil.
The back streets were an expected collection of red brick apartment buildings and an elementary school where an old guy was getting in some exercise, walking laps around the perimeter of the dirt athletics field. At the back of the neighborhood, concrete stairways led up the hill that Sogang University is on; at least a couple of these had been painted in colorful designs at some time in the past, but they were now faded and chipped and I couldn’t make out just what their designs were.
Speaking of Sogang, it’s easy to get there from Sinchon Station too; a five-minute walk down Baekbeom-ro (백범로) from Exit 6, past some cafes with outdoor terraces where students were enjoying the spring weather, and you’ll arrive at the college’s front gate.
The proximity of that second school probably does a lot to explain the difference between Ewha and Sinchon Stations’ b-side neighborhoods, so to speak. While south of Ewha things are very residential and occasionally even a bit on the decrepit side, south of Sinchon the residential is mixed with student life and plenty of local business, from vegetable stalls to office towers, resulting in a much more vibrant neighborhood. From Exit 7, I strolled down Sogang-ro (서강로), past mothers pushing strollers and businessmen in suits, and past a clutch of love motels meeting university students’ needs between Sogang-ro and Baekbeom-ro. In front of a newish apartment tower a truck was parked, its bed loaded down with flowers for sale, and nearby ajummas picked through a small rack of clothes on the sidewalk.
On both sides of Sogang-ro, perhaps a couple hundred meters from the station, large construction areas cut a path east and west, looking to be where a park above the extension of the Jungang line will run. I turned west down the side street just in front, Sinchon-ro-12-gil (신촌로12길) where a couple seniors had modest shops selling assorted greens, and, just beyond, a few old homes with tiled roofs sat padlocked and waiting to be torn down.
Only a few steps further on, though, and the vibe changed completely, the university influence clearly having breathed some life back into the neighborhood. There were quirky cafes, a few izakayas, clothing boutiques, and, on a side street, a small stall selling knit doilies, brightly colored and clearly of the vegan African dance major-crafted variety, not the Days of Our Lives-watching one. Next to the doilies on Wausan-ro-32-gil (와우산로32길) there’s also a bakery called 김진환 제과점 (Kim Jin-hwan Bakery), which a friend informed me is a rather famous little bakery. All it does are loaves of white bread, which left me a bit nonplussed – Just how famous can a white bread bakery be? – but in the few minutes I was in the area at least five different groups of people entered, inquiring about buying a loaf, only to suffer the same fate that my friend and I just had: being informed that they were closed for the day. Anyone tried their bread and can attest to how good it is?
The bakery and everything else on that funky little street can also be accessed by walking straight out of Exit 8, where the far end of the alley comes out. If you go that way you’ll pass a strip of pojangmachas just outside the exit, followed by stores selling clothes and phones on one side of the sidewalk, staircases between buildings leading down tiny alleys to the backstreets. On the other side of the sidewalk is a strip of tarps set on the ground, each one covered with vegetables. Behind them, perched on milk crates, ajummas sell produce to other ajummas.
When people think of Sinchon they of course think of the opposite side of Sinchon-ro, however, but before we get to the Yonsei campus and the area between it and the station, I’m going to take a quick detour to a bit of an oddity that I never would have expected to encounter in Seoul, much less just blocks from my apartment.
I live between Hongdae and Sinchon, and one night, taking a back road home for the first time, I noticed the gilded figure of an angel blowing a trumpet, perched atop a thin column and glowing against the otherwise black sky. A Google map search revealed that this was where the Seoul Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (예수그리스도 후기성도교회 서울성전) was located.
Like chewing gum and Spam, Mormonism was brought to Korea by American G.I.s, though the first Korean to join the church, Kim Ho Jik, actually did so, in 1951, while attending Cornell University. It wasn’t until 31 years later, however, that a temple was finally opened. The first Mormon temple built on mainland Asia, it is the 37th overall.
Despite it being maybe four blocks from my place, I’d never bothered to actually go check the temple out, exactly the kind of neighborhood oversight this whole project was meant to address. After a five-minute walk from Exit 1 I turned right on Sinchon-ro-7-gil (신촌로7길), just before the Moto café, and after a block the temple was on my left. As I walked in a short, stocky Korean man in his fifties came out to inquire as to why I was there, and when I told him I just came to have a look around he said OK, but not to go inside the temple.
The complex occupies a small plot of land, about half of which is taken up by the temple itself, a handsome granite building with a black tile roof that’s a nod to traditional Korean architecture. The building is surrounded by slender gray and white pillars and landscaping that looks like an engineered bioreserve for the pairs of babe-cheeked young men fulfilling their missionary duties that I occasionally see wandering around my neighborhood. It’s immaculate, bordering on fetishistic, almost spooky, and was being attended to by a half dozen workers when I stopped by. The bushes are all perfectly trimmed, the beds of pansies are blemish-free, and in front of the temple entrance there is a mesmerizing, undulating hedge whose rises and falls look like waves on a lake.
Few places in Seoul can compete with the area just north of Exits 2 and 3 for sheer happening-ness, particularly after the sun goes down. Surrounded as it is by some of the most prestigious bastions of higher learning in all of Korea, it naturally follows that Sinchon is a place where you can get really, really drunk. A huge assortment of bars occupy the streets and alleys running off Yeonsei-ro (연세로), some in basements, some on ninth floors, and interspersed with these are an equal number of restaurants, many of which are, let’s be frank, basically just bars with red meat.
Of course, there’s far more than just eating and drinking to the neighborhood. Sing at a noraebang, watch a movie at a DVD bang, or head to a multibang and do both, as well as play Wii or board games. Naturally, you can shop, whether it’s in one of the many stores or just browsing the offerings at the dozens of sidewalk tables that go up – everything from socks to accessories to cell phone cases. With the bit of spare change left over you could test your strength at one of the street-side punching bags or your aim by tossing darts at a board of inflated balloons. Stuffed animals for winners. Or simply cut to the chase and make for one of the love motels that loiter discreetly on the quiet back streets near Exits 3 and 4.
Like N Seoul Tower or the Cheonggyecheon, Sinchon is a great place to show up at around dusk, to watch the neighborhood transform from its more subdued daylight hues to the neon-bathed fairground it becomes after the sun goes down. As day changes to night the signs turn on, carnival games get set up, and glowing totems of pressurized air inflate outside of restaurants to advertise the dining pleasures awaiting you, if only you’ll step inside. More enticing, however, are the smells of chicken, pork, and squid that fill the air, mingling with the fainter traces of cigarette smoke and beer and whatever is cooking at the nearest street stall: mandu, odeng, hoddeok. The nocturnal piñata that is Sinchon dispenses as many aural treats as it does olfactory ones. There’s the sizzle of meat on grills, the boisterous shouts of students in various stages of inebriation, and the shimmering dissonance of a half-dozen different K-pop songs pouring out of the surrounding shops at any one time.
There’s a bit less variety to Sinchon nightlife than what you’ll find down the road in Hongdae – no clubs, for example, and less variety in restaurants and bars – but one advantage it has is its compactness. In Sinchon you could eat tteokbokki, take a few cuts in a batting cage, do a tequila shot, and win a can of peanuts from a crane game in the time it would take to walk from one favorite Hongdae bar to another.
At the far end of the Yonsei-ro Midway is the reason for all that commotion: Yonsei University (연세대학교), which you can reach by walking to the end of the road from Exit 3 and taking the pedestrian tunnel that runs under the rail tracks.
After you do so you’ll no doubt notice the enormous gray stone, glass, and steel canyon that is Severance Hospital (세브란스병원), the university affiliated hospital and one of the best in the country.
The modern university can be traced back to Severance’s ancestor, Gwanghyewon, a hospital established by the American missionary Dr. H.N. Allen at King Gojong’s behest in 1885. The name was soon changed to Jejungwon and a medical school was established, before changing again, this time to honor L.H. Severance, who donated money in 1904 to reconstruct the facilities. Shortly after, H.G. Underwood founded Chosen Christian College at a Seoul YMCA in 1915. This too soon underwent a name change, to Yonhi College, in 1917, which after World War II would become the country’s first co-ed university. In 1957 Yonhi and Severance merged to form Yonsei University.
Yonsei’s is one of the few Korean campuses I’ve seen (Korea University and, to a lesser extent, Edae being others) that, coming as I do from a milieu of central quads and stately brick buildings with names like Old Main, manages to feel like a campus to me. Many colleges in Korea are relatively young, and their grounds are cramped and filled with buildings that seem more suited to waiting on a government bureaucrat – who should have been back from lunch two hours ago – to review your small business application than to contemplating Hume or the repercussions of the Boxer Rebellion on contemporary China’s attitudes toward its ethnic minorities. Not the universities’ fault; I just like a little ambiance with my tuition.
Yonsei, pleasantly, provides that. Along the central artery leading away from the main gate were beds of pansies, and at its far end, just before the main hall, huge azalea bushes were starting their deep lilac bloom. Halfway between, I passed a granite tower with the Yonsei eagle perched atop, the year 1885 inscribed at its base, where there was also a black stone etched with Isaiah 40:31 in Korean and Hebrew. A few dozen meters to the left, basketball courts were packed with pick-up games.
That main hall, formally known as Underwood Hall, sits at the middle of a U-shaped triumvirate of ivy-covered semi-Gothic buildings with Tudor-style arched entrances that form the campus’ focal point. Dating from 1924, the hall is Historic Site No. 276, and originally served as a lecture hall and the literature building (문학관). It’s not, however, the oldest of the three. That distinction goes to the west building, Stimson Hall (Historic Site No. 275, 1920), named after C.M. Stimson who donated $25,000 for its construction. To the east is Appenzeller Hall (277, 1924), named for H.G. Appenzeller, an American missionary, and originally a lecture hall for natural sciences (이학관).
These three buildings form a horseshoe around a courtyard where well-tended triangular hedges surround flower bushes, and, at the very center, there stands a statue of Horace Grant Underwood (1859-1916), the university’s founder, dwarfed slightly by the buildings around him. Mustachioed, he spreads his arms out before him, perpetually welcoming students, though the expression on his face suggests that he might be beseeching them just a little bit too.
Immediately behind Underwood Hall is another U-shaped trio of stone buildings, also surrounding a small courtyard with triangular hedges. This may be the most idyllic spot on campus, completely surrounded as it is by stately old buildings and cut off from any views of greater Seoul that could intrude on your tweed-jacketed, tortoise shell-rimmed daydreams.
The campus’ upper reaches are an antidote for whatever academic stress students might be suffering, dotted as they are with tranquil park areas, copses of trees, dirt walking paths, and a creek that, for the time-being at least, was nearly dried out. This is also where you’ll find the President’s Residence (충장공관), an elegant stone house with an expansive lawn that is just crying out for a barbecue and a few rounds of lawn bowling.
When I was visiting Edae not long ago, walking around its upper campus I noticed something poking above the treetops to the west that gave me a real ‘What the…?’ moment: an enormous white satellite dish, much bigger than the kind used for television, that nevertheless I had somehow not seen before. It seemed to be somewhere on or near the Yonsei campus.
Sure enough, once at Yonsei, I spotted it again, and after passing the President’s Residence I found a path up to it, where it sat atop the crest of a hill, gigantic and pointed at the western sky. As I’d ventured to guess, it was an astronomical radio observatory, belonging, as the sign read, to the ‘Korean VLBI Network, Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute’ (한국우주전파관측망).
I walked up to its base and looked up. As big as it had looked from a distance, it was even bigger up close, maybe the biggest manmade thing that was not a building that I’d ever stood next to. It sounds a bit silly, but I tried to guess how many bowls of tchigae it could hold in its basin, to try to place its size in terms of something I could comprehend. 10,000? 100,000? Who knew? There was a low hum coming from the machinery inside, and as I stared at it I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw the dish move ever so slightly.
Despite being an arts and letters person and not a math and science one at all, I’ve always been something of an astronomy nerd, fascinated by the unfathomable destruction and creation in the cosmos and by the brain-melting complexities of questions regarding dark energy and the curvature of space, and I think this is due to my sense that astronomy is as much about philosophy – our quest to understand where we come from and why we’re here – as it is about science. So I took a seat on the bench underneath the dish and just sat and contemplated it a while, the way a devotee might gaze at the Kaaba. It had a peculiar physical immediacy: its incredible mass, the laboratory-ivory color of spaceships and escape pods. But there was something surreal about it too: the evocative noises I could hear coming from inside, the fact that even at that moment the machine was channeling invisible signals that I could never comprehend from places I could never be. I sat there for a long time just staring at the machine, thinking that if I was patient enough I’d witness something, that I’d be rewarded with a glimpse of the unknowable processes going on inside, that something would happen.
And then it did. Just as I was about to get up and leave I heard a whirring sound, louder than before, and I looked up to see the dish tilting downward, from a 45-degree angle to perhaps ten degrees, and doing it so quickly that I almost felt worried that the entire thing would unhinge and come crashing down right in front of me. When it reached ten degrees it stopped. Nothing happened for a good 30 seconds and then, just as suddenly as the first time, it began moving again, this time tilting back up four, five, six times, a few degrees at a time until it came to rest around 70 degrees. Was it tracking something? Keeping its gears loose? Playing? It was as if a building had suddenly come alive, shifted to a more comfortable position, and then returned to its naturally lifeless state.
The dish did not move any more, but I continued to sit on the bench for several minutes and stare at it, my face in an open-mouthed smile, rather stupefied. Then I too roused myself to motion and headed down the hill, left to ponder all the mysteries of the universe that I didn’t know and that the machine did.
김진환 제과점 (Kim Jin-hwan Bakery)
South on Sogang-ro (서강로), Right on Sinchon-ro-12-gil (신촌로12길), Left on Wausan-ro-32-gil (와우산로32길)
Seoul Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (예수그리스도 후기성도교회 서울성전)
Straight on Sinchon-ro (신촌로), Right on Sinchon-ro-7-gil (신촌로7길)
Yonsei University (연세대학교) and Severance Hospital (세브란스병원)
Straight on Sinchon-ro (신촌로)