Between 1964 and 1989 the German chronobiologist Rütger Wever conducted a series of experiments in an underground bunker in Andechs, Germany, in which over 400 test subjects were deprived of all external time cues – variations in light, temperature, electromagnetic fields – anything that might signal to them what time of day it was or how much time had passed. The aim of these experiments, and others like them, was to determine the body’s natural sleep cycle if all outside influences that typically determine sleeping and waking hours, both natural and artificial, were removed. What Wever found was that without external cues, humans’ circadian rhythms tend to drift away from the 24-hour day and adopt a cycle closer to 25 hours, meaning that within a couple weeks whatever subjects normally did during the day they’d then do at night, and vice versa.
Were Wever alive today, he might perform follow-up research where the same time cues are withheld but subjects are provided with shops, restaurants, theaters, and, just for good measure, a kimchi museum, to examine the physiological response in such a situation. Would subjects, presented with so many stimuli, extend their circadian rhythms beyond 25 hours? Would it still count as dinner and a movie if dates occurred at 10 a.m.? Would the subjects ever leave? These questions, and many more, could be answered at Coex.
Sprawling below several large Gangnam city blocks, Coex Mall (connected to the station between Exits 5 and 6) is the largest underground mall in Asia, at 85,000 square meters. And if you avoid the area near the main entrance and the food court with its large skylight, through which you can see the enormous Trade Tower rising, it’s entirely possible to immerse yourself in a near-Weverian bunker where light and temperature are constants and the only relevancy that time of day bears is whether you pay standard or matinee price for your movie ticket. In that way, Coex functions as something of an über-mall: a commercial environment where nothing outside it can be perceived to exist, and the only reality is the one of consumption, of shopping bags in one hand, ice cream cone in the other.
Coex does close at night so you can’t put your own circadian rhythm to the test, but merely entering the mall does seem to have some sort of effect on the body. Personally, any semblance of my normally reliable sense of direction completely disappears when I’m there. I’ve been to Coex Mall dozens of times, and yet every time I go I get utterly turned around. This is apparently not an uncommon problem, as there are plentiful touchscreen guides, and assistants at information desks speak into microphones when they answer questions as, presumably, most of the other people within earshot don’t know where they are either.
Although it’s underground, two things: The first is that it never feels claustrophobic. The innumerable lights, bouncing off all of the mall’s polished surfaces, make the low ceilings feel not quite so low. The second is that the mall is still a mall, which is to say that you probably already know what you can find there. Megabox and Uniqlo care not whether they are aboveground or below. A couple features do, however, differentiate Coex from its supra-terranean peers.
The quirkier of these is the Pulmuone Kimchi Field Museum (김치박물관), located on level B2 and covering ingredients, equipment, methods, variations, and everything else you ever wanted to know about kimchi but were too afraid to ask.
Near the entrance are examples of ancient historical tracts that expound on the production and benefits of kimchi, and an explanation that sukggakdugi is a good way of honoring and showing respect for the elderly because its tender flesh is easy on weak teeth. Over seven dozen varieties of kimchi are explained, and many are presented in plastic mock-ups of the type frequently seen in restaurant display cases. You can examine a variety of earthenware storage pots and, if so inclined, have your photo taken pretending to be fed kkakdugi by a hanbok wearing ajumma.
At the far end of the small museum, kimchi’s health benefits are explained, and a display of fermented food from around the world attempts to put kimchi in some sort of smelly global context, though you might call into question Pulmuone’s research after seeing the drawing of an Italian girl standing before the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Coliseum holding a tray of coffee, pizza, and a big plate of pickles. How this myth took hold here I have yet to figure out. Attention people of Korea: Italians do not eat pickles with pizza. In fact, in the four months I lived in Italy I don’t remember seeing any Italians eating any pickles ever. Nor do pizza and coffee go together, but that’s another story. Moving on.
For hardcore kimchiphiles, there’s a library in the museum, stocked with books, newspapers, and theses about the food, and apparently the museum publishes its own series, which includes research on food culture, both domestic and foreign. Prefer your kimchi on a plate as opposed to a book? A small tasting room offers up samples of several different varieties.
Arguably Coex’s best feature, the mall is home to Korea’s largest aquarium, Coex Aquarium (코엑스 아쿠아리움). The stats: 14,350 square meters; approximately 3,000 tons of water; 40,000 animals representing 650 unique species. These include not just tropical fish, sharks, and rays, but also bats, lizards, otters, penguins, and even a pair of squirrel monkeys.
The facility takes you through displays of environments that are de rigueur for aquariums – the Amazon, a mangrove, the deep ocean – but also has a pair of very Korean features that set it apart. The first, and the first area visitors walk through, is Korean in the literal sense, showcasing the peninsula’s marine environments, particularly the country’s riverine ecosystems. Especially interesting to my mind was the display showing the tiny fish that live in the water of flooded rice paddies.
The second feature, Korean in its eagerness to make things goofy and cute, is the Fish’s Wonderland section where small fish swim in tanks that occupy, among others, a Coke machine, a toilet, a refrigerator, and a washing machine. One tank is shaped like a harp and is fitted with sensors, so every time a fish crosses a ‘string’ a note is played.
Of course, the aquarium is popular with families and watching the reactions of kids can be as entertaining as watching the fish. At the piranha tank I looked on as a dad explained what the fish do to his three young kids who listened, wide-eyed. Dad then proceeded to suggest a rock-paper-scissors game; loser had to jump in the tank. Perhaps not thinking through the consequences fully, they eagerly agreed. When dad came out the loser and began looking around for a way into the tank his little girl let out a concerned shriek, before pops announced that, wouldn’t you know it, there was no door.
I’m a bit of an aquarium junkie – I’ll take an aquarium over a zoo any day – and Coex has a good one, but if there’s one knock on it it’s that some of the enclosures are pitifully small. The squirrel monkeys were limited to a cylindrical plexiglass cage that really wasn’t big enough, and for several minutes the aquarium’s beaver swam back and forth in its enclosure’s bit of water, a small strip that was maybe only twice its body length.
Big as the mall is, it’s only one part of the greater Coex complex. The development was initially limited to an exhibition center, finished in 1979, but has expanded to today include hotels, office towers, a department store, a serviced residence, and a casino. Undoubtedly the most prestigious part of the complex is the convention center, which in recent years has hosted, among other major events, a G-20 summit and the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit. Coex’s newest addition is the Coex Artium, a glass-walled building (so much for the experiment) adjacent to the mall’s main entrance that features a theater where musicals are staged.
Succinctly encapsulating the perpetual tension between tradition and modernity in Seoul, just across the street from Coex’s north side is the ancient Bongeun Temple (봉은사). To reach it, simply go out Exit 6, walk past the flock of national flags outside of the convention center on Yeongdong-daero (영동대로) to the intersection with Bongeunsa-ro (봉은사로). You’ll see it ahead on your left.
Taking foresight to extremes, Bongeunsa beat the Gangnam real estate boom by nearly half a millennium. The temple was founded by the Venerable Yeonhoe (연회국사가) in 794, and moved to its current location in 1562, before the area got trendy. Bongeunsa became the head temple of the Seon (선 or Zen) sect of Buddhism during the Joseon Dynasty, when the religion was under suppression by the Confucian government, and played an important role in the religion’s perseverance and revival, largely under the stewardship of the Venerable Bowu (보우스님). During the later Joseon Period, the Venerable Younggi (영기스님) enshrined 81 volumes of the Avatamsaka Sutra, carved on woodblock, in the Panjeon (판전 or Tripitaka Hall), which he had built to preserve and store scriptures.
Today Bongeunsa is comprised of over a dozen buildings, most of which are reconstructions following a 1939 fire and damage suffered during the Korean War. Fortunately, the Panjeon is not one of these. Bongeunsa also contains National Treasure No. 321, an incense burner, and several Seoul Tangible Cultural Properties.
My favorite of these can be found at the entrance, just past the stone elephants and inside the Jinyeomun (진여문 or ‘Gate of Suchness’): the Statues of the Four Celestial Kings (사천왕). These four wooden carvings depict the kings who, from the four cardinal directions, protect the Buddha’s teachings. Typically the members of this quartet are depicted as a fearsome foursome, but Bongeunsa’s stocky guardians, carved in 1746, look rather goofy, as they might be depicted in a cartoon retelling of the tradition. They form a good cop – bad cop dichotomy with the menacing door guards painted on the gate’s enormous doors.
Paper lanterns for the upcoming Buddha’s birthday celebrations had been strung up over the main path, and in the pond to my left were staked two more, these in the shape of fish. A group of stelae were to my right.
The main path leads to the Beopwang-ru (법왕루 or ‘Dharma King Pavilion’), which houses the Buddha and is used for morning ceremonies. It also houses 3,300 miniature statues of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, though more interesting to me was the fact that there was actually an ATM inside. It struck me as a bit of a grotesquerie at first, but as likely as not it was put in as a concession to the customers participating in Bongeunsa’s temple stay program, and perhaps to the temple staff as well, the latter being hard at work in offices in the Beopwang-ru, which looked just like any other office, save for the pictures of shaven, robed monks on the walls.
Between the Beopwang-ru and the Daewoong-jeon was a roofed courtyard where people lit joss sticks in front of a stone pagoda flanked by stone lanterns and two 15-foot paintings. Hanging from the courtyard’s roof were hundreds of red lanterns with green bottoms, looking like the fruits on an inverted tomato vine. The Daewoong-jeon (대웅전 or ‘Main Buddha Hall’) is the temple’s spiritual heart, where you’ll find the wooden statues of the Sakyamuni Trinity, dating from 1651 – squat characters with almost no necks, like the stevedores of the Buddhist world. A couple dozen people were praying and meditating inside the hall, and from the roof beams a pair of dragon heads poked out discreetly to gaze at the trio. Hundreds of tiny lights were set into the walls around the altar, and their light helped illuminate an impressive pair of 19th century paintings.
‘Contrast’ is perhaps not strong enough a word to describe Bongeunsa versus its surroundings. While the traffic and commerce of Gangnam carries on just steps away, the faithful or the merely stressed can retreat to the temple’s peaceful grounds, filled with the chirping of birds, beautiful wooden buildings, trees, shrubs, and dozens and dozens of bushes of azaleas in white, red, pink, and purple. One of the most peaceful spots on the grounds is the Great Statue of Maitreya Buddha (미륵대불), a 23-meter representation of the future Buddha that gazes out over the complex and the tops of skyscrapers. A large maroon stone slab is set before it for people to pray on, and a handful were doing so when I came by, including one woman, devout and resourceful, who had propped open an umbrella on the ground next to her to keep the sun off when she was prostrating.
Just east of the statue is the compound’s oldest building, the Pan-jeon (판전 or Tripitaka Hall), where 3,438 sutra tablets are held. Unfortunately it was closed and I couldn’t get a look at these.
Simply walking around Bongeunsa is therapeutic, but for those wanting a fuller experience, visitors can participate in either a two-day, one-night Temple Stay (50,000 won), which includes a tea ceremony, Buddhist rosary making, and meditation, or in a two-hour Temple Life program (20,000 won) and go on a temple tour, meditate, and make a lotus lantern. Details and registration info are available on the temple’s website.
Of course, if they don’t make directly for Coex Mall, the scene that greets visitors to Samseong is much less sedate. The station is at the intersection of Yeongdong-daero and Teheran-ro (테헤란로), and the two boulevards are lined with soaring glass and steel towers, none more noticeable than the aforementioned Trade Tower with its indented middle sections. But small touches like the pansy-filled flower boxes mounted perfectly at nose-height on the light poles make things feel not quite so Spartan. It helps too if you get to see a taxi driver in a bad comb over jump roping on the sidewalk while waiting for a fare, as I did.
After going out Exit 7 and passing by the KEPCO headquarters I swung right on Bongeunsa-ro, and away from the main drags it could be surprisingly quiet. After one cluster of traffic passed I heard the ticking of a ping pong ball being hit back and forth coming from inside one of the buildings.
Just a couple blocks east of the station is the Tahn Stream (탄천), which is most easily reached by going straight from Exit 1 and down the stairs underneath the flyway. We’d come across the Tahn at Jangji Station as well, where it was reasonably pleasant, but in this area it’s really not. Wide and not particularly pretty, its only feature here is the walking and biking paths running alongside. It’s loomed over by bridges and elevated highways, and both banks are essentially parking lots, filled up with private vehicles and lots and lots of tour buses, presumably waiting to pick up their groups when their visit to Coex is done. You can see into the upper deck of nearby Jamsil Stadium – a game was going on and the mustard yellow seats were about half full – which is kind of neat, but if you’re looking to enjoy one of Seoul’s many streams you’d be better off going elsewhere.
After checking out the stream I went south from Exit 3 to visit Kring, an architecturally stunning ‘creative culture space’ housing a cinema, galleries, and event space. Kring means ‘circle’ in Dutch, and the building’s façade looks like ripples in a pond, or sound waves emanating from inside. I’d last visited the previous year when the Creators Project came through Seoul, but unfortunately Kring is now afgewerkt, which Google Translate tells me is Dutch for ‘finished.’ A sign on the front door said that it had been closed since December 31 of last year and was awaiting a buyer. When Liz passed by a couple weeks later it appeared that it had been snapped up by Prugio, possibly to be turned into showroom space.
Occasionally in the course of exploring we’ll stumble across something small and beautiful and totally unexpected and perhaps a little bit amazing, and this is one of the project’s biggest pleasures. After being disappointed at Kring, I was walking around the back streets of Daechi-dong (대치동) when I stumbled across a tiny park containing an incredible Gingko Tree and the Yeongsandan Monument (은행나무와 영산단 기념비). It can be reached by continuing past Kring from Exit 3, turning right on Dogok-ro (도곡로), and right again on Dogok-ro-87-gil (도곡로87길).
The gingko just might be the best tree in all of Seoul: 530 years old, 20 meters tall, and 4.8 meters in circumference. About six feet up from the base knotty limbs are grouped compactly together, and these extend upward into a vast, lush canopy, bathing almost the entire park in shade. Underneath it, a man was sitting on a bench reading one book, three others stacked by his side. It wasn’t hard to see why he’d chosen that spot to settle in for a long read; besides being cool and pleasant, the great tree lent the spot a certain dignity, and I imagined Joseon scholars doing similarly hundreds of years ago, preparing for the civil service exams.
In fact, the gingko tree does bear some historical significance. The neighborhood used to be the site of Hanti Village (한티마을 or Big Hill Village), and it was here that inhabitants would come to pray for the village’s prosperity, culminating in a yearly village ceremony on July 1st of the Lunar Calendar. I have no idea how old they are, but in front of the tree there is still a small granite altar and stele. There’s no longer much need to entreat for Daechi-dong’s prosperity, but a few hours, or even a few minutes, spent contemplating the towering green canopy and enjoying the rare pleasure of something both ancient and natural, in a city that often seems to value neither, must surely be something close to prayer.
Linked to station between Exits 5 and 6
Pulmuone Kimchi Field Museum (김치박물관)
B2 Floor of Coex Mall
Hours | Tues – Sun 10:00 – 18:00; Closed Mondays, January 1, Lunar New Year’s, Chuseok, Christmas
Admission | Adults – 3,000 won, Youth – 2,000, Kids 4 and under – free
Coex Aquarium (코엑스 아쿠아리움)
Main floor of Coex Mall
Hours | 10:00 – 20:00 every day, last entry at 19:00
Admission | Adults – 17,500 won, Youth – 14,500, Children – 11,000
Bongeun Temple (봉은사)
Straight on Yeongdong-daero (영동대로), left on Bongeunsa-ro (봉은사로)
02) 3218-4826 (Korean), 02) 3218-4895 (English)
Temple Stays and Temple Life programs are available. See website for details.
Tahn Stream (탄천)
Straight on Teheran-ro (테헤란로)
Gingko Tree and Yeongsandan Monument (은행나무와 영산단 기념비)
Straight on Yeongdong-daero (영동대로), right on Dogok-ro (도곡로), right on Dogok-ro-87-gil (도곡로87길)