I’m writing this at Hakrim Dabang (학림다방), on the second floor of a building whose windows look out over Daehang-no (대학로). As this project has progressed I’ve shied away more and more from talking about restaurants, cafes, bars, or any other kind of business because with the Darwinian rate of turnover among businesses in Seoul all too often any particular place you happen to single out won’t be there six months later. Hakrim, though, is one of the few safe bets in town.
The café, just a few steps from Exit 3, has been open since 1956 and looks as if it hasn’t changed much since. Normally when one thinks of da-bangs (다방) images of crusty old places with ajeosshis hunched over tea or instant coffee, where there may or may not be something more than just drinks on offer, come to mind. Hakrim, while not without a nostalgic touch of crustiness – the bare wood floors, the slightly uncomfortable couches upholstered in a russet fabric that went out of style decades ago – is nothing like those places, however. Thanks to nearby Sungkyunkwan University, the clientele is mostly students, the coffee is good, and there is an atmosphere of casual sophistication that few other cafes have or even attempt. In lieu of K-pop or typical café music, the soundtrack at Hakrim is provided by CDs or the hundreds of classical vinyl LPs that line shelves behind the counter and comes out of a pair of large wooden speakers like the ones your grandparents probably have in their home. There’s an upright piano, though I’ve never seen anyone play it, and about twenty or so tables split between the main floor and a half loft, the wall of which is decorated by torn and slightly yellowing photographs of composers and other musical figures. If the focus on the classical suggests a stuffy or elitist atmosphere, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hakrim is simply doing what it’s done for 60 years; the result is one of the most unique and soothing cafes in Seoul.
Hakrim fits in well in the Daehangno area, where a commitment to the arts mixes with an appreciation for the past. The neighborhood is perhaps best known for being the center of theater in Korea. It’s often called Seoul’s Broadway, but as the majority of theaters here accommodate audiences in the dozens or hundreds, major theatrical productions are put on elsewhere, making it more off-Broadway than on-. What it might lack in scale it more than makes up for in quantity and variety, though. Dozens of performance spaces dot the neighborhood, some in large, specifically purposed halls, some in basements of anonymous buildings down tiny laneways, and shows range from musicals to shows for kids to wordless performances to original works to a stage version of Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’ that was being heavily promoted on both neighborhood lamppost banners and city bus videos.
The majority of Daehangno’s theaters are located east of the station, between Hyehwa Rotary (혜화로터리) to the north and Marronnier Park to the south. The streets between are full of restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops, with twenty- and thirty-somethings wandering between them, much like you might find in Hongdae or Sinchon, but with one additional feature that you won’t find elsewhere. Streets are dotted with small shacks selling tickets to shows, and you’ll often see people queued up in front of them, waiting to buy their seat for the night. To get up to date info on everything that’s playing in the neighborhood at any given time or to simply pick up a map of Daehangno’s theaters, pop into the Seoul Theater Center (서울연극센터) a quick U-turn from Exit 4. Any info you need, they’ve got it, along with flyers for all currently running shows.
The two landmarks that bookend the neighborhood each have their own attractions. On Sundays the popping of Tagalog fills the air around Hyehwa Rotary when it hosts the Filipino Market, where expats from the archipelago gather to eat, socialize, and sell goods from back home. At tables and tents lining the sidewalk you can find mangos, durian, noodles, cans of coconut juice, Filipino cosmetics, and packets of Mama Sita’s adobo mix.
If you’re hungry there are also two tents that dish up Filipino food, both to go and to eat there. Eating there is of course the atmospherically preferable option, though doing so is a highly improvised operation. After getting your food in either a Styrofoam bowl or on a tin lunch tray, you’ll have to shimmy between stalls, step over a hedge, and find a stool at one of the handful of folding tables in the back. Watch your feet, though, as the tables are partially placed directly in the small man-made stream that runs along the sidewalk. When I visited, a friend and I opted for a couple of grilled pork skewers, pork adobo, and a peanut curry. The former two were quite good, the adobo especially, but the latter was bland bordering on inedible; it tasted like watered down peanut butter, with no hint of curry.
The stream continues to run south down Daehangno, which is lined with fountains, pojangmachas, lemonade stands, cocktail trucks, fortune tellers, a bust of Rabindranath Tagore, and stalls selling, variously, miniature carousels, shoes, stuffed animals, accessories, waffles, and old varieties of candy to those nostalgic for a taste of youth. There are also statues of goats, men in trench coats reading newspapers, and, further down, poop.
Eventually, you’ll come to the second bookmark, just outside Exit 2, Marronnier Park (마로니에공원), frequently the site of free and impromptu performances or concerts and annual cultural events, and even if nothing in particular happens to be going on it’s still one of the best parks in the city to simply hang out and people watch. Unfortunately, at the time of writing it was completely closed off for a major renovation, but it seemed that some of the action had moved to just outside Arko Theater on the park’s north side, where there was a small book sale going on, an ajeosshi sold cotton candy, a man drew portraits, and a busker had gathered a crowd of several dozen to listen to him and his guitar.
Just down the street from the south side of Marronnier Park is the Lock Museum (쇳대박물관), which you can arrive at by heading south on Deahang-no and then turning left on Dongsoong-gil (동숭길). The museum is located on the third floor of a large rusted metal building (The first floor holds a shop selling books on design, artwork, and quirky greeting cards.) and is run by the Choi family, whose hardware and design shop we visited at Hakdong Station. Inside is the family’s collection of locks, latches, and key charms, displayed in a beautifully designed gallery. Given its narrow focus, the museum certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but it fulfills its narrow mission well, with locks not only from Korea, but also from China, Tibet, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Europe. There are locks shaped like fish (a popular motif, as fish never close their eyes), lotuses, and turtles (also popular, for their protective shell and as a symbol of longevity). There were locking boxes for cigarettes and men’s hair bands and, yes, even a chastity belt, which is 정조대 in Korean, should you wish to impress/unsettle the other guests at your next dinner party.
The Choi family certainly has an eye for craftsmanship, and the skill that went into creating the locks on display is both impossible to miss and deeply impressive. Locks like these lend a sense of the precious and valuable to whatever they protect, which today’s PIN codes and swipe-cards can’t replicate. Those seem sterile, appropriate only for protecting commodities, data, or secrets, but the metal pieces, with their solidity and the knowledge that they were crafted with the duty to protect in mind, in their simple physical presence add an emotional significance to whatever is kept behind them.
A second museum in the Hyehwa vicinity is the Museum of Medicine (의학박물관) on the grounds of Seoul National University Hospital (서울대학교병원), just outside Exit 3. Hyehwa was the location of Seoul National University before it moved to its current Gwanaksan location in 1975, but it remains the site of the school’s medical facilities. Those facilities are some of the best, and busiest, in the country, and outside of and around the enormous main building (본관) there are always many visitors, patients, and medical personnel coming and going. In a small patio in front of one of the building’s wings three patients in matching hospital-issued pajamas were sitting on benches and smoking. I’m not a smoker myself, I never have been and am well aware of both its health and hygienic drawbacks, but I always find this type of scene mildly reassuring any time I pass a hospital and see it; it’s impossible to not make the connection between the cigarette in your hand and the place you find yourself in, even if you’re there for something like foot surgery, so to indulge in this incrementally destructive pleasure anyway seems a choice for life over just living, a middle finger puckishly extended in death’s direction.
Directly opposite the main building is the original Daehan Hospital (대한병원), a handsome two-story red brick building crowned with an elegant black and white neo-Baroque clock tower and copper dome, which now houses the Museum of Medicine. Historical Site No. 248, the building was one of the first examples of Western architecture in Korea, constructed in 1908 at a cost of 293,566 won. The side of the building that faces SNU’s hospital is actually the building’s rear, so I walked around to its front, where I was greeted by a statue of Ji Seok Yeong (지석영), the first dean of the Medical School that was established here and the man responsible for introducing the smallpox vaccine to the peninsula.
The history of the building and the various medical institutions located here was rather hard to follow, even after a visit, as there was a seemingly endless series of mergers and name changes. The broad outline is that the lineage begins with the establishment of the Jejungwon (제중원) (House of Broad Relief) in 1885 as the country’s first government-run modern medical institution, runs through the inauguration of Daehan Hospital, its later incorporation into Keijo Imperial University (the predecessor of SNU), and culminates in the modern medical facilities present today.
The first floor of the building houses offices, but on the second floor, up a pleasantly creaky set of stairs, is the museum. It provides an extensive history of the hospital and of the adoption of Western medical techniques, and the English explanations are good, if rather dry. Most interesting were the insights provided into how politicized many of the medical developments in Korea have been, from the expulsion of traditional Korean medicine and its replacing with Western techniques as part of the Meiji Restoration to the adoption of English medical terms in preference to the Japanese and German ones that had been instilled during the colonial period. Among the items displayed in the museum are notebooks, medical texts, various equipment, and old posters promoting dental health and family planning. There’s also a small area of ‘Dr. Kim Cheol’s Collection of Korean Old Glasses,’ with specs from the 19th and early 20th centuries, all with perfectly circular lenses and several with intricate bridges. There was also a special exhibit on something called otorhinolaryngology, which, thankfully, did not have any English explanations.
Also on the hospital grounds is Seoul Gyeongmo Palace Site (서울 경모궁지) and the Site of Hamchunwon (함춘원지), a small sign pointing to the latter on the way from the Daehangno entrance to the main building. Historical Site No. 237, the small palace was built in 1776 and was filled with trees and surrounded by a fence; it was used for watching archery and grazing horses. It also included a shrine for Crown Prince Sado at Hamchunwon, which the on-site plaque explained means a hill outside of a palace. Sado’s ancestral tablet was later moved to Jongmyo, however, and after it was removed from Gyeongmo the place lost its meaning. Almost all of the original structures were destroyed in the colonial period when the law and medical buildings of Keijo Imperial University were built here, and the few that remained were destroyed during the war. Only one small structure and a set of stone steps remain, and they now sit forlornly in a weed-strewn lot surrounded by a green metal fence.
Far better remembered and better preserved are the buildings of the old Confucian school on the campus of Sungkyunkwan University. To reach them go out Exit 4, which will drop you off at the head of Daemyeong-gil (대명길) where there are usually barkers handing out show flyers and people and pojangmachas cluster around the small triangular plaza. At night two or three live octopus (산낙지) tents set up here, and visiting one of them was a birthday tradition of a friend who used to live in Seoul. On weekend afternoons Daemyeong-gil is closed to traffic, and the station end of the street is frequently taken over by groups that can range from dance crews to Catholic church groups singing hymns and clapping in front of a movable pulpit.
Similar to the east side of Daehangno, Daemyeong-gil is lined with restaurants, shops, and entertainment options, and the air is a mix of K-pop, Skrillex, and Brazilian bossa nova. At the end of the street, cross Changgyeonggung-ro (창경궁로) and head down the tree-lined Sungkyunkwan-ro (성균관로), with its expected college collection of cheap eateries, phone shops, and tteokbokki places.
After a few blocks, Sungkyunkwan University (성균관대학교) will appear on your left, its main gate formed of tile-capped charcoal gray stone pillars, making it feel more like a historical site than a university. Which it is. But it’s also a university. Although Sungkyunkwan in its current guise dates to 1895, the institution traces its legacy back centuries. The walk to class buildings from the main entryway follows a long road up a hill that feels park-like; aside from the various banners and university logos dotted here and there there’s not much sense that you’re on a campus. The area of classroom buildings isn’t especially striking, but many of the facilities are strikingly modern, thanks in part to money poured in after Samsung acquired the university foundation in 1996.
What’s of greatest interest here, however, is Seoul Munmyo and Sungkyunkwan (서울 문묘와 성균관), Korea’s most sacred Confucian shrine, which is just inside the main entrance to the right. Now Historical Site No. 143, the complex was built in 1398, during the reign of King Taejo, as the Joseon Dynasty’s first national university and a shrine devoted to Confucius (‘munmyo’ refers to a shrine dedicated to the scholar). The current structures aren’t quite so old, being rebuilt shortly after the original buildings were burned down in the Japanese invasion of 1592.
The complex is divided into two main areas, a ritual ceremony area (제향 영역) in the fore and a lecture area (강학 영역) to the rear. The focal point of the ceremony area is Daeseongjeon Hall (대성전), where, below its tall sloped roof, the ancestral tablets for Confucius and other scholars are kept. The ancestral tablets of numerous disciples of Confucius and other scholars are kept in the Dongmu (동무) and Seomu (서무), long buildings to the east and west, and together the three buildings form a large courtyard filled with a trio of majestic trees and Myojeongbi Pavilion (묘정비각), where a stele inscribed with the history of the shrine rests upon the back of an enormous stone turtle.
The lecture area follows a similar setup, with the Dongjae (동재) and Seojae (서재), student dormitories, forming the sides and the principal lecture hall, Myeongnyundang (명륜당), at the rear. The courtyard here is dominated by two enormous gingko trees, each estimated to be over 500 years old and recognized as National Monument No. 59. The western one is the larger of the two, at 21 meters tall and 7.3 meters in circumference, but both are stupendously large and ten poles have to be used to support various branches, which jut straight out or plunge to the ground or undulate like the tracks of a roller coaster. They look less like what one conceives of as a tree and more like some many-tentacled creature rising from the deep in a Jules Verne novel.
Just to the north of Myeongnyudang are several smaller, simpler, and more rustic structures, many painted white with plain dark wood doors and window slats. These range from libraries to offices to repositories for bows and arrows. Northwest of Myeongnyudang and slightly separated from the rest of the complex is the Bicheondang (비천당), a hall where civil service examinations were held, though the current structure is a 1988 reconstruction.
Not far from Sunkyunkwan is Seoul National Science Museum (국립서울과학관), which you can reach by turning left on Changgyeonggung-ro instead of continuing straight onto Sungkyunkwan-ro and is easily spotted by the large mural outside of kids riding rockets or holding up test tubes. This also gives you a tip-off for what’s in store. The name is a terrible misnomer because this is in no way South Korea’s Smithsonian (for that I’ve heard that the Gwacheon National Science Museum, south of Seoul, is quite good, though I haven’t been myself); the museum is a hundred percent targeted at kids.
Stepping through the front door, you’re greeted by a T. Rex skeleton, which guards the way to a series of hands-on exhibits that take up nearly the entire first floor. There are mini-experiments for kids to do related to thermodynamics, physics, optical illusions, and even one called ‘Fun Fun Radiation Zoo,’ which sounds like something ‘The Simpsons’s Mr. Burns might open if faced with court-ordered community service, but which just shows ‘x-rays’ of different animals. The second floor was more of the same, if slightly less hands-on, and up there kids and their parents checked out butterflies, stuffed birds, a few small aquariums, a geology exhibit, and an animatronic triceratops with three horns on the face and a shield.
Turning right on Changgyeonggung-ro instead of left might take you past an ajeosshi on a unicycle, as it did me (or it might not), but it will lead you to Seongkyunkwan-ro-4-gil (성균관로4길), where a small brown sign points left to the Museum of Korea Indigenous Straw and Plant Handicraft (짚풀생활사박물관). Housed in a lovely, recently built hanok, it displays a wide array of tools and everyday objects that Koreans used to make from straw as well as decorative pieces, including a pair of dokkaebi dolls in the window, one of which was wearing glasses. At 4,000 won for adults, the admission fee to personal interest ratio was too steep for me to convince myself to go in (especially with so much else to see and do in the neighborhood), but for lovers of dried cereals, have I got a place for you…
Two historical homes can also be found in the Daehangno area, the first of which is not far from the Straw Museum. Go straight up Daehangno from Exit 4, at the rotary take the second left onto Hyehwa-ro (혜화로), and at Hyehwa-ro-5-gil (혜화로5길) you’ll find yourself at the House of John Myun Chang (장면 가옥), Registered Cultural Heritage No. 357. Chang (1899 – 1966) served as a National Assemblyman, the first ambassador to the United States, Prime Minister (twice), and Vice President of the First Republic of Korea, giving him what can justly be described as a distinguished career, proof of which is further supplied by the most badass business card I’ve ever seen. Displayed in a glass case, the front simply reads ‘John M. Chang’ while the back states ‘John M. Chang, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Korea’. No contact info, no nothin’ but the man letting you know who he is.
Besides simple titles, Chang’s life was not lacking in interest. He married at 17, graduated from Manhattan University, translated three books, was shot through the left hand during an assassination attempt in 1956, and received a death sentence from the Korean Military Court after the 1961 coup, which was later commuted to a 3-year imprisonment. But how Chang would probably have defined himself first and foremost was as a Catholic, as he was always deeply involved with the church, both in his local community and in government roles, as in 1951 he was appointed Special Ambassador to the Vatican.
More than just the setting for Chang’s life, the house itself is interesting in its own right. Built in 1937 when Chang was serving as the principal of Dongseong Commercial School (동성상업학교), it was an early example of combining Western architecture with the hanok. The structures have been well preserved in their original state, and one of the most interesting aspects of a visit to the house is the ability to walk through a home of that era and to get a first-hand feel for the architecture, an experience that very few places in Seoul afford you.
Also in the neighborhood is Iwhajang (이화장), the ex-residence of Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president. Built in 1934 the modernized hanok exhibits some of Rhee’s personal items inside and is surrounded by stately gardens outside. Rhee only actually lived here for a short period before his inauguration and subsequent move to the Blue House, but his wife, Franziska Donner Rhee, returned here after Rhee’s death in 1970 and lived here until she herself passed away in 1992. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit the home was closed for renovations.
Iwhajang sits in the fascinating Iwha-dong (이화동), which, perched on the slopes of Naksan (낙산), is a truly workaday neighborhood, filled with machine shops, pungent odors, and simple restaurants with old people sipping makkeolli inside, utterly different from the rest of the Hyehwa area. To get to its heart, head south on Daehang-no from Exit 2, turn left on Yulgok-ro (율곡로), and then left again on Yulgok-ro-19-gil (율곡로19길). The road starts to gently climb, passing the almost psychedelic façade of 이화 이발관 on the right, with its five spinning barber poles and storefront covered in red, white, and blue scrawls, drawings, and text like some ‘60s concert poster. From there the road starts to climb more steeply, running between old red brick apartment blocks. Partway up the slope I turned around to check the view behind me, and on the side of a building on the corner of Chungsin-gil (충신길) I saw a huge mural of two smiling clothing makers, one male, one female, she with measuring tape draped around her neck, posing with a sewing machine and spools of thread. This was the first of a number of artworks that I came across that together make up the Iwha Art Project, an initiative to add some life and beauty to what is an old and sometimes rather rundown neighborhood.
At the top of the slope, Yulgok-ro-19-gil turns into one of the most unique roads in the city, as it’s here that it does a P-turn, running underneath and then above itself like a shoelace. There was more artwork on the walls underneath the P-turn’s bridge, followed by a cartoon version of the Avengers on a wall in the middle of the turn.
Once you follow the turn up around to its top you get to the most charming part of the neighborhood. When I arrived there a handful of ajummas were sitting out on the street chattering with each other, while nearby a caged parakeet outside a sewing shop did the same, machines whirring in the background. Continuing straight you’ll arrive at Naksan Park (낙산공원), which is more quickly reachable by going out Exit 2, taking the first left onto Daehang-no-8-gil (대학로8길), following it to the end, turning right onto Dongsoong-gil (동숭길), and then left onto Naksan-gil (낙산길). I won’t delve into the park here, as we already spent a fair bit of time there when visiting Dongdaemun.
Besides, you’re likely to get distracted by the charming neighborhood before reaching the park anyway. Owing partly to its geography, which keeps it relatively isolated, the area itself feels incredibly neighborhood-y: distinct, quiet, humble, beautiful, with its own identity. Adding even further to this is the artwork, which draws Seoulites from elsewhere and may even be starting to show up on the tourist trail, judging by the pair of guidebook-clutching Japanese I passed heading up Yulgok-ro-19-gil after I had finished and was heading back down. I’d guessed that I would be the only non-Iwha-dong resident around on the Thursday afternoon I visited, but there were at least twenty others, mostly couples and kids just out from school, photographing the art and each other standing in front of the art. That art ranged from dogs to a friendly robot saying, ‘안녕!’ to flowers on stairs up the hillside.
I walked up the set of stairs next to the robot, which were on the first right after the top of the P-turn, and about three-quarters of the way up came to another artwork: a large section of wall painted black and the words ‘Before I die…’ written at the top. Underneath were dozens and dozens of lines saying ‘죽기 전에 나는 _____ 싶다,’ (Before I die I want to _____.) for anyone with a bit of paint or chalk to fill in. Some of the declarations were legible – ‘세계여행’ (world trip), ‘꿈꾸고’ (dream), ‘전역하고’ (finish army service) – but most had been filled in and scrawled over so many times that it was hard to make out individual wishes. Whether that was the artist’s intention or not, the effect it had was, in a way, to make the declaration a single, collective wish. One person’s desire was inseparable from another’s so that the hopes of everyone in the community were bound up together.
Hakrim Dabang (학림다방)
Seoul Theater Center (서울연극센터)
Hours | Tuesday – Saturday 10:00 – 20:00, Sundays and Holidays 10:00 – 19:00, Closed Mondays
Straight on Daehang-no (대학로)
Marronnier Park (마로니에공원)
Lock Museum (쇳대박물관)
South on Daehang-no (대학로), Left on Dongsoong-gil (동숭길)
Hours | 10:00 – 18:00, Closed Mondays, New Year’s, Chuseok, and Seolnal
Admission | Adults – 4,000, Youths – 2,000, Kids – 1,500, Senior citizens and disabled – Free
Seoul National University Hospital (서울대학교병원), Daehan Hospital (대한병원), Museum of Medicine (의학박물관), and Seoul Gyeongmo Palace Site (서울 경모궁지) and the Site of Hamchunwon (함춘원지)
Straight on Daehang-no (대학로)
Museum Hours | Monday – Friday 9:00 – 18:00, Saturday 10:00 – 12:00, Closed Sundays, public holidays, May Day, Foundation Day (Oct. 15), and Labor Union Foundation Day (Nov. 30)
Admission | Free
Sungkyunkwan University (성균관대학교) and Seoul Munmyo and Sungkyungwan (서울 문묘와 성균관)
Left on Daemyeong-gil (대명길), Cross Changgyeonggung-ro (창경궁로), Straight on Sungkyunkwan-ro (성균관로)
Shrine Hours | 9:00 – 18:00
Seoul National Science Museum (국립서울과학관)
Left on Daemyeong-gil (대명길), Left on Changgyeonggung-ro (창경궁로)
Hours | 9:30 – 17:30, Closed Mondays, New Year’s Day, the day after public holidays
Admission | Adults – 1,000, Kids 7-19 – 500
Museum of Korea Indigenous Straw and Plant Handicraft (짚풀생활사박물관)
Straight on Daehang-no (대학로) to Hyehwa Rotary (혜화로터리), Left on Changgyeonggung-ro (창경궁로), Right on Seongkyunkwan-ro-4-gil (성균관로4길)
Admission | Adults – 4,000
House of John Myun Chang (장면 가옥)
Straight on Daehang-no (대학로) to Hyehwa Rotary (혜화로터리), Left on Hyehwa-ro (혜화로), Left on Hyehwa-ro-5-gil (혜화로5길)
Hours | March – October 10:00 – 18:00, November – February 10:00 – 17:00, Closed Mondays
Admission | Free
South on Daehang-no (대학로), Left on Iwhajang-gil (이화장길), Left on Iwhajang-1-gil (이화장1길)
Hours | 10:00 – 17:00, Closed Weekends
Iwha-dong (이화동) and P-turn
South on Daehang-no (대학로), Left on Yulgok-ro (율곡로), Left on Yulgok-ro-19-gil (율곡로19길)
Naksan Park (낙산공원)
Left on Daehang-no-8-gil (대학로8길), Right on Dongsoong-gil (동숭길), Left onto Naksan-gil (낙산길)