Not long ago we ventured out to Oryu-dong and Onsu, and I commented on how they felt more like provincial whistle-stops than like stations on Seoul’s metro. Given that those two are way out on the city’s edge, this wasn’t especially notable; what was more surprising was that I got the same feeling from Kwangwoon University Station because, while it’s not exactly downtown, it’s not like it’s at the end of the line either. But the station is aboveground, in the type of sleepy, patient building you might alight at if you’re getting off somewhere between Daegu and Gwangju, with those stations’ same blue and white sign bearing the station name up near the roof. Inside, several tracks ran parallel to each other, their platforms linked by underground passages.
Additionally, there’s only one way in and out of the station, and although there are technically three exits they all come out onto the same small plaza, one of them in the middle and the others at the south end. The plaza was a pleasant little spot, with benches and trees where a few cicadas were giving their last calls of the summer. Opposite the station were a café, cosmetics shop, and fried chicken joint, and a small stage with colored spotlights occupied the north end.
From Exit 1 I headed south on Seokgye-ro (석계로) along which a number of taxis were parked, at least some of their drivers getting something to eat at the several gisa sikdangs (기사식당), or ‘driver restaurants’ on the road. With the rail tracks to my left and apartment complexes to my right the road was quiet, and there wasn’t really anything to do but to keep walking straight. As I did so, the rural feel there’d been in the station returned, thanks to the busted up and chipped concrete sidewalk and a squat, two-story brick building that held acrylic, furnace, glass, and etching businesses.
Crossing the plaza from the station and heading onto the stretch of Seokgye-ro running west from the station is different. I felt like I was back in the city, K-pop blaring cellphone store, four-story Starbucks and everything. Not that the neighborhood was bustling exactly, but it was a more familiar side of Seoul.
Seokgye-ro ran into Gwangwoon-ro (광운로), and at the T-junction I turned left and headed down the relaxed commercial street. A few blocks down a footbridge crossed overhead, and draped over its side was a banner reading ‘새출발, 광운대역 축하합니다.’ (New stop, congratulations Kwangwoon University Station.) Kwangwoon University Station used to be called Seongbuk Station (성북역), but its name was changed in February of this year to avoid confusion, as Seongbuk Station wasn’t actually in Seongbuk-gu. OK, sure, that’s sensible, but a congratulatory banner, especially one still up seven months after the fact, struck me as overdoing it a bit. If I was the station, I’d be embarrassed, frankly.
Just past the bridge was the landmark from which the station got its new name (congratulations!), Kwangwoon University (광운대학교), which was founded as Chosun Radio Training Center in May 1934 by Dr. 조광운 (Cho Kwang-woon). It’s undergone several name changes since then, first taking its founder’s name in 1964 when it was christened, temporarily, Kwangwoon Electronic Engineering College.
Like at many other universities, Kwangwoon has a statue dedicated to its founder, and that of the good doctor may be my favorite that we’ve come across so far. Cast in oxidized bronze, he’s dressed in hanbok and seated in a chair, a book open on his lap. Gazing ahead, he’s leaning to his right, his chin resting on his fist, looking rather disappointed in you and a bit bored. Oh, it’s an allegory? You don’t say.
Sadly, the rest of campus isn’t nearly as charismatic. Although the university is almost 80 years old, most of its buildings date from the 1970s and 80s, and most of them have the dryly utilitarian look that’s so common on Korean campuses. Steps just inside the main entrance lead up to a basketball court and dirt soccer pitch, where a bunch of students were playing. Just north of the athletic area was the university’s main building. In front of it was a statue of Pegasus, the school’s mascot, and off to its side two large groups of ajeosshis were picnicking in the shade.
The campus is divided in two by Gwangwoon-ro, the two halves connected by the footbridge where the congratulatory banner hung. On the west side was the large red brick and frosted glass research and culture hall (연구 문화관), inside of which a rehearsal for a musical performance was going on. The doors had been left open in the pleasant late summer weather, and the music from the band drifted out to the sidewalk. Also on this side was the ‘ice link’ (Ooooh, Kwangwoon-dae. You’ve got an English department, dontcha?), some other campus buildings, and a high school. On the dirt field of the latter an amateur baseball game was going on, the players all looking to be in their 30s or 40s, and I dawdled to watch for a bit. The third baseman’s jersey read ‘Mr. Baek’ across the back, and the pitcher couldn’t throw strikes, walking in two runs before being replaced.
I was slightly disappointed in how quiet the neighborhood around the university was, lacking in any of the vibrancy you typically get around campuses. There weren’t that many cafes or even restaurants or bars, so I assumed that most students must make the short jaunt down to Seokgye, or perhaps further, for a night out.
Also in the area is Giwon Temple (기원사) and its super barky dog. Getting there isn’t very obvious, but the route is reasonably well signposted. After turning left on Gwangwoon-ro, turn right on Gwangwoon-ro-13-gil (광운로13길), veer right, continue straight, and then just follow the signs. It’ll take you through a quiet residential area and finally up a steep hill. Giwon is a small but attractive temple with a sleepy-eyed gold Buddha seated inside, flanked by hundreds of white Buddha votive light figurines. To the left four pictures of recently deceased were on display and against the right wall was an upright piano. Overhead the ceiling was lined with hanging lotus lanterns.
Most significantly, however, the sanctuary houses the Portrait of Bindora Baradaja Sonja of Giwonsa Temple, Seoul Tangible Cultural Property No. 282. Born to the minister of the state of Vatsa in India, Bindora Baradaja Sonja became a monk at a young age and was one of sixteen disciples of Shakyamuni. Dating from the late 1800s, the portrait of him is kept, along with two other paintings, in a small auxiliary building behind the temple. Somewhat faded and cracked, it shows our man seated in front of a red pine, listing to the right. Below his long white eyebrows, his red and green robe is falling off his shoulder, revealing the extent of his asceticism-induced emaciation. Placed on the altar in front of him were three tins of Eterna Premium Wafer Sticks (two vanilla, one chocolate), somewhat futilely, judging from Sonja’s attitude regarding food.
Rather curiously, I thought, the prized painting didn’t occupy the central spot in the building, but was instead on the left side. The middle spot belonged to a picture of a more well-fed gentleman seated before a waterfall alongside two women and a tiger, which, I gotta say, seems more like the way to go. Apparently others felt the same, as this guy had nine tubes of Pringles and four boxes of Binch cookies before him.
Geographically-speaking, the area’s most significant feature is the large wooded hill that makes up Wolgye Neighborhood Park (월계근린공원). It’s sizeable, which would make one think that getting to it is easy, but actually accessing it really isn’t at all as there’s no obvious entrance, not from this side anyway. The simplest way is to turn right on Gwangwoon-ro, then turn left on a little no-name street just before a 7-11 and Gwangwoon-ro-19-gil (광운로19길), walk straight until you’re about to walk into an old couple’s garden, just before which will be a footpath into the park on your right. Like I said, that’s the easiest way.
Of course the benefit of being such a convoluted place to get into is that not many people get into it, and this is largely true of the park, leaving one pleasantly on their own for much of the time they’re there. There are some benches and exercise equipment here and there, but mostly the park is simple, just shady dirt paths through the forest. There’s a lot of up and down, though, so you may work up something of a sweat.
After a turn through the park I was done and I headed back to the station. When I reached the plaza in front speakers set up on the stage were pouring out a bouncy electronic melody and a small crowd of old-timers was milling about. A banner across the stage’s apron read ‘Naver Café Trot Club.’ It was almost showtime. My cue to leave.
Kwangwoon University (광운대학교)
Straight on Seokgye-ro (석계로), Left on Gwangwoon-ro (광운로)
Giwon Temple (기원사)
Straight on Seokgye-ro (석계로), Left on Gwangwoon-ro (광운로), Right on Gwangwoon-ro-13-gil (광운로13길), Veer right and follow signs
Wolgye Neighborhood Park (월계근린공원)
Straight on Seokgye-ro (석계로), Right on Gwangwoon-ro (광운로), Left on street just before a 7-11 and Gwangwoon-ro-19-gil (광운로19길)