On a normal day Euljiro-1-ga pulses with activity, occupying the sweet center between Myeongdong’s shopping bazaar, the metropolitan seat of power at City Hall, and Seoul’s centuries-old main boulevard, Jongno. The day I visited, though, was the day before Chuseok, Korea’s biggest holiday, and with many shops closed and a large number of Seoulites out of the city visiting hometowns it wasn’t exactly a normal day. The intersection of Eulji-ro (을지로) and Namdaemun-ro (남대문로) was surrounded by office towers housing banks, telecom companies, life insurance offices, and hotels, each trying to out-modernize the other in their design, most vested in all glass facades – some tinted in a bid to give the tower a touch of distinction, others clear, the better to show off the expensive interior décor – but in the uncanny Wednesday quiet, without revolving doors and the usual columns of suited, skirted, and smartphoned workers on the sidewalks to give them some life, the glass buildings seemed fragile, vulnerable almost, and the eerie calm made me imagine something breaking it spectacularly, a sudden great disturbance shattering the towers into shards that would tumble down in a chiming rain.
That’s not the usual line of thinking I get walking around Seoul, but in a city where there are always so many people around and nothing seems to ever be closed, even the modest evacuation that occurs during Chuseok can nudge one to indulge in a bit of apocalyptic fantasy. Seoul being Seoul, though, I didn’t have to go very far to witness the city as it usually is; Chuseok or not, people were still out playing and shopping like always, only work wasn’t getting done.
A block or so down from Exit 4, amid the glass towers was Hanbit Street (한빛거리), which linked Eulji-ro with the Cheonggye Stream and was lined with a number of digital diversions. The first of these was the Hanbit Media Gallery (한빛미디어갤러리), housed in a building that looks like a metallic shipping container, tilted up at one end so that cars can enter the basement parking lot. It’s an exhibition space for digital art, but both the day before Chuseok and the next week when I came back it was closed. Also not functioning were the Hanbit Screens (Media Walls) (한빛스크린 (미디어월)), blocky interactive kiosks in the middle of the street where visitors are supposed to be able to search for tourist information, check the news, play games, and take and send photos. The same went for the Visual Street Lamps (영상가로등), supposed to display images that change according to the movements of pedestrians. The two days taken together made me wonder if anything on the street was in operation at all anymore, or if the hours of operation had been reduced, or if it had been the victim of budget cuts.
The street ended in Hanbit Media Park (한빛 미디어 파크), the most striking feature of which is the tall, metal, distinctly analogue sculpture ‘The Light of Hope’ (희망의 빛) by 황인철 (Hwang In Chul), which stands in the middle of the square and looks like a monochromatic kaleidoscope image frozen in place.
The plaza’s genesis may have been a wish to show off the latest in digital razzle-dazzle, but the area of course has a long history, and an on-site plaque helpfully explains some of its past layout. Between Jongno and Sungnyemun (숭례문), the area was known as Sijeon-Haengrang (시전행랑) and was a commercial district with lots of markets. Additionally, various government buildings were in the area, among them the Korean mint (선혜청), the Ministry of Domestic Affairs (분호조), Seoul Public Hospital (혜민서), the Court Office of Music and Dance (장악원), and the Seoul Academy of Painting (도화서). Today the park is a popular spot for local skateboarders. (edit: Merissa said that when she stopped by to photograph the Visual Street Lamps in the plaza were on, so apparently at least some of the digital displays still function at least some of the time.)
A block east is another small plaza, Berlin Square (베를린 광장), at the corner of the Cheonggye Stream and Samildae-ro (삼일대로). As a square it’s not much, a little barren, with a couple trees and a few benches, but it does feature two things of interest donated by the German capital in a gesture of international friendship. One of these is a blue fiberglass statue of a bear, Berlin’s symbol, painted with images of Sungnyemun on one side and Brandenburg Gate on the other. Next to it is a three-piece section of the actual Berlin Wall. About three and a half meters in height, the cement is chipped and cracked, exposing rebar in several spots, but streaks of the graffiti once painted on it are still visible.
Directly opposite Berlin Square and Hanbit Media Park is one of the most popular stretches of the Cheonggye Stream (청계천). Here the south bank is lined in a rather narrow but lush strip of vegetation, rocks laid bank to bank create small cascades, and other stones arranged on the stream bed fashion ripples on the surface, creating a texture like moguls on a ski run. And even in the heart of downtown the stream is a sanctuary for birds, including a heron I watched gracefully glide from rock to rock.
The Cheonggye has a couple of decorative features in this section as well. On the south bank is a water screen where, from March to November, 500 cubic meters of water pour straight down every hour before tumbling over a small rock falls into the stream. On the north bank is a long (long) mural in ceramic tile depicting the Banchado of King Jeongjo’s Royal Parade (정조대왕 능행 반차도). Banchado is the term for a picture depicting a royal event, and this particular one is of the king’s 1795 procession to visit the tomb of his father, Prince Sado, in Hwaseong. After returning to Seoul the king ordered the most talented court painters to complete a compilation of sketches of the journey, sort of an 18th century equivalent of scrapbooking. According to images in the compilation, the procession consisted of 1,779 people and 779 horses.
Who were the people on this most elaborate road trip? Well, there was King Jeongjo, obviously, and you could chalk the journey up as a family vacation because his mom, Queen Hyegyeonggung Hong, and two sisters tagged along too. The governor of Gyeonggi-do led the way, and there were ministers as well; military officers; royal guards; cavalry; archers; musicians playing trumpets, drums, and various other instruments; flag bearers; court guards; a royal spokesman; royal bodyguards; veiled court ladies; eunuchs; medical staff; the Minister of Defense; and ‘officials responsible for keys.’ One can only imagine the look of horror on the face of the worker at the drive-thru window.
At the front of the mural, though not directly related to it, is a replica of the Suseon Jeondo, a woodblock map of Seoul produced by Kim Jeong-ho in 1825. It’s considered the finest such work produced in the Joseon period and is now National Treasure No. 853. The real thing is housed in the Korea University Museum.
The Cheonggye is one of downtown Seoul’s most popular spots, particularly the stretch of it from Gwanggyo Bridge (광교), just north of Euljiro-1-ga Station, to its headwaters near City Hall, and in good weather this section of the Cheonggye is always busy, day before Chuseok or not. Families and couples were out in force, joined by a good many people just taking a break between errands. Many of them were dipping their feet in the water or eating cup ramen and ice cream, and everybody was taking pictures, being touristy in their own city right along with the dozens of actual tourists.
Since the stream’s mid-2000’s revamp the city has put it to use not just as an urban oasis but also as an exhibition space. Directly underneath Gwang Bridge is a recessed area that hosts rotating photo and painting displays; when I stopped by it was a collection of photos of people helping the elderly, sick, and disabled. On either side of the bridge, in the Cheonggye Stream Digital Garden (청계천 디지털 가든), there were temporary installations by the artists Miguel Chevalier and Laurent Francois that at night used projectors, lasers, and fog fountains to create three-dimensional images of flowers, humans, wind, and water.
One bridge upstream from Gwang Bridge is Gwangtong Bridge (광통교), which was both the first one built over the Cheonggye (though the current version is, of course, a 2006 reconstruction) and the one with the nastiest story. King Taejong, the second king of the Joseon dynasty, had never forgiven his stepmother, Queen Sindeok, for her influence in having her own son named crown prince at Taejong’s expense. After Sindeok died, in 1397, Taejong killed both her sons and subsequently ascended to the throne in 1400. Several years later, after the death of his father, Taejong had Sindeok posthumously demoted to royal concubine and plundered stones from her tomb to help build Gwangtong Bridge so that each day hundreds of people would walk over her tombstones. Or at least that’s how the story goes. In any case, some of the stones were preserved and used in the bridge’s modern reconstruction.
The Cheonggye is easily reached from the station by going out Exit 2 or 3 and just walking straight for a block. If you use the former, right before the stream you’ll come to the headquarters of the Korea Tourism Organization (한국관광공사), where you can get any travel info you need, buy show tickets, or take your picture with a K-pop idol cutout. On your way to the stream from the latter you’ll pass a stately two-story red brick building with granitic pillars and pediments, and arched windows above the front door. This is the former site of Gwangtong Hall (광통관), built by the Ministry of Finance in 1909. Throughout its history it’s served as an office building, assembly hall, and, currently, a branch of Woori Bank. It’s Seoul Monument No. 19.
Between the station and stream out Exit 1 or 2, once you get behind the business towers you enter a warren of alleys that are packed with restaurants catering to the local business population. There are a few bars and a couple screen golf places and the like, but the focus here is mostly on eating, and below the strings of small plastic national flag garlands that hang above almost every street and alley there are eateries of practically every stripe, though this area, Mugyo-dong (무교동) is particularly famous for nakji bokkeum (낙지볶음), firey stir fried octopus. If that’s not your cup of tea, you could check out Yogeumok (요금옥), which serves chueotang (추어탕), a loach soup, and is one of the oldest restaurants in the city, opened in 1932. It’s a bit hard to find, but the most straightforward way is to go out Exit 2, turn left on the street with the big anchor statue on the corner, and then left again immediately after the Samdeok Building (삼덕빌딩).
Restaurants that have made it through Japanese occupation, World War II, partition, the Korean War, the IMF crisis, and any number of rounds of redevelopment are an extreme rarity in Seoul, but the Euljiro-1-ga area has not one but two of them. In addition to Yogeumok, if you head out Exit 5, turn right on Myeongdong-9-gil, and then keep to your left at the fork, you’ll soon see Hadonggwan (하동관), which has been operating since 1939. Housed in a simple, slightly rustic building that’s in endearing contrast with its Myeongdong surroundings, Hadonggwan serves up gomtang (곰탕), a savory soup of beef and rice, which customers can season with sliced green onions, salt, and pepper at their table. Because this is practically the only thing they serve (only boiled beef (수육) is also on the menu) service can be stunningly fast. I’m not exaggerating when I say that a steaming hot bowl was placed in front of me no more than thirty seconds after I placed my order. The speed sacrifices nothing in the way of quality, however. I generally don’t like rice in soups, not particularly caring for the mushy texture it usually takes on, but the rice in Hadonggwan’s soup managed to retain a bouncy firmness. Nor was their specialty as heavy or oily as gomtang can often be. On a rainy or cold day this is what I want to eat.
While they may not be as venerable as Hadonggwan, there’s no shortage of other places to eat in the area. Euljiro-1-ga provides easy access to the shopping wonderland of Myeongdong, but most stores are south of Myeongdong-gil (명동길), closer to Myeongdong Station. North of Myeongdong-gil the shops are replaced by restaurants and cafes where customers either take a mid-shopping break or gird themselves for the heavy lifting ahead. More than a few currency exchanges are in the neighborhood as well, and walking around I saw a lot of tourists pulling wheeled suitcases packed full of the day’s take.
The shopping continues outside of Exit 7, where Lotte has essentially colonized the entire block, much like they’ve done at Jamsil. Just outside the exit is the Lotte Department Store, followed by Avenue L, where you can get your avaricious little hands on the really expensive stuff, the Cartier and the Comme des Garçons, and that’s followed by Lotte Young Plaza, which caters to the under-thirty crowd. There’s also the Lotte Cinema and Lotte Hotel for good measure.
Those of us on the sidewalk without shopping bags were outnumbered by those who were on the day I visited, and most of those people seemed to be overseas tourists, likely disgorged from the row of tour buses lining the side of the road in front of the Lotte complex. Myeongdong’s long been known as a favorite stop for Japanese tourists, but a shift in tourism demographics may be underway, as Chinese visitors seemed to outnumber their Japanese counterparts by a sizeable margin. Doing their best to cash in on the tour groups were vendors operating sidewalk stands selling everything from socks to accessories to K-pop idol merchandise, which itself ranged from coffee mugs to posters to pens to eyeglass cases to just about anything else big enough to slap a perfectly sculpted face on it.
This being Myeongdong, however, shopping isn’t limited to the aboveground world. Running from Myeongdong all the way to City Hall and easily accessible from the station is Myeongdong Underground Arcade (명동지하쇼핑센터), where you can buy shoes, eyeglasses, ginseng, bags, souvenirs, and all sorts of other things. There’s even one store that trades exclusively in Zippo lighters.
Finally, if you just need a bit of peace and quiet, head out Exit 8 and walk straight along Eulji-ro until you reach an alley between the Lotte Hotel and the Hotel President. At the end of the alley is a set of stairs, and these will take you to Wongudan Altar (원구단), Historic Site No. 157. Designed by 심의석 (Sim Uiseok) and built in 1897, the altar is where the Joseon emperor performed sacrifices to heaven. Sixteen years after its construction, in 1913, the Japanese Government-General dismantled the altar and built the Joseon Gyeongseong Railroad Hotel in its place.
Also called Hwangudan (황구단) and Wondan (원단), the altar is a squat, stout, heavy-looking building that struck me as distinctly earthbound for a structure that aspired to connect the king with heaven. That being said, however, it’s a lovely construction, well-proportioned and with beautifully painted trim on the eaves and beams. Visitors are able to ascend to the exterior of the first of three tiers for an up-close look.
In one corner of the grounds, across a dirt courtyard, are three stone drums, which, according to the on-site plaque, were set up in 1902 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King Gojong’s ascension to the throne. Of equal size, the three drums are set up on a grassy rise and are mounted on pedestals that resemble lotus flowers. Gray stone, with a darker gray drumhead, they each feature intricate dragon carvings along their sides.
Blocked off from traffic and hidden from sight by the surrounding hotels, Wongudan offers a sanctuary of calm in the midst of Seoul’s downtown. When I arrived there was only one other visitor in the complex, an older man who was sitting in one of the courtyard’s entryways and meditating. After a while he got up and I watched him as he walked around the altar, circling it several times before he paused, bowed to the shrine, and disappeared out the exit.
Hanbit Street (한빛거리) and Hanbit Media Park (한빛 미디어 파크)
Left on Eulji-ro-7-gil (을지로7길)/Eulji Hanbit Street (을지 한빛거리)
Hanbit Media Gallery (한빛미디어갤러리)
Hours | 10:00 – 18:00, Closed Mondays
Berlin Square (베를린 광장)
Straight on Eulji-ro (을지로), Left on Samildae-ro (삼일대로)
Cheonggye Stream (청계천) and Gwangtong Bridge (광통교)
Exit 2 or 3
Straight on Namdaemun-ro (남대문로)
Korea Tourism Organization (한국관광공사)
Straight on Namdaemun-ro (남대문로)
Gwangtong Hall (광통관)
Straight on Namdaemun-ro (남대문로)
Straight on Namdaemun-ro (남대문로), Left on the street with the big anchor statue, Left after the Samdeok Building (삼덕빌딩)
Right on Myeongdong-9-gil, Keep left where the road forks.
Hours | 7:00 – 16:30, Closed the 1st and 3rd Sunday of each month
Myeongdong Underground Arcade (명동지하쇼핑센터)
Exit 6 or 7
Wongudan Altar (원구단)
Straight on Eulji-ro (을지로), Left at alley between the Lotte Hotel and the Hotel President
Hours | 7:00 – 21:00