(Editor’s Note: Photos by Joshua Davies.)
Symmetry. Seokchon possesses so much of it that it often feels as if you could fold the neighborhood over on itself just about any which way and its halves would fit snugly together with a satisfying little click. Each of the four quadrants that the area’s two main roads divide the neighborhood into have their secondary and tertiary roads in more or less the same places, covering more or less the same distances. The main roads are all lined with restaurants and phone shops and the other familiar businesses, and in each quadrant one secondary road serves as a commercial artery, with fried chicken joints bumping up against small bars, barbecue houses, and convenience stores. The remaining small roads all spread out from there, forming a web around the apartments in this largely residential neighborhood, most of those apartments being relatively new mid-rises, with larger towers mirroring each other on Seokchon’s southern and northern edges. Completing the trend is the area’s most well-known landmark, the manmade Seokchon Lakes, actually a single lake that’s two identically sized and shaped basins connected by a narrow channel.
A quick tour through one of those neighborhoods. I started at Exit 3, and right next to me tall metal and green-glass walls formed a construction site in the middle of Baekjegobun-ro (백제고분로). An extension to Line 9 was going in here, and the muffled sound of subterranean construction carried up. (At present only Exits 3, 4, 7, and 8 are open, due to construction. All other exits are scheduled to be open by the end of this year, so directions provided in this post are given from the nearest exit, whether it’s currently open or not. We’re taking the long view here. In the meantime, you can figure things out.) Then, in quick succession, came a pair of things that encapsulated two of this part of the city’s defining traits: orderliness and image. An old man in a natty suit came around a corner and interrupted his walk to pick up a cigarette butt from the sidewalk; almost immediately above him a large sign for the 10-Minute Diet Healing Shop advertised ‘10분의 기적’ (‘The miracle of 10 minutes), a claim that all but screams ‘Not to be trusted.’
Past the miracle shop was Songpa Neighborhood Park (송파근린공원), a cozy little nook with a small performance stage and pink and yellow plastic playground equipment. Two boys kicked around a soccer ball on a swatch of artificial turf, and a half-dozen elementary school students milled about on the park’s basketball court.
Much press has been devoted recently to the Lotte Corporation’s additions to their already existing semi-autonomous nation around Jamsil Station – the building of the ostentatious Lotte Tower and the addition of the glitzy (if architecturally suspect) Lotte World Mall and its high-end stores – but despite those baubles, walking around these Seokchon’s neighborhoods I was never hit with the sense that, Oh, there’s money here. To be sure, it’s not hard-up, but it’s mostly a middle- or upper-middle-class place, with churches and kimbap shops interspersed with common brick apartment buildings. Underneath the webbing of black power lines, the neighborhood did, however, have some touches of design that nudged it in a slightly more refined direction. On Garok-ro (가록로) the sign for a small lunch joint called Bob Art (밥 아트) (Clever! Even if the spelling of the English version could have been better matched.) was decorated with Warhol-esque images of food and drink and a Roy Lichtenstein-style woman dramatically declaring her need to eat there. Around the corner, on Garak-ro-21-gil (가락로21길), some of the bricks in the wall of a daycare center had been painted in bright primaries and pastels, making it look like a haphazardly played game of Breakout.
Of course there are several things scattered throughout the area that do more than just clever restaurant names to break up the neighborhood’s symmetry, some of them very good.
Heading south from Exit 5, where a backhoe was digging up ground, I walked down Songpa-daero (송파대로) to Garak-ro (가락로). Taking a right there and then a left on Garak-ro-16-gil (가락로16길) put me at one end of Seokchon Market (석촌시장), which we visited when covering Songpa Station.
Instead of south, if you walk west from Exit 6, Baekjegobun-ro soon begins a gradual descent and disappears into a tunnel, only to reappear again a couple hundred meters further on. Where the road vanishes is instead a large green expanse dotted with several mysterious broad stone structures reminiscent of aborted Mesoamerican pyramids.
In the earliest centuries of the Common Era, this part of Seoul was the heart of the Baekje kingdom, one of the very first to be established on the Korean peninsula. The past several months have seen us explore this heritage fairly extensively, in visits to Mongchontoseong, Cheonho, and Gangdong-gu Office. These neighborhoods were notable for being in and around what were once Mongchontoseong and Pungnaptoseong, the large earthen fortresses that together formed the Baekje capital of Hanseong. While the privileged lived inside the fortress walls, their burials were conducted outside them, and Seokchon, meaning ‘Stone Village,’ likely got its name from the prevalence of stone tombs that once existed in here. A 1917 map marked over 290 in the area, but the intervening century, full of war and hurried development, saw this number shrink to eight. (More earthen mound tombs exist in the area, like those at nearby Bangi.) Several of those are here, at the Seokchon-dong Ancient Tombs (서울 석촌동 고분군), Historic Site No. 243.
The tombs at the Seokchon-dong site come in various sizes and shapes, but the most arresting is first to greet visitors. Seokchon-dong Tomb No. 3 is by far the largest of the tombs here, roughly 50 meters long on each of its four sides. It’s composed of three tiers of grey-black stones, each tier a meter high, with a five-meter apron between each tier. A pile of rubble atop the third tier suggested that it once went higher, but its exact original dimensions are unknown and will likely stay that way. Like others, the tomb suffered significant damage, and until the 1980s houses had been built on top of it. Despite this, Chinese and Baekje pottery and pieces of ornamental gold were discovered here. The tomb is believed to have been the burial place of King Geunchogo (r. 346-375).
Like Tomb No. 3, all tombs in the park are thought to have belonged to kings, royal family members, and the Baekje nobility. Also like Tomb No. 3, Tombs No. 1, 2, and 4, though considerably smaller, all possess a stone mound structure, a holdover from the Goguryeo Dynasty, leading researchers to surmise that the Baekje founders emerged from this earlier kingdom. Curiously, Nos. 2 and 4 seem to have originally been built in the more purely Baekje earthen mound style, only to have their surfaces covered with stones later on.
While Nos. 2 and 4 bear a distinct resemblance to Tomb No. 3, No. 1, near the southern end of the park, is distinct in that it’s a twin, with two tombs linked together in a single structure. Flat piles of jagged black stones, looking not unlike a Hawaiian field of volcanic rock, link with each other. In the middle of each pile is a bare rectangle, a clear grass bed where once a coffin must have gone.
Next to Tomb No. 2 a teacher was addressing a group of elementary school girls. Equipped with handouts and worksheets, they were far more engrossed in the lecture than I would expect a bunch of pre-teens to be on a Sunday. For most locals, though, the tomb complex is far less valuable as a historic site than it is as a park. Broad paths weave around the tombs, supplying a perfect spot for kids learning to ride bikes, their parents escorting them around as they wobbled on training wheels. Plenty of more accomplished kids pedaled past them, and dog walkers strolled about too.
Aside from the schoolgirls I was probably the only person there with an active interest in the actual tombs, and in addition to the four stone mound structures there were also a few lesser burial sites. On the eastern and western edges of the park are Earthen-pit Tomb Nos. 2 and 3 (no word on where No. 1 is), which look like very shallow stone bathtubs. In fact, you could use them as such, as there’s no fence around them and after a heavy rain you could walk right up to them with your rubber duck and ease yourself in, not that we’re recommending this. The earthen-pit tombs are thought to predate the stone mound ones. Unsurprisingly, considering their relative lack of grandeur, this style is more commonly found. Jars and an earring were found in these particular two.
At the park’s southern end is Tomb No. 5. Encircled by twisting pines, this earth mound tomb is a smooth grassy bulge, like the surrounding ground’s stomach. The best-preserved of the tombs that have been found in Seokchon, it’s also the one that most resembles the earth mound graves that are still constructed for prominent citizens today.
Most mystifying to me was the burial site that was simply called ‘A stone mound tomb.’ With one low wall of stones forming a square and another, inside, forming a circle it looked symbolic, cryptic, putting me in mind of crop circles. It seemed not like a tomb but a religious site.
Lastly, the Ancient Tombs site is also home to a piece of one Seoul’s most endearing collections: its protected trees, in this particular case a 235-plus-year-old locust. Sadly, this one is in pretty rough shape. Perhaps because of disease, much of it seems to have been chopped off, leaving only the trunk and about one-and-a-half of its main branches, barely enough to even qualify as a tree.
Backtracking a bit, at the entrance to the tombs site if you turn left instead of entering you’ll come across the small Buddhist hermitage of Mireukam (미륵암). A stone pagoda sits in front of a brightly painted temple that, in addition to the usual scenes of the life of Buddha, was decorated with paintings of soaring mountains. A few dozen kimchi pots stood on a platform next to the temple. Further back was a wood beam and cream-colored administration building. Outside, a pair of Jindo dogs lay chained to too-short leashes. They leapt up, pulling at their restraints when they saw me, eager for some attention, making me question the resident monks’ commitment to compassion toward all living things.
Despite its name, the stone village’s most well-known feature is its water, specifically the symmetrical Seokchon Lake (석촌호수). In the days before Gangnam was, well, Gangnam, this part of Seoul wasn’t yet Gangnam. It was just gang, part of a branch of the Han River that ran through here. Then, in the early 1970s, the city went a little bit Dutch, initiating a land reclamation project and creating the lake in the process.
I made my way there from Exit 1, arriving at the lake’s eastern half. It was the first truly nice day of spring, and with the seasons having turned a corner crowds of people were out enjoying the weather. Alongside the lake’s manicured hedges they were sipping coffee on benches, taking selfies, or making their way around the path circumnavigating the lake – jogging, walking hand-in-hand, being pushed in a stroller – (almost) always counter-clockwise, as signs on the path instructed. For the joggers there were also distance markers to help count off the meters, and for those going more slowly there were speakers occasionally piping out gentle music.
Two things no one was doing were biking or walking dogs, which aren’t allowed on the lakeside path but which can instead be done on a parallel path further up, adjacent to the sidewalk, where you’ll also find a number of amenities, digital and analogue both. There are several free phone charger stands and also Smart Digital Information Display System kiosks that provide free Wifi and touch screen info on tourist sites, medical facilities, and maps. Additionally, there’s the occasional collection of exercise equipment and at least one public bookshelf (mostly for kids) where visitors can take out one of the tomes to read on a nearby bench. I’d paused near the bookshelf at the lake’s northeast corner when I heard a creaky, clumping noise and turned my head to see, coming up the ramp from below, a clown on stilts. In white pancake makeup and with a big red nose, the girl wore a blue bowler hat and a black jacket with small floppy wings sewn on the back. Thirty seconds later she was followed by a second clown on stilts, this one dressed in red pants with sparkly gold bands and a matching red baseball cap. The two clowns walked past me and out to the sidewalk where they waited for the light to change before crossing the street.
The north shore of Seokchon Lake is loomed over by the great silver box of the Lotte World Mall and the soaring Barad-dûr that is the Lotte Tower, cranes perched atop its unfinished summit like great skeletal birds. Crossing under Songpa-daero (where mounted photos show men sitting in a sampan floating between houses during the area’s catastrophic 1925 flood) brought me to the lake’s western half, where Lotte’s encroachment didn’t stop at the water’s edge. In the middle of the water is Magic Island, the outdoor section of the Lotte World amusement park, centered on a blatant rip-off of Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World, which is just a blatant rip-off of Neuschwanstein, so who cares, I guess. The amplified instructions of a ride supervisor and the shrieks of riders carried across the water.
The north shore of the lake has a tourist information center, an Italian restaurant, and several cafes. Near the footbridge onto the Magic Island there’s also Seoul Norimadang (서울놀이마당), an amphitheater where rows of red and blue plastic seats surround a circular performance area, which is backed by a traditional Korean hall. Shows are held here regularly, usually traditional performances, though I’ve also seen b-boys perform here.
Leaving the amphitheater I followed the upper path around the lake’s western edge and then made the gentle turn back to the east. Down below, a woman selling yeot, a rice taffy, from a small stand on the footpath used a pair of wooden pestles to bang out a rhythm as she waited for customers. Then I was back at the bridge in the exact same position as when I started, just on the opposite side of the axis.
Seokchon Market (석촌시장)
South on Songpa-daero (송파대로), Right on Garak-ro (가락로), Left on Garak-ro-16-gil (가락로16길)
Seokchon-dong Ancient Tombs (서울 석촌동 고분군)
Straight on Baekjegobun-ro (백제고분로)
Hours | 5:00 – 24:00
Straight on Baekjegobun-ro (백제고분로), Left on Garak-ro-7-gil (가락로7길)
Seokchon Lake (석촌호수)
Exit 1 or 8
Straight on Songpa-daero (송파대로)