When one considers the geography of Seoul, it’s her mountains that seem to define her: the noble peaks of Bukhan serving as a backdrop to the city’s seats of power – Gyeongbokgung and the Blue House; sacred Inwang watching over the old city’s spirit from the west; Namsan, which once marked the city’s southern limits and on which N Seoul Tower now stands like a dart in its exact center; the countless little hills and ridges that dictate how roads and trains and people flow. But this is a city of water too, of rivers and streams, and you’re reminded of this when you come to the point where two of its largest – the Han and the Jungnang – converge.
In past centuries, the forested northeastern banks of this junction served as royal falconry grounds, a horse pasture, a source of timber, military parade grounds, and a golf course. Today they form the sprawling Seoul Forest (서울숲), which, like Yangjae Citizens’s Forest, is far less a forest than it is a carefully sculpted park, sprawling both over and under Ttukseom-ro (뚝섬로) and Gosanja-ro (고산자로). It says something about the park’s size that the visitor center provides maps. (If you want the numbers, it’s over a million square meters.)
Seoul Forest is quickly reached from either Exit 3 or 4. Near the former, a narrow strip between construction sites brings you to the center of Culture and Art Park (문화예술공원), the main section of the complex north of Ttukseom-ro. At this entrance, charging straight at you are statues of a half dozen racehorses, thundering down the stretch atop a small grassy knoll. The horses and their jockeys commemorate yet another former iteration of this site: the period, beginning in 1954, that it served as the site of Seoul Racetrack.
Following the horses straight back takes you down the spine of the park’s northern half. Directly behind the statues is a splash fountain, with a pair of tents off to its side where boys and girls can change into bathing suits. Next is a sculpture park, where, beneath shade trees, figures of shoes and piled books are interspersed with more abstract figures. The art installations and the trees then give way to the sprawling Family Yard, a large, mostly grassy expanse that was dotted with families and pitched tents and picnic tables. In the center of the yard was a single large tree, at the base of which a young couple in suit and gown were having some wedding pictures taken. At their feet a WWII-era model plane served as a prop. A theater stage forms the back of the lawn, where a toddler was haphazardly banging away at the keys of a lonely upright piano, watched over by his either deaf or tolerant grandmother.
The northern edge of the Culture and Art Park is devoted to athletic facilities. Again from front to back, the first facility visitors come to is the Skate Park, where an oval track encircles small half-pipes and ramps. A few elementary school-age students were swooping up and down the ramps while an even younger group received in-line skating lessons. Continuing west, there are courts for basketball, badminton, and croquet. At the very back is what the park map labels the Equestrian Training Center, though at the time of my visit this seemed to be under renovation. (Another section of Seoul Forest, the Marsh Plant Gardens (습지생태원) is north of here, but this section is across the road and closer to Ttukseom Station (뚝섬역) so we’ll cover it in that post.) Separating this area from the central lawn is the aspirationally named Philosopher’s Path, which leads around the back end of the Culture and Art Park, curving along tall, thin, nearly perfectly straight trees. I watched as a cooing mourning dove poked in the leaves around their trunks.
The Culture and Art Park’s southern flank begins with the park’s main entrance and visitor center, where you can pick up park maps in several different languages, find exhibits on the area’s history (Korean only), and find out which species of flora and fauna call the park home. Among these are Mandarin ducks, hedgehogs, and kingfishers. Past the visitor center is an outdoor theater with grass seating, a small brook, and a playground. Next to the playground is the Giant Statue, a towering construction of steel mesh in the shape of a giant climbing up out of his cave. In a different design this might prove too freaky for some kids, but the statue’s abstract form – curved and featureless and geometric in the way of 1980s album covers – gives it an appearance more benign than threatening. Further back, an artificial lake separates the Family Yard from wooded walking paths. The lake has a pair of (unnecessary, in my opinion) fountains, beds of reeds, and dozens of carp, which like to congregate beneath a flowerbox-bedecked bridge and await dropped food. Overlooking the lake is a building that houses a gallery, a rest area, and snack shops.
South of Ttukseom-ro and East of Gosanja-ro is the Experiential Learning Park (체험학습원). Much of the land here is actually taken up by a pair of facilities that form the Ttukdo Island Arisu Water Purification Facility (뚝도 아리수 정수센터). The rest of the park is largely devoted to giving Seoul kids a bit of firsthand experience with dirt and fur and exoskeletons.
Entering the park, I was met by the first of several groups of kindergarteners, tromping down the path two by two, holding hands with their walking buddy and trailing in their teacher’s wake. They were coming down the Yeongju Apple Road, a path on the north side of the Experiential Learning Park that’s lined on one side by small apple trees. Their fruit was just starting to emerge – little pale green orbs that looked more like maesil, tart Korean plums, than they did apples. Part of the path bordered a semi-grassy field where there were more kindergarteners, all in matching shirts that were the same color as the young apples. Off to the side, blue tarps were weighed down by the kids’ identical gray backpacks. Next to the field, other kids were poking in the dirt of a small community garden where pansies, lettuce, and other things grew.
South of the field and one of the water purification facilities is a small cluster of attractions. First is the Gallery Garden, a sunken semi-circle that uses old industrial infrastructure, a la Seonyudo, as the scaffolding for climbing ivy, flower beds, and decorative shrubs. There’s a lot of variety packed into a very small area, and one might consider it a botanical garden for people who find botanical gardens hopelessly dull. Here too was a group of kindergarteners. Their teacher, wisely using a tour guide’s headset microphone to preserve her voice, was trying to corral the kids for pictures; they were far more intent on stacking rocks.
Opposite the Gallery Garden is a pair of buildings that puts in stark relief our prejudices when it comes to members of the class Insecta. The one on the left, the Butterfly Garden, is devoted to the only insect that we deem worth of its own special exhibit. On the right, the Insect Garden is for everything that’s not a butterfly.
In the Butterfly Garden, hundreds of orange, black, yellow, and white butterflies flitted about, bouncing above the walking path or alighting on the neatly kept beds of flowers. There were so many that I was half worried I was going to walk into one or step on one, and this made me think about how we (or at least I, at any rate) ascribe a delicacy to butterflies that we don’t to other insects. This is related, I think, to our tendency to treat them as if they were décor. They’re beautiful and therefore fragile and therefore must be treated gently and given their own home. All the other bugs can lump it together in public housing.
Which is what they do in the Insect Garden (closed Mondays), though that’s actually too narrow a name. The first section of the building gathers plants from different biomes, beginning with a collection of cactuses that made me suddenly feel like I was a kid again, visiting my grandparents in the taupe and turquoise of New Mexico. Along with rooms displaying pinned specimens of beetles and butterflies, the Insect Garden also features aquariums and enclosures where American bullfrogs, Korean fire-bellied toads, chipmunks, tarantulas, iguanas, stag beetles, hedgehogs, axolotls, and a trio of tortoises all live. Many of these, you’ll note, are not insects.
Behind the Insect Garden is what’s called the Small Animal House, and whereas the Insect Garden’s name is too narrow, the Small Animal House’s has the opposite problem, as the only animals here are about a dozen rabbits, living together in a fenced-in hutch. There’s also, oddly, exercise equipment, should you like to do your sit-ups accompanied by the scent of rabbit dung.
Walking west, a small brook leads past the Cheonggye Stream Water Reservoir, another part of the water management facilities located within Seoul Forest. Pools of water are crisscrossed by elevated walkways, while overhead solar panels rise in tiers.
Passing under the Seongsu Bridge puts you in a third section of the park, the Eco Forest (생태숲), most famous for its collection of spotted deer. Normally visitors are allowed to feed the deer, but this has been temporarily suspended due to fears over foot and mouth disease. For the time being the second best you can do is observe the animals from behind a couple layers of wire fence.
As long as up close encounters with the resident deer remain off limits, though, the best spot from which to observe them is actually the long footbridge that connects Seoul Forest with the Han River Park, passing directly over the deer enclosure en route. From above you can watch the caramel-colored animals lounge in the shade or casually nosh at their feeding trough. For what reason I’m not sure, but the animals had all had their antlers lopped off, leaving them with only knobby little stubs like the ossicones on a giraffe.
The bridge begins in the northeast corner of the Eco Forest, at the Hill of Wind. The wind here was breezy, not blustery, but seemed amplified by the rustle of the long grasses that would fill the air whenever a gust would pass through. The hill is topped by ‘The Wind from a Distance’ (먼 곳에서 오는 바람), a sculpture by the artist Won In-Jong (원인종): a vertical silver scimitar topped by a jauntily angled blue feather.
From the hill, the footbridge passes over the deer and then over a dried-out pond. The dregs of the aforementioned brook trickle into a basin here, leaving its center a semi-muddy expanse but not reaching its edges, which have grown cracked and white in turn. The bridge then reenters the forest’s trees and shadows for a short ways before bringing you out above the Gangbyeon Expressway, where suddenly the city opens up and surrounds you once again: the traffic buzzing by in either direction, merging and exiting; the wide blue expanse of the Han River and the apartments stacked on the slopes of its banks; the vertical forms of Lotte Tower and N Seoul Tower in the distance to the east and west. If you love the city and its commotion, it’s almost thrilling to come out to, this sudden reminder of all that bustle after having been cloistered away in the relative calm of the park.
Finally the bridge curls around and puts you in a tiny corner of the Han River Park (한강공원) that’s also technically part of Seoul Forest. As far as sections of the Han River Park go, this one ain’t much, with little more than biking and walking paths and a few benches. It does afford a cracking view, though, with the Jungnang Stream (중랑천) emptying into the Han just to your right and at least six bridges visible from this point.
Thanks to this convergence of waters and its location at a ninety-degree bend in the Han, the area around Seoul Forest long served as a place of trade and industry. Boats docked here, and in the early 1900s the Japanese built warehouses to store timber and produce. The ‘60s saw steel mills and plating factories move in, followed in ensuing decades by factories producing wigs, clothing, shoes, and other goods. The character of the greater Seongsu neighborhood has changed considerably since the turn of the millennium, and we’ll get to that change shortly, but the area remains infused with a blue-collar streak that’s well apparent in a walk through its backstreets.
From Exit 2, heading left on Ttukseom-ro brings you past radiator shops and recycling yards. If you take the first left from there, Ttukseom-ro-1-gil (뚝섬로1길), you’ll find yourself walking past a strip of small factories that put Seongsu’s industry on full display. Big orange barrels labeled ‘Samsung Oil’ sat in a die casting shop. Men toiled in workshops lit by pale fluorescent bulbs in high ceilings and whatever daylight spilled in through open doors. In one factory stacks of steel blocks were piled up like bars of silver bullion; in another, sacks reading ‘Super Pumice Stone from Lombok, Indonesia’ were piled in a corner. Large fans kept a breeze circulating through shops, and the whir of circular saws and electric sanders sounded in the air.
South of Ttukseom-ro was slightly more residential, though several more small machine shops remained on Dullae-gil (둘래길), which faces the Gangbyeon Expressway. Behind them, old brick homes mixed with a few mid-rise apartment towers, convenience stores that looked to have been there for decades, and a church where a statue of Mary stood in a small grotto.
This corner of the neighborhood also provides more direct access to the Han River Park, with a couple of pedestrian tunnels running beneath the highway from Dullae-gil. Here too the park is rather limited, with space for not much more than a couple tiers of bike and walking paths. Despite lacking many of the amenities that other stretches of the park enjoy, the section here isn’t unpleasant. Ivy climbs up the sides of the elevated highway behind you, and there are several benches for gazing out across the river to the little blips of traffic on the far bank’s Olympic Expressway. Now and then a heron might swoop past, making a long, lazy turn in the breeze.
If you headed directly to Dullae-gil and the Han River Park from the station, you no doubt noticed the large construction site on the corner, where Doosan is building the Trimage apartments, official slogan: ‘The believing is…Trimage.’ The walls surrounding the site show four soaring glass towers, twice the height of the apartment buildings behind them. Sorry guys, there goes your river view.
And this, in a nutshell, is what’s happening with Seongsu now: it’s getting money, and it’s getting cool. While the old industrial roots are still there, this part of town has been changing and gentrifying, a transformation that the 2005 creation of Seoul Forest itself is largely responsible for kick-starting. The park’s presence made the neighborhood a much more attractive place to live, leading to new construction and more middle-class families filling the new buildings. New apartments are being constructed on either side of the road adjacent to the station, and if you continue walking down Ttukseom-ro, past Ttukseom-ro-1-ga and its factories, you soon come to a new apartment development, the E-Mart headquarters, and a cluster of bright new restaurants. The most conspicuous bit of construction, though, is the soaring black towers of Galleria Forêt, a mixed business-residential development that looms over Seoul Forest’s north side.
This mix of gentrification and residual industry is a cocktail that proves irresistible to one particular demographic worldwide, and whether you call them hipsters or urbanites or something else, the young Korean version has arrived in Seongsu, and is putting a new, funky stamp on the neighborhood. Throughout the area are new cafes and shops and lots of twenty-somethings with severe glasses and trendy facial hair. The street where you can see the most concentrated example of the neighborhood’s new character is just north of the park, out Exit 4 and left on Seoul Forest-2-gil (서울숲2길). Here you’ll find a chic little shoe shop, a leather bag workshop and showroom, and a brand new boutique hotel. There’s Atelier Sunny, which offers flower arrangement lessons and does gift styling, and, further down the street, a fair trade shop selling bags and diaries. There’s also a place called Seoul Soup Pie, a homemade pie shop that I still can’t decide if its name is clever or deliberately confusing or just simple in a geographical and linguistically awkward way. Around the corner is a shared workspace run by IMPACT HUB Seoul, a collaborative community of ‘social innovators’ and start-ups that also runs a restaurant and library nearby.
The neighborhood has a wonderfully bohemian feel, fresher than Hongdae and more relaxed than Kyungnidan. While you’ll find plenty of businesses of the newer generation, they’re mixed in among numerous older restaurants and grocers from Seongsu’s earlier variations, reminders that in spite of the changes taking place here, the area around Seoul Forest Station hasn’t yet lost its grit. And while Seoul Forest may have been the main impetus for the changes here, it’s actually in the park that the area’s industrial genealogy is most easily discerned. And here too, it comes down to water.
As mentioned earlier, much of Seoul Forest’s southern stretches are occupied by the Ttukdo Island Arisu Water Purification Facilities and the Cheonggye Stream Water Reservoir, relatively new elements in the intricate business of the metropolis’ water management. But it was also here, back in 1908, that the country’s first water treatment plant was opened, a feat that the little Waterworks Museum (수도박물관), in the park’s far southeastern corner, commemorates.
Walk straight from Exit 3, past the large white 서울숲 sign, and just before the highway you’ll reach the museum’s entrance, marked by a smiling blue water droplet. It was on these grounds that two Americans, C.H. Collbran and H.R. Bostwick, oversaw the construction of what was to become the Korean Waterworks Co., which would go on to supply water to 125,000 people after its opening. The museum, opened in the centenary year of the waterworks’ establishment, is divided between three buildings and is largely targeted to kids, with displays on the water cycle, animals that depend on the city’s natural water sources, and ways to save water. For adults, more interesting exhibits are in the museum’s most interesting building: a handsome restored red brick structure with an arched entryway that used to be the water supply room. Inside you get a glimpse of how water was once distributed in Seoul – by roving vendors who used a yoke to carry large buckets – and of the city’s drainage system. Here as elsewhere in the museum nearly all displays are in Korean only, but the metropolitan government does make available an odd little English-language brochure extolling the virtues of Arisu, the name it’s given to the city’s water. In it you’ll learn that ‘Arisu is increasing its stature as a world-class brand of water by being the first to reach disaster-hit areas and increasing its presence in international events.’ Hooray. The brochure also features a provocative photo of the Statue of Liberty with her torch replaced by a glass of Arisu. Careful there; wars have started over less.
The former Korean Waterworks Co. purified its water by using a technique called slow sand filtration, wherein water would pass through layers of fine-particle sand whose microorganisms filtered out any impurities. It’s a process notable for its lack of chemicals, but seldom used now because of its inefficiency. The basin that was used for this process is open to the public as part of the museum, and entering it feels like stepping into a municipal bomb shelter or into a remarkably tidy sewer. Buried under a small hill, the subterranean space’s oppressively low ceiling is supported by concrete arches, and the dimly, gloomily lit floor is covered wall to wall in a layer of sand like some sort of vampire beach.
Between museum buildings the grounds are also home to one more thing of note: a protected zelkova tree, 20 meters tall and estimated to be 300 years old. The plaque in front of it explains zelkovas’ natural habitat and appearance, but also wanders off topic a bit to touch on the name of this part of the city. Though it seems that no one is certain of its provenance, one theory put forth was that it was a combination of the name of a former nearby pavilion, Seongdeokjeong (성덕정) and of the name given to the water treatment facility, Ddukdo Suwonji (뚝도 수원지). Another theory is that seongsu was a term used to describe the good, clean water that long-ago residents of the area could get from the Han, combining the Chinese characters for ‘noble’ (seong/성) and ‘water’ (su/수).
Seoul Forest (서울숲)
Exit 3 or 4
Hours | Open 24 hours, except for Eco Forest (Jun – Aug 7:00 – 21:00, Sep – May 7:00 – 20:00)
Han River Park (한강공원)
Straight on Wangsimni-ro (왕십리로), Left on Dullae-gil (둘래길)
Waterworks Museum (수도박물관)
Straight on Wangsimni-ro (왕십리로)
Hours | Mar – Oct: 10:00 – 20:00 weekdays, 10:00 – 19:00 weekends; Nov – Feb 10:00 – 19:00 weekdays, 10:00 – 18:00 weekends; Closed Mondays, New Year’s, Seollal, Chuseok
Admission | Free
02) 3146-5936, 02) 3146-5921