Explore Seoul’s hidden heart

by Jae Lee

Staff Writer

Just two weeks after the March 11 triple-catastrophe in Tohoku, and a mere 90 minutes after leaving Haneda Airport in Tokyo, it was almost unreal to be standing in Kimpo International Airport just outside Seoul and listening to excited Japanese tourists chatting about what and when they will eat and where they will go for a drink after shopping.

For sure, anyone who wanted to could walk through a “geiger gate” at Immigration to be checked for radiation — and most of my fellow passengers did — but even that did nothing to disturb the eerie air of normality into which Fukushima and all that madness seemed to have suddenly disappeared.

A short taxi ride later, in fact, and it was obvious everywhere that the capital of South Korea is major getaway (from it all) mecca for Japanese tourists.

In central areas they seem to be there in groups large or small around every corner; most stores of any size have Japanese-speaking staff, while restaurants and many bars have menus in Japanese, too.

And what’s the most popular photo opportunity? It’s not the elegant Blue House presidential palace as you might think, but any of the countless life-size cardboard cutouts of the TV and film actor known in Japan as Yon-sama.

Born Bae Yon Jun (on Aug. 29, 1971), boyish Yon-sama is beloved by legions of Japan’s young (and not-so-young) ladies, and the so-called “Hanryu (Korean-style) boom” he set off several years ago has lately been augmented by pop groups such as Bigbang, 2ne1 and Kara, who all ride high these days on the Japanese charts.

Add to these eating, drinking, shopping and adoration factors a soaring yen and Japan’s imminent Golden Week holiday, and it’s debatable whether the surely upcoming flood of Japanese visitors or their hosts are the more excited now.

According to a Japanese travel agency spokesperson, it is not unusual for people to book their Golden Week trips even a year ahead. Meanwhile, Korea Tourism Organization statistics confirm the scale of that exodus, showing there were 209,492 visitors from Japan in May 2009 — 9.8 percent up on the previous year — while the figure for May 2010 was 241,695, a whopping 15.4 percent rise. And overall, Japanese tourists in May annually comprise a third of all visitors to Korea.

For these legions crossing the Sea of Japan (East Sea), after sating themselves posing for pictures with cardboard cutouts of their Hanryu boom idols, the next priority is often to hop aboard a tour bus chartered by Japanese agencies such as HIS — of which there are many in the city. Besides whirlwind sightseeing stops, these tours will invariably take in eateries and various shops.

One of the most visited spots on such tours is the colorful Gyeongbok Palace. Built in 1394, it was last occupied by King Geoncheonggung, who ruled over the whole of the peninsula until he was ousted when Japanese forces occupied the country in 1895. There, the prime photo op seems to be of the handsome young palace guards in traditional outfits — though their mustache glue is rather too visible for my taste.

From there, the next stop on these tours is usually the nearby Blue House residence of the president, where yet more posed “V-sign” photos get taken before the buses move on to an array of duty-free shopping malls close by.

Between these two, however, and out of sight behind the Blue House, is one of the hidden gems of Seoul — the Samchundong district. Known for its traditional architecture and big-name property owners, including numerous politicians and top figures at manufacturing giant Samsung, Samchundong has been a cultural hot spot since the founding of the Chosun Dynasty in 1396.

Nowadays, thanks to strict modern planning regulations there, Samchundong is one of the very few places in Seoul where you can go day or night without worrying that a giant neon advertising sign might fall on your head. Aesthetically, too, it is of course a welcome breath of fresh air — a freshness enhanced by it being off the beaten track, and so not teeming with people.

On my way there, the cab driver asked me, “Shopping?” Then he told me that many Korean celebrities shop in Samchundong because each boutique is its own brand, with the clothes sold all made by the owners themselves.

Celebrities, maybe, but while wandering the narrow, winding streets and alleys of Samchundong, there was a notable scarcity of Japanese tourists to be seen. And when I approached those I spotted to ask how they were enjoying their trip — and proffered my JT business card — many appeared scared and would only agree to talk if they used a made-up name. On reflection, I figured that was my fault, really — for approaching women in their 50s in love with Korean idols. In their shoes, I would prefer to go unnamed as well.

Nonetheless, Korean government data recorded an off-season tourism spike in 2010 when the “boy idol” group Tohoshinki (known domestically as Dong Bang Shin Ki, or DBSK) held a concert in November and the number of Japanese tourists shot up 15 percent from the previous November.

Idols apart, however, another interesting feature of Samchundong is a renovated modern building with a sculpture of a running man on the roof. This is the Kukje Gallery, which, both here and in two nearby annexes, exhibits the work of Korean and overseas artists, including pieces by Jean-Michel Masquait, Anish Kapoor and Yang Hea Gyu to name a few.

Moving on from there soon brings you to Luden Loquen Space, a cafe-gallery (or gallery-cafe) whose specialty is traditional Korean herbal teas.

Located in a traditional old single-story Hanok-style house, the place is awash with aesthetic charms, as well as a cuppa or two. Fortunately, too, the owners appear to have been ever so slightly cavalier in their creative and artistic disregard of some of the area’s strict planning rules, as around the characteristic central courtyard they have replaced the original paper-screen doors with glass ones. Also, they’ve used thick walk-on glass panels to replace some of the stone flagging in the courtyard — so casting natural light into the cafe and study areas below.

Although there are numerous Hanok-style cafes and tea houses to lure Samchundong’s visitors, those with an ongoing artistic itch to scratch will find no shortage of galleries with large exhibition spaces (compared with typically cramped Japanese ones), as well as rental galleries showing the work of groups of art students and others backed by major corporations that tend to show currently influential Korean modern artists.

Meanwhile, Gallery K.O.N.G. — right across from the Vice President’s House in Samchundong — shows contemporary photographs by Korean photographers and a range of works in various media by foreign artists. To get there you have to pass through a few barricades, and the guards can sometimes seem a bit scary, but once inside the spacious gallery, friendly staff are eager to tell you about contemporary Korean photography.

But who cares about beautiful aesthetics on empty stomach? Seoul Eh So Du Bun Che Jal Ha Nun Jib — “Seoul’s Second-Best Restaurant” — offers traditional soups, including its best-selling sweet red bean soup with rice cakes, as well as bitter but healthy broths conjured up using various Korean herbs.

For a hearty brunch, though, it’s hard to beat Slow Garden, which offers a large plate of waffles, crisp salad, bacon strips and sausages, with coffee on the side. This visitor, for one, felt as if she had stepped into a fairy tale set in a deep forest — but with good coffee into the bargain.

All in all, “secret” Samchundong, with its raised sidewalks to keep you out of harm’s way on those of its narrow streets and lanes that allow cars, will be a perfect place for many visitors looking to stop for a rest during their tight weekend getaway break in Seoul — or to treasure-hunt through the countless small shops in its historic alleys. Then there are all those relaxing cafes, galleries and unique boutiques to discover and call your own.

Certainly, once found, this fascinating corner of the big, noisy, flashing-neon metropolis is a place most of its “discoverers” will look forward to revisiting again and again, even though it means running the gauntlet of the Blue House guards or those at the Gyeongbok Palace with their funny glued-on mustaches.

But remember: There are no cardboard-cutout idols here!