A Reindeer, Iwha-dong Street Art, a Taste of Katmandhu and a Nutcracker


I arrived at Dongmyo, Seoul early on Friday evening and headed for the budget Oz Motel which turned out to be a rather faded Love Motel. They (LM’s) first appeared in South Korea in the mid-1980s. They were originally called “Parktel.” Their boom and escalation was originally attributed to the 1988 Olympics which took place in Seoul, presumably then foreigners could be blamed for having a voracious sexual appetite. It’s more likely that the Koreans penchant for extramarital transgression and fondness for mistresses fueled the national growth.  The hotels have traditionally been seen as seedy, with locals vocalising their disapproval and not wanting them within certain distances of schools and residential areas; presumably then lads did not bump into their dads!Nonetheless, some hotel owners have tried to eradicate that stigma from their business by upgrading services. The staff at Oz were friendly but the rooms in need of remodeling. 

IMG_3819I wanted an early night as I planned a dawn start to the day heading to Dongdaemun Gate, and then to Iwha-dong and Naksan Park. After my usual favourite Kkanbu Chicken, I wandered around for a few minutes looking for a well-hidden stags head sign and thence a beer at the Owoo bar in Jongno. I later headed back for what I hoped was a restful night.

I fell asleep around 11pm but awoke to the cries of a banshee, it was as if I’d wandered onto the set of the next Wes Craven horror movie. The banshee is a female spirit in Gaelic folklore and normally the cry of a banshee warns people that one of them will soon die. I was not afraid for my life but my sanity maybe. I began by thinking positively and admired both his stamina and of course her faking it.  Not wanting to usurp their pleasure by banging on the door and requesting a semblance of volume control, I simply mimicked every utterance she made and it soon went quiet!

I arose at 6am ready for my walk to Naksan Park and Iwha Dong, I’d previously entered the route in Googlemaps and hoped for some sort of sunrise when I reached the highest point of my trek.

DSC_0302Leaving at 6:45 am I reached Dongdaemun Gate which is a beautifully lit landmark, in the locality food stalls ready to feed the rising Seoulites. I skirted the old Joseon Seoul Wall as it rose steeply along Naksanseongwakdong-gil, then took a marked walkway along the walls perimeter. There were few people around at this time, only a couple of elder folk walking dogs and a few younger bods returning home from clubbing.  I passed Buddhist temple on the right and cut through a gap in the city wall emerging in Iwha Daldongnae.

Today only a few daldongnae villages remain in Seoul. Daldongnae refers to a poor village that is usually located on the lower part of mountains. Ihwa-dong and Choongsin-dong near the Naksan Park belong to this collection of ‘daldongnae’ villages.  The slender paths and stairs here lead to lanes where diminutive houses stand side by side. Predictably, this village is a haven to photographers.

IMG_0880The ‘Art in the City – Naksan Project’ was carried out to revitalise these few alienated  and dilapidated daldonnae and save them from re-developers. From May 1 to December 20, 2006, a multiplicity of vibrant artworks were located in Ihwa-dong, Dongsung-dong, and Choongsin-dong under the watch of Art Director: Choi Taeho. The project theme was ‘Mix, Connect and Get Together.’ The artworks make this area of central Seoul a great destination for a stroll, spring would be the best time in SK. Naksan names has its routes in that the mountain resembles a camel’s hump: ‘nakta’ in Korean means camel, while ‘san’ means mountain.

If you don’t want the hike up from Dongdaemun it’s quite simple to get to the area by subway. Get off at Hyehwa Station, line number 4 and come out through Exit 2. Walk straight till you see the sign of ‘Naksan Park Direction. If you turn left at Ihwa Intersection, walk up the hill until you see a bridge over a roadway. On the right is ‘Mihwa Barbershop,’ whose front is vibrantly adorned by the owner.  Further along is a large mural on the plastered end of a terrace. The painting depicts female and male needle workers; there used to be about 2,600 sewing factories around this area.

DSC_0366Strolling uphill and under the bridge, notice the fading tile decorations. Each tile was painted by the children and seniors who live in the Choongsin-dong and Ihwa-dong area. A couple of the tiles painted by seniors translate to, ‘Be good and sincere,’ and ‘Be honest.’ Passing up the hill, on the left, is a “Marvel Comics” mural which looks recently painted. When the road levels out its interesting to weave your way through the constricted lanes, stairwells and paths and discover cute murals and installation works, some of which are now weathered and faded.

DSC_0365These include Flowers on the stairs, rainbow-coloured wings, fish swimming, a friendly robot that says, ‘Hello,’ and dogs peering through windows. Many of the older murals have been scarred or added to by couples declarations of their love. Scarring or enhancement? Well that depends on your own personal perspective. Further along there is a decorated house that introduces the entrance to the main body of Naksan Park.  Metal art installations flank the road which gives great views across to Namsan Mountain and Seoul Tower. I find most of them dull and a lacking inspiration but ‘the gentle man and his dog that walk into the sky’ are at least interesting.

DSC_0398Further along notice a courting couple and some frogs on the left, as the walk descends the hill; on the right there is a giraffe adorning the stairway to a house, a dog on a lead defecating alongside a camel.  To the left of this are some decorated tiles. In summer this is a good moment to enter the main park and walk to the higher areas for a picnic, but I descended to saunter at my own pace through the Korean theatre neighbourhood. I discovered ’Monsieur Chat’ the yellow Cheshire cat by graffiti artist Thomas Vuille, who also has artworks in Paris. This one has interesting nether regions.  I also admired the murals outside the Lock Museum before returning for a coffee adjacent the station.

FOBY was coming into Seoul for one of his birthdays and we later caught up at Dongmyo Station. He then treated himself to iPhone 5 and we had a wander around the shrine. If anyone wants to visit take line 1 or 6 to Dongmyo Station and leave exit 3. The shrine will be right in front of you.

Dongmyo shrine is dedicated to Kuan Yu, a general from olden China who is celebrated for his military expertise and his loyalty in helping Korea fight off the Japanese.  The Joseon government embarked on the construction in 1599 and completed the work in 1601. The shrine, after the Chinese model, is narrower than breadth than depth. Inside the main shrine a wooden image of Kuan Yu is enshrined, along with statues of four of his retainers.  Around the shrine is Dongmyo Flea Market where you can buy anything and everything. A multiplicity of vendors sell used items from the side of the road. Most of it is trash but judging by the numbers trash is popular. The people watching is better than the shrine itself, the shrines dull but a good spot to take a seat and a rest if you’re on a walking tour.

DSC_0424From here we headed north on Line 4 to Hansung University Station. Twenty minutes walk north of here Gilsangsa Temple is located in Seongbuk-dong, along a quiet residential streets lined with mansions. Founded as late as 1997, Gilsangsa is set into the hillside. The temple used to be the site of an up-market restaurant called Daewongak. The owner of the restaurant, Gilsanghwa Bosal donated the huge property and it was transformed into the Temple complex we see today.

One of the temple’s special features is the Gilsang Seonwon (Zen Center) dedicated to meditation practice. There is another hall called the House of Silence, which is a meditation room for those who wish to experience Seon practice.

After returning for a nap we headed out to Potala Restaurant which is located along the Cheonggyecheon Stream and a little hidden from view (set back from the road, close to the intersection of Samil-daero. Potala is supposed to be the only Tibetan owned restaurant in Seoul. The restaurant is in the basement and is beautifully decorated with Tibetan artifacts and paraphernalia. Sometimes they have a musician playing traditional folk songs but on this occasion he was not resident.  The Dalai Lama looms smiling as you take your food.  Potala serves Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian food. The staff are very polite and the only problem faced at Potala is deciding what to eat from the myriad of tasty dishes. We had Indian which was delicious, 2 main dishes, Paneer Pakora, Jeera and Basmati Rice supported by Garlic Naan.

DSC_0474Sunday saw freezing temperatures around-15 as we took a walk to Seoul Folk  Flea Market close to Sinseol-dong station. There are 851 small shops packed inside the two-story, 5,000-square meter warehouse that was built by the Seoul authorities back in 2008.

DSC_0469The original market started on a small street during the Japanese Colonial Period but it’s popularity escalated in the 1950s.  In the aftermath of the Korean War some people’s junk became another persons treasure. Not surprisingly, most of the early stuff was clothes and food products discarded from American military bases or industrial goods rejected by local factories.

The market used to be called the Hwanghak-dong Flea Market but when the Cheonggyecheon restoration forced the vendors out, they moved into Dongdaemun Baseball Stadium, which became the market’s new name. Some people call it the dokkaebi or goblin market because broken goods seem to get fixed like magic. Some of the merchants call it the Ant Market.

Apparently some of those vendors call themselves nomads. They landed in this latest site after plans were drawn up to demolish the stadium which has been replaced by the Zaha Hadid futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza (see earlier post). I just enjoy observing the eccentrics who sell goods there.

DSC_0488One of these eccentrics, a lively old woman, saw FOBY checking out bags for his iPad, she thought for my iPad.  Her performance was worthy of an award from The Academy, she pleaded, manufactured fake tears and rubbed my hand in her desperation to make a sale. The original price for a beautifully made leather satchel was 75,000 won, FOBY asked me how much it would go for, I said 30,000 won, around 40% of the “marked” price.  FOBY has never bartered preferring instead to enhance his wardrobe and accessories with Armani, Lauren and Klein! It was interesting to see her try secure the sale, as every-time I turned to walk away she offered FOBY further discounts until she reached my predicted 30,000 won.  FOBY decided unfortunately that the item was not for him and we left better for the experience. Just around the corner a vendor displayed rejuvenated laptops on his stall and another sold beautiful old hi-fi equipment complete with valves.

DSC_0483In terms of income market organisers estimate that the sellers make about 200-300,000 won per day. That’s down from the 500,000 plus they used to collect the stadium. The new location is good but the city elders are accused of insufficient marketing, of course it’s nothing to do with changing expectations in terms of customer service and taste of course. Furthermore, the space is cold in the winter and 40 degrees Celsius in the summer.

The Seoul Folk Flea Market can be accessed by way of Sinseoldong Station on Seoul Metro Lines 1 and 2′s spur line (exit #9). Turn right at the first intersection and then look for the signs after about 250 meters.

From here we headed to Sinchon with the intention of sampling Fish & Chips at Battered SeoulAfter realising there was a gap in the market for F & C in Seoul, two English guys set up the business a couple of years ago. After a visit to the very up-market Hyundai Department Store we set out for a hearty lunch following some simple sounding directions. As it transpired the directions were inaccurate but Googlemaps saved the day.  Once located, disappointingly it was shut, despite advertising the Barclays Premier League! FOBY decided on spicy chicken instead which was very tasty.  From here we popped into another store from which I bought a nifty and extremely warm winter coat courtesy of a portion of my soccer coaching salary and mums Christmas gift. I now feel cosseted and protected against the harsh Korean winter. Observers comments of its severity have not been exaggerated.

IMG_3930I headed to meet the troups at the Universal Arts Centre whilst FOBY retreated to his sisters in Southern Seoul. The Universal Arts Center, originally called Little Angels Art Hall, was established in 1981 as a multipurpose culture and arts center.   In 2007, it was renamed the Universal Arts Center and remodeled in 2009.   The 1,082-seat Arts Center is home to the world-class Universal Ballet Company and Academy moreover hosts musicals and other performances. The Universal Art Centre is at, 253, ji Neung-dong, Gwangjin-gu, Seoul.

We were booked to see The Nutcracker.  When The Nutcracker was first performed in Russia, it did not receive positive reviews. Later, however, choreographer George Balanchine created the version that cemented the ballets popularity. The children dancers in this version captured the hearts of the Seoul audience. The Nutcracker has become a Christmas classic globally and is now becoming a part of Christmas traditions worldwide. The theatre created a world of bourgeois fantasy from late imperial Russia. Ballet originated in the Italian Renaissance courts of the fifteenth century and later developed into a concert dance form in France and Russia.  In summary it was graceful, effortless, flowing, challenging, breathtaking, flawless and perfection. I’d never experienced a ballet before but it was a great experience.

We left culturally elated and headed to the Express Bus Terminal for our ride home to Chungju but not before devouring some spicy wraps and Pizza at Shinsegae.

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