Winter Vacation: Return to Seoul, Womens Academia and Hongdae


Returning to Seoul, I had a 2 hour metro ride from Cheonan and decided I wasn’t ready for “the Chungju” yet so I booked myself 3 more nights in Seoul at the Shin Chon Hostel, Daehyeon-Dong, Seodaemun-Gu. The place had double rooms with bathroom on offer for 35,000 won.

I arrived in Edae at around 4pm, it had been a long day with over 6 hours travelling so I just took a shower and a short walk nearby Ewha Women’s University before having my, by now, regular afternoon nap.

Monday evening saw a trek downhill into Sinchon and the first Fish & Chips I’d had since leaving the UK.  After reading an article in Groove magazine and other online boasts about the foods quality, I arrived with great anticipation looking forward the feast I was about to consume. Two Londoners as proprietors of Battered Seoul, memories of the great Toff’s and George’s of Muswell Hill and Islington.  It is true to say while you do not always get what you want in life the disappointment was major. The food was no less than burnt, both the fish and the chips, the teaspoonful of peas rather an insult. It was obvious to me that the cooking oil was burnt, as they close on a Sunday and this was Monday evening I found this appalling.

I noticed tonight whilst writing the blog that they have a Facebook page and it looks like the owners could have been on holiday but for me that’s no excuse.  If you can’t quality control don’t do business.

DSC_0610Tuesday morning I was up early for the toast and eggs at Shin Chon and then headed towards the gates Ewha Women’s University. Before arriving I took in Edae, this vibrant, funky grid of narrow, car-free alleyways was stacked with cheap restaurants, clothing boutiques and other businesses. These include cafés, cosmetics stores, and beauty salons. At this time of the morning there was a long cohort of women striding the 500 m from Ewha subway station towards campus, most of the shops (except those managed by barrista’s) were firmly closed.  It has to be said they stay open very late.

Methodist missionaries founded the university around 120 years ago and Ewha is the world’s largest university for women. “Ewha” translates to “pear blossom, it’s considered by many to be Seoul’s most beautiful university campus. The campus underwent a remodel in 2008; the architect Dominique Perrault and the result is truly outstanding. It’s a complete triumph in the blending landscaping and architecture. It is described by the architect as a “spatial blending of landscape and architecture.

DSC_0620The building functions as a learning environment for 20,000 students and integrates facilities for teaching, sports, leisure and business. Simply it’s form is a vegetation-covered hill, split by a deep, wide cleft that cuts into the ground like a geological fault. The scale of the fault allows movement across the building and functions as the buildings main circulation space.

At the northern end, the ramp turns into large stone steps, which can be used as an outdoor amphitheatre. Along these, ten entrances to the complex are positioned on different levels. The curtain walls allow daylight and a respectable amount of natural ventilation to pour deep into the building.

I could envisage how the space can be used in summer but it does, I have to say, feel very alien in winter, the scale though is awesome!

I left through the back gate and followed the signs north towards Bongwonsa Temple. The climb is relatively demanding and the sign indicating only 200 more metres is a travesty of accuracy. Apparently in summer this area is most beautiful as it becomes clad in lotus blossoms, I could only imagine that in a “sweet dream.

DSC_0638_2Bongwonsa has existed since 889 AD as the centre of the Taego order of Korean Buddhism. Originally it was named the Banyasa temple, it was destroyed in the 1500s and rebuilt in 1748 with its current name. An important cultural ritual known as “Yeongsanjae,” dating from the Goryeo Dynasty takes place annually in June. It is intended to be a symbolic reenactment of the Buddha Sakyamuni’s historic delivery of the Lotus Sutra on Mt. Grdhrakuta. By way of the mediums of art and dance, participants interpret enlightenment, world peace and the reunification of Korea. A lotus flower festival also occurs every summer, highlighting the lotus flower as an important religious symbol of Buddhism. In 2009, the temple received the designation of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

During my visit he temple was actively in use, mainly by women.  Most of the gentlemen I met with were passing through the complex taking walks om Mt. Ansan on which the temple sits. As worshippers were praying and the doors closed, out of respect, I didn’t get to look inside. I admired the carved statues, the etched glass doors and some of the well-worn carved dragons adoring the buildings.  I will definitely return during lotus seson but may take the bus as when exiting I discovered there is a terminus at the edge of the car park. 🙂

From here I walked down the hill passing many restaurants no doubt the past haunts of famous alumni from Ewha. Further along is Yongsei University Teaching Hospital and opposite this graffiti artists have left their mark. Passing under the railway bridge to the right is Sinchon where I would take the one stop ride to Hongik university station and the youth/Indie oriented Hongdae quarter. The area is home to a bohemian artistic spirit with original designer shops, unique restaurants and individually styled cafes and galleries. It’s also a haven for clubbers, all hail the past!

IMG_4605I was famished and I’d read, again in Groove, about a cool Taco place in Hongdae, it was called Gusto Taco. I’d already bookmarked the place in Google Maps which I have to say was becoming indispensible to me during this vacation, that and the awesome Jihachul, Seoul Metro App.

I approached with a little trepidation after my “Battered” fish experience the night before, I needn’t have feared. The home-made beef taco’s were mouth-watering, I cannot list the superlatives, so the next time you’re in the Hongdae area (5 minutes from Hongik station) take in Gusto Taco (www.gustotaco.com).

It said in Groove, “Each order is served on two soft, lightly fried corn tortillas with bare bones pico de gallo (tomatoes, onion, lime and fresh cilantro), full-fat sour cream, smooth avocado creama, a sprinkling of cheddar and hot sauce”. That sounds incredible and it is! Aaron the co-owner a head honcho is friendly and welcoming and an all round, as we Brits say, “good egg.” Whenever I return to Seoul on a weekend Gusto Taco will be my choice for lunchy.

IMG_4607My faith in Groove’s restaurant reviews is reinvigorated. Just up the hill from Aaron eatery there was a tattooed bulldog headed character and at the cusp of the hill a building was being re-worked and had a pretty eye-catching instantaneous artwork across its bows. “To The Next One”, indeed!

I crossed over to the Hongdae Street area stopping at Hongdae Playground to sample the graffiti. I ambled for a good forty minutes until I arrived at the KT&G Sangsang Madang labelled a “cultural arts territory” it opened in 2007. I simply loved it. The venue is a 7-story cultural complex building with 4-story basement, theres art studios, galleries, a design shop, music store and cinema plus an amazing (X factor speak) Sixth floor café. I looked around the design square with its leading original designs relatively affordable and later settled for yet another coffee and almond muffin in the beautiful café. I pondered my vacation, the walks, the galleries, the photographs, the diversity, quite possibly Seoul has overtaken London and NYC as my favourite city. London has better sport, NYC is easier to engage with locals but as a melting pot of indie, culture and diversity Seoul is catching and overtaking them.

IMG_4640I wandered South towards Seoul Design Museum which unfortunately was being remodelled. Up the NYC “Brown Stone” steps another fantastic cafe. Full of design classics from Jacobson, Eames, Corbusier, Gray, Knoll, Noguchi, Starck and Mies van der Rohe, incredible, my kind of heavely space and the coffee aint half bad. I was joined by a polite Airdale Terrier who took residence on an adjacent table.

On leaving I went further south towards the Sangsu-dong Cafe Street area taking in a poster exhibition by Do-hyung Kim at the Cafe 318-1 building. I doubled back heading for my last potter of the day “wall paintings Street.” The College of Fine Arts at Hongik University is famed in Korea, its also quite political. Though the area is becoming gentrified some remnants of political note still exist.

By this time it was late afternoon and I headed for Hongik Metro passing a woman straightening her tights, a proper dandy with aspirations of Korean Wave stardom and a film crew shooting for a Korean Soap. I returned to Shin Chon and then dinner.