Travel Report: Cool Spots Around Seoul.
Cool Spots Around Seoul.
February 2015. The South Korean capital is a fascinating city with endless opportunities for exploring. Looking back on my visit, it’s definitely a place I regret not delving deeper into.
I love how walkable Seoul is! Thanks, in large part, to Cheonggyecheon, an eight and a half kilometre recreation space that runs either side of a stream. A river of some sort has been flowing here, on and off, for hundreds of years.
In 1945 local authorities transformed the dried up waterway into a road. Thus it appeared the river had seen its last days. However, in 2003 Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak announced an ambitious rehabilitation of the entire stretch.
It was a huge project, which eventually ran up an eye-watering bill of 386 billion won ($281 million). Firstly, the road was demolished, followed by the installation of a gigantic pump circuit. The pump produces 120.000 tonnes of water per day, some of which comes from The Han River.
After three years of construction, Cheonggyecheon opened in 2005 as Seoul’s longest pedestrianised walkway. Today it features twenty two bridges, along with waterfalls, fountains and plenty of art. How I wish I’d taken the time to walk all of it and grab more photos.
Cool Spots Around Seoul.
Rather, I found myself distracted from my stream wanderings by the sight of Cheonggye Square. This giant plaza, situated in the heart of downtown Seoul, is a popular spot for protests and political gatherings. On the day of my visit the atmosphere was positively joyous, with groups of people playing traditional Korean games.
This excitable woman was taking part in a game of Tuho. Essentially, this is a throwing game, in which players try to chuck a series of rubber-tipped arrows into a narrow-necked wooden jar.
The winner is the one who can do it the most times in a game. Tuho is an ancient pastime dating back to the days of the Goguryeo Kingdom in 37 BCE.
Another game played on Cheonggye Square that day was Yut Nori. While this also involves a lot of throwing, the game is actually much more complicated and strategic. Basically, you hurl a bundle of foam sticks up in the air and see where they land on the board.
If you’re lucky enough to have all four sticks land face down, this is called Yut. That entitles you to move four places around the board. The aim of the game is to complete a full circuit of the board and return to the start.
But there are all kinds of traps, bonuses and tactical decisions you can make along the way. For a full rundown of how to play, modern soul.org provides a decent overview.
What To See & Do, Seoul.
The opinion-splitting Spring Sculpture dominates Cheonggye Square. Created by the Dutch artist Coosje Van Bruggen and her Swedish sculptor husband, Claes Oldenburg, the piece was intended as a statement of renewal in nature. An apparent reference to the restoration of Cheonggyecheon Stream.
Modelled on a giant snail, the red and blue colours symbolise the unity of opposites in nature and the human spirit. They’re also the colours of traditional dresses worn by Korean women.
The decision to ask a pair of international artists to install the sculpture caused outrage among Seoul’s community of local artists. Especially as local authorities awarded the grant without any kind of jury process.
Demonstrations followed and the project was widely criticised in the media. “It’s an anti-ecological shape” said art critic Park Sam-cheol, referring to the fact that the snail is standing up.
Nearby the Spring Sculpture, on Gwanghwamun Plaza, stands an altogether more celebrated artwork. This is the towering Yi Sun-sin statue, erected in honour of South Korea’s famed admiral and military general.
Guiding Korea to victory in the epic Battle of Noryang in 1598 (and losing his life in the process), Yi Sun-sin is one of the country’s most revered national heroes.
“The battle is at its height. Beat my war drums. Do not announce my death”.
– Yi Sun-sin.
Unveiled in 1968, the bronze, seventeen meter structure was, at that time, the tallest standing statue in Asia. Koreans come from all over the country to pay their respects. Indeed, I witnessed a family proudly posing in front of it that afternoon.
Those interested in learning more about the country’s military history can head to the War Memorial of Korea. This huge museum and exhibition of military vehicles and weapons opened in 1994 on the former site of The Korean Army Headquarters.
I had the run of the place that afternoon as I sauntered around the outdoor exhibition checking out tanks, missiles and anti aircraft guns. Inside, there are ancient Joseon Dynasty war drums, bloody army uniforms from The Korean War and a giant turtle ship replica.
Cool Spots Around Seoul.
After a barrage of war imagery, I was certainly in need of something to lighten the mood. In that respect, Toto’s Nostalgia Museum was the perfect antidote.
This delightful exhibition and gift shop displays over thirty thousand retro toys, magazines, electronics and general rarities from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s.
Moreover, the museum stands as a tribute to Korean pop culture. Anime lovers will find plenty to love too, while superhero nerds can unearth rare comics and perfectly preserved He-Man action figures in their original boxes. I used to have one of those!
Seriously, I could have run riot in this place. But when one doesn’t have an actual home, it’s pointless acquiring stuff you can hardly even carry around with you from country to country. Finally, I made do with this Columbo postcard. What can I say, I was a bit of a fan as a kid.
UPDATE: As of February 2021 I learned that Toto’s Nostalgia Museum is no more. Unfortunately, my longtime travel accomplice Wonderboy informed me that the store has been replaced by what looks like a high end art gallery.
After days on my feet running around Seoul, I needed a day off. Some proper lounging around if you will. Luckily, the city has a number of huge spa complexes where you can completely unwind. I paid a visit to Dragon Hill Spa, a gargantuan place home to baths, jacuzzis, saunas and massage parlours.
Furthermore, there’s a beauty salon, several hairdressers, a gym, a swimming pool, an ice room and a cinema showing Japanese anime. It even has a giant dark room, where people go to nap. In fact, Dragon Hill is open 24-7, hence some shrewd folk come here as a cheap alternative to a hotel.
However long you stay, be sure to follow the signs very carefully, because there are nude and non-nude areas throughout the building!
So much of what is great about Seoul is centred around food. As another blogger recently commented on one of my articles, “South Korea takes street food to the next level!” Right enough, you’ll find amazing food markets all over the city.
One evening, I took a chance on Gongdeok Market, where most of the stalls specialise in deep-fried seafood. Cod… shrimp… tuna… crab… potato… veg…. just point at what you want and they’ll chuck it in a vat of oil. Super crispiness guaranteed.
Cool Spots Around Seoul.
I ended up with quite the mountainous plate, washed down with an ice-cold beer. The bill came to an insignificant 6000 won. You can find the market by Gongdeok Subway Station. Take Exit 5.
Another winning dish was the thoroughly unpronounceable Ppudahguh-guk, a tangy beef and potato soup. I really should have stayed away form the red stuff, which proved super spicy.
The above creation, Dwaeji Bossam, is a curious mix of tender and moist pork belly served with kimchi and oysters. Poor old me had no idea it came with oysters, which I literally cannot stomach. Nevertheless, the pork was so good it made up for my initial disappointment.
Cool Bars in Seoul.
Seoul has a very trendy nightlife scene, including some excellent music bars focusing on rock, indie and alternative. I had a drink at Motto, which insists it’s “the best music bar in Hongdae District”. Plastered with posters, album covers and old photographs, they have a giant CD collection behind the bar and are happy to take requests.
Generally, I can’t stand night clubs. I’m not into dancing, hate being in crowds and have never been much of a drinker. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been drunk in the past five years and one of them was in Seoul.
Club FF wasn’t so bad, as far as night clubs go. Once again it was the largely indie-rock play list that convinced me to stay for a bit. If I remember well, the above shot shows all four walls positively shaking with the sound of The Charlatans’ One to Another.
They say you simply cannot come to Seoul and not have a night doing Noraebang, Korean karaoke. I ended up at a centre on Mokdong Rodeo Street, with a group of Seoul expats keen to show me the ropes.
I was really impressed by the song menu, with literally hundreds of English tunes to choose from. Even better, they had some wonderfully unexpected inclusions, not just the usual radio hits.
As is the way in Korea, we had a large living room to ourselves with comfy sofas and a killer sound system. Whenever you get hungry or thirsty, just press the buzzer and someone will come to take your order. I don’t remember much from that evening, but I know it was fun!
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