South Korea: Discovering Seoul’s Hidden Past
Discovering Seoul’s Hidden Past in Ikseon-Dong
By Christopher Mathew Bentley
It is almost inevitable that if you visit Seoul, at some point you will end up at Bukchon, a sprawling neighborhood just off of Gyeongbok Palace filled with traditional Korean houses known as hanoks.
It’s a pleasant enough place if you ignore the busloads of tourists, but it also seems a bit stale, like a vacant movie set. Whatever authenticity the neighborhood once held has been long buried under thick coats of fresh paint and slabs of new concrete.
Bukchon was weighing on my mind after a visit to the Seoul History Museum, which has an impressive display of 19th and early 20th century photographs showing a city remarkably different from the one I experienced.
It’s hard to imagine, but only a hundred years ago Seoul was a city of thatched roofs, clay tiles, and muddy streets choked with men wearing horsehair gats and women in colorful chima skirts. It was a city steeped in ancient traditions and timeless customs. But today that city has vanished.
1905 Japanese Occupation
Although the westernization of Korea began in the 19th century, it wasn’t until after the 1905 Japanese occupation that Seoul was literally transformed under an ambitious project of modernization, which systematically dismantled nearly every aspect of Korean culture.
Almost overnight, Seoul’s great palaces were destroyed, its city walls torn down, and motorized trolleys appeared along newly paved roads.
What little remained by the time the Japanese left in 1945 was either destroyed in the Korean War or during the subsequent redevelopment of the city as Korea underwent its “Miracle on the Han.”
Then in the 1980s, the government in Seoul had a change of heart and endeavored on a massive restoration project, rebuilding almost from scratch the five great palaces that use to dominate the cityscape. At the same time, Seoul set aside Bukchon as a tourist attraction.
It was a noble effort, but when I stand in front of the palace gates at Gyeongbok or wander past a hanok house, I can’t help but feel disappointed, much in the same way one feels upon realizing that a curious museum artifact is a nothing more than a replica.
Of Time and Spirits
At Jongmyo, a Confucius shrine for Korea’s royalty and one of the few preserved historical building complexes in Seoul, there is a pathway reserved for royal spirits.
The path guides the spirits to the ceremonial halls where the living can leave offerings to their ancestors. Without the path, tradition holds that the spirits would lose their way, unable to reach their waiting relatives.
Time lends a structure gravitas. When we look at a worn relic or ancient building the sense of history is immediately conveyed to us.
We feel the past. We feel the lives of others, lives that have long since been extinguished but whose memories are imprinted like DNA into the objects and edifices around us.
It’s what enlivens cities such as Rome and Athens, and why, even with its throngs of people, Seoul can often feel strangely empty. Here the bridge between the past and the present has been broken; the spirits are lost.
On my way back home from the museum, I wondered if perhaps I too had become one of those spirits, lost in modernity and condemned to meander erratically through the city streets searching for a piece of history that no longer exists.
As my mind rambled from one thought to the next, I lost track of where I was and where I was headed; I lost track of time. And then I looked up. Something had changed.
I was no longer in Seoul; or to be more precise, I was no longer in the present. All around me were hanok houses, their tiled roofs chipped and faded with time. This, in downtown Seoul, was impossible, or so I had thought.
A Hidden Gem in Plain Sight
What I didn’t realize is that I had stumbled into Ikseon-Dong, a tiny slice of Korean history that had miraculously escaped the wrecking ball. Built in the 1930s, Ikeson-Dong is an authentic working class neighborhood of unpretentious hanok houses, each individually decorated to its owner’s taste. Between green ceramic tiles, old wooden doors imprinted with elaborate metallic motifs, and a tangled web of telephone lines lie a myriad of shops, cafes, and eateries.
The vibe is inescapable; whereas Bukchon feels like a soulless Potemkin village, Ikseon-Dong is gritty and dynamic. Here neighbors still gather at makeshift corner bars to drink soju (the cheapest and easiest way to get hammered in Korea) or devour Korean barbecue at plastic tables lining the tiny alleys.
Ikseon-Dong is a treasure chest of hidden gems. It’s hard to miss Jongno Halmeoni. Locals have been lining up here for a lunchtime bowl of kalguksu since 1988. It’s worth braving the queue, which at times can extend down the entire alleyway, to sample this classic Korean dish of hand-cut noodles served in a light broth with vegetables.
Then there’s Sik Mool, a chic new bar that effortlessly blends the contemporary with the traditional. Offering fine foods and wines, this eclectic establishment seems oddly at home in Ikseon-Dong.
But by far, the greatest treasure of Ikseon-Dong is Tteuran, or Inner-Garden, so named not only for the house’s courtyard garden but also for the peaceful ambience that encourages self-reflection and thought. This beautiful hanok home serves traditional herbal teas on an ondol heated floor, making it the perfect place to cozy up with a good book or friend on a cold winter day.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with the owner of Tteuran, the affable Kim Ae-ran, over a cup of mulberry tea. She had opened the traditional teahouse seven years ago and within weeks was renting it out to a studio shooting the motion picture Café Seoul, a Japanese-Korean coproduction.
Although fiction, the movie deals with many of the issues that have threatened Ikeson-Dong, including redevelopment and the ever widening gap between generations. “The movie saved this place,” said Kim with a smile. “About 50 percent of my customers are Japanese.”
Kim pointed out several of the other boutique cafes and bars, like Sik Mool, that have opened in Ikeson-Dong over the last couple of years. While still well under the radar, interest in Seoul’s last untouched hanok neighborhood has been perking up, especially among Korean young adults.
When I asked Kim what this would mean for her and Ikeson-Dong, she seemed ambivalent. “I don’t know much about business; I just work because it’s good for me. But if Ikeson-Dong becomes another Bukchon, I won’t be able to pay the rent.”
I understood her dilemma, and it wasn’t something that could be fixed by just raising the price of a cup of tea. Tteuran, spacious and airy, is only meant to accommodate
a handful of people at a time.
It’s very much a personal experience where Kim eagerly explains the properties of her teas and the different methods of preparation to each customer. Tteuran simply isn’t meant for the high-capacity and quick turnover required of mass tourism. And in much the same sense neither is Ikeson-Dong.
Most locals appear to be enthusiastic about the new found interest in their tiny corner of Seoul and are happy to see a younger generation attracted to the neighborhood’s blue-collar atmosphere, but they worry that the attention will eventually make Ikeson-Dong unrecognizable, commercializing their heritage, and forcing more established businesses like Tteuran out.
Only time will tell if Ikeson-Dong, which has weathered war, development, and generational shifts, can survive potentially the most dangerous threat of all: its own incipient fame.
At the moment, though, the neighborhood has been able to maintain its traditional charm in the face of modernity, unaltered by the handful of Korean bohemians and Japanese cinephiles that occasionally turn up here. As for Kim, she’s taking it one day at a time. “The rest,” she says, “is up to God.”
Ikeson-Dong can be accessed from Jongno 3-ga Station on Line 5; just walk north. The neighborhood is compact and is easy to navigate.
17-35, Supyo-ro 28-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul +82-02-745-7420
49-1 Donyidong Jongnogu, Seoul +82-02-744-9548
46-1 Donhwamun-ro 11da-gil, Jongno-gu +82 2 747 4858
Chris Bentley is a due diligence consultant and “professional” globetrotter, who is currently living in France.