Rediscovering Korea, four decades on 1980-2021: Part 2. Destination Seoul - Beyond the base

The view towards Seoul and Mt. Namsan from Dragon Hill Lodge at Yongsan in 2007. Photos by Charles T. Mitchell
The view towards Seoul and Mt. Namsan from Dragon Hill Lodge at Yongsan in 2007. Photos by Charles T. Mitchell

Rediscovering Korea, four decades on 1980-2021: Part 2. Destination Seoul - Beyond the base

by Charles T. Mitchell
Stripes Korea

After my friends and I had become comfortable with the community surrounding Osan, we would grab a long distance bus (as this was years before the extended subway) and travel up to the nation’s political, social, financial, and artistic capital. 

Seoul, where most visitors to Korea are introduced to the country, was a swirl of non-stop activity and stark contrasts in the early 1980’s. One often saw traditional Hanbuk attire along side business suits or tuxedos, and not only at special events. The deafening slurping of noodles (jajangmyeon) by the company men in the little cafés off the main drag south of Gwanghwamun in central Seoul, would be replaced by the gentile, low murmur of polite conversation in the dinner restaurants near the same center of town in the evening. The blunt reality of the old wet market near Dongdaemun would be eclipsed by a foray into the basement wonderland of sights, smells, and tastes of Lotte’s flagship store, where I was always jealous of a buddy of mine whom the salesgirls (for they were always younger women) competed with each other to lure the handsome (they thought) guy to their sample stands. My buddy rarely needed to buy lunch when in Seoul.  Even the abrupt immobilizing of the entire city, and no doubt country, during the afternoon playing of the national anthem, creating a surreal experience for the uninitiated, was quickly replaced by the buzz and bustle of millions driving toward the future, often carried there by the sea of omnipresent, swarming, green Pony cabs moving around Seoul like schools of undisciplined fish, since it was the era before private car ownership exploded in Korea.  The tattered, traditional work-a-day dress of the rural farmers and their families would be replaced by the high-end business day fashion and the stiletto-heeled night haute couture of Seoul’s elite stepping briefly into view between limos and the trendiest nightspot. Our own Seoul splurge restaurant in the early 1980’s was a little family Chinese place a block or so from the old Taiwan embassy, now the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China (as of 1992). While diplomatic relations have evolved over the decades, that string of great little restaurants still clusters at the western edge of Myeongdong.

The view towards Seoul from Gyeongbukgong Palace in 2012.

The Mitchell family in Gyeongbukgong in 2012.

The Gyeongbukgong Museum.

Today, one can grab a Starbucks after that lunch of noodles or take the highly efficient subway to a favorite boutique coffee shop, which have inundated the country. While the old, open air wet market may have moved inside, one can still explore the basement of Lotte and sample endless savory and sweet delights, or head to the top floors for the higher end restaurants. In 2007, my colleague and I were departing one of Lotte’s top floor restaurants after dinner when we were assailed by, of all things, the distinct, childhood memory inducing aroma of freshly baked doughnuts. We immediately went on the hunt, discovering the tasty air was wafting up from the escalator banks, we took to the escalators down each floor and, as the intensity of the doughnut scent increased as we descended, we were nearly crazed with irrational hunger by the time we had hit the basement. Following our noses, they led us to a small, but glorious Krispy Kreme (yes, that Krispy Kreme) shop, with red light blazing, announcing fresh doughnuts. Close to the subway entrance, we concluded the periodic blasts of air from the doors were what had driven the aroma all the way to the top of the building. Needless to say, we bought doughnuts, claimed our free ones, and departed Lotte with a fond mix of memories of high-end Korean cuisine topped off by classic American sweets. Even though that shop has since closed and move to a street location, such encounters are the norm in the modern experience of the global city that Seoul has become.

Yet, even amongst the contrasts and unmistakable changes going on all around, some things were, and remain, constants. While not the ubiquitous symbol of Seoul as it is today, Mt. Namsan was still a comforting sight in the 1980’s. Even today, with most of the mountain being a park, the traditional guardian of central Seoul retains its warm familiarity for visitors from afar, and remains a beacon of stability for Korea’s citizens. While we rarely climbed Mt. Namsan, preferring to spend our precious free hours wandering the more inhabited areas of the city, in later years it became a destination. During my last visit to Seoul, we were fortunate that our hotel room looked over toward Mt. Namsan, which, of course, induced me to take my family on the cable car ride (not safe, my son wryly declared during the swaying few minutes), and up to the plaza and the N Seoul Tower for coffee and pastries late one evening. Viewing the nighttime skyline of Seoul from the tower’s 360-degree perch should be a must for travelers to Korea. While the lights of the night city have expanded and grown brighter over the decades, the mysterious darkness of Namsan Park surrounding the tower reminds us of how some favorite spots never change, or change much more slowly.

Mt. Namsan from Youngsan Garrison in 2007.

Mt. Namsan from the Millennium Hilton in 2012.

While Namsan seems to have retained its nearly unspoiled image, other areas of Seoul, as with any city, have evolved over the decades. For example, other than the endless rows of massive apartment buildings marching south, in the early 1980’s we never found enticement to venture into the Seoul neighborhoods on the south bank of the Han River, which had none of the carefully planned and manicured riverside parks, cafés, and trails that exist today. Gangnam, Sinsadong, Lotte World, and other areas are now teeming with activity, which continues to spill south (and east and west) along the subway corridors. During our last visit to Seoul in the early 2010’s, we made the obligatory trek to Gangnam, wandered by some of the music headquarters, shopped along the gingko street in Sinsadong, and drank seven-dollar coffees at the Gingko Café (which has since changed hands). Gangnam and the surrounding areas on the south bank of the Han River have truly become the frontlines of Korea’s global ambitions.

Drinking high-priced coffee with my son at the old Gingko Café in
Sinsadong, Gangnam, in 2012.

A clear example of an evolving neighborhood is the former soldier-focused Itaewon, where, during its less genteel days, literally anything could have been had for a price and was the model for the ‘villes’ just outside of the various American bases. Teeming with an edgier vibe (and, of interest, the early beginnings of what would evolve into the Korean music wave), the then GI-centric Itaewon was a glaring contrast with the calming (and more expensive) experience of a polite evening out in Seoul. During the winter of 2007, I had one last look at the old Itaewon, with signs of transition (and reduction in US forces in Seoul) underway. In the 2010’s, my wife’s cousin announced she was taking my wife to Itaewon to shop for the latest fashions and I was quite surprised. Yet, her cousin assured me the less desirable trappings of the old ‘ville’ had long been gentrified. While one might mourn the loss of the old Itaewon, visitors to modern Seoul have to applaud the more family friendly environment.

Yet, greater Seoul, away from American base influences, also had edgier spots, many of which are lost to memory, yet can be traced by the rise in housing prices, often close to universities. For example, a few scant remnants of old Hongdae, which gamely resisted gentrification for decades, can still be found in a the alleys and side streets hiding in the shadows of the shiny new construction. Artistic neighborhoods like Hongdae evolve over time, as cultures and societies rediscover themselves and move on to the next thing. Struggling writers, starving artists, and young musicians will lead the way to that next creative center. Whether the real estate prices driving the buskers and street artists out of Notting Hill, or the chain stores driving the closure of so many Greenwich Village haunts, those rumpled areas that once thrived and produced the next great musician or artist can, sadly, fade over time. In the face of such drastic change, having a group of friends gather in one of the long time, popular BBQ joints in old Hongdae, down one of the last winding alleys, just on the fringes of Seoul’s unceasing modernization, creates the perfect setting for locals and visitors alike to glimpse the past just over the shoulders of the modern, highly motivated young people thronging the cafés and halls. Next time you are in Hongdae, or any number of transitioning neighborhoods, step away from the main drags and look for those remaining mom and pop places, and enjoy a taste of old Seoul.

BBQ joint in Hongdae in 2012.

In the early-2010’s, I found myself sitting in the now closed Hello Kitty Café in Hongdae. I had spied the place on the way to dinner and, since my wife was, at that time, enamored of Sanrio’s global mascot, I pointed it out to her and her cousin.  While it has since closed, it certainly exemplified the ultimate in marketing. While the Hongdae outpost is closed, I understand one can still get one’s Hello Kitty fix at N Seoul Tower and down on Jeju Island, to name just two.

The author sitting in the now closed Hello Kitty Café in Hongdae in 2012.

Another area that has seen immense change, Insa-dong, near the old Joseon courts, was, in one of my foggier memories from the early 1980s, darker, more affordable, and had many more artists and quaint alley shops. When I last visited Insa-dong with my family in the 2010’s, it was right before the massive transformation to today’s gleaming streets and high-rise dream palaces. I was struck, at that time, by the signs of transition, yet also by the many old school artists, street performers, off beat coffee houses, close by hanoks, and small, mom and pop eateries. With the old courts of Joseon just up the road, Insa-dong still retains a bit of the royal luster. My family and I, escorted by my wife’s cousin who lived in Seoul, spent a good deal of time in several reputable artist shops. We came away with the best souvenirs one can acquire on a trip, art by a local artist. Not only are you, the traveler, enjoying the local culture, often becoming immersed in the back story of the artist or craftsman, you are also contributing to that artist’s and his or her shop’s survival. Since so much of the human spirit and human creativity is celebrated in such neighborhoods as Insa-dong, one is able to, for a moment, forget the hustle of the city and the relentless pursuit of perfection, often sought using artificial means. I should note that, in the 1980’s, natural beauty seemed to be all around us when we visited different regions of Korea and, from what I recall, the nearly maddening drive to attain some commercially defined level of beauty through surgery had not yet turned into a national mania (and profit center). Fortunately, within areas like Insa-dong or Hongdae, the observant visitor can drift down one of the older alleys and absorb the paintings, the ceramics, the street performers, and the simpler cafés, and let those remnants of earlier days carry him or her back to a less hectic time and, for a moment, provide a brief antidote to the unceasing drive for unattainable perfection.

Insa-dong in 2012.

Day trekking, even in the early 1980’s, was a popular pastime in Korea. When we used to wander the hills beyond Songtan, where rice paddies and farms stretched for miles (much now replaced with planned cities, expanded highways, and massive rail systems), we often saw long-distance hikers out for an entire day. Over time, climbing the various mountains around Seoul has evolved into a near religion for many. In such a fast-paced, ceaselessly changing society, the eternal cliffs, calming valleys, and ageless forests of the many parks around Seoul (and Korea) allow the peninsula’s people to slow down, take stock, and reevaluate where they stand in relation to that frenetic culture. Sadly, these unrelenting pressures drive a number of brilliant young people (for example actors and Kpop stars) to early graves. Hopefully, the calming effect of the forests and mountains, under the caring hand of the Korean National Park Service, will continue to act as a buffer and a sanity check for today’s stressed out youth.

Seoul, with the Han River dividing the north bank from the south bank and with several offshoots adding to the mix, is a city of bridges. Not quite a Venice, but certainly dependent on bridges to move people and goods around. Unfortunately, the presence of so many bridges allows for ill-fated ease of access for the disheartened, the outcast, the confused, and those with serious mental issues, which, history has shown us, tend to be repressed in certain societies. Death, sadly, by one’s own hand is an all to common occurrence in fast-paced societies. Years ago, a friend told me her worst experience as a resident dorm advisor at one of the top European schools was having to identify suicide victims the morning after major exams. Sadly, suicide has always been with us, but it was less public decades ago and usually only the family and close friends were even aware of the tragedy and subsequent pain. Today’s digital age has altered that awareness, especially in Korea, with, depending on the survey, the highest suicide rate among OECD countries. When you cross those Han River bridges, you will see the young people moving about, weaving among gleaming parks along the banks, listening to youthful concerts, eating in the cheerful cafés, catching the brightly lit ferries, or enjoying snowy groves of trees which transform into stunning blossoms in the spring. Yet, in the back of your mind, you may often wonder if all is well with those youths. Hearing one of those youths humming Lee Ji-eun’s (IU) tune ‘Peach,’ inspired by the singer Sulli, whose life was tragically cut short, might remind you of the fragile nature of those highly stressed, often troubled youth marching toward Korea’s future. One hopes that the Mapo Bridge and others like it will one day finally lose their ‘Bridge of Sighs’ reputations, as Korea continues to enhance its social progress.

View across the Han River to National Assembly Hall and Gangnam in 2012.

Seoul, full of amazing sights, stunning museums, high end shopping (most of which we could not afford as young enlisted), high art, endless food adventures, and countless other experiences, was an affordable bus ride up from the base in the 1980’s, but is now a quick subway ride. Fortunately, we were also able to venture beyond Seoul and see more regionally focused areas. Sadly, we never made the train trip to Busan (‘Pusan’ in the old days), which, in those days for the American military folks, tended to be a gambling destination. Not wanting to be tempted to separate ourselves from our somewhat meager base pay, many of us passed on the one or two times the opportunity arose. However, once the world is reopened to travel, I do plan to visit Busan and the area, in particular the United Nations Cemetery and the SS Meredith Victory Memorial tribute to the Hungnam Christmas Miracle south of Busan on Geoje Island. In spite of missing Busan, I did count myself as exceptionally fortunate to have visited Jeju Island via an MWR tour and old Incheon during one of our rare overnight visits to Seoul, both of which we will cover in the Part III, the final installment of this series.


About author

Charles T. Mitchell is a writer of novels and short stories, a former national security and commercial consultant, a retired USAF officer, and a current member of US National Park Service’s Volunteers in Parks, primarily at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC. His first overseas assignment was with the former 6903rd Electronic Security Squadron, Osan Air Base, Korea, from Sep 1981-Sep 1982, for which he later received the US Korean Defense Service Medal (created in 2002).His most recent book of short stories, Hues of Seoul: Mystery and Suspense in Today’s Korea, was inspired by his time in Korea, later visits, today’s global Korea reach, his three decades-plus marriage to a first generation Korean-American, and his role as uncle and godfather to his second-generation Korean-American grandniece, and her little brother. For more background, please see the website.

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