Find arts and hearts in Insadong

by Ted Adamson
Stripes Korea

There will soon come a time when you will want to buy some souvenirs of Korea either to take with you or to ship home to friends and family. There may be no better place to go than the Insadong area in the heart of Seoul.

The easiest way to get to Insadong is on the No. 1 subway line. At Jonggak Station, take the No. 3 exit. Then walk around the corner to a world of treats for the eye, heart and stomach.

Insadong started its history as a training place for artists more than 500 years ago. During the sixties the area was commonly referred to by foreigners as Mary’s Alley. It was a great place to buy antiques as well as art.  After the Seoul Olympics in 1988 it became a major tourist area and still draws throngs of tourists from around the world. 

It is still a gathering place for those who would make their livings painting, making pottery or jewelry. If there is a craft in Korea, you can probably find its products for sale here. That includes everything from sketches and paintings to household utensils such as hollowed gourds to be used as ladles.

There is also an abundance of restaurants, coffeehouses and tearooms where one can sit and get a bite or take a drink break. Many of the restaurants are a little on the upscale side and offer dishes served in a more traditional way than you find in other areas of Seoul. Other restaurants have gone for the Asian-Western fusion foods. Because of the large number of tourists, menus are generally in Korean, English and Japanese. 

If you are seeking a particular item or place, you don’t have to be fluent in Korean to find it. There are teams of full-time information staff walking up and down the area ready to answer questions in English, Japanese and Chinese. They wear identifying signs to let you know which language you can use to ask your questions.

Among the many shops and galleries is one of particular note: The Ssam ji Gil shopping area. It is just off the main street, Insadong –gil, and from the outside looks rather unusual. At the street level there are the same shops that line the street of Insadong. But above the shop you will see what appear to be covered balconies on the 3rd and 4th floors that seem to be about 3 degrees off plumb. Inside, it is even more unusual.

You walk up a half flight of stairs and ascend through the myriads of shops by walking around the building on inclined plane walkways. There are more than 70 small, mostly owner/artist-operated shops displaying their wares. There is one shop called Palgang (Red) which describes itself as a “color theme shop” everything is either red or accented in red.

Another small vending station here deals strictly in Jewelry and trinkets made of titanium. The artist was a mechanical engineer by trade but had a desire to express his art so now runs his own shop where he manufactures his wares.

The walkways are very smooth and easy to climb. However, when one gets to the 3rd floor they suddenly get rough and have the feel of closely spaced Railroad ties forming a path. The outside edge of the path is bordered with an iron rail and flowers. It is like stepping into a different world altogether.

When you get to the top, the adventure is not over. Look for a place called the Sky Garden Café (Haneul JeongWon / 하늘 정원), you can find it easily by following the trail of “love messages” hanging everywhere. The messages are for sale at the Sky Garden and if you are in love you should buy a message card, fill it out and hang it for the world to see.

Aside from the romance, the Sky Garden offers refreshing drinks and snacks.  Fresh-fruit smoothies will cost 4,500 won, while a cup of “One Shot” ice cream will set you back 2,500 won. (The strawberry and the blueberry are excellent.)

There is a wide plaza at the entrance to Insadong and it is very common for performing groups to put on shows for the public in the plaza. Most often the shows are “folk performances” of traditional music and or dance. Sometimes, as on the June day we visited, the groups are from a local University. Other times you may see a group of senior citizens or a group with ages ranging from children to seniors who form clubs simply because of a common desire to share their love of the Korean culture.

Whether you are a tourist, a shopper or just one of those who likes to watch people passing by, make sure that Insadong stays on your “places to visit” list.  And if you are in the market for a set of camel hair brushes use on your calligraphy, there are still plenty of artist supplies in the area as well.

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