Koreans love the great outdoors. Across the country there are 20 national parks (including Hallasan on Jeju Island), and in and around Seoul there are a number of mountains streaked with paths and well maintained walkways. In short, Korea is a outdoor lover’s haven.
During autumn especially, people head to the countryside in their millions to get fresh air and exercise. Autumn in Korea is particularly beautiful, the late-October-early November period brings a blaze of colour and beauty to the whole nation. Much of Korea is covered by forest, and the Korean peninsula is very mountainous.
One of the curiosities of Korea is that you are likely to see more retirees getting their exercise in the gym, and outside than you are to see younger generations. All Korean men are required to complete a 2-3 year stint in the military, which of course comes with the necessity to exercise. Koreans in general seem to be healthy, in both diet and recreation.
Korea’s urban areas are rather disappointing in terms of open spaces. Urban planning rarely takes into account the need for parks and open recreational spaces, so to escape the city, one really must leave it, unlike a city such as London which has plenty of parks. However there are a number of small outdoor exercise areas (again something that would probably be vandalised in the West). Normally a few rudimentary metal machines that promote flexibility and healthy joints, the exercise areas are often frequented by the elderly.
Old people in East Asia really strike me as a wonderfully optimistic demographic. I love seeing groups of excited retirees excitedly amble their way up a mountain with the energy of a group of teenagers. It adds to the joy of the outdoors for me. If you come to Korea, aim to travel to the country away from national holidays and the autumn/spring high seasons, as this is the time when many people head to the country. It is hard to get tickets on public transportation or find low priced accommodation at this time.
My stomping ground in Seoul is an area just one stop north from Dongdaemun market on Line 4 of the subway. It’s name is Hyehwa. I chose this area to live based on a couple of things. It is in an area of Seoul that has history, and buildings aged over 50 years that have not yet been pulled down to make way for unsightly tower blocks courtesy of Hyundai. Furthermore, there are a number of universities with campuses based in the area, and a large number of actors at the start of the careers giving the area a youthful energetic atmosphere, filled with the hope and possibility of what may be.
That is right where I am at with my own acting career and we suit one another well. Another reason why I love Hyehwa is for it’s sense of creativity. I love wandering through back streets and coming across unusual sculptures and art installations. Hyehwa has a heart. Something which many other regions of the city seem to lack.
Hyehwa has been dubbed the Broadway of Korea, owing to the 80-90 theatres within one square mile around the main thoroughfare – University Road (대학로). As a result it can get particularly busy, especially over the weekend and on holidays. In addition, on Sundays, the Filipino Market brings another crowd to the area.
Currently The Seoul Open University is extending its current campus here and Hongik is building its own fresh campus which means there will be a steady growth in the region.
Historically, before Hongik University grew to its current stature, the Hongdae area was not the main night entertainment spot north of the river in Seoul. That mantle was previously held by Hyehwa. However as youthful tastes and proclivities changed with rapid globalisation, the hip jazz bar culture of Hyehwa was abandoned for the emerging night club, live music culture of the more modern Hongdae and Gangnam areas.
Hyehwa does not generally have the space to accommodate a large club, and to my knowledge, ‘The Bunker’ is the only club in the area. Personally I prefer the smaller bar, many of which are at basement level. Many have rows of vinyl on the wall behind the bar which you can select and listen to. I call these places vinyl bars and in Hyehwa there are at least 7 that I know of.
My favourite vinyl bar has never struggled to find anything I have requested, even obscure bands like Minus the Bear. There is nothing better than having a chat in a bar with friends, drinking beer, shooting some pool and listening to your own playlist.
In addition to theatres, there is a large CGV cinema with a giant Gandalf the White sculpture outside (one of the many random sculptures scattered liberally about the area).
A final thing that Hyehwa offers is a good range of cheap food. Some of the fancier areas such as Gangnam, Apgujeong, Hongdae and the glitzier Itaewon that is emerging offer global cuisine at inflated prices. Hyehwa has seemed to keep prices reasonable so you get a great quality to price ratio. The area between exits 3 and 4 away from the main road is filled with decent Korean BBQ joints and the odd little surprise like Brazilian and Italian. The opposite side of University road are the European themed areas, with the occasional Chinese and Japanese restaurants.
Failing that, around exit 4 are the pojang machas (big tents outdoors where you can eat and drink), and a great little fish place, which is incredibly cheap, a little way out of exit 1 (take your second right turn).
Outside exit 2 of the station is Marronier Park. If you walk uphill away from University Road from there about 100 metres you will find yourself close to the old city fortress wall and a number of curious and unique little shops and boutiques.
For those who are interested in the theatre, head to the theatre information booth just behind exit 4 of Hyehwa station. There are not a great deal of English language plays, but occasionally you can find them. Hyehwa is worth a look for anybody who know Korea well and would like to experience something a little different. Come during the day and you might even witness an impromptu street performance or flash mob which are pretty common here.
When? – 24 hour area. Plenty of bars, restaurants and coffee shops are open round the clock.
Where? – Line 4 of the subway, one stop north of Dongdaemun, or 4 stops from Myeongdong. Many bus routes pass through Hyehwa.
Why? – Theatre, sight seeing, good eating and drinking, youthful atmosphere.
Every Sunday in Hyehwa, on University road (대학로), there is a large Filipino market that starts around 10 or 11am and runs until 5 or 6pm. It is a very popular local event with the large Filipino expat community, Koreans and other foreign nationals alike.
Many Koreans come out to taste authentic Pinoy cuisine at the market stalls or the small restaurants which are tucked away and go unnoticed for the rest of the week.
Filipinos come along to socialize, have a taste of home and pick up food stuffs and household that are impossible to obtain elsewhere in Korea. Things which are reminders of home mostly. The market adds a nice touch of multiculturalism to the area of a weekend.
The Wooribank at the Hyehwa Rotary here is one of the only banks in Seoul to remain open on a Sunday as this is the day they cater to foreign nationals’ needs. This could prove to be useful in an emergency cash-flow situation.
Definitely try some of the food. It is cheap and usually really good quality, although I have know a couple of people to whom it wasn’t exactly to their liking. I personally love it. For $6 you can get a big plate of food and it’s a nice change of gastronomic pace from Korean food.
When? Every Sunday from 10am – 5pm
Where? Hyehwa Station, Subway Line 4, exits 1&4 – walk straight for 100 metres upon exiting the station.
Alternatively, a large number of buses run by Hyehwa, including but not limited to, 102,106,107,140,143,171,271,272,273 and many more
Chuseok is just a week away. There is a particular custom performed at this time of year where two people stand on a see-saw type thing then jump up and down. Neolttwigi/nol-ttwigi (널뛰기) as it is known actually has a defined purpose.
Explanation: Neolttwigi is a giant see-saw that you stand, rather than sit on. By jumping up and down on it, you can, providing that both people (most usually women) are roughly equal in weight, get some serious air. The custom is only really likely to be seen in Korea during the Chuseok festival, usually around September or October (changes due to the Lunar Calendar). The historical point of it was that womenfolk, who were not allowed outside the town walls during the day, were able to get fleeting glimpses of what was going on in the outside world.
If that does not sound challenging enough as a way to see outside you home, then the acrobatic performance of Jultagi (tightrope walking), takes things to another level. Performed around the same time, Jultagi (줄타기) involved musical accompaniment (and sometimes a clown) whilst the performer uses a variety of techniques to walk along the rope. Some of these may include lying down, kneeling then jumping up into a cross-legged stance, and walking backwards.
Back when I had just arrived in Korea, I was out having Korean BBQ with non-Korean friends. It was a pleasant evening and we were sat outside. The staff were helpful, we ate well, drank some soju and were feeling merry. The time came to pay. We made the faux pas of asking for the waitress to bring us the bill (see dining etiquette), but never-the-less they obliged despite our ignorance. Each of us paid our share and kicked in a couple of thousand won as a tip. We got up to leave and were a hundred metres down the road when a breathless waiter ran up to us. “Wait”, he shouted, “you forgot some money.”
“It’s a tip for your service”, we replied. He looked offended and thrust the money into my hands, turned and walked away.
It was only after this that I realised that leaving a tip is not customary in Korea. In fact, some may even take it as an insult because it insinuates that you believe they are more lowly than thou, and therefore more in need of your spare change. Occasionally a taxi driver may be glad not to make change of a 10000, for a 9000 fare, and of course, if you are staying in a top of the range hotel, then international staff tipping rules apply, but generally you don’t even need to feel awkward about how much to tip, because you shouldn’t leave one.