Even those who haven’t been to NYC have heard of the famous Greenwich Village—Bohemian capital of the world. Far fewer recognize that this district would not even exist today had it not been for the activism of sociologist Jane Jacobs who argued: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” This concept struck a bell as we walked in and out of the recent venues set up in the old hanok-heaven neighborhood of Ikseon-dong. Built during the Joseon Dynasty, this area has the largest concentration of hanoks outside Bukchon Village. It is a place where salt-and-pepper haired grandpas in their pajamas peer curiously at you from their slightly open wooden doors smudged with fingerprints dating back more than 40 years. Grandmas and their daughters, now old women too, tend to small flowerspeckled jungles climbing the front walls of their low-roofed, brick wall buildings. Looking up, the newer, taller edifices that now shroud Ikseon-dong hover above. More so than any other hot spot, venue owners were passionate about the location’s history. “You have to tell the story of the land,” they pleaded. Some of them have taken great pains (financial and physical) to adapt the hanoks to the modernity of Seoul—even to the complaints of longtime residents. Not all land-owners in this town hold a deep affection for their spaces as many of them bought the land with the intention to sell it for a higher property value in the future, not realizing that a highly controversial ban would be placed forbidding them to tear down the buildings. I touch the walls of one of the hanoks thinking: “Could these really be torn down? Or can Ikseon-dong manage to incorporate Seoul’s new ideas into its old buildings?”
Eat & Drink
After school, an elementary school kid stops by to buy an ice cream cone and stares at the rows of chips also being sold. Take a corner window seat and you can shamelessly enjoy a beer while people watching. If hanging out at convenience stores is cool and hip, there's no place that does it better than Turtle Supermarket where you can have your dried filefish fillet toasted over yeontan coals and listen to reggae music... in Ikseon-dong! A mini-recreation of the Chungcheong region, where the owner's from, this is the place to visit to get that laid-back feeling of being in the countryside.
The major symbol in the Ikseon-dong revolution is this magical café and bar called Plant. Started by photographer Louis Park, it’s not hard to imagine that someone with artistic insights created this venue. Divided up into several different corners, each space has a specialty of some sort. The first seating area to your left has a small couch with a vintage record player and several LPs of Chet Baker and groups of tables towards the center face a film that’s silently being screened in the background while a string of Christmas lights twinkle against plastic awning that faces the hanoks up front. Additional seating in the back includes a small courtyard great for summer nights. Open during the day for coffee, Plant truly shines at night when the lights from the houses nearby bring an otherworldly dimension to this café and bar.
The restaurant opened up in July 2014 under the passing thought of, "let's just make food like we would at home," but has exceeded everyone's expectations. Lunchtime fills with nearby office workers trying one of the two main dishes—the soybean stew with chives and rice or spicy tomato curry. The soybeans are the same that one Eastern medicine doctor recommended and that she eats with her family herself. After work hours, the café's full of groups who've even called to make reservations to drink beer there. The coffee maker is the same one that the owner had when she studied as a barista on her own and the minimal white walls look especially contemporary in contrast to their hanok ceiling.
A cup of coffee for 4,000 won is considered a steal these days, so how about a meal that's even cheaper than that? Su-Ryun Jip, the oldest "rice-meal" restaurant in Seoul offers a bowl of rice, five different side dishes and your choice of kimchi jjigae or dongtae jjigae for just 3,500 won. Here grandpas are a-plenty and they're not afraid to finish that frugal lunchtime meal with a side of soju.
Designer Shop & Studio
A branding and design studio, Ordinary Lab looks like it belongs somewhere in Hongdae or Apgujeong and not amongst all the hanoks in Ikseon-dong. Run by two artists who work on topics ranging from food to publications to travel, one of their projects is “A Guide Map to Grasp All the Places You Cannot Grasp,” which includes an illustrated guide to Ikseon-dong. While their studio is small, you can purchase a map when walking by or ask them a few questions about the neighborhood if they’re not busy.
From the outside, the large glass windows and the trendy items on display may have you confusing the studio for a store and for the average passerby, it may be hard to figure out what exactly Ikseon Terminal is. We first found out about Ikseon Terminal via a mention on Corners’ Twitter account. Corners is a graphic design studio and it was here that they held an event for their book Line as a publication. Started up by a group of university friends, the space is a studio that these freelance designers share. Starting early this winter, they may sell some of their designed products so the building’s exterior may not be so misleading after all.