This story is a leftover from my previous trip to South Korea two months ago. The date was June 17th 2010 and on the streets of Seoul world cup fever was in the air. For Korean fans the night was not simply about soccer; it was also wrapped up in a sense of national pride, identity, and confidence. These were fans like no other… Read more
I spent my final few days in Seoul exploring a few areas I hadn’t been to before. First up was Samcheong-dong (삼청동) which lies north of Insadong and east of Gyeongbokgung Palace. The hilly neighborhood is characterized by numerous small art galleries, coffee shops, and many beautiful old residential houses. Read more
On my first night in Seoul during my previous visit I went out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Gangnam that I’d seen recommended on Seoul Eats. Strangely enough I’d never eaten Mexican food before so was keen to try it out. Even more strange that my first time to eat it would be in South Korea… Read more
Walking along the streets of Seoul can sometimes feel a little overwhelming, such is the visual noise generated by a million neon signs all screaming for your attention. Combined with the massive hordes of crowds at certain hours and it can be quite a disorienting, if not an exciting experience all the same.
There’s something about neon lights which never cease to allure my eyes and from my travels I’ve found three main places where they shine brightest in Seoul: Gangnam, Sincheon (above) and Myeongdong (below). Cheonggyecheon stream is also beautifully lit up at night but with a more relaxed romantic atmosphere.
Myeongdong is mainly full of trendy clothes shops for young people while Sincheon is more focused on bars and restaurants (and dodgy looking motels). Gangnam is a business area lined with shining office buildings (and cool Media Poles). If you only have time to visit one, go to Myeongdong – it’s by far the most interesting and a fascinating area to people watch (if you know any other good spots please leave a comment).
UNIQLO (from Japan) seem to have new stores appearing all over the place – one just opened near me in Coastal City and for a foreign label they’re quite reasonably priced. The shot above was taken outside the COEX mall in Jamsil.
In some parts of Seoul the mayor is apparently trying to clean up the streets by curbing the lights and baring roadside vendors. Urban gentrification is something I abhor; the sights and smells are what give an area its nature and by removing them you remove the very heart of their existence.
If the lights get a bit much for you there still exist a few sanctuaries of calm and tranquility within the megalopolis. Bongeun-sa temple exists in sort of temporal warp between ancient and modern Korea, nestling between countless high-rise offices and shops. It’s amazing its managed to survive the onslaught of construction and is the perfect oasis to take a moment to relax and reflect on a warm evening.
Whist sitting here listening to the chanting of the monks I thought back over previous trips to Korea – it was my fourth time in South Korea and whilst I doubt I’ll be returning again for a while my memories are the best souvenir with my blog a visual reminder of the great experiences and wonderful places visited. A strangely fitting ending to the best episode yet.
Each time I go travelling my feet clock up a fair number of miles which for the most part I can’t complain about (even if they do).
Seoul is way too big to traverse entirely by foot but luckily has an extensive MRT system which I consider to be one of the best in the world with passengers who are mostly polite and courteous (save for the one time a girl tried to kill me). If only the same could be said for the London underground…
Parking space in Seoul is pretty restricted so clever contraptions like these are not uncommon. The cars which go inside them are tiny and identical – I think it might be part of a car sharing scheme(?). I’m not quite sure how one operates it as it looks like it could be quite dangerous in the wrong hands!
Whilst your first impression of Korean architecture may be that it’s quite bland and uniform in many areas there are good examples of quite the opposite. Above is an office complex owned by Samsung in Gangnam – pretty neat I’d say.
What’s your preferred mode of transport?
As a testbed for companies like Samsung and LG Seoul is one of the best places to get a glimpse of things which haven’t made their way westward yet. Combined with unparalleled network infrastructure and massive government investment you have a recipe for some pretty cool innovation.
During my most recent trip there I paid a visit to Gangnam to check out an interesting project called “U-Street” (ubiquitous street) which consists of a series of 12 meter-tall “Media Poles” (미디어폴) with touch screens allowing people to search maps, read news, check transport information, take photos and play games. They also act as free wi-fi hotspots.
Arriving early evening they already looked pretty cool lit up like enormous monoliths with large LCD displays showing various art works and advertisements on the upper sections. At the bottom is a single big touchscreen, not dissimilar to a huge iPhone (but without multi-touch), which you could freely walk up to and interact with. I’ve made a short video to highlight some of the features:
…and this is what the picture looks like when it lands in your inbox (minus my ugly mug of course):
With around 700,000 people using the street each day I was surprised to see that many of the Media Poles weren’t being used. This may have something to do with the proliferation of mobile services in South Korea so you have to wonder if such devices are a bit redundant when you can get the same content on your phone (albeit at a cost).
Another project called “Seoul Digital Media City” (DMC) is also building something similar (but on a larger scale) called the “Digital Media Street” (DMS) which is set to include cutting edge technologies such as artificial intelligence-based street lamps (!) which respond to people moving through the space. Worryingly the information kiosks shown in the promotional video above reminded me of the suicide booths from Futurama!
While not an entirely new concept the Media Poles provide a useful and novel experience for people passing through the area although I think they risk becoming the phone boxes of yesterday unless they can offer something that your phone doesn’t.
After my experience at the W a local friend introduced me to another extraordinary but little-known place in Seoul: Kring – Creative Culture Space, located in Gangnam (Samseong station). While the building is designed as a creative space for holding public performances, events and exhibitions the building itself is as much a work of art as what it contains.
Designed by Korean firm Unsangdong Architects the front of the building immediately catches your eye with its metallic covering and indented circular widows (which reminded me of the bullet-time effects in the Matrix) with each impact rippling out across its surface. At night lights illuminate the entire area with the windows being transformed into display surfaces.
Upon entering through a circular glass door your instantly met with a stunning bright space filled with cleverly juxtaposed multi-layered shapes, contrasting colours, and soft lighting which although appearing random work together with spectacular effect. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey updated for 2009 then your almost there.
Immediately behind the entrance reception desk is wooden tiered lounge area which provides touch-screen terminals for Kring information and internet access. I was surprised how quiet it was for a Sunday afternoon, we almost had the place to ourselves.
The stairs leading up to the second floor are another marvel with each step being a small screen of its own over which simple light animations are constantly played. A chain-link wall curtain along side the stairs providing a translucent divide between the spaces.
The first floor is lit by a number of differently sized circular portals, some of which extended to the floor above, providing yet another perspective on the buildings structure. Various contemporary art works were on display although to be honest the were somewhat outshone by their surroundings. On the second floor is an open area surrounded by exhibitions with a small cafe where instead of fixed prices you decide how much you want to donate (including free wi-fi).
The third floor isn’t open to the public but it apparently has meeting spaces and a rooftop garden. I wanted to sneak up but it was being closely watched by a security guard.
The center also includes a high-spec cinema which shows international art-house films. We watched a French movie (Dans Paris) which was shown in French with Korean subtitles so I could only pick up a small fraction of it!
Entrance is free so if you’re in Seoul this a place not to be missed, especially given its situation so close to the COEX mall. Some great professional photos of the Kring lit up at night can be found on designboom.
For the first weekend I was in South Korea I was lucky enough to be about to stay in the extremely cool “W Seoul” boutique hotel, in Walkerhill, courtesy of a very generous friends enormous accumulation of loyalty points (usual cost from approx. 250,000 KRW per night). Described as the “hippest joint in town” expectations were high…
After a rather tortuous two hour trip from Incheon Airport I finally reached the W and upon entering my first impressions were that I’d set foot on the set of a James Bond film! Instead of a standard hotel entrance the lobby was a combined with a multi-level lounge / bar complete with cool lighting, egg-pod shaped seats, a DJ playing techno music and expensively-dressed people floating around (not to mention all the rather beautiful women). This isn’t your father’s 5 star hotel.
Whilst feeling quite out-of-place in the hyper-trendy surroundings I was checked in by extremely attentive staff and then took the lift (darkened with glowing hoops hanging from the ceiling) to my “Wonderful room” on the 6th floor. It turns out they had got the name right since it was unlike anything I’d stayed in before (given my usual choice of budget accommodation that wasnt going to be hard).
With minimal clean white decoration, red bedding, soothing lighting, floor to ceiling glass windows, and more space-age chairs it felt pretty special. The level of detail was staggering – from coat hangers to paperclips even the bin was given the designer treatment! I spent the first 5 minutes of my stay just taking photos before I touched anything. To add to the ambiance the Bose hi-fi was automatically set to play their own mix CD as you entered (I’ve recreated it as a Spotify playlist).
After getting directions from the extremely knowledgable concierge we took the free hotel shuttle bus a short distance (passing Gangbyeon and Gwangnaru subway stations) and had dinner in a local restaurant (delicious dak-galbi) then retired for a quick drink in the lounge before hitting the hay. The bed itself must have had some special magic coating since I slept better than I had done in a long while and woke up feeling fresh and ready for a day exploring Seoul.
Breakfast was an equally luxurious affair with a fabulous array of fresh food from around the world to suit anyones taste. I went back for seconds and thirds but still didn’t quite manage to try everything! Unfortunately I was too busy eating to take any photos but take it from me this something not to miss (at 38,000 KRW per head you wouldn’t expect anything different).
All good things have to come to an end and after a great weekend it was time to come back down to earth. The next hotel I moved to was a complete disaster but I’ll save that story for another time. After staying at the W anywhere else was going to be a disappointment and whilst I doubt I’ll be returning anytime soon if you have deep pockets I highly recommend giving the W experience a try – they have uniquely designed places worldwide.
I’m very excited to be returning to South Korea tomorrow for the fourth time in three years. As well as catching up with friends in Seoul I’ll be attending the Lift Asia 09 conference next week which focuses on new opportunities and challenges that are arising from areas such as social networks, online games, robots, and communicating objects on the theme of “Serious Fun!“. It can be loosely compared as a European version of TED.
Photo by Don Lee
Even better is that it’s being held on the beautiful Jeju island which is a short way off the south coast (not far from Busan) and only a 1 hour flight from Seoul. The conference lasts for two days but I’ll be there for 4 which should be plenty of time to enjoy some of the natural scenery and the fast unfiltered internet (no GFW here).
I’ll try to post sporadically while I’m away (on Twitter at the very least) and will hopefully come back with a good photo and story or two! Feel free to drop me a line if you’re in the same vicinity.
I’m back from Shanghai with lots of posts on the way (super busy city with some amazing architecture) but just stumbled across these wonderful re-imagining’s of Seoul, Tokyo and New York‘s subway systems by Korean designer Zero per Zero which also doubles as a calendar somehow (via JeanSnow). I love this stuff.
Check out what happens when you mouse over the cute logo on their site also (0 / 0).
I have got to buy one of these for my apartment but not sure whether to go for the Seoul or Tokyo designs. Hope they ship to China!