Part of the joy I get out of traveling is meeting people that live in the destinations I choose. Guidebooks list places for me to see and establishments in which to eat, but they often lack the insight and knowledge of long term residents. Your Neck of the Woods continues on The Korea Blog by visiting a part of Seoul that was famous long before Gangnam was in style. Of course, I am referring to Itaewon. The city-district is in the heart of Yongsan-gu, serviced by Subway Line 6, and home to more than 20,000 individuals. This week, we explore this international hotspot with Worldwide Korea Blogger Paul Matthews.
The bristling city rests at the foot of Namsan. Cabs and buses fill the street, while a flurry of international tourists darts in and out of cafés and shops. During the day it has a decidedly different vibe than is extended into the evening hours, since the area is known for its numerous night clubs and other offerings. When meeting Matthews, he goes on to call Itaewon by a number of other colorful names: The Mecca for foreigners; the ghetto for foreigners; the den of iniquity. Despite all of these unique names, Paul Matthews has called Itaewon home for more than a decade and I was keen to find out why.
It should be noted that Matthews didn’t intend on coming to Korea. As he remembers it, the decision to come to Korea was largely on a whim. Matthews is a trained theater actor and having completed a play (based on a Korean story) in the United Kingdom, the director came to Matthews and asked him to go to Seoul and perform there. Not knowing anything about Korea or even having a desire to visit, Paul said yes. I suspect this round about journey to Korea influenced his perception about living here, for as soon as I met him on Itaewon’s main drag, he quickly took me around to showcase some of the more colorful back alleyways.
These narrow streets were distinctly different than the wide street we just left. There were few tourists or buses, only quaint shops and delivery bikes cutting through the asphalt jungle to make their next stop. Many places in Korea have been inundated with commercial chains, but on our walk among the older buildings here, each with their own character and vibe, what I saw was nothing but unique storefronts that begged to be visited. Matthews explained that during a major renovation push in recent years, these shops were becoming the new draw for the once infamous district and key for its survival.
Just what kinds of places are leading this change? The answer could be found in many places such as the district office, where two theaters have been installed in its basement, allowing for professional performances. Other art installations have also been placed throughout the area. For Korea’s coffee loving culture, there were a few gems taking up residence, like A Dream of Seed (Cheongpa dong 2 Ga Yongsan Gu). This two-story coffee house not only brews up a delicious selection of the beloved beverage, but on occasion, shows Charlie Chaplain movies on a large wall – something truly unique and not to be found anywhere else.
Coffee isn’t the only thing that’s served up well in Itaewon. Matthews is known for his great tastes in restaurants, and on my visit he did not disappoint. OKitchen 2 (168-14 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea) is ranked fourth out of all restaurants in Seoul on TripAdvisor. Since Paul describes himself as one “who lives to eat,” my expectations were pretty high for this restaurant. The truth of the matter is, I couldn’t have set the bar high enough, as the food placed before us was not only delicious, it was magical.
Matthews says, “One of the really nice things is having Namsan so close. That within a ten minute walk you can be here [Namsan], away from all the traffic, enjoying nature.” I couldn’t agree more. As we sauntered through Namsan Park, the autumn leaves cascaded downward, creating a colorful blanket to walk upon. It marked the perfect end to a six-hour journey through one of Seoul’s most popular neighborhoods, a side of which, I had never seen. His Itaewon isn’t the one depicted in guidebooks. It’s the one only a local knows about.
Next week, Your Neck of the Woods concludes by taking a look at another Seoul suburb, but this time, with a Korean.