An Adventure in Nakwon Music Arcade

Written by on February 21, 2012 in Travel

There’s a specialty market for everything in Seoul. For clothes, you go to Dongdaemun Market. For shoes, there’s a little building called Shoe Wholesale Arcade. If you want lamps, you go to Seun Arcade. There’s even a district in Jongno that specifically sells sports trophies. For music, there is Nakwon Arcade.

Nakwon Arcade is a downtown complex that houses over 200 shops specialising in music. There is also a market in the basement, and on the fourth floor you can find Seoul Art Cinema, one of the few places left in Seoul that screens independent movies.

The building was constructed sometime in the early ’70s, when it would have been one of the largest buildings around. Have a look at these pictures of construction in 1968. To allow for traffic flow, the main storey of the building allows for traffic to pass underneath. Thus, the whole building stands on what is essentially concrete stilts.

The view from the crosswalk between the southern end of Insadong and Tapgol Park.

Nakwon Arcade consists of a central tower surrounded by three wings. The tower is still used for apartments, and the wings were always intended as commercial space. This bizarre, asymmetrical design must have been created to fit in among existing structures and roads. Perhaps urban planners learned their lesson after the construction of Seun Arcade (but more on that next month).

I had some time to kill while waiting for my coworker to join me, so I got up somewhere high to get an overview of the shape of this building.

The view from next door (pardon the watermark).

That day, I was meeting my coworker Jungyun, another reporter from She was interested in buying a ukelele, and I came along, eager to unleash my candid photography on the unsuspecting market.

To get into the music market, you have to walk up one of the many exterior concrete staircases. Once you’re inside, you’re overwhelmed by the wall-to-wall musical instruments. Everything you could want from modern musical instruments was crammed in here, some of it stacked up and some of it on display waiting for someone to try it out. Sounds bombard you from all directions, not all of it musical.

A keyboard store.

We wandered around in search of stores selling ukeleles. The first one we found was filled mainly with acoustic guitars, with a small rack of ukeleles in the window.

Window-shoppers peer into the store.

While Jungyun inquired about price, I waited for her to take one of the ukeleles down and try it out. Soon the store employee grabbed one off the rack, and gave us a little demonstration of its sound.

The worker in the guitar store plays us a song.

After we got the price, we decided to keep wandering. It was my mission to see as much of the market as possible, and she knew to search around for the best price.

Just down the hall, we found another store that specialised in ukeleles.

A wall full of ukeleles

Jungyun had a look around and asked one of the employees what to look for in a ukelele. We learned aobut the different sounds that different types of ukeleles produce, and the variable qualities. We were also free to try out any of the ukeleles we wanted.

Dueling ukeleles

Jungyun narrowed her choice down to two, and we decided to press on before coming to a final decision.

As we wandered around, something strange caught our eyes.

Is that a kimchi pot?

And even weirder.

Not even really sure what this is.

But wait…we haven’t even come to the weirdest one yet.

Thank you–I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to touch it.

It turns out, the shop was featured in an episode of the SBS show 생활의달인 (Master of Life), where guitarist Kim Tae-won of the classic heavy metal band Boohwal introduced the shop owner Lee Sae-moon, a wizard of guitar repair. Seriously, give this guy a bit of string and he can turn anything into a guitar. He runs a small repair shop in the middle of the hallway at a junction in Nakwon Arcade.

Lee Sae-moon with his favourite creation

A pretty bizarre counter, I think you’ll agree. You can even see his appearance on YouTube. Part 1. Part 2.

Shortly after, we had another close brush with fame. I happened to spot someone with a treble clef tattoo on his neck, and when I pointed him out to Jungyun, she recognised him as singer/actor 이정 (J.Lee). I decided not to take any pictures of him, because candid photography becomes something completely different when it’s aimed at celebrities.

Anyway, we were determined to keep wandering and discover everything Nakwon had to offer.

The Nuvo Clarineo, a lightweight, childproof alternative to a clarinet.

Trying out headphones

The South shall rise again!

Drum store

The amplifier section was a bit more claustrophobic.

Then we found a stand selling ukeleles at the best price yet. However, no one was there, so we wandered around.

An even better price

The zanzithophone, a MIDI saxophone

Spongebob Squarepants guitar

A lone shop employee serenades.

We eventually returned to the shop with the cheapest ukeleles, but the worker sneezed on Jungyun’s feet. He was friendly, but she felt off-put, especially for not receiving an apology, so we went back to the previous store.

Back to the second shop

After a long time of pondering, changing her mind, and asking to try the other one, Jungyun finally decided upon the right ukelele for her. We were told that it takes only three months to learn how to play the ukelele, so you can expect me to harass her about it sometime in spring.

On the way out, we saw a little girl, no older than ten, carrying a full-sized acoustic guitar.

To find Nakwon Arcade, it helps to be familiar with Insadong and Tapgol Park. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, the safest way is to go out exit 5 of Jongno 3ga Station, and you’ll see the building right there.

The hours of Nakwon Arcade are a bit tricky. On weekdays it’s open only til 6:30, and on Friday and Saturday it stays open a bit later. Don’t even bother going on Sunday because the majority of the shops are closed.

About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats