My Walk in Anguk-dong…

This is not Anguk-dong, but it is a modern picture of the bridge that crosses the Han River going from Banpo-dong up to where Seoul Tower is located. It’s the bridge that’s in the very center of Seoul. There are 2 highways that make up this bridge – a lower thoughway that is more likely to flood at times and a higher freeway on the top. As far as I know, there was no lower throughway on Banpo Bridge when I lived in Seoul but there were still around 20 bridges crossing the Han River when I was there, much like there are now. Bridges and highways at the Han River seem to have been modernized now and seem to be even more grand than they were before. Today, this “Banpo Bridge” is also a “Rainbow Bridge” that shoots water out of its sides in big streams at night and the spray is lit up with many pastel-coloured lights. The rainbow spray was implemented after I was in Korea. This picture also gives you a sense of how vast the sky seemed to be when I was there. The sky is more beautiful in Korea, I have always thought.

One day in Seoul, I took the subway by myself to the North near the Gyeongbokgung Palace in central downtown Seoul. It must have been a Saturday or a Sunday, as it would have been on a day I was not travelling to classes and teaching. The Anguk subway station I went to that day had artwork about Korean culture on its many long walls on more than one of its levels that you could look at back then. This art went along with Gyeongbuk Palace, which was full of architecture from the past and had a large museum on its grounds. The artwork on the walls was also connected to Insa-dong, where Seoul’s famous antique stores and art shops were. These two areas were close to Anguk Station.

There was no subway stop right at Gyeongbuk Palace back in the late 90’s like there is now. When I came out of the Anguk subway, I crossed the very wide, busy road to the North. Then, I picked a street on the Eastern side of the palace and took a walk up it, heading towards the distinctive mountains of BukHakSan and BukHanSan. When I look at the old pictures I took that day now, I feel upset that the whole area has been changed. It’s been turned into streets of almost-flashy cafes and streets containing many traditional Korean buildings for tourists to visit. The large area containing the traditional dwellings and shops is called Bukcheon Hanok Village. I don’t think there were enough Hanok buildings in that neighbourhood for a huge village to have been restored, but it is possible there were a lot and I just didn’t notice. It is lovely to have the traditional-style buildings of the Bukcheon Hanbok Village in the area now, yes, but I liked the way the neighbourhoods in Korea looked back in the late 1990’s better.

My pictures’ subjects are original and authentic. A few of these pictures have been put in an earlier blog, but a few have not.

Anguk-dong in the winter of 1997-98, north of Anguk Station.

I like the picture above because it shows residential buildings of an Anguk-dong street the way they looked in the winter of ’97/’98. The area had not been “modernized” yet when I took the picture. As far as I know, this street as it looks here is now gone. On the right in my picture are a few short buildings with traditional tiled roofing. Many of these grey, tiled roofs on little stores in the center of the city have disappeared, as many Korean neighbourhoods have been changed and “redone”. Also, I keep noticing in recent videos and pictures that the nice grey color of many tiled roofs looks darker and almost black now. I think the tiled roofs of all of the temples, palaces and pavilions in Korea have been upgraded like this in recent years. To me, a tiled roof looks better and more real when it’s a slightly faded grey than if it’s a very new-looking black colour. Even though I am frustrated about it, I feel I am lucky I saw these buildings when they looked more real.

In this same picture on the right, you can see the little old-style store is selling tangerines in crates outside. That was a common sight for me when I lived in Seoul. And those Korean tangerines were the best little oranges I’d ever eaten before or since.

Korea has recreated or renovated a number of old-style dwellings for tourist purposes in the past 20 years. Bukcheon Hanok Village is the one to the East of Gyeonbukgung in Anguk-dong that I mentioned above. This is one scene from the village that to me would look more perfect if those cement/wooden ends were not painted such a bright, new-looking white.
Picture taken by me in Anguk-dong in the late 1990’s.

Above here is another picture I took in the Anguk area. There is some old-style tile roofing on top of a low building and on a wall. Seoul was very modern back then, however. There were amenities closeby wherever you went and many, many people owned very new cars. I saw a lot more older cars and many just plain ‘old’ cars in my home city back in Canada than I ever did in Korea.

My only complaint back then was the lack of any brewed coffee anywhere. Expensive cafes and even the coffee machines on the streets only had instant coffee in the late 90’s. I see a Starbuck’s on almost every corner in Seoul on YouTube videos today and I see there are currently many other chain coffee shops on top of so many more independent cafes throughout Korea. I do sincerely hope there’s real, brewed coffee at some of them, for everybody’s sake.

This old picture is taken from a special video on Youtube, and it shows what happened when everyone was told by President Park ChungHee in the 1960’s to do away with “all grass or thatched roofs”, and to make everything look “nicer” and “newer”. Shown here are men replacing some grass roofs with tiles. (Channel “BokWeonWang Restoration King”) The scene is from Eastern Seoul in Miari near Dongdaemun.
A street in Anguk-dong in winter 1997-98, facing the north.

The mountains shown are in the north. A minibus is coming down the street in the middle of this picture. I have a feeling it was used by a private English academy to transport very young students. A sign on the building on the right says, “TalknPlay” because there’s an English institute/hagwon there for children. You can see a tall church steeple further up the street. There were a lot of Christian churches in Seoul back then but not all of them were not what westerners think of as “churches”. Many churches were just up on one of the floors of a regular-looking building. You wouldn’t know many churches were nearby until nighttime, when the crosses on so many buildings and on top of so many countless steeples everywhere would suddenly all light up orange around you.

I read lately that there is a higher percentage of Christians in Korea now than there was in 1997. A third of Koreans were Christians in the late 1990’s. I remember talking to a few Korean male students in 1997 and they said that in Korea, a third of the people were Buddhists, another third were Christians and the other third of the population were “no religion”. “No religion” was their way of saying what I would have called “atheist” at the time. The information I saw recently stated that there are more Christians and more atheists now in Korea but that there are less Buddhists now as well.

When I talked to “Sail” from my LG class about religion in Seoul, he told me about the foreign Christian people who went door-to-door trying to convert others to their particular religion who were commonly found in Korea at that time. In my hometown in Canada, they are usually Seventh Day Adventists or Mormons. Sail said there were many of these people knocking on doors in Korea and that the Koreans laughed amongst themselves because the religious person would read a sign on a door, and like me, the person could read Korean but did not know much vocabulary. So the religious person was often saying, “Hello, Mr. Beware of Dog…” when a Korean person opened the door and saw him.

During my life in Atlantic Canada, I have known many Christians, and all of them are very particular about which actual Christian religion you belong to. Are you Catholic, Baptist, Anglican, Penticostal, Nazarene, United, Methodist, Episcopalian, Wesleyan, Mormon, Adventist, etc? And people from each of them dislike everybody from all of the others. So, in Korea I asked, “What Christian religion? Which one?” and I was told, “Just ‘Christian’. We are all one religion.” I thought that was so great; there were no bad feelings among one group of Christians toward the “other” Christian groups. So no one would be saying only their group is going to heaven, for example, because only their group is worthy. That’s what it’s like in my area of Canada: all of the different Christian groups or “churches” speaking badly about all of the other ones all of the time. This seems to go against what Christianity is supposed to stand for, in my mind. I wonder if things have changed to become more that way in Korea now that 23 years have gone by…

A few churches considered themselves distinct when I lived in Seoul. There were some Catholics in Seoul back then, and I did see a sign on a church saying it was “Methodist” once.

A Zen center in Anguk-dong that has been taken down and totally changed now. I found it like this in late 1997.

This colourful building above was the most exciting part of my walk. I was walking along the street when I came upon this colourful house that looked like a Buddhist temple to me. For many years, I searched the area on Naver Maps and searched the internet but could never find it again. No Korean person could ever tell me what this building was either. I love that the white wooden decorative trim all around it had so many cut-out shapes of a sitting Buddha. A middle-aged Korean woman was outside when I walked by. She seemed to be cleaning, like getting rid of some garbage. I always wondered if this was a place for female monks because I saw that woman there, and because this structure was so different than others I’d seen, to be honest. But I have never heard of there being any female Buddhist monks though.

Recently, I came across a blog that had a picture of this building in it! It looked exactly the same as mine! I had waited over 23 years to find out what it was. The author said it had been a Zen Center and that it has been taken down and rebuilt altogether now. It’s sad to me that it’s gone. The “new” center is a much less interesting brick building. That informative blog had a photograph of the replacement Zen Center in it and I’m glad because I still can’t find it on Naver Maps when I try. And I had never considered that the symbol on the peak at the top with the three circles within a larger circle was a clue to the building’s identity. “Zen” is an East Asian buddhism as opposed to an East Indian type of buddhism and the symbol of it is always a circle.

This impressive gate was along the road near the Zen Center, but it was across the street from it, on the Eastern side.

The picture above is of what seemed to be an outer entrance of a special property. I couldn’t see what was behind this gate, but I thought its old structure was so interesting. I imagined that a wealthy person lived behind it in an expensive house. After I took a picture of this old privacy entrance, I walked further North, and I became aware of a few guards and then more gates and then of increasingly more guards and gates. I became concerned and felt paranoid, actually, and turned around to return to the Anguk subway station and to end my walk.

Afterwards, when I mentioned the many guards I saw to a Korean secretary from my institute, she said it was because I was getting close to Cheomseongdae, where the president of South Korea lived and worked. The important presidential building she was talking about had a traditional-style blue roof and was called “The Blue House”. It’s called The Blue House now and it looks the same now too. As I’ve said in a former blog post, many names of places and products in Korea copied famous western ones. Some Korean people told me at that time that not long before I arrived to live and work in Seoul, some North Korean assassins had been intercepted near this Anguk area. They had almost gotten to the president to fulfill their plan to kill him, I remember being told.

This is a screenshot from Naver Maps of a few of the new shops in the Anguk neighborhood. (2021)

By jcorvec123gmailcom

I have a deep passion for Korea and love reminiscing about my time spent there in the late 1990s.

Leave a comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: