Travel Review: Insa-dong

Photo credits: F. Torres, 2010.


Despite the present hostilities between North and South Korea, the land of Super Junior and Winter Sonata still makes for a great vacation destination. Especially for tropical-country dwellers such as myself, for whom the cool Korean spring happily coincides with our steaming Filipino summer. Going from a skin-cooking 36 degrees celsius to a charmingly brisk 11 degrees C should be enough of an incentive to take that five-hour flight from Manila to Incheon (and the one-and-a-half hour bus ride from Incheon to Seoul).
Once there, a K-addict has any number of ways to take in the Korean culture — shopping, eating, visiting historical sites, etcetera. The well-organized Korean subway system makes any of those options within reach, but for the tourist who wants to do all that and only has a few days to do it, the must-see destination should be Insa-dong.
The former site of the residences of ancient Korean aristocracy, Insa-dong has been transformed into Seoul’s most famous “cultural street.” Souvenir shops, antique stores, restaurants, cafes, and historical sites jostle for prominence along the stretch of road, with narrow alleys branching out from the main street. Close to Jogyesa, one of the most significant Buddhist temples in Korea, as well as Jongno Tower and the Samcheongdong art district, Insa-dong is a flurry of tourists on most days, yet still manages to retain a bohemian, non-tourist trappy vive — a bit like a cleaner Quiapo/Binondo, for all the Tsinoys out there.
Start your journey by getting out at Exit 3 of the Angguk subway station, or from Jongguk station. From there, the street stretches out in an endless promise of cultural experiences and serious retail therapy. A restaurant in an alley next to the avant garde souvenir center Sszamsiegil serves yummy Bulgogi and accepts credit cards. A cafe a few doors up the street (with no name but recognizable by the huge picture of a black teacup and the words “Coffee and Tea” emblazoned on the short building’s glass facade) serves delicious lattes in an ambiance akin to having coffee in someone’s private library.
Sszamsiegil, touted as “an Insa-dong within Insa-dong,” boasts of 42,700 square feet of cute souvenir stalls, clothing stores, and cafes, all mounted on a strange slanting stairway that spirals up and up until you reach a “Book Cafe” at the very top, which boasts of a lovely view of Insa-dong. Definitely worth the visit to Sszamsiegil is the FORWELL natural products boutique on the ground floor — their products are all organic and range from clothing to cosmetics. A personal favorite of mine has to be their Natural B.B. Cream, which is a combined concealer, sunscreen, primer, and foundation. (This, however, is biased towards those with yellow-hued skin.) I had to say no, however, to the organic sanitary napkins, made with antibacterial charcoal — the thought of having to wash and reuse something that’s been “down there” during “that time of month” didn’t exactly appeal.

Also, be sure to leave your mark in Seoul by doing some “vandalism” on the walls of one of Sszamsiegil’s side stairwells — declarations of love, variations of “____ was here,” and slightly-philosophical aphorisms clutter the walls, some newer ones even being written over older ones. I had the privilege of inaugurating a windowsill with my own mark.
The Official Korea Tourism Website will give suggestions on where to go and what to see along Insa-dong, but, from personal experience, the best way to experience the street is to wander around aimlessly (no joke), letting anything catch your eye. Handmade-souvenir stalls, jewelbox art galleries, and even an erotic museum (For all those newlyweds out there, the Asian Eros Museum is a recent Insa-dong attraction; no, I didn’t visit it.) are potential attention-grabbers, and with so many options, it’s next to impossible not to find at least one thing that will stand as a symbol of your unique Korean experience. Froyo fans, keep your eyes peeled for a hidden Red Mango!
The only cons about Insa-dong are one, it’s awfully long and chock-ful of shops and side-alleys, so a one day excursion to the street may not be enough, and two, given its status as a must-see cultural street, it can get awfully crowded with tourists and locals alike. I visited Insa-dong twice during my seven days in Korea, and entered it from both the Angguk station side and the Jongguk station side, which made a whole lot of difference as to what I saw. As for the crowds — a suggestion is not to visit on Sunday, which is a day when Insa-dong is especially crowded. Aside from that, you’ll just have to make your way through the masses, but the business of the street rather adds to Insa-dong’s unique “ambiance.”
All in all, for those who are energetic and adventurous enough to brave the crowds, this street is definitely worth a visit when in Seoul. A crazy mix of modern and traditional, antique and new, Insa-dong offers something special to every visitor, and no one leaves it empty-handed (though empty wallets are another matter).
And if all else fails, there’s always that erotic museum.
RATING: 4 stars out of 5 (minus 1 star for crowds and long walk)
***
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