Elements: Hakone, Japan

Before Hakone, we were in Ginza.  Ginza is the quietest retail high street you’ll ever encounter in the world.  This is the 5th Ave/Rodeo Drive of Tokyo but you can carry on conversations at a whisper.  And the lights, all muted.  True class.

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A centuries-old ryokan.  It practically looks like the building has grown out of the same soil as the trees around it, the way it’s blended in so well.

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The ryokan where we stayed.  Simple wood, polished by decades (centuries?) of guests walking over it.  The wood creaked and bent – almost bounced – under your step.  I’d never had that feeling of walking on wood before, with so much give.

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The warm lighting in the hallway across this garden really makes this scene.  This was in the dead of winter, and it looks like the building promises warm hearths and fresh, hot tea for a traveler that’s come a long way.

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It’s hard to describe why the below scene affected me so much.  To the right of here is a shrine, and that red torii gate is the threshold to the sacred space.

As you stand here, the sun bursts through the crack in the trees in just the right way to light the moss verdantly.  The wind rustles the leaves gently and they sound like palms rubbing together, some sort of reverential gesture.  You have the sense that this space, which if you were in a hurry and passed by it looks completely ordinary – what with the street signs and electric wires – was hallowed.

And why was it hallowed?  Because of the torii gate?  The way the sun hit the trees?

Or maybe because the combination of all these things made you just stop.  Stop, and recognize the sacred or hallowed in the ordinary, which is the whole point of shinto and a core part of the Japanese aesthetic.

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There were very few things in the courtyard/garden of this temple.  But for some reason they looked artfully arranged.  I don’t know why the whole scene was so beautiful.  It just is.  The fact that the grounds were completely silent helped.

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But maybe the point of the space, with very few things in it, is precisely that there is space.

The space brings into greater relief the objects that are in the courtyard, like the bell and the beautiful trees.

Also, the space seems meaningful.  The space allows for things to grow, like the moss.  It provides space for the steps to the shrine.  It provides space for you to move through it.  The space is deliberately there, without space things cannot grow or develop or move.

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Elsewhere in Hakone, this was a restaurant.  And after eating there, you pass through this portal on your way out to the real world again.  The way this dark entryway framed the winter scene outside was astounding.  It wouldn’t have worked, I think, if the distance of this passage were any longer or shorter.

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I just love how these trees are gnarled with character.  Although the branches ended up growing in one general direction, they twisted and took corkscrew paths to get there.  It’s about the journey.

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A Real Estate Career: Lessons Learned (2012-2015)

It’s weird the things that stick with you.  For the next few years, I worked three full-time jobs at a time.  I was in full execution mode as a property tax agent, international theme park consultant, and commercial property agent – and I don’t remember much about the period.

When I look back, I think it’s because I wasn’t growing.

There was little new to the jobs.  I was just executing on processes I had put in place years earlier.  I had become proficient, an ‘expert’.  And so the result was that financially, they were some of my peak earning years, but overall I’m not sure it was that fulfilling.

If you can find jobs where you get paid handsomely for personal growth, now that’s the holy grail.

But there were a few things that stuck with me.

I had a client who was an ex-Drexel Burnham Lambert banker.  He predated Michael Milken give/take by a decade, and had apparently made so much money that there was nothing else to do with it but plow it into real estate.

He worked out of one of his apartment properties in Brentwood, in a ground floor office strewn with papers and newspaper clippings.  He was in his 70s and his main tactic in any negotiation or even discussion was to immediately pretend he was slow.

Whenever you began speaking, he would tilt his head and look at you curiously before responding with a set of ‘is that right’s and ‘you don’t say’s.  He didn’t say much, but you could tell he was processing everything.  With so much office space all around LA, he offered free space to young brokers as a way of being plugged into deal flow.  Essentially, to listen.  He was always listening.  Sometimes his ‘you don’t say’s were sarcastic, as if he couldn’t keep listening to our stupidity anymore, but he was always listening.

We had another client who was a movie mogul.  Over a few decades, he had opened a regional chain of movie theaters and plowed the proceeds into real estate.  And about a mile down from our office, he owned 25 condos in the heart of Redondo Beach.  We brought him multiple offers on the property.  $18 million.  $20.  $22.  But he wouldn’t budge for less than his number, which was a million dollars per unit.

And although we had clients who probably would have bit at $22, he didn’t.  Something about his patience struck me, sitting in his office modeled after a miniature theater, cracking a grin at each new offer we brought him, and sitting back, a picture of consummate contentment, and telling us, if we could please try to get a higher number.

Years later, he was proved right.  Actually, the value of his condos probably exceeded a million dollars a unit.

The thing that both these clients had in common were that both owned and controlled more than $100 million in properties, each, both were well into retirement age, and both arrived at their offices at the crack of dawn.

This is just a sample.  There are people like this all over the country, all over the world.  It was just another lesson about wealth.  In so many ways, wealth is not the goal.

I wanted to be like them.  It would be nice to have the level of wealth they did, but I’m talking about their working for the purpose of their work itself.  And having a purpose that made them work harder than people half their age.

No doubt, it’s what made them great.

Then we had another client.  She had emerged as a buyer for another client’s property in Hermosa.

She made us work.

Among other things we had to do to close the deal, we had to chase down people to get them to sign estoppels.  The existing owner didn’t want to do it, because he preferred to be liked more than he preferred to sell the building.

This meant we had to camp out in front of all 12 units and try to get the tenants to sign a document verifying that they were paying, exactly what the rent rolls said they were paying.

Naturally, a lot of them were suspicious.  Was the new owner going to kick them out?  Was she going to convert the apartment into condos?  They were nervous.

No, no, I answered confidently.  I reassured them there was nothing to worry about, that the new owner had no intention of redeveloping.

But there was something else I had forgotten about.

After dragging the deal across the finish line, I felt a sense of relief as we pulled up to the new owner’s $10 million house in Palos Verdes, with a tennis court in the back.  In the living room, she proudly showed us a rent roll of the $80 million portfolio she managed, from her living room.

And later, she even more triumphantly emailed us to say that she had doubled rents, because the previous owner had been undercharging.

It left me with a bad taste for these kinds of deals and people in general.  All part of the industry, but I couldn’t help but think that while knocking on doors to get those estoppels, I had led some of those people astray.  Some of them, kids younger than I was.

It turned out to be my last deal there.  That, combined with the diminishing fortunes of the property tax appeal business, a countercyclical business if there ever was one, led me to other things.

One last reflection about wealth.  I spent half this time period in Hong Kong.

And in Hong Kong, a summer rite is the boat trip.  On the weekends the waters around Hong Kong and its myriad islands teem with junks and yachts that anchor off a secluded beach, then descend into drunken orgy-level partying.

One of our friends was dating a guy who was as close as you could get to Hong Kong royalty.  He was the scion of a billionaire tycoon, which made him one himself, but you wouldn’t know it to meet him.  Well-educated, low-key, soft-spoken, there is no way you could pick him out in a lineup, as is often the case with billionaires.

Anyway, this weekend we had use of his dad’s yacht.  For seven of us, a uniformed staff perhaps double that number helped us board, navigated, helpfully pointed out the amenities, cooked us a hot lunch, and generally gave us the kind of five-star service you would expect from what was basically a floating villa, way larger than my childhood homes, combined.

After anchoring, there are only a few things you can do.  We rode jet-skis.  We bounced off of inflatables.  Some of us read a book on the upper deck.  Some of us just floated in the water.

Which is what I did.  Bobbing, I could see all the other boats around us.  Some of them were like us.

Splendid, sleek yachts.  Barely any people on them, though.  There were kids on some of the nicer yachts, towards the front, and they looked bored out of their minds.

And, the people on the nice yachts were all looking in the same direction I was, which was towards the bacchanal boats, the ones thumping music that could be heard hundreds of feet away, with the people backflipping off the upper rails, doing keg stands, sliding headfirst and belly up down makeshift slides into the water, floating around the boat suspiciously in pairs.

Of course sometimes it’s nice to be alone.  But also sometimes I think that with great wealth comes great isolation.

I noticed this during my brokerage days in LA.  Sometimes it seemed like our richest clients called…just to talk.  Or when we went out in Hollywood – there is type of person, usually male, who buys drinks for everyone, is exceedingly generous, talks a lot, is best friends with everyone at the bar, is also exceedingly rich, and then at some point during the night…leaves alone in a nice car.

In the summers in LA, you can ride a bike from Venice Beach down to Redondo.  Over the course of 15 miles, the crowd changes.  Rowdy and larger up around Venice and El Segundo, Playa del Rey, huge barbeques with organized beach football games.  Then you reach the $10 million houses (at least) in the South Bay, along the Strand.  Nice organized picnics going on, some beach volleyball games, more individual, more rich, smaller.  Sometimes just a guy on the upper balcony of his home sipping coffee and looking out over the ocean.  Of course in some of the houses in between were always some frat antics going on, but still.  Richer, more individual.  In many ways, more alone, although there’s nothing wrong with alone.

But, now why is that?

True Hustlers

There’s no leisurely setting to the pace and speed of life in Hong Kong.  You can feel it the moment you land at the airport.  Suddenly, everything is fast and you are too slow.

From the subways and trains that arrive at sub-1 minute intervals, to the buses that will run you over, or at least off, the road – because they, and not pedestrians, have the right of way, or the taxis will take off before you shut the door, because they’re Japanese cars where the driver can close the door with a button, or even the people, who will not just graze elbows, which might be common in major cities, but actually smash their shoulders into you without apology.

Hong Kong is a city made for work, and by work.

It was literally created by a trade treaty in which one party got to sell drugs in exchange for gold, on a barren rock in the middle of the ocean with so little flat land that half the downtown area is built on artificially created land.

It was made so people could go there, trade freely, and then leave with the fruits of their labor.

While people settle in Hong Kong, many also have ancestral ties, homes, and families on the mainland, where they retreat during vacations or during retirement.  And for an entire class of expats employed in the financial services industry, well, Hong Kong allows you to make 1%-er money, pay some of the lowest taxes in the world, generate wealth, and move back home.

Everyone is a hustler in Hong Kong.

But the realest hustlers?  They’re not the investment bankers working all-nighters deep in the recesses of the IFC, Cheung Kong, or ICC.  They hustle too, but they party just as hard.

The real hustlers don’t get to party.  The real hustlers are almost invisible except on the weekends, when they come out on their one day off and congregate in Wan Chai and Causeway Bay.  And you could make the case that Hong Kong is run by them.  The city wouldn’t be as productive, as operationally leveraged, or as able to work, if they didn’t exist.

The maids.

In Hong Kong, the Indonesian and Filipina “domestic helpers” (maids) have standard working hours of between 12 to 15 hours a day, 6 days a week.  Often, their only space to themselves is a small closet that is as long as the length of a single bed, and just as wide – and sometimes if their households employ two maids, well, the bed is a bunk.

Working from 6am to 10pm is not uncommon, with household duties that include cleaning, cooking, taking care of the elderly and babies alike, and being the first point of call when the baby wakes up in the middle of the night.  Also, household shopping, miscellaneous chores.  Six days a week.  At least 10 hours a day.

Also, they do it without having basic rights or representation in the cities where they literally raise the next generation.  Sometimes they get kidnapped, their passports taken away, funds due to them not paid.

This is a note of gratitude to them.

Working and living in this part of the world, you come face to face with an entire class of manual laborers who are invisible.

Sometimes, working hard is no guarantee of success.  Sometimes it’s just a guarantee that you’ll survive.

Elements – Bangkok Mall Edition

In my opinion, the best malls in the world are in Dubai, Seoul, and Bangkok.  What do I mean by ‘best’?  Good tenant mixes, amenities, facilities, and above all, retail experiences that don’t feel like typical malls.  They feel like other worlds.

Bangkok’s malls are the best in the world in terms of design.  The city itself is underrated in terms of design.

My favorite space here is the 6th floor of the Central Embassy mall and I’ve pasted in a gratuitous amount of images for it below.  The floor is a food hall/market + bookstore.  It also hosts a kids cafe, “co-thinking” space, and a cinema at one of its far ends.

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The detail on the ceilings.  The interspersed foliage.  The lighting, especially under the shelves.  The lighting of the wood panels and under the bars.  The color of the wood.

This section where I’m standing in the below picture is the ‘out-of-print’ section and houses antique and rare books.  The fact that they dedicated an entire wall to this…well, thank you.

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The “co-thinking” space.
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This is what the Central Embassy looks like from the outside.  Outside, the design is just as gratuitous as it is inside.  Not gratuitous in the sense of frivolous or excessive, but gratuitous, as in overdelivering beyond expectations.  If you go there, don’t miss the other food court in the basement, which might also be one of the best food courts in the world.

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Pictures of other mall/retail spaces.  A futuristic, space-age apothecary, just a typical perfume and fragrances counter.

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The men’s-wear section in the same mall.

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The rest of that mall.  Again, gratuitous.  I wish there was a better word than that connoting overdelivery, but that’s what these malls are.  You cannot calculate a direct ROI on spending money on design like this.  But the malls in Bangkok do it anyway, and for that, I feel gratitude.

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Standing on the ground level, I like how you can clearly see all three floors above you have a distinct character and pattern.

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Food courts of the world are in general moving towards the food market/hall concept, which makes it look more authentic – food carts and kiosks arranged over the floor like they arrived there organically.  But probably outside of Bangkok, you cannot get decent, filling meals for less than $3, like you can here.

 

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A Real Estate Career: Lessons Learned (2010-2012)

The optics of business school are great because being a student gives you a halo – you appear to be “studying”, hard at work, transforming yourself.

Whereas if you took two years off to just actively look for, recruit, and interview for jobs in a new industry it would raise eyebrows, if you instead pay vast sums for the privilege of doing so, while paying even more in opportunity cost / lost income, it is more professionally accepted.  Ironic and backwards, but that is the imprimatur of business school.  That’s what people pay for.

Also, it’s a good two year break that looks good on a resume.

I entered Haas because I wanted a break.  I also wanted to be close to home, and the counties where Property Tax Advisors was appealing cases.  I wanted to be on the West Coast, because most of my consulting clients were in Asia – and I would have to fly there from time to time.  In case it wasn’t obvious, I still wanted to work part-time.  And also, to seal the deal, Haas gave me a scholarship, which combined with what Gary still owed me, made it an all-expenses paid, tax-free, two year vacation.

But I don’t want to make it seem like I didn’t take the whole experience seriously.  I did want to learn.  I wanted time to read books again.

The first thing I did when I arrived on campus was sign up for Mandarin classes, which I took with undergrads.  And then I signed up for some advanced real estate classes to try to figure out WTH had just happened in the world.

I took real estate classes every quarter.  And I read books on real estate history outside of it, outside of the classes.  At the end of it, I’m not sure I came very much closer to understanding the mechanics of what had happened, but I did gain an appreciation of how fragile things are in the world.

For our final project in a real estate financing class, we had to analyze a CMBS prospectus (commercial mortgage-based security), you know, those products that had helped bring down the global financial system.

I remember little about the product except that its supporting document was about two hundred pages.  Five of us pored through it for weeks.  All of us had come from real estate development, banking, or brokerage backgrounds.  One of us actually had a real estate lawyer for a father so we ended up asking him about the finer points.

But the prospectus was written so as not to be comprehended.  It was written in legalese, even though it was describing what should have been a fairly straightforward series of waterfalls in Excel.

And in the end, it couldn’t be modeled, because it was worded so ambiguously.  It was another lesson in what I had long suspected, which was that in business, maybe a small fraction of people know what they’re talking about, and the rest are just pretending.

I guarantee the bankers selling the junk we tried to model were in the latter camp.  Some of them were probably in business school at the same time as me.

Business school was also an opportunity to experiment.  I tried out different careers.  I interned for a hedge fund manager in San Francisco.  The first time I had a conversation with him, my mind almost exploded.

We began talking about a gold mining company, and his process of thinking out loud led the discussion into energy consumption requirements of the world, and caloric intake of Africans.  It all had a logic, but it was just beyond my grasp.  Just like, say, a college lecture that is beyond your head will make you fall asleep, this conversation had all the trails of making sense, but it was beyond my comprehension.  Struggling under the mental strain of it, I had to go home afterwards and just lay down for a few hours.

They say investing is the last liberal art.  It is the best cross-disciplinary, systems thinking training that anyone can get, I truly believe that.

In the summer, I interned for GE Capital Real Estate, the first big company I had ever worked for.  It also turned out to be a mistake.  Not the company or job itself.  As part of the Global Valuations Team, for the first time, I worked with people who were all exceedingly kind, competent, and able to regulate their emotions.  I had never worked with such nice people before.  I also had a boss that summer who was the best boss I had ever had up to then, and since.  She was patient and a great communicator.  I saw in all the ways what I had been missing by working only at small shops and with extreme people.

But at the same time, in order to take the job, I turned down offers from a resort development company (US-based), and a Mongolian conglomerate that wanted me to help them create a business plan for yurts, in Ulaanbataar.  There is no way I would have that kind of opportunity again.  It was a mistake to turn down adventure when I was still single and should have taken those kinds of “risks”.  It remains one of my regrets.

But the job was a revelation to me in other ways.  I came away from the internship and my classes at school with a more profound realization about the world.  Mostly, about the fragility of it.

You could see this clearly because GE Capital was such a high-level investor and manager.  By high-level, I mean that they invested in properties that were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and purchased portfolios that were in the billions of dollars.  When scale gets that large, numbers become abstract.  When you’re evaluating a portfolio of hundreds of properties, the individual properties themselves also just become pieces of paper holding different lease terms and cash flow logic, encumbered by loan contracts that are themselves just other pieces of paper.

I looked at the stack of hundreds of pages we were poring through, which represented the several billion dollar portfolio we were buying.  And that was it.  Although we weren’t buying the pieces of paper, the pieces of paper held the agreements that held this entire thing together, all the terms and clauses and logic that would be transferred, on other pieces of paper, from a different owner to us, moved like you would a large boulder, carefully, so that at the end, someone could print out another, similar stack of papers with our name on them instead, and magically all the obligations and claims would belong to someone else.

Yet what was contained on these stacks of paper allowed us to borrow more money against it, allowed us to engage service providers and managers to service it, and served as the basis for the valuation of our company.  All around the world, balance sheets were being rearranged, title was being rewritten, people were moving, getting hired, fired.

You might note that this is just a larger scale, of the same type of transaction you would undertake when buying a car or getting a loan.  It’s true, but just think about those transactions too.  Do you ever read every word in a contract?  Do you really know every implication of every clause in a contract?  I doubt 99% of the world does.  Similarly, there were things in the contracts of our portfolios, and the leases, that if you read them carefully were questionable, or ambiguous at best.

But the whole thing was wrapped together by a system of trust.  Trust that people down the channel, the title officers, the lenders, the managers, the agents, the lawyers, everyone, was doing their jobs correctly.  No one at GE Capital was going to have time to review every single line.  Internally we all had to depend on each other, and us as an organization also depended on our service providers, suppliers, the governments and cities in which the real estate was, etc, to do their jobs.

At a scale that enormous, no one person has the whole complete picture.  And if you telescope out to the national economy, the world, it’s the same thing.  No one person has the complete picture.  It’s held together by trust.  And when that trust breaks, the system breaks.

And that, I think, was the main lesson I learned at GE Capital, and probably the main lesson of the financial crisis for me.

After my summer in Connecticut, I moved again.  Business school offered a semester abroad.  And I was going to study abroad in Hong Kong.

Living and studying abroad has been the source of some of my deepest relationships and experiences.  After studying abroad in Hong Kong, I decided I would have to live there.

Also, one night while eating hot wings at a place that prided itself on the scoville (spiciness) levels of its food, I found myself dry heaving, tingling, and in tears after half a bite of their vaunted apocalypse wings.

I began rubbing my eyes, which was a mistake because for some reason the XXL-killer-apocalypse-suicide hot oil had spread to the back of my hand, and now I couldn’t feel my face anymore.

It was at that moment, with fluids draining out of my face, that a girl in a white and black dress walked in smelling of spring, and sat down with me and my friends.

A few years later, she would become my wife.

Things Korea Does Well

Underappreciated things about an already underappreciated country.

  • Korea is a textiles manufacturing powerhouse.  In most places in Asia, markets will sell a lot of cheap clothing.  But here, the off-price stuff sold for $3 or $5 in the subway stations comes from manufacturers who, on the other side, are making stuff for Patagonia, Zara, Nike, etc.  The Dongdaemun night market (wholesale clothing market, open to everyone) is literally the definition of a fast fashion nerve center, stocking retailers around the country every night (literally, retailers from all over Korea come to shop here starting at midnight to stock inventory for the next day), with production runs and test clothing that run in the single digits.  In common terms, this just means – bring an empty suitcase and load up on quality, off-brand, no brand outerwear – and innerwear.  Every subway station usually has a ‘sock store’ selling nothing more than socks for less than a dollar.
  • A lot of underappreciated and unknown ‘health’ food.  Korean traditional cuisine stems from a philosophy that food is medicine and vice versa.  While meat (Korean BBQ, fried chicken) gets all the attention, herbs, vegetables, and roots, usually served pickled, are staples of every meal.  Things like bean sprouts, Korean thistle, burdock, sesame leaves, pepper leaves, thorny ash, mallow, bellflower roots, not to mention mountain herbs for which there is no proper common translation, like Korean pimpinella, ainsliaea, ragwort, bog rhubarb, Korean angelica, sedum, etc. etc.  The list goes on and on; Koreans pickle anything that can be picked.  Not to say that all food in Korea is healthy, that’s far from the case, but a typical traditional meal is fairly well-balanced.  Some sort of fermented stew, served with a variety of pickled vegetables and herbs, carbs in the form of rice or noodles, and meat in the form of fish or pork.
  • An unbelievable cafe culture.  Koreans binge drink coffee the same way they binge drink alcohol, which if you think about it, might be a yin and yang phenomenon, with one not possible without the other.  The multitude of, and staggering variety of cafes and coffeeshops on every corner is mind-blowing.  Cafes and coffeeshops that serve alcohol alongside their coffee, dessert-specialty coffeeshops, coffeeshops that specialize only in giant portions, coffeeshops and cafes of every imaginable theme and configuration possible.  They say to show, not tell, and to do that, I suggest you just Google “Korean cafes” or “coffeeshops” on Google or Youtube.
  • This one is an element of Korea that I don’t think Koreans realize yet.  If Koreans didn’t spend all their time just studying, and their early to mid 20s in an insane cycle of work & drinking all-nighters, there would be more world-class athletes in every field from here.  I was part of two different gyms here, and having trained extensively in both the US and Asia, I will say that the number of physical specimens and giants in Korea is surprisingly high.  But years of study and atrophying behind a desk means that they don’t know it yet.  Also, the terrible diet and drinking doesn’t help.  This might be the only country I’ve trained where guys regularly smoke before and after workouts, and come in smashed from the night before.  And for the latter, I don’t mean young guys in youthful partying mode.  I mean salarymen in their 30s and 40s.
  • Lastly, Korea is a convenient country.  Things are efficient, quick, available.  Convenience, and a culture of service stems from its homogeneous society.  I’ll just point back to an earlier article I wrote about this.

Neighborhood Guide: Jamsil, Seoul

This is where we’ve been living for the last year and a half.  Jamsil is a great neighborhood, semi-suburban and somewhat under the radar.  If it wasn’t for the tendency of Seoul real estate prices to move in inexplicable step-wise functions, as it did in the past six months, we would have bought a place here, especially next to the amazing Olympic Park.

But we’re saying farewell to it this week, and in commemoration, I’d like to present some of my favorite places.

As some background, Jamsil (蚕室) is, for those who read Chinese characters, derived from the characters meaning mulberry tree + hall.  Silkworms feast exclusively on mulberry trees, which Jamsil used to be filled with, which made the area one of the two main silk farms for the royal court during the Joseon dynasty.

But, because of frequent flooding, the area became disused.  Over the past century, land has been gradually reclaimed but random sinkholes often appear in the district.

There’s even more history to it than that.  The Baekje dynasty (ca. 18 BCE to 660 AD) made this area the seat of their kingdom.

If you look closely at those dates, you’ll note that the Baekje dynasty goes back even further than the Joseon dynasty, whose palaces are in central Seoul, and are far more publicized and famous.  I don’t know if what I’m about to share below even get mentioned in guidebooks.

Now, Baekje was founded by princes from the Goguryeo kingdom, and both are descended from the horseback archers/nomadic tribes of Northeastern Asia, or Manchuria if you will.

What’s relevant here is that the Baekje capital was located right here and you can still see the tops of its walls, in Pungnaptoseong.

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Decades ago, they didn’t realize what this wall really was, and built a village in it.  You can see the tops of its buildings on the right side of the above picture.  After discovering they had literally built the new village on the top of an ancient capital, new development has been restricted, leading to consternation on the part of the residents.

At Olympic Park, not too far away, you can see the reserve palace, where the royal family retreated when Pungnaptoseong was under attack.  This one is called Mongchontoseong, and is directly in the middle of the park.

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These are earthen ramparts, and not natural hills.  It’s hard to grasp exactly how high they appear, but to get an idea of how high these walls were:

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Jamsil is probably most famous among tourists for being the location of Lotte World, the indoor theme park, and the Lotte World Tower, Korea’s tallest building.  Lotte basically owns two city blocks filled with three shopping malls, an office tower, a department store, a few hypermarkets, and an underground shopping center connecting it all.

Lotte World Mall is actually a complex of two different malls; one the mall itself, and the other the super luxe Avenue L.  Right now, along with the Starfield malls by Shinsegae, these are probably among the best malls in Asia.  Best, meaning, largest, with the best tenant mix, best amenities & concierge service, top of the line facilities.

Right next to the Lotte World Mall is an entire city block dedicated to nightlife.  In the picture below, you can see the shaded area in the red circle reading “방이동 먹자골목”: Bangi-dong Tasty Alley.  

In my experience though, the tasty street actually starts closer to the main road, at the right/east edge of the red circle – and is a larger area than the lake, Lotte World Tower, Lotte World Mall, and Avenue L just west of it, combined.

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This is the thing about Korea: all the tasty stuff, all the round-the-clock entertainment, is secluded kind of like the inner courtyard of a riad, a street or two removed from the main street.

This is why some people say Korea is boring.  It’s either because they’re looking in the wrong places or because they don’t have people taking them to these places.

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“Alley” doesn’t begin to describe the magnitude of this district.  Restaurants, cafes, arcades, karaoke rooms, bars, saloons, and clubs.  Some of these shops are open for lunch.  Very few though.  The main operating hours are from dusk to dawn.

Lastly, my favorite place, which was next to our apartment, is the Jangmi Shopping Center Underground.  This is an underground market that’s been around for over 40 years, and a treasure that will probably be razed, redeveloped, and erased in the next decade.  That’s just what Korea tends to do.

Part food market, part restaurant hall, the B1 floor is a time capsule into Korea of the 1970s-1980s.  I remember shopping at places like this with my grandmother about 25-30 years ago, until the place like this by my grandma’s house was razed, redeveloped, erased, and turned into something far more shiny.

The food merchants here are a hybrid of retail and wholesale.  They sell in bulk, to restaurants and other merchants, but offer their wares to walk-ins too.  You can pick up enough banchan for a feast for less than $10-20.  The restaurants here are standard Korean fare – lots of typical comfort food in the form of rice rolls, spicy pork-topped rice, hangover stews, fish cakes, chicken ginseng soup, donkatsu, shaved ice, and ubiquitous coffeeshops.

This is where the good stuff is.  Don’t be intimidated, and don’t miss it.  You can get good meals here for $5-7.

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