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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