The Kimchi-ite: A Tour Through Hongdae, The Center Of Korean Youth Culture

Seoul has no shortage of unique neighborhoods worth visiting and it is certainly not at a loss for places to go drinking. However, there is only one true place where the youth of South Korea go en masse for so many of their desires and that place is Hongdae. Taking its name from the Korean abbreviation for the local art university, Hongik University, Hongdae is a great place for restaurants, cafes, art, live music, clubbing, lounge drinking and shopping. There are neighborhoods all over the city dedicated solely to each of those activities, but none have all of them, nor at such great accessibility.

The streets of Hongdae are lined with an unbelievable concentration of great restaurants, cafes and fashion boutiques.

Exiting from Hongik University station‘s exit 9 will give you a face full of Korea’s different subcultures. University students wear trendy American-style varsity jackets. Musicians have their instruments strapped to their backs. Club kids will have their frameless glasses and cut-off jeans. Exit 9 is the launching point for everyone’s night and on Saturdays it can take minutes to walk up the short flight of stairs.

Rillakuma takes a breather on “Meat Street,” a block with over 30 Korean BBQ restaurants.

One block out of the station is the so-called “Meat Street,” a one block corridor with over 30 tabletop, fire wielding, Korean BBQ restaurants. Serving up the standard samgyeopsal, kind of a BBQ-style bacon, as well as most other parts of commonly eaten animals all to be dipped into the all too delicious ssamjang, a sauce of garlic, soybeans and chili paste that is unique to Korea.

Street musicians line the street between Hongdae Station and the main nightlife areas.

Venturing on from Meat Street will take you right past Hongdae’s famous street performers and buskers. Musicians, comedians and magicians all compete for pedestrians’ attention, but everyone knows Hongdae is the musician’s playground. More than just sidewalk space for one-man acoustic cover machines, it is a testing ground for Korea’s indie music scene, with many acts going on to sign major record deals. Bands have their own regular spots with dedicated fans cheering loud enough to be heard for blocks around.

People passed-out and drunk is not an uncommon sight in all corners of Hongdae.

Most people come to Hongdae for the nightlife. Reasonable prices give the area an advantage over Gangnam. Restaurants are packed with laughter as people pour each other shots of soju, Korea’s drink of choice that, despite rarely being consumed outside of the peninsula, is one of the most consumed liquors in the world. Bars become so dense that they stack one on top of another with a speed dating bar on top of a darts bar on top of a cocktail lounge in the same building.

The two versions of Hongdae Playground: on the left, the Free Market during the afternoon and on the right, the late-night hangout spot.

One of the best places to drink after dark, when the weather is good, is in the playground right across the street from Hongik University. Koreans and expats alike grab a beer from a neighboring convenience store or Korean rice wine from the Maookli Man’s push cart, take a seat on the bench or the graffiti covered jungle gym and just hang out, often accompanied by an eclectic mix of street music. Additionally, on Saturday afternoons the area turns into the family friendly Hongdae Free Market, featuring arts and crafts vendors as well as live music.

Afternoon window-shopping is fantastic with the latest in international design and fashion.

There is really so much more to Hongdae than what I’ve mentioned, such as dog cafes, amazing basement comic book shops, narrow streets with over 50 women’s clothing boutiques and a huge concentration of great Japanese restaurants. Hongdae is one of the best places in Seoul to explore, there’s always something new to see or do as it is constantly in flux.

Now is the best time to get to Hongdae and experience it all as the neighborhood is changing on what seems like a monthly basis. As the neighborhood exponentially increases in popularity, rent is raising, pushing out businesses that have been in the area for decades in order to make way for international coffee chain locations. Many of the smaller cafes and music venues that built the area’s reputation have been pushed to adjacent neighborhoods like Hapjeong in order to keep their heads above water. Regardless of corporate takeovers, Hongdae absolutely remains my favorite neighborhood in Korea and is accessible at any hour on any day.

Check out previous “Kimchi-ite” stories on Korean culture, food and eccentricities by clicking here.

[All photos by Jonathan Kramer]

The Kimchi-ite: The Almost Forgotten Traditional Homes Of Korea

South Korea rapidly became a modern country. Within the past half-century it has gone from a country mostly of fields to seas of high rises. Over the years, many of these construction projects have caused the demolition of entire neighborhoods of traditional Korean houses, called hanok. Beautiful houses with tile roofs, wood framing and intricate brickwork were discarded to make way for dense apartment complexes. Fortunately, there has been a movement to preserve the hanok that remain.

You can sometimes see hanok straddled right next to apartment buildings or convenience stores scattered around the country. There are a few so-called “Hanok Villages,” places designed for visitors to take in plenty of traditional Korea, sometimes complete with costumed re-enactors.

My favorite is the Bukchon Hanok Village in Samcheong-dong, located in central Seoul, very close to a lot of other great sights such as Gyeongbok Palace and Cheonggye Stream. Bukchon is actually just a residential neighborhood, not originally intended to be a tourist destination. All of the hanok function as actual family homes, so it definitely doesn’t have a tourist trap vibe that some of other Hanok villages have. It’s great to just wander around the hilly neighborhood, looking at the beautiful houses with some great views of the surrounding city.

The best way to get to Bukchon is via subway. Take line 3 to Anguk Station and get out at exit 3. There is a multi-lingual tourist information desk not far from the exit with maps and brochures. Take a map and wander around. Afterwards, head over to the main street of Samcheong-dong offers plenty of trinket shops, cafes, restaurants and art galleries and is a great way to spend an afternoon.

Be sure to check out more on Korean culture from the other Kimchi-ite posts here!

[Photo credits: Jonathan Kramer]

Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood: charm, croissants, and cocktails

Darlinghurst, SydneyIn a city chock-full of charming, Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood is a tough contender. Not that it’s an easy choice. If it’s parks, quirky boutiques and specialty food shops, cafes, cheap ethnic or fine dining restaurants, bars, lattice-bedecked row houses, cliff-top beach paths, or Harbour views you want, there’s no shortage of neighborhoods that deliver.

Me, I’ll take Darlinghurst. This semi-residential Eastern neighborhood is wedged between the backpacker ghetto of King’s Cross, and the more sedate Potts Point and Surry Hills. What I love about Darlinghurst is that it’s possible to feel like a local if you make it your home base; something that’s not easy in tourist-thronged Sydney.

One of my favorite pastimes is looking at houses, and Darlinghurst has plenty of eye candy in the form of narrow, winding streets, sweet little row houses, and pockets of greenery. But the neighborhood is also a cornerstone for Sydney’s exploding “small bars” scene. Turn around, and whack! Another stylish spot to imbibe (and snack) has opened its doors.

Sydney also doesn’t want for coastal walking paths, and Darlinghurst is just a short stroll from the lovely Opera House to Royal Botanic Gardens Walk. Within minutes of checking in to my hotel, I was headed out for a run along the Harbour. It’s hard not to feel like the luckiest person alive when you have that kind of view for inspiration.

Sleeping
While Darlinghurst has a handful of accommodation options (depending upon budget, most visitors choose the janky hostels of King’s Cross, or opt for the diverse–and more costly–options in the nearby CBD).

%Gallery-124555%Darlinghurst, SydneyMy pick is the groovy Kirketon Hotel, a member of Australia’s boutique Eight Hotels collection. Located on a leafy portion of Darlinghurst Road, it’s just steps away from bustling Victoria Street. After a full remodel in ’08, the 40-room Kirketon is now a swank goth/art deco/mod-hybrid. I love it, mirrored hallways, dim lighting, chandeliers, smokey color scheme, black facade, and all. It’s slick, sexy without trying too hard, and the bright, well-designed rooms are kitted out with comfy beds and modern amenities.

Despite the trendy vibe, the Kirketon is peaceful and not at all pretentious, thanks in part to the genuinely friendly, helpful staff. Come night, however, this hotel is hopping because of its award-winning bar, Eau de Vie (more on that, below).

Eating
Darlinghurst has lots of dining options, but for me, it’s all about breakfast. Right across from the Kirketon is La Petit Creme, a funky French coffee house serving delicious crepes, pain chocolat and other breakfast treats, and bowls of cafe au lait.

Arguably one of Sydney’s most beloved breakfast spots (equally wonderful for lunch) is Bill’s, owned by acclaimed chef Bill Granger. Granger is one of a handful of Aussie chefs who helped put “Mod Oz” cuisine on the map. Expect bright, seasonal fare inflected with Mediterranean and Asian flavors. It’s a total travel article cliche, but the ricotta hotcakes with bananas and honeycomb butter, sweet corn fritters, or toasted grain cereal with vanilla-poachedDarlinghurst, Sydney fruit, yogurt, and honey really are the best way to start a day of sight-seeing.

My new breakfast (lunch/snack/drunken late-night munchies) obsession, however, is Infinity Sourdough Bakery, located around the corner from the Kirketon. I’m totally convinced that anything that emerges from the ovens at this adorable takeaway will be amazing. Four visits in a single day did nothing to disprove this theory (not counting other carbo-loading sessions). The almond croissants are life-changing, but the pizzettas, ham and cheese turnovers, bread, and other pastries are also excellent.

…and Drinking
Wherever you lay your head, be sure to stop by Eau de Vie, 2010’s Australian Bar Awards Bar of the Year. It’s a living room-like spot on the Kirketon’s ground floor, with a moody, Prohibition-era vibe (I’m of the “it can’t be a speakeasy if it legally sells cocktails” school of thought, because I’m a pain in the ass like that.)

Eau de Vie specializes in seasonally-changing, contemporized classic cocktails that, if a bit precious and theatrical, are crafted with the utmost precision. If you’re interested, one of the friendly mixologists–all of whom possess encyclopedic knowledge–will tell you everything you might care to know about your drink. Said drinks don’t come cheap, although there are plenty in the $16USD range. The $32USD syrupy smooth Old Fashioned made for me by “Dr. Phil,” however, was without a doubt the best I will have in this lifetime. Why so spendy? Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 (as in years-old) rum, housemade bitters, a puck of ice compressed to order in a copper Tyson ice mold, and open flame were involved.
Darlinghurst, Sydney
In the small bar category, Darlinghurst boasts some of Sydney’s favorite newbies (all of the following serve bar snacky food/small plates). At The Passage, expect refreshing libations such as the Professor Plum (plums macerated in Queirolo plum pisco, shaken with lemon juice and Madagascan vanilla syrup), or a Coconut and Kaffir Lime Daquiri, served up with a garnish of pandan leaf.

Lotforty, a miniscule candlelit tapas bar, offers up jugs of sangria ($20AUD), as well as cocktails, and fried, grilled, and crispy treats such as “bbq” King Prawns with orange, fennel, and mint salad. At wine bar Love, Tilly Devine (named after an infamous neighborhood Madame of the 1930’s), the extensive list of international offerings is meticulously chosen and categorized. Sip with slow-roasted octopus with new potatoes and aioli, Macleay River rock oysters, or Burrawong duck liver pate with sweet and sour onions.

Technically, Sticky Bar is in Surry Hills (known for its eclectic shops and ethnic restaurants), just a short walk from the heart of Darlinghurst. Sticky is such a funky, sexy, odd little space I can’t help but include it. It’s a bitch to find (especially after a few drinks), as you need to enter through sister restaurant Table for 20, and climb a narrow flight of stairs to enter the bar. The decor is decrepit-Victorian-mansion-meets-Old-Hollywood: overstuffed vintage velvet chairs, leather ottomans, ornate chandeliers, exposed brick, and shadowy nooks and crannies. Order a glass of domestic wine or a wickedly strong cocktail from the blackboard menu, settle back, and watch the scene (the music’s loud).
Darlinghurst, Sydney
Shopping
Darlinghurst isn’t the best place if you’re a bargain hunter (try the vintage clothing stores in uni-district Glebe, instead). But if you have the cash (or are a bit of a masochist), you’ll find no shortage of on-trend boutiques featuring up-and-coming Aussie clothing designers, shoes, high-end vintage, luxe skincare products, book stores and whimsical home decor. Darlinghurst Road, Victoria Street, and Liverpool Street also have a fair number of shops. I like Blue Spinach, a “luxury consignment” store where you can score affordable treasures if you do some digging. Popular boutiques include Diederic the Cat, which offers American and Euro fashions, and Alfie’s friend Rolfe. This self-described “little Aladdin’s Cave of Australian designer labels” is heaven if you’re looking for quality sartorial souvenirs.

Getting There
Qantas flies non-stop to Sydney out of LAX and DFW, with extensive code share connections available from major cities throughout the country through the partnership with American Airlines. Tourism Australia’s website will provide you with all the information you need to plan a holiday.

Click here to watch one of Eau de Vie’s mixologists create a signature cocktail (don’t miss Dr. Phil’s “Whisky Blazer!”)

[Photo credits: cottage and Oxford St., Flickr user iambents]

Photo of the Day (7/21/07)

Danial Market
Neighborhood shots are some of the best! This one of a local grocery store is located in Vancouver’s West End neighborhood on Barclay Street. Ohad* is the photographer behind this particular shot and in his notes he states that a skunk almost got in the way of this well-lit scene. Now that is pretty random.