South Korea

Seoul is a city that, for some reason or another, I had never really given much thought to up until recently. I really couldn’t tell you why, but I can tell you that whatever that reason was, it was wrong. Not that I would ever be so bold as to think that I’ve been everywhere I want to go and seen everything I want to see, but after going to as many amazing places as I’ve been, seeing and experiencing some of the biggest cities in the world, it’s an easy trap to fall into thinking that it’ll be near impossible to top the Tokyos, Hong Kongs, Taipeis, and Bangkoks of the world. And yet here we are. In retrospect I should have come here much sooner, although it is nice to know that I’m still able to be so pleasantly surprised by a new place. With how incredible this city turned out to be, it really ended up being a great reminder that there are still so many beautiful places out there that I have to see.

Now I took a slightly different approach to my photography on this trip. Nothing too crazy, but a sort of evolution of how I’ve been shooting on my trips over the past decade. I generally take most of my pictures on 35mm while focusing on more of a documentary-style of shooting, then make concerted efforts to get out with my medium format camera to take more ‘deliberate’ shots. Usually at night or twilight, oftentimes with my tripod, or also when shooting specific places or things which I had been planning to shoot in 120. This has worked out fairly well for me in the past, but when it came time to make prints I always looked at my 35mm shots and wished I had taken them on 120. So I decided on this trip to only shoot 120, and to try to use it for both more deliberate photography, and documentary-style stuff. Now that this trip is all said and done I have to say, I really enjoyed this more simplified philosophy to my shooting. Only time will tell, but I’ll probably be following a similar approach on my future trips.

We’ll start off this trip on the streets around Sewoon Plaza in Seoul. This is a fairly large area northeast of the Chungmuro station, South of the Euljiro stations, and spanned a few distinct neighborhoods in the Jung-gu district. This was easily one of my favorite places in Seoul. A fantastic maze of streets to get myself lost in.

I’ll try to describe this area as best I can. There was a gigantic strip of buildings called Sewoon Plaza that cut this area in half vertically, spanning multiple blocks. These monolithic, concrete buildings (a section of which is pictured above) were around 5 stories tall, each containing at least a hundred individual shops selling wholesale electronics items. Each floor in each building had its own theme. There was a floor dedicated to selling wholesale audio equipment. Another for selling arcade game parts. Another for selling lights. There was a large sign on one of these buildings which read ‘Makercity’, and it was a fitting moniker I think.

Underneath these buildings, each side was lined with shops. Towards the far ends of this district they were pretty sparse and dark, and seemed to be mostly restaurants and a few repair shops.

Closer to the main center of this area it was a lot more dense and lively. Again, it seemed like each shop specialized in one or two things. Think of this area as a hardware store in America, but each aisle was its own storefront.

Then the streets around these buildings were a network of twisting alleyways through some of the oldest buildings still standing in Seoul. I believe most of them are around 100 years old, built during the Japanese colonial period and are mostly home to machine shops, printing companies, and stores selling various electronics parts. Here was one shop dedicated to selling lights of all different shapes and sizes. Deliveries here were made via scooter, requiring you to really have to pay attention when walking around here as they are pretty much constantly zipping by you on streets that are barely wide enough for the both of you.

Here in the machine shop district, each shop seemed to be very specialized. Here was a shop that seemed to work with only round metal pipes. There was another shop next door which only worked with square metal pipes.

They were all pretty busy and from what I could tell, were routinely shipping parts and work back and forth to each other for whatever they were working on. It was as if each shop was its own individual entity, but they were all working together as a part of a greater whole.

Then there were all the paper and printing companies. This guy seemed to be taking a break, but these shops were just as busy and appeared to be working in a similar manner as the machine shops. The paper companies shipping reams of paper to the printers to fulfill their seemingly unending stream of orders.

Most of these alleyways were covered with awnings from the surrounding buildings, but there were lots of open markets around here inside of actual buildings as well, and I would sometimes find myself inside of one without realizing I was no longer outside.

Venturing into the outskirts of this district I found alleys lined with tiny restaurants. I’m not sure if these would be considered indoors or outdoors, as the awnings from either side were permanently connected to form a roof over most of the streets around here.

For instance, this picture was taken ‘outdoors’ around noon, but you’d never know without the clock on the wall. Even then, you probably would have believed me if I told you it was midnight.

Back in daylight and closer to the Chungmuro station, this place was loaded with restaurants and cafes. Then off to the far western edge was a block or two filled with shops selling all kinds of photography-related merchandise and services, a couple of which I ended up making use of.

The first was Fotomaru. This was one of the best film labs I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. They developed nearly all of the film I shot on this trip, with same-day service, for about $4 US per roll. And they did a fantastic job. I definitely recommend them to anyone shooting film in Seoul.

Second was a used camera shop whose name I never actually checked. Since I was able to develop my film pretty much as I was shooting it, I noticed with one batch that a couple rolls of film I had shot were missing frames. Apparently the shutter on my trusty GS645S rangefinder was starting to break, which was apparently related to cold temps and the winder mechanism in the camera which had also very recently begun feeling like it was skipping teeth on a gear somewhere inside the camera. Luckily I was able to find a shop selling the exact same camera, and in much better condition. So after checking it out, verifying that everything worked and it had good light seals, I purchased it and used that for the rest of my trip. I really lucked out there, although I’ll always wonder how those missed shots would have turned out.

Whenever I shoot in a new city, I’m always trying to get a feel for how the people I’m photographing respond to me taking their picture. I’ve definitely been to a few places where I’ve gotten the distinct impression that most of the people there do not want me photographing them, and I do my best to respect that. This was not an issue in Seoul whatsoever, as people pretty much unanimously either didn’t mind or even enjoyed having their picture taken. I was pretty pumped about this and it made my trip and interactions with the people there all that much more enjoyable.

As I mentioned earlier, most of the deliveries to the smaller shops in this area were made on scooters. But on some of the bigger streets, these little flatbed trucks were the delivery vehicles of choice.

Night time in this area was really cool too. Around Chungmuro it was still pretty busy with all the restaurants there.

Around Sewoon Plaza however, it almost completely emptied out by dark.

Here from a few floors up you can see the contrast between this 100 year old neighborhood, and the much more modern neighborhoods surrounding it.

I came back super early one morning to watch the sunrise from up here too. It was freezing out this morning, but definitely worth it for the view. These gigantic TV screens like you can see here off in the distance were all over the place in Seoul and ran ads 24 hours a day. I’ll have a few more pics of those in a bit.

That’s it for this area. Next up is where my first guesthouse in Seoul was located, Sinchon.

This was a sign right outside the front door of my guesthouse, and since South Korea is 14 hours ahead of Boston, this is how I saw it most of the time, since I was pretty much asleep all day and up all night.

Luckily this wasn’t much of a problem, as not only had I been wanting to do a lot of night photography here, but this city also never sleeps. 24 hour convenience stores like this 7-11 here were on almost every block.

Oddly enough, a lot of the city was more alive at 3 AM than it was at 11 AM. Finding a nice place for lunch was often difficult as it seemed like restaurants in a lot of areas don’t even open until early, or even late afternoon.

Just northeast of this area you can find the Ewha Women’s University. I came here to check out this very interesting bit of architecture. When you arrive on campus you’re greeted by a large grassy hill. Carved right into the middle of this hill is this giant corridor. On either side are these huge glass walls separating you from the insides of the hill, which isn’t filled with dirt like a normal hill, because it’s not actually a hill at all. They’re university buildings filled with classrooms, a bookstore, cafeteria, etc, with entranceways all along the bottom.

On the far end was this huge staircase leading up to the rest of the campus.

From the top of the stairs you can see what is essentially the very nicely-landscaped roofs to these two buildings.

Then southwest of Sinchon was Hongdae. There’s another big university here along with a lively arts and music scene. Here you can see a little parkway which actually cuts through most of the northern half of the city. In my last few pictures as well as this one, you may have noticed the amazing fall foliage. This is because I arrived in South Korea in early November, just in time for peak leaf-peeping. This was the perfect time to come here, as it was absolutely beautiful, and aside from a few brisk mornings had just about perfect weather. Not too hot, not too cold, and it only rained one day in the two weeks I was here.

Night in Hongdae was really cool. It was a pretty modern area, but not so modern in a sense that would make it feel like a generic big city. It definitely had its own unique character.

Twilight is by far my favorite time to take pictures. If only I were able to be awake more often for the elusive ‘morning twilight’ as seen here.

Back in the daylight, let’s go take a walk around the Euljiro area again. This time a bit north of the Sewoon area we visited earlier.

This is actually a cool sign for me. I took this picture and wanted to know what it said. I had always heard that the Korean alphabet was really simple to learn, so I figured this would be a good image to try to learn from. It took me probably about a minute to translate the main text there into ‘Bangsan Sijang’. Sijang is Korean for ‘market’, so this was the entrance to Bangsan Market. Here’s a link to a page translating the alphabet in case you’re bored and want to learn Korean to translate the rest of the signs in the pic. Of course it’s still translating it into Korean, not English, but it’s still at least helpful for proper names.

Another market near here which unfortunately didn’t have any cool giant signs to learn from was Gwangjang Market.

This was another market which challenged my definitions of the words indoor and outdoor. Apparently the entire thing is outdoors while simultaneously being almost completely covered with a translucent roof. You can see the exposed brick exterior of the buildings in the background, and then you can see the sunlight poking in around the edges of the roof adjacent to it. So this market is technically housed in a network of permanently covered alleys. I guess that explains the gas-powered delivery scooters driving around, although I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it even if it were indoors as these scooters were ubiquitous.

Notice all the steam coming off the food. This was during the unseasonably cold morning we had one day on my trip, where it had dipped into the low 20s. I had initially just come in here for some pictures, but after seeing all the warm, tasty food at these stalls, I sat down at one for some delicious and piping hot noodles. That was definitely one of the (many) highlights from my trip.

And this place wasn’t just filled with cooked food, it was a huge textile and raw & dried seafood market as well. I thought this stall was particularly cool.

Now so far this has all been in the northern part of Seoul, with the city divided pretty much in half by the Han River. I spent most of my time up here but I did venture into the southern half a few times. We’ll come back up north in a bit but first let’s take a detour into Gangnam, which literally translates to ‘South of the River’.

To get to Gangnam this day I took a train to Seobinggo Station, which dropped me off at the northern side of the Banpo Bridge which spans the Han River.

I wanted to check out this bridge as it looked pretty cool from my research online. It’s a double decker bridge with a couple of really cool features.

With it being a double decker bridge, each level actually has its own name. The lower level here is called the Jamsu Bridge. One of the cool things about this lower bridge is that it’s actually built pretty close to the water line, and is designed to be completely submerged when heavy rainfall causes the water level to rise. I believe it only occurs during the rainy season or during very severe weather conditions, so I was not able to see that. Probably a good thing.

Another interesting feature of this bridge is the water cannons on each side. I believe they were just doing a test run here, but they have nightly shows where people can watch these jets as they’re illuminated and set to music.

Across the bridge on the southern side and I am officially in Gangnam. Here I took a short walk through some apartment complexes by the river before hopping on a train over to the eastern side of Gangnam.

A few blocks from the Samseong Station I got off at is the COEX mall and library. This is apparently a pretty popular spot with locals, Instagrammers, and tourists alike. It’s not hard to see why.

With it being so busy in here, it definitely wasn’t as quiet as you’d generally want a library to be. I guess it was a little quieter up here on the balcony. Hopefully I didn’t disturb anyone too much.

As soon as we get outside the library we’re officially in the ultra modern, high tech district of Gangnam.

Here are some more of these giant video screens I mentioned earlier. These were everywhere in Gangnam, and just absolutely huge. Walking around the city with them towering above me, displaying 10+ story tall ads, made me feel like I was in some slightly-less dystopian version of Blade Runner. Another highlight, for sure.

From here I took a walk over to the Lotte Tower.

I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had never actually heard of this building before, but it currently ranks as the 6th tallest building in the world. It was only just completed 3 years ago and I admittedly didn’t do a whole lot of research on this trip before I left, so I guess that’s why I had only just learned of it the day before going to see it. From checking out my Naver app’s street view (Korean version of Google Maps), I noticed a complex of apartment buildings across the street, so I figured that would be a good place to get some pictures of it. The pic above was taken from inside the top floor of this apartment building as I was about to head outside.

Even from 15 stories up from across the street, with my rangefinder’s 35mm equivalent focal length lens, I was not even close to being able to fit this entire building in one frame. This image is actually three shots stitched together, the top two vertically, and then one horizontally at the base. Definitely a massive building, and by all accounts the largest I have ever seen. I will say though that the Taipei 101 tower still felt bigger, even if it’s around 150 feet shorter. I think the tapered design takes away from it a bit, as well as maybe the lack of buildings around it for context.

Just down the street from the Lotte Tower is Lotte World. I didn’t go inside, but this is apparently the largest indoor theme park in the world. I’m never one to do things like go to amusement parks when I travel, but after I got back home I googled pictures of the inside and now I regret it. Next time I go to Seoul I’m going in for sure. If you’re planning a trip, be sure to check it out before you go.

Here is the Olympic Park in Seoul, from the 1988 Summer Games which were hosted here. This was the one rainy day for me on this trip, and by this point it had really started coming down. I had my raincoat on, but I had a good 15 minute walk outside from Lotte World down to the Olympic Park here, so by this point my pants, shoes, and socks were completely soaked through, and this was right around when my camera’s winder started really acting up (hmm, wonder if that had anything to do with it..). With my camera’s issues mounting, in retrospect I’m lucky the pictures from this roll even came out.

So after this, I turned around and hopped into the nearest train station to get back to my guesthouse in an attempt to dry off before venturing out to find a replacement camera for the rest of my trip. Just in case I couldn’t I did have my old 35mm as a backup, but thankfully I didn’t end up needing it.

I went back to Gangnam a few nights when it was a bit drier for some night photography. Here’s the one time when I sort of missed shooting in 35mm. My 645 rangefinder’s lens has a maximum aperture of f/4, and even with 800 speed film this isn’t ideal for handheld night photography. I made it work as best I could and was able to get some results I’m pretty happy with like this pic above, but was definitely missing my 50mm f/1.2 lens a bit here.

Even pictures like this which I’d liked to have shot a bit brighter ended up coming out nice, I just found that I had to be even more keenly aware of getting some interesting light into my pictures, like the building lights, red lights on the traffic light, and car’s brake lights here. Maybe in the future I’ll find a medium format camera with a faster lens to shoot with, but in the meantime I’m hoping it will help me hone my night photography skills a bit more.

Luckily here in Gangnam, interesting lighting was never too far away.

Scenes like this were everywhere in Gangnam, and they never ceased to amaze me. Just endless rows of buildings off into the distance at every intersection.

This is one of the many entrances into Gangnam Station, the main transportation hub into and out of this area.

There were a few main strips around here oriented around designer clothes and other shops, and then a few blocks away were endless blocks of slightly smaller buildings all full of restaurants and cafes.

Wandering off even further I was amazingly able to find some streets without people.

Then a little bit further and I’m back at the train station to head back up north.

The Euljiro area was pretty cool at night too. Nothing like Gangnam, but cool in its own right. You can even make out some stars in this pic, which is pretty impressive considering Seoul is such a huge and bright city.

On the western end is the entrance to the Deoksugung Palace. I had come here once during the day and it was closed, I think because it was a Monday and it’s closed on Mondays.

There were a lot of other interesting things around here though. The Deoksugung Palace was just outside the City Hall subway stop, and from there a walk north along Sejong-daero gives you some nice views of the city. Then just a bit further down the road is the Gyeongbokgung Palace which is where I was heading next.

On the way there I found this sign just off the main road into Euljiro. I really like this slogan. I guess it was for a two-week long lantern festival that was going on along this little stream, although apparently they weren’t doing lanterns this year. They were placing little characters like you see on the sign all along the stream, and lighting them up. I came here a few nights and I guess I missed it.

This rainbow-colored building was actually decorated like this for the festival, I found out. Normally it’s a lot less colorful.

Pictured here is the South Korean Ministry of Unification, just across the street from the palace.

Finally here we are at the Gyeongbokgung Palace. This was situated right on the northern outskirts of the city, which was really cool as one minute you’re in Euljiro, a giant commercial district with towering buildings, and a block away is this palace, with nothing beyond it but trees and mountains.

You’ll notice a lot of people here were wearing traditional Korean dress, known as hanbok. There are apparently lots of rental shops around palace and temple entrances in Korea, and anyone wearing them is given free admission. If I wasn’t alone I may have partook, but it was still really cool as it definitely made for more interesting pictures.

Here you can see some of the architectural detail common in Korean temples and palaces. The unique coloring and design is known as dancheong.

There was a giant pagoda on the palace grounds, but people were unfortunately not allowed up.

Back outside for a quick walk over to our next palace, this little stream ran through most of the northern half of the city and made for a nice little getaway from all the excitement on the streets.

Just a few blocks away is the Changgyeonggung Imperial Palace and grounds. There is a world heritage site here too called the Jongmyo Shrine, however visitors were not allowed in without being part of a guided tour, so I skipped that.

Some more dancheong inside one of the temples here.

The landscaping and foliage on the grounds was pretty awesome.

There was a nice botanical garden on the grounds too with all sorts of bonsai trees and various Korean plants I had never seen before.

I liked this bare tree with all of its yellow leaves blanketing the ground around it.

Speaking of yellow..

Back out in the city it was about time to go check out South Korea’s second-largest city, Busan. I was in no particular rush to leave Seoul as this city is absolutely amazing, so I got up early and decided to forego the subway and take a nice, long, scenic walk through the city to Seoul Station.

On the way there I stopped by this coffee place I had heard about called Felt. It’s a small little hole in the wall located on a residential street just west of Sinchon station. This was one of the coolest coffee experiences I’ve ever had. The girl on the right here was currently in the process of making my pour-over. After watching her go through the long and fairly painstaking process of making my hand-drip coffee, she poured a little bit from the server into her own little tasting glass and took a sip. Waited a few seconds, then took another sip. Then promptly dumped my entire coffee in the sink and started over.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a barista care so much about the quality of the coffee they were serving. Really it couldn’t have been that bad, but anything short of perfect was unacceptable. And I will say that the cup she ended up serving me was incredible, and well worth the wait. So if you’re ever in the area and want one of the best cups of coffee you’ve ever had, served by people who probably care more about the quality of your coffee than you do, I could not recommend this place more.

So now that I was nice and caffeinated it was time to hit the road. It was fairly overcast this morning, but it was decently warm and the overnight rain had mostly stopped before I got up, so it was perfect weather for a morning walk.

Just east of Seoul Station is Namdaemun Market. I was wandering around here on one of the first few nights of my trip, so here it is around 3:30 AM. This is one of the oldest markets in Seoul as it dates back to 1414, although I read that it did completely burn down a number of times and had to be rebuilt anew each time.

And here is Seoul Station from that same night. I believe it was around 5 AM here, and the subway in Seoul starts running around 5:30, so after taking this I remember waiting to catch a train back to my guesthouse for a quick early morning nap. But today I arrived here sometime in the early afternoon and bought a one-way ticket to Busan on the next available bullet train.

The bullet trains here didn’t look as impressive as the Shinkansen in Japan, but they still got up to almost 190 mph and zipped me quietly from Seoul to Busan in a little over 2 hours – at half the cost of a similar ride in Japan. Definitely an impressive way to travel.

By the time I had arrived in Busan, made the walk to my guesthouse, checked in, and unpacked, it was already night so I wasted no time in heading out for some pictures. The place I was staying at was right by the big night markets Busan is known for, so 5 minutes outside my front door and I was right where I wanted to be.

This little corner here was interesting. I’m not sure what all these signs were advertising, but I doubt it was what it looked like. Otherwise this place probably would have been a lot busier.

Here is a typical Korean BBQ joint. I had BBQ here a few times, and man, between that, the bibimbap, fried chicken, spicy stir-fried pork, the soups and noodles, the kimchi with every meal.. I think the food here in Korea has beaten out Thailand for my favorite in the world. It was impossible to have a bad meal here. I’m not much of a foodie but everything was just so good. Of course Korean food back in Boston is ruined for me now that I’ve had the real thing. I guess I’ll just have to come back whenever I have a craving.

There were a lot of these little food stands everywhere. They seemed to specialize in one or two things, and most were pretty packed.

Back by my guesthouse I happened upon another awesome little coffee shop, called Lime Scale. This place was tiny and had such a cool vibe, with about a half dozen random chairs and stools scattered about with barely enough room for enough people to sit on them all.

After ordering a pour-over, I was prompted to select my beans by opening up all of these plastic containers and smelling them to help decide. I came here a couple times and each time the owner would be making coffees while I was sitting there enjoying mine, and he would hand me and the other patrons little tasting glasses to try them all out. Really cool.

Also right by my guesthouse was a Lotte Mall. Lotte is one of the biggest corporations in South Korea. You may remember my pictures earlier of the 6th largest building in the world, Lotte Tower, and largest indoor amusement park in the world, Lotte World. I guess they do a little bit of everything.

Christmas also seemed to be pretty huge in South Korea. These trees were right outside the mall, with a shopping avenue full of lights and decorations leading off from here.

One morning I went out to visit the Jagalchi Fish Market. This is the largest indoor/outdoor fish market in Korea. Outside there are rows and rows of stalls like this one selling all manner of fresh fish.

Here was an entire section of stalls all selling different kinds of seaweed.

Then in the indoor section of the Jagalchi market there was a multi-story building where you would pick out your fish on the bottom floor, tell them how you’d like it prepared, then they’d send it upstairs to be cooked (or not), and served to you at a table overlooking the harbor.

Or you could just hop in any one of the dozens of seafood stalls outside.

From there I decided to take a long walk up to Gamcheong Village. This was pretty far away and I of course decided to take the long way, so I first walked a few miles through the industrial area of Busan.

Then the walk started going more and more uphill as I started to climb up to the village, which is between about 500 and 1000 feet above sea level.

The climb was definitely worth it.

Although as I kept going up, I started noticing a lot of gigantic luxury tour buses zipping around. Then I turned a corner and was met with a sea of what had to be thousands of tourists. I’ve never kept walking so hard in my life. The village was really cool to see, but I guess a lot of it is really touristy. I would definitely recommend coming here, but by either walking up here on your own or taking one of the local minibuses and doing some solo wandering.

After spending a little while exploring in the less-crowded areas, I walked down the other side and couldn’t believe how steep it was in some places. These buses were almost going up on two wheels as they careened around corners like these.

Another place I wanted to check out in Busan is the Samgwangsa Temple. To get there I had to take the subway a few stops up north, and then hop on a bus the rest of the way.

The subway station I got off at was right in the middle of an area in Busan known for its plastic surgery clinics, Seomyeon. If you ever need any work done, apparently this is the place to go. I wonder if Lotte has a clinic around here.

Immediately upon stepping out of the bus at Samgwangsa Temple, I was greeted by one of the most impressive temple complexes I’ve ever seen.

I spent a good hour or so walking around the grounds here. It was just one huge temple after another. For some reason there was almost nobody here, so it was pretty relaxing too.

They do a yearly lantern festival at this temple which I unfortunately missed, but from the pictures I’ve seen it would definitely be worth coming for. They string up lanterns between the roofs of all the temples and essentially make them into a giant canopy to walk around under at night when they’re all lit up.

Then I wandered around a bit before heading back into the city.

Finally the last place I wanted to see here was Yeongdo Island. This is mostly an industrial port area, so it seemed like the perfect place for a nice morning stroll.

Cutting through the island was a massive overhead covered highway.

A lot of the island seemed to be under development too. Definitely an up and coming part of town. Reminds me of the Seaport area back in Boston, where the same thing has been happening for the past 6 years or so.

And with that, it’s time to sign off. Seoul was amazing, Busan was great, the food, the people, the photography, trains, weather, coffee, this country was just about everything I could have asked for and more. I don’t think it’ll be too long before I find myself back here again. But for now, annyeong, and I’ll be seeing you again. Pretty soon I think.

This entry was posted in Travel. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.