Traveling

Seoul-ful Spring 2016: A mini exploration of Ihwa Mural Village

One of my favourite places from my Seoul trip last March is the Ihwa Mural Village, but getting here is no easy task as the village is located at the top of Naksan Mountain. We alighted the subway from Hyehwa Station and basically walked through a university neighbourhood from there, taking lots of detours because of the trendy shops and food marts along the way.

The food stops involved mochi with fruits inside, as well as Korean sweet potatoes. I’m not kidding when I say I ate goguma everyday while here. It warms me right up against the cold spring weather of Seoul. 😉

As you walk up the steep slope of Naksan Mountain, you will know you’re heading the right direction once you start seeing some interesting art installations along the way. I’m not sure if this particular piece below is still there for you to use as an indicator, but I’m sure there will be street signs. Look out for those.

We were treated to some early plum blossoms in such an unexpected place that we paused here a bit to take photos. It’s funny how much you grow to appreciate things you cannot find in your own country. In Japan and Korea, I ALWAYS have to stop and photograph cherry and plum blossoms whenever and wherever I spot them. Nothing screams tourist more, but oh well!

Manila certainly doesn’t have weather conducive for growing these kinds of beauties:

As you tread up the steep and sometimes even winding incline, the first thing you will get is some exercise. And then soon enough you will start seeing more of what makes this area a mural village. The many metal sculptures placed by the railings of the bridge add a unique touch to the views of Seoul.

See how this sculpture seems to be touching the point of the N Seoul Tower in the distance? 🙂

And finally, 150 meters to go!

As someone who used to run 10k every week, this excursion wasn’t particularly exhausting for me. However I can see how it can be tiring for other people who aren’t used to walking long distances with inclines. Just a fair warning: This isn’t even the hard part.

The village itself is filled with many stairs and more inclines, so just make sure you wear comfortable shoes when you decide to come here. Taking a break between walks won’t be a problem since there will be plenty of cafes and eateries on the way to and within the Ihwa Mural Village. You can do it! 😀

The Ihwa Mural Village appeals so much to the artistic side of me, but I also love the concept of renewal and second chances the village stands for.

10 years ago, the neighbourhood where the Ihwa Mural Village now stands was a slum that was supposed to be cleared away and demolished to make way for something new and shiny. But then, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism decided to launch an “Art in the City” campaign to try and revitalize these kinds of areas all over the country.

Similar to what they’ve done with the Gamchon Culture Village in Busan, they launched the “Ihwa-dong Naksan Project” wherein they invited over 70 artists to contribute artworks and installations to literally give the village a makeover.

If you look at it now, there’s not much indication that it was once a slum. I’m not sure when this place becomes super crowded since it wasn’t really packed when we were here, but I did see a fair amount of young tourists and young Korean people roaming around. Must be because of the hipster feel of the whole area. I would still call this location something of a hidden gem though.

There’s a staggering amount of beautiful street art here at the Ihwa Mural Village, but the one below has got to be one of my favourite wall arts. I think it perfectly captures that light and breezy feeling you get when you’re in love. 🙂

It took 6 months, 70 artists, plus volunteers from different Korean universities to accomplish this massive art project. Hand-painted murals will pop up to surprise you at nearly every corner, and you can take your time to discover all the hundred plus works if you wish. It would probably take you a full leisurely day to see them all.

We didn’t spend that long wandering around Ihwa-dong so I only have photographs of what we saw. Funnily enough, even Lee Min Ho makes a guest appearance.

I love how the artists incorporated all the things that were already there into their paintings. Any flaw or crack on the wall became a part of the art– any pipe or bump on the wall too– such that you would barely notice that they were once imperfections.

My favourite part of the Ihwa Mural Village are the staircases. They may be steep to climb but boy are they stunning! Alternating between paintings and tiled mosaics, these works of art were probably one of the most difficult to create. It’s why I give them my biggest appreciate.

As you explore, you will spot several museums, art galleries, souvenir shops, and hip cafes along the way. Pretty cool how this guy looks both flat and 3D at the same time, eh?

I even spotted a guesthouse though I can imagine the torturous exercise of having to carry your luggage up the stairs of the Ihwa Mural Village. OMG you guys.

I bought some snacks and soft serve ice cream from a street food vendor and carefully munched on them as I tried to navigate through the narrow and steep paths of the village. Sustenance will be much appreciated once you take on those flights of stairs haha! (Please do not litter anywhere in this residential village! We are only visitors in someone else’s home turf!)

Understandably, the more popular this village became, the more disgruntled the residents grew with all the noise and constant barrage of strange people taking pictures outside their houses. All over Ihwa-dong, you will notice signs pleading for tourists to keep their voices down as a sign of respect to the residents. It didn’t seem to work that well as more and more of them came out to complain that they’ve been having even their privacy violated.

Recently, in an attempt to regulate the number of visitors, the residents decided to remove some of the very popular artworks in the neighbourhood, including my beloved staircases. It’s sad, but I also feel bad for the residents to be honest. I was extra conscious about making any unnecessary noise the whole time I was here, but there will always be other people who don’t give a damn. 🙁

We were lucky to have visited the Ihwa Mural Village in mid-March– barely a month before the residents decided to remove the mosaic art and paint over the staircases in April 2016. The government has found other tourist-friendly locations in Seoul for the artists to turn into new mural villages though, so maybe that’s something new to discover for next time.

After walking around the village, you will surely find yourself famished. Not only are the stairs steep, you will always be walking up and down slopes, which always requires a bit more stamina. On our walk down Naksan Mountain to go back to the subway station, we stopped by a restaurant called 어고집국수 Eogojib Guksu to have a late lunch.

There wasn’t any particular reason why we picked this restaurant, but I think seeing the pictures of the dishes they serve on their signage outside helped a lot. Based on the name of the restaurant though, they seem to be specializing on noodles (guksu) which is something I’m always up for!

But first, the appetizer! We ordered a King Mandu to share, and I really enjoyed the crunchy pan-fried skin of this one. It’s also packed with filling, including some cut up pieces of glass noodles.

And then, we had some jjajangmyeon cooked right at our table. The black bean sauce including all its toppings was already bottled up, so all the ahjumma owner had to do was pour everything in. This doesn’t taste a lot like the traditional jjajangmyeon I’m used to but it’s still good.

And finally, bibim guksu! This has a spicy sauce made with kimchi and hot chili paste, over thin somyeon noodles. I mentioned before that my favourite Korean noodle dish is the bibim naengmyeon, and while the concept and the look for both these noodle dishes are the same, I would say the taste is not.

They’re both served cold with toppings you mix around with the noodles, but the bibim naengmyeon for me is more refreshing and has more flavour dimensions compared to the bibim guksu. Still good enough for my fellow spicy-food lovers though!

After a tasty and spicy lunch, we were hankering for some sweet dessert. And what else would we see but a churros shop?

These friend doughnuts are super popular over here! You will see a churros shop anywhere you go in Seoul, and this one was apparently visited by one of the members of popular K-Pop boyband EXO. Not really a fan of those guys but these churros were pretty good!

Even though I don’t know how much art has been trimmed down from this Mural Village in the last few months, I feel lucky to have seen this side of Seoul before it was erased.

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Ihwa Mural Village 이화 벽화마을

Jongno-gu, Ihwa-dong, 낙산길 35-1, Seoul, South Korea
How to get here: Take Subway Line 4 to Hyehwa Station then take Exit 2. This blog post is a really helpful visual walkthrough of how to get to the Ihwa Mural Village. This is the exact same route we took. You can input the Korean name of the Mural Village into Google Maps as well to help you along the way.

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