Following a friend’s recommendation for an easy getaway from the bustle of Seoul, I boarded a bus bound for Heyri, an arts village barely 45 minutes away. The ride led me past shopping malls, suburbs and a long stretch of barbed wire along the northern reaches of the Han River that border the DMZ. Built from the ground up over the last fifteen years, its founders envisioned an arts community existing in harmony with nature and drew together painters, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers, gallery owners and chefs. It’s developing into a hub for Korean modern art. The very fabric of Heyri itself is a work of art, its footprint a canvass for the highest concentration of modernist architecture in contrast to a Korea where faceless apartments dominate the skyline. Here, the angled, sleek buildings in muted tones rise up out of the bright green landscape like seaside cliffs stranded on hillsides.
Heyri is a carefully planned work in progress. Its design mandate, passed down from the various committees and subcommittees of artists and residents that run the village, decreed height and volume limits as well as a list of approved architects. It’s also touted as an eco-village. As Forest Garden Guesthouse co-owner Son Yeong-won points out, “Here, the roads follow the natural contours of the land. Heyri was designed to exist in harmony with nature.” While Heyri’s claim to be green would be more convincing if there were fewer motorists driving within the bounds of this walkable village, the acres of preserved wetlands, trees and hillsides speak to its green intentions. Rather than razing through hillsides, buildings coexist with them, resulting in unique designs that play with layers and angles. Just over half of the 300 planned buildings have been built, leaving the village dotted with small meadows.
There’s something odd about the juxtaposition of Heyri’s ultra-modern structures with the lush countryside that surrounds it. Walking through chic cafes and gleaming galleries amongst dragonflies bordered on the otherworldly. It was as if Samcheong-dong’s galleries and Garusogil’s cafes were dropped right into the middle of a verdant valley. Visitors looking for more classical surroundings or a more traditional rustic setting would be well-advised to look elsewhere.
Still, the place has a dreamlike appeal and strolling down its streets calls for meandering and long bouts of reflection. Heyri is the place where an author fighting writer’s block or an artist in the doldrums of retirement might seek refuge, comforted by the guarantee of an excellent latte within easy walking distance.
If you go
Take bus 200 (~45 minutes) or 2200 (~35 minutes) from Hapjeong station (exit 2) to Heyri Gate 1. Bus fare is 2000 won. Tip: Sit on the left side of the bus on your way there to catch glimpses of watchtowers and the DMZ. There is no entrance fee or closing hours to Heyri. Note: Many businesses are closed on Monday with the exception of a few. Most galleries close at 6pm, and entrance is usually either free or 5,000 won.
Total Art Space Book House
This large structure, one of the first to be built in Heyri, houses an enormous, hangar-like cafe, basement art gallery and multi-story bookstore that winds up three spiraling levels. English texts are limited, but come for their layout and browse the book covers as if they were fine paintings.
In a building entwined with living trees, Keumsan Gallery primarily features minimalist works by East Asian artists. Attached Cafe Blume roasts their beans in-house.
Its minimalist and surreal structure alone is worth seeing, composed of an impossibly balanced box “floating” over a glass-walled bottom floor. Within, large windows allow seeing “through” the building while eight structural layers surround a glass-walled traditional Korean room at the heart of the building.
Museum of Musical Instruments of the World (세계민속악기박물관)
A small space packed with instruments from around the world. Most of the information tags are in Korean, but the director is very friendly and just might let you try some out. It’s worth noting (he explained) that his collection, started in 2003, is the first of its kind in Korea. Unlike China and Japan, whose history as colonial powers allowed them to amass collections of international artifacts, Korea hasn’t had such opportunities until recently.
Camarata Music Hall
A single entrance fee of 10,000 won covers a drink and pastry (order and pick-up at the counter), as well as a classical music experience orchestrated by a resident DJ. Enormous speakers cover the far wall of the cavernous space, guaranteeing that Ride of the Valkyries is nearly as aurally stupendous as the real thing. Jot down requests with the pencil and paper provided at each table, and take it up to the DJ. Traditional Korean teas come out in large, handmade mugs and bowls.
Sangsang Gallery & Cafe (컬처플레이스상상)
The bright red bus outside and vines creeping around the entrance might have been a clue, but step inside and you know you’ve stepped into the seventies. Music posters, album art and a wall of CDs and records fill the interior. Say hello to the owner ajeosshi, who sports a shaggy haircut, grab a seat, and enjoy a range of classic pop from the Beatles to Madonna.
Handmade dumplings at Cozy House: Delicious, unpretentious and beautiful Korean food is served on handmade traditional pottery in a setting filled with thick philosophy books. Mountain herbs are served in addition to the traditional side dishes. Try the ma-gondeullae bibimbap, a twist on bibimbap that incorporates ma, a sweet crunchy root, with gondeulre, a slightly bitter mountain herb. They also sell take-home containers of dumplings and shikhye, or sweet rice punch. Highly recommended.
Dessert at Rumi Cake, just down the street: Head here after dinner for cheese tart or banana pie. After having your cake and eating it too, take home a prettily packaged pastry as a gift.
Wood-fired pizza at Between Pizzeria: Thin crust, fresh ingredients. If one pizza is not quite enough for two, supplement it with a ciabatta sandwich from the cafe downstairs. Both bistros are part of Han Hyang Lim Cermanic Museum.
Hot chocolate at The Chocolate Gallery: Chocolate and art meld into one experience for all five senses here. If 85% cacao content means anything to you, you’ll appreciate this place (those with sweeter tastes will find plenty to like here, too).
Traditional Korean cookies at Nongbu-ro Buteo (농부로부터): Their name means “from the farmer” and their motto is “Farming is art,” and they could have added that grocery stores can be galleries. In the vein of Whole Foods, beautifully packaged products are displayed artfully and prices are higher than your corner market. The majority of products are local and organic.
Splurge on Forest Garden, a light-filled house split into two adjoined structures that surround a garden of trees. Sit here a while and bask in the calm. The couple that owns it speak English well, having lived internationally before settling in Heyri. Double rooms between 170 and 220,000 won.
Motif 1, just down the hill, is a guesthouse managed by artist Lee An-soo. The building houses a handful of rooms, each with a distinct character and color palette, as well as a library and art gallery. Double rooms 140,000 won on weekends.
If these places are booked, Hotel Jijihyang in nearby Paju has similar design on a grander scale and plenty of rooms at similar rates. For lower rates, check out the motels near Geumchon Station in Paju. Boutique Hotel M’s deluxe suite comes for 80,000 won/night (Tel: 031-949-4226).
If you only have a few hours and want to see more of the village, rent a bike at gate 3 for 4,000 won/hour and coast through Heyri’s well-heeled neighborhoods on well-paved streets. If biking or walking is not an option, take a golf cart tour of Heyri for 5,000 won (just inside gate 3).
If you have young children, check out Ddalgi-ga Joa (딸기가 좋아), or “I Like Strawberries,” on the north side of Heyri for play spaces, toys and children’s clothing boutiques.
Additional reportage by Sung Choi