A quick tour of Seoul’s famous business and shopping districts reveals a stunningly busy society. Fashion-conscious crowds shove their way past stands hawking costume jewelry, colors of socks beyond imagination and the hottest touchphone accessories. Sky-high concrete structures tower above. Super-sized LCD screens beguile passersby with images of the latest miracles in cosmetic technology. Bakery and coffee chain doors continuously swing open and shut, engulfing and then releasing waves of customers. The sheer visual weight of sharing space with 11 million other individuals in Seoul can be dizzying.
Just a short twenty minute bus ride northwest reveals a completely different facet of life in Seoul. It is that of a neighborhood named Gugi-dong. Moving at its own pace and rhythm in spite of modern technology and a growing international population, remnants of old world patterns still exist here. Unlike newer locales consisting of pricey, high-rise apartments, these residences are hardly taller than four stories. Woven in between are homes of the customary one-story, standalone style. Each is placed closely together. Almost unnoticed is a tree with dark, thickly layered bark standing in a back walkway. A plain-colored sign humbly announces its age: over 500 years old. Instead of skyscrapers, tree-covered mountains provide the backdrop for the traditional neighborhood in Seoul.
On a warm spring evening, blue lilacs release their soft, powdery scent, drawing neighborhood dwellers out for an post-dinner stroll. As twilight fades, the elderly climb the hilly terrain slowly with hands clasped behind bent backs—an iconic gesture in an iconic scene.
Beginning early in the morning, a man maneuvers a truck laden with fresh catch or onions and garlic brought in from the countryside. Recorded announcements blare from a loudspeaker, attracting the attention of housewives planning meals for the day. A woman receives her morning delivery: a container filled with fruit-flavored yogurt and milk in little cartons to sell on the corner. She stands there day after day, rain or shine. Regular customers always pause to gossip. If there is anyone itching to hear the latest neighborhood secrets, this ahjumma is the ideal person to befriend.
Elementary students chatter in shrill voices, jostling each other at the corner deokbokki stand to buy the after-school snack. Soon, they will fill extra-curricular academies lining the narrow street behind the school. Unlike their flashy, brand name counterparts in the business district, these are small little storefronts. Budding young painters, musicians and could-be taekwondo champions train to make mom and dad proud. Promising greatness, the doors feature signage like “Matisse Institute” or “Vienna Music Academy.”
Balancing on a ledge up the hill, a tray of silver-colored fish with glassy eyes is set aside for an upcoming meal. Walking further through the back alleyway reveals chili peppers adorning a clothesline above, painstakingly hung by a housewife to dry. Below, rotund ceramic jars anticipate being filled with kimchi. The chilies will soon be packed in tightly to add punch and depth to Korea’s national dish. In the fall, smooth, orange-colored persimmons weigh down the branches of a tree. Bright and ready for the picking, the fruits remind passersby that the Chuseok holiday quickly approaches.
Buddhist temples perched at the top of narrow stairways in the mountainside are surprisingly accessible through the local streets. The month of May sweeps in with preparation for Buddha’s birthday. Jewel-colored lanterns swing above the sidewalks and the heady smell of incense burning in his honor drifts through open windows.
With residences built so closely together, it is common to hear the clinking of metal chopsticks announcing that your neighbor’s meal has been set. On a warm spring evening, blue lilacs release their soft, powdery scent, drawing neighborhood dwellers out for an post-dinner stroll. As twilight fades, the elderly climb the hilly terrain slowly with hands clasped behind bent backs—an iconic gesture in an iconic scene.
While Seoul continues to impress the world with its ever-evolving industries and trends, neighborhoods like Gugi-dong nurture the spirit and traditions of a Korean village. Just a few minutes away from the busy metropolis center, the deliberate pace of daily life and its understated indications of passing seasons is a beautiful surprise. Here in the local neighborhood you will find the subtle rhythm that balances the pulsing and dynamic personality of the city.