There’s only one bus stop in the neighborhood. Its name is so generic that it could be located anywhere in Korea. As every neighborhood does, it has the usual collection of businesses: a dry cleaner, a plainly furnished bunsikjeom (분식점), a beauty salon where elderly women gather to converse. But that’s where this neighborhood ceases to be typically Korean—or rather, typically Seoul. Despite its location just 20 minutes north of Jongno, there are no Paris Baguettes, Caffe Benes, or chain grocery stores within sight. Most noticeably, there is no sound in Buam-dong.
In place of the customary urban trademarks are brightly painted stairways in red and blue, artist ateliers and music salons. The independent cafés not only offer hand drip coffee and German currywurst, but also flower arrangement classes and vintage Scandinavian tableware. Curiously, a sign at the intersection indicates the presence of a Secular Order of Discalced Carmelite Nuns. How does one explain the idiosyncratic creativity thriving in this one-bus-stop-neighborhood?
Its relative isolation may be the key to its charm. “I find the mountain landscape here peaceful and calm,” said metalwork artist Lee Hyeong-hoon. “This area has been inhabited by artists for centuries, and I feel that being here provides me yeong-gam (영감), or inspiration.”
Cradled between the Inwang and Bugak mountain ranges, Buam-dong has long fostered creative minds such as the 18th century landscape painter, Jeong Seon and the political activist and poet, Yun Dong-ju. Having lived the latter part of his life nearby, Jeong Seon painted dozens of landscapes of the area, and developed a distinctly Korean style that departed from the stronghold of Chinese aesthetics during the Joseon Dynasty. Revered for his political activism, poet Yun Dong-ju found philosophical insight, and perhaps solace, during Japanese colonial rule while climbing the hills in Buam-dong, now marked by a trail with his name.
For reasons mirroring those of Lee, my translator and local resident, Joh Mi-na said,“I love the quiet atmosphere and being surrounded by nature.” Joh recently started working a job one hour south, in Gyeonggi-do, but doesn’t mind the commute. “It’s great to return here after a long day at work,” she said, “I need this kind of environment to do what I love: write.”
To be sure, the artistic and the mundane are intertwined. Rather than model the gritty yet endearing youth culture of Hongdae, or the rarefied appeal of Cheongdam-dong, Buam-dong has gone on a quieter path that harmonizes work with creativity.
The proprietress of Café Dawoom 223.1, Kim Soon-ok, for instance, allows her café to become her workspace. She is a floral arrangement artist, and she fills the interior of her café with an array of blooms styled according to the philosophy and principles of Ikebana, or Japanese floral design. “Arranging was simply a pastime that I wanted to express in the café,” said Kim. “When patrons began inquiring about the centerpieces, I saw it as an opportunity to share my passion for floral design.” Customers can learn from Kim directly, or simply enjoy them tableside with a cup of coffee and a panoramic view of the mountains.
Away from Café Dawoom on the main street, past a bright yellow wall, is a specialty rice cake shop, Mi Jeong Dang, (미정당). Unlike the average tteok (떡) shops that serve a typical variety of heavy rectangular cakes and chewy spheres, Mi Jeong Dang only makes artisan cakes to order. Crafted with all-natural ingredients, the miniature-sized tteok are topped with delicately tinted flower buds or dried fruits and nuts soaked in a mixture of syrup and spices.
Peeking through the array of dough mixers and aluminum trays at the shop is a young girl—a testament to a type of stability rarely found among the frequent business turnovers in modern-day Seoul. The tiny infant who once lay quietly in a bassinet at Mi Jeong Dang is now just shy of four years old. Whizzing about the tight workspace, she narrowly misses an aunt’s knee and a carefully balanced tray of fresh tteok. Unconcerned, male and female relatives chatter on whilst nimbly fashioning the flour into banquet-worthy centerpieces. A scene of industry and intergenerational harmony, this little shop on the corner is a comforting fixture in Buam-dong.
If you go:
If you can, it’s best to visit on a weekday. Although not impossible to get a table in the neighborhood eateries on the weekend, be prepared to wade through traffic or wait in lines.
Getting there: Gyeongbokgung Station, exit 3. Walk straight past Dunkin Donuts to the main bus stop. 15–20 minutes ride on buses 7022, 7212 or 1020 to Buam-dong Community Center (부암동주민센터).
Demitasse: Menu includes reasonably-priced international cuisine, desserts and coffees; they also feature vintage Scandinavian tableware for purchase. Seating is limited, so come early (by 5 p.m.) for dinner.
Café Dawoom 223.1: Food and drink options abound for brunch, lunch and dinner, but the true appeal is the airy and beautifully furnished interior with nooks and private rooms available for booking. Don’t forget to check out their flower arrangement classes! Map and links (Korean).
Art for Life: Part café, bistro, art gallery and music salon. Owned by former Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra musicians, performances by a variety of artists are regularly held and open to the public. Proceeds from tickets are donated to local charities.
Note: All interviews were conducted in Korean and translated into English by Joh Mi-na.