20 September 2008

Seoul sightseeing - Jamsil edition

I spent this afternoon visiting the familiar stomping grounds of Jamsil district, in the southeastern portion of Seoul. Although I was born in downtown Seoul, all my addresses (prior to moving to Los Angeles, anyway) were in the Jamsil area, so it was a nice homecoming for me. Jamsil hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics, and in preparation, underwent major developments when I grew up there; today, it's a very dynamic neighborhood.

This subway train will take me to Jamsil. It is running on Seoul Subway Line 2, the longest circle line subway in the world, and Seoul's most heavily traveled subway line. Line 2 was first opened in 1980 to primarily serve the Olympic facilities of Jamsil, and the entire circle line was completed by 1984.

The train is in green, the identifying color of Line 2; many foreigners (but very few Koreans) simply call it the Green Line. It also happens to be the original early 1980s rolling stock, which is being phased out in favor of newer model trainsets.

I have arrived at Jamsil. Behind the glass screen doors (similar to those installed on London Underground's Jubilee Line Extension), my train is now leaving the station. These glass doors are being rolled out in many South Korean subway stations, partly to prevent suicides (the leading cause of death for young South Koreans), and partly to prevent smoke from spreading in case of a fire. The latter became a major concern in 2003, when an arsonist in Daegu set a subway car on fire, it spread to another train and an entire station, and dozens of people were killed.

Jamsil was my home subway station when I lived in the area, and again in 1994 when I stayed in the area for a month. I still consider it my "home" station on the Seoul subway system.

Lotte World, a complex consisting of a mall, two department stores, a hotel, and an amusement park, is connected directly to Jamsil station. As its name indicates, it's owned by Lotte Group, a Japanese conglomerate founded by an ethnic Korean. Lotte's department stores are pretty much the most upscale in South Korea.

Entering the department store from the subway station, I could see this replica of Rome's Trevi Fountain.

The department store has 11 stories plus the basement. The 8th floor contains the electronics department, which includes this Apple Store. There are no stand-alone Apple Stores in South Korea, so this is as best as it gets. The displays included an iMac running Microsoft Windows, which is an absolute necessity in South Korea due to the Windows-centric programming of the websites here.

A display on the same floor sells household goods, including bath products from a British company called Lush. I've used their products when visiting San Francisco and Vancouver, and certainly loved smelling them again here. But my current digs have only a shower, no bath, so I had to skip.

Several floors are dedicated to women's fashion. This display has two mannequins dressed a lot like I do back home in the States. The left one's got a boxy cardigan and a mini, and the right one's got a cowlneck sweater with sheer leggings. Next time I come back to this store, I want to come back in one of these looks.

Lots of women were wearing similar looks today. Any more leggings, and I'd swear this was the 1980s.

The ground floor has many cosmetics counters, including my favorite brand - MAC. Product selections are pretty much the same as what I'd find in the US and Canada.

I moved on to the shopping mall attached to the department store. One of the features of this mall is this indoors ice rink. Admission, including skate rental, is a reasonable 13,000 won (USD $13). It is surrounded by various restaurants, including Lotteria (hamburgers), various European restaurants, a Sizzler, and a TGI Friday's.

Above the mall, there is an indoors amusement park. Its name is Lotte World Adventure, and it is the largest indoors amusement park in the world. Full-day admission is 35,000 won (USD $35), and evening (5PM-11PM) admission is 26,000 won (USD $26).

There is also a shooting range here - a rare chance to play with live bullets in South Korea, where gun control is otherwise extraordinarily strict. Here, I have a chance to become Angelina Jolie, as seen in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. But as everyone knows, I am a lifelong member of Team Aniston, so I skipped both the display and the shooting range itself.

There is also an American/British style bowling alley, with 14 lanes, but there was a 40-minute wait for a lane, so I had to back out. Price for a game of bowling was 3,600 won (USD $3.60) with another 1,400 won (USD $1.40) for shoe rental.

The mall also has South Korea's only curved escalator. In fact, even elsewhere in the world, I've seen very few curved escalators. I know of only two - San Francisco Shopping Centre (5th and Market) and Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas.

A bookstore at the mall has a very good selection of maps and atlases. I will need to return here before I embark on my road trip to Gyeongju.

Nearby was the store's religious section, with ample selection of Korean and English Bibles, some Christian books (mostly US Religious Right propaganda translated into Korean), and some Buddhist books.

The third floor of the mall has a folk museum (admission 5,000 won, or USD $5) and a food court selling traditional Korean food. I will cover the folk museum's artifacts in a separate post, over at Christy's Art Blog. But I will share this display here - a miniature of a village on Jeju Island, with the island's famous female divers in the foreground.

The above picture is dedicated to my writing mentor Gayle Brandeis, whose first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, has a protagonist, Helen Sing Lo (birthname Hye-yang Song), who starts out as a Jeju Island diver before heading mainland, eventually becoming a sex worker at a US military base in Gunsan, before being abandoned in the US with a half-black daughter.

A 100-hwan banknote issued in May 1962, showing a mother and a child saving money to encourage the South Korean people to save. This banknote only lasted a month, however, as rampant inflation forced a currency reform that replaced the hwan with the won, which is used to this day. This is the only South Korean banknote to ever feature a woman on it - though next year, that will change, with the introduction of the 50,000-won (USD $50) banknote featuring historical figure Shin Saimdang. Many feminists are upset that a more modern, more assertive woman wasn't picked instead. Shin was a typical deferent Confucian mother, and her son, philosopher Yulgok Yi Yi, has graced the 5,000-won (USD $5) banknote since the 1970s.

At the exit from the folk museum, I found this little hut offering philosophical advice. Some services offered: naming service for individuals and businesses, as well as palm reading. Picking the proper Chinese characters for one's Korean name is extremely important. The signs also say that per a November 2005 court ruling, every Korean has a right to change his/her name at will for any reason, and this place will help find a more suitable name.

Elsewhere in the mall, there also were Tarot card readers.

Across from Lotte World is Jamsil Apartment Complex Phase 5, built in the 1970s by the Korean Housing Authority, when Jamsil was little more than silkworm farms (Jamsil means "silk room"). These apartment buildings were the state of the art at the time, with centralized boiler heating, 15 stories served by two fast elevators, ample parking (back when there were less than 100,000 cars in all of South Korea) and much more. I lived here until 1984 - when these buildings were still the highest in Jamsil. By comparison, the four earlier phases consisted of coal-fired 5-story buildings with no elevators.

Fast forward to today, with 3 million cars in Seoul alone. 30-story apartment buildings tower all around. The first four phases have all been demolished to make room for those 30-story buildings. These buildings now show signs of age, and may themselves be demolished in the future to make way for more modern buildings. But for now, they look safe.

Twenty years ago this month, Seoul was the center of the world's attention, as the host of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games that showcased South Korea's postwar industrialization. To commemorate the anniversary, several events are scheduled tomorrow at Jamsil's Olympic Stadium, according to this poster I found at a subway station on Line 2.

And to think about it, the 1988 Games were very special, according to Wikipedia. It had the last daytime opening ceremony; in turn, that opening ceremony was the last to use live pigeons to symbolize world peace, as several were burned alive during the lighting of the Olympic flame. The official Olympic flag, which was first used in Antwerp for the 1924 Games, was retired after Los Angeles in 1984, and Seoul had the honor of making two new flags as replacements, which were used in Beijing last month and are currently in London, the next host. Last, but not the least, it was the last Cold War Olympic Games, with no major boycotts, and it certainly was the last to feature the USSR (though its remnants did field a Unified Team in Barcelona four years later).