A lot of places can claim to blend past and future, but Seoul somehow manages to hurtle towards both at once.
First impressions of South Korea’s sprawling capital are almost always dominated by its near-hyperactive modernity—the streets illuminated by streaks of neon and giant flat screens, the vast network of near mint-condition trains that whisk commuters around the city, and broadband connections so fast and ubiquitous that the sidewalks are full of people watching live sports broadcasts on their mobile phones.
But then you turn a corner and ancient roots reassert themselves—in the granite spine of a mountain that’s protected the city for 600 years, the fluttering flags that mark a place of divination and shamanist ritual, the graceful, curved eaves of a traditional home, or fiery, ochre peppers, spread out on a straw mat to dry in the sun.
These sometimes jarring contrasts are a result of Seoul being the focal point for Korea’s dual-pronged determination. Scarred by conflict, colonization, and poverty, it’s a metropolis racing to embrace brighter prospects. And, having won its affluence after decades of struggle, Seoul is now bent on enjoying it—a truth that’s immediately evident in the city’s constantly heaving shopping complexes, trendy cafés, and pulsating nightspots.
But at the same time, Seoul is working to reclaim a history that until recently it’s been separated from by war and foreign rule. Palaces are being busily restored to their former glory and the fortress walls that once surrounded the city center are being rebuilt. Streams that were paved over in the rush to develop have been freed to course through the capital once again.
Old ceremonies are regularly reenacted in all their pomp, color, and complexity; time-honored themes filtered through the dynamic lens of a thriving art scene. And as the city becomes increasingly confident about its place in the world as a host of many global events and with an increasingly global population, all this is accompanied by a heady new cosmopolitanism.
The fact that Seoul’s ongoing transformation has taken place largely in the shadows—of greater powers, of a hostile neighbor, of limited land and resources and economic crisis—only adds to its air of possibility, and its reputation as a place that defies expectations. It’s these traits that are Seoul’s greatest promise to the visitor, and that make the metropolis such a rewarding place to explore.
Dive into Seoul’s Best…
© Jonathan Hopfner from Moon Seoul, 1st Edition