Nostalgia for Main Street

Sometimes I find myself standing on a corner at Gwanghwamun (광화문 光化門) intersection, staring nostalgically down Jongno (종로 鐘路), trying (mostly in vain) to picture in my mind exactly what it looked like when I first became a denizen of its back alleys nearly 50 years ago. In those days the street was much narrower, and to both the north and the south a small alley ran parallel to the main drag. These alleys were called pimatgol (피맛골), literally meaning 'Avoid-Horse Alley.'

Electric trolleys on Jongno

The electric trolley lines on Jongno were removed in 1968.

The one to the north is still there, though it has been severed in places along its length by the construction of modern high-rises. And believe it or not, except for the occasional glimpse you get of that new alien-spaceship-like tower by Jonggak (종각 鐘閣) Station, the character of the alley hasn't changed so much over the years. Until recently, there were still a few funky, old-fashioned makgeolli (막걸리) houses there. Unfortunately, one of my favorites, the Yeolchatchip (열찻집), which used to stand just inside the entrance to the pimatgol behind the Kyobo (교보) Building, is now gone because of redevelopment of the neighborhood. It was famous for its pindaettok (빈대떡), a pancakelike snack made from a batter of mungbeans freshly ground with an old-style millstone, right on the premises.

A view of the north pimatgol

A view of part of the north pimatgol before recent “redevelopment” caused most of these old-style eateries to be razed.

The pimatgol to the south of Jongno did not fare so well. It and the other alleys that crossed it were once a very popular hangout for nighttime revelers — much more popular, in fact, than their northern counterpart. There were dozens and dozens of Korean-style taverns that specialized in octopus (낙지, not 문어), stir-fried in red-pepper sauce and served with, you guessed it, makgeolli. (Though ideally made of rice, makgeolli back then was concocted from a maize mash because of government regulations to conserve rice.) When increasing traffic demanded that Jongno be widened, it was along the south side that the bulldozers moved, razing all of Nakji Golmok (낙지 골목) ('Octopus Alley'), as the southern pimatgol was affectionately dubbed. A few of the octopus houses moved across to the side streets and alleys to the north of Jongno, but most of them seem simply to have disappeared forever. Such is progress.

Nakji bokkeum

Nakji bokkeum, octopus stir-fried in red-pepper sauce

Jongno, which runs from Gwanghwamun intersection on the west all the way to Dongdaemun (동대문 東大門, meaning 'East Gate'), has been Seoul's principal commercial artery since the city was built more than six hundred years ago, and though many other commercial centers have sprung up in other parts of town as the city spread out, in the hearts of all Seoulites, Jongno is still "Main Street."

Throughout the Joseon (조선 朝鮮) Dynasty, it was merchants on Jongno who supplied the royal family and government offices with the various goods they needed. It was along Jongno that the city's first "mass transit" system (electric trolleys) ran at the end of the 19th century and beneath Jongno that Seoul's first subway line was built almost eighty years later. And it was from here that the great curfew bell rang out morning and night to signal the opening and closing of the city gates. That is, in fact, how the street got its name, which means 'Bell Street.'

Bosingak bell pavilion

Bosingak, the pavilion housing the bell that was used to signal curfew during the Joseon Dynasty.

Jongno, along with Shinmunno (신문로 新門路), its "continuation" to the west of Gwanghwamun intersection, used to be the place to go book hunting. Of course, it's still home to Korea's biggest bookstores, all bright and shiny and modern, offering a huge selection of titles and computerized service, which is all wonderful. But I still miss the old dusty places where, to find the real treasures, you had to sidle your way between stacks of books toppling to the ceiling and maybe even risk breaking a leg going down some rickety stairs to look through the really old used volumes in a musty basement. They were a book-lover's idea of thrills and adventure. Now I just sit in front of my computer and Amazon finds those out-of-print titles for me and has them delivered to my door by FedEx or UPS. But I miss that element of surprise and delight at pulling a book from the bottom of a pile and blowing the dust off to discover that it's the one I'd really been wanting but didn't know it until I saw it. That never happens when you're ordering online.

Maybe the city should build a little Jongno theme park downtown, where instead of rides you'd have an "Octopus Alley" maze of old-style taverns and instead of a fun house you'd have a pleasantly musty, but suitably dangerous, old bookshop. I know I'd be a regular visitor.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 27 April 2000.