Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Itaewon Freedom

During my various trips to Korea I usually attempted to avoid Itaewon, Seoul's famous foreign quarter, missing it entirely during my first trip. The reason for this was that Itaewon had initially been described to me as essentially a place where foreigners who don't like Korean stuff hang out. It was my belief that, as I had come all that way to Korea, it was primarily "Korean stuff" that I wanted to experience (this is, of course, despite the fact that Itaewon is a place that could really only exist in Korea). Thus did I live in relation to Itaewon, as a satellite orbiting its respective centre of mass -- passing it often but rarely making any direct contact with it.

Itaewon in the winter (pic stolen from Time Travel)

Itaewon is a district in downtown Seoul that came into existence as the cultural entity known today because it was in close proximity to an American military base. Initially it was built up to attract local GIs as a den of debauchery featuring Western-themed restaurants, bars, clubs, and other, far less "wholesome" business ventures, if you get my drift. Though the Itaewon of today still has its military presence to some degree, it has diversified into a bustling multicultural smorgasbord of restaurants, pubs, clubs, and shops and is also the largest haven for Korea's mostly underground gay community. As my hometown of Toronto is known for much of the same stuff (minus the concentrated military presence), I have nicknamed it "T-Town."

And it was mostly this that kept me out of the place. Why go to Itaewon when I can experience a similar scene in the place I inevitably have to go back to? Sure enough, my first interactions with the place when I did eventually go there revealed expensive food prices, alpha-male GIs aggressively and sleazily trying to hit on both local and foreign women, drunken and belligerent North Americans yelling at each other and getting into fistfights, and frustrated and occasionally pretentious Korean hipsters doing their utmost to not be a tool of Korean collectivist culture. While I can relate to the last one a bit, the others are basically things I've always disliked about the nightlife in my own country and which tend to be toned down quite a bit in Korean night culture, which I find preferable. In other words, Itaewon initially didn't leave much of an impression on me as a place I would actively seek out for any particular reason. Especially with Sinchon, Hongdae, Jongno, and Gangnam to choose from, all decidedly more "Korean" than Itaewon could ever be (I thought). That is, until I spent a bit more time in Itaewon with people who actually knew and loved the place, and thus began discovering a number of unique and endearing things about it.

All That Jazz in Itaewon
One opinion that many of my local Korean friends held was that Itaewon is awesome. At first I took this as their being innately interested in that which was foreign or different, something that captures the imaginations of many people around the world. These friends of mine described Itaewon as a great place to eat, relax, and check out live music and clubs with a more relaxed and less pretentious feeling than, say, Gangnam, for example.

The signboard for All That Jazz
Well, the other week I finally started to see what they were getting at when I was taken by one of my Korean friends to All That Jazz, Itaewon's most famous jazz club, where I saw Korean acid-fusion jazz group Kumapark play live. I hadn't previously heard of these guys, but after watching their performance it was a wonder to me how they'd managed to go unnoticed (by me) for so long. Simply awesome! After that we had massive burgers at some burger restaurant that I can't remember the name of, which, though pricey, managed to bring back memories of some of the best burgers I've had in Toronto. After finishing our dinner we went to Hip Hop Club U.N., which was playing hip hop exclusively -- a nice change from the usual, dare I say monotonous, dance music that plays in most Korean clubs. It was pretty sick.

The burger that was eaten, called the Ambulance Burger, featuring a fried egg, two hash-brown patties, bacon, and MEAT!
After this fine evening I began to reflect on all my Itaewon experiences, and I came to the conclusion that Itaewon does offer some pretty unique experiences that can't really be found anywhere else in Korea, and it should be visited at least once by anyone who travels to the place. Looking back, Itaewon had always been pretty good to me. Tasty Turkish and Thai food; eating the only burrito I was ever fully satisfied with in Korea, with Simon and Martina from Eatyourkimchi.com, whom I met randomly in a pub and found out they were super-nice people; meeting EE at the Cakeshop; drinking GOOD beer; and now listening to great jazz, eating great burgers, and dancing to great hip hop! Seems like Itaewon freedom ain't no myth!

So I guess what I'm saying is that if you're one of those people who thought as I did, perhaps you may want to try giving Itaewon another chance. It has a lot going for it. Now watch this video -- it's hilarious.


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