In 1993 I visited Korea for the first time since immigrating to Canada. I was awestruck: from large crowds of people to the neon lights, my senses were on overdrive. Seoul (서울) seemed to be a cyberpunk utopia–the kind of city imagined in films like Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell.
Long before transit politics took centre stage in Toronto City Hall, Seoul already boasted a world-class subway that ran like the city’s arterial veins. As of 2018, the Seoul Metropolitan Subway consists of 21 rapid transit, light metro, commuter rail and people mover lines. Lack of a personal vehicle certainly doesn’t hinder one’s navigational freedom and mobility.
A city is more than the sum of its parts and those parts can only be found on foot. In 2012, I returned and did exactly that. Seoul was this seemingly infinite and mysterious place, asking to be discovered. During my walks, I’d often forget about provisions as the city had me captivated.
Seoul had undergone multiple name changes throughout its history: Wiryeseong (위례성) during the Baekje era, Hanyang (한양) during the Goryeo era, and Hanseong (한성) during the Joseon era. Its history seeped into my body whilst the cityscape connected with my behaviour and emotions.
This modern metropolis is the perfect blend of old and new; it doesn’t make its past unrecognizable. The view of Gwanghwamun (광화문) situated in front of Gwanak and Bukhan Mountains is iconic enough to inspire celestial thought. Walking along Sejongno (세종로) gave off the aura that I was on sacred ground, making each footstep seem more important.
I wandered the city with the purpose of paying attention to it–to fill in the holes in my mental map of Seoul. I veered off the beaten path often, choosing to follow my fancy rather than logic. I wanted to see underneath the surface of this city. To places both my body and mind didn’t expect. Not to panic: I’d often find my way back by searching for the nearest subway station.
Before I could figure out how this city worked and unearth its intricate details, my time was up. I returned home yearning for more, preparing a bucket list of places to see in my next visit.
As I recount events that took place in 2012, keep in mind that Seoul is a city that’s constantly changing. The velocity of change occurs in the blink of an eye, making it easy to lose grip on what transpired. The data I’ve collected feeds my writing on the city and these words are but a snapshot in time.