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[Seoul Saunter] Remnants of good ol’ days

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Updated : April 17 2017

Seoul is a vibrant megalopolis with modern high-rises crowding the city’s major arteries. Nestled among the gleaming buildings are maze-like alleys that appear to have escaped the passage of time. The Korea Herald explores the many nooks and crannies of Seoul, proclaimed the capital of Joseon in 1392, that reveal a multifaceted city. -- Ed.

Halfway up the stairs of Euljiro 3-ga Station in central Seoul, a sharp smell of metal pierces your nose.

Stepping away from the passing vehicles into the narrow alley, you will find a row of time-worn buildings and faded billboards written in Korean that feel foreign.

“What in the world is ‘Pau’?” you wonder, before an old-timer tending his shop says it refers to the “buffing” process for smoothing a workpiece’s surface.

Welcome to Euljiro’s workshop alley, where small metalwork shops that line the narrow alley have made and sold tools the same way since the days immediately following the 1950-53 Korean War.

The alley was referred to as a “do-it-all alley” until the mid-1990s, with shops ranging from those specializing in tools and metalwork to tile and even sewing. Any little thing needed in everyday life could be found strolling through the alley.

Over time, the small-scale shops eventually lost the vast majority of their customers, as mass-produced products flooded the market. It appeared as though it would only be a matter of time before the old alleys faded into obscurity and insignificance.

But the headstrong craftsmen, stubbornly refusing to change their ways, have become a unique attraction for the neighborhood, as people begin to seek it out to indulge in 1970s and ‘80s nostalgia.

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Metalwork shops are seen lining an alley in Euljiro, Jung-gu, in Seoul, April 12. (Park Hyun-koo/ The Korea Herald)
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A man works inside a metalwork shop at the workshop alley in Euljiro, Jung-gu, in Seoul, April 12. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
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Pieces of art by local artists and a poster for an art festival hang on the wall at the workshop alley in Euljiro, Jung-gu, in Seoul, April 12. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
While not as productive as their larger competitors, the shop owners take pride in their skill acquired through decades of experience. The workshops offer a chance to actually see the tools being used to make metal products.

The area surrounding the shops also looks as though it is suspended in time. In Seoul, it is not easy to find tea shops, or “dabang,” once popular as a place to socialize -- a forerunner to today’s omnipresent cafes.

Eulji Dabang looks as though it has just jumped out of a 1980s flick, complete with leather sofas and a cup of coffee priced at 2,500 won ($2.20).

“There aren’t that many dabang like this anymore. Sitting here, sipping on a cup of coffee makes me very comfortable,” said a 60-year-old surnamed Kim, who added that he is a regular at the shop.

The adjacent Eulji Myeonok specializing in naengmyeon (noodles in cold broth) or Korean-style barbecue joint Tongiljip are just some of the famed eateries that nostalgic visitors can try. In 2015, the Seoul Metropolitan Government designated the “Nogari (dried pollack) Alley” -- which has some dozen bars -- as part of Seoul Future Heritage.

In a bid to capitalize on the unique characteristics of the alley, Seoul’s Jung-gu office has been running its Eulgi Tour. Tour participants can visit the workshop alley and surrounding areas, including Nogari Alley and other eateries.

Choi Chang-sik, the head of the Jung-gu office, said in a recent media interview that he hoped the program would be the first step toward revitalizing the industry in the streets of Euljiro, and ultimately Jung-gu.

“Euljiro is a place where you can find remnants of those who were the pillars of Korea’s modernization. I wish to show (visitors) the true beauty of Euljiro via the tour,” he said.

The free tour sets off Monday through Saturday at 3 p.m. One can apply at tour.junggu.seoul.kr or make inquiries at (02) 3396-5085.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)

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