It was about three years ago that we said good bye to the Land of the Morning Calm, a sad day I think both of us will remember for many years to come. For all the struggles of living and breathing Korea for that year, it was a place that we came to love more than any other place outside our own homes. When it came time to return this week, we found ourselves at a loss for all the things we wanted to do. There was so much we never experienced while we were here, and even more that we wanted to relive, but where to start? We decided on Ilsan.
Our quiet suburb community north west of Seoul was never much to get excited about, in our experience, but we did spend more time there than any other place in the peninsula. We weren’t sure what to expect. Would our old apartment still be there? Would lake park still have its magical charms? What about any of the places we liked to eat and drink at? Things seemed to turnover so rapidly when we were living here that we fully expected all our favorite haunts to be closed.
When we stepped off the train at Jeongbalsan station, the first thing we noticed was though the construction was finished, the station remained familiar. The Lotte department store where we naively thought we could buy some sheets for our bed was still there, Aram Nuri art center was just as impressive as it had been when we had attended the strange adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and most of all we remembered how green Ilsan was. Tree lined streets, large parks, and plenty of outdoor spaces rambled on in all directions in Ilsan.
Some things had changed: CVS’s new chain CU (for CVS and U) seems to have taken the place of all Family Marts (홤이리마트), the grocery store across the street from our apartment is now a Lotte owned supermarket, and many of the bars on Meat Street had turned over—I’m not sure I recognized a single one. But our favorite galbi joint, Ooya Ooya (우야우야) still served up some delicious King Galbi and an excellent array of banchon, and not only was our favorite brunch spot still standing, we were greeted with ‘you’re back?’ from the shop’s owner. It felt nice to be remembered, and even nicer to have so much to remember.
Between lunch and dinner we wandered through lake park, and noticed the Goyang One Mount Water Park and Snow Park to the northwest of the Spectacular Musical Fountain. This was the major Kintex expansion that was under construction while we were living here, and now it was nearly complete. The water park was huge (I assume it is somehow converted into the snow park only in the winter) and all around it were dozens of shops, fast food, and high end restaurants that would be perfect companions to any family hitting up the water park for a weekend getaway. It was hard to imagine how differently we might have found Ilsan with this kind of commerce near the lake. Some of the food looked genuinely good (I’m looking at you, New York Burger) but on the other hand it was just more commerce in a city that already felt over saturated to us.
The rest of the lake was as we remembered it. Sprawling, elaborate, complete, and 100% intentional. We walked through the Wild Plang Garden and remembered how even though we were seeing exactly the intended experience, it was nevertheless refreshing to have a place in our backyard where the roar of highways, scooter delivery drivers, and the city could be masked by crickets, birds and the wind in the trees. Where we could walk, bike, or meander 5k loop around the lake on a nice afternoon, and even feel, if briefly, that we were in nature. And there was even opportunity for some new discoveries.
The Goyang Sanitation Center was a site I always assumed was some kind of engine room where the lake water was cycled through and purified, but yesterday I learned how wrong that assumption was. Upon closer inspection we discovered the Toilet Culture Museum which was, like the Artificial Waterfall across the lake, very straightforwardly named. Inside we discovered a small exhibit of toilets throughout history, from the Roman flush toilets to the hybrid vaporizing toilets supposedly common in the US. Though the translation budget was apparently quite low, it was a surprising exhibit staffed by four Ajummas, one of whom was asleep on a bench in the middle of the exhibit, that shed light on the at times bizarre poo-imagery we noticed when we lived in Korea, and gave us both more information about different cultures’ relationships with human feces than we ever thought we’d know.
Korea was always a surprising and enlightening place, and we’re glad that while some things definitely have changed, that has not. Little surprises were what made Korea interesting in the first place, and it’s largely what pulled us to come back.