Break out a picnic mat to beat Seoul’s midsummer heat
Midsummer marks the hottest time of the year. Temperatures surge and the humidity rises, the brief monsoonal rains providing but a brief respite from the heat. Sundown offers little reprieve, with nighttime temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius or more producing a phenomenon Koreans call “tropical nights,” or yeoldaeya, when the heat and humidity can make it difficult to sleep.
In an age of ubiquitous air conditioning, many people beat the heat by staying indoors and cranking up the the AC. Others, however, choose more environmentally friendly methods to endure. In fact, the dog days of summer are the best time to break out a mat and head to the Hangang River or the nearest green space to sit back, crack open a beverage, order some fried chicken and gaze at the midsummer’s night sky.
Since 2009, the National Meteorological Agency of Korea has defined a “tropical night” as a night with a nighttime low temperature of 25 degrees Celsius or above. Hot, humid high pressure systems from the North Pacific bring sweltering daytime temperatures. At night, the high humidity suppresses radiant cooling, keeping nighttime temperatures high.
In Korea, like elsewhere, the phenomenon is especially acute in major metropolises, where a combination of factors – building materials like concrete and asphalt, lack of vegetation and the so-called urban canyon effect, in which tall buildings reflect and radiate heat in multiple directions – turn cities into urban heat islands, with temperatures significantly higher than their surroundings. In the first half of the 20th century, tropical nights were exceedingly rare in Seoul. Last year, the city saw 32 such nights.
Luckily, Seoul is blessed with plenty of green spaces where residents can find sanctuary from the microwave of the asphalt jungle. You can find pocket parks in the midst of even the densest concrete forest. Of course, there’s also the Hangang River, where the flowing water brings with it a welcome breeze that cools and refreshes those camped out on the grassy parks that flank the great waterway.
In the days of Joseon (1392-1910), Ttukseom, the marshy “island” where the Jungnangcheon Stream empties into the Hangang River, was a royal hunting ground and a military inspection facility. In 1908, two American businessmen opened Korea’s first water purification plant on the site; the old brick machine building and the concrete cisterns, with their graceful arched ceilings, still stand as museums. After the Korean War, Ttukseom became home to a horse racing track, a golf course, a sports park and a riverside resort, complete with pleasure boats.
In later 2003, however, Seoul Metropolitan Government began work on transforming the site into an ecological park, a sprawling green space that planners likened to London’s Hyde Park and New York’s Central Park. The new park opened to the public in June 2015.
Seoul Forest is 595,000 square meters of mostly green space that includes wide grass lawns, pleasure ponds, bike paths, outdoor stages, sculpture gardens and, as the name of the park would suggest, picturesque forests that provide plenty of welcome shade in the summer. The park is even home to a community of sika deer and water deer, which visitors can feed, albeit from behind a fence. The forst is very popular on weekends, especially in autumn, when the trees turn red and gold.
The park is divided into five themed sections. At 220,000 square meters, the Culture and Arts Park, located in the center of the forest, is the largest by far. It’s also the most popular spot in which to lay out a mat in summer. Its spacious grass field makes the perfect picnic spot, especially in the late afternoon, when the low sun bathes rather than boils. The field also has plenty of forested corners, including a scenic row of metasequoia trees, which provide plenty of shade from the midday sun. Young children, as well as the young at heart, love playing in the fountain at the entrance of the park.
Also near the entrance of Seoul Forest is Under Stand Avenue, which bills itself as a “creative culture hub for the public.” The mall, which is composed of 116 colorful containers, has shops, restaurants, cafés, exhibit spaces and learning centers. It’s a popular Instagram spot that immediately brings to mind Common Ground, another photogenic container mall near Konguk University. Seoul Forest also benefits from being near Seongsu-dong, an industrial district-turned-hipster haven that is now one of the city’s hottest destinations.
Gyeongui Line Forest Park
Not so long ago, the Yongsan branch of the historical Seoul-Sinuiju railway line ran through what is now the narrow, 6.3 kilometer thread of green that runs from around Hyochang Park in the east to Yeonnam-dong in the west. When the line was electrified and moved underground several years ago, however, the city began transforming the space along the old tracks into a park. The first section of Gyeongui Line Forest Park opened in 2012 in the Daeheung-dong neighborhood. The second stretch, including the popular Yeonnam-dong section, opened in 2015. The last part, which runs along Sinsu-dong and Donggyo-dong, was completed last summer.
To many Seoulites, Gyeongui Line Forest Park is synonymous with the stretch that runs through the trendy Yeonnam-dong neighborhood. Formerly a quiet residential neighborhood, Yeonnam-dong began gentrifying into the greater Hongdae area’s latest thing when young chefs, artists and entrepreneurs started moving in. Now its charming alleyways are lined with chic restaurants, cafés, boutiques, bookshops and guest houses, most of which brim with personality.
Gyeongui Line Forest Park is, in the words of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski,” the rug that ties the room that is Yeonnam-dong together. Called Yeontral Park by cheeky locals (see what they did there?), the green space has plenty of grass fields on which to spread a picnic mat and open up a can or bottle of your favorite adult beverage. Being a popular food and nightlife destination, Yeonnam-dong really comes alive at night, and outdoor lights illuminate the park for the convenience of visitors.
Rather than bringing their own sustenance, many mat-toting visitors choose to order food, especially fried chicken. Indeed, around the park, delivery mopeds are almost as common a sight as young couples walking impeccably groomed toy dogs. Of course, if you wanted something a bit more upscale, you’re in the right neighborhood – you can’t walk 10 meters in Yeonnam-dong without passing a restaurant, café or pub that’s trending on Instagram. This writer was pleasantly surprised by Yeonnam Hyugyeso, a simple eatery next to the park serving, among other things, Korean-style chicken nuggets and rice cakes in cream sauce, washed down with highballs made with Suntory whiskey.
World Cup Park
In a city defined by its endless transformations, World Cup Park may be Seoul’s most jaw-dropping metamorphosis.
From 1978 to 1993, the riverside island of Nanjido was Seoul’s designated landfill. By the time it was closed, the landfill was a mountain of trash 2.7 million square meters in area and 90 meters high, 34 times larger than The Great Pyramid of Giza. The landfill’s notorious stench filled the surrounding neighborhoods.
After the landfill was closed in 1993, the city went to work stabilizing the giant massif of trash. In 1997, when the authorities decided to build a stadium for the upcoming 2002 Korea-Japan FIFA World Cup on nearby land, the city began transforming the old landfill into an ecological park. The sprawling new park opened to the public on May 1, 2002, just before the World Cup’s opening whistle.
At 449,000 square meters, World Cup Park is divided into several distinct zones. Noeul Park and Haneul Park, formerly Nanjido Landfill 1 and 2, are two plateaus that stand nearly 100 meters high. Nanjicheon Park, which runs along the Nanjicheon Stream, is a lowland park with bike paths, forests, fields and a large pond. Finally, there is Nanji Hangang Park, a grassy area along the Hangang River. This last area is a popular camping spot and regularly hosts concerts and other events.
With its wide, grassy spaces and riverside location, Nanji Hangang Park is the best spot to place a picnic mat, especially at night, when the river offers a refreshing breeze. The site also boasts romantic sunsets. The camping site can accommodate over 2,000 people – bring you’re own tent if you have one, or you could rent a tent on sight.
Seoul Forest Station (Bundang Line), Exit 3
Yeonnam-dong Gyeongui Line Forest Park
Hongik University Subway Station (Line 2), Exit 3
World Cup Park
World Cup Stadium Station (Line 6)
The Rush Mat, or Dotjari
Check the trunk of the car of any Korean family, or you’ll find a mat, or dotjari. While a mat may not seem like an item of great cultural importance, the dotjari has long enjoyed a significance that defies first glance. In his “Things Korean,” O-Young Lee writes, “The changes caused in the senses are a result of that change in the nature of the spot the mat has created for us. It is an ideal spot, a small mriacle.
A guest visits, so we roll out a rush mat – in even the most prosaic spot – and that spot is transformed into a banquet for our guest. At another time, a place of work will become a place of rest. One may be playing cards at one moment, but a change of mats can easily change the card game into a memorial service for the dead.”
In the old days, before air conditioning, people would survive the hot summer nights by sleeping on woven dotjari, unfolded on the wood panel floor of a Korean traditional home. For additional relief, the sleeper could use a bamboo wife, or jukbuin, a long, hollow cylindrical “pillow” made of woven bamboo strips.
Traditionally, dotjari were made from woven bulrush. The island of Ganghwado in Incheon still produces rush-woven mats, or hwamunseok, this way as a heritage handicraft. Nowadays, however, most dotjari are made from cloth, bamboo, silver foil or another synthetic material.
Many shops near parks sell dotjari. While cheap ones can go for less than KRW 10,000, good ones start at KRW 40,000. Artisinal hwamunseok made by Ganghwado craftmen can cost in excess of KRW 1 million (hwamunsuk.com).
Written and photographed by Robert Koehler