Room without a view
As you will presumably have noticed, spring has sprung. If you have not, you should immediately, for this is Korea’s finest season ― the perfect time to venture beyond city limits and enjoy the green hills and valleys while they are bathed in sharp light and breathing in crystal air, before summer descends in all its steamy grey, humid, shirt-sticking misery.
I recently took the advice I just gave you and spent an invigorating day hiking the shaded trails and visiting the picturesque temples of Mt. Bukhan National Park. After that, dinner was called for, so myself and my companion pulled in at a roadside restaurant in the shadows of the peaks.
This establishment stood at the foot of the mountains, and as we climbed out of the Hyundai, their jagged ridges were reflecting the peach glow of sunset while the skies above turned a translucent blue. This was the perfect spot to eat al fresco, eating up the luminous views along with the “dubu” and drinking in the cool evening air along with the makgeolli.
So, ajummah, may we sit in the garden? Alas, outdoor seating is unavailable ― too early in the year.
OK, this is not the end of the world, as the restaurant clearly features large windows. So indoors we tramp, expecting to be seated well within range of the superb vistas this establishment should be taking advantage of.
Instead, we are ushered to a table offering fine views over … the car park. Looking around, the other window choices are little better. Alternative views are the restaurant next door, the road, and the karaoke across the road.
What of the spectacular mountainscape looming right behind the restaurant? It was nowhere to be seen, as the back wall of the place featured an array of cupboards and not a single window. In short, the genius who had designed this restaurant had designed it specifically so its windows overlooked everything except the striking view which should have been its key selling point.
I was gutted but hardly surprised: Rooms with views simply are not appreciated on this peninsula.
Why so? Could it be related to Koreans’ home habits?
Perhaps. Traditional Koreans lived in hanok ― single-story homes set around internal courtyards. The courtyard granted the family a private outdoor space that was open to the sky but enclosed against the outside. Charming? Yes. Cosy? Certainly. But it was an inner space, not an outer one; the house’s main doors and windows looked inward, not outward.
Still, that was Joseon. What of millennial Korea?
Today’s Koreans, of course, don’t want to live in old-fashioned digs ― the only people who appreciate hanok as actual living homes are a handful of eccentric foreigners. Today’s Kims, Parks and Lees want to live in high-rise apartments.
These vertical villages are aesthetic monstrosities, endless ranks of concrete Godzillas consuming the aesthetics of landscape and cityscape alike. But, climbing as they do 17, 18, 19 and 20 floors (and up) they surely offer some spectacular views?
Er… no. While most apartments feature balconies, as far as I can see, most apartment dwellers do not utilize them as viewing spaces. Instead, the balcony is curtained off, used by the pet pooch, or piled up with household junk and used for storage. Just as in Joseon, it seems that millennial Koreans don’t enjoy gazing outward.
Given this, it is unsurprising that, even in an era when al fresco dining spots are encroaching upon Seoul sidewalks, few (if any) bar or restaurant owners give consideration to views.
The only eating and drinking places I know of in the capital that offer both fine views and outdoor terraces and patios to enjoy them from are five-star hotels. And let’s be honest, these spots are not for you or me. You need to be a chaebol chairman or a mobster (or both) to be able to afford to dine there.
This is a pity, as while Seoul suffers from some horrific architecture, it does boast some potentially magnificent views of river and mountain. Naturally, city planners do everything they can to prevent the visual enjoyment thereof.
Multi-lane expressways run along both banks of the Han River. And the designers of Cheongyye Stream, Seoul’s top, inner-city-urban regeneration project, were so unthinking about the stream’s visual attractions that they laid its bed five meters below street level. Due to the angle, the stream itself cannot be seen from pavement cafes and restaurants.
All this is a crying shame, as the rest of the country will not get the delights of al fresco dining-with-a-view until trendsetting Seoul does. The good news is Seoulites are travelers. When visiting cities like Paris and London, surely they note the pleasure of sitting on the terraces of riverside pubs and cafes? When visiting Provence or Tuscany, surely they appreciate restaurant patios overlooking vineyards and town squares?
I suspect they do, and I suspect that the penny will drop. Then, designers or restaurants, bars and coffee shops (in the latter category, Seoul is probably better served than any capital on earth) may actually start to design their exterior seating and windows to focus upon views, not away from them.
But it won’t happen soon. Which means that if you are planning an out-of-town trip this spring and want to enjoy a view of mountain, forest or sea with your meal … pack a picnic.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.