Ice skating outdoors in Seoul's winter season comes in a variety of styles -- from high- to low-end entertainment.
The ultimate is lacing up for a fashionable glide on the smooth, silver ice at the Grand Hyatt Seoul, high up Mount Namsan.
The rink is especially romantic at nighttime. Surrounded by a perfectly manicured lawn and age-old evergreens lit with tiny, white lights, the rink overlooks a spectacular cityscape. If you happen to be a good figure skater, the place makes you feel like Katarina Witt.
If you're wobbly on your feet, you can sip a steaming cup of hot chocolate topped with marshmallows and dream about being Katarina Witt.
Skaters here tend to fall into two categories: curious hotel guests killing time and couples in the mood for a romantic evening.
For the romantically inclined, the ambiance doesn't come cheap. A ticket for two hours costs 16,000 won ($13.50) a person, and skate rental 11,000 won, both excluding a 10 percent tax. The rink is open from noon to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Weekly promotions include "Lover's Monday" (two for the price of one), "Tuesday Free Skates" (free rental), "Romantic Wednesday" (a free Polaroid snapshot and a rose) and "Free Thursday" (not really free, but there's no time limit).
If you're not into the luxurious lifestyle, skating at Hangang Riverside Park is the next best thing. There are two places to skate in the park that lines the south side of the Han River. Two large outdoor swimming pools, Jamsil and Yeouido, are turned into standard short-track-size (60-by-30 meters) rinks each winter.
The scenery in the surrounding Hangang Riverside Park is still quite good. At the Yeouido rink, you're surrounded by modern skyscrapers and high-rise apartment buildings. At the Jamsil rink, overhead black windbreaker shields limit the view. Both rinks are packed with children taking lessons and young couples dates.
The Jamsil and Yeouido rinks are scheduled to operate until Feb. 16; they're open from 9 a.m.to 5 p.m. daily. Admission for adults is 2,500 won, teenagers 2,000 won and children 1,500 won. Skate rentals cost 3,000 won. Skate sharpening costs 2,000 won.
At Jamsil, five 50-minute lessons go for 43,000 won. The price includes admission. A similar package at Yeouido costs 33,000 won.
To get to Yeouido (02-785-1093), take subway line No. 5 and get off at Yeouinaru Station, exit 2. To get to Jamsil (02-421-2574), take the No. 2 subway and get off at Sincheon Station, exit 7.
Remembrance of skating past
The old outdoor ice skating rink near my home in southeastern Seoul opened last week. It's a typical country-style ice rink, with several flags hanging from various nations hanging overhead and popular tunes pounding incessantly. For several years, I've watched the rink, feeling very nostalgic.
There was a time in my life when I thought I was going to become the next Kristi Yamaguchi -- and maybe even better. The hot topics among my 10-year-old peers on my skating team were the latest undeserved punishment from the coach, whose outfit was prettiest and how to beat those stupid "chickens" (the rival team wore a yellow uniform).
When there was an important competition, our coach would take us out of the city so no one would see our routines. We skated anywhere that had a flat, icy surface. Often a rice field became our practice rink. There were brown, frozen stubs protruding from the ice, so we had to be careful.
The scariest thing of all was to skate on the river. I cringed whenever I heard that crackling noise under my feet or looked down and saw the water flowing beneath the ice. My parents, red-nosed from the cold, shouted from the ice's edge, "Come on, you can do it! O.K., smile big!"
Photographs record the misery of the -10 degree centigrade Korean winter: Holding my partner's leg and stretching like a ballerina in my pink micro-miniskirt, my lips elongated in what is supposed to be a smile (although it looks like I'm about to burst out crying).
All those childhood memories brought me to Gangdong Skating Rink. "For one month of business, an awful lot of work goes into the ice rink," says the owner, Kang Se-gu, who had worked until 2 a.m. the night before preparing the ice. When Mr. Kang, a former journalist, retired in 1994, he decided to farm on his ancestor's land. He says 600 members of his farming community bring their children during winter vacation.
So is the water deep at Mr. Kang's rink? "Oh, no. This is not a river, you know. About 30 centimeters," he says.
Admission costs 3,000 won. Skate or sled rentals cost 2,000 won. Lessons for 10 days cost 60,000 won. To get to Gangdong Skating Rink (02-441-4723), take subway line No. 2 and get off at Gangbyeon Station, transfer to bus No. 113, 13 or 573-1, and get off at Jumong Jaehwalwon (Jumong Rehabilitation Center).
He puts the glide into everybody's stride
Whenever Kang Jeom-gu shows up, children run away. He's not a scary guy, just the Zamboni driver.
Attendees help get any stragglers off the ice rink, then it's Mr. Kang's turn to shine.
His blue Zamboni rumbles and swooshes as he whizzes around the rink. Outside the fence around the perimeter, children look on and wave. Mr. Kang first drives the length of the oval-shaped rink, then he circles around the perimeter. Hot water sprays down as a long razor shaves the ice.
Mr. Kang has been driving a Zamboni for 12 years. The two rinks at Mokdong Ice Rink are his responsibility to keep clean and skatable. Every hour, from 6 a.m. to midnight, he drives his Zamboni over the ice.
He was 35 years old when he first ice skated; he had never seen a Zamboni before. That ride around the rink got him hooked. "What can I say. I like ice," he says.
With each loop around the rink, the circle Mr. Kang makes becomes smaller and smaller. After a couple minutes, he's finished and the ice is smooth.
But not for long. A whistle blows and the children scurry back. Within a couple minutes, the ice is sliced and chipped, but packed with people laughing.
For athletes and amateurs, many places to skate
Last Sunday, Mokdong Ice Rink (02-643-3057) drew 2,000 people. It is winter vacation, and for people in western Seoul, Mokdong Ice Rink is an ideal family getaway spot. Prices are affordable. Admission is 2,500 won for elementary children; 3,000 won for middle- and high school students; 3,500 won for adults. Two-hour skate rentals are 3,000 won, with a 1,000 charge for each additional hour.
On a recent Monday, a dozen high school boys run laps outdoors. Their coach stands by the entrance of the building, watching over their bags and hockey sticks. When Mokdong Ice Rink opened in the winter of 1989, it was one of only a handful of rinks in Korea. With government backing, however, the rink became the coaching grounds for athletes, particularly short track and ice hockey. The skating portion of the annual National Winter Sports Competition is held here. Around the rink is stadium with seating for 5,000.
Nowadays, the rink offers adult lessons. Figure skating and short track classes for mothers are available at 6 and 11 a.m. Short track is the more popular choice.
Inside team flags for ice hockey teams -- Yonsei University, Korea University, Dreams, Winia -- hang from the ceiling. There's a small snack store that sells tteokbokki, hot and spicy rice cakes, ramen noodles, ice cream and canned drinks. The rink closes to the public at 6 p.m. Afterwards, it reopens for athletes training.
Lotte Ice Rink (02-411-2000) is the Walt Disney of ice rinks. The spot is perfect for anyone -- families, young adults, older couples. The weekends are always crowded with about 4,500 skaters carving up the ice. And with Lotte World and Lotte Department Store nearby, there's plenty to do when you feel like taking a break.
If athletes are the pride of other ice rinks, the public is the pride of Lotte Ice Rink. While this venue is open late at night for athletes in training, most of the time it's reserved for the public. Admission is 6,000 won for adults, and a three-hour skate rental is 3,500 won. Admission for elementary students is 5,000 won.
On Fridays, figure skaters put on a show from 4:25 p.m. to 4:35 p.m. Lotte World has a laser show at 9:30 p.m., visible from the rink.
For winter vacationers, the rink offers an unlimited package of lessons. Until Feb. 27, get all the lessons you need at either 8:30 or 9:30 a.m.
by Ines Cho, Joe Yong-hee