Seoul's Tourist Shopping Spots: Changing Spots?

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Seoul's Tourist Shopping Spots: Changing Spots?

Insadong, in the center of Seoul, and Itaewon, south of Namsan peak, may appear to cater to opposite markets. While Insadong is often given the burdensome task of "representing" Korean goods and culture - in consumable, shrink-wrapped form - Itaewon is seen as the "foreigners' ghetto," lined with restaurants offering overseas food and black markets of imported goods. The heavy presence of U.S. Army personnel in the area and the marked absence of many features of your average Korean thoroughfare has even earned it the tag, "the Republic of Itaewon."

Well, perhaps no more. Since the late 1990s, both districts have quietly been accumulating new stores that do not necessarily tally with their accepted image. Traditional antiques shops are sprouting around Itaewon and foreign-themed cafes and eateries are multiplying around Insadong.

The New Insadong

For those looking for something other than a traditional cafe selling green tea, there is good news. Stores and cafes touting goods and nibbles from outside Korea are rising.

Little India (02-730-5528) is an East Indian cafe that boasts authentic Indian interior decor. Greeted by romantic background Indian tunes, you can investigate the exotic artifacts on display throughout the cafe.

The owner, Jung Young-sook, paid detailed attention to the restroom ceiling, which is covered with pages from contemporary Indian magazines. Ms. Jung says she was simply "mesmerized" by Indian culture on her trips there. In Little India, waitresses dressed in traditional costumes serve various herbal teas such as masala chai and hors d'oeuvre such as samosas, all at quite an affordable price. If you are a smoker, you may like to sample the bidi cigarettes made from herbal leaves that the cafe also sells.

Gallery Tibet (02-733-6870) and Silkroad (02-722-7776) have Tibetan antiques and East-Asian souvenirs on show. Gallery Tibet exhibits Buddhist paintings, called thanka, and garments worn by Tibetan warriors in ancient times. Silkroad's best-selling products are the incense sticks it imports from Tibet, Thailand and China.

Italian restaurants are also gaining popularity in Insadong. Pomodoro (02-732-6040) and Otto e Mezzo (02-735-5047) offer dishes prepared by top-notch Seoul chefs. Pasta and spaghetti dishes range from 6,000 won ($5) to 9,000. Il Mare (02-725-8607), the well-known Italian franchise restaurant with branches throughout Seoul, creates an elegant atmosphere with a modern interior.

The New Itaewon

The area around the Hamilton Hotel and Jeil Building has seen antique shops flourish again. Now there are around 10. Some of these sell reproduction furniture, with prices ranging from 30,000 won to 20 million. Though more than half of the visitors to the shops are foreign tourists, shopkeepers say an increasing number of local residents pick out small home accessories. Chosun Antique (02-793-3726) near the Hamilton Hotel is a small store, but it's packed with interesting, unusual pieces. Morning Calm Furniture (02-790-2420), which is housed in a traditional style Korean wing-tile building, specializes in cabinets and wooden chairs. Daebu (02-797-6787), near the Jeil Building, carries little pots and other ceramics products for serving teas, and Seoul Sangsa (02-793-5641) sells traditional furniture.

Professional experts in antiques suggest that you examine furniture carefully - in particular joints, legs and drawers, to check for damage and authenticity - before you buy.

by Kim Young-hoon

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