In Still Hours of Night, Busy Times BeginDuring a Seoul summer, when that waterlogged layer of heat settles over the city, a lot of people sensibly prefer to be more active in the relative cool of the night. The streets of the city seem quiet in the afternoon as pedestrians find shelter from the sun. But after the sun goes down, people emerge to stroll around, hang out with friends, shop and even exercise.
Sales Under the Stars
It seems that shopping at night is the "in thing" these days. At 1 a.m. on a Sunday, the cheap and cheerful fashion district of Dongdaemun is always crowded with shoppers. The one-way, five-lane street that passes through the area is choked with cars waiting to get into parking lots, and store escalators are similarly packed.
"I go shopping at night with my neighbors at least once every two months," said Choi In-ju, picking her way through a rack of clothes － suits, jeans, tops, you name it. A housewife, she likes to shop late on Saturday nights because she does not have to worry about getting her children up for school in the morning. Park In-gap, a representative of Migliore, one of Dongdaemun's biggest shopping centers, confirmed that "stores in Dongdaemun make the bulk of their sales after 6 p.m., and a lot of those transactions take place after midnight."
Large chain discount stores such as E-mart and Kim's Club likely were responsible for setting this trend. Many branches of those stores stay open until late at night or all night, attracting shoppers who are busy working in the day or find the daytime heat unappealing to shopping. And sales are still rising － at E-mart, transactions between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. have risen to 25 percent of total sales. Kim's Club also makes about 40 percent of its sales between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. Most Kim's Club stores offer special discounts for an hour from 11:30 p.m.
Up Late on the Lat Machine
"To exercise on a moonlit night" is a metaphor in Korean that implies that something is inappropriate. These days, the expression is more apt to describe a new trend. More and more people, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, are visiting their gyms late at night after finishing work. The California Fitness Center in Myeongdong stays open until midnight during weekdays, and it is only at around 10:30 p.m. when the five-story building starts to get really crowded － and loud. The center has more than 6,000 members, the majority of whom are young office workers.
Gold's Gym, a fitness club that stays open 24 hours a day, also has a lot of young members who exercise late at night. According to its owner, about 30 percent of its clientele come to work out after 10 p.m. Gold's Gym is located at Jangchung-dong, Seongsu-dong and Donam-dong in Seoul. A three-month membership at the fitness center costs about 240,000 won.
A Bite Before Bed
After all that time racing around shopping malls and huffing and puffing at the gym, where do people go? Most restaurants are closed along the city's main boulevards, but no need to worry － there is still plenty of food waiting to fill empty stomachs.
The streets surrounding Namdaemun and Dongdaemun markets are as congested as a Monday morning rush hour. This is due to a great number of merchants from across South Korea who do their business at night and then go for something to eat before heading home. By sundown, the main street inside Namdaemun market becomes known as Meokja Golmok, literally "Let's Eat Alley."
Under the brightly lit incandescent lamps, plump, middle-aged women prepare traditional Korean food on outdoor carts. This is where everyone － from visiting merchants to young shoppers to overworked salarymen － eats his or her favorites over a shot of soju (Korean vodka). There are many dishes available, such as dak-ggochi (grilled chicken on a skewer), honghap (steamed mussels), japchae (noodle dishes), tteokboggi (spicy rice cake dishes), ramyeon (instant noodles) and pajeon (vegetable patties), just to name a few.
South of the river, in Sinsa-dong, there is one "meokja" area that's open all night. Popular foods in Sinsa-dong restaurants are mostly spicy tang (stew) dishes such as gamjatang (spicy potato and pork rib stew). Ggotge (blue crab) and agu (angler fish) are also known as the choice picks among Seoul gourmets.
by Kim Young-hoon