The village that time (and taste) forgotYou’re driving down a narrow road north of Seoul, surrounded by a typically Northeast Asian landscape ― wooded hills, terraced rice paddies, small farms and villages. Then you turn a corner ― and a European castle whips by.
Then another castle. Then a Polynesian Tribal Hall. And then ― surely that couldn’t have been a clipper ship perched on a rooftop?
Stop. Rub eyes. Reverse.
This is no mirage. Two castles, a line of 19th-century horse-drawn carriages (without the horses) and even a full-sized clipper, sails set for nowhere, line the main street of the tiny village of Jangheung. To add to the remarkable aesthetic, traditional Korean thatched-roof cottages nestle between these architectural marvels.
The zaniness does not stop at the edge of the village. Higher up the valley is the Cafe Remarque. Named for the author of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” this collection of buildings is shaped like giant stormtrooper helmets ― but spray-painted in psychedelic colors. A few miles further down the road is a small lakeside hamlet, the roofs of whose houses are constructed entirely of earthenware kimchi pots: These could have been fantasy abodes imagined by Tolkien, had his hobbits been Korean.
Jangheung, a 30-minute drive from Seoul, is a convenient getaway destination for city-weary urbanites. The fairy-tale buildings are motels or restaurants; there is also the “Sky Salt” rock lamp shop, noraebangs and video game rooms, punching machines ― even a baseball practice range and a small amusement park. On a recent weekend afternoon, most visitors were young couples or families on day outings.
After dark, a different clientele arrives: Groups of workers on boozy weekend corporate bonding sessions, and lovers escaping for overnight trysts to love motels with names like “Joatel” (“Joy of Amusement Motel”) and “Hotel Coconut.”
The village grew organically. Originally a popular picnic spot in the 1970s, it grew into a conglomeration of cafes in the 1980s, and sprouted the kitschy collection of castles, windmills and clippers as Koreans were getting their first taste of international travel in the early 1990s.
But at second glance, it is clear that the fairy tale is fraying.
“The castles and all the rest were built about a decade ago, but now the economy is in trouble,” says Kim Myong-soon, the owner of Gumps, a Western-style roadside bar. “The customers are drying up; it’s almost all closing down.”
Indeed. On closer inspection, the clipper ― actually a steak restaurant ― is dusty and empty. The Castle Buckingham, a motel, is desolate. A Polynesian village hall, once a bar and coffee shop, stands derelict. A sculpture garden is bereft of visitors. And many of the punching machines and displays of plush toys are coated with a heavy film of roadside dust.
There is one bright spot, though: The first castle on the left ― complete with windmill attached to its battlements and stone totem poles out front ― is doing a fair trade.
“We have an antique shop, a coffee shop, a restaurant and a folk museum on the premises,” says proud owner Chung Bok-mo. “We don’t make a lot, but because of the museum, we get a constant stream of guests.”
Mr. Chung built his castle 10 years ago, kickstarting Jangheung’s engagement with weird architecture. All cultural bases seem to be covered in Mr. Chung’s gardens. A laughing Buddha, two traditional stone totem poles and a plastic cowboy ― a refugee, no doubt, from some long-closed Western bar ― dwell outside the walls. Behind, rail tracks are laid on the garden lawns; in an arbor sits the front end of a train. Flanking it are two haitai, stone beasts that customarily stood as palace guardians, while the statue of a stone hermit sits in meditation atop a mound of rocks that doubles as a waterfall.
His restaurant, on whose roof a herd of plastic cattle graze, seems to be doing reasonably well; the dining area was about half-full. The food is almost as idiosyncratic as the surroundings: the flagship dishes are pizza with mugwort dough and sweet bean filling in the crust, and spicy rice cakes in an Italian-style gratin.
But the future of the rest of the village appears doubtful.
“The government has designated Jangheung a special tourism zone through 2007,” says Gumps’ Ms. Kim, “But if things don’t improve by then...” Her voice trails off. Things are not looking good; in recent months, the train service from Seoul’s Sinchon Railway Station was cut off.
So now might be a good time to visit. Like the British seaside resorts of the 1950s, the days of this kitschy but oddly charming village look numbered.
by Andrew Salmon