At home in Japan, in the heart of Korea

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At home in Japan, in the heart of Korea

More than a decade or so ago, Dongbu Ichon-dong, a small enclave along the Han River between the Hangang and the Hannam bridges, was considered inconvenient, mainly because there is only one subway station, with no quick route downtown. The apartment buildings were old and the neighborhood didn’t have large department stores. The riverside view? Noisy traffic along the freeway. Seoul’s Japanese residents, however, saw its advantages.
“Japanese have considered Dongbu Ichon-dong to be safer than other places in Seoul, because of the U.S. base in Yongsan,” explained Kim Man-young, a real estate agent in the area who now specializes in deluxe apartment complexes built by Korea’s giants like LG and Kolon. “More than anything they like to live close to each other. Unlike Koreans, Japanese want to live close to their colleagues or bosses. That’s how they formed their community here.”
The typical morning at a Dongbu Ichon-dong apartment complex sees droves of Japanese housewives sending off their children to the Japanese school in Gaepo-dong, southern Seoul. The Dongbu Ichon-dong thoroughfare, about 3 kilometers (almost 2 miles) long from the western end near the Hangang Bridge to the eastern end where Geumgang Asan Hospital stands, is lined with upscale boutiques, bakeries, restaurants and bars; its four-lane street is notoriously congested in rush hour, when it is crammed with foreign sedans.
According to the 2003 population statistics by the Yongsan ward office, 1,129 Japanese (685 men and 444 women) reside in Dongbu Ichon 1-Dong alone. The Gangchon apartment complex accounts for up to 30 percent of the Japanese population in the area. In one apartment building in Hangaram, Japanese families occupy an entire floor.
The real estate agent believes at least 2,000 Japanese live in the area, if the number of Japanese who are not registered in the office are taken into account. That number is more than 30 percent the total number of Japanese people living in Seoul, Gyeonggi province and Incheon.
The Japanese began to settle down in Dongbu Ichon-dong in 1965, when South Korea and Japan reestablished diplomatic relations. At the time, the Korean government built an apartment building for use by foreigners in Ichon 1-dong. The Japanese who had been living in scattered places around the city began to move into the building, because the apartments and the area were considered cleaner and more convenient than other areas. The apartment building itself was removed in 1998, but by then Seoul’s Japanese residents had found Dongbu Ichon-dong to be an attractive place to get to know the city. At Onnuri Church, also located in Dongbu Ichon-dong, Japanese housewives gather to learn Korean and organize volunteer groups to help orphans and poor elderly citizens, and to provide tours to historic sites.
Dongbu Ichon-dong is practically a Little Tokyo: It has the city’s largest Japanese community plus 17 Japanese restaurants and bars and three grocery stores specializing in Japanese products. No Korean maps point to Dongbu Ichon-dong as Korea’s Little Tokyo, nor has the area ever dressed up its streets in celebration of all things Japanese, but for years, the neighborhood has offered something of a small, sweet reminder of home.


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Wall-to-wall Japan: pricey, but worth every yen

Once outside Japan, a delicious treat like umeboshi (pickled plums) suddenly becomes a rarity. We looked up Mono Mart, the only Japanese-owned grocery store in the neighborhood. This mart is a mini store right out of a Japanese town; it may be small, but its wall-to-wall racks are meticulously arranged complete with colorful notes.
The sweet-voiced Japanese woman at the counter, who gave her name as “Imamura-san,” said she lives in Yeonsinnae, northwestern Seoul. Fluent in Korean, Ms. Imamura is quick to direct customers, explain items and ring the cashier at the same time. She stocks high-quality umeboshi ― a whopping 18,000 won ($20) a box ― but the fruit, low in sodium, tasted much better than the red-dyed fruits found in Korean markets.
We also got a bag of ebi senbei (shrimp chip), which wasn’t great, but was enough to remind one of life back in Japan.


Sushi restaurants
Yeolhae
Korean/Japanese spoken, (02) 793-1188, 11:50 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Mijeon
Korean/Japanese, (02) 797-7858, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily
Ryu
Korean/Japanese, (02) 749-9661, 5 p.m.-11:30 p.m. daily
Honchamchi
Korean/Japanese, (02) 749-1177, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily except for Sundays
Umi sushi
Korean/Japanese, (02) 794-0111, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. except for Sundays
Maguro Bonga
Korean/Japanese, (02) 798-3789, 11 a.m.-midnight daily

Robatayaki (seafood grills)
Gukhwa
Korean/Japanese, 02-794-8105, 4 p.m.-3 a.m. daily, Recommended dish: tuna sashimi
Byeongyeong
Korean, (02) 794-8105, 6 p.m.-3 a.m. daily, Recommended dish: chicken wings
Dan
Korean, (02) 794-8105, 4 p.m.-midnight daily, Recommended dish: chicken wings
Wasedaya
Korean/Japanese, (02) 796-0608, 5:30 to midnight daily, Recommended dish: yakiniku, Special discount given to alumni of Waseda University
Ajigen
Korean/Japanese, (02) 796-0608, 11:00 a.m.- 3 p.m.; 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. daily except for Tuesdays, Recommended dish: Japanese mackerel dishes.

Korean-style robatayaki
Chonggakne
Korean, 010-4446-5504, 5 p.m. to midnight daily except for Tuesdays, Recommended dish: ramen
Tenten
Korean, (02) 797-5557, 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily

Noodle places
Sanuki
Korean, (02) 794-0470, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Bochun
Korean, (02) 795-8730, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m daily

Grocery stores
Momo Mart
Korean/Japanese, (02) 795-4700, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Dongseo Supeo
Korean, (02) 795-4546, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Geoneomul Suip Corner
Korean, (02) 795-4546, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Parking: none available.


Kiku

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Don’t bother to show up unannounced at Kiku, a sushi bar, to try its famously delectable morsels.
First off, with only three private rooms, one table in the hall and a bar with seven stools, the restaurant is usually limited to reserved guests only. The Korean chef there politely but decisively declined to have an interview. “I don’t want this place to be known,” he said, “because I hope to serve our regular customers who can relax and sometimes to have a nice conversation with me.”
Don’t bother asking for the menu or prices either.
An order of sushi for dinner started off with wonderfully genuine green tea, a small bowl of abalone porridge, a bowl of fresh cucumber and garlic stems. Then there came 10 gorgeously sculpted pieces of sushi ― abalone, halibut, tuna, squid and tuna belly ― served on a block of blond wood. The rice balls, wrapped under moist slices of seafood, were the size of gum balls. Before I could finish my “wow,” another block of Japanese fiesta ensued ― ama ebi (sweet shrimp), buri (yellowtail), hirame (flounder) and akami (tuna). When we thought we were done with the meal, to our surprise, the parade of sushi moved on, this time with uni (sea urchin roes) ― a sushi lover’s paradise in bright gold colors, followed by unagi (grilled eel), poached egg and later scrumptious ikura (salmon roe). If you know sushi, then Kiku does everything right, even the temperature. And suddenly the dainty balls of rice made sense ― they are to help guests indulge in a cornucopia of delightful ocean treats. The most inventive and delicious piece of all was a gorgeous pink pile of chopped tuna belly topped with chopped scallion and wrapped in crispy black seaweed.
When the chef tried to offer a set of maki, or large hand-held sushi, and a bowl of udon to complete the set, we had to beg him to stop.
By then, we began to worry about the bill, which might make us starve for the rest of the month. The sushi set was 40,000 won, and lunch was 35,000 won. Sorry, Kiku chef, but the secret of sushi is out.

English: Not spoken; No menu; Korean and Japanese spoken.
Tel: (02) 794-8584
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5:00 p.m.-until whenever the guests leave.
Credit cards: Accepted
Parking: Valet
Location: At the end of the main street near Geumgang Asan Hospital.


Mitaniya

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Located opposite a dry cleaner’s, Mitaniya looks like a Korean deli in an underground shopping mall. The open kitchen behind its U-shaped bar reveals cluttered work areas attended by three Korean chefs, who work like machines churning out 50-odd varieties of home-cooked Japanese dishes ― such as tonkatsu (pork cutlet), yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls) and sashimi ― for the dozen Japanese food lovers who sit around the bar and the adjacent hall with six tables.
When the day grew dark, a short dark-skinned man wearing a driving cap showed up: It was Masaki Mitani, namer and owner of the restaurant. Mr. Masaki is a garrulous Japanese man who can’t seem to stop chatting with his Korean and Japanese customers. Mr. Mitani said he intentionally designed Mitaniya seven years ago to have this food-stall-like setting. A native of Kyoto, Mr. Mitani has lived in Korea for the past 17 years. He first arrived in Seoul in 1988 as the employee of a Japanese food company, but during the financial crisis in the late 1990s, he began looking for other opportunities. He opened Mitaniya in 1999 and set up two more branches (inside Yongsan Electronic Market and in Dogok-dong) after the first one became a success. Fluent in Japanese and Korean, he enjoys serving food and talking to customers. “If you go to rural Japan, you see many restaurants like this, where there’s a lot of interaction between customers and the chef or owner.”
He says he had lamented the fact that most Korean udon noodles were frozen and didn’t taste like Japanese udon at all. “I had two goals in opening up my restaurant. First, I wanted to introduce customers to the authentic taste of Japanese cuisine. Secondly, I believe cuisine is a form of culture, and through food, I wanted to spur a cultural exchange between Korea and Japan,” he said, stressing that in order to pass on Japanese culture, the food’s taste had to remain unaltered.
Indeed, a bowl of kitsune udon topped with fried tofu does come with chewy, plump noodles and a reasonably tasty broth. Nothing fancy from a famed udon shop in Japan, but something closer to the typical udon bowls found near subway stations.
He was particularly proud of his pork cutlet (7,000 won). “Korean chefs cut off the fat on the edge, but the pork belly fat is the most delicious part,” he said. The steak, served with shredded cabbage, came steaming hot and crispy brown ― yes, with the fat intact. The dish is far from the classy Maisen tonkatsu in the upscale neighborhood of Omotesando in Tokyo, but it was enough to be real Japanese.
A slab of broiled mero (jewfish, 14,000 won) served with daikon oroshi (radish topping) was also a good treat for fish lovers, although similar dishes, with the same or a slightly higher price, are served in almost every fusion restaurant in Seoul.
By 7 o’clock on a weekday, Mitaniya fans began queuing up for their favorite Japanese dishes over ― what else? ― mugs of cool Asahi beer.

English: Not spoken; Korean and Japanese on the menu and spoken
Tel: (02) 797-4060
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (Closed on 1st and 3rd Sundays)
Credit cards: Accepted.
Parking: Street parking nearby.
Location: Basement of Samik Shopping Center. The nearest subway station is Ichon station, line No.1 & 4, exit 4.


by Ines Cho

Reportings by Jin Hyun-ju, Kong Jun-wan, Lee Soo-jin
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