Coney Island with a Korean accentInstead of packing and heading off on a three-hour journey, it makes a pleasant change to take a light trip to Wolmido, a tourist attraction not too far from Seoul.
This town used to be a small island off the coast of Incheon, until it was connected with the mainland in the 1920s.
Although this may not be the most scenic area, the weekend sees many Incheon residents and out-of-town visitors heading for Wolmido and its unique entertainments.
Wolmido has an interesting history. In 1895 448 British sailors drowned when their ship sank on the island’s rocks. It was also near here that a collision between a Russian and Japanese ship provided the spark that started the Russo-Japanese War in 1904.
During the Korean War it was from this outpost that General Douglas MacArthur launched a counter-attack against the North Korean forces and changed the outcome of the conflict.
It is relatively easy to find Wolmido by heading west toward Incheon port.
Wolmido is also less than 10 minutes from Incheon subway station.
The entrance to the former island is a bit shocking for tourists as the road leading to the area passes by various warehouses where monstrous trucks with gigantic loads swish past.
However, on entering Wolmido there is a small park that leads to a street near the water.
It’s rare to see anybody swimming in the waters of Wolmido since it is a port and the water is not very clean. However, it’s common to see people fishing.
From a thoroughfare known as “cultural street” those who wish to travel to islands along the West coast, such as Silmido and Yeongjeongdo, can hop onto large ferry boats, which also carry cars.
Some of the outlying islands are famous because they have appeared in movies and television dramas. And Silmido was the actual island where, in the past, South Korean operatives were trained to infiltrate North Korea to assassinate former leader Kim Il Sung. The operative never got across the boarder but the story of their lives and gruesome deaths was made into a blockbuster movie, which was filmed on the island.
The long street along the waterfront of this former island has various restaurants (mostly serving raw-fish), coffee shops and an outdated amusement park and it was named “cultural street” in 1987.
It makes for a nice place for families or couples to stroll by and, occasionally, break dancers can be found performing in pleasant weather.
Last week Wolmido had its own annual festival with performances such as the Chinese lion dance and traditional folk games. Incheon has a long history of engagement with China and there is a large Chinese-Korean community in the port city.
The street also has a fountain where children can soak themselves while playing with the water, which shoots high in the air.
The street is a good place to try a cup of sora or turban shells. There is a store that sells fried delicacies including a cup full of the shells for 2,000 won ($2.20). The shells are extremely small and it only takes a hard suck to extract all the meat. It’s an acquired taste with a tinge of saltiness and a weird West coast ocean scent.
There is even a small antique shop at the end of the street which features artifacts from the 60s,70s and 80s. The shop is tiny and display toys, school supplies and candies from Korea’s past.
Wolmido is also famous for its amusement park, particularly the death-defying Viking ride.
The amusement park is not exactly in tip-top shape. There is paint peeling off the rides and the seats have worn leather covers.
The Viking ride’s safety features do not inspire confidence. There are three sets of Viking rides and on the far end of the seats there are four black straps meant for each person taking the ride.
These black straps are the safety precautions for the people riding the Viking and they are supposed to wrap the straps around your arms or shoulders ― there are no specific instructions about how they are supposed to be worn.
It is by far the scariest Viking ride in this country as it swings so hard that it almost becomes vertical. When the ride reaches its highest point, the nearby ocean is no longer on the horizontal but the vertical. The Viking ride is a challenge to anyone, even those who claim to have a lion's heart.
Another famous ride is the “Disco pangpang.” On this circular ride every passenger sits on the rim and gets jolted out of their seat while a disc jockey makes funny comments from a booth. Passersby usually crowd the area laughing at the jokes.
There is also an old-fashioned haunted house where the employees dress as ghosts and chase after those who dares to enter their hellish domain. It is an awesome place to get a good scare the old-fashioned way, unlike the robotic or digital ghosts used at other amusement parks in Korea.
Just a five-minute drive leads hungry travelers to Incheon’s Chinatown, which is famous for jajjangmyeon, a bean- curd noodle. The people here have suffered more hardships than most Chinese expatriate communities, largely because of discrimination by the Korean government, but they have survived. Today there are a handful of Chinese-Korean restaurants. Some are four-stories high and are colorfully decorated with Chinese cultural decorations including a huge six-foot tall vase.
While the newer Chinese restaurants here have food that tastes much the same as that found in other parts of Korea, the smaller, older restaurants are true to their origins with strong tastes, whether sweet, spicy or sour, that can be too much for many Koreans.
Chinatown is also a good place to get traditional Chinese fashions in the style of Bruce Lee, including shoes and various accessories.
Even moon cake, rare on the streets of Seoul, are sold all throughout this neighborhood.
To get a better view of this area after a filling dinner, a visit to Jayugongwon or “Freedom Park,” behind Chinatown, is worthwhile. There is a stair that leads up to the park and from here a beautiful night view of Wolmido and surrounding areas along the West Coast of the peninsula can be seen.
For a short trip, Wolmido creates a different kind of enchantment to most parts of this “land of the morning calm” and it has cheap parking.
By Lee Ho-jeong [email@example.com]