Dedicated to Shyam Hajare
Seoul could turn anybody into a tourist, even the most traditional Korean man. People who walked the same street every single day couldn’t predict what happened at a familiar turn. Mizu had spent a good few hours at Hongdae station road, a boba tea in hand, sipping as she glanced from one animated store to another.
For the first time in her life, she was sipping on a beverage while walking in a crowded street. In Tokyo, she knew better than to do so, but in this chaotic capital of South Korea, she had to keep moving in fear of missing out on the next thing that could change her life.
When her bubbly drink was over, she entered a large piercing store on the street which had interiors that were brightly lit, organized and clean as though they were put together the day before. Rows of dangling, studded and asymmetric piercings reached to the far end and at once, Mizu felt that people could be anybody but themselves when they walked out of this place. She fancied the thought.
Posters of Jisoo and V with their piercings graced the aisles. Jisoo’s pale ears were studded with three ruby red piercings, and looking at her, Mizu was convinced to get the piercing too. She chose the blue sapphire gimmick stone.
In under two minutes, the man had shot through her ears, poked the needle and then inserted the three blue piercings. Mizu paid 45000 won, which was around $39. She would have to cut down on transport expenses to make up for this impulsive purchase. In five minutes, her appearance had changed a little and this was the effect that Seoul had on its inmates.
Mizu left the store to continue walking through Hongdae, which she realised was the urban center of Seoul. Back in the 90s, it was a budget place where several indie artists found home. Now, Mizu saw Ferraris and BMWs pass slowly through and fro. Their owners were dressed in clothes that Mizu had seen on TV shows in her hotel room. The traffic signal at Hongdae stretched vertically across the streets and two poles painted in sky blue dangled ad posters and banners of live shows happening somewhere around her.
It was 5:00pm when Mizu decided to take the subway to Yeouinaru Station to see a particular building which was dubbed as the World’s Tallest Gold Covered Structure.
When she reached the station, she realised that the walk to the 63 Building was a long one. An expansive park stretched all the way to the building that was overlooking the Han river. “Open City”, thought Mizu. The Han River stretched onwards, the same river that had seen wars and had held the three kingdoms of Korea at its mercy. The waters had witnessed protests and the Olympics and, in doing so, inhabited the flowing currents of the world. Many Koreans were lazily propped up along the blades of grass near the river and were enjoying a moment’s stillness. They didn’t seem to be deep in contemplation or worried about a thing; they were simply basking in the light afternoon shade. The air was heavy that day because Mizu knew that walking next to the historic Han River was something that didn’t belong to her everyday.
Mizu saw 63 Building at a distance and it looked like a gold bar in the treasury of architecture. In the 80s, when the building was being put together, it had become the first sign of all that Seoul could be, like an emblem of future success, like a spire that could be seen from miles away and which reminded all inmates of Seoul’s destined future…
Mizu was here to see two things, the observatory and the Museum of Colours. She reached the latter first. It was a room full of hues found in Korean art and the significance of each tint to the culture was mentioned. Vivid structures rose and fell around her amid a hotchpotch of colors which moved and slithered as if she were inside a kaleidoscope. A sweet fragrance emerged from a few tints, candy from the bright pink and grape wine from the maroon. Mizu remembered distinctly “The Sea as I Remember it, Blue”. Blue she thought, blue was the colour she least saw in Seoul, but she felt it ever so often.
After the Museum of Colours, Mizu got into a glass lift that levitated to the observatory at the top of 63 Building. From there, leaning against an edge, and from a great height, Mizu saw the whole of Seoul. She saw the distant mountain she had trekked along earlier in the morning, River Han that lay softly amid the city sprawl, and the bustling Hongdae station street that was as lively as it could be. She was among the crowd only a few hours ago. The breeze greeted her recently pierced ears and she smiled.
Towards the far left, she could see a brown enclosure full of tiny structures. It seemed like a little town.
“That’s Andong Hanoe Village”, said a woman who had traced Mizu’s gaze. “Part of the old Seoul. People go there to live in a house that the ancient craftsman Huh frequents”
“Isn’t Huh Chongkak from the 16th century? Isn’t he already dead?”, asked Mizu.
“They say they aren’t too sure”, replied the woman.
“Do they have houses to rent for a night?”, asked Mizu.
“The place is like a Korean Bed and Breakfast Town. I’m sure you’ll find something”, said the woman.
As the moon climbed up the sky, Mizu knew that it was time to head to a place where she could rest. The hotels in Seoul weren’t all that expensive, but most of them felt too modern and well structured. Mizu was looking for something raw and real. Mizu had also heard of the craftsmen Huh who once made sacred masks for the Gods. So she simply trusted the stranger she met on top of 63 Building, as she often trusted strangers, and she left for the Andong Hanoe Village.
The village was a cluster of huge huts, planned and aligned by some great urban magician. No space had been wasted. Tiny eateries appeared whenever one felt hungry and places to stay lay awaiting for some lonesome traveler who needed to rest.
Mizu checked into the third settlement in the row of houses as the stranger had directed her. An old couple who went by their surnames, “Mr. and Mrs. Kim” greeted her. They showed Mizu a Hanok home at the back of their tiny restaurant. The door was small and the ceiling was low.
“Come by for dinner after you’ve freshened up. Today we’re serving Jjimdak and salted mackerel.”, said Mrs. Kim.
In the Hanok room, instead of a bed, a thick quilt lay on the floor with a little blanket and a Korean pillow filled with beans. The floor was warm due to the ondol or underfloor heating. Mizu was happy with the thought that she would be warm at night.
After she had bathed, she wore a Korean robe and joined Mr. and Mrs. Kim for dinner.
They brought out a large chicken dish glazed in brown sauce and Mizu immediately recognized it to be the Jjimdak she had seen on a poster on her way to the village.
There were glass noodles, steamed chicken, sesame, carrots, and massive potatoes. Mizu liked the kick of ginger with every big bite of the Jjimdak and the unfamiliar taste of the makgeolli, a sweet rice wine that was served on the side. Then came the salted mackerel. As there was no sea close to Andong, the fish was cured with a salt that had married it in taste.
After Mizu had taken the eighth or ninth bite of Jjimdak, Mr. Kim asked, “What brings you to Andong? Did the rest of Seoul not charm you?”
“I heard that the great craftsman visits your abode at night,” said Mizu.
“For him to truly visit, you must hear his story…”, said Mrs. Kim in a clean somber voice, almost like a whisper.
“Huh Chongkak was a young unmarried craftsman who was once ordered to make 12 different masks for the Gods. He was commanded to not see anybody while he was making them. After he created the top half of the last mask based on the character Imae or The Fool, a girl who loved him peeked into his abode. The craftsman instantly had an attack and died. The last mask was left incomplete without a lower jaw. Some say the masks have enough power to ward off evil spirits. But although the story is revered for years, we will still never know what the lower half of the mask was supposed to be…”, narrated Mrs. Kim.
“Maybe if he comes to meet me, I’ll ask him,” said Mizu.
“I hope you’re lucky. He often arrives when someone has a genuine question. If your question is without malice and from your heart, you’ll get a true answer. Then he’ll disappear forever. Ask your question quickly. Don’t waste time. Time is revered by the traditional craftsmen in Korea”, said Mr. Kim.
Mizu retired to her quilt bed that night and to pass her time until Huh arrived, she thought about the Seoul she had seen today.
Seoul felt like LEGOland. The simplest structures rose to the sky… an art centre almost shot up right into space and Mizu wasn’t sure if she had ever seen such buildings before. They resembled to her all of life’s possibilities and the unpredictable future of humans and their creation.
As she was deep in thought, the clock struck 3:00am. The moon’s light fell on the window pane and bachelor Huh, the great Korean craftsman, arrived.
Without wasting a second Mizu said to him, “I’ve heard your story Chongkak Huh. Can you tell me what the lower part of the Fool’s mask was supposed to be?”
“I can tell it to you in a word, young one” said he. “I can’t describe it.”
“What’s the word, Chongkak Huh? , asked Mizu.
“Seoul”, said Huh and vanished from the Hanok house.
The next day, Mizu woke up and had an unsettling feeling. She had to leave the house soon.
If Seoul city is the lower part of the mask, is the whole city a deception? Was Hongdae a distraction for the feeble minded tourists to safeguard Seoul’s true tradition? Did it feed the progressive minds the urban fastlife so that they were too exhausted to interfere with the real old Seoul?
The weight of these thoughts were too heavy for Mizu. So she looked at the makeshift day plan she prepared and saw that Myendong was next on the list. She left a note in the room for Mr. and Mrs. Kim and left their abode.
In Myeongdong, Mizu was once again reunited with the Seoul she had seen on the news. She saw the pink neon signs, budding K-Pop singers at the city street, the rose gelato ice cream that would take away all her worries, the Korean skin care cosmetics that were to be restocked after a customer left.
Several billboards around her wished a BTS member a “Happy Birthday”. There were souvenir shops for quirky toys, gifts, and Korean honey butter almond snacks which was why many tourists stopped at Myeongdong only before leaving. Their bags would be full and heavy with souvenirs.
There were limited edition products too with idols on the packaging. Mizu spotted the picture of SHINee’s Taemin on an exclusive face wash. But when she looked closer, the face turned into Bachelor Huh’s young visage. She left the store and thought that she didn’t need to buy much from Myeongdong.
Mizu decided to leave and take a cab to the airport…
Seoul city showed a different face to different inmates, thought Mizu as the cab circled out of the shopping district. The mask was supposed to be unveiled by the civilians themselves. Seoul city had a hundred different sides like the most complex shape to ever exist. But the center was one, an old beating pulse, the old Seoul and craftsman Huh.