June 6th was memorial day here in the Republic of Korea, so we decided to take the long subway ride to Incheon.
In September of 1950, the battle of Incheon proved to be the decisive battle of the Korean War. The one in which General MacArthur and the UN forces, who had been pushed all the way down south to Busan, made a daring amphibious invasion, reclaiming Incheon, Seoul, and even Pyongyang. Of course, North Korea later pushed back and the fighting came to a standstill at the DMZ.
More than half-a-century removed from this chaos, the city was blissfully quiet on a Saturday morning. The colonial-era Japanese banks, wooden coffee houses, and crumbling bars gave off the vibe of a crusty seaport. With the smell of sea-salt heavy in our nostrils, we strolled the empty streets.
We made our way to the Korean war memorial, and saw a big statue of General MacArthur, a man who made a mind-boggling impact on East Asia. Elderly veterans filled the sunny park, taking pictures next to the flower bushes with their family, resting on benches in solitude, and picnicking with old comrades. I thought of my Uncle Emmett, who must have been around my age when he fought here. “Boy, what a bloody war that was” he told me once. I was thankful to be here during peacetime. In the distance, rusted cargo ships blared their horns in the crowded port.
Under a roof of green trees, we descended the stairs to Chinatown.
It was lunch time, and noodle road looked like the place to be. There were a ton of restaurants lining the red-hued streets and bustling crowds to fill them.
Soon we saw Yeon Gyeon, a towering three story behemoth, with a line snaking down the street. We thought it was the obvious place to try Jajangmyeon (자장면), a noodle dish topped with sweet bean sauce, seafood, pork, and vegetables. From what I understand, Jajangmyeon cannot be found outside of Korea, as it was invented by Chinese dockworkers in Incheon’s Chinatown, and is actually a Koreanized version of NE China’s zhájiàngmiàn (炸酱面), or “fried sauce noodles.”
Overlooking the hustle and bustle of Chinatown from high up on the third floor, we ordered shrimp dumplings, which were exquisite, and the spicy version of Janjangmyeon.
I was a big fan of the spicy seafood-laden noodles. I think the sheer quantity of the food and the high spice level was what did it for me. Jessye felt less enthusiastic about it, but in her words did “not dislike it”. Lunch for two was $40.
On our way out of town we saw something that made me wonder whether all of the Jajangmyeon had gone to my head. In all of my travels I have never seen something like this:
A red-steel rollercoaster exploding out of the sidewalk, with pandas, squirrels, tigers, and snakes flanking the rapture. The central drama was of a Panda riding upside down in a rollercoaster car, above a rainbow and the rising sun, holding onto her dangling baby for dear life.
Was this a bubbly middle finger from a delegation of endangered animals to the bourgeois humanoids? A critique of capitalism gone wrong? A shrine to capitalism gone right? I don’t know. I’m still grappling with it now.
Full of noodles & unanswered questions, we left Chinatown and went to a few art galleries in the neighboring warehouse area. The neighborhood looked like it had experienced a renewal in recent years.
We capped the day at Caligari brewing, where we had the best beer we have had in Korea. With a balcony, disco balls, and the beer-brewing operation in full view, the industrial-feeling interior is definitely a place worth hanging out.
Incheon is an anomaly in homogeneous Korea. Walking through the streets, there are constant reminders of how Korea, its history, and its future are closely intertwined with that of the United States, China, and Japan. It is worth a visit as even those unaware of Korean history can sense the weight of the world in Incheon.
41, Chinatown-ro, Jung-gu, Incheon. It is on the right side of the grand staircase.