This week we take a look at Namdaemun Market (남대문 시장). Dating back to 1414 during the reign of king Taejong, it currently occupies approximately 16.3 acres of land in the heart of Seoul, making it one of the oldest and largest markets in Korea.
Namdaemun Market’s convenient location in central Seoul places it near many hotels and attractions. In addition to the market, is Korea’s #1 National Treasure the Great South Gate Sungnyemun (closed due to arson in 2008, scheduled to reopen 2012), the trendy shopping area Myeongdong, the traditional hanok village Namsangol, and the excellent viewing area at Seoul Namsan Tower (viewable from Nadaemun entrance 4).
Being a major market in the heart of the capital city, Namdaemun has a long and well documented history. Shijang Story is dedicated to sharing the traditional market life and telling some of its tales, and as we endeavor to do this, we thought it would be a good idea to start with the model of a shijang.
Namdaemun Market – An International Shijang
Due to its prime location and strong support from the government, Namdaemun is both accessible, and well maintained. There are three tourist information centers, and the market itself is easily accessed via Seoul Metro subway line 4, Hoehyeon station (회현역). Subway Exit 5 will take you right to the 6th entrance of Namdaemun Shijang. There are a total of eight main entry gates, and a map of the area can be found at a nearby tourist information depot. They have maps and information in various languages, and in our experience the English speaking staff has a sufficient level of language skill.
The convenient location and attention to the needs of international visitors makes this a perfect shijang for the uninitiated. In fact, many shops have workers or salespeople with varying levels of foreign language ability. Regardless of language, in general, shopkeepers in Namdaemun are much more comfortable interacting with non-Koreans or non-Korean language speakers than the those in smaller or rural shijangs. Boasting over 10,000 stores and an estimated 300,000-400,000 customers each day, it is a place of not only domestic, but international commerce as well.
The Main Streets
In spite of Namdaemun’s size, cars are not allowed on the main streets of the market. As with any street or sidewalk in Korea, some motorcycle traffic is present so be aware of your surroundings. The truth is, the busiest traffic of the shijang pertains to foot traffic. We have been there at different hours, days of the week, and seasons of the year, under different weather conditions, and Namdaemun is always quite busy.
The main thoroughfares have shops of many kinds, ranging in goods from cosmetics, to kitchen items, to clothes, to ginseng, to toys or even knitting materials. There are quite a few souvenir shops, including Korean Pop (K-Pop) stores, and some fun things to try like kimchi chocolate.
While Namdaemun is a fantastic place to buy a range of things, we think the market is a particularly great place to buy glasses. They range from extremely affordable brands to expensive designer styles. Hats, and kids clothes are also great here, and there are places to purchase traditional Korean clothes if one so desires. It’s also a good place for wholesale items, as we will discuss a bit more later.
The main streets are wide, and at some points there are vendors stationed in the middle of the road who sell clothing, accessories, or even fruits and vegetables. There isn’t always a theme to the placement of shops, and many appear to be in a random order so browsing is the best way find things, or if you are looking for something specific, one of the information booths can help. It’s a very vibrant and eclectic market, with both young people and old people working and shopping, and domestic and international tourists snapping photos. In fact, the wide ranging demographics are a distinct feature of Namdaemun Market making it a fun place to people-watch.
There are a couple “food streets,” that are primarily lined with small restaurants or “shiktangs.” They branch from the main market areas, so they are not that difficult to find. Here, visitors and passersby are hustled and called to by the owners and workers in various languages, some proudly displaying English language menus, others in Japanese or Chinese.
The great thing about these streets, are the food displays. One can see foods being prepared in front of their eyes, and there are colorful displays of food samples with translations in various languages. This is a great way to become familiar with the different dishes, and decide which restaurant to try. Due to the busy and commercial nature of Namdaemun, food tends to be slightly more expensive here than in other markets, although it can be just as delicious.
If you are not interested in sitting down for a full meal, there are still many snack stands on the main streets. These may include foods ranging from corndog-like sticks, to one of our favorites, ho-ddeok (호떡), a small pancake like pastry filled with syrup and served hot.
In Korea, a popular television show, “Masters of Life,” depicts everyday people who do their jobs extremely well. Thanks to a huge number of customers, the cooks at Namdaemun are extremely good at their craft. Visitors can see banners and photos displaying a particular food stand’s feature on “Masters of Life,” or other program.
Lining the shijang streets are quite a few wholesale buildings. These are generally marked with signs that designate it as “jewelry and accessories,” or “children’s clothing,” etc. This is a great way to see some wonderful small shop and hand made items. Many retailers come here for new designs to add to their shelves, and in some cases the products are being made right in front of you, particularly in the jewelry and accessory areas. In these areas, it is wise to ask before taking photos, as many designs are original, and the creators and shop owners are reluctant to let them be photographed.
We particularly enjoy visiting these areas and seeing artisans and craftsmen at work. If you are visiting Korea or Namdaemun as a commercial buyer, this may be a good place to visit. Luckily you are usually able to purchase single items here instead of only bulk, unlike at the massive wholesale areas of Dongdaemun Market.
Atmosphere and Impressions
Being a pillar of Korean tourism means the international visitor is generally well received. However, there are two issues we suggest being aware of while visiting Namdaemun. As touched on above, for photographers, we recommend asking before taking photos at some shops, particularly in the jewelry or boutique designer areas of the market. Oftentimes the worker is producing small-shop, handmade or hand assembled pieces that they are protective of, particularly if you are not a buyer. Secondly, Namdaemun is a very large and busy market on any day of the week. As such, getting a map from a tourist booth is recommended to help avoid getting lost, as it is easy to do! Being a hot tourist spot makes it a safe market, but of course we always suggest being aware of your surroundings and your belongings.
Overall, Namdaemun Shijang is a great tourist destination, and it is a good place for wholesale goods. We enjoy it because it is a busy, sometimes circus-like atmosphere compared to the more common traditional markets we frequent. It’s easy to access, and as of 2011 there is even an express subway line directly from Incheon International Airport to this area. It’s a lot of fun to bring friends and spend a day or weekend due to the convenience and presence of attractions in the area. We do feel it is a less personal experience compared to other shijangs, and if one is planning to shop there regularly we suggest frequenting a smaller, more traditional and less touristy market. However, if you see only one shijang in your lifetime, we highly recommend Namdaemun Market.