Seoul is a booming and nuanced city, born as a product of the Korean War and built overnight into a mega power of industry, technology, and culture in just the last 60 years. Maybe because of such rapid industrialization, Seoul, and Korea as a whole haven’t yet had a chance to match their innovative thinking in math and science, to gender equality and modern social norms.
As Elise Hu, International correspondent for NPR, said on an episode of Foreign Correspondence, “The difference between Korea and a lot of the western world is that Korea, because of its fast economic growth from as poor as subsaharan Africa in the 1960s to now one of the richest nations in the world, essentially did not experience an adolescence as a country when it comes to a society.”
The patriarchy is prevalent in Seoul, which still ranks poorly in international comparisons of overall gender equality. As a result, it’s difficult to see a feminist Seoul, outside of the plastic surgery and makeup industries that champion unrealistic beauty ideals for women. That said, you’ll find when you look and you listen and you hear, you’ll realize there are emblems of feminism hidden in plain sight, and multiplying.
Visit Ewha Woman’s University
Ewha is the first women’s university in Korea and the largest female educational facility in the world. That, and it’s wildly beautiful. It sits at the base of Ansan mountain and represents the old and new, with a combination of an iconic modern underpass constructed with glass and steel, and European style churches dating back to when the school opened in the late 1800s. The campus is diligently gardened and enshrouded by city skyscrapers downtown. To get there, take the subway to Ewha Woman’s University Station, then walk straight from exit #2 for about 10 minutes. The area surrounding the university boasts a fashion street with some of the cheapest clothes in the city.
Bad Hands Tattoo Works
Not only do female tattoo artists in Seoul defy their modest culture with their particular art form, but they also technically break the law. In Korea, only licensed medical doctors can tattoo, which means many artists work underground, or in shops with blacked-out windows in the Hongdae or Mullae neighborhoods.
Kim Michi is an artist known for her surrealist style, depicting scenes of women crying tears of petals, or a human body trapped inside a ribcage. She works at Bad Hands Tattoos, which has multiple locations throughout the city. Kim says she is inspired by Wes Anderson’s movies, Haruki Murakami’s books, and Salvador Dali’s artwork.
Honor Architect Zaha Hadid at Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP)
The DDP is a fortress of chrome, a building designed by British Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, and erected in Seoul’s fashion hub in 2014. Hadid, who died of a heart attack in 2016, was the first woman to ever win a Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Outside, the amorphous shape of the building looks futuristic, sleek, and space-age with aluminum panels that light up at night. The multi-floor building houses a visitor and culture park, museums and exhibition halls, and multipurpose space to serve the budding art scene in Korea’s capital city. There is also an LED poppy garden, solar panels, and recycling water system included in the building’s infrastructure.
Seoul’s First Sex shop for Women
The Pleasure Lab is the first of it’s kind in Korea: a sex toy shop dedicated to women. Located in Gangnam, the two co-founders of the store are Korean natives Choi Jung-yoon and Kwak Eura. Choi had spent time abroad before coming back to Korea to fill a gap in an underserved industry for women. Not only does Pleasure Lab cater to female sexuality, but it also serves a resource for sexual education from co-founders, one of whom is a certified nurse. Choi and Kwak seek to break social stigmas around sex being taboo, and women’s pleasure falling secondary to men’s. Due to strict government regulations, the shop is in a residential area of Gangnam, sharing a building with a church.
A Cafe Considered the Cultural Home of Feminism
At the “Cultural Home of Feminism,” locals can enjoy a library on feminist reading, art expos, lectures, and even counseling, centered on a community of women supporting each other. Next to Cheongdam Station in Gangnam, Doing Cafe hosts an unassuming little storefront. Inside, you will find founder, Kim Ryeo-il, who holds an advanced degree in feminist theology. Kim was motivated to find Doing Cafe after May 2018 when a Korean man stabbed a random woman in a public bathroom. When the murder was charged as mental illness related, and not a hate crime, it sparked a national conversation about a deeply misogynistic culture. The goal of the cafe is to encourage education and to help women assert their rights to equality.
Chef Lee Song-hee of My Ssong
Lee Song-Hee is the female chef behind three Seoul-based restaurants, and the CEO of CielSsong Company’s food startup, which hosts cooking classes, restaurant rentals, and catering services. Lee’s three restaurants range in cuisine from Italian at Grand Ciel, to one tabled fare at In NY, to casual American dining at My Ssong. In NY, located in Sinsa-dong, claims its the first “one table restaurant” in Korea with a romantic, cozy vibe. In each of Lee’s restaurants, the kitchens are open-style to allow for full transparency in terms of sanitation and performance. As sexual harassment is common in restaurant kitchens, Lee has said this layout will protect against indecency.
Enjoy a Traditional Temple Stay
Baekyangsa Temple hosts a traditional temple stay program where visitors can cook and learn Buddhist ideals. The program is led by Jeong Kwan, a monk chef who’s been featured on an episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix. She makes food as a meditation and believes that good, clean eating is the key to positively affecting mind and spirit.
“With food, we can share and communicate our emotions,” Jeong said in the episode. “It’s that mindset of sharing that is really what you’re eating. There is no difference between cooking and pursuing Buddha’s way.”
Baekyangsa Temple lies about an hour and a half outside of Seoul, accessible by bus from Seoul Central City Bus Terminal. A stay of one night and two days costs about $130 USD, and can be booked on their website.
Traditional Korean bathhouse
The best budget accommodations in Korea can be found in every city, are open 24/7, never cost more than about $10 USD, and always provide you with clean pajamas. Korean bathhouses, or jimjilbangs, are sauna complexes separated by gender, where locals go to bathe and relax—naked. In co-ed sections, visitors are given pajamas and can rest on floor mats or in different saunas (some of which have choices of ice, crystals, or salt interiors at the bigger chains in Seoul). Often, jimjilbangs are utilized as cheap accommodations, as they’re always accessible, cheap, and relaxing. To find one, search for a red LED sign that looks like a circle with three trails of steam rising above it. (Hint: there’s also an emoji of this exact symbol).
Jimjilbangs help challenge norms about aversions to same-sex nudity and they appear to be the only place where highly maintained Korean beauty standards seem to dissipate with the mist of the 102-degree baths. Generations of women bathe together in what feels like a no-judgement zone to an otherwise brutally critical society. Plus, they’re cheap and you can stay as long as you want.