Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

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The Best Coffee Shops in Hongdae (well, that I know of…)

Okay, for no particular reason, I thought I would give a brief rundown of my favorite coffee shops in Hongdae. By “Hongdae,” I mean the greater region, going from Yeonnam-dong in the north, to Donggyo-dong, Seogyo-dong, and south to Hapjeong and Sangsu. It’s one of the most unusual parts of Seoul and home to a huge number of independent, quirky, cool, and otherwise different coffee shops (and of course the big-name chain brands on the main roads).

This is not a complete list. I don’t claim to know every one of the hundreds of coffee shops in this part of town — some are very nice, a lot are terrible, and others are in-between. But I do know a few places that I think are worth mentioning, places where they roast their own beans or at least are actively involved in shaping the flavor (so they are not just part-time workers hitting a button).

This is also a personal list. For me, the more times I see the word “barista” used in reference to a coffee shop, the less likely I am to enjoy it. So don’t expect many award-winners here.

Coffee Me

Simple, unassuming, but run by a very nice couple. While they have a few snacks, the focus is very much the coffee. They roast their own beans here and put a lot of care into the beverages. It has a big patio out front and a lot of open space inside, so it is quite relaxing.

Located close to Sanullim Theater on the north side of Hongdae, in Changjeon-dong, on Seogangro 9-gil.


Cafe Libre

Widely considered one of the best coffee places in Korea, Cafe Libre certainly is serious about their brews. And its rustic interior is both unusual and memorable. However, its coffee is also one of the prime examples of the “sour” style that is so popular in Korea and that I personally detest. But many people love it, so you probably should check it out. Plus while you are in the neighborhood, you can eat at Tuk Tuk Noodle and enjoy the best Thai food in Korea.

Located in Yeonnam-dong, down Hyanggi 1-gil alley (by Seoul Dongbu Church).

You Are Here

The coffee shop co-run by Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi and the language blog Talk to Me in Korean. The coffee here is excellent, especially the espressos — dark, strong and flavorful. Really my style. (The milkshakes and carrot cake are excellent, too).

It can get crowded at times, but the space is fairly large and there are plenty of spaces to hang out. I find earlier in the day it is usually quieter.

Located at Donggyoro 25-gil and World Cup Bukro 6-gil.


Another place that roasts its own beans and is very serious about coffee.  The menu isn’t huge, but what they have they do well, with the rich, bitter espresso that I like. (Very good macarons, too).

(Grr… cannot find a decent pic or URL … They renovated recently, and the new patio is much nicer than the old layout).

UPDATE: So, I was walking past Belief today, so managed to take a new pic. Not a great photo, but at least it is something.

Also, I remembered another very good cafe, Organic. It’s just down the street from Belief. In addition to very good coffee, it has homemade ginger ale which is excellent.


Note: The number of places in the greater-Hongdae area that are notable for ambiance or interior design is huge. Many of them are open 24-hours, too, including Ethiopia (which is frequently used for filming TV dramas) and Gabia (very stylish interior, good coffee, and probably busier at 3am than at 3pm) — both are located very close to Sanullim Theater. In the Sangsu Station area, Jebi Cafe, Yri Cafe and Mudaeruk  all have excellent coffee and ambiance out the wahzoo.

Note 2: Don’t bother using Google Street view on Yeonnam-dong or Sangsu. It hasn’t been updated since 2009, and back then there was nothing in either neighborhood. Even Naver’s street view, which was made in 2012, is now totally out of date. As always, it is amazing how fast Korea changes. Daum’s street maps seem to be the most recent, having been updated earlier in 2014.


Dongdaemun Wandering

The middle of August is the height of vacation season in Korea, so plenty of shops are closed at the moment — kind of like in Europe, but instead of a month off, in Korea its just a week. Or often just 2-3 days.

The weather has been quite pleasant lately, so I’ve been walking around Dongdaemun a bit. Here are a couple of shopping alleys that are usually full of shoe stores, but this week were pretty dead:

However, there are still a fair number of places open, including the book stores. Today was a good day for browsing and I ended up buying these art books:

Tiger and Sanshin!

In case you are wondering where I bought these books, here’s a map:

Piqued by ‘Non Summit’

Nearly a decade after KBS tortured us with “Misuda”, or “Chattering Beauties,” a show featuring foreign women talking about Korea (and perhaps being objectified a bit), JTBC gives us “Non Summit,” a rather similar show featuring young men from around the world who speak Korean.

I recall a lot of foreigners complaining about “Misuda” back when it was on the air, claiming that Koreans would never do a similar show with men. But now here we are, with foreign men being treated just as ridiculously as foreign women were way back when.

I just wonder if one of the guys will open a good makgeolli bar near my apartment, like Taru from “Misuda” did. (Information about Taru Jumak is here. Very good place).

Here’s a story talking a bit more about “Non Summit” and what they are aiming for.

If you want to get a sense of what the show is like, you can see it here with English subtitles. More subtitled episodes are linked here.

Anyhow, I know I’m complaining too much. But it is genuinely interesting to see a show like this on the air now. It’s amazing how much Korea keeps changing — both in terms of how well people around the world are learning Korea, and how much better Korea is becoming at dealing with the rest of the world.


Get Polka-y

So, there’s a new Weird Al album out. Which is not exciting as it once was.

However, there is one part of each Weird Al album that I do enjoy — the polkas. He usually has a medley or something like that. I don’t know much about his new album, but I do know that he has a polka cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

Imho, this is an awesome thing.

You can listen to it here.

I’m a part of Korean music!

Hey, here’s a Ha Dong-kyun song that I totally missed out on, called “From Mark.” It’s like my song!

Okay, so it’s not about me. But it is a good song. And given the lyrics of the chorus — “I will fly away … from Mark” — it sounds like the anthem for every woman who ever broke up with me.

Or, if you prefer, here is a version of the song on Youtube with the lyrics translated and on screen:

Snowpiercer redux

Over the last few weeks, there’s apparently been a big resurgence of people interested in my old Snowpiercer review (thanks to all for the comments, by the way). I guess that’s mostly a function of the film appearing in more and more territories around the world.

Of all the countries around the world, Snowpiercer is easily doing best in China. It opened there in mid-March in No. 2, then falling to No. 7 in its second weekend. After two weeks, it had made about $11 million.

In Italy, where it opened at the end of February, it made $1.2 million.

This weekend, the movie will be opening in Germany … and I gather by the incoming links to this website that there is some interest in the movie there. I have no idea how that will translate into box office, but it is interesting to see.

Of course, Snowpiercer does not come out in the United States — in a limited but unedited release — on June 27.

Captain America goes global

I just watched the latest Marvel superhero film,  Captain America: The Winter Soldier — which was quite enjoyable — but what really jumped out at me was a scene when Steve Rogers (the Captain) writes in a little booklet about things he needed to check out, having spent 65+ years frozen. He added a Marvin Gaye album, and above that there was Thai food. But higher up on the list, I noticed there was the movie Oldboy and footballer Park Ji-sung.

Sure enough, in the United States, people saw a rather different list.

A pretty amusing little big of localization, I thought. I’m surprised Hollywood doesn’t do that sort of thing more. After all, when you are spending $150 million or whatever on a blockbuster, why not add a couple more dollars and CGI in something local for each market?

When the aliens destroy some city, I bet people in England would love to see London blown up, and people in France could see Paris blown up, people in Japan could see Tokyo blown up, and people in Korea could see Tokyo blown up (joking).

Anyhow, Captain America. I wonder how many countries got their own customized list. I’m sure sites like Comicbooknews will be tracking them all soon enough. It was a fun little idea.

Korea’s real estate: 6 impossible things before breakfast

While there is a lot to like about Korea, its economy, people, etc., there are two major issues that totally stymie it: education and real estate. They are the two biggest contributors to inequality in Korea. And they are the two areas that are completely wrapped up in their own mutually exclusive paradoxes, basically because everyone is so busy arguing over how to treat the symptoms that they do not understand the disease.

Today, real estate is back in the spotlight, as the government wants to relax anti-speculation regulations in order to jumpstart the real estate market. Good luck with that.

All this talk of Korean real estate being “hot” or “in a slump” completely misses the point because the housing market here is besieged by two contradictory needs:

  1. To lower prices, so apartments are more affordable.
  2. To keep prices rising, so the real estate market stays active.

Making matters worse, Koreans overwhelmingly use their apartment as their primary investment/savings tool, much moreso than in most countries (74% in Korea versus 42% in Canada or 25% in the United States). So to burst the bubble would ruin a lot of people.

But apartments in Korea are so expensive — the average home price is 7.7 times the average income (versus 3.5 in the United States), and that’s just nationwide, in Seoul that ratio is much worse — that rising prices would ruin a lot of other people.

Clearly, the country needs to deleverage household debt, but everyone cannot deleverage at once without causing a recession. So what is the solution? I’m no economist, but the only thing I can see would be letting inflation rise. Like in many countries these days, Korea’s inflation is persistently running below expectations, a sure sign that demand is slack. But if the country were able to get inflation up to, say 4%, then over a few years, that home price-to-income ratio could come down without reducing household spending.

Or maybe there are other solutions. But clearly, continually yo-yoing between pushing up the real estate market and then clamping down on it is a strategy doomed to fail.

A-ri-a-ri-rang, Here-I Here I am …

Just a little update on what is going on with me and my own work. I started a regular gig this week as a guest on Arirang Radio’s Sunnyside Up. It’s on 7-9am weekdays, and my segment airs around 8am an Wednesdays. Host Jenny Cho is very nice and the whole crew looks unusually solid. I’m quite happy to be on board.

They don’t seem to update their Audio on Demand feature much, but you can listen to the station in realtime here.


UPDATE: Oops. Forgot to mention that I also got a plug in the most recent Canadian embassy newsletter in Korea. You can download it here.


Friday morning links

There’s a very fun story in the Korea JoongAng Daily about the movie The Attorney coming on Monday. I’m really looking forward to linking to it. But in the meantime, here are a few things I’ve found interesting recently:

  • Google may be just the No. 3 most popular search engine in Korea (after Naver and Daum), but it is on the rise, while the local sites are stagnant or declining. Nate is bleeding particularly badly. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • For a great example of all that is wrong with government trying to promote pop culture, here’s a collaboration between YG Entertainment and the Ministry of Science, ICT, and Future Planning.  (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • In related news, here’s an interview with Korea’s minister of science (and ICT and future planning) talking way too much about “creative economy” (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • Trying to save 8,000 year old rock art that spends half the year underwater because of a dam (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • Very fun article about the rise of tattoos in Korea. I’ve already regretted never writing that feature on tattoos in Korea for Newsweek, back when I had the chance. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • Korean Film Archive has released a list of the top 101 Korean films. Was supposed to be 100, but they gave 101. Whatever. Still, it’s an interesting list. Plus the KFA is going to restore the classic film Aimless Bullet (aka Obaltan) — I have it on DVD and, while interesting, the quality is pretty terrible. Plus the KFA has found a copy of a music documentary/film from 1968; I really want to see this and hope it is full of good performances by the singers of the day. (Korea JoongAng Daily)

Meanwhile, the weather outside is frightful. No, we’re not experiencing brutal cold or a winter snowstorm. But we are in the middle of a huge chemical fart from China. Thanks China for messing up the air!

From the KMA:


Strangely, if appropriately, the Korean website for those color maps of the pollution is called “Kaq“, for Korea Air Quality. But it sounds like “cack“, because that’s pretty much the air quality today.

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