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A Photo Essay of Insa-dong, Seoul

As though trying to resemble the meaning of its Chinese characters, "benevolent temple," Insa-dong emits a friendly atmosphere on its main street, which is full of small shops on both sides of the road selling traditional crafts, such as dolls, pottery, wooden totem miniatures, paintings and old rare books. Insa-dong is therefore usually crowded with foreign tourists looking for an interesting souvenir and local Koreans seeking a walk into the past, or simply a brief escape from an everyday busy urban life.

Among the common Korean souvenirs one can come across at Insa-dong are the wooden masks and totem pole miniatures, which represent the customs of Korean peasants performing satire plays wearing masks to protect their identities, and the more ancient practice of Shamanism. The shape of the masks vary, according to which region they originate from, while the poles, or "jangseung," were made of tall tree trunks or stone and the shape of human face was carved on the top. These "jangseung"s were set by the entrance of villages, temples or a roads like milestones and people prayed to them to take away their worries or to look after the health of their families.

One popular souvenir item Koreans buy for newly weds is a pair of wooden ducks. They symbolize the life of a happily married couple and, therefore, when Koreans present a pair of colorfully painted wooden ducks to brides and grooms it is considered as a very thoughtful gift containing their earnest desires the couple will have a long and happy life together.

On a more practical level, it is worthwhile to stroll around Insa-dong just for the sake of some good snacks. Sunday is not a very good day to do this because as many as fifty people queue up to buy freshly fried Chinese pancakes ("hoddeok"). The pastry usually contains a mixture of brown sugar, small bits of peanut and a sprinkle of cinnamon powder. The "hoddeok" at Insa-dong is made of maize. The word "ho" in "hoddeok" actually means a rice cake of Chinese barbarians or "orangkye."
Despite its diverse attractions, the greatest delight of the tourist district is to see people; how families, friends and lovers spend a good time together.

For instance, there is nothing more beautiful and rewarding than seeing a child smile brightly as he wins a game and earns two toffees melted in the shape of an animal in return.

(Written by Jinna Park, Photos by Namkyu Lee)


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