I've become known as "Subway Girl" among my friends due to my unusually high enjoyment with Seoul's subway system. I wrote for a local expat magazine, Eloquence, about the subway, in which I detailed the attractions on each subway line. I only made it to Line 4 before the magazine folded, but I decided to keep going with my research anyways.
After many delays, Seoul finally opened its newest subway line, Line 9, on Friday. As a big fan of Seoul's subway system, I have been impatiently checking the news in an effort to ride the line on its opening day---heck, I would have been at the opening ceremony if I could!---but sadly, I missed it by two days.
After finally walking down into the station I've walked past (longingly, I might add) for the past several months, I discovered just how nice this new underground tunnel was for myself. It sure is pretty. Everything is grey or silver coloured, even vending machines, despite the "Gold Line" designation it's been given. Everything looks shiny, clean, and new.
But there are a few things I noticed were lacking. I was disappointed to see that the trademark coloured stripe on the wall is missing. The station could use a splash of colour---and it would be helpful for the transfer stations on other lines, too. I'll let it pass for now, seeing as it's still a new line, but that gold stripe better get itself on those walls soon. And I also noticed that all subway stations on this line look exactly the same. Something I've loved about other lines is that most stations are uniquely designed---for example, Gangnam Station (Line 2) has its black and white circular tiles; Chungmuro Station (Lines 3 and 4) looks like a cave with its grey, rocky walls; Samgakji Station (Lines 4 and 6) has a war mural---giving each station its own character, and allowing subway users to quickly know what station they're at. Here, they all blend together.
The station also has some amazing map additions (okay, probably something not many people would get excited about, but I love it). Each station in the entire system comes equipped with lots of neighbourhood maps so users can find their way to attractions outside the stations, but at all stations on the gold line, they have two kinds of maps: one regular drawn map and one real-view aerial map. Aerial maps are awesome.
The train cars themselves are different too. First, trains only have four cars---half or less than half of other lines. Inside, the yellow handle bars alternate height for easier access. The seats are very comfortable, I'm told it's because they're a little wider, and the space underneath seats has been left open, which as far as I can remember doesn't happen with other lines. And there are no doors in between the cars, making it easier for users with wheelchairs.
Line 9 has an express line, too, meaning some trains skip stations and only hit the main ones. I thought it might be confusing, but it seems organized and well posted. Lots of volunteers are on hand now to help people figure it all out.
My first ride on the newest subway line was exciting. Now I'm looking for more reasons to go to Gangnam so I can ride it again.
One stop later I was at Meiji-Jingumae, the subway station nearest the Meiji Jingu Shrine. The shrine was built after Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken, who passed away in 1914 and 1916 respectively. Emperor Meiji, having promoted the combination of foreign influence and Japanese culture, is said to have laid the foundation for modern Japan and well respected by the Japanese people, even today. Empress Shoken is called the "model of the modern Japanese woman" for not only supporting the Emperor but also dedicating herself to the promotion of national welfare and women's education. Dedicated in their honour in 1920, the shrine sits in a forest with over 100 000 planted trees; it's a cozy natural retreat in the middle of the city.
Despite the holiday weekend crowds, my stroll through forest was a peaceful one. I passed under the grand shrine gate, Ōtorii, which I read is the biggest wooden Myōjin-style "torii" in Japan. The shrine itself, a little further into the forest, was another beautiful wooden structure. It was, like Sensoji, unlike another I've seen in Korea. There was very little colour at all; instead, the structure was mostly a dark wood with a few white and gold accents, all topped with a pale green roof. It look quite beautiful all nestled cozily in the trees.
My pamphlet outlined the ways to pay respect at the shrine, by properly drinking from the fountain and offering coins. I first walked to Temizuya, the fountain, to get a drink. No one was around---the perfect time to teach myself how to use the font. Step one was to use the dipper to rinse your hands: first your left, then your right. After that, I took another scoop of water and poured it into my left palm. I took a drink---or as the pamphlet put it, rinsed my mouth. It didn't mention anything against it in the pamphlet, so I scooped again and took a second drink. Ready for the third and final step, I rinsed my left hand with another scoop of water. And then, without refering to the pamphlet, I did it all again.
I moved over to the main shrine building to pay my respects. I threw some coins into the offertory box and enjoyed the satisfying clangs that accompanied it. According to my pamhlet, I should have bowed twice, clapped my hands, and bowed once again, but I was overcome with shyness and couldn't. Instead, I stood still and paid my respects with silence.
To my left, I saw a huge collection of prayer cards. The collection was displayed in a circle; there were maybe five or six sides, each a couple metres tall with several rows of these overlapping wooden cards, and each of these sides came together to form a circle. The prayers (some funny, some serious) were written in many different languages and came from visitors all over the world. I knew I wanted to write one for my friend who has been fighting cancer for a few years now, but had trouble figuring out how to get an empty card. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize that I needed to by a card from the gift shop.
I wrote my prayer on one of the tables surrounding the display. As I finished writing, a man started beating this big drum at the shrine, and big, commanding booms echoed all around me. It was a powerful moment; I felt tears well up in my throat and had to fight them down, back inside.
The subway map I grabbed in the station came complete with its own "Tokyo Sightseeing Routes," which was handy info for my guide book-less holiday. I read some of the highlights and starred my favourites: Shibuya, Tokyo Tower, Akihabara, Sensoji Temple (check), and Tsukiji Fish Market. Combined with some attractions listed in my hostel's own guidebook (Ghibli Anime Museum, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Shinjuku, Imperial Palace, Takeshita Street, and Shibuya Crossing), I realized I was in for a busy two days.
The map may have been handy, but the subway itself was a mess. The map was a colourful swirl of subway lines---thirteen in total---plus trains, a monorail, and apparently even a streetcar. Unfortunately for map users, the lines are separated into two companies with two separate travel passes, and the railways and monorail are separate as well, so you have to pay attention to your route. Not only that, but I soon discovered that the unusually high number of transfer stations weren't as beneficial as I originally thought. Too many lines parallel each other, meeting at station after station---the Fukutoshin and Yurakucho Lines have nine stations together in a row! Unnecessary. And too many stations have three, four, or even five lines intersecting together, making for long walks to transfer.
I slowly made my way to Shibuya Station, where I read there was a fashion building, ichi maru kyuu, that was the "epicenter of Tokyo fashion." But when I got there, I was quickly disappointed. The area reminded me of Gangnam in Seoul: business-like and boring. I decided to go for a walk. The most exciting thing I found was another subway station.
Seoul's subway system is, in a word, great. I adore the subway. Comparing it to the subways in Toronto, London, Paris, and Cairo (the subways I've used), Seoul's is, by far, my favourite. Without trying to sound like an advertisement, the subway here is extensive, clean, and most importantly, very easy to use. All signs are in Korean and English (and Chinese!) so they're easy to read. Before heading to the platforms, there's plenty of signs listing the big (ie. transfer) stations for each direction. At each platform, big signs tell you what station the train is coming from and what the next station is, just to help you out. And of course, all the signs are colour-coordinated according to subway line. With plenty of maps, it's easy to find your way. Sure, I've mananged to head in the wrong direction once or twice, but that's because sometimes I simply don't pay attention!
Another helpful design is the big colour stripes along the platform walls. Each subway line has a designated colour: light blue, pink, yellow, or purple, for example. Then, each platform at every station has a stripe of that line's colour along the wall. It's particularly beneficial for those looking for a transfer station---riding the light blue line (line #4), it's easy to know when you've arrived at Chungmuro, where you can transfer to the orange line (line 3) because the walls have both orange and light blue stripes along the wall. Even without knowing the station names, you can figure out where to transfer very easily.
Having never lived in a city with a subway before, I'm enjoying the accessibility of having transportation always nearby. Online interactive maps (click "subway map") detail exactly how long it takes to get somewhere, so theoretically riders can always arrive to their destination on-time. My lateness (unfortunately) can't be blamed on the subway. Unless it's between the hours of midnight and 5.30am, when the subway is regrettfully closed, I can pretty much go anywhere, anytime.
But again, having never lived in a city with a subway before, I wondered if there were any rules I may not be aware of. My students are always helpful in providing information about this city. As another project, I had my students tell me the rules of the subway, carefully outling things people "should" do and things people "are not supposed to" do. Here's a sample of the extensive list they came up with:
- keep order
- be considerate of others
- be careful
- be thoughtful
- follow the rule
- follow the regulations
Good rules, though not limited to the subway.
- take the subway WITH TICKET!
Obviously this group thought this rule was very important. And yes, you should buy a ticket or use your T-money transit pass to ride the subway. And when rides are 900won (about 90 cents), there's no excuse not to.
As with swimming pools, it's always best to walk, not run, on the subway.
- stand behind the yellow line
- follow the guard line when you are waiting
- stand in 4 lines
- go in after people come out
While waiting for the train to arrive, my girls wisely think people should wait behind the yellow line and the protective guardrail. Many stations have doors to keep people away from the tracks, but not all of them yet. Also, platforms are marked with four arrows that indicate riders should wait in four neat lines, two on either side of the door. Ideally, this lets riders exit the train easily, after which the people waiting can enter. I know a few little ajummas (older women) who like to ignore these rules, though, and elbow their way onto the train before everyone's had a chance to get out, shoving all others aside.
- help the poor
- give money for poor people
- leave a seat for the old
- offer your seat to an old man
- if there is old people, we should stand up
- give your seat to old and sick and pregnant
The trains are lively, exciting places, with people coming and going, standing and sitting, walking up and down the aisles. Disabled people find ways to make a little bit of money by walking up and down trains, giving laminated information pages that (I assume, since it's always in Korean) describe their illness and ask for donations. Or, blind people play a quiet song on a tape player and slowly but steadily make their way down the train, holding a small basket for riders to drop coins or bills into.
Above the seats at the ends of each train, there are signs letting people know they should leave these seats for the elderly, disabled, or pregnant. The other seats are available to everyone, but of course it's polite to give your seat to the elderly, disabled, or pregnant there, too. It's a game: players scanning the train for signs that someone's about to stand up, jostling and competing for a newly empty seat, only to give it up to a sweet-looking old man who gets on at the next stop, then starting all over again.
- be quiet
- look at scenery
- sleep, play game
My students had some ideas of what to do to pass the time. Study? I don't believe it girls. Look at scenery? Definitely. Sleep? I like watching other people sleep, their heads jerking as they suddenly realize how close they are to their seat-neighbour, but I can't say I recommend it. I know a few people who've fallen asleep, only to miss their stop and add hours to their journey. Play games? As long as they don't contradict the "be quiet" rule.
Now for some things you shouldn't do on the subway.
You're not supposed to...
- commit suicide
- throw someone on the rails
Both VERY important rules---I'd say they tie for Rule #1: Do not kill yourself or others on the subway.
- use handicapped people's elevator
From my observations, Seoul is well designed to accomodate blind, deaf, and physically-disabled people. The subway is accessible for everyone, but no doubt it's difficult for disabled people to navigate through the crowds. It's smart to leave the elevators for those who need it.
- bring their pets such as dogs and not take their dungs
- talk with people
- take their own photo in the subway
I think the girls got a little strict with these two rules. Talking, I'd say, should be allowed. While I think Korean's habit of taking self-photos is silly, I don't necessarily think it should be banned.
- push people around
- throw trash
- run, jump
- say bad word
Good, especially the last one.
- set your legs apart
- open your leg
- spread your newspaper too widely while sitting down
- have more than one chairs
- lie down on the chairs
Space is important everywhere in this city, including the subway. Don't take up too much of it.
- get naked
- singing and dancing
- drinking alcohol, beer? or something? soju
- drink alcohol and throw up
I'm not sure what experiences my students have had on the subway, but I'll go ahead and agree with these rules.
- beg to people
- sell things
It's common to see hawkers on the subway, peddling goods like umbrellas, nylon socks, laundry bins, cucumber peelers, dusters, homemade CDs, and other random goods. I enjoy watching them do their sales pitch, the whole time wondering what's being said. And I'm always surprised when people purchase these things (kitchen tools, umbrellas, and nylon stockings seem to be the most popular goods). My girls, however, think both those buying and selling are breaking the rules of the subway.
- wear a short skirt
- lovely situation
- kiss with your boyfriend
- touch her's hip!!!
- leg between leg big NO
- love behaviour
- lovely couple
- love with your partner
Without knowing quite what to call it, my girls certainly got the message across. No PDA, please!
And there it is: dos and don'ts for riding the subway in Seoul. Enjoy the ride!
One of my favourite things about Seoul: shopping in the subway stations. It certainly makes any journey more enjoyable! Some stations are lucky enough to have entire underground malls within their tunnels. And I am lucky enough to live one stop away from such a place. These malls consist of small cubby stores stuffed full of clothes, shoes, restaurants, books, household items, CDs and DVDs, and anything else you can imagine. Thousands of shoes tempt me with every transfer. Racks of jewellery sparkle as I pass by. A waffle’s delicious scent wafts through the tunnels and entices me to devour it while I walk to the next platform.
Riding the subway, this is one of my favourite views of the city...