The “Little “Japanese Village” in Dongbuichon-dong Yongsan-gu is a cozy cluster of stores and restaurants with Japanese signboards touting sushi, ramen, tonkatsu, and izakaya along with Japanese groceries and bread.
Quite a few of the Japanese restaurants in the area are tucked back along the streets, but are well-worth seeking out for their fare of unique and mouth-watering Japanese cuisine.
To get to “Little Tokyo”, go out Exit 4 of Ichon Subway Station and turn down the road between the Ichon 1-dong Community Service Center the adjacent apartment complex. Unlike more crowded tourist destinations, there are no signs marking the area as “Little Tokyo”—the village is simply known as such for its apartment complexes housing many Japanese families and its scattering of authentic Japanese restaurants and stores. Despite its humble appearance, the neighborhood is one of the top places in Seoul to experience the true taste and style of Japan.
One of the most notable restaurants in the area is a little ramen eatery located on the underground floor of LG Plaza, to the south of the west side of Hangang-ro, the main road that travels from east to west through the heart of “Little Tokyo”.
The savory taste of “Tonkotsu Ramen”, Japanese noodles in a deep broth of pork bones, is enough to whet any appetite. Its hot, yet smooth taste is particularly pleasing to the Korean palate.
Awano Hirohiko, who came to Korea in 2010, opened the ramen restaurant “Ichon Ramen Tei” in April 2015. The restaurant menu offers a diverse selection of Japanese ramen, such as Sogeum Ramen, Ganjang Ramen, Miso Ramen, Gireum Soba and Japanese-style Jjamppong Ramen. To the Japanese, the establishment offers a taste of home, while to many Koreans, it promises a unique and unforgettable dining experience. Prices range from around KRW 6,000 to KRW 12,000.
The ambience of the restaurant and the taste of the noodles are utterly authentic which explains the restaurant’s immense popularity. Although it has not been open long, the place already has quite an impressive share of loyal customers.
Awano runs the ramen restaurant during the day and “Kirakutei”, a sushi restaurant located next door, in the evenings.
To the east of Hangang-ro are even more Japanese-style restaurants and bars.
“Momoya”, located in the commercial building of Hangang Mansion, is a Japanese restaurant selling tonkatsu, deopbab, and Japanese noodles. This restaurant is also very popular and is almost always full of diners.
Further down the road to the east is “Mono Mart”, which is situated at the entrance of Lex Shopping. The small supermarket sells a diverse selection of Japanese foods and ingredients such as sauces, side dishes, and noodles imported directly from Japan.
In addition to these, several other Japanese-style shopping centers can be found here and there throughout an otherwise typical Korean neighborhood along both sides of Hangang-ro.
Today’s “Little Tokyo” was formed after the normalization of relations between Korea and Japan in 1965. With the opening of the Japanese embassy and the subsequent influx of Japanese companies, embassy staff and Japanese expats began to make the neighborhood their home. Japanese companies flocked to the area to establish residences for their employees near the homes of embassy staff, further adding to the area’s Japanese population.
One long-time Japanese resident nostalgically remembers the old days when there was a wide stretch of white sandy beach along the river and residents spent much of their free time swimming and boating.
At one time, “Little Tokyo” was home to as many as 2,000 Japanese expats, but with the relocation of the Japanese school to Sangam-dong in 2011, the number of Japanese residents fell significantly to around 1,000 people.
One special thing about Little Tokyo is that, unlike many neighborhoods in Korea, it does not hold any special festivals or events to attract outsiders. Most of the Japanese residents in the area only live in Korea for a couple of years before returning home, and most of them work in the same place or have children who attend the same school. They say they find it unnecessary to host any special events to strengthen community ties since they are already such an important part of each other’s lives.
“Little Tokyo” in Dongbuichon-dong, although unassuming in appearance, is the most authentic Japanese neighborhood in Seoul.