It’s a Monday evening in the South Korean capital but unlike other neighbourhoods, Myeong-dong, in the central district of Jung-gu, is bustling. Every single day an average of one million people—in a city of ten million—are estimated to shop in this one-square-kilometre area, north of the Han River.
About half a century ago, Myeong-dong attracted crowds for a different reason. Students came here to protest military dictators, their resolve strengthened by the sanctuary provided by the striking red-and-grey brick gothic Myeong-dong Cathedral. Now, from the doors of the Nanta Theatre on Myeong-dong’s main street, cosmetic and skincare boutiques stretch as far as the eye can see, spilling into the narrow alleys. Each is stocked with products that promise to help achieve the Korean ideal of beauty: unblemished, radiant, rosy skin.
Every local cosmetic and skincare brand has a branch here, some have several. They all market themselves aggressively and appear to be doing brisk business. Impeccably groomed salespeople ask for a few moments of your time in return for free face pack kits. Some take a polite, formal approach, but occasionally you might feel an arm coil around your elbow—a salesperson gently tugging you into a store. For me it was all very tempting: To step inside store after store and sample a perfumed moisturising cream, or a deliciously fragrant lip balm from an adorable anime container.
With hundreds of skincare and cosmetic stores lining its streets, present-day Myeong-dong is unrecognizable from its ruined state after the Korean War of 1950. Photo: Lucas Vallecillos/Age Fotostock/Dinodia
If you harbour insecurities about any part of your anatomy, there’s a product here for it. There are creams and lotions for dry or oily skin, wrinkles (even those a distant 25 years down the road), lips too thin or too fat and so on. There are BB creams, scrubs for blackheads, heat-radiating patches to tone saggy abdomens and thighs, and serum-soaked gel moustaches to iron out those laughter lines. It is impossible to leave here without a shopping bag.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that the beauty product industry here is estimated to generate ten billion dollars annually. Ten per cent of this revenue is attributed to sales of men’s products. The most popular brands are Nature Republic, Missha, Aritaum, Tony Moly, and AmorePacific’s Hanyul and Etude.
It’s not uncommon for a South Korean 15-year-old to have had a nose job, a double-eyelid surgery, a jaw-sculpting procedure, or even all three. In the “Improvement Quarters” of the upscale Gangnam neighbourhood south of the Han River, nip-and-tuck clinics are lined up just like the skincare stores are here. Their objective is the same, but the focus in Myeong-dong is on products and minimally-invasive treatments. Stores offer both traditional Hanbang remedies that are based on the philosophy that the state of the skin reflects underlying health problems, and new-age applications that boast exotic ingredients like crushed gold and pearls, snail slime, porcine collagen, and even placenta and starfish extracts.
Korean beauty products are popular with tourists from Japan and China, and attendants at many stores are conversant in their languages. Photo: Seongjoon Cho/Bloomberg/Contributor/Getty Images
When you’re exhausted from all the walking around, pamper yourself with a skin treatment. These cost upwards of KRW22,000/₹1,240 at spots like The Foot Shop, Hugo Spa, and CNP Clinic, but the more elaborate collagen-restoring or detox programmes can run into a few hundred thousand won. At Hanyul customers can indulge in folk treatments that range from basic footbaths and facials to intense, full-body massages that are supposed to restore the body’s natural equilibrium and get the energy flowing. The store also sells products that combine the benefits of potent herbs (a mugwort massage cream costs KRW28,000/₹1,580 for 250 ml, a Ginseng-based anti-ageing kit, KRW1,70,000/₹9,600).
Once this skin food fest (Skinfood is also the name of a store) is over, try some real food. Gomtang is an energising traditional soup that’s made from vegetables, ox head, and brisket. According to a note inscribed on the window of Najugomtang, an elegant restaurant in a Myeong-dong by-lane, this dish is one that was served to kings in the old days, because it provided both nutrition and collagen.
Spoilt for choice, I wondered what Cleopatra would pick up at Myeong-dong if she was on a budget. The “five-day secret” face-mask kit, whose ingredients, listed in Korean, will undoubtedly remain secret? A box of cheese-based firming cream? Or maybe something with a more powerful ring to it, like a product from the “red dragon blood” range? Having been through everything this street has to offer, I decide that “inner glow” is what I am going for. So, I’ll stick with real food: chocolate-coated strawberries it is.
Appeared in the April 2016 issue as “Fountain of Youth”.
is a freelance journalist and an author of children's books. Passionate about world cultures and cuisines, she also enjoys hiking and diving with her daughters.
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