Incheon is the 3rd largest city in South Korea by population, and part of the Seoul Metropolitan Area. Since it’s only a little more than an hour away from Seoul by commuter train
Incheon Port may not be quite as large and busy as Busan, but it is the principal economic connection between Seoul and the sea.
One thing I had noticed in South Korea is … the lack of imperial Japanese architecture. Japan, of course, has plenty of Japanese buildings from the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa eras, but so does Taiwan. In Taiwan, many buildings built by the Japanese empire are well preserved and beloved historical landmarks.
However, South Korea has a different attitude towards buildings built by the imperial Japanese … rather than trying to preserve them, they often dismantle them.
And this is one of the puzzles I tried to figure out while I was in South Korea – though both Taiwan and Korea were part of the Japanese empire during roughly the same time period, the Taiwanese seem to have a much more positive opinion than the Koreans do of being part of the Japanese empire. Why? Granted, there are Taiwanese people who hate the Japanese empire (though not necessarily contemporary Japan), Japan did fight a series of wars with Taiwan’s indigenous peoples (the Han-Taiwanese sometimes sided with the indigenous people, and sometimes sided with Japan) and there were certainly Koreans who collaborated with Japanese imperialists, so it can’t be simplified as ‘Taiwanese though the Japanese empire was okay’ and ‘Koreans absolutely hated being colonized by Japan’.
I think part of the answer (though only part) is that Korea had been a unified country for over a millenium (aside from the Mongol invasion and the break-up of United Silla) which was generally as technologically advanced as Japan and part of the same ‘Confucian’ civilization. Taiwan, meanwhile, had never been politically united prior to joining the Japanese empire, was a relatively new part of ‘Confucian’ civilization (to the extent it was ‘Confucian’ – not nearly as much so as the Joseon kingdom). Furthermore, Taiwan was passed from one empire – the Qing – to another – Japan, and Japan was arguably the better of the two. Thus the Koreans were angry about losing their independence, culture, and traditions (as well as economic exploitation and political repression), whereas the 19th century Taiwanese didn’t have an independence, identity, or ‘Taiwanese’ traditions to lose.
So what does this have to do with Incheon? Well, Incheon, like Busan, was largely built up by the Japanese and other imperial powers to exploit economic opportunities in Korea. Furthermore, Incheon is the only place I visited in South Korea where some Japanese buildings are preserved and recognized as official Japanese landmarks. I even visited a little museum in one of the old Japanese-era buildings, focused on historical architecture in Incheon. Though, like all museums in South Korea which address Japan’s colonization of Korea, it has a very negative attitude about imperial Japan … it was definitely milder than any other presentation of Korea’s history as a Japanese colony that I encountered in South Korea. It presents the Japanese-era buildings in Incheon, not as reminders of colonization to be hated, but as a part of Korea’s past to be celebrated.
Incheon is famous for its Chinatown … which I found rather uninteresting. I realize that having a Chinatown in South Korea is notable but a) I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of ethnically Chinese people b) I lived in Taiwan for a few years and c) I’ve been to Chinatowns on three different continents, so Incheon’s Chinatown did not seem like anything special to me.
I am more interested in the Incheon Landings, possibly the boldest military action in the entire June 25th war (a.k.a. the Korean War). There is a museum on the site where the Incheon Landings took place, which I planned to visit … until I realized that they were fairly far south of the city center and not convenient to reach by public transit.
As I’ve said before, the North Korean military took over most of South Korea, leaving only the area around Busan under South Korean control. This meant, of course, that the bulk of the North Korean military was near the defence line protecting Busan – and not near Seoul, which is the largest and economically most important city on the Korean peninsula. Retaking Seoul was a high priority for the South Korean government, and it was practically undefended. The trick was getting troops to Seoul.
General MacArthur is credited with coming up with the idea of the Incheon landings – basically, taking an amphibious military force around the Korean peninsula, landing at Incheon, and then moving into Seoul before the North Korean military could respond. This was a very risky move – before the battle, it was estimated that it only had a 1 in 5000 chance of actually succeeding – but succeed it did, and in marked an important turning point in the war – it was the first time that South Korean / the UN forces were offensive instead of defensive.
My guidebook pointed out a cafe, Bboya, which is decorated by bottle caps. It was closed when I went there, but I could still appreciate its exterior.
I then walked over to the Incheon Art Platform … which turned out to be closed because they were changing exhibitions. Oh well. I saw plenty of art in Seoul.
I admit, I was surprised at just how not-busy downtown Incheon is. Given that it’s the 3rd largest city by population in South Korea, I was expecting the city center to have a lot more people walking around the streets, and for the buildings to be taller. Even Gwangju seems much more like a bustling metropolis than Incehon. Maybe I was there at the wrong time of day, or maybe downtown is not the busy part of the city, or maybe Incheon’s urban activity is simply more diffuse than other major South Korean cities, or maybe any place seems to lack people in comparison to where I was staying, Seoul.