Korean pop music phenomenon Psy has gone viral, with his "Gangnam Style
" music video becoming the most watched clip in YouTube's history.
The rapper/singer, whose real name is Park Jae-sang, hails from Gangnam (literally "south of the river"), and in addition to increasing international awareness of "K-pop," as Korean pop music is known, he has figuratively put the district on the world map.
But what is Gangnam other than a great song, a sexy video and the area on the south bank of the Han River?
Gangnam is officially Gangnam-gu, one of the 25 gu (local government districts) that make up Seoul. With a population of just over a half a million, it's the fourth most populated district in the capital and the third largest in terms of area.
Two streets epitomize the ultracool "Gangnam Style": Cheongdam, Gangnam's answer to Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive, where high credit card limits and chauffeurs are the norm, and the tree-lined Garosugil, a great place for people-watching, dining and building up a stylish wardrobe without breaking the bank.
While Psy is the face of K-pop outside Korea, there are dozens of bands with massive domestic and international fan bases. The websites KPopConcerts.com and AllKPop.com are excellent sources for the genre's news and concert information.
For travelers to Korea looking to experience some Gangnam style, the Korea Tourism Organization has a direct link in English on its website to information on how to apply to be an audience member at a live K-pop music show
Three popular TV shows taped in front of live audiences in Seoul give overseas travelers the opportunity to see a number of chart-topping K-pop groups at one time, such as the girl bands Ace of Angels, Hello Venus and Miss A and boy bands including Big Bang, Nell and TVXQ.
Of the three K-pop music programs, M.net M! Count Down is perhaps most accessible for international residents and visitors since there is no registration process. Guests are admitted into the studio on a first-come, first-served basis. This means getting to the studio at the CJ E&M Center in the Sangam neighborhood of Seoul as early as possible to secure entry. These programs are extremely popular, especially with each group's fan club.
For visitors inspired enough to get out on the dance floor and learn some K-pop moves, a number of dance classes are available throughout the country. The Seoul Global Culture and Tourism Center
in downtown Seoul has a free K-pop dance class and a free K-pop music class as part of a cultural experience program; both have become instant hits.
During the 90-minute dance classes, students learn the choreography for a single popular song from start to finish under the guidance of an English-speaking instructor.
For those who prefer song to dance, the center also offers a K-pop Music Class that teaches all-time favorite Korean songs. Students sing along following sheet music with lyrics in Hangeul (the Korean written language) and pronunciation in English.
There are also private dance schools in Seoul with K-pop classes and programs well-suited to foreigners. The DEF Dance School
in Gangnam is one of the capital's top dance schools; its instructors have trained major Korean celebrities and K-pop stars, including 2pm and Big Bang.
In the Gangnam groove
Here are some tips for experiencing the Gangnam-gu in Gangnam style:
• Psy's mother, Kim Young-hee, owns several restaurants in Gangnam, including Nekko Manma on Garosugil Street. This latest Japanese dining bar is an offshoot of Seasons in Cheongdam-dong, another area of Gangnam where Seoul's trendsetters and fashionistas like to troll. The eateries have great food and great atmospheres at reasonable prices.
• The hotel choice for many business travelers is the InterContinental Grand Seoul in Gangnam because of its easy access to the COEX Convention Center. It is also in the vicinity of the Bongeunsa Temple, Gyeongbokgung Palace and the National Folk Museum of Korea.
• The best panoramic view of Gangnam is actually from the north side of the Han River at the Grand Hyatt on Mount Namsan. The advantage to staying on this side of the river is the easy access to many of Seoul's most important historical sites and popular tourist destinations, including N Tower. J.J. Mahoney's discotheque, located on the lobby level of the Grand Hyatt, has been one of the coolest watering holes in town for the past two decades. -- M.E.H.