The 108 Heaven Stairway in Haebangchon, Seoul, is the last physical trace of Japanese colonialism in the area beneath the towering Namsan. The stairway was constructed in 1943 by Japanese authorities to pave a way to the Gyeongseong Hoguk Shrine, a Shinto shrine built to house “Japan’s war dead.”
During Japanese occupation, Koreans who lived in the area were forced make the journey up the stairs to attend daily Shinto prayers. Even schoolchildren in Haebangchon were made to attend these daily rituals, in an effort to inject elements of Japanese culture into the Korean youth. Upon the expulsion of the Japanese in 1945, the shrine was torn down at the hands of the local Korean community, but the stairway was left untouched.
Today, the stairs are tucked away in the neighborhood of Haebangchon, an area that until recently was considered to be derelict. Over the last few years, however, Korean millennials have begun transforming the area into a collection of hipster cafes, bars, and galleries, intermingled with crumbling residential blocks. As shoemakers are replaced by La Marzoccos, the 108 Stairway persists, hinting at the influence of Japan in moulding a complex Korean identity, at once divorced and eternally entangled with its colonial past.
The 108 Stairway is a fascinating piece of colonial history that most Seoulites today walk up without realizing the significance of what lies beneath their feet. The greenery around the stairs is overgrown, the location nondescript, and the legacy known to few.
It takes a little searching to find it, but it’s worth the adventure to find this important piece of Korean history that is at risk of being completely forgotten.
Know Before You Go
To get there take the train to Noksapyeong Station and head out Exit 6. Follow the signs to Haebangchon Art Village. Ask around to find the stairway, it's not an easy task.