INCHEON (인천) is an important port and Korea’s third most populous city. It’s also home to the country’s main international airport, though few foreign travellers see anything of the city itself, with the overwhelming majority preferring to race straight to Seoul on a limousine bus. However, in view of its colourful recent history, it’s worth at least a day-trip from the capital. This was where Korea’s “Hermit Kingdom” finally crawled out of self-imposed isolation in the late nineteenth century and opened itself up to international trade, an event that was spurred on by the Japanese following similar events in their own country (the “Meiji Restoration”). The city was also the landing site for Douglas MacArthur and his troops in a manoeuvre that turned the tide of the Korean War. However, despite its obvious importance to Korea past and present, there’s a palpable absence of civic pride, possibly due to the fact that Incheon is inextricably connected to the huge Seoul metropolis – the buildings simply don’t stop on their long march from the capital. This may be about to change, however, as it has been chosen as the host of the 2014 Asian Games, and is busily setting about smartening itself up in preparation for the event.
Incheon’s various sights can easily be visited on a day-trip from Seoul, which is an hour away by subway. The most interesting part is Jung-gu, the country’s only official Chinatown, a small but appealing area where you can rub shoulders with the Russian sailors and Filipino merchants who – after the Chinese – make up most of Incheon’s sizeable foreign contingent. It sits below Jayu Park, where a statue of MacArthur gazes out over the sea. The only other area of note is Songdo New Town, an area being built on land reclaimed from the sea. At the time of writing this resembled a war zone (though with perfect roads, running buses and the odd hotel and apartment block), but by 2015 it should be more or less complete, and home to the 151 Incheon Tower, set to be the world’s second-tallest structure (a whopping 601m high) on completion.