Devoted BTS fans make pilgrimage to South Korea to get closer to their idols
The chart-topping K-pop band has a truly international fan base, and many are visiting South Korea to learn more about where the stars come from and visit their old hang outs
By Kwan Yeon-soo
For Shawn Marie, 47, and her daughter Stelfi Klug, flying from Germany to South Korea was like a dream come true.
As part of the BTS Army fan base, they were overjoyed at the chance to watch K-pop concerts live and follow in the footsteps of their favourite seven-member Korean boy band.
The day after they arrived in South Korea, on August 31, the duo booked tickets for a K-pop concert in Incheon, a city neighbouring the capital, Seoul. A day later, they embarked on the “BTS tour”.
“Thanks to BTS, we’ve come to love everything about Korea, not just K-pop,” says Marie.
Now that BTS have become high-fliers in the US Billboard 200 and the Hot 100 charts, more fans from around the world are flying to South Korea to visit “holy sites” associated with the band in and around Seoul. They explore places where BTS spent most of their time before making their musical debut in June 2013, and get to witness signs of their popularity.
Local travel company Trazy launched the “BTS tour”, targeting international fans wanting to see some of the places featured on the BTS YouTube channel BangtanTV and trace the history of the international superstars.
“It all started with a simple question: where would BTS foreign fans want to go in Seoul if they are visiting the city for the first time?” Oh Ha-na, the BTS tour creator at Trazy, says. “Unlike any other idol bands, BTS is more famous overseas than in Korea, which is why I created a BTS tour.”
The company conducted a test run of the tour in early February and launched the full-fledged service at the end of that month. The tour costs the equivalent of US$26.
Trazy employs English-speaking guides – usually foreigners – who may not be able to give answers to questions about certain places in South Korea.
The 20-something Klug, who is originally from the United States but lives in Germany, says she joined the BTS tour to have a better understanding of how the band members started from scratch and went on to become top musicians.
She recalls that she first discovered the K-pop act on YouTube in 2016 and introduced the band to her mother, who, at that time, was generally indifferent to their music.
“Somehow I made my way to watching BTS’ I Need U and other videos, and I was really attracted to their music,” Klug says.
“Since then, I’ve bought all their albums and BTS apparel, and I recently ordered their light stick on eBay. I’m also learning Korean to understand the lyrics of their songs.”
Marie agrees there is something special about BTS. “They’re different from other artists. Their music is so authentic. It’s not something like ah, they’re OK. I have to admit that BTS fans, be it K-army or international fans, are crazy about them,” she says.
BTS’ story – rising from obscurity to superstardom – is what especially appeals to her, according to Marie.
The mother and daughter bought tickets recently for BTS concerts in October in Berlin, Germany.
“We set up six computers and practised clicking the mouse button before the actual ticket-opening time. The tickets were all sold out in two minutes, but luckily we secured two tickets to Berlin,” Klug says.
On September 2, the duo met a tour guide named Titi Wakawata, a Nigeria-born US citizen who is part of the BTS Army, at exit 1 of Sinsa Station on Line 3 to embark on a BTS pilgrimage through Gangnam, southern Seoul.
Together they departed for the nearby home where BTS used to live together as trainees and even after their debut. A tiny one-room flat (56 square metres) is where they dreamed of becoming singers, according to Wakawata. The septet not only practised and worked together, but lived together and spent most of their days with one another, boosting their ties.
“We’re not allowed to go inside the building or look inside the flat because there’s a tenant living in the unit,” she says.
After taking a few photographs, the group walks up a few blocks to Hakdong Park. “This was BTS’ go-to place whenever they had free time or had little quarrels,” the 27-year-old guide explains.
The next stop is the Illy Coffee Korea headquarters office, where BTS celebrated their 1,000-day anniversary. They carried out interviews and filmed a video of themselves to celebrate their anniversary with fellow fans. But, Illy Coffee is not a cafe, so visitors are strictly prohibited from entering the building.
Located nearby is the old Big Hit Entertainment office. The company’s founder, Bang Si-hyuk – a former JYP Entertainment songwriter – was an integral player in the early days of K-pop idol groups. Under Bang’s guidance as chief producer, BTS broke into the US mainstream and pop superstardom.
The management agency moved to another location following the band’s success, and now the building is covered with fan scribbles.
“This has already become a popular spot for Army fans, as the building is where BTS started to dream,” Wakawata says.
Then the tour group visits the old dance studio and Yoojung Sikdang – the band’s favourite restaurant. The BTS members came to the restaurant often when they were rookies. Since the it is located in the same building as their previous dance studio, the seven-piece act came down to dine after their practise sessions.
The members of BTS usually order the grilled black pork belly with gochujang (chilli paste) sauce and dolsot (hot stone pot) bibimbap, according to the restaurant owner.
More than half of its menu items cost 9,000 won (US$8). As can be seen from their autographs displayed on the front door, the place is already popular among the BTS Army fans.
After feasting at Yoojung Sikdang, coin karaoke awaits tour participants. It doesn’t matter if you don’t read or sing Korean: you can sing along to whatever songs you know or remember.
The trio then depart for K-Star Road near Apgujeong Rodeo Station on the Bundang line, where you may find numerous K-pop idols’ names on teddy bear statues. The mission for the BTS fans was to find the teddy bear statue signed by the band’s members.
Walking through the district for more than three hours, Wakawata brings the group to The Min’s cafe, which is run by 2AM band member Lee Chang-min.
BTS and Changmin are close friends because they had been part of the same record label until recently. Changmin left the company in February.
Inside the cafe, visitors can find a wide array of pictures and autographs of BTS, as well as handwritten letters from its members. Some of the pictures show BTS members drinking freshly-squeezed lemonade and juice, the most popular drink items on the menu.
Klug sits in the same chair BTS member Jungkook was photographed sitting in, and takes selfies in her “You Got Me Jungshook” T-shirt.
Finishing up the BTS tour, both visitors express their wishes to go to Myeong-dong shopping district to buy more BTS souvenirs so they can take them to their first encounter with the band in the upcoming concert tour.
“During the stay, we plan on visiting Daegu and Busan after Seoul because Suga is from Daegu, and Jimin and Jungkook are from Busan,” Marie says, naming other members of the group. “We don’t want to miss a thing.”
Trazy – trazy.com – runs the BTS tour of Gangnam every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.