BUKCHON, SEOUL, KOREA – traditional hanok stay

I was sure we were lost. It was dark and, faced with a maze of little alleyways away from Seoul’s main roads, the taxi’s GPS had apparently thrown in the towel. But after my driver made a phone call, a bespectacled gentleman appeared out of the gloom, leading a large hairy dog. ‘Ah, Mr Richard! We walk to guesthouse.’

I was wrong about the man leading the dog. The dog was the boss and we had to jog to keep up, my backpack bouncing. In a breathless conversation I learned that my host was Mr Hyoun, and that this was one of his traditional sapsal dogs, Ssari.

Unit, Seoul Guesthouse

Up a short hill and down a laneway we reached Seoul Guesthouse, a hanok, or traditional Korean house. It had heavy wooden doors under a roof of grey clay tiles, leading to a little courtyard with piles of firewood and earthenware jars; I’d stepped into a Kurosawa samurai movie (Japanese of course, but I don’t know a Korean equivalent). Mr Hyoun slipped off his shoes and slid open a wooden lattice screen.

I clambered up over the high lintel. My room was a cubicle with white rice-papered walls and the yellow floor was warm. This was because the ondol, the old Korean underfloor heating system, was doing its job. I was expecting a sleeping mat, but there was a bed with a doona. I loved this place already.

‘Bathroom.’ Mr Hyoun hopped nimbly along the wooden balcony to slide open another door. Modern fittings, tiles, toilet, great! ‘You thirsty? Hungry?’ We sat on the floor of Mr Hyoun’s living room drinking Korean ‘cordial’ and chewing dried octopus slivers.

Ssari the sapsal dog

There are few of these old hanoks left in Seoul now, and many that survive are in Bukchon, this ‘northern village’ just outside the main city centre. Some are now ‘Visitable Korean Traditional Houses’, which means they can charge visitors a small fee to look through them, while several are run as very reasonably priced guesthouses.

Next morning I headed out to explore the streets, following a map and markers set in the footpath. There were plenty of nondescript buildings along the route, but also numerous hanoks converted into galleries selling lacquer-work, pottery, flutes and stone sculptures, and a ‘Museum of Traditional Knots’.

A sign caught my eye –‘Seoul Museum of Chicken Art’. I’m intrigued by weird museums, and wasn’t disappointed by this one. A private collector has put together over 8000 chicken paintings, statues and bric-a-brac, ranging from the beautiful and ancient to the downright kitsch. My guide proudly led me to Australia’s contribution – stamps from the 2005 Year of the Rooster.

There were wooden chicken carvings from traditional funeral biers. Koreans, I was told, see the chook as a symbol of intelligence and courage, faithfully leading the departed towards heaven. A new advertising angle for KFC, perhaps?

Adjoining Bukchon, in the grounds of the Gyeongbukgung Palace I found the National Folk Museum of Korea, and it’s a much more professional affair, beautifully displaying artefacts from Korea’s social history. There were wooden printing blocks, fishing equipment and farming implements. I particularly liked the stone and wooden sculptures outside – totems that were set at village gates. It was also fun to see children trying their hand at old games like bowling hoops and spinning tops.

Spinning tops, Insa-dong

Nearby Insadong Road is famous for its dozens of little restaurants, galleries and craft shops. This being a Saturday, the street was closed to cars, but swarming with people. Priests carrying gongs and bowls were begging from shopkeepers, guards in traditional dress put on a show, young people were electioneering and good-natured street hawkers sold snacks of grilled octopus and chestnuts, not to mention roasted silkworm larvae.

The ‘Beautiful Tea Museum’ was indeed beautiful, a triumph of filtered natural light falling on wooden tables and a dazzling array of fine earthenware tea sets. Less beautiful was the Knife Gallery, a store selling vicious hand-weapons. Want a samurai sword, battleaxe or mace and chain? You’ve come to the right spot. There was an exhibition of swords from films, including Frodo’s Sting and the sword our Russ used as Maximus the Gladiator, opposite a collection of Rambo’s knives. They were for sale, and I certainly never want to meet anyone who’s bought one.

Something out in the street was pulling a crowd. It was my host Mr Hyoun and his dogs. The Sapsal is a rare but famous traditional Korean breed, which was thought to be extinct forty years ago until rediscovered in the wild. They are supposed to ward off evil spirits, and in the street they were attracting the sort of attention I’d expect walking through Hobart leading a pair of Tasmanian tigers.

In the Korean Cuisine Restaurant, I tucked into bean-pasted pork with vegetable leaf wraps – brilliant, very cheap and surrounded by a huge array of kimchi and other accompaniments. But it was the design of the place that most impressed me; modernity cleverly mixed with the traditional, wooden tables in intimate compartments divided by panels of woven basketry and walls of piled clay roof tiles.

During the next few days working in different parts of Seoul I came to realise what a distinctive oasis Bukchon is, in a city where progress verges on an obsession. With a last night to spend before my flight out, I headed straight back there.

Tea Guesthouse

This time I stayed in Tea Guest House. It was a little more upmarket than Seoul Guesthouse, though equally quaint, with padded sleeping mats on the floor. But the toilet had a heated seat. Tradition is all very well, but mod cons are appealing too.


GETTING THERE: Nearest subway station to Bukchon is Anguk, and KAL limousine buses go there from the airport for 9,000won .

Seoul Guesthouse 35000 won per night for single room, 50,000 won for a double. http://www.seoul110.com . Tea Guesthouse http://www.teaguesthouse.com 50,000 won single, 80,000 won double.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Entry to National Folk Museum of Korea and Knife Gallery is free. Entry to Museum of Chicken Art costs 3000won . Korean Cuisine Restaurant is in Insadong4-gil.

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney

MY OTHER KOREAN STORIES:Temple Stay – not for the weak-kneed.

Gangwon-do – the Great Outdoors Korean-style



Filed under Budget travel, Korea, Travel

18 responses to “BUKCHON, SEOUL, KOREA – traditional hanok stay

  1. denkidoods

    Nice work Richard. I’m quite envious of all the traveling you get to do! Wouter

  2. hi. thanks for dropping by my blog. I’m so envy that you stayed at those hanok guest house! I’ve wanted to stay at one of those hanok guest house too on my last trip but didn’t had the chance to do so coz’ most of them were fully booked! oh. I didn’t go to the Chicken art museum but maybe I should go on my next trip.

    btw. You have a lovely blog! I love all your travel pictures 🙂

    • Thanks SWIT, The Chicken Art Museum was interesting to me, mostly because I loved the idea of a whole museum dedicated just to the art of poultry. Such a quirky obsession deserves to be encouraged.

  3. Logan

    Hi I have stayed in a few hanok before, namely Yoo’s Family Home (they have helped me many time with cultural programs) (http://yoos-home.blogspot.com/) But I must say that your article on hanok was extremely well written. Logan.

  4. Nancy

    Thank you for the descriptive explanation of your experience in a Hanok. I have now made my reservations with Seoul Guesthouse (also because of the dogs) and we’ll see how it goes!

    • Let’s hope it goes well, Nancy, and that Mr Hyeung and his sapsal dogs are still there. Did I mention my midnight trip through the snow between the bedroom and the bathroom? That’s traditional too I suppose. Take a torch (or flashlight) and warm slippers.

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  6. Lynn

    Hi richard, this looks great! Is it far from subway and city center?

    • Hi Lynn.

      Bukchon is right by a subway station (Anguk) where there’s also a bus stop on the direct route from the airport. Yes, it’s close to the ‘centre’ of town, though Seoul is very big and doesn’t really have one main centre. Transport is excellent however, so nowhere is far from anywhere else. There are a few hanoks in the Bukchon area, ranging from the two more basic and cheaper ones I stayed at to more up-market places. I highly recommend it for a different sort of accommodation experience! Enjoy it!

  7. Pingback: WHY BLOGGERS ARE MISERABLE | Richard Tulloch's LIFE ON THE ROAD

  8. Sprinkles

    Dear Richard,
    I think things have changed since you last visited Seoul Guesthouse. We just had the most terrible experience we’ve ever had while staying there. This is supposed to be one of those “hanok” experiences where you get to stay in a traditional korean house. There is one in Seoul and apparently another on Jeju island. We arrived after a 13 hour flight to find that the room we had booked for almost a hundred dollars per night was filled with mold–the mold was so bad that you could see the black stuff all over the walls, and every time you breathed in, the smell filled your nostrils. The only shower head in the bathroom was broken, and there was no bathtub, so that the water spewed all over and even spilled into the next room. The bathroom, moreover, has a sliding door that was loosely covered with a torn sheet of paper that you could peek through. The room was also infested with bugs of some kind, so that we woke up the next morning with bug bites all over us. The roof leaks, and the sheets and bedding had not been washed (you could tell by the smell), and you could see the hairs of the people who had used them previously still sticking to them.

    We decided that we just couldn’t take it anymore after two days, and informed the owner that we’d be leaving early. She got angry and started talking about the “difficulties” of forwarding any mail that she received and would be addressed to us. She actually followed us out, trying to argue with us, while we were leaving, so that we ended up calling the police. They came, took one look at the room, and advised us to contact the district office for violation of the city code and a consumer affairs agency.

    Apparently, this sort of thing has happened a number of times in the past. We left this terrible place and checked into another guest house next door. From what I gather from the neighbors, just yesterday another traveler from Japan left Seoul Guest House because of the mildew. Most of the guest houses that we looked into while trying to find another place were nice and clean, with the owners being very polite. This place seems to attract a large number of visitors because of its internet posts and claim to being the oldest guest house in korea. The advertising is definitely misleading and downright false.

    • Oh, I’m sorry you had that trouble. My visit was a few years ago, and as you see, things were fine. Maybe it has changed management in the meantime. Certainly when I was there, the owner was not a woman, but a very friendly, helpful gentleman. Has anyone else stayed there recently? Let us know about your experience.

      • Sprinkles

        We were on the road, so that we weren’t acquainted with any of the other guests staying there. However, it appeared that people were consistently leaving after only a single night, and they didn’t look too rested or happy.

        Based on the picture that you uploaded above, it looks like the unit that you stayed in was the “sarangchae”–the separate accomodations that were used by the most senior (male) member of the household when most koreans lived in hanoks. The room that we stayed in was part of a large set of rooms connected to the kitchen. It is possible that the management has become too lax in terms of their maintenance of these other guest rooms.

        Did I mention that there were also cockroaches?

  9. Museum of Chicken Art ay.. weird stuff!

  10. Yisoo Hwang

    Hello! I am a high school student in Seoul. I read your story from my English textbook and visited your website because I wanted to learn more about the person who wrote this essay, but I was surprised when I realized you were a man because in my textbook the writer was a woman. Also your passage was quite different from the textbook. I was wondering if you knew your essay was being edited and used in a Korean textbook. I mean, I want to ask you if you gave permission to edit and use your essay to the authors of my textbook. If not, I’ll send you the name of the publisher of my textbook. Please leave me a reply if you read this. Thank you! 🙂

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