Wedged between two of Seoul’s most famous palaces, Gyeongbok and Changdeok, is the quaint and hilly neighbourhood of Bukchon.
Bukchon was a quiet residential backwater until the early 2000’s but since it was featured in some Korean TV shows its popularity has mushroomed.
Tourists, both domestic and foreigners, flock here to explore the narrow alleys of traditional Korean houses known as hanok as well as the museums and cultural activities on offer. Artisans living here specialise in skills such as knot making, embroidery, zither playing, lacquer making and cookery.
Hanok are what all ordinary Koreans would have lived once upon a time. Typically they would be single storey L or U shaped structures with an interior courtyard where kimchi would be made and stored. They were made of pine frames and insulated with rice straw and clay. Originally they had thatched roofs but now are tiled. Windows and doors were covered with mulberry paper. They would have been freezing in winter were it not for the ingenious ondol underfloor heating.
Seoul’s hanoks were severely depleted during the Korean War while most of those that survived have been swept away in the nation’s rush to modernity. Even in Bukchon only around 800 still remain and these are under threat by development. Most of the hanok in Bukchon are of no great age, having been built in the 1920s or 30s.
Some of the hanok operate as guest houses where tourists can try sleeping on the floor and experience the traditional bath. At the Bukchon Museum, visitors can try on traditional Korean costume and have their photos taken.
On the fringes of the district, teahouses, restaurants, boutiques and galleries draw in the fashionable young Seoul crowd.
We barely scratched the surface of this interesting district during our brief visit and I would like to explore further if I get the chance.
My daughter may have reached teenage-hood but she is still fond of cute and cuddly stuff, and probably always will be. When she knew we were going to visit Seoul she researched some suitable attractions to add to our itinerary.
Rilakkuma Themed Cafe
One such place was the Gongsang Cafe (translates as Fancy Cafe), previously called ‘Capi Capi Loom Loom’. It is located near Sungshin Women’s University subway station. We had some difficulty finding it and had to ask a few people for directions.
Inside is a small cafe with lots of Rilakkuma and other soft toys to keep you company while you drink your coffee. Rilakkuma, if you are not familiar, is a popular bear character created in Japan about 12 years ago who stars in many children’s books. His name is a contraction of relax and kuma (Japanese for bear) and means ‘bear in relaxed mood’ and he helps stressed-out children and adults to relax. His hobbies include sleeping, relaxing, watching TV and soaking in hot springs.
Of course customers are able to browse the wide selection of Rilakkuma merchandise on sale.
Another place we visited was a Dog Cafe. There are a number of these establishments in Seoul. The one we went to was located on the 4th floor of an ordinary building in Seoul’s busy Myeongdong district. Inside were about twenty or so dogs, lounging around on benches, sitting on customers’ laps or just wandering about. After paying an entrance charge, which included a drink, we were provided with a ‘menu’ showing photos of all the dogs and giving their names. Customers were expected to sit on the floor with a blanket on their laps and wait for any passing dog to come and sit on them.
The dog who sat on my lap was a jealous and rather ugly pug who spent his time snapping at any other dog who approached.
It was a bit of a weird experience. Dogs are allowed to do their business on the floor and cocked their legs on chair legs and the staff spent much of their time mopping the floor and cleaning up after the hounds. The dogs seem happy enough getting lots of petting and attention but I wonder how often they get to run around in the fresh air. Still we should not complain – Seoul used to be more famous for eating dogs than playing with them!
Japan might be the country in Asia best known for its sakura (cherry blossoms) but Korea too puts on an excellent floral display in Springtime. One of the best places in Seoul to see cherry blossom and other spring blooms is Namsan Park which we visited in mid April just as the flowers were at their peak.
The park is conveniently located in the heart of the city and is handy for office and factory workers to stretch their legs during their lunch breaks. Actually, to get all the way to the top of the hill involves quite a long walk and we spent a couple of hours ambling along in the cool crisp air – such a pleasant change from our normal humid weather in Malaysia.
Some office workers were enjoying picnics under the falling cherry tree petals.
From the top of Namsan hill, also called Mount Mongmyeok, there was a fine view over the city.
In addition to foreign tourists, there were a lot of locals at the peak, including this party of Korean schoolboys.
The craze of ‘love padlocks’ appears to have taken hold in Korea. In case you are not familiar, this fad is where sweethearts lock a padlock to an immovable fixture like a bridge and then throw away the key to symbolise their unbreakable bond. The padlocks are usually inscribed with the couple’s names or initials. Great business for padlock vendors!
Not wishing to buy a padlock I spent my money instead on a very tasty micro-brewed craft beer which was easily the best tipple I had during our trip to Korea.
If you like Japanese-style hanami (cherry blossom viewing) but don’t like the crowds in Japan I would definitely recommend Korea as an alternative next year.
If you know any Koreans, chances are their family names are Kim, Lee or Park which are some of the most common surnames in Korea. When I was last in Seoul, I wanted to know if it was true that Koreans could not marry someone with the same surname. Bearing in mind that there are nearly 10 million Koreans with the surname Kim this surely causes problems? My guide Heea, herself a Kim, explained that it is not so straightforward. There are five branches of Kims. Her clan, the biggest, is Kim Hae Kim with over 2 million members. “It used to be illegal for clan members to marry each other but no longer. But we would not consider doing so since we regard them as relatives, albeit distant ones.” I was surprised to find out that all Korean families maintain detailed family records going back centuries. Heea can trace her ancestry back to the 14th century. Some families might even have records going back 3,000 years. Given the many invasions, wars and upheavals that Korea has suffered over the centuries this is truly amazing and reflects the importance which Korean culture places on respecting their elders and ancestors. I wanted to see one of these family record books and managed to track one down in an antiquarian bookstore in Seoul’s Insadong market.
The elderly shop owner produced the book from a stack of musty volumes. It was actually printed in 1960 but recorded the ancestry of the Gyeongju city Lee clan all the way back over 44 generations ( male ancestors only) to the 14th century. Having spent considerable time and effort trying to trace my own European roots and only succeeding in going back 250 years, I was impressed at the degree of detail of Korean genealogical records.
Korea is a conservative society. Couples rarely live together outside of marriage and the divorce rate has been low, although increasing fast. Professional marriage matchmakers are still sometimes used in Korea. My travel guide, Miss Im, revealed that she is approaching her mid 30s which in Korea is considered late for a girl to get married. “My mother is worried about me and she arranged for the matchmaker to introduce potential husbands. So far I have met twenty of them but none have worked out. As a tour guide I am too independent, I have to travel away from home often and I pick up un-Korean ideas from foreign visitors. These are not the qualities that traditional Korean men look for in a wife.” What about Korean women, what do they look for in a husband? Miss Im replied “ The usual things – good looking, tall, sense of humour and a good job. But we prefer to avoid the eldest son. In Korea the eldest son has the responsibility of looking after his parents in old age. Any girl who marries an eldest son will end up serving her parents-in-law.”
This post is an extract from an article I wrote for Good Living magazine.
When it comes to good health, Koreans have a head start thanks to three secret weapons. What are their secrets to robust health?
First of all there is Kimchi. Korea boasts a unique and distinctive cuisine which is generally very healthy. The main accompaniment to any meal (including breakfast!) is kimchi, a pungent side dish made from fermented cabbage, radish, red hot pepper, garlic and various other ingredients. Koreans love their kimchi. There is even a kimchi museum in Seoul displaying over 40 varieties. Kimchi was originally developed as a way of preserving vegetables for year-round use. Its nutritional value is scientifically proven. Lactic acid produced in the fermentation process suppresses harmful bacteria and relieves digestive disorders. The salt and vegetable juices help clean the intestines. Kimchi combats hyperacidity resulting from too much meat and other acidic foods. It is said to strengthen the immune system, help cure scars, lower cholesterol, postpone the aging process and prevent cancer. It is indeed a wonder food, rich in minerals, vitamins, calcium, phosphorus and iron. It is credited with protecting Korea against the SARS and flu epidemics which swept through other parts of Asia in recent years.
If you like vegetarian food, a good place in Seoul to sample kimchi is Sanchon restaurant where Korean temple cooking is prepared by a former Buddhist monk. Seated on the heated wooden floor at low tables, you can sample a massive spread of tasty dishes in a beautiful traditional courtyard house setting. When I went with 6 other people we ended up with over 60 small bowls on the table. Pity the poor washer upper!In the evenings a cultural dancing and drumming show adds to the atmosphere.
Another healthy and unusual eating experience can be enjoyed at Dr. Sangsoo’s Herb Land at Cheongwan –Gun, a couple of hours south of Seoul. ‘HERB could be an acronym for Health, Eating, Refreshing and Beautiful’ explains the brochure and Dr. Sangsoo certainly tries to incorporate all these elements into his signature dish, Flower Bop. This is a surprisingly delicious combination of rice, hot chili paste, herbs, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sesame oil, topped with fresh flowers from herb plants grown in his extensive greenhouses.
On the scenic island of Jeju, an hour’s flight south of Seoul, seafood is the speciality, served with kimchi of course! Elderly women dive without the aid of scuba gear to collect abalone, sea snails, octopus, sea cucumbers and more from the ocean floor. I found one of these women selling her catch on the sandy beach in front of the Lotte hotel. She insisted I try some abalone. Sliced up alive and eaten raw, it was chewy with a bland seawater flavour. This seafood may not be to everyone’s taste but it seems to keep these women healthy. The oldest diver on the island is in her eighties and she can still hold her breath for minutes at a time to dive these often icy waters.
The second secret weapon is Ginseng or insam as it is known in Korea. This miracle herb root is grown in a number of countries but the Korean version is known to be the most potent and beneficial. The small town of Geumsan is at the heart of the ginseng growing area and boasts a ginseng shopping street with 1,300 stores and a raw ginseng wholesale market where 8,000 tons of the stuff are traded annually.
What are the benefits of ginseng? According to the Geumsan Insam Exhibition Hall, ‘it has been hailed as a natural Viagra among the elderly, it prevents Alzheimer’s disease, it gives youthfulness, it corrects high blood pressure and it has an efficient anti-cancer effect.’ Given these claimed benefits and the fact that a ginseng plant takes 4 to 6 years to mature, it is not surprising that it commands a high price. A 500g packet of prized red insam can cost between USD 100 – USD 300. Ginseng is sold in edible, drinkable or medicinal form. Koreans consume vast quantities and any convenience store or motorway service station will sell bottles of ginseng tonic to revive the weary. Highly nutritional ginseng chicken soup is a popular restaurant dish. Personally I find the taste of ginseng to be bitter and earthy. It needs to be taken with honey or some other powerful disguise to make it palatable. I persevere with it knowing that it is good for me.
Jjimjilbangs (Sweat Rooms)
Koreans have enjoyed hot springs and bathhouses for centuries, but the third secret weapon, the Jjimjilbang, has only been around since the late 1990s. Unique to Korea, Jjimjilbangs use thermo-therapy to sweat out waste and toxins, improve metabolism and encourage relaxation. They are extremely popular among stressed-out office employees, housewives and grandmas who enjoy relaxing and chatting while doing their bodies some good. Dating couples meet at these places and parents bring their kids. There are over 1,800 in the country and some sport a huge array of facilities. The curiously named Dong Bang Sak Leports in Daejeon city sprawls over seven floors and comprises various types of steam rooms and saunas, hot and cold dip pools, a swimming pool, gymnasium, rest area, barber, beauty and nail salons, kids play area, PC gaming room, a dance floor, cafeteria, snack bars and free movie screening. But it is the steam rooms themselves which make the jjimjilbang experience novel. In Dong Bang they are a series of large cabins with circular windows (like Fred Flintstone houses) and each has a different interior. There are yellow clay rooms, amethyst rooms with purple crystals encrusted into the ceiling, rooms with jade floors, ginseng steam rooms and so on. Temperatures vary from hot to scorching and each room is supposed to give different health benefits. Customers are given matching T-shirts and shorts to wear and both sexes can mingle in all facilities except the sauna and changing floors which are segregated.
This post is an extract from an article I wrote for Good Living magazine.