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.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.
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.
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.
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.