Where Old Meets New: Bukchon Hanok Village
Bukchon Hanok Village is a residential area north of central Seoul between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces that contains Seoul’s largest concentration of hanoks in one area. Nine hundred beautifully maintained traditional hanoks to be precise. It is a great place to immerse yourself in traditional Korean culture and architecture right in the heart of Seoul. Bukchon (which means “North Town”) is situated at the foot of the mountain with valleys and steep hills, giving residents and visitors alike astounding views of the hanok houses and the city of Seoul, including N Seoul Tower. It is a beautiful place to wander. To appreciate the craftsmanship and understated beauty of the hanoks with its patterned wall and tiled roofs —in complete contrast with the modern structures of the city of Seoul in the distance.
Bukchon Hanok Village History
Bukchon Village was formed during the Joseon Dynasty, between 1392 – 1910, and was originally home to noble families and high-ranking officials. Around the early 20th century during a housing shortage, large-scaled lands in the area were partitioned into smaller sections and were filled with tinier, modern hanoks. These reformed hanoks are a bit different from the traditional hanoks as they are closer together, and have incorporated modern materials such as glass and western tiles. Around 1970, during the urbanisation of Korea, many developers began tearing down hanoks and replacing them with modern structures.
In 2000, the city government conducted a detailed architectural survey of the remaining hanoks and, in December 2001, published the “Bukchon Plan.” An 84.5 billion KRW project, it was created to protect, preserve, and restore Bukchon using authentic techniques and materials. Later, in 2006, 370 billion KRW was pledged by Mayor Oh Sei-hoon to preserve the hanoks throughout Seoul. Special attention was given to Gahoe-dong 31, a ‘Special Protection Area’ which has the largest concentration of well-maintained hanoks, many built in the 1930’s.
Fast forward to 2016, Gahoe-dong remains relatively untouched, however, across from it, many hanoks have been demolished to erect new modern two-story buildings. Many of which are now worth much more than the earlier structure. And very often, two neighbouring old hanoks would be demolished to create a big plot for a larger, two-story hybrid. Many old hanoks of the early 20th century is slowly disappearing as Bukchon continuously change and adapt to the modern Seoul. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing and exploring many of the old hanoks in this area. Hopefully, when I revisit in the near future, the older hanoks I’ve had the pleasure of exploring will remain preserved and unchanged.
What is a hanok?
A hanok is a home built in a traditional Korean style of architecture. Han means Korea, and hanok literally translate to Korean house. It is characterised by deep eaves which create shade in the summer (when the sun are higher in the sky) and allows sunlight to enter in the winter (when the sun is lower on the horizon). Although Hanoks are similar in appearance to Japanese traditional houses, there are differences that make them uniquely Korean. Mostly constructed of wood, stone, and paper with tiled roof, its neutral hues blends well with the natural surroundings, and as such, hanoks are usually left natural, undecorated, unlike the highly decorated Korean grand palaces. In a traditional hanok, windows, doors, and interior surfaces are covered with hanji, a strong translucent paper made from the mulberry tree. Many of the reformed hanoks have added modern glass in the outer window, but for the traditional hanok, hanji has the benefit of insulating the room while letting in sunlight.
My favourite feature of traditional hanoks is the efficient combination of Ondol and Maru floors which keep the temperature comfortable in Seoul’s ever-changing climate. Ondol is a heated stone flooring that keeps the occupants warm during cold winter months. Maru, however, is a raised wooden flooring intended to keep the air circulating so that the occupant can enjoy cooler floors in hot weather. Maru room is usually in the centre of the home and is like a living room, used primarily for receiving guests.
Ondol floors have existed in Korea before the Joseon Era, and are mainly used for the bedroom and eating area. It is made up of large stones covered by clay. Under the ‘clay’ floor are flues that carry hot air from a fireplace in the adjoining kitchen. The kitchen is slightly built lower so that the hot air can rise through the flues, to the chimney on the other side of the ondol floor, heating the large stones in the process. These particular stones are used because they keep heat for hours, warming up the room and keeping the occupants nice and cosy in the winter. In Korea today, most modern high-rise apartments have heated floors, inspired by the traditional ondol system.
Exploring Bukchon Hanok Village
I am a person that loves to get lost. To turn down an unmarked alley or corner if something attracts my eyes. Which could be a bad thing if you’re exploring a rather large city. However, Seoul is a navigation paradise for me. In general, most places of interest are all properly marked either by signs or drawings. And information booths are easily marked for you to find if you need maps, or ideas to add to your itinerary.
At Bukchon Hanok Village, there are many narrow streets, several curves and turns, alleys and valleys in this area for you to explore. Therefore, you can very easily get lost among the numerous wooden houses and tiled roofs. I, for once, grabbed a ‘village’ map from the Bukchon Traditional Culture Centre —I didn’t have time to get lost.
Finding out which Hanoks welcome visitors for tea, and which are residential houses that don’t welcome visitor becomes a guessing game in this area as you peer through cracks in doors, and decipher signs hung on corners. Personally, I just picked a direction and began a self-guided tour with the map I picked up. Which also happens to mark tea places, museum and houses that do welcome visitors.
Things to do in Bukchon Hanok Village
Over the past decades, Bukchon has gained much popularity, becoming a favourite attraction of Korea’s trend-conscious youth. Due to its current historical importance and not to mention its beautiful aesthetic, businesses had taken this opportunity to cater to these changing mindset. As more visitors turn their eyes to Bukchon Hanok Village, entrepreneurs over the years have opened a number of fine dining restaurants, cafe, guesthouses, upscale boutiques, interesting art galleries and many cultural museum and workshop for artisans who practice traditional crafts. Many of which are housed in renovated hanoks, preserving the districts’ rich culture, tradition and history.
Walking through the winding alleys, which twist and turns between beautifully reserved, age-old-but-still-lived-in hanoks is the real charm for me. Here, children play hide and seek, students chatter at street corners, and the elderly and housewives watch on as they converse among themselves. For visitors of Bukchon, this quaint area provides an interesting look into the lives of ordinary Koreans. Where everyday life flows naturally, running its course.
For other visitors who enjoy immersing themselves completely into a foreign culture, foreign life, here is a list of things you might enjoy as you explore this area:
Visit Baek In-Je, one of the largest restored hanok in the Gahoe-dong area of Bukchon that dates back to the Japanese occupation. Baek In-je’s house was built by Han Sangryong in 1863 using Korean black pines taken from the Yalu (Amnokgang) River. The house was built during the reign of King Gojong, the last king of the Joseon Dynasty and the first emperor of Korea. Within the compound is the anchae or inner quarters and the sarangchae, outer quarters. Upper-class hanoks usually have the anchae and the sarangchae separated, so this is unusual as both quarters are together. The sarangchae is connected to the anchae by a wooden passageway. Across from the anchae is the gate of the haengnangchae, the servants quarters. This grand hanok also features a beautifully manicured garden. The museum is open from Tuesday – Sunday, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm and admission are free.
Make your way to Hanbok Costume Rental at Bukchon-ro 12 gil where you will be able to rent, wear and photograph yourself in Korean traditional hanbok. The hanbok rental fee is 7,000 KRW per person, however, since this is not a studio, no camera will be provided. Take note that this is probably the cheapest costume rental option that you will find because it’s basically just a rental store. No camera. No cheesy background. Instead, you are to photograph yourself in front of a real hanok house. Which, in my honest opinion, is better than those cheesy computerised backgrounds at Myeongdong or Insadong which cost a whopping 55,000 KRW per person.
Visit the many museums scattered, and tucked away inside the hanoks throughout Bukchon Hanok Village, such as the Museum of Korean Art, Museum of Korean Embroidery, and Bukchon Traditions to name a few.
Before the sun starts setting, climb to the top of Gahoe-dong to watch as old Seoul meets new Seoul under the golden glow of the setting sun. Standing surrounded by traditional hanok atop a hill while viewing the contrasting modern Seoul in the distant, including N Seoul Tower, is a sight to behold.
Make your way up to the highest point in the village, where you’ll be able to look down and see all the old tile roofing of the hanoks.
Have a romantic date. If you’re travelling with your boyfriend, girlfriend or lover, purchase couple rings, couple t-shirts, and couple undies to enjoy a romantic moment atop the many cafes in the area, or even a viewpoint catered specifically for couples. This country is made for lovebirds.
From Bukchon, make your way to Insadong, a street nearby that really maintain the essence of Korea. Insadong is home to many stores housing Korean handicrafts, traditional tea, temple food, and many other traditional Korean items and experiences.
How to get to Bukchon Hanok Village
You can get to the Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul by taking the subway to Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3). Take exit 3 and head to your right. After about 200 meters you will see large information signs that begin the Bukchon Village Walking Tour.
While Namsangol Hanok Village is a replication of a traditional Korean village, Bukchon Hanok Village is the real residential area with 900 hanoks. And much of the residents have chosen to retain their traditional lifestyle. Walking around, you will notice many women strolling around in their hanbok (Korean traditional outfit). Bukchon is my most favourite traditional place in Seoul. Where I would actually spend a whole day walking alone, browsing, snapping pictures and taking breaks at the many scenic cafes.
Have you been to the Bukchon Hanok Village, or are planning a trip there? Let us know about your Seoul experiences in the comment section below!