In all modern civilisations, the new replaces the old. The fast replaces the slow. Modernisation, unrelenting in its progress, continues to push onward. This pressure can sometimes prove too much though, and more often than not it is the traditional and historical buildings that are lost in the wave of the modern day. There are places, however, which seem to resist such changes or rather, seem to adopt a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mantra, working with the flow as opposed to against it.
Such is the case with the hanok villages in Korea. Hanoks (한옥) are traditional Korean houses, renowned for their curved tiled roofs, shape depending on region, heating system, and the use of raw materials in their construction.
The edge of a hanok’s roof is called ‘cheoma’ (처마) and can be adjusted to control how much sunlight can enter a house. Talk about personalised exterior design! And it doesn’t stop there!
Hanoks are traditionally built with their surroundings in mind, including their region and even the seasons. Starting in the south, the warmer weather here means that hanoks are usually built in a straight line to aid in circulation during the hot and humid summers. The northern regions of Korea, being colder than the south, have square-shaped hanoks to retain as much heat as possible. And the hanoks in central Korea, being an interesting mix of the north and the south, are L-shaped.
Not only do hanoks look beautiful, their use of raw materials such as wood, stone, and soil, mean they are eco-friendly. With the interior, hanoks have a floor-based heating system called ‘ondol’ (온돌) fascinating to Westerners like myself. Traditionally, this underfloor heating system uses a stove called ‘agungi’ (아궁이) to burn firewood and the resulting smoke makes its way through passages underneath a stone floor, thereby heating the room. Apartments and modern houses still use the underfloor heating system, but it is a modernised version. Even now, I still find it thrilling to sit on the floor in winter and warm my feet!
Nowadays, aptly-named ‘modern hanoks’ have become increasingly popular – existing traditional Korean homes which have been updated to include modern conveniences such as multiple stories. Not only that, people are also beginning to hire architects to design and create newly-made personalised modern hanoks. The end result is an interesting blend of the old and the new.
A cultural attraction in their own right, the hanok villages draw huge amounts of people each year.
One of the most famous hanok villages is in Jeonju (전주한옥마을), where I had the pleasure of visiting in December 2016. On entering the village, I was struck by the wide cobbled streets lined with ornate street lamps. I found them so pleasing to the eye and romantic, though the latter is hard to explain. Imagine: partners walking arm in arm in the rain under an umbrella, or hand in hand during summer. Perhaps I have been watching too much K-drama…
In the main streets, stores sell handcrafted items and traditional Korean gifts, with stalls outside enticing visitors to browse their collections. There are many stores selling bags, jewellery, and hair accessories, others selling home decorations like paper lanterns in the shape of flowers, decorated paper fans, and famous Korean masks, as well as personalised stamps written in Hangul (한글), the Korean alphabet.
It’s wonderful to walk around and view the items on offer. I particularly like the mini cacti that act as both necklaces and bag accessories. Who knew mini cacti would be so cute AND marketable?!
As if that wasn’t enough, the hanok village also offers a range of cafes, restaurants, and street food stalls, each one almost too difficult to resist! For the street food stalls alone, I could easily spend a few days savouring everything in sight!
When I visited, I tried the nutella hotteok with ice cream. Hotteok: think layers of pancake, honey, and nuts. They are incredibly delicious and perfect in winter!
For lunch, I ate the famous Jeonju bibimbap – a Korean dish which originated from Jeonju.
Walking around, you will notice many buildings with mannequins outside wearing hanboks (한복), traditional Korean clothing. These stores are not, in fact, selling hanboks but rather, renting them to customers. The staff members will help you choose a hanbok according to your height and will aid you in putting it on. You wear the hanbok over your own clothes so if you are going in summer be sure to dress lightly, and just to be safe, I would recommend not wearing anything ankle-length so as to avoid seeing it underneath your chosen hanbok.
As well as helping with the clothing, staff members will also style your hair. Each hanbok rental place has its own accessories and preferred styles, so the hair accessories and additional items differ from store to store. Rental durations are usually separated into 3 options: 1 hour, 3 hours, and 5 hours. Storage spaces are available for your personal items given that there aren’t any pockets in the hanboks.
Wearing hanboks is popular with younger Koreans and typically groups of friends or partners will wear them together. In recent years, it has become popular for women to wear male hanboks and men to wear female hanboks as fun. It is quite amusing to see!
Another famous hanok village is Bukchon hanok village (북촌한옥마을) in Seoul. The views are especially wonderful here as the village is situated on a hill. The ascending hanoks on the main street make for beautiful photos! My favourite picture from my trip to Bukchon hanok village is the first image on this page, and it shows the seamless co-habitation of traditional and modern Seoul more effectively than I could ever articulate. Standing at the top of the hill facing the slope downwards, with traditional hanoks on either side and the skyscrapers of modern Seoul laying beyond.
A great addition to this place is the observatory and a bountiful collection of cafes in and around the village. Many cafes are fitted with an outdoor terrace, giving visitors the best views of the hanok village in its entirety.
If you are ever visiting South Korea, these hanok villages are simply too good of an experience to pass up!