| BNE January/February 2017
The world’s fourth largest city may be most famous for its high tech
sees past the Samsung phones, LG
white goods, KIA and Hyundai cars to get to Seoul’s beating heart
Rakkojae reveals the
culture’s softer side, an
analogue refuge in a
digital world, a place for
n one hand Korea is hurtling into the modern age faster
than most of the rest of the world with an insatiable
appetite for techno invention, but on the other it is a
country with a very strong and largely newfound respect for its traditions.
Many of its cultural arts such as tea making, wearing hanboks and traditional
crafts are all enjoying a renaissance.
It was a surprise to me to learn that a country responsible for some of the
best technology of the 21st century isn’t so automated after all. South Korea
has everything from ancient bathing rituals to elaborate tea ceremonies
and it all can be explored from a hidden ryokan, a serene hanok
guesthouse just a stone’s throw from Hyundai HQ.
Rakkojae is stealthily tucked away in the charming
traditional neighborhood of Bukchon, a preserved
remnant of traditional Seoul as it was under the
Joseon Dynasty, right in the centre of the city.
Out of sight of looming high rise office and
apartment buildings, along a small alleyway
oozing history, is an uncommon sanctuary for
the cultural soul.
Rakkojae is a softer side of Korea that
reveals the culture’s pristine, meditative and
comforting side. Its peaceful façade of exposed
hanok beams and tiled roof is a metaphor for
Buddhist spirituality, Taoist principles of balance
and Confucian humility. More than just a Korean
house, it is a snapshot of traditional Korea.
Rakkojae is the brainchild of entrepreneurial Korean
businessman, Young Ahn, who created it as a place where visitors
could “live” Korean culture. As he says, it’s an “analogue refuge in a digital
world, a place for Korea’s heritage to survive”.
Far from a normal hotel, this luxury hanok is a traditional Korean
wooden house with rice paper walls and sliding doors similar to a Japanese
ryokan. On arrival we are urged to take off our western clothes, don a
hanbok and slippers and enter this peaceful sanctuary with its white stone
and bonsai gardens.
Learning how to put on the traditional hanbok dress is quite a challenge.
It’s a bit like a kimono but in no time I felt as at home in it as if I was wearing
a pair of comfy PJs.
Dinner is brought to us by a lady who slips off her wooden shoes at the
door, bows, kneels then places the food on a low slung table on the floor
which gives us just enough room to fit our legs underneath. She sets a tray
of small dishes on the table then discreetly backs out.
Later, there’s time to try out the wood-fired mud sauna with its walls
made from local river mud, then bed is mats on wood smoke-heated floors
… and it’s one of my best night’s sleep ever.
The food at Rakkojae is just the start of my love affair with Korean food.
Hanok staff tell us where and what to eat including “royal cuisine”, easily the
most fabulous Korean food. They tell us about Hanmiri, a restaurant where
we can try traditional food, so we go there for dinner one night and
order the royal banquet. We enjoy an array of small dishes –
delicate vegetables, intricate noodles, mung bean jelly
dishes, hot pots and so many side dishes I lost count.
That’s followed by Samgyetang soup (chicken soup
with ginseng) which is not only nourishing but
supposed to be healthy and anti-ageing.
Like most people I’d only ever heard of
bibimbap, bulgogi and kimchi but over the
next few days in the city, I discover there’s a lot
more to local food than the Korean barbecue
restaurants back home. I eat my way through
royal cuisine, temple food, traditional country
cooking and come away realising that, with its
kimchi, ginseng and gingko, it’s more a health
tonic. Even the local soju (wine) and ginseng wine
seemed more like a tonic which I came to love with
every evening meal.
Rakkojae is located between the two main city palaces and the
Jongmyo Shrine, so it’s easy to explore the culture and surrounding palaces
on foot. Many of Korea’s important buildings, including Changdeokgung
Palace’s painted wooden buildings, were heritage listed by UNESCO
in 1988. Like Changdeok, many of the other spectacular sites of Seoul,
including Hwaseong Fortress in the nearby city of Suwon, were built during
the Joseon Dynasty, the last Dynasty in Korea, which began in the 14th
century and covered roughly the same period as the Chinese Ming and
Changdeok was built at the same time as the Forbidden City. During
the Joseon dynasty, which lasted over 500 years until the early 20th
century, there was no religion in Korea and the whole country lived and