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16

| BNE January/February 2017

ESCAPE

The world’s fourth largest city may be most famous for its high tech

discoveries but

Karen Halabi

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

Korea’s heritage

to survive

the

heart

of

O

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

Qing Dynasties.

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