On 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 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. It’s peaceful facade 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”.
Experience traditional customs
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 pyjamas.
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 floor mats on wood smoke-heated floors… and it’s one of my best night’s sleep ever.
Korean street food
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.
Changdok 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 survived under Confucianism and the principles are now deeply ingrained in the threadwork of Korean society, responsible for some of the most orderly respectful behaviour I’ve seen anywhere.
To find out more I visit a Confucian school to take part in an ancestral ritual that is a memorial ceremony to honour and remember dead relatives (up to four generations of them who apparently hang around to help the living). It is a ritual that regularly takes place in every Korean home as well. Respect for elders, the family and the traditions of the past is paramount. It surprised me to learn that, despite the worldwide success of Korean businesses, scholars, farmers and craftsmen are ranked more highly than business people in Korean society according to Confucian principles.
For the ceremony we don hanboks and sit cross-legged before a Confucian master who teaches us how to lead a virtuous life, to have respect for elders and to make offerings to the ancestors’ spirits – and we get to eat the offerings afterwards.
Part of this respect and willingness to maintain old traditions is also a revival of traditional Korean tea culture and tea ceremonies as a way to find relaxation and harmony in the fast-paced new world.
Drinking tea is an art
At a ceremony, the master pours us tea that has infused during his talk, carefully pouring it back and forth as he goes. The art of tea is a slow meditative process that is a joy to watch and it’s always prepared kneeling at a low table or on the floor. Tea houses are everywhere and tea is the classic Korean drink of choice.
Tea shops sell all kinds of blends and varieties from different regions of Korea and it can be confusing to try to pick one. Green tea, for example, is to Korea as wine is to the West with hundreds of varieties, harvests and vintages to choose from. Fruit teas such as oumija, plum, ginger and ginseng tea became my favourites and it was a delight to duck into tea shops everywhere I went to have some served in large bowls with side dishes of rice cakes, persimmon strips and traditional Korean sweets (dagwa). Another favourite is pine needle tea.
Insadong is the arts crafts and antiques shopping street in Seoul where there are many tea shops and even a tea museum. Its narrow alleys are filled with restaurants, teahouses, art galleries and antique shops selling old manuscripts, fabulous ceramics and curios and they are lined with street hawkers selling everything from pastries to pork crackle.
One night I went to see a Korean musical Miso in Seoul’s theatre district. A riveting mix of Korean percussion music, featuring skilled drummers and gong players (including women), amazing hanbok costumes, juggling feats, music and song. There was no way to fall asleep during this performance because it was so loud and full of action.
After days of walking I decide to visit a traditional Korean bath house or jjimjilbang for a wind down. Inside there are hot tubs, showers, Korean traditional kiln saunas and massage tables and for a mere $10 entry for the day (if you can last that long!) covers a sweating room and hot, cold and seawater baths but treatments extra. I get nude and am slapped, pummeled, steamed and scrubbed to within an inch of my life. No one seems to speak English at these bath houses, but that’s half the fun and there’s no doubt you come out squeaky clean.
For my last two nights I wanted to end on a calm note so I enrolled in the templestay program at Hwagyesa, a Zen Buddhist monastery on the northern outskirts of Seoul. Hwagyesa is home to the Seoul International Zen Centre and is located in peaceful Bukhansan national park at the foot of Mt Samgaksan.
On arrival I’m drilled about taking off my shoes and bowing before entering rooms, not eating from the table reserved for monks, shown how to chant and prostate myself correctly and warned that I shouldn’t fidget or lie down during extended backbreaking cross-legged meditations.
Then in my first mediation class the eagle-eyed Zen Master spies me trying to hide my camera at the back of the hall and shuffles up to me. “Oops”, I think, “I’m in big trouble, Cover blown.”
“Are you planning to use flash?”, he asks in impeccable English, looking very serious. “Aaaah, weell, yes, but….” I stutter. A big smile breaks out on his face. “Good,” he beams, “come on up the front.” The monk spends the rest of a terribly serious ceremony posing for the camera like a Hollywood star and beaming cheeky grins to me from his best angle before every flash.
Koreans are warm and funny, with a distinct sense of humour and an endearing willingness to laugh at themselves, much as we Australians do. In a country so clean and green, where the food offers tastes you won’t find at home, and where football is the national pride, what’s not to like?
TOP THINGS TO DO
- Eat at Hanmiri (the website is only in Korean so ask your hanok or concierge to book)
- Drink at the Tea Gallery at the Beautiful Tea Museum
- Shop at Insadong
- Visit the Chongdong Theatre
- Bath house visit at Dragon Hill Spa
- See the Jongmyo Ritual at the Royal Shrine an extraordinary spectacle that happens only once a year in May (book ahead)