Hotels breathe new life into old South Korean homes

Thu Dec 11, 2008 6:20am EST
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By Jonathan Hopfner

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - For decades, they were scoffed at by the status-conscious and razed to make way for apartment blocks, but South Korea's humble traditional houses, or hanoks, have made an unexpected recent comeback as luxury hotels.

While a few budget guesthouses have been around for decades, the last few years have seen a surge in the number of hanoks restored or built to house more discerning travelers, blending centuries-old design with contemporary luxuries like silk bedding, plunge bathtubs and herbal spas.

The hanoks have proved a hit with nostalgic locals and international visitors seeking an authentic Korean experience.

"I believe if you're going to put traditional culture on display you should make sure it's of the best quality," said Young Ahn, the owner of Rakkojae, an upmarket guesthouse in Seoul's historic Bukchon district.

Built in a former nobleman's home once destined for the wrecking ball, the property's six antique-filled rooms start from 180,000 won ($132) per night.

This is a major shift for dwellings that were never renowned for their luxury and, according to architect and hanok authority Doojin Hwang, Koreans used to be ashamed of.

The standard hanok, a name which literally translates as "Korean house," is a squat, single-storey building with earthen walls and tile roofs supported by wood beams that curl upward in a graceful arc.

Windows and sliding doors made of translucent rice paper filter sunlight and provide ventilation in the sticky summer months, while wood is burned under the stone floors to warm the home in winter. Furnishings and decor are usually limited to a few carefully placed scrolls, chests or sleeping mats.   Continued...

<p>The entrance of Rakkojae, an upmarket guesthouse in Seoul's historic Bukchon district is pictured December 11, 2008. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won</p>