December 11, 2008 / 8:05 AM / 10 years ago

Hotels breathe new life into old South Korean homes

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.

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

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.

But Hwang says guests appreciate the emphasis on simplicity and natural materials, the soft light and muted colors.

“These features form a very happy dialogue between your body and the house you’re in,” he said.

“Korean homes don’t try to conquer nature, but use it,” added Ahn. “The materials are all environmentally friendly, and that’s what makes the atmosphere so comfortable.”


Hanok guests also appear to appreciate the experience. Sian Yee Kwok, a Singaporean who stayed at Rakkojae on a recent visit, said she found the “naturalness” of the structure charming.

“It was above my expectations and yet not opulent or pretentious,” she said. “I believe this is very unique in all the (places) I’ve had the privilege to stay, I just felt so at home.”

Oh Kyoung Young, owner of the Ssangsanjae hanok resort in rural South Jeolla province, has been surprised by the clientele since he recently converted the aging buildings on his family’s sprawling estate into guesthouses.

Visitors can stay in the former servants’ quarters or splash out around 150,000 won ($110) for a far larger former refuge for scholars surrounded by pine trees and rice fields.

“I didn’t expect any young people to come here, but they’ve been very interested, even after I made a decision to take out all the televisions,” he said. “We have older guests who come to relive their memories of course, but I guess hanoks give even young people a sense of nostalgia.”

Ahn says revenues at Rakkojae are now rising by about 30 percent per year, which has encouraged him to build a new hanok hotel in the folk culture center of Andong, south east of Seoul, that will open next spring.

Smaller hanok properties such as the Tea Guesthouse are springing up in older parts of Seoul and Jeonju, where an entire district of hanoks has been preserved. In late 2007, to much fanfare, the country’s first five-star hanok hotel, Ragung, was unveiled in the historic city of Gyeongju.

But even with concierges and top chefs, a hanok stay is not for everyone. Paper-thin doors can startle those accustomed to more privacy, while others find it hard to adapt to customs such as sleeping on the floor or removing their shoes inside.

Ahn recalls an entire party of U.S. businessmen abandoning Rakkojae for more contemporary accommodation, confounded by a night of Korean bedding.

Slideshow (6 Images)

But hanok proprietor hope the growing number of guests will help maintain the renaissance of this Korean tradition.

“I didn’t open this place because I wanted the money, but because I believe if no one stays in a traditional house it’ll just fall apart,” says Ssangsanjae’s Oh. “The only way we can maintain our heritage is if we’re living in it.”

($1=1361.8 Won)

Editing by Keiron Henderson and Miral Fahmy

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