A trip around Bukchon Hanok Village is a peculiar experience. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be people, mainly young women, dressed in brightly coloured traditional Korean clothing being photographed in a variety of poses, in a variety of different locations. Around every corner individuals and groups were striking poses in doorways, alleyways and in front of historic buildings.
There are around 900 traditional houses, or hanok, in this area and it attracts a large number of tourists, domestic and foreign. The influx of tourists – over 600,000 foreign tourists alone each year – has resulted in lot of restaurants, bars, tea houses and shops dotted throughout the area. It’s also resulted in numerous signs in different languages asking people to be quiet and considerate.
Korean tourists flock here to have their photos taken in costumes that can be rented in numerous shops around the area. It’s a strangely Korean thing to do, with the hot spots for photography signposted around the area. I’m not sure I understand the whole fancy dress thing, but people were having a lot of fun.
As befits an area that nestles between two of Seoul’s most illustrious royal palaces, Bukchon Hanok Village has a long history that dates back more than 600 years. Its location close to the royal court meant it was originally an area for the nobility and high-ranking officials in the government. Today, it forms one of the few remaining areas of traditional wooden houses in Seoul.
There is a route that can be followed, but just wandering aimlessly around the narrow winding streets is just as satisfying. I know this because I started following the route and got hopelessly lost. Some houses are open to the public and you can get a glimpse into a traditional Korean home; some lanes lead to viewing points above the rooftops, from where you can see how they’re built around a central courtyard, the grey tiles forming a perfect pattern.
It’s a picturesque place that merges the old and the new, not always harmoniously, making it a fascinating area to wander around. The traditional building methods are perfect for coping with the extreme cold of Korean winters, and the heat of summer. They are also remarkably robust, designed to withstand earthquakes.
The day I visited there were plenty of tourists around, and the costume shops were doing a good trade. It was a hot day though, and walking up and down the area’s hills was hard going even without traditional clothing. After a couple of hours I ended my explorations, and my time in the city, drinking a Korean IPA at a cafe on the bustling Samcheong-gil, a street lined with restaurants and bars. It seemed a fitting end to a brilliant 48 hours in Seoul.