Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Visiting Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong

We finally got out of the house again and enjoyed a wonderful afternoon walk through Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong in Seoul. Both are usually popular sites for locals and tourists, but given the pandemic and the winter chill the usual crowds were absent. We still found the neighborhoods a delightful place to walk and soak up some Korean culture even if we couldn't go inside and eat at restaurants or shop.

Bukchon is famous for its traditional Korean houses, called hanok (한옥). These houses were first designed and built in the 14th century (!) during the Joseon Dynasty. Nowadays many Americans are familiar with feng shui, the Chinese geomantic tradition that emphasized the proper position and alignment of one's environment and possessions in harmony with the natural world. Korea also has a rich geomantic tradition called pungsu-jiri (풍수지리), which compared to feng shui places greater emphasis on a macro-level (e.g., the position and alignment of one's house relative to the rest of the village and nature) as opposed to interior design. Some hanok houses today are still maintained in a very traditional style, while others fuse historical and modern features. You can see a range of architectural expression in Bukchon - just check out the fanciest Baskin Robbins I've ever seen, for example!

Although we couldn't poke our heads inside the buildings, as some are shops we're not currently allowed to visit due to COVID-19 and others are still people's homes, we were lucky enough to come across one hanok with an open courtyard for visitors. That hanok used to belong to modern Korean painter Bae Ryeom (배렴). That hanok was built in 1936, and the artist lived there from 1959 until his death in 1968. It was also the meeting place of the Korean Folklore Society.

Today, that space is used as a special venue for art and culture events. Its buildings and courtyard are shaped in accordance with specific letters in the Korean alphabet. We enjoyed getting a peek at what the hanok looked like inside, including the studio where Bae Ryeom created his art.

I was impressed with how much art we saw walking around in general, from stores to street art. The mural of the elderly couple pictured below has a unique story. Originally completed in 2013 by artist Won Yeong-seon, the mural deteriorated over time. Residents loved the art so much that the local government of Jongno-gu partnered with the painter to restore it. Mayor Kim Yeong-jong commemorated the restoration with the following sweet words: "I wish your life to glow every moment with the youthfulness like the beautiful smile of the elderly couple in the mural." Isn't that lovely?

After walking around Bukchon Hanok Village, we made our way to the hip neighborhood of Insadong. There were so many couples going out for strolls like us that afternoon, so we were grateful for the nationwide masking and social distancing mandate. We saw some really neat things there, including the first picture of this post: a station where you could receive 2021 predictions based on your Zodiac sign. You can provide the local equivalent of about one dollar in a machine, get a special traditional-style coin, use it to receive one of the red balls with your fortune, break the tiny ball open with a provided hammer, and then read your fate. I've never seen anything like it! Overall, there was something about the vibe of Insadong that strongly reminded me of the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville where I spent many days while studying at the University of Virginia. For those who have been there: would you agree, looking at the photo below?

All that walking made us terribly hungry, so thank goodness we were able to find some street food. We ordered tteokbokki (떡볶이, rice cakes in a spicy sauce), assorted fried foods, and jumeokbap (주먹밥, Korean rice balls similar to Japanese onigiri). Our order came with free sprays (yes, like in a spray bottle) of soy sauce and a cup each of fish soup. M was not the biggest fan of the latter, but he loves tteokbokki. We ate our fill for only about $10 for the two of us!

Our leisurely Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong walk was the perfect way to spend an afternoon. We got plenty of fresh air and exercise while experiencing a new part of our city. I highly recommend it!

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