Saturday, July 23, 2022

An Overnight Hanok Stay with My Korean Family

Now that baby S is over 100 days old and before I went to work from maternity leave, we took one last chance to travel with my Korean family before we move back to Washington, DC. My family absolutely spoiled us, renting a big van to come pick us up and reserving a beautiful modern hanok outside of Seoul in Unakchae Hanok Village (운악채한옥마을). (A hanok [한옥] is a traditional Korean-style house.) S was such a champ, too, handling the car ride well and enjoying the time with our relatives even in an unfamiliar environment.

The modern hanoks were comfortable and spacious. We packed S's bassinet so we could set it up at the hanok and know we had a safe sleep space for him, and it worked perfectly. Everyone wanted to take turns holding and playing with S, and he loved the attention. My family continued to spoil all of us during our stay, accommodating S's feeding schedule and not letting us cook or clean a thing. They prepared delicious Korean meals throughout our trip, from a barbecue dinner to late-night spicy ramen and beers to a delicious breakfast.

My family even found a truly 100% non-alcoholic beer for me, which I didn't even know existed! Most non-alcoholic beers have a little bit of alcohol so I've avoided them, but after some incredulous Googling I confirmed my family was right and the one they offered me (Hite Zero) had no trace of alcohol. It tasted just like how I remembered beer tasted from back when I used to drink! My cousin J also introduced me to an amazing snack: Honey Butter Chips! Where have these been all my life? I hope I can find them at H-Mart once we move back to the States, because I discovered them way too late in my Korea tour.

We gathered around a bonfire to chat once it got dark and M and I put S to bed for the night. We didn't have our usual camera so we set up my laptop with white noise and an ongoing video call so we could watch him on our phones while we were outside or in another room. My uncle brought a magical powder of some kind that made the flames of our bonfire turn different colors. I took a photo and video, but they don't do it justice. The effect was so cool, casting the fire in shades of teal and blue and purple!

We played a few different games, including badminton and tuho (투호), a traditional Korean game where you try and throw arrows into a jar. Take my word for it: tuho is incredibly difficult and most of us couldn't get a single arrow in even after many attempts. My cousin S actually got an arrow in on the first try somehow and we all lost it like we were at an NFL game. M being how he is, he kept practicing tuho long after everyone else was done until he could get at least one arrow. Thank goodness he ended up getting two and calling it a night.

The next day, we checked out of the hanok and went with my family to the Garden of Morning Calm (아침고요수목원). M and I actually went there once before in the winter, but it was a completely different experience visiting in the summer. All of the Christmas lights we saw last time were replaced by green fields, flowers, and lush trees now. The one downside is that the weather on the day we went was scorching. S was such a trooper, though, and thankfully there was a nice nursing room where I could take him to cool off partway through our visit.

I was especially struck by a majestic tree called the Millennium Juniper (천년향). It was considered a sacred tree that watched over a village in Andong (안동) until the village was designated as a flooding area. Thankfully, the tree was preserved and transferred to the Garden of Morning Calm after almost a year of prep work. They believe the tree has been cared for since the Joseon Dynasty and estimate that it's about 1,000 years old. How cool is that?

There was also a gorgeous lily pond with a bridge over it that looked like a scene out of a romantic movie. Between the picturesque walking paths and the collections of bright, summery flowers I think the garden was well worth a repeat visit. I've heard from some folks who have stayed in Korea longer-term that they make it a point to go every single season because the grounds change so much based on what's blooming at that time. And after witnessing the summer transformation, I believe it! (Just make sure you take plenty of water and a fan if you're dropping by during the hottest months.)

After that, we went to Dumulmeori Lake (두물머리), where three rivers meet. It was a lovely park and we enjoyed the (much cooler) walk by the water. We didn't have a chance to explore the whole park area, but there was plenty of space relative to the number of people and we had a chance to sit and watch the shimmering lake whenever we wanted a break.

We also had some delicious massive hot dogs that were sort of like double-battered corn dogs with sugar, ketchup, and mustard on the outside. (Don't knock it 'til you try it.) There were a lot of stands with street food, and according to my family the hot dogs are pretty famous. One hot dog was enough for an entire meal and made me feel like I was at a fair or a carnival.

Before we knew it, it was time to come back home and say goodbye. We had such a magical weekend with my family, and they made the whole overnight trip such a special treat for all of us. I'm going to miss them so much. Though it's terribly unfair that the pandemic took away so much time we would've otherwise spent together, I'm grateful we had the chance to make some special memories before we go.

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