Experiencing a Home Away From Home

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Experiencing a Home Away From Home

Located near Gyeongbok and Changdeok palaces, the neighborhood of Gahoe-dong is reminiscent of an era long gone. The area has been marked as a preservation site in an effort to maintain Korea's historic architecture. While there are new housing developments on the main roads, many hanok, or traditional Korean homes, can be found sitting along the narrow, twisting side roads.

Gahoe-dong may be a luxurious residential spot for the locals, but it is also developing into a place for tourists to experience traditional Korean culture. Homeowners Yoo Jung-hee and Lee Mi-ja have recently remodeled their hanoks to accommodate tourists. Ms. Yoo also runs a Korean cultural program as part of her guest house experience.


With Korea on the rise as a tourist attraction, more people are visiting Korea to see not only the attractions, but to learn about the traditional Korean way of life. From 1999 to 2000, the number of tourists increased by 14.2 percent to 5.3 million, according to the Korea National Tourism Organization.

When CNN came to Korea last year to do a story on a multi-generational Korean family, the TV crew interviewed Yoo Jung-hee. She lives with four generations of her family under one roof, and a hanok at that.

All the questions asked by the CNN staff made a deep impression on Ms. Yoo. Realizing how little outsiders knew of Korea, she gathered her family together and posed the question to them: What do you think about teaching classes on Korean culture?

Her family agreed and in March launched Yoo's Family as an informal school on Korean culture. The two available sessions focus on home activities and Korean food preparation. The extended Yoo family participates in guiding the guests through the lessons.

Both course are three and one half hours long and cost 70,000 won ($54) for adults, 60,000 won for children.

Ms. Yoo recalls one 75-year-old grandfather from Belgium who was traveling alone in Korea. He enrolled in course A. Participants can choose between preparing kimchi, learning about danhak, a method of tapping into their gi, or energy source, or practicing calligraphy. They also wear hanbok, traditional Korean clothes, and learn greeting etiquette or play folk games like yutnori. When the entire family gathered for dinner, the grandfather was so touched that he started crying. "In his culture, most generations live separately," Ms. Yoo explained.

Course B begins with a grocery shopping trip to a traditional Korean market. Upon return to Yoo's home, guests then learn how to make kimchi and japchae. The course ends with a typical Korean meal. Two guests tourists from Japan, Oikawa Shiho and Ina Hiromi, chose course B recently and also learned the proper mannerisms for drinking tea.

For more information, call 02-3673-0323 or visit the Web site at www.korea-family.com.


Lee Mi-ja found herself moping at home, waiting for her two grown children to come and visit. One day her daughter gently told her, "Mom, we've left home. You can't keep waiting for us. Why don't you think about converting the empty rooms into a guest house? It'll fit your personality, and you'll make international friends."

Ms. Lee took her daughter's words to heart and in November 2000 opened the Seoul Guest House, a home-stay program that caters exclusively to expatriates. Since then Ms. Lee, who describes herself as a people-lover, has made plenty of international friends. One-third of her clients are Japanese (Ms. Lee speaks fluent Japanese and conversational English); the rest are from all over the world.

If her daughter's underlying intention was for her mother's large heart to be filled by caring for others, she has succeeded. On Saturday, five college graduates from Japan dropped their luggage off at Ms. Lee's home and started getting ready for their first full day of touring Korea. "We just got here several hours ago, but she already makes us feel like family," said Tozako Toshoo. Ms. Lee quipped, "I think of my guests as my kids."

While breakfast or guided tours are not included in the cost (30,000 won per person or 20,000 won for two or more people), Ms. Lee has made plenty of exceptions. When a guest happens to be young, she cooks them breakfast and takes care of them as if they were one of her own children. In September, a young woman from Switzerland will be staying at the Seoul Guest House and through e-mail correspondence the two have already formed a bond. "I'm already thinking of her as a daughter," said Ms. Lee, who plans to show her around Seoul.

Her guests prefer not to stay at hotels for a variety of reasons. Young female travelers who cannot afford to stay at hotels find a home-stay safer and the housekeeping standards more satisfactory than a yeo-gwan, Korean-style inn.

The main reason her guests check in to a home-stay though, is that they want to experience Korea. After seeing the yo, quilted mattress, the sliding doors covered with rice paper and the peaceful garden in an open courtyard, Tadokoro Hideto said, "It's everything I dreamed about. When we were planning our trip to Korea, we wanted to experience a Korean home."

For more information, call 02-745-0057 or visit the Web site at www.seoul110.com.

by Joe Yong-hee

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