A hanok neighborhood that’s not a museumIn modern-day Korea, “hanok village” usually means an open-air museum. Since most of Seoul’s 20th-century urban development was done with little thought to historical preservation, only a few neighborhoods of hanok, or traditional houses, were able to maintain their original character. The old homes in Namsan Hanok Village, in Pil-dong in central Seoul, were turned into tourist attractions; the National Folk Village in Yongin, Gyeonggi province, is an artificial re-creation designed to give visitors a sense of what the old ways were like.
An exception to this rule is Bukchon, an actual, lived-in neighborhood that’s managed to keep its traditional architectural character. Its name, which means “north village,” comes from its location north of Cheonggyecheon stream and Jongno. It once encompassed seven “villages,” including Insa-dong, but now officially consists of Samcheong-dong and Gahoe-dong (which itself includes Jae-dong, Gye-dong and Wonseo-dong); just over 11,000 people live in Bukchon. It’s one of the oldest parts of Seoul, and one of the only places in town where a person can stroll along streets lined with traditional houses without fighting swarms of tourists.
With palaces on its borders, Bukchon has always signified nobility. For centuries, it was home to aristocrats and high-ranking government officials. Some of the most powerful politicians and most noted scholars in modern Korean history have lived there; some of their houses remain in their families generations later, while others have been restored by the government as heritage sites.
In the 1960s, as development was transforming Seoul north of the Han River, many Bukchon residents moved to southern Seoul, followed by prestigious schools like Kyunggi and Whimoon High School, which were and still are considered training grounds for Korea’s elite. The last school to do so was Changduk Women’s High School in the 1980s. During this period, the landscape of Bukchon was touched by the development wave, as the departed schools were replaced by modern buildings ― a public library, a constitutional court and a few corporate headquarters.
Fortunately, the major development stopped there, and Bukchon has generally maintained its traditional quality, although a growing number of villas built by landowners threaten the area’s tradition.
The preservation of Bukchon can perhaps be mostly attributed to the efforts of its residents, who have organized to lobby the city government for stricter zoning controls in the area, to keep businesses out and reconstruction to a minimum.
In 2000, the residents’ coalition collaborated with the Seoul government on a “Bukchon project” aimed at controlling development in the area. The city contributed 84 billion won ($71 million), which was used to subsidize the renovation of hanok and the construction of new, but traditional-style, houses. Although the residents’ committee would later complain that the city wanted to modernize the neighborhood’s old-style character by promoting a more stylish hanok design, the residents did gain more control over development.
Bukchon’s residential back streets are now reserved for foot traffic; automobiles are prohibited on these streets. Residents have to put up with the inconvenience of walking from their homes to school parking lots, where they leave their cars overnight. In return, the residents (as well as visitors) get the anachronistic luxury of walking along Seoul streets where pedestrians are given priority over drivers. Perhaps these unusual decisions about the living environment reflect the dynamic mix of residents in the area, which includes, for Seoul, an unusually high number of foreigners (Gahoe-dong’s population of 6,500 includes about 150 non-Koreans).
When walking the streets of Bukchon, it’s worth noting the buildings that have been designated cultural properties. There are a number of official historical sites, along with museums and institutes teaching traditional arts.
The former residence of Yun Bo-seon, who was briefly president of Korea before Park Chung Hee’s coup, is registered as a national historic site; it’s a classic hanok that exemplifies the architectural style prevalent during the late Joseon Dynasty. The house was built in 1870, and is Seoul’s only remaining example of an aristocratic mansion from its period that has Western-style shade trees and gardens. The residence is now owned by Mr. Yun’s eldest son; it is not open to the public.
Jongchinbu, an old government office that once housed royal documents and the personal belongings of kings, is another of Bukchon’s cultural assets. At one time, the genealogical table of the Korean royal family was kept here; it was also a place where meetings were held to discuss major government appointments. The building has undergone many changes in function since its construction. (The Joseon-era archives were recently moved to Jeongdok Library in Sagan-dong.) Visitors can stroll through its gardens, but aren’t allowed inside the building.
For a glimpse of a rare style of architecture, visit the main building of Choongang High School in Gye-dong, which was designed by a Japanese architect named Nakamura Yoshihei in 1907. A two-story stone structure, it features an austere, gothic-style pavilion with an arch over the main gate. It is also one of the rare buildings of its age to have a steam heating system.
The area also has traditional-style lodging. Seoul Guesthouse (02-745-0057) is a hanok that rents rooms for 30,000 won ($26). Lakgoje (02-742-3410) has more luxurious accommodations for 150,000 won, which includes breakfast.
Feng shui authorities consider Bukchon one of Seoul’s best sites for well-being and fortune. The streams that once flowed through the area (and are now filled in) stretched from the ridges of Mount Eungbong to the east wall of Gyeongbok Palace; this is said to produce positive energy for its residents.
If you get tired of looking at buildings, rest your eyes on Jae-dong’s famous baeksong, or white pine, a natural monument believed to be more than 600 years old. Its canopy stretches out about seven meters in each direction; its bifurcated trunk is supported by steel pipes to keep the tree from collapsing. For the last several years, since a white pine in Tongui-dong died, this one has been believed to be the oldest white pine in Korea. If it doesn’t impress you, you’ve probably lived in the city too long.
by Park Soo-mee