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A Tale of Two Seoul Neighborhoods

When I checked into the Hotel Ibis Insadong in Seoul, South Korea, I was immediately fascinated by the view from my window. The hotel overlooks the Ikseon-dong Hanok Area, or perhaps I should say it looms over it.

In the background, the Ibis Hotel looms over the Ikseon Hanok Area houses in the foreground.
See what I mean about the hotel looming?

Ikseon-dong Hanok Area

The neighborhood looks from above to be about a city block around, and is filled with small, single-story, traditional Korean buildings, called hanoks. Many have the typical curved roof lines, with tiling supported by wood beams. From above, many appear to be in poor shape: the roofs have been repaired and patched, sometimes with what looks like scraps of tarp.

view of Ikseon Hanok Area from my hotel room
view of Ikseon Hanok Area from my hotel room, with the growing city in the background

Exploring the neighborhood on foot confirmed my first impression. While some of the houses have been restored, many make a rundown impression. A few have the traditional plaster with decorative elements in tile, but many have been changed with the addition of plain tiling or concrete or other materials. A few contain businesses catering to tourists or young people, running teahouses or restaurants. Some clearly supply the more prosaic everyday necessities or cheap food. Most, though, seem to still be homes.

shops in Ikseon Hanok Area
some shops in Ikseon

Strolling along the narrow alleyways—too narrow for cars, but motorcycles and scooters are everywhere—I could still glimpse here and there the traces of Seoul’s past in these homes . . . if I just ignored the tangles of electric wires, the external plumbing, the utility meters, and so on.

a street in Ikseon Hanok Area
a street in Ikseon Hanok Area

This neighborhood was built in the 1930’s, when Seoul was occupied by the Japanese and population pressure led to the development of tightly-packed hanok neighborhoods. And judging from the view from my hotel, the neighborhood in imminent danger of disappearing, swallowed up by the growing city on all sides, yet recent magazine articles tell of hopeful changes coming to the community. Some hanoks have been refurbished and aim for a chic end of the market. Some have become galleries.

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Bukchon Hanok Village

Bukchon Hanok Village is another section of Seoul, a fifteen-minute walk from Ikseon-dong. Also built in the 1930’s for the same reason as Ikseon-dong, this “village,” shows the results of a joint effort between the city government and local residents to preserve what is left of the traditional hanok housing. This comes after a period in the 1980’s and 90’s when many were destroyed in favor of multi-unit buildings. Like Ikseon-dong, it contains many hanoks, but it has a completely different feel to it.

a view down a Buckchon Hanok Village street with the modern city in the background
a view down a Buckchon street with the modern city in the background

These houses are in good repair and appear closer to the traditional hanok. Many have the plaster with prettily-inset tile fragments lining their outside walls, or neat brick or stone work.

This hanoks wall is decorated with tiles and inset circles of brick.
pretty inlaid tile detailing on the wall of this hanok

The electric wires above the streets are minimal and don’t hang low. The streets are clean and many of the homes have trees peeking over the walls or framing their doors.

exterior of a hanok in Buckchon Hanok Village, Seoul
a Bukchon hanok

Some of the hanoks in Bukchon appeared to be brand new, judging by the light color and pristine state of the wood. Nevertheless, they were obviously built to the older traditional style.

This hanok appears to be new, and houses a scent shop.
This hanok appears to be new, and houses a scent shop.

The area is hillier, and strolling the streets can lead to some great views over the roofs of the hanoks.

view over part of Buckchon Hanok Village
view over part of Buckchon Hanok Village

Many of these are homes, clearly higher-end homes than in Ikseon, of course. Some of them are being used for “home stays,” though I don’t know whether those are really people’s homes, or function more as very small hotels. Also amongst them are various museums and workshops catering to visitors, some of which are housed in hanoks. This is a very partial list:

  • Donglim Knot Workshop: demonstrates traditional knot-tying craftwork
  • Bukchon Traditional Culture Center: museum with displays about the history and architecture of Bukchon
  • Han Sang Soo Embroidery Museum
  • Gallery Giotta (formerly Gallery W Gahoe): contemporary arts
  • Bukchon Heritage Studio: heritage crafts

The day I explored Bukchon, the place that appealed to me most was the Bukchon Traditional Crafts Experience Center, which gives visitors the opportunity to try out some traditional Korean crafts: different ones each day of the week. On the day I visited, a Sunday, three options were available: painting a t-shirt (with a traditional drawing on it), making traditional paper slippers, or tie-dying a handkerchief. I chose the t-shirt. It was pre-printed with a design of a horse which appeared to have flames emerging from it.

me at work, painting the tee-shirt
me at work, painting the tee-shirt

I searched Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, later, and I think the horse is meant to be Chollima. According to Wikipedia, when the people of the mythical kingdom of Silla

…gathered to pray for a king, the horse emerged from a bolt of lightning, bowing to a shining egg. After the horse flew back to heaven, the egg opened and the boy Park Hyeokgeose emerged. When he grew up, he united six warring states.

I spent a very pleasant hour using paint fabric dye to fill in the line drawing on the shirt.

my finished t-shirt
my finished t-shirt

Bukchon and Ikseon-dong are both hanok neighborhoods, both representatives of Seoul before its post-Korean War modernization. Few such homes remain in this city, and very few whole neighborhoods.

The question is whether any will remain at all, given the pressure of population growth. I don’t know anything about local politics or decision-making about preservation of older buildings, but from outward appearances, looking down on it from my hotel room, it seemed to me that the Ikseon-dong Hanok Area is probably doomed. Bukchon, on the other hand, will remain, but I fear it will increasingly become a disneyfied version of old Korea.

A hanok interior courtyard in Buckchon Hanok Village
A hanok interior courtyard in Buckchon Hanok Village

What do you think? Should old neighborhoods always be preserved? How do you preserve a neighborhood without it become just a recreation of its former self?


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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more…

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Gorgeous pictures! I have a friend who taught English in Seoul for a year after grad school, and she’s always talking about how much she loved it there. Your post makes it easy to see why! 🙂

Hi Rachel

I’ve wandered through Buckchon a few times over the years.The hanoks have definitely been rebuilt beautifully, but leave me a bit cold. I was surprised at the Ikseon hanok area. I wasn’t aware of its existence. I think it’s much more interesting to poke around in than Buckchon. I do hope that the neighborhood doesn’t go the way of the wrecking ball. I also hope that the residents get to stay and are not shunted off somewhere so that another tourist attraction can be built.

I think it is good to preserve certain neighborhoods because of the historic significance of them or because of the cultural impact they had on a city. But, I think there are many more reasons to preserve. Like you mentioned, the areas can be “preserved” by giving it a new life. I have seen old neighborhoods that have been revived by businesses, art and other events.

When there are so few of the original houses left I think all attempts should be made to save them.

Lovely photos…

I love the above shot, and you think ok. Then you take us to the ground and walk us around, and I think, oh yes. I love the living neighbourhood of Ikseon, but I also understand the position of Bukchon. These are the dilemmas, for them and for us,

Wow! Bukchon seems so much nicer! I love your tee-shirt. My daughter would approve of the purple horse. Thanks for linking up with #Wednesday Globetrot!

I think old neighborhoods should always be preserved as much as possible however from my experience, sometimes the locals themselves, don’t want to do so.

I remember when I first came to Berlin in the 90’s, my first apartment was near the river, huge, had an extra attic, had high ceilings, still had a coal-based oven and no bathroom. We put the bathtub in the living as a piece of artistic decoration…! Anyway, as Berlin became trendy, Germans from other parts of the country refused to live in such “uncivilised” conditions and the 1890 building was given an overhaul and basically sold off to developers. Now that particular apartment is for sale for €380,000!