…Hanok, The Lives Inside…

You’ve probably heard the word before: hanok. But these traditional Korean houses, which are often associated with history long past, were the popular form of residence until as late as the 1970s. But what made this structure, with its simple design and form, last through the centuries and root itself as an integral part of life here? KOREA travels to discover the cubtle philosophies of the lives and people inside, seeking to root out the truth behind the belying minimalism.

Chuncu Folk Museum is a 154-year-old hanok that lies at the edge of Okcheon, Chungcheongbuk-do Province, a place at odds with the modernity of the times. Though these traditional houses are often pictured as immaculate structures with pristine gardens gracing the courtyard. Chuncu first sets itself apart by being nothing like you’d expect. At first glance, the entrance of the expansive hanok seems cluttered with stone statues, gravel for the parking lot and various odds and ends resolutely staking its claim in the past. But it is within these paradoxical elements that the beauty of the family-run guesthouse, restaurant and museum lies. Chuncu is nothing less than the most courageous amalgamation of old, new, respectful and realistic – and the perfect place to thrust yourseld into the traditions of old Korea and learn some of its deepest customs, away from the accessible city and superficial resorts.

Upon our arrival, owners Jeong Tae-hee and his wife, Lee Hwa-soon, welcome us into their home. The couple has managed the hanok for the last decade, seeking to preserve a way of life in order to share their knowledge with passersby. Though visitors may pick and choose which aspects of teh hanok to enjoy – a homemade meat at a table, a tour of the hanok’s artifacts complete with Jeong’s narration, or as a relaxing way to spend a night warmed by the ondol (under-floor heating system) – Chunchu works best as an entire immersion experience.

Entering into a room inside the main building, the 58-year-old owner explains the significance of a hanok’s skeletal structure. It is the most important aspect of the residence, he says, while looking up toward the supporting wood visible in the ceiling – unlike modern homes, the main beams and woodwork are not hidden.

“Without these timbers, a hanok cannot call itself a true hanok,” he says. The crossbeams construct the house’s central integrity, and its importance is so fundamental that a Korean idiom has been based on it. Often, a prodigious son will be referred to as the crossbeam of a family to signify his importance in keeping all the members together.

“What makes the rooms different is that whether you’re opening or closing the doors, leaving or coming in, the layout always feels open,” he says, referring to the connectivity between rooms. “In Korean homes, it is believed there must be ample empty space … space for wind to blow through”. This is particularly vital during the humid summer season, when a cool breeze is the only means of relief from the stiflingheat.

Furnishings are typically traditional-style standing wardrobes and low-lying drawers. Complementary with the lifestyle, ondol was used to warm residences during the cold months. Though today ondol has survived in modern culture, using heated water pipes to warm a rom, a series of renovated rooms in Chunchu still direct heat from wood-burning stoves. The hot air is circulated underneath the floors, then vented through the opening of a horizontal chimney.

Chunchu has no lack of eye-catching anachronisms that serve as the museum’s focal point of historical value. As Jeong leads the way with a slow, steady pace, he stops every so often to offer a detailed background of a relic or artisan’s composition. The stately, quirky man is a lover of storytelling, and the courtyard, initially nothing more than a hodgepodge to the untrained eye, is transformed tale by tale into a charming piece of the puzzle of Korea’s history.

As the sun begins to set, it’s time to prepare for dinner. Jeong crouches to feed a crackling fire in an open furnace made of brick and concrete, which braces a large pot resting above. The heavy iron piece can cook rice enough for 10 in as little seven minutes. This is only one of the many unique experience programs made available to guests at Chunchu that Jeong and Lee have designed to help visitors understand times past.

Activities range from cooking rice in the traditional pot to making grain syrup for yeot, traditional candy, to brewing homemade makgeolli, a rice wine. For those who are looking for something more active, Jeong will even teach the basics of the seonbi chum dance, of which he is a master.

We dine on a basic meal of rice and delectable side dishes, each of which have been made on-site, using all local ingredients bought from neighboring markets. The table brims with year-long fermented kimchi, pickled sesame leaves, soft, fresh tofu, a milky-colored oxtail soup with glass noodles and more. The fare seems to be nothing extravagant, but each bite bursts with flavor that would be difficult to replicate elsewhere: bright, tangy and savory.

Hanok dates back to the time of the Three Kingdom’s Perid of Korean history, yet the lifestyle has managed to persevere. Though the coming of the conveniences of Wstern architecture has thrust the lifestyle into the background, it still manages to survive through those like Jeong. Life in a hanok may have its disadvantages, but he feels the intrinsic nature of the structure outweights all negative perceptions. “It’s true that manmade concrete lasts a long time, but it’s not something organic,” Jeong says. A hanok is something of the earth, built using trees, stones and water, no matter the locale. “A return to nature is the thing your body wills’ as you age,” he explains. And, although we may travel far and wide, a human desire to return to our home in nature will always win out, which is what a hanok embodies.

Source : Korea People & Culture Magazine, March 2010


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