Culture

Lovingly Preserved Heritage Estates Are Beckoning Us to Hahoe Village in Korea

South Korea has modernized rapidly, but look closely, and you can still find centuries-old estates, which are now opening their doors to travelers.

The terrace of Chunghyodang, in Hahoe Village, South Korea

The terrace of Chunghyodang, in Hahoe Village, South Korea

By Frances Cha
Photographed by Yousun Moon

May 30, 2022

IT WAS NIGHTFALL in Hahoe Village. We sat on the intricate wooden terrace of Bukchondaek (doubles from US$325), an estate composed of three traditional houses, or hanok, where we were spending the night. We looked out in wonder at the expanse of dark-tiled, curved rooftops. My aunt, the photojournalist Yousun Moon, and I had reached this 600-year-old neighborhood in the city of Andong, Korea, by taking a new high-speed train from Seoul.

From our perch at Bukchondaek, we could see the same view villagers would have had several centuries ago—one almost nonexistent in larger, skyscraper-filled Korean cities. To our left were a few more estates of the Pungsan Ryu clan, an aristocratic family that rose to prominence in the late 16th century. To our right was a group of straw-thatched smaller houses called chogajip, where the tenant workers of the estates lived. 

Dating from 1797, Bukchondaek has been preserved in its original form, from the long water trough for horses to the ondol convection system used to heat the floors of the home. The structure has been passed down through seven generations. The current owner, Ryu Se-Ho, oversees everything. 

Breakfast at Bukchondaek, a hanok in Hahoe Village now open to guests
Breakfast at Bukchondaek, a hanok in Hahoe Village now open to guests

Hahoe Village is famous for being one of the few preserved traditional communities left not just in Andong, but all of Korea. Bukchondaek is not the oldest estate there, but it is arguably the most luxurious, or as luxurious as an understated hanok-style dwelling can be, and is still occupied by Ryu and his wife. 

Bukchondaek, along with other legacy estates, has opened its doors to guests to help fund its conservation. The only slight modernization has been the addition of an external bathroom, built across a courtyard from the main house because the owners wanted to preserve the original architecture. Guests sleep on traditional yo—thick mats that are folded and put away during the day—and are served a traditional breakfast of side dishes, like gogijeon, savory pancakes made with beef; miyeokguk, a seaweed soup; and saengseonjorim, a dish of braised fish. 

Walking us through the different buildings of the estate, Ryu demonstrated how each wall—interior and exterior—can be collapsed into panels. Each panel is rigged with ropes so it can be lifted and rearranged to create different room configurations. 

Andong, South Korea Map
Illustration by Donough O’Malley

Not long ago, the idea of opening their homes to paying guests would have been unthinkable to the owners of these estates. But this is the new way for them to afford the high cost of maintaining these properties. For a hanok to continue its life, it has to be lived in, and fire in the agungi, an outdoor oven, must be lit to heat the ondol. This not only preserves the spirit of the home but also prevents structural damage. 

Ryu explained why: “There is an incredible science behind ondol—it is crucial for protection against humidity, insects, and mold.” Ryu lights the fire every two weeks, whether he has guests or not, and the wood is expensive. 

We walked the narrow village paths and peered over the walls at the hanok roofs before visiting Chunghyodang, an estate built by the descendants of Ryu Seong-ryong, who was prime minister during the Japanese invasion of 1592. It has a museum of artifacts dedicated to him. A fir tree planted by Queen Elizabeth II during her 1999 visit to the village stands in front of the entrance. 

Bongjeongsa, a seventh- century Buddhist monastery in Andong
Bongjeongsa, a seventh-century Buddhist monastery in Andong

In addition to Hahoe Village, the main sights in Andong are the seowon—private Confucian academies that, for nearly 400 years, educated the aristocracy of Korea and prepared scholars for the civil service. The academies are now open to the public for guided tours. Byeongsanseowon is a 12-minute drive east from Hahoe Village. When we walked up to the entrance, a light rain began to fall, adding a mist that contributed to the otherworldly ambience. My aunt told me that summer was her favorite time to visit, as the baerongnamu flowers were in full bloom. A second Confucian school from the same period, Dosanseowon, is about an hour’s drive north. It was built in 1574 by Yi Hwang, one of the most renowned philosophers and scholars of the Joseon dynasty. After touring the libraries, we sat on wooden maru floors and admired the stunning view of the academy grounds, the surrounding mountains, and the Nakdong River below. 

Unlike the academies, the Buddhist temples in the area are still very much in use, and we saw several resident monks and lay practitioners at Bongjeongsa, a monastery on Andong’s Mount Cheondeung that dates back to 672. The 15-minute trek up to the temple was worth the journey for the fascinating ancient art on the walls. 

Gail Bookshelf, a century-old hanok converted into a café and bookstore, in Andong
Gail Bookshelf, a century-old hanok converted into a café and bookstore, in Andong

One of Andong’s most charming venues is Gail Bookshelf, a 100-year-old hanok a short drive north of Hahoe Village that has been converted into a coffee shop and bookstore. The owner, Lee Garam, has implemented a delightful requirement that each patron must buy a book if they wish to buy a drink. 

Having spent a large part of my life in Korea, I’ve eaten at many restaurants specializing in Andong jjimdak—a braised chicken dish—and Andong salted mackerel. Our best meal was at Andong Charm Good Hanwoo (mains US$9–$20), a casual restaurant serving hanwoo beef barbecue and stews. Several other diners—all locals—were clad in traditional hanbok clothing, as if starring in a period drama. 

Cho So-soon, the owner of Geumguk Gukwacha, a café widely known for its chrysanthemum tea
Cho So-soon, the owner of Geumguk Gukwacha, a café widely known for its chrysanthemum tea

For our final stop, we visited Geumguk Gukwacha, a café whose charismatic owner, Cho So-soon, is known as much for her unofficial fortune-telling services as she is for her tea. She told me, among other predictions, that wearing bright crimson would bring me good luck. 

“I think in my past life, I must have lived here,” said my aunt. “It’s like coming home, a place of quiet and beauty and rest.” How many more generations will willingly take on the labor of conservation, though? Now that they have opened their doors to travelers, there is, at least, hope. 

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