HOME > PATH Magazine > Asia
It was 2 pm in the afternoon on a hot summer day. I visited Bukchon to take photos, but what I heard there was that there was nothing to see. People said it was a good place to just stop by every once in a while, so I was thinking about going to another place if needs be.
I started taking photos as a hobby three years ago, but it has not been that long since I became interested in film cameras. I began taking more photos with a film camera after I felt the charm in the smooth warmer feeling it has compared to using a digital camera. I thought that Bukchon would go well with the film camera because it was an old neighbourhood.
When I arrived at Anguk Station and left the exit, Gyedong Road and Insadong Road stood facing each other. People were crowded around Insadong. The entrance of Gyedong Road was relatively quiet and peaceful. I started walking toward Gyedong Road, being guided by the really old signs. Sweat ran down my back. It was clearly the beginning of summer.
Gyedong-gil (계동길) – Pasta (파스타) – JungAng High School (중앙고등학교) – Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌 한옥마을) – Bukchon Observatory (북촌 전망대) – Jeongdok Public Library (정독도서관) – Poongnyeon Tteokbokki (풍년떡볶이) – Art Sonje Centre (아트선재센터)
When you walk along the street from Exit 3 of Anguk Station and turn left at the first corner you come to the start of Gyedong-gil. You are on the right track if you see the ‘Choi Paediatric Hospital’ sign that will remind you of the childhood doctors that gave you crushed up tablets folded in a white piece of paper. Along the fairly narrow streets, weathered old signs sometimes came into view.
Young men and women, who looked like university students, poured into the alley. With take-out coffee on one hand, they gathered in front of a sesame oil shop and took pictures as if it were a tourist site. “It is like the countryside.” “It’s amazing.” “It’s like a film set,” they said, which was not an exaggeration. The word ‘film set’ made me smile, but I also felt a bit bitter.
‘Daegu Sesame Oil House’, located in the middle of Gyedong-gil, was doing a roaring trade. The glass in the old sliding door, that is a struggle to push open, shined like it was new. It felt clean and warm, like mum’s kitchen.
Then, I smelled the oil which made my nose feel warm and gentle. It was obvious that I was smelling oil in front of an oil house, but my heart suddenly started pounding. The smell of the sesame oil was the same smell that comes from the people that have loved me for a long time, like my mum or my grandma.
Gyedong-gil had many more young designers’ shops or cafés than I imagined. While maintaining the foundations of the Hanok (Korean traditional homes), clothing stores selling dresses and handicraft workshops were dotted here and there on the hill. Taking a closer look, I realised that the Hanok were newly built. There were still wet wooden frames in the background and foreigners were there taking pictures of the place. I briefly thought about what image of Korea they would remember.
A public bathhouse sign that looked old strangely had word pasta written on it. Perhaps marketing of this kind is Bukchon’s own unique colour. Bukchon, which I thought to be an old town, was a young space with plenty of fresh new ideas. I went in that restaurant and instead of an air conditioner they were using a fan. The pasta, which came out in a lunchbox, embodied Bukchon’s appearance. It was new and yet a familiar appearance.
As I reached the end of Gyedong-gil, I saw JungAng High School. The school’s iron door that seemed endlessly high and big during my school years was now widely open for the weekend. As if it were calling people to come back to their childhood.
The old main building seen from the main gate was covered with seasonal blue ivy and gave off a very mysterious feeling. If you were someone who experienced drinking tap water during your P.E. class in high school, it would be the same for you to pause and stand for a while when you see the old tap in the field. Stretching beyond the tap is the deep green grass of the school field. I decided to take a rest for a while and enjoy the feeling of returning to my school days.
In fact, JungAng High School is a very old school. It is hard to imagine just how old it is when you look at how well the facilities are managed, but it is a historical place that came through Korea’s modern history with us. The fact that this school, which was founded in 1908, was the birthplace of the March 1st Independence Movement is probably the pride and joy of the students. Furthermore, the school also led the June 10th Movement, and thus the entire place has great monumental value. Now the place of learning for students and a rest area for citizens, JungAng High School felt totally new to me.
When I left the school, I could see the whole of Gyedong-gil in one glance. All the houses that stood peacefully together around the elaborate alley felt familiar and warm. To the right, there was another uphill road. I ran out of breath. But I didn’t feel tired. It was a pleasant tiredness, like the feeling you get when climbing a mountain together with other people.
There is a new way to look around every part of Bukchon. It is an Atti Rickshaw.
You could say it’s an analogue-shaped real-time news source that delivers the new face of Bukchon straight to the customer.
Let’s explore every corner of Bukchon on a rickshaw running on three wheels.
All of you will say that you cannot help falling in love with Bukchon and the warm smell of the people.
When I left Gyedong-gil and crossed a small road, I found an alley lined with Hanok. Unlike the new Hanok buildings that I met on my way up to Gyedong-gil, I felt the smell of the old times. This is it! I pressed the camera shutter continuously.
The roof tiles and bricks here felt warm and smooth, somehow like my grandma’s hands. Instead of pressing the shutter, I carefully touched a brick with my hand. It was because I wanted to feel the heartbeat of the house, even though I knew that was not possible.
The shape of the eave edging, rising high toward the sky, was elegant and cheerful. I became amazed by our ancestors who created such curves so long ago even without any machinery to help. There are many other things besides the curves of the Hanok that we may have forgotten because they were too familiar to us. What were they? I somehow felt that I’d be able to find many of these things in Bukchon. Didn’t people walking in Bukchon visit this old village because they were attracted by such feelings of deprivation and loss?
This may be why Bukchon is such a ‘hot’ spot for people nowadays. In fact, the word, ‘nowadays’ is a bit ridiculous. Before Bukchon Hanok Village became famous as a tourist site through the reconstruction and preservation policy around 2000, Bukchon was already highly reputed as the residence of high officials during Joseon Dynasty.
Everyone who’s visited Bukchon at least once knows why. If you reach Bukchon Observatory by walking up the Gyedong alleyway, surrounded by an old commercial district, you will see a panorama of downtown Seoul before you, and feel the force of Bukak Mountain towering behind you. If there did not exist the present concrete jungle, it is the culmination of the perfect natural location with a full view overlooking Cheonggyecheon.
When I climbed to the top of Hanok Village, I got a glimpse of Namsan. Sometimes, there were work spaces where young artists’ dreams were sprouting in the corners of the Hanok streets. I thought that it was a great place to dream, as I gazed upon the wide open view.
I discovered a small sign saying ‘Bukchon Observatory’ near the end of Hanok Village. I followed the arrows and went up as I wanted to take more proper pictures of scenery.
I’ve seen many kinds of observatories throughout my life. When I was a child, observatory binoculars were so amazing as the dim glasses gradually brightened up when you put your 500 won coin in. Also, in seeing the world across on the other side through the binoculars made it all feel so much shorter. I remember those places, with rusty rails and fences, they made you feel dizzy and scared, even just by looking at them.
However, Bukchon Observatory was different. I could look down upon Bukchon as much as I wanted if I bought only one cup of coffee and gathered up all the coins I had to put into the binoculars.
Bukchon was presenting a relaxed smile, like our mothers do in their hometowns, greeting the people that come and go from the place. The Bukchon that I looked down upon from Bukchon Observatory was like that. In some places people sat comfortably in the café terraces drinking coffee, and while looking at some other areas, I could see a Bukchon that was old, with warm sentiments. The people coming and going in the alley became a scene in itself.
Bukchon, where the wind of change is blowing. Besides the franchise coffee shops that are joining the place one by one, there is a café that has solidly kept its location for 9 years. Rather than saying “it kept its location”, saying “it took root” is more apt description for Café ‘Yeondu,’ where the people who love Bokchon love to gather.
“It is a coffee shop that was established in Bukchon in 2006. We decided to settle here because we liked how it was close to Jeongdok Public Library, had small and large museums nearby, and was quiet, above all, when we first came to the village. Actually, Yeondu is more like a community than an individual’s store. So Yeondu and shops named ‘Coffee and People’ are friends that started based on the same grounds. Its distinctive feature is that it has been drip brewing since the beginning of café. It holds coffee lessons once a week as a month-long course.
“It has changed a lot since Yeondu was first established in Bukchon.” There are more tourists and the shops nearby have changed too. It’s a little sad as Bukchon’s own color has faded compared to before, but I think changes are natural. But we hope more people who visit here take care of Bukchon. ”
Tip ! Bukchon’s attractions as recommended by Bukchon Locals
“Personally, I’d like to introduce Bukchon nights rather than a certain place. I think visitors to Bukchon mainly consider it as a tourist site, but for us Bukchon is a town where we live. It is hard to feel Bukchon’s own atmosphere during the daytime when so many people visit here, but you will be able to see the true character of the village after the sun sets. The course to enjoy at night that I especially recommend is Gahwoi-dong Hanok Village. It is also pretty during the day, but it is really romantic to walk the Hanok Village in darkness with your lover. ”
The sun almost set, but the humid and sultry weather didn’t cool down easily. Then, I saw the entrance of Jeongdok Public Library. The library entrance was familiar and unorganised like a park in a town, rather than a library. Mums who carried their crying children on their back were sitting on the benches at the library entrance and were talking to each other. I could see Bukchon people wherever I went in Bukchon, so I felt very comfortable here, as if I had come to my old town.
Like many places in Bukchon, this has a quite long history. Jeongdok Public Library, which opened on January 4th 1977, was the old site of Gyeonggi High School. Many people were pursuing their passions in a place where outstanding students’ dreams and hopes were growing all the time.
Of course, Jeongdok Public Library was not the only building that has firmly stood on this place. During the military regime, the Royal Geneology building that used to be the office of Joseon Dynasty’s relatives, was forcefully relocated to the front of Jeongdok Public Library. It is not that long ago that the Royal Geneology building returned to its original site at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. In winter 2013, Gyeonggeundang and Okcheopdang of the Royal Geneology buildings were moved from Jeongdok Public Library, which can now stand on its own again.
The streets of Bukchon after the heat of the midday sun were crowded with many people. I saw a young mum who was giving Shikhye she bought at a store in Bukchon to her young child. The child who was a little too big to sit on a stroller enjoyed drinking Shikhye contained in a take-out cup. The child will remember Bukchon with the sweet and cool taste of Shikhye on a hot summer’s day.
‘Poongnyeon Rice Farm was busy with people pouring into a Tteokbokki shop right next to it. Couples who lined up to sit on old chairs looked happy. Steam rolled up from the Tteokbokki put on the plates. The couples will remember and talk About their childhood when they ate this food first the first time and did not know each other.
There was the Art Sonje Center in the place that borders with Samcheongdong. Bukchon and an art museum. They seemed to go well together, but at the same time, not go well together. It was as if I met a childhood friend again after I got older. The feeling of discovering a great side of the friend that I never felt during childhood.
Art Sonje Center gave a more refined and classy feeling as lights started turning on. Founded in 1998, this center is known as a place that displays young and experimental modern art. The spectrum of the exhibitions are varied including art, music, culture, architecture, dance, and fashion. These busy and endless movements are probably the magic flavors that make Bukchon Village ‘old but not outdated.’
Born and raised in Bukchon, Mr. Sang-eon Lee who looks young, is a Bukchon local. I listened to the stories of Bukchon’s hidden attractions and its image from the perspective of a resident, from someone who grew up in Bukchon.
What kind of a place is Bukchon?
Many people visit Bukchon these days. But I sometimes feel sorry because they experience Bukchon from a tourist’s perspective and cannot see its true colours. Bukchon has more meaning beyond taking pictures in front of Hanok and buying pretty accessories on streets. Among them, I would say that Bukchon real charm is being is a space with the warm smell of people. Every corner of the village has been visited and touched by people. I sometimes hear children playing when I’m taking a walk on alleys, and at that moment, I really love this place.
What is Bukchon’s charm?
If you’re curious about what kind of place Bukchon really is, try walking along the wall of Changdeokgoong. You will find where the certain point where the palace wall and citizens’ houses meet each other after walking along the stonewall walkway. This was unimaginable when Changdeokgoong was built. Houses built leaning against the palace wall. Sometimes you can see laundry hanging outside. Likewise, Bukchon is where you can feel the smell of the people. You will feel as if you’re retuning to the old days if you go further inside. Houses, shops, and the scenery. On the other hand, you will see Namsan Tower or modern buildings on your way out from Bukchon. I think this is the charm of Bukchon. It is a unique place where disappearing things and new things coexist.
Tip ! Bukchon’s attractions as recommended by Bukchon Locals
Samcheong Park! It is a small forest hidden in the urban centre. The fact that it is a quiet place, as it is not known to that many people, makes it unique and distinct in Bukchon, a popular place these days. There is a natural bathhouse inside the small park, and it is made of water that flows down from the mountain. I often splash cold water on my body there in the summer after the rainy season is over. It is a great place to be thankful as it becomes a rest area for people who need a break, and a playground for people who come here to play.
Bukchon after sunset, shined brightly again with lights on here and there. A day ended, and a new time was beginning. Everything in Bukchon had a quiet and yet unending force that made me feel humble as I was already tired after walking for half the day. It is probably because ‘people’ never stopped visiting the place. People do not abandon old things but, rather, continuously take care of them and gently touch them. As everyone is enduring these times in their own way, the people of Bukchon live in various ways that make their life valuable.
As people in the school field of JungAng High School are not only students, and as mothers with babies sitting on the benches of Jeongdok Public Library and share stories with each other, everyone in Bukchon right now, are the people of Bukchon. It must have been difficult to make Bukchon an old but not outdated village without such awareness. I stared down at my camera I was carrying. What pictures did I take here? Did I reflect the times and people that stayed here properly? I felt that I would regret a bit no matter what pictures are printed. I think I will visit Bukchon again, somehow.
1. Gyedong-gil (계동길)
Address: Gyedong-gil, Jongro-gu, Seoul
2. JungAng High School (중앙고등학교)
Address: 1 Gyedong, Jongro-gu, Seoul
Website : http://choongang.hs.kr/
3. Bukchon Hanok Village Information Desk (북촌 한옥마을 안내소)
Address: Gyedong-gil 37, Gyedong, Jongro-gu, Seoul
Opening Times: 9:00 ~ 6:00 pm
Website : http://bukchon.seoul.go.kr/eng/index.jsp
4. Bukchon Observatory (북촌 전망대)
Address: 3rd floor, 35-62, Seoul (22-3, 11 Da-gil, Bukchon-ro)
Opening Times: 9:00 ~ 20:00
5. Jeongdok Public Library (정독도서관)
Address: 48 Bukchon-ro 5-gil, Jongro-gu, Seoul (Hwadong)
Telephone +82-2)2011-5732 (day) , +82-2)2011-5799 (night)
Website : http://18.104.22.168:8088/english/index.html
6. Poongnyeon Rice Farm (풍년 쌀 농산)
Address: 81-1 Hwadong, Jongro-gu, Seoul
Main Menu: Stir-fried Rice Tteokbokki 2500 won, Tteokkkochi 1000 won, Sihye (Sweet rice drink) 1500 won
7. Art Sonje Center (아트 선재 센터)
Address: 144-2, Sogyeok-dong, Jongro-gu, Seoul
Website : http://artsonje.org/en/main
Opening times 11:00 ~ 7:00 pm, closed on Mondays