Last fall, the Husband and I were Asia-bound. Shanghai and South Korea to be exact. We brought all that was necessary for a proper trip to Asia: a good camera, scintillating reading material, powerful hand sanitizer, my parents, his parents.
Wait, hold up (sound of record screeching)…both sets of parents? As some of our friends were kind enough to point out: two sets of in-laws does not a vacation make. But it was hard not to be swept away by our parents’ enthusiasm at what they pointed out was a potential once in a lifetime experience. So away we went.
Any feelings of initial trepidation vanished immediately as the Husband and I quickly realized what we had embarked upon: a roll-up-your-sleeves-kind of eating tour of China and Korea. Yes, we can definitely do two and a half weeks of this. Two families united by a common love of regional cuisine resulting in a show and tell hour at mealtimes. Coincidentally, our kind of trip.
As the Husband is of Chinese descent (and I of Korean), our first destination was Shanghai. We happily stuffed our faces with noodles, dumplings and all kinds of crazy seafood (future post on this, I promise).
Then it was on to South Korea, for a weeklong bus tour around the country (my parents’ favorite mode of touring) and then a few days on foot, walking and eating our way around Seoul.
We stayed in hotels most nights — some ritzy, some not so much. All would agree that our most memorable experience by far though, was our three day stay off the beaten track at a hanok.
A hanok is a traditional Korean house. Hanoks differ according to landscape, climate and even social class. But all hanoks are single story, open up to a central courtyard and share in the characteristic ondol floor (floor based heating system).
Our hanok was centrally situated in Bukchon, Seoul, an area sandwiched between two large royal palaces. This historical and trendy area seemed to be experiencing a surge in hanok renovation and restoration. As this was my first time in Bukchon (and my fourth time to Seoul in about a decade), I was more than pleasantly surprised with this neighborhood. Bukchon was both modern and traditional. Painstakingly restored hanok structures stood next to funky bakeries, interesting coffee shops and cute boutiques. The duality of the neighborhood’s hipness and its silent nod to its past was comforting, a feeling I found increasingly rare in a city which obviously developed at lightening speed.
This particularly charming hanok was owned by two young Korean women who I pegged to be in their early thirties. They had spent some time living in Canada and New York, and had returned to Korea to open a guesthouse, which was rich in artistic touches (not to mention a particularly impressive security system).
Upon entering the front gate, there was a little room separated from the main house. This was our room we were told. The Husband and I poked our heads in and saw a thin mattress on the floor, an electric kettle, a nightstand, as well as a beautiful mural on the adjoining wall. I oohed and aahed over the floral motif of the mural, the ornate furniture and the thoughtfully arranged collection of Korean-American literature on the small bookshelf, while the Husband less than enthusiastically noted the absence of a television and the tiny slippers by the door which were supposed to house his size 12 feet. We both immediately felt the heat emanating from the floor.
May I interject at this point to point out that the Husband’s body temperature seems to run a little hotter than the average human being. He gets hot very easily. I am the complete opposite and am always a bit cold. While the thought of slumbering peacefully on a heated floor sounded nothing but soothing and relaxing to me, it was quite possibly the Husband’s worst nightmare. The bathroom situation also took some getting used to. It was not immediately connected to our room, so that we had to put on slippers (which were adorable by the way if you hadn’t noticed), and shlep around the room, outside to a side entrance, where the toilet, sink and shower (all very modern by the way) were enclosed in a different room. While this was very novel and adventurous, schlepping back to the room after a shower in the brisk autumnal breeze with a not too large towel was less than desirable. However we quickly acclimated to our new surroundings, our stay was more than comfortable and left very little to be desired.
Mornings greeted us with a home cooked breakfast served in the common area which had one low dining table and (you guessed it), a heated floor. Presented with the choice of Western (eggs and toast) or Korean style breakfast (rice porridge), we all opted for the Western breakfast (lunch and dinner usually were Korean food so we wanted to mix it up). The six of us sat cross-legged on the floor and dined on eggs, toast, freshly sliced fruit and piping hot coffee and tea, perfectly prepared and served promptly. With no television, newspaper or gargantuan hotel breakfast buffet luring our attention away, we sat and animatedly chatted about our favorite things we had seen, memorable things we had eaten and what we wanted to do our last few days in town.
Fast forward to the evenings, after days filled to the brim with sightseeing, where we would gather around that same table again for an hour or two. Munching on sliced apples purchased from a fruit vendor on the street, we’d sip tea and flip through guidebooks, comfortable in each other’s company. Our rooms were too small to escape to and the rice paper walls too thin to give any semblance of privacy. Hence we all gathered in the common room, as I imagined families had done for centuries past. Devoid of the drone of television, we chatted about our day, shared stories, stretched our tired limbs and eventually returned to our separate chambers at the end of the night. Content.
I realized that this was the very thing that made the hanok experience so memorable. Not the hilarious site of the Husband scrunching his large feet into tiny pointed slippers schlepping off to the bathroom. Not the relentless ondol heating system. Not the Jenga-like skills we utilized to compete with our large American suitcases for room in our tiny quarters. Instead the image I will forever have in my mind is the six of us gathered around that small table munching on sliced fruit, swapping stories every night before bed.