As we get older, we’ve found that our accommodation selections have evolved when travelling overseas.
Our general philosophy is to pay less for a room, thereby freeing up more funds for use during the day. We’ve invested so much in getting to <insert foreign country> and we’re not going to be spending inordinate amounts of time locked up in a hotel room, so why waste money on something that we’re only going to enjoy for a few hours a day?
Despite this, the last few times we’ve travelled we’ve tried to include at least one unique hotel that is likely to cost a little more than normal, but at the same time is going to provide an experience that we may not get elsewhere.
In Japan it was the corner suite of the Hotel we stayed at in Ginza, Tokyo. In Cambodia it was the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge. In Korea, we’ve actually chosen two hotels that meet this criteria, with the first of these being the Rakkojae hanok hotel, located in the Bukchon hanok of Seoul.
Seoul has, unexpectedly, proven to be a city of contrasts. Images thrown at us by popular media seem to either focus on the ultramodern, K-pop infused metropolis, well ensconced in the 21st century, or the militaristic, ever-watchful nation constantly looking over their back fence at the neighbour from hell.
What has surprised us immensely is the tradition and culture that we’ve encountered, of which the Korean people are immensely proud. While we didn’t visit many temples during our time in Seoul (of which there are heaps, for those that are interested!), we did take the opportunity to spend a couple of nights inside one of the oldest sections of the city (known as a hanok), soaking up the atmosphere and getting a tiny glimpse into what life may have been like more than a century ago.
Rakkojae is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful residences that we’ve encountered in our travels. It’s architecture has remained essentially unchanged over the years, and reflects the traditional style that was employed across the city in simpler days gone by.
Polished wood floors, swooping low hanging eaves, immaculate gardens that are arguably a piece of art unto themselves, the sound of tiny finches chittering to each other as they flit amongst the boughs of the gnarled pine in the central courtyard…pure magic. We could only imagine how incredible this place would look in the middle of winter under a blanket of snow!
Our host, the effervescent and ever-helpful Whoopi, made our time at Rakkojae a joy. With an extensive background in tourism and fantastic English skills she was able to provide us with insights into the hanok and Korea’s culture, both historic and modern, that proved invaluable. Looking back on our numerous conversations, I suspect Whoopi is something of an enigma in Korean culture. I get the feeling that her horizons and experiences are broader than that of the typical Korean, potentially leading to conflict within the traditional tapestry of Korean life. Yet her appreciation for both, and an ability to empathise and adapt, have held her in good stead as she forges her own path, with a foot in each world!
And then there is the food!
Included in your booking is a daily breakfast, with the choice of either Korean or western-style dishes. Please, do yourself a favour and choose the Korean!!
It may be a little confronting, and there may be some dishes that don’t sit comfortably with western palates, but there is so much variety that you’re bound to find something to please, and all are prepared with incredible attention to detail.
It was hard to pick a highlight from our two breakfasts, as there were so many! The abalone porridge (above) was so simple and hearty, and the dried octopus a chewy, yet delicious side note. However, if pushed I would have to say that the tiny honey-basted fried fish with walnuts (see above, dish in the top left) were my favourite. On noticing my obvious pleasure, Whoopi was kind enough to offer a small packet of this mixture to take with us on our travels. It’s the little things that make a difference!
We also took up the opportunity to have dinner at a local restaurant that Whoopi recommended. This was an experience I suspect would normally be out of reach to most tourists, as the restaurant was located down (another) dark alley, without any English signage and no English spoken whatsoever! In the typical Korean manner, we received a number of small courses over the space of an hour or two, with each course accompanied by the strains of the traditional stringed Korean instrument known as the gayageum.
Impeccable quality, and a memorable evening!
When you’re not simply sitting back and enjoying the tranquillity or sampling the Korean delicacies, there is always the surrounding Bukchon hanok district to explore by foot. The tourism information centre can provide a number of maps providing very clear instructions for a fantastic loop walk that will take you past the best examples of the old architecture, and a number of very good souvenir stores. Surprisingly, there are also some incredibly good coffee shops in the area. Just be prepared to pay through the nose!
It would be remiss of me not to mention a couple of little quirks of Rakkojae that may influence your decision on whether to stay there or not.
Firstly, as with the hanok, the beds are traditional in style, meaning that they consist solely of a couple of thinnish mattresses on the hardwood floor. There is plenty of warm linen, and the floors are heated in winter, but if you can’t handle a firm surface under you when sleeping then you may want to think twice about staying at Rakkojae.
Secondly, the rooms are fairly basic, consisting of a single bedroom, to which is attached a bathroom. We found it to be more than adequate for our needs, but I do recognise that others’s needs may differ.
Thirdly, if you get the opportunity, do what we did and book the room with the balcony! It was such a peaceful experience being served breakfast out there in such beautiful surroundings.
Our time at Rakkojae will go down as one of those magical experiences that can never be matched. The location, ambience, service and cuisine all combined to create some unforgettable memories. Yes, it is expensive, but the reward is commensurate with the impact on your hip pocket and is another South Korean experience that we thoroughly recommend!
How do I get there?
Taxi – Taxis are incredibly cheap in Korea, so if public transport scares you, or you have too much luggage, then go for the taxi option.
Subway – Take the orange line to Anguk Station. Take exit No. 2 and walk up the main road for about 5-10 minutes. Take the first street on your right after passing the Tourist Information booth. Follow this street past the school and after only a minute or two you’ll see the stone pavement and double wooden doors of Rakkojae.