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Bukchon Binkwan Gunnunbang in South Korea. Traditional Korean houses like this in Seoul are proving popular with harried city dwellers or tourists looking to replicate that “authentic” Korean experience. Photo: Rakkojae

A unique stay in South Korea: how the traditional Korean house was revitalised thanks to a claim the country has no ‘X factor’

  • After an American colleague told Ahn Young-hwan that he failed to see the appeal of South Korea, Ahn decided he wanted to better showcase Korea to foreigners
  • He bought a condemned 130-year-old traditional Korean house and renovated it, leading to the rise of a new hotel culture in South Korea
Asia travel

Ahn Young-hwan was bothered by a colleague’s comment so much that it led to the rise of a new hotel culture in South Korea – or so family legend has it.

In the 1980s, Ahn was a computer systems engineer in the United States, and occasionally returned home to South Korea on consulting projects.

On one of these trips, over soju, an American colleague said he failed to see the appeal of South Korea.

“China is about grandiosity, while Japan is elegant and refined,” the colleague said, but Korea had no particular “X factor”. The conversation ignited a fire in Ahn – he wanted to better showcase Korea to foreigners.

The Rakkojae Seoul Hanok was the first hanok hotel in Seoul. Photo: Rakkojae

One quintessentially Korean trait that Ahn wanted to convey was jeong – the warm feeling that close friends and family have for one another – and the best way to demonstrate it was to have foreigners stay in a traditional Korean house, known as a hanok.

Unlike in Japan, where ryokans and minshukus have existed for centuries, there was not a culture of traditional innkeeping in South Korea. So, in his quest to create the ultimate hanok stay experience, Ahn had to think outside the box.

The works of master potter Kwon Dae-sup can be found on display at the Rakkojae Culture Lounge. Some pieces are used in the Korean tea ceremony. Photo: Mavis Teo
When Ahn returned to Seoul in the 1990s to help his father with his real estate business, he began organising stays for Japanese tourists in hanok that he would rent in Andong, a two-hour drive east of Seoul. He would send a truck ahead of his guests to equip the house with Korean furniture, traditional bedding, food and drinks, and decorations.

In 1999, Ahn bought a condemned 130-year-old hanok in the historical enclave of Bukchon, in central Seoul. After a four-year restoration by a master carpenter, it became the first hanok hotel in Seoul, says Ahn’s son, Michael Ahn Ji-won.

The Rakkojae Seoul Hanok has five rooms and suites, a jjimjilbang (traditional Korean bathhouse) made with yellow clay and a spa that offers makgeolli (fermented Korean rice wine) baths, all around a central courtyard in which a large Korean pine tree takes pride of place.

A traditional Korean house is also known as a hanok. Photo: Mavis Teo
In Rakkojae hotels, traditional Korean mattresses are placed on top of latex ones for those who are not used to sleeping on hard surfaces. Photo: Rakkojae

Today, Ahn, 65, is the chairman of Rakkojae Hanok Collection, which owns several other properties in Seoul and a four-room hanok in Andong. Because of the difficulties in finding craftsmen skilled in hanok building, he also opened an academy in Andong in 2011 to teach the next generation of traditional carpenters.

While Ahn is currently focused on the construction of a 25-room wellness resort in Andong, his son Michael is the executive vice-president at Rakkojae Hanok Collection.

“It is my father’s tenacity that brought the company to what it is today,” says the 38-year-old, who holds a doctorate in tourism and hotel management, when we meet in Seoul.

That tenacity was what helped his father see the potential in Rakkojae’s second hotel, situated in the Unesco World Heritage site of Andong’s Hahoe village, where a single family clan holds sway over almost all matters – including land ownership.

A makgeolli bath at Rakkojae Seoul Hanok. Photo: Mavis Teo

Ahn, who delved deep into his historical records, discovered that one of his ancestors had been a teacher at Byeongsan Seowon, a Confucian school in the area.

Filial piety is an important Confucian value that extends even to the teacher of an ancestor, and Ahn used this information to convince the clan to sell him the property. Thus, the company’s second hanok hotel opened in 2006.

Hanok are built with clay, stone and wood. The walls are made of compressed hanji paper (made from mulberry leaves). Other distinctive features include long roof edges that keep heavy rain and sunlight from entering the house, and a central courtyard.

Michael Ahn Ji-won is the executive vice-president at Rakkojae Hanok Collection. Photo: Rakkojae

During the 21st century and until the Seoul Metropolitan Government launched a conservation programme in the early 2000s, many of South Korea’s hanok were demolished to make way for more space-efficient housing.

Today, hanok are rising in popularity, partly because they are seen as sustainable and partly for their simple aesthetics. There is an increasing number of hanok now being built to provide respite for frazzled city dwellers and tourists looking for authenticity.

“There’s at least 10 hanok-styled accommodation of varying scale in downtown Seoul today,” Michael says. Some are run like homestays, one even has mostly Western-style rooms with three hanok rooms added in. “But Rakkojae is the first full-service hanok hotel.”

A traditional breakfast in a Rakkojae hotel. Photo: Rakkojae

Other, non-Rakkojae accommodation options in Seoul include the Xiwoo Hanok Guesthouse, in a 1962-built hanok; and Bonum 1957 Hanok and Boutique, which offers a mix of hanok and Western rooms.

Aware of the physical limitations of expanding a hanok hotel – extra floors cannot be added – Michael decided to model the growth of Rakkojae on the concept of albergo diffuso, which means “scattered hotels” in Italian.

“If a business nearby has something to add to the hanok hotel experience, Rakkojae is willing to manage it as part of [a] dispersed hotel network,” he says of the growing cluster of Rakkojae properties in Bukchon. Collectively, they are known as Rakkojae Seoul Bukchon Hanok Village, with each building having unique aesthetics, appeal and functionality.

A Korean tea ceremony at the Rakkojae Culture Lounge. Photo: Mavis Teo
The Rakkojae Culture Lounge, across the street from the Rakkojae Seoul Hanok, opened in 2018 in a hanok newly built from salvaged pine. It hosts cultural activities such as Korean tea ceremonies, classical feasts and music performances. Next door, the Bukchon Binkwan by Rakkojae – a collaboration with the Seoul Metropolitan Government – on the third floor of a refurbished 1920s hanok offers guests panoramic views of Bukchon.

In Rakkojae hotels, traditional Korean mattresses are placed on top of latex ones for those who are not used to sleeping on hard surfaces. For an added touch of luxury, goose-down pillows and duvets are provided. The flooring is made of jade, which is cool in summer and heats quickly in winter. Forget outhouses – all rooms come with an en suite bathroom.

Breakfasts with kimchi, grilled fish and seaweed soup are included in the room rate, while dinners featuring ginseng chicken soup or grilled yellow croaker are available as add-ons. Traditional Korean costumes are offered to guests to wear, too.
A drink made with Kori gin, served to guests at the Rakkojae Culture Lounge. Photo: Mavis Teo
The entrance to Rakkojae Seoul Hanok. Photo: Rakkojae
One day, there may be a gin bar in Rakkojae’s Bukchon cluster – Michael began distilling gin during the Covid-19 pandemic, using Korean ingredients such as ginseng, burdock and licorice. He called it Kori and launched it in March.

“The Yuan Mongols brought distillation to Korea during the Goryeo dynasty [918-1392],” he explains. Produced at a craft distillery called House of Heritage, a sub-brand of Rakkojae, Kori gin has won a following and is available in some of Seoul’s top bars.

Clearly, the Ahns see themselves as more than just hoteliers. In expanding the Rakkojae brand, they are growing into their roles as keepers of Korean heritage.