Bukchon Hanok Village

Seoul is a city of contrasts, with historic buildings next to modern ones, all surrounded by buildings that building techniques that are just ancient.   Halmoni’s plan was to take us to Bukchon Hanok Village, a section of Seoul not far from Changdeokgung Palace where the houses (hanoks) were preserved to reflect the feel of the Joseon Dynasty.  Stepping into that little alley feels like steeping back into history.

It’s spectacular, except, as we made our trek from the palace, we passed countless hanoks preserved and being used as homes and restaurants.  The first stop was a mandoo restaurant (serving only mandoo and mandoo guk, of course) a stones throw from the palace walls.  While the dumplings were excellent, I think I spent the entire lunch staring at the plaster and log ceiling and other construction bits of the building.


Many other houses, restaurants, and shops along the way held the same charm.




The street famously photographed in Bukchon Hanok Village is located along the side of a hill, allowing a stark contrast between modernity and tradition, with the ancient hanoks backed by the glass and steel skyscrapers.


As a New Yorker, I felt sympathy for the residents, with flocks of tourists outside, until we were invited inside of one of the hanoks (for a fee) by a tour guide for tea –the residents were spending winter in Peru.  Inside, the traditional building techniques were supplemented by modern fixtures for a unique blend of tradition without sacrificing the comforts of the 21st century (not pictured, the marble and stainless steel kitchen and the tiled bathroom).

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Aside from the tourists, walking around Bukchon is like walking back in time.  A little imagination to remove the utility meters and the power lines, and the quiet streets and ancient architecture suddenly come alive.

Walk a few blocks away, of course, and you reach Insadong, with places like the Ssamzie Mall (one continuous row of shops spiraling around an open air courtyard), full of the bustling energy of youth, selling the latest (and cutesy) trinkets and technology.


We’ll have to do this part of the trip again, Cookie, since you slept through everything except the hanok tour after lunch.

Changdeokgung Palace -Secret Garden

Behind Changdeokgung Palace is its Secret Garden, also known to any out-of-shape and sleep-deprived father pushing a stroller as the aerobic exercise from hell.  Don’t get me wrong, pushing a stroller up and down the tortuous hills of the Secret Garden is infinitely better than carrying a sleeping toddler up and down the tortuous hills of the Secret Garden, but there are certain stretches of the place that are quite steep, and other stretches of the place that involve carrying the stroller and the sleeping toddler up a series of steps.

The tour starts ominously up a walled road up a sloped hill.  The tour guide warned of a strenuous walk lasting a several kilometers and kept looking worriedly at our direction.


On the other side of the first hill, we reached a artificial pond surrounded by four pavilions, the king’s library, sitting room, and accompanying structures.  The pond was frozen over due to the -8 degree weather (I never got whether that was in Celsius or Fahrenheit, though it was sufficiently cold enough to make me question our sanity in the timing of our vacation choices). On the plus side, the tourist sites certainly were not crowded.


The king’s library, facing the frozen lake:


For parents with kids, this is the last bathroom opportunity (except of course, for the woods of a national treasure with a stern tourist guide and patriotic citizens standing watch) for the next hour.

Further along is a lake in the shape of Korea (not pictured are the three small austere huts constructed by one of the crown princes to devote himself to study and the greenhouse constructed by the Japanese when they converted the Secret Garden to a zoo) .


What follows next is a tortuous climb up a mountain. The road is unpaved, though dense (it may have been frozen), so that the only difficulty in pushing the stroller was the incline (I think I saw a mountain goat slip and die out there) and the height.  When we reached yet another pavilion near the top, the tour guide saw the gasping people struggling to stand and called a break.  Those intrepid enough to continue could reach the wine pavilions.  The rest would wait for our return.  Most stayed.

Mommy and I took you to the wine pavilions, where one of the kings had carved little streams into the rock, built pavilions amongst the streams, and floated wine cups between them during poetry readings.  You, of course, were asleep, and didn’t benefit from Mommy and my back breaking climb.


After a long way down, we reached the recreation of a nobleman’s house.  After the splendor of the palace, it seemed rather plain, though the clean lines and crisp colors made if fit perfectly into the park.


Small note to my fellow stroller people, the exit to the Secret Garden at the end of the tour consists of 40-ish steps hewn into a rocky hillside.  To avoid climbing that stairway with a stroller, you can exit by retracing your steps (thankfully avoiding the crazy climb to the wine pavilions as the nobleman’s house is close to the scholars huts).  As the Secret Garden is only accessible by the tour, this will allow you the chance to see the garden a second time without a tour guide hurrying you along.

Jet Lag

Cookie, Mommy and I are seasoned travelers, very used to dealing with jet lag.  The easiest way is to book the flight to land in the evening, local time, stay up the entire trip, and sleep the night through once you get there.  You end up with a tiring 36-hour travel day, a full night’s sleep, and the ability to enjoy the rest of your vacation. Usually, the problem with this plan is that I’m not fully functional towards the end of those 36 hours*, so if I’m going somewhere interesting (i.e. somewhere people need to shout at me in an unknown language to take the ferry transfer on the second dock for the resort island, not the ferry on the first to the island of the head-shrinking cannibals where idiot tourists often go “inexplicably” missing), I tend to sleep on the plane to make sure I get to the right place alive.  Going to Seoul, however, was safe (I presume that mistakenly taking the wrong exit to North Korea would be difficult, even for the sleep deprived), especially with Halmoni waiting for us at the airport, so Mommy and I stayed awake.  You did too.


International airlines provide so much better service than American ones.  Korean Air, famous for that executive who had a meltdown because her nuts were served in a bag, not a bowl, was exceptional –four course meals, free wine, beer, and juice, and, most importantly, a fully unlocked entertainment console.  We expected you to sleep, but after getting your hands on the console and its little remote (bonus features included access to the plane’s nose, belly, and tail cameras), you stayed up the entire fourteen hour flight.  So engrossed with you in your programs that you missed Mommy and I prematurely high-fiving each other on your adoption of our jet lag schedule.


After a quick return to the airport to pick up your forgotten car seat*** (the Korean version of the TSA is much more understanding and courteous.****), an hour drive into Seoul, an quick dinner, we were finally ready to sleep… until we learned that circadian dysrhythmia is not so easily cured in toddlers.  You woke up every two hours and refused to go back to sleep.  This was the pain of new-born breastfeeding all over again, only with a talking toddler who, unfortunately, made sense.

Me begging:  Cookie, go back to sleep.  It’s the middle of the night and dark outside.

Cookie: No, the sun is wrong.  It should be light out.

Me:  But we’re on the other side of the world, and it’s dark here.

Cookie:  Then the sun should adjust to us.

You slept through much of our first few days in Seoul and stayed up nights.  Guess who was the poor, sleep deprived guy that had to push and carry you and your stroller through the decidedly un-stroller friendly streets?


*  In fairness to me, it’s more like 84 hours, since the previous couple days are a madhouse of trying to finish work, trying to prepare our aquariums for vacation, and trying to pack (Mommy never packs).

**  14 hour flights are way too long.  After 5 movies, dinner, and second dinner, we’re still not there.  Flying over the pole also leaves no scenery to watch, as ice is just ice.  No aurora borealis either.

***  Hazards of the jet lag plan.

****  Apparently any excuse that beings with “Eggi…” in Korea is an acceptable one.