Yangdong Village, a stay at a traditional Hanok, and a visit to Oksan-Seowon, a Confucian Academy, South Korea
Gyeongsangbuk-do Province in South Korea is rich in history.
We were on our way to the village of Yangdong.
The village was founded in 1433-1484, and has been lived in by two clan families since.
It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with old houses and well preserved or restored houses, whose architecture dates back to the the Joseon Dynasty era.
We booked a stay in an old Hanok (a traditional Korean house) with Korean-style rooms, which are empty rooms with heated floors, on which blankets are laid to make a bed.
We wrote the owner of the Hanok an email, and I even called him from the USA.
His English was very minimal, but we were able to make reservations and we were assured that we will be able to eat at his small restaurant both breakfast and dinner prepared with no meat.
When we arrived at Yangdong village, the guard at the gate waved us over to a big parking lot, still far from the guesthouse.
I saw cars driving through, and I tried to explain that we are staying in the village and that we will need to unload our bags, but the guard was almost aggressively adamant that we should park in the parking lot.
We tried to call our guesthouse, but the lady who answered the phone could not speak one word of English, so I suggested to Jules that we pack an overnight bag, and walk into the village, to try to figure out where we were scheduled to stay.
We had the address of the Hanok written in Korean.
My phone rang just as we started to walk.
It was the owner of our guesthouse.
I tried to explained in simple words that we had arrived, and that we were waiting for instructions how to find his house, but he did not understand me.
Then I said with minimal use of verbs that:”We, here! Yangdong, Parking lot!”
Two minutes later he pulled over with his car to pick us up.
Luckily we were the only foreign people in the village parking lot, among buses of Korean tourists.
Like I thought, the people who lived in the village did drive their cars into their homes, and despite the narrow streets, many had parking spaces in front of their properties, or behind the gates to their houses.
We drove behind him to a traditional house that had a central courtyard, a small vegetable garden and some nice trees.
It did not look like his guest house, which I had seen in photos on the Internet.
With both of us speaking in broken English, I understood that his daughter, who usually helped his wife run his restaurant and guest house, was sick in the hospital, and so he had put us up instead in another guest house.
Our new guest house was actually much nicer than the photos I had seen of his guest house.
His guest house looked a little grimy, while this guest house was cozy, clean and felt pleasant to me.
The walls of the room were made with an adobe mud, and the building has a thatched roof, but the interior of the adobe room was covered with the traditional mulberry paper, and the floor was wood and nicely heated.
The room had a tiny window and sliding doors, much like the Japanese shoji doors, which were covered with rice paper.
The room also had fly screens on the door and window, which was a blessing since the surrounding muddy rice fields and the lily ponds were a fertile breeding ground for mosquitos.
When we walked around the village later in the afternoon, clouds of mosquitos swarmed above us.
As we were settled into our small, almost miniature size room, the woman who owns the Hanok brought us a refreshing drink made from short grain sweet rice.
It was not fermented, but tasted much like a gentle Amasake in Japan, which is actually a healthy drink with no sugar added.
It tasted mildly sweet and very nice.
We went for a walk around Yangdong village.
Each historic house has a story, and the story could be heard by pressing the English button on the machine next to the explanation sign.
Often this button did not work.
The village was designed and is shaped like an auspicious Hanja Korean character, to fit harmoniously into the topography of the mountains and valleys below.
This arrangement has been carefully preserved when more building were added.
The homes of the Wolseong Son and Yeogang Yu clans are located on the high ground of the mountains and hills.
The lower class homes, characterized by their thatched roofs, were built on the lower ground.
We had dinner at our original host’s guest house.
Dinner was served in a tiny Andol room with a low table.
The meal consisted of purple rice, a soup with tofu, and sixteen dishes of vegetables and pickles.
It felt nice to sit in this tiny room on the heated floor.
We had to enter the room from a door that was actually designed and looked just like a window.
We left our shoes outside, on a wooden step, and climbed into the room from this small window-door.
Jules was choking a little from the smoke of the wooden fire which heated the floor, but it felt nice to experience briefly how life was lived six hundred years ago.
Our host asked Jules how old he was.
It turned out that our host, was a year older than Jules.
Jules and he were actually born on exactly the same year, but in Korea, every person is one year older than the day he or she were born.
This is because they count the pregnancy time that you spent inside your mother’s belly as a year in your life.
That night, we were not provided with a futon mattress to sleep on like they do in Japan.
Our room had only one thin blanket to put on the floor, another blanket to cover us, and two pillows.
The owner of the guesthouse brought us more blankets from another room, to try and pad the one blanket-mattress for us, but to us, it still felt like we were sleeping directly on the floor.
That night we tossed and turned, but still…. I learnt that I could sleep on the floor (although a nicely heated floor) with almost no mattress on it… Just a thin blanket.
Earlier, when we walked around the village, we saw a house which was full of people.
I had a look inside, and it seemed like it was a communal recreation room.
It had about thirty people seated on the floor, watching a nature show on TV.
Some of those people were very elderly, and their walkers and strollers were parked outside.
I noticed that all of those people sat directly on the floor with no cushions.
Some laid on the floor supporting their heads up with their arms, others just sat crossed legged on the hard floor.
I feel reluctant to describe the floor as “hard” which is a relative term, and insinuates that it is uncomfortable to sit on a “hard” floor.
They all looked very comfortable on the floor.
Truth be told, as I write this, it is a few days later, and after more and more nights of sleeping on the floor or on very hard mattresses, I am also getting used to sleeping on hard surfaces.
The next day after we had a Korean breakfast, expressed our sincere gratitude for their hospitality and performed a few bows, we went to visit the nearby Oksan Seowon Confucian academy.
It is also a UNESCO world heritage site dating back to the Joseon Dynasty.
It sat in a serene forest, by a rocky creek.
The wooden buildings were in great condition with uprising roof shapes that felt almost like the wings of a bird flapping upwards.
The old village, the beautiful academy and this region in general, inspire me.
I feel almost like I am walking into an old and wise poem…
I can sense how the people living in that era also sought for enlightenment and spiritual liberation.
They wrote, dreamt and hoped to be free… Free of illusions, free of body identification, free of wrong concepts and free of attachments to earthly ties, misery, sickness and the illusion of death.