5 reasons to stay at a hanok while traveling in Korea

5 reasons to stay at a hanok while traveling in Korea

With an environmentally friendly design that's in tune with nature, traditional Korean houses are the new trend in accommodations
The various rooms of Rakkojae (Seoul) lit up like latticed lanterns.

Britain has its cottages, France its gîtes, the United States its ranch houses; in South Korea, the iconic -- to say nothing of charismatic -- house is the hanok.

As a traveler, why would one put up in a hanok, as opposed to a beachfront condo, a mountain cabin, a moldy bed-and-breakfast or most of all, a high-rise hotel?

Sure, there are inconveniences to staying in one for an extended period of time.

"Although our bathroom is modern, it can be uncomfortable as it is in a separate building," says Lee Gyeong-hak, who lives in Hyangdan, a hanok in Yangdong Village, Gyeongju, that has been in his family for almost 500 years. Hyangdan welcomes travelers as long as they make reservations in advance.

Joanne Lee, another member of the Lee clan who often stays at Hyangdan, agrees, warning that you will of course have to "give up convenient shower facilities."

hanok villageJust look at these happy hanokers. "But it also depends on your perspective," says Gyeong-hak. "There is value in the experience itself -- of living in the same houses Koreans have lived in for centuries, experiencing what they experienced."

For Joanne Lee, hanok also have an indescribable charm.

"Everything about hanok, from the shape of the columns to the shape of the eaves, from the architecture of the kitchen -- none of these are the way they are for no reason; hanok is the direct result of our ancestors' wisdom and science. And of course, if you stay there, you will always have a story to tell," she says.

New trends

With affluent neighborhoods like Bukchon -- Seoul's chic hanok quarter -- it's hard to believe that hanok were once a sign of poverty, considered old-fashioned and uncomfortable.

Now hanok are trendy, both as day-trip photo-ops or actual accommodations.

Travelers are increasingly opting for hanok when they choose their lodging, and the industry is starting to catch on, if hanok-based hotels (like Ragung or Odongjae) are any indication.

The popularity itself isn't so surprising. The real surprise is that this hanok revival isn't just stylish posturing, or contemporary idea-starved designers pawing through the past to fetishize anything vaguely "historical." There is more merit to hanok than simply beauty and novelty -- or rather, hanok's beauty is more than just wall deep.

They've acquired a double halo of environmental friendliness and elegance as well as historical relevance.

hanok villageThe kitchen of Hyangdan was used as a backdrop for the steamy Korean film Bangja Chronicles (방자전).

Standing out

Broadly defined, hanok can refer to any traditional Korean house.

Traditionally, only nobles (yangban) were allowed to use clay tiles for their roofs, while farmers and the rest had to make do with thatch. But as far as appearance goes, what we consider hanok today resembles the residential Chinese architecture of the Tang and Song Dynasties.

Hanok, however, differ from their Chinese counterparts in significant ways. And some of these differences are what contribute to the remarkable practical -- mental and physical -- benefits to sleeping in a hanok.

By definition it is difficult to transcribe, and distill into digestible reasons, indescribable charm -- that's something you need to experience for yourself.

But for anyone who has not yet felt it, here are at least five reasons you should try:

1. Harnessing nature

hanok villageIt's not just the lack of walls that makes this space so cool in the summer. There's a science to it.

The typical urban traveler usually finds themselves suffocating in overheated rooms in the winters and freezing under the blast of arctic air conditioning in the summers.

With hanok, there's no such seasonal paradox.

The secret lies in the architecture.

First, there is the depth of the eaves, which act as a shade from the summer sun.

"It's comparable to the shade cast by a big tree," writes Shin Yeong-hoon in "We Should Know About Our Hanok" (우리가 정말 알아야 할 우리 한옥).

But the eaves do more than simply act as beach umbrellas.

"In the winter, the sun, which is low in the sky, enters and warms the rooms. Warm air rises. And even if the warm air is pushed out by the colder air, the deep eaves act as a blockade, and the warm air lingers," writes Shin.

Hanok are also characterized by their dual flooring, ondol and maru, which fit together like yin and yang. Ondol is stone flooring for the winters, heated from below by a fire in a heating system unique to hanok. Maru is raised wood flooring which is both porous and cool in summer. This dual floor design marks how hanok deviates from the typical Chinese architecture of the Tang era.

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2. Primary materials

hanok village If hanok are ever abandoned in an apocalyptic war or killer flu panic, they will return to the earth, leaving little to no ecological footprint. Not that we would ever wish this upon such a pretty little place.

Sure, it feels kind of nice to sip iced margaritas in chilled hotel lounges while outside the traffic looks warped because of the heat. Or to feel the reassuring blast of cold air from an open department store door. But it doesn't feel as nice when you think about the electricity this eats up. Or the effect that it all has on the ozone. Which is why most of us don't think about it, for good reason.

But at hanok you can think about it, because the conclusion won't make you feel guilty, but on the contrary, virtuous. In fact, if you don't mind being called a self-righteous tree-hugger from those boarding at hotels, you can even talk about it.

We can already surmise that hanok are good for the environment because the houses have efficient heating (you just build a fire under the floor) and you don't need wheezing air conditioners.

But there are also the ingredients of the hanok itself.

"The primary materials used to build hanok are wood and clay," says Lee Gyeong-hak.

Even at their fanciest, such as in the case of Hyangdan -- originally the home of Lee Gyeong-hak's ancestor, prominent Joseon scholar Lee Eon-jeok, and now a part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Yangdong Village) as well as a National Treasure No. 412 -- hanok basically consist of stone, wood, mud and paper. All biodegradable materials that will return whence they came.

"Hanok produce none of the same pollutants that arise from modern architecture," writes Shin.

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3. Purifying red clay walls

hanok villageTo the untrained eye: a hut made of mud. To the hanok enthusiast: a well-being wonder house. This is as healthy as mud gets without being a face mask.

The floors, walls and roofs of hanok are all grouted with mud. And not just any mud, but golden mud, or "red clay," if we are being literal with the translation.

Besides the heating and cooling benefits of red clay in the architecture, hwangto's proximity to the residents is also believed to be beneficial to their health.

Hwangto is known to have purifying and detoxifying properties, as well as emitting far infrared rays. This might sound like new age quackery to those who usually rely on vitamin pills and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, but none of this is exactly new. There are entire lines of hwangto wonder products with a variety of health benefits, such as the "hwangto pillow" from Tohwangto, which is supposed to aid in comfortable sleep.

And while the wise consumer would probably do best to avoid putting too much faith into these cure-alls, sleeping in a room lined with hwangto certainly can't be worse than popping several ineffective sleeping pills in a large and sterile hotel room with the fumes of new paint tickling your nose hairs.

"We once had visitors from the most expensive apartment complex in Seoul," says Lee, of his ancestral home. "They told me that they always sneezed when they awoke in their apartment, but felt much better after a night's sleep in Hyangdan."

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4. Their photographs don't do them justice

hanok village Whatever goes on inside the rooms, however, it's important to remember that while the paper sliding doors obstruct the view, they will not muffle the noise.

Most of the time it's pretty ridiculous to discuss how pretty something is at length, simply because that's usually a conclusion that the viewer can reach on their own. But because of the nature of hanok beauty -- understated and minimalistic -- hanok tend to be rather less photogenic than what the traveler/aspiring photographer may hope.

There's no need to wax poetic about the sloping eaves or the way that all the walls and doors look like windows. These are all immediately visible from the outside.

What really makes the hanok are the paper panels. Hanok doors and windows are papered with hanji, a traditional Korean paper with the translucence of tissue paper. That's where the similarities end -- hanji, unlike tissue paper, is tough, stringy and fibrous. Stuck to window frames, hanji acts as an excellent natural filter, letting in clean air and just the right degree of humidity.

Hanji not only replaces the glass of modern window paneling, but also the curtains: the semi-opaque nature of the paper makes for great mood lighting, but no peeping.

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5. Other-worldly privacy

hanok villageReal privacy: thanks to the courtyard, in a hanok you can sit in the yard without having to watch your paunchy neighbor mow his front yard or your other neighbor install yet another swimming pool in his backyard.

Hanok can be a misleading term. "I live in a hanok," one might say, leading to the assumption that the "a" refers to a single unit. But the traditional hanok always consists of a complex several separate buildings huddled together around a roughly square courtyard with a wall encircling the entire cluster.

The courtyard, another essential feature of the hanok, is the space that both separates the rooms and simultaneously acts as the communal heart of the hanok.

Moreover, while all those sliding window-doors with their (literally) paper-thin paneling and the courtyard (madang) in the center might give pause, the separation of a hanok into several discrete structures has several important consequences. Of course, it's up to the lodger to decide whether these consequences are advantages.

For example, having the toilet in a separate outhouse might mean that taking a leak in the middle of the night will be anywhere from uncomfortable to downright frightening. But it also means that you don't have to hear the toilet flushing multiple times when your roommate has food poisoning, and vice versa: if you're the roommate with food poisoning, you can use the bathroom in peace, without fear of being heard.

The structures of the traditional hanok were divided amongst the inhabitants by their position in the hierarchy -- the men had their sarangchae and the women had their anchae, while the servants had a little house by the front door.

But for the traveler -- whether journeying alone, with family or in pairs -- the hanok's neat division into independent rooms means scope for all sorts of other activities in private.

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Where to stay at a hanok

hanok village This picture might make it a bit difficult to contest claim No.4.

So, amidst the endless rows of boxy apartment complexes, where are all the hanok?

Hahoe-ri, home ofHahoe Folk Village (안동하회마을), is a neighborhood of nothing but hanok.

There are many options within Hahoe-ri, but the enormous estate of Bukchondaek, with its history of celebrity stays (Bae Yong-jun apparently lodged there once) and the corkscrew-shaped pine tree that is so old (300 years and counting) that it is currently under government protection, makes a strong candidate.

There is also Rakkojae Seoul, a "boutique hanok guesthouse" that manages to be sumptuous without succumbing to the temptation to compromise, like so many hanok guesthouses out there (we're not naming names) with their jarring modern additions -- curtains instead of paper, queen-sized beds with faux-Far East bedspreads instead of futons or large flat-screen televisions. They have modern bathroom facilities, but in this we're willing to compromise authenticity for comfort. They also do have air conditioners (they are a business, after all) but there's no need to leave the thing on.

Rakkojae also has a guesthouse in Hahoe-ri, with thatched roofs instead of tiles.

Finally, there is the famed Hyangdan, which, while a private home, does accept guests -- you just need to make reservations well in advance.

Bukchondaek (북촌댁); 706 Hahoe-ri, Pungcheon-myeon, Andong-si, North Gyeongsang Province (경상북도 안동시 풍천면 하회리 706번지); +82 19 228 1786; www.bukchondaek.com; Prices start at ₩200,000 per night for two people, breakfast included.

Rakkojae Seoul (락고재 서울); 98 Gye-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 계동 98); +82 10 8555 1407; www.rkj.co.kr; Prices start at ₩180,000 per night per person, or ₩250,000 per night for two people;breakfast, dinner,free use of the hwangto sauna and laundry services are included.

Rakkojae Hahoe (락고재 하회); 695 Hahoe-ri, Pungcheon-myeon, Andong-si, North Gyeongsang Province (경상북도 안동시 풍천면 하회리 695); +82 10 8555 1407; www.rkj.co.kr; Prices start at ₩100,000 per night per person, or ₩160,000 for two people per night, breakfast, free use of the hwangto sauna and laundry services are included.

Hyangdan (향단); 135 Yangdong-ri, Gangdong-myeon, North Gyeongsang Province (경상북도 경주시 강동면 양동리 135); +82 10 6689 3575; Prices start at ₩60,000 per night for a room and can reach up to ₩500,000. The room from the set of the movie "Bangja Chronicles" costs ₩150,000.

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Violet Kim is a freelance writer for CNN Travel.

Find her online @pomography.

Read more about Violet Kim