SEOUL, WHERE OLD TALES ABOUND
Seoul is home to many old shops, some of which go unnoticed because they have always remained in the same spot. The Seoul Metropolitan Government selected 39 old shops and gave them the title of Oraegagae, which literally means “old shop.” It also reflects a hope for the old shops to continue to stand tall and stay by our sides.
The old shops selected by Seoul Metropolitan Government are mostly in Jongno-gu and Jung-gu, near the palaces of the Joseon dynasty. The area is known for its multitude of shops related to traditional culture, including a 156-year-old gold leaf workshop that has run for five generations, and a century-old custom tailor shop. There is a brush shop that is said to have supplied brushes to past emperors such as Gojong and Sunjong. One rice cake shop is a favorite of Korea’s past presidents. Boasting skills passed down from court ladies of the Joseon dyasty, the shop sells an elegant selection of royal court rice cakes.
Each Oraegagae has a story of its own. Family-run shops are built on the affection between parent and child, while others are related to prominent figures in the modern history of Korea. Visiting the old shops and learning their unique history will add to the experience of your trip.
What is Oraegagae?
Based on recommendation by citizens and surveys, a total of 2,838 was selected as Oraegagae candidates. From among 171 shops in Jongno-gu and Jung-gu, the list was shortened to 52 shops through on-site visits by travel experts, cultural interpreters, foreigners and college students. The final Oraegagae list, following professional review, consisted of 39 shops.
Out of the 39 old shops, this guide features eight workshops that best reflect the beauty of Korea’s traditional arts and crafts. Most shops are family-run and practice traditional skills that have passed down through generations. Some workshops provide visitors with opportunities to make their own artwork at a small fee. The shops also sell handicrafts at affordable prices, making them the perfect souvenir and gift for foreigners.
Korea is known for its wide variety of masks, each with a distinct character. The masks hanging on the wall of Talbang wear different expressions. The most popular is the hahoetal. Jeong Seongam, the owner, says that the hahoetal is the most carved mask over the past 35 years, and a favorite among foreigners. Besides the hahoetal, Jeong highly recommends the lesser-known sandaetal.
With 47 years of history, Gukseon Otchil is a wholesale shop for lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The owner played a key role in commercializing the technique of mother-of-pearl inlay, maintaining a high quality while lowering the costs to allow mass production. Gukseon Otchil seeks to produce modern designs for the general public based on traditional techniques.
Ahwon Gongbang’s metal crafts are infused with warmth and evoke happy memories in viewers. The workshop first opened in Insa-dong in 1983. Since then, its charming handmade crafts have drawn many regulars. The four season series and candle stick have been consistently popular over the decades.
Knot craft was essential back in the days when Koreans wore hanbok, the traditional Korean attire. Sim Yeongmi, the owner of Donglim Maedeup Gongbang, has followed traditional techniques for more than fifty years. She pours her heart into every detail, from the choice of thread to the tying of a single knot. Such knots can be seen in the portrait of Taejo, who was the first king of the Joseon dynasty. Donglim Maedeup Gongbang features traditional ornaments and brooches made from 39 different techniques.
The owner of Haneul Mulbit helped to sustain Polygonum indigo, which came close to extinction in Korea. This also revived the practice of traditional indigo dyeing. The process is more complicated than you can image. Dying is repeated as many as twenty times to get the right blue hues. At Haneul Mulbit , you will find a variety of items and garments made with traditional indigo dyeing.
The workshop is run by Sin Jeongcheol, who has specialized in woodcraft since 1970. He is described as an artisan who perfectly captures the beauty of Korean woodcraft. Sin is also a master of traditional mask carving. His workshop is filled with intricate artworks, including signatures pieces such as the wild goose and village guardian.
Myeongsindang Pilbang, established in 1932, is a shop that specializes in the four precious items of study: paping today. Famous guests to this shop include Queen Elizabeth II and Spain’s king and queen. Kim Myung, the third owner of the shop, is known for carving the most intricate personal seals in the country.