2012년 6월 20일 수요일

An Insa-dong Teahouse


   
After a two-weeks hiatus, we are back in the Insa-dong neighborhood this week. As promised, today’s show is the first in a double-header of special spots that are discovered when you venture off the main roads and explore some of Insa-dong’s many side streets and alleyways.

A great case in point is Dalsaeneun Dalman Saenggakhanda. It’s a long name for a humble teahouse. Its translation goes, “Moon Bird Thinks Only of the Moon.” To be honest, I’m not sure the origin of the name, or what it means, but the teahouse is a popular destination for foreign visitors to Seoul and Insa-dong.

From the outside, the dense greenery of maple, ivy and azalea plants don’t really prepare you for what’s inside. Slide open the green wooden door and you’re immediately confronted with a dark and mysterious interior. Of course, this is precisely part of the charm, and the teahouse has become a neighborhood favorite thanks to its funky interior cluttered with all sorts of brick-a-brack and knick-knacks that, at least to me, lend the place the feel of an old barn or garage.

Here’s what I mean. In one corner there’s an old rusted red post box and in another you’ll find a traditional Korean square kite. A number of birdcages, perhaps a nod to the teahouse’s name, hang from the ceiling, while folk masks are pinned to the wall. Where rays of sunlight pass peek through the roof, small clusters of potted plants have been assembled.

Another prominent component of the teahouse’s design is thanks to customer contributions. That’s right, the plaster walls are completely covered in scribbles and patron autographs. What’s more, customers are encouraged to write their messages, or draw them, on napkin-sized pieces of cloth and paper, which are then hung en masse beside the tables.

Of course, then there’s the tea. Stored in large glass jars with tags describing their contents in four languages - Korean, Japanese, Chinese and English along with the date when the leaves were first soaked. When you order a cup or two, it arrives poured to the brim in a ceramic cup that’s placed on a wood saucer. The mix of clay and wood is a common treatment used to avoid the unnecessary distraction of clay-on-clay clanking. A cup of Yuja Tea or the sweet rice drink Sikhye will both run you 7,000 won. A slightly cheaper treat is their Maehyang Tea, which costs 6,500 won. A few pine nuts will float atop most of their teas, but whatever you order, a simple plate of rice-based crackers make a great companion to the beverage.

While it’s obvious that the Moon Bird Thinks Only of the Moon teahouse employs a bit of over-the-top kitsch to accompany its fine teas, it’s clearly working for its legion of Korean and foreign customers. And to be honest, I’m a sucker for funky spots to enjoy my tea, too. To see it for yourself, the teahouse is open from 11:00 am until 11:00 pm daily, but try to arrive early to avoid the queue.