April 30th marked the 20-year anniversary of the World Wide Web, the system of urls, hypertext and protocols that paved the way for what today we take for granted as the Internet. It’s hard to imagine how we managed to get by before everything from news headlines to arcane trivia and shoes to soul mates were a mouse-click away.

The Internet has certainly enhanced our lives in many ways, increasing our productivity (along with ADD-tendencies and information overload). But it’s also played a role in accelerating globalization and homogenization at the expense of local cultures and traditions. It sometimes seems that we wear the same jeans, drink the same soft drinks, listen to the same music and watch the same funny cat videos the world over. This view is especially resonant in countries that are mostly on the receiving end of the Internet flood of western culture. 

The reality, though, is much more nuanced. The Internet is a two-way street, and can also help preserve cultural heritage and diversity.

I experienced this firsthand last year on a trip to Seoul. Having never been to South Korea before, I was somewhat dismayed to find one of those modern Asian cities with towering skyscrapers and congested thoroughfares. And my international brand hotel, while very nice, could have been in any almost city on the planet.   

I knew from Korean friends that that a traditional culture lurked somewhere beneath the bustling modern façade. But how to find it? Not surprisingly, it was just a mouse-click away.

I happened to be speaking at a conference about the sharing economy, where I heard about Kozaza.com an Airbnb-like service based in Seoul that lets travelers looking for more than generic hotel rooms book stays in traditional Korean homes known as hanoks. We chose one in Bukchon, a historic neighborhood situated between the summer and winter palaces of the old Korean monarchy.

This newly-trendy neighborhood happens to have the last remaining concentration of hanoks, its steep, winding alleys lined with their decorative facades. We settled on one that was listed under the heading “Charm House” – a slightly mangled English translation that turned out to fit perfectly.  

Like most hanoks, ours was a single story red-clay home built around a central open courtyard, designed to provide ventilation in the summer and keep out the cold winds in the winter. Inside, the walls were made of Korean paper lacquered with bean oil, and the soft pine wood floors were heated from underneath—one reason that hanok-dwellers sleep on mats on the floor. Wooden beams were ingeniously hand-cut and fitted, and we were amazed to learn that the entire house was built without a single nail. The crowning glory of the Charm House was its ornate tiled roof, or giwa. It was as far from an impersonal hotel as one could get.

Hanoks have evolved over many thousands of years optimally for Korean people and Korea weather,” explains Sanku Jo, a veteran Internet executive and entrepreneur who founded Kozaza in January 2012 to preserve and share this heritage. A hanokstay, he adds, “is an experience of Korean traditional culture, people, lifestyle and foods.” 

After leaving our shoes at the door, the charm house’s proprietors, Mr. and Mrs. Kim, showed us around the sparsely furnished home and offered tea. They told us in their limited English how they had moved from an apartment in the city and jettisoned 70% of their belongings to adjust to their new minimalist life style. The next day, after rolling up our mat and bedding, we were served a breakfast of rice, vegetables, miso soup, fruit and tea while sitting cross-legged on the floor around a low table. The Kims’ dachschund, Zeke, dozed in the courtyard. After some morning sightseeing, Mrs. Kim escorted us down winding alleys and up hills until we reached an unassuming building. There she left us to have one of the most memorable meals of our trip, communicating as best we could with the proprietor and drawing pictures when language failed.

These are the kind of experiences that give travelers a more intimate sense of a place and a window into a culture, and in our case would have been nearly impossible without a website like Kozaza. At the same time, our stay in the hanok helped, if even in a small way, to preserve that culture.

Three decades ago, there were over 800,000 hanoks in Seoul. Today, the number is closer to 12,000 (and 90,000 across South Korea). Like many such traditional homes around the world, they are always in danger of being razed to make way for modern development. By allowing rooms or whole hanoks to be rented out, Kozaza and sites like it—BnBHero.com is another in South Korea, and there are similar sites in other countries promoting stays in traditional dwellings—make owning and maintaining these historic treasures economically viable. (Recognizing the tourism potential, the South Korean government has also helped by offering incentives and low-interest loans to encourage residents to renovate the old structures). And with demand for authentic experiences increasing, that’s a good thing for all.

So, happy birthday to the World Wide Web—with an emphasis on the World.



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