I'm sitting in a small courtyard filled with exotic flowers, plants and bright spring sunshine, surrounded by a wood-beamed, pagoda-style, paper house. The only sound is the wind in the trees and the gentle snuffling sounds of a fluffy rabbit sniffing around my feet. I had never imagined that Seoul, with its sprawling mess of concrete and endless traffic, could be like this.
"The rabbit's name is Tosun," says Mija Lee, owner of the Seoul Guest House, as I feed the bunny a piece of lettuce. "Be careful, sometimes she bites." The rabbit makes a sudden move and I whip my hand away, sharpish. Mija giggles: "Don't be scared!" I feel mild embarrassment as Tosun looks up at me quizzically.
I understand enough about Korea to expect the unexpected. I also know that much of the beauty of this enigmatic country resides in the small details of everyday life. So, finding an oasis like the Seoul Guest House amid the hectic pollution of the South Korean capital is no shock. But it is a very pleasant surprise.
"The traditional housing style in this area is known as hanguk," explains Mija as we sit drinking aromatic green tea. "There are preservation orders and everything is now protected." Given the silence, it is hard to believe that I am in the centre of a hi-tech city of 12 million.
The real speciality of the Seoul Guest House, as in most of Korea, is hospitality. "I try to make my guests feel like part of my family," Mija explains. With only eight rooms, all overlooking the leafy courtyard, there is a definite sense of friendly intimacy. Mija's touch brings a warmth that money can't buy. Sanjay, a millionaire Indian businessman, thinks so, too. "I come to Seoul several times a year on business, have stayed in all the best hotels, but it's here that I really feel at home," he says.
At times, the Korean-style welcome afforded foreigners is extraordinary. Strangers offer their seats to tourists on subway trains, children crowd round a foreign face, enthusiastically practising their English. But, for visitors, the daily life of Koreans is hard to connect with. Not for nothing was the country once known as the Hermit Kingdom.
After three nights in the care of Tosun and Mija, I leave on the morning train to Gyeongju, 200 miles south-east of Seoul, and the first capital of a unified Korea. Established in the seventh century, the Shilla dynasty ruled Korea from Gyeongju for 400 years. These days, the city is home to the best collection of antiquities in the country. My host, Ryeong Lee, meets me at the station. "Hello Mr Andrew," she says, ushering me towards a cab for the five-minute journey to her family home. I am staying with Ryeong as part of a "home-stay" programme called "Komestay", a loose network of Korean households that throw their doors open to guests (for a small fee). The idea is not only to provide somewhere for people to lay their hats but to offer a genuine chance for cultural exchange.
We arrive at an iron gate which creaks open to reveal a garden filled with bright flowers, ponds and trees. The centrepiece is a perfectly formed hanguk house, with decorative calligraphy painted on the walls and shutters and the roof tiled into pert, concave sweeps. "Please take your shoes off," says Ryeong Lee, as she opens the thick paper door that leads to my room. I soon realise that everything - even the lacquered flooring - is made from paper. "This house is over 100 years old," adds Ryeong Lee, "but we have to replace the paper every year." As I enter, I notice that a gentle heat emanates from the floor, soothing my tired feet. Known as ondol, the system is still used in many Korean houses, though the traditional warm smoke has been replaced with hot-water piping.
"Would you like to join us for dinner?" asks Ryeong Lee. I am invited into a small family room where Ryeong Lee's husband and daughter sit cross-legged around a low table. My eyes roam the room, taking in the exquisite lacquer work and intricate examples of Chinese calligraphy. I also notice several soft-focus photos of a familiar, round-faced Korean man, his hands clasped in prayer. "We are followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon," says Ryeong Lee, catching me looking at the photos. "In the West you would call us Moonies." I am a bit startled by the news that I will be spending the next few days with members of a cult, but am soon sidetracked by the arrival of dinner, a delicious spread of meaty galbi (beef ribs), hearty seaweed soup and piquant cuttlefish.
The next two days are spent exploring Gyeongju's sights, anxiety keeping me away from my Moonie family. Fortunately, there is lots to see in this ancient city. I start at the magnificent Tumuli Park - a collection of 25 undulating, grass-covered, 1,000-year-old tombs, some 80 feet high. Alongside the park sits a warren of atmospheric narrow lanes filled with crumbling hanguk housing. There is an ancient Confucianist College - much of Korean culture is founded on Confucianism - and the Cheomseongdae, a seventh-century stone observatory shaped like a giant chimney. Just on the edge of Gyeongju, amid fields of flowers and a ring of soothing pines, I discover the Wolseong Fortress. I walk a little further and visit the revered but disappointing National Museum.
Back at the house, as I prepare for my evening train to Seoul, Ryeong Lee appears. "I have a gift for you," she announces with a broad smile. I feel embarrassed as she unfurls a piece of beautiful Chinese calligraphy set on delicate, grainy hand-made paper. "It says 'The tortoise lives a long time.' My husband made it especially for you." I accept the gift with all the grace I can muster, shocked by the generosity of my hosts despite my unfriendly elusiveness. I climb aboard the Seoul-bound train with my spirit lifted and my prejudices confounded. Next time I visit this wonderfully enigmatic country I will leave behind all my expectations.
Korean Air flies direct from Heathrow to Seoul with prices from £601 (£465 if you are under 30). Book through Korean Services (020-8949 1177).
Seoul Guesthouse (00 82 2 745 0057; www.seoul110.com) costs from 30,000 Won (£16) per room per night. Booking is recommended.
Komestay (www.komestay.com) costs from 36,000 Won (£19) per person.
The Holiday Inn, Seoul (00 82 2 717 2441; www.holiday-inn.co.kr/en) offers double rooms from 200,000 Won (£105) per night.
The Sheraton Walker Hill (00800 325 35353, www.starwood.com) offers doubles from £109 per night with free airport transfers.
The Intercontinental Coex (00 82 2 3452 2500; www.seoul.intercontinental.com) offers doubles from 240,000 Won (£126).
Korea National Tourism Organisation (020-7321 2535; www.tour2korea.com).Reuse content