Four Senses and a Teahouse

Travel South Korea
Greg Banecker
Mar 8, 2011
Greg Banecker finds a meditative experience by closing his eyes.

MY FIRST TRADITIONAL teahouse experience came half a block off the tourist trail, down a cobblestone path in Jeonju, South Korea. I was immediately hooked and have returned several times. On my last trip, I decided to close my eyes. I wanted to see what would happen.

The Smell

The sweet, warm musk of smoldering sandalwood. A deep breath stings, but only slightly. I detect other aromas like sniffing a fine wine. It lingers. Always. As if this were the natural state of the air. Brown sugar. Drought. Marijuana.

A humid whiff of steeping tea inhaled in sporadic wafts. The smell of calm and an elusive floral bouquet concealed in the plumes. It’s there. It exists. But just on the tip of my nose before it evaporates into ambiance. It’s an essence. It’s a myth.

The residue of dryness. The composition of teas. Fruits. Flowers. Herbs. Parched particles carried — by the sandalwood smoke and the tea steam, my host’s clean perfume and the odor of my socks — to my nose. It reminds me of home.

That smell when I used to open the pantry.

The Sound

Music. Faint, but distinct. Shamefully, I think of Kung-Fu movies. The deep, resonating grumble of a gong directing a misty fog. The high-pitched wind from a bamboo pipe slowly ushers it away revealing a sleepy remote monastery just awakening to the delicate vibrations of plucked strings.

And then the movement of air. Wind-chimes. Water ripples. Bodies shiver. I could be anywhere…

  1. A library: Muffled whispers. Cautious footsteps. Surreptitious slurps.
  2. A forest: Flowing water. Swaying branches. Buzzing insects.
  3. A kitchen: Clinking china. Boiling liquid. Burning gas-range.

But perhaps most important is what I can’t hear. Not far from the main avenue, there are no honking taxis. No language that isn’t my own. No overwhelming crowds. No crinkly maps, no hawkers, no camera clicks. The sound here is organic. Born from a breath, a beat, a breeze. Out there it invades, but in here it’s invited — and the guest list is exclusive.

Despite all that, if I listen very closely, I can hear…quiet.

The Touch

The smooth sanded surface of the maple tables. Its flaws. Islands of rough. Divots. A hole in the trunk. The winding edge feels like a coastline, beautiful in its imperfections.

The small ceramic serving bowl. (Surprisingly small.) I’m a giant at tea-time. Though it still holds power over me. I warm my hands on it. (Curse the slowly waning heat. Nothing lasts.)

With my shoes off and my senses honed, I can actually feel my socks. Feel the breeze flowing through them and between my toes that rest rigidly on the hard floor.

I take a sip. It’s almost too hot…but that’s just right. Otherwise there wouldn’t be that jolt of heat. A shot of whiskey. An electric shock. One more sip. One more feeling.

My sinuses clearing.

The Taste

The air has a flavor. Similar to the taste of pine needles or cinnamon, it is the savory embodiment of its smell. Deciduous. Terrestrial. Crisp. I sense a certain astringency. The hollow flavor of dryness — only quenched by what I supposedly came here for.

The tea.

It tastes oddly of steamed vegetables, though with an abridged flavor. Like licking the waxy surface of a pepper instead of biting it. Or bubble gum moments before the flavor expires. Subdued by dilution yet enhanced by heat, it’s at one moment unwelcome but the next intriguing in its unexpectedness.

I wouldn’t order this cup again, but right now…it’s perfect.

Community Connection

Heading to South Korea? Make sure you brush up on the 10 Korean Customs to Know Before You Visit. And there’s so much more than Seoul; find out what at South Korea, Beyond Seoul.

What did you think of this story?

More on

South Korea

A Korean Pojangmacha Tent Is a ‘Psychiatrist’s Office’ Where You Can Drink and Snack

See the Cherry Blossoms Bloom From Your Room at This South Korea Hotel

The 14 Funniest Korean Expressions (and How To Use Them)

4 Refreshing Hiking Adventures Around South Korea From Seoul

Where To Catch a Breath of Fresh Air Near Seoul

Everything To Know About Makgeolli, Korea’s Fizzy Rice Wine

The 'Holy Trinity' of Korean Cuisine Is All About Fermentation

6 Rules That Guide a Night of Drinking in Korea

8 Intriguing Global Pizza Styles Every Connoisseur Should Know

'Squid Game' Is Coming To New York and You Could Be a Part of It

More on


The 13 Dreamiest Airbnbs in the South of France

8 Chic Beach Resorts in Italy for a Glam Summer Getaway

Your Cheat Sheet To Dining at Hotel Xcaret Arte, a Mexican All-Inclusive With 10 Signature Restaurants

On the Shores of Lake Como, This Villa Is the Epitome of Italian Lake Luxury

Get Epic Views of Niagara Falls From Your Bedroom Window at This Luxurious Hotel

This Luxurious Thailand Beach Resort Is Only $40 Per Night

15 Beautiful Airbnbs in Mexico City’s Trendiest Neighborhoods

This Tuscan Spa Surrounded by Vineyards and Rolling Hills Takes Relaxation To the Next Level

Get To Know the Real Banff, From Hot Springs and Waterfalls To Historic Town Sites

11 Key West Airbnbs To Experience the Best of the Island

The Coolest, Cheapest Airbnbs in the Caribbean

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners. For more information read our privacy policy.