Culture Etiquette History Living in Korea

Why Koreans take off shoes when inside? Ondol the traditional heating system.


When you visit a Korean friend’s house, you will immediately encounter, upon entering, a space which is set slightly lower than the floor. You see a lot of shoes here, and on the elevated threshold at the beginning of the floor, cotton slippers are neatly placed (but many houses don’t have them). Using your smart brain, you analyze the situation and conclude that you need to take off your shoes! Upon entering the living room, you find your friends walking around in slippers, socks, and even barefoot. What’s more, your foreign friends also joined the club. And the same is observed in the bathroom. The bathroom is also lower than the floor, and a pair of plastic slippers greets you. It must mean you should put them on when you use the bathroom. So, why such division and separation? To understand this concept, you have to learn about the traditional Korean heating system called ondol 온돌.

RELATED : What does a Korean family look like? No matter what part of the world you live in, home is where the drama is, and Korean homes are where the K-Dramas are!


It’s similar in concept to a radiator that uses heat conduction, but the structure is different. When firewood is set on fire in the furnace called agungi 아궁이 (which also doubles as a cooking station), the heat generated here heats up the wide stones laid under the jangpan 장판 (oil/resin paper-covered floor) of the room known as gudeuljang 구들장, and the heat released by the hot stones makes the room warm.

An illustration of the ondol system
By Dzihi licensed by CC-BY-3.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

In addition to heating by thermal conductivity, ondol combines radiant heating and convection heating, and the heat is maintained evenly from bottom to top and for a longer period compared to a fireplace or a radiator that generates heat from only one side.

And ondol is one of the most influential factors in the residential lifestyle of Koreans. Before the widespread use of ondol for residential use, Koreans had a drastically different lifestyle. Historical dramas set in ancient Korea to early Goryeo period (918 – 1392) such as Seondeok Yeowang 선덕여왕 (Queen Seondeok, MBC, 2009), depict people sleeping in bed and sitting in chairs. But the widespread of ondol and the coziness it provided made Koreans prefer sitting on a cushion on the floor and sleeping on bedding laid out on the floor instead (go to a jjimjilbang 찜질방 to see for yourself – once you lie on a cozy warm floor, you won’t want to get up). Ondol is believed to have spread rapidly in the 17th century Joseon as a means to survive the cold winter. It led to a surge in demand for firewood, and historical records say that most of the mountains were bare towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty.

Scenes from Seondeok Yeowang 선덕여왕 (Queen Seondeok, MBC, 2009)

In addition, ondol has led to the development of a single-story residential architecture style in Korea. Most of the remaining hanok 한옥 buildings in Korea are single-story, due to the enormous weight and construction costs of ondol system. It is said that there were many multi-story buildings in ordinary houses from Goryeo to the early Joseon period before the widespread of ondol. Even in Korea, where high-rise apartments are the norm today, Koreans just couldn’t give up the coziness ondol provides. Combining tradition with modern technology, ondol has evolved into a system where water heated from boilers is fed into and circulates in the pipes buried under the flooring. Still, modern Korean apartments still reflect the traditional hanok lifestyle. As we learned previously, the widespread of ondol (floor-heating) in the late Joseon Dynasty and daecheongmaru (cooling floor) played an important role in making Koreans prefer the sitting-on-the-floor over the beds and chairs which also existed in the homes before that time.

Naturally, keeping the floor clean was always a top priority. Also, a word of caution – Many Korean restaurants, especially the ones with rooms, would require you to take off your shoes and sit on the floor. So it’s always a good idea to inspect your socks to see if they have a hole in them before going to a Korean restaurant to avoid a surprise.

If you want to study traditional Korean architecture, we suggest reading this book, available in English – Korean Architecture: Breathing with Nature [Amazon]

Also, Hanok: The Korean House [Amazon] by Nani Park and Robert J. Fouser provides a stunning insight into how the Korean architecture has inspired the Korean people, and how Korean people impacted the Korean architecture.



Sitting cross-legged on the floor is commonly called yangbandari 양반다리 (“noblemen legs”). As the name suggests, it was mainly the posture taken by superiors and elders. Although females and younger people weren’t completely prohibited from this posture in front of males or elders, they also chose to sit on their knees to show respect.

RELATED : From bowing to receiving stuff with two hands. Why do Koreans do what they do? YUGYO 유교- The ideology of the Korean people.

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