Meet the Locals: Jini and Kanee from Seoul

In the central area of Yongsan, one family transformed their home into the “Therapy House” — a quiet sanctuary where guests eat fresh persimmons, sip barley tea, and engage in heartfelt exchange.

The Locals

Jini Lee is used to straying outside the ordinary. Growing up in a society that often rewarded conformity over carving one’s own path, she could see her whole life ahead of her at the age of 14: college, getting a job, then getting married. So whenever she could, Jini asserted her individuality. She once dyed her hair completely blonde; she held her wedding at an art museum instead of the more common church or hotel; and later in life, she gave lectures in her hanbok, a traditional Korean dress usually saved for more formal occasions.

Jini came to be known as off-the-wall and peculiar among her friends, labels she didn’t mind. She strived to interact with people and perspectives different from her own, and took an interest in psychology. While Jini was in college her mom suddenly passed away; she coped with her loss and trauma through her psychotherapy studies and decided she wanted to help others get better for a living.

Jini was introduced to her future husband, Kanee, through a friend, and although their personalities were opposite, their shared love of travel and interacting with people overseas bonded them together. On weekends, the two would go on “night goblin trips” — vacations where the itinerary begins in early morning, for nocturnal explorers traveling on a budget.

At their wedding, they made a promise to go abroad once a year. But after they had their first child, Jini found herself fatigued from a daily routine that was more or less the same: working during the day, picking up her kid from the nursery, repeat.

“Before I got married, I put on my backpack and went wherever I wanted. When I returned from a trip, I felt fulfilled and worked hard just to be able to set off somewhere again,” Jini said. “I wanted to feel that same kind of energy, but my reality was changing diapers, cleaning feeding bottles, not being able to move.”

It was in the middle of this dissatisfaction with her life that Jini saw an Airbnb billboard in a subway station that read “여행은 살아보는 거야” (“Don’t go there, live there”). As commuters hurried past, she remembers remaining in place, churning the possibilities.

“I thought, that could be a life. With all this frustration from not being able to go abroad … what if I invited people to my home instead?” So the search began — for a home where she could raise her family and host guests from around the world.

Their Home

When Jini first discovered what would become the Therapy House, it was neglected: tons of grime everywhere. But for Jini, it was a fair trade for the sunlit rooms, the small garden in the front yard, and its secluded spot in one of Seoul’s quieter alleyways.

For six months, Jini and Kanee transformed the home and made it theirs. They planted the grass, trees, and flowers they handpicked from the Yangjae Flower Market, and created a sanctuary that feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Jini and her daughter, Hanee, collected small stones, painted them in brightly varied colors, and laid them along the trails in the front yard. They prepared a small garden bed for Hanee to plant whatever she wanted — strawberries, tomatoes, and other vegetables.

From her front yard, Jini wants visitors to experience Korea’s four distinct seasons. In the springtime, the terrace fills with the scents of cherry and apple blossoms. Come summer, kids get to play in the kiddie pool, while parents sit nearby in the shaded cabana, sipping iced tea and eating cold watermelon slices. In the autumn, the fruits on their 40-year-old persimmon tree ripen, and Jini shares them generously with her guests. In the chilly days during the winter, the cabana covers come down; Jini sets up a heater and lights inside and passes around hot boricha, Korea’s staple barley tea.

For the inside of the home, she painted the doors a deep blue, and the door frames a bright pink — a choice Kanee, the carpenter, and the man at the paint shop all advised against. “Their dissent made me more determined to go with it,” Jini said. “I’m the kind of person that lives by my own satisfaction.”

When she decided to open up her home to strangers, her friends had so many questions: “Why invite foreigners to a fine house? Wouldn’t it be uncomfortable? What if someone steals? What if a strange person comes?” But the risks were all hers, and so were the freedoms.

Once she started hosting guests, she realized the many similarities between her day job of being a therapist and welcoming people into her home. “As a host, you’re constantly trying to read into people’s hearts, making sure there’s nothing bothering them,” she said. “It’s always about making sure they feel comfortable.”

That connection inspired the name Therapy House — a place where visitors can seek refuge from all the harsh realities of daily life and leave feeling nourished. All year round, the front yard serves as a place for people to gather. When Jini tells guests she’s a therapist, many confide in her about tough times in divorce, marriage, family life, and relationships.

“I thought therapy was something that happened in a hospital across a hard table, and hosting was something completely different, but I realized that that heartfelt exchange was happening here too,” Jini said.

Their Neighborhood

Jini chose Yongsan because it’s central — smack in the middle of Seoul, with the Han River flowing along its southern borders, it is home to some of the most famous and diverse neighborhoods in the city. Like Jini’s home, she describes the district as being “made up of varied colors,” where the vastly different are constantly converging — old and new, foreign and native, urban and quaint.

Guests can watch fireworks bursting over the Han River from Jini’s second-floor terrace and catch a glimpse of the Seoul Tower from the street right outside the front door. Seoul’s most fashionable neighborhoods — Gangnam, Hongdae, Myeongdong — are all just a few stations away. For visitors looking to venture outside of Seoul, it’s a five-minute walk to Yongsan Station, a hub offering trains to cities and rural areas across the peninsula.

Many come to Yongsan, most notably to Itaewon, a neighborhood within it, not just for its nightlife and fashion boutiques, but to get a taste of cuisines hard to find in other parts of Korea. You can go from having some of the best gyro platters in town (its proximity to Korea’s first mosque makes it a great place to find halal food) to digging into juicy pad thai fresh from the wok. It’s one of Seoul’s most ethnically diverse and culturally liberal areas, and is just five minutes from the Therapy House by bus.

Jini has a deep appreciation for the diversity she sees around her home. Her home is a microcosm of this — people from all corners of the world come and go, leaving their mark in the pages of her guestbook.

Jini takes pride in all of the friendships formed in the space she’s created. “Our appearances, the color of our skin, the languages we speak may be different, but our hearts are the same. It’s just that we might eat rice and they might eat bread, in the end I always think we can get through to each other,” she said.

Jini’s Yongsan Picks

Hangang Park: The Han River has a central presence in daily lives of residents, and its accompanying park features picnic areas, trails, and plazas. “You can experience all kinds of festivals and fireworks year-round. Rent a bike for a ride along the river. At night, make instant ramen in a convenience store nearby, and bring it back to the park to enjoy with the view.”

Itaewon-dong: People head to Itaewon for its hot restaurant scene of varied flavors, its alleys lined with clothing stores, and, of course, its vibrant nightlife. Its blocks are bustling with gay bars, antiques, leather goods, and old furniture stores. “Visitors to Korea should visit Itaewon once at the very least and go clubbing or dine here. The place is already well known to many abroad.”

National Museum of Korea: Standing behind a large artificial pond, the six-story, state-of-the-art complex attempts to retell a part of Korean history on each of its floors. “It’s where you see Korea’s most valuable treasures. Last year on Korea’s National Liberation Day, it’s where President Moon Jae-in chose to give his address.”

War Memorial of Korea: An excellent destination for history buffs “who are excited for their trip to the Demilitarized Zone. And it’s walkable from our home.” Visitors can better understand modern Korean history through relics like General Douglas MacArthur’s original telecommunications documents, a soldier’s punctured helmet, rusted military badges and identification cards, and Kim Il-sung’s car.

Amorepacific Headquarters: “Designed by the British firm David Chipperfield Architects for Korea’s largest beauty company, its grandeur has architects constantly visiting and snapping photos — everything down to the elevators and bathrooms. The lower levels are community spaces with everything from a flower shop to a library to a makeup museum: test out Korean makeup, learn about its history, and when you’re hungry, conveniently head to any of the chic eateries in the basement.”

About the author: Christine Lee is a San Francisco-based writer and editorial assistant at Airbnb Magazine. When not writing, she can be found hunting for the best bowl of ramen or her next read in used bookstores.

About the photographer: Ryan Kim is a travel and lifestyle photographer for Airbnb, who loves daydreaming about climbing rocks, roasting coffee, and winning his cat’s affection.