(This entry needs to be cleaned up still, but here are the notes)
한자 Hanja (漢字) is the Korean word for Chinese character. Until the 20th century, most Korean books were published entirely in Hanja. These days, however, Hanja have been phased out almost entirely from the public view. It is far more common to see English on a sign than it is to see Hanja.
People who stay in Korea for a short time are sometimes under the false impression that hanja are everywhere. This is only so in places where there are a lot of Japanese or Chinese tourists. Look for instance at all these signs in Namdaemun Market, which target Japanese customers, with ginseng, lingerie, and BaeYonJoon socks. Indeed, hanja often indicate an either Japanese or Chinese affiliation. Japanese or Chinese restaurants often have their signs in hanja.
Hanja on a sign often gives the sense of tradition and heritage, so naturally the Insadong area of Seoul, which caters to tourists seeking a traditional Korean experience, has a lot of hanja on the signs.
Perhaps, the most frequently occurring hanja is the one for big. It is a pictograph of a person with outstretched arms. It appears on signs indicating big store sales, special events, or large size items on a menu.
Another easy Hanja is this one. Koreans do love mountains, so this hanja appears fairly often.
The hanja for widely eaten animals often appear, particularly the hanja for cow and pig.
The hanja for spicy often appears on signs, and this makes sense since Koreans love spicy food.
This character seng indicates a restaurant serving raw fish.
Buildings often have names which are written out in hanja.
You might be able to guess that 24 on a supermarket sign means 24 hours.
This character means beauty and is often on the signs of beauty salons.
These characters mean east and west, indicating that the restaurant sells seafood from both the east and west coast.
This is the character for chung. Chung means something like the bond between people created by shared experience.
Other hanja seem to appear to add style or design sense.
In this case, the Hanja for friend, which vaguely looks like an F, is stylishly inserted into the word.
As you can see, the use of Hanja in modern Korea is pretty random. Don’t feel bad if you can’t read them, because the fact is that even many modern Koreans struggle with hanja.
Shops specializing in traditional Korean medicine often have hanja, because they want to evoke that traditional, authentic Asian aura.
(EDIT OUT) By the way, these two words together appear occasionally on signs. The character on the left means name, the one on the right means family — together they mean “prestigious family.”
On signs connected to fortune-telling, you’ll often see this character. (EDIT OUT) This neon sign was filmed in Japan — Korean signs don’t usually have cool-looking cartoons like this.
Whoever runs these establishments seem to fancy the idea of themselves as well-educated people.
Cool is an important word in the hot Korean summer. So, naturally, the hanja for cool often appears to advertise cold noodles, and iced coffee.
The character for “seng” meaning fresh or living appears on a great deal of signs. In Korea, it most often indicates a restaurant serving raw fish, whereas in Japan it typically indicates draft beer when seen on a menu.
I am not sure why but buildings often have names which are written out in Hanja. They have a stern and conservative sign on the building like this one:
(EDIT OUT) A very important concept in Asia is “ki” or the “chi” in the Tai-chi martial art. Its character is seen here and there.
Here, the hanja for color is used stylishly in this yogurt drink brand container. It says five colors five feelings, but I’m confused because cherries, tomatoes, apples, and strawberries are all red, aren’t they?
(EDIT OUT) This sign writes “five senses” in hanja. It says the Five Senses Design.
(EDIT OUT) You might be able to guess that 24 on a supermarket sign means 24 hours. Indeed, the character here means “hour” — you’ll often see it on store signs, saying for example from 9 to 5.
This character means “beauty.” It is pronounced as “mi.” The word for hair salon is “miyongshil,” and thus seeing this character on the sign generally indicates a hair salon or sometimes another establishment dedicated to making people look better. In a newspaper setting, this character is also used to represent America.
This character means “luck.” that product is a seat cover. I guess it’s a good luck seat cover.
(EDIT OUT) This character refers to music or entertainment, thus appropriately placed on a flyer for a concert.
These characters mean East and West. The restaurant sign says “Korean Seafood” in English. It probably means that the restaurant sells fish from both Korea’s East and West coasts, as opposed to the restaurants which specialize in seafood from only one coast or the other.
(EDIT OUT) The bottom character on this sign is a very pictorial character. Doesn’t it look like chunks of meat on a skewer? Indeed, that’s what the character means.
(EDIT OUT) This is a character that every Korean knows, because it appears on one of the cards in the Hwatu game. Hwatu is the most popular card game in Korean.
(EDIT OUT) This is the character for “chung.” Chung is a word that Koreans have a hard time to say it in English, but it means something like “the bond between people created by shared experience.”
(EDIT OUT) This is a very common character in China, meaning happiness. You’ve probably seen this character in the sign board of every Chinatown in the world.
EDIT OUT (This is the character for taste. In this case, the word before is “Il” meaning Japanese, so the restaurant offers a Japanese taste to its food. )
Meanwhile, some characters on signs are just really difficult, and I have no idea what they mean. Or else, on some signs I see a character I know, but have no idea why it appears on this specific sign. In certain cases, I have asked a Korean friend, and haven’t been able to get an answer.
The character above (酒）means alcohol or 술 in Korean. You can often see it on the signs of drinking places. See http://www.koreasigns.com/signs/hop and www.koreasigns.com/signs/soju for more details