I don’t really know what it is about South Korea’s palaces that made me rave to personally see these structures magnificently shown in most Korean dramas I’ve watched in Manila. Ever since I started watching historical K-dramas, I was magnetically drawn to their interesting plot and of course, location shoots that I found enthralling in their beauty. There’s something spiritual with these palaces. So when an opportunity came, I immediately dragged, Jen, the practical fashionista and a close friend of mine, to visit their capital city, Seoul and made a pact to at least get myself “palaced-out” to get rid of this “palace” craving once and for all. While here, we visited at least two royal palaces: Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. Some of the scenes of the popular K-drama Dae Jang Geum [a.k.a. Jewel in the Palace] were reportedly shot here.
Though we arrived here in October last month, until now, looking up on my photo gallery, our “Seoul”-ful experience remains vivid in my mind, as if we’ve just been there yesterday. Both Jen and I resolved that we are not going to resign ourselves to an ordinary vacation where we get on and off a tourist bus that would bring us to a certain location based on a detailed itinerary. We made a pact to savor the sights, the taste, the history, the arts, the culture of this nation called the “Land of the Morning Calm,” on our own, the way we want it to be.
Hours after arriving at the Incheon International Airport, we deposited our luggages at Beewon Guesthouse and immediately went to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Truly, you can’t make a trip to Seoul without seeing at least one of its palaces. Seoul has a lot and the most obvious choice for first-timers in SK would be the Gyeongbokgung Palace. We hied off to this popular edifice which is at least a 30-minute walk from our lodging. If you want to come here without having to walk that long, just take Subway Line 3 and get off at Gyeongbukgong Station.
Restoration of the Gyeongbokgung Palace was part of South Korea’s “Set History Right” movement that took hold during the 1990s. The 20-year phase project was focused first on the reconstruction of the Gwanghwamun Gate which was destroyed and altered during the Japanese annexation of Korea and during the Korean war in 1951. Reading the pamphlet given to us at the entrance, Gyeongbokgung was the first palace compound to be built by the Joseon Dynasty founder (1392-1910). It was destroyed during the Japanese invasion in 1592-1598 and the site was vacant for the next 273 years. Koreans consider that Gyeongbokgung Palace’s fame was at its peak during King Sejong’s reign in 1418-1450. Sejong is the founder and inventor of the Hangeul, the writing system used by Koreans to this day.
Once there, you’d be amazed at how wide and spacious this Palace’s ground is, not to mention the breathtaking views of Seoul’s mountains as its backdrop. In a single visit, it’s difficult to grasp everything at once but you can tour the ground at a leisure pace. Every hour, the ceremonial changing of the guards is held at the Gwanghwamun gate. My advice to those visiting here: tour the 18 structures inside the compound first and wait at the entrance later to watch the ceremony. You can ask the personnel at front gate for the schedule.
What made Gyeongbokgung more popular, if not controversial, is the story about the assassination of Korea’s last queen, Empress Myeongseong (Queen Min). This painful issue has sparked so many heated exchanges about the history of Japan and Korea. If you want to know more about their queen’s accomplishments that ended in tragedy, watch the gripping K-movie A Sword With No Name and/or the K-drama The Last Empress. The queen was said to have been murdered by Japanese agents in her bedroom at the Geoncheong-gung. Historians claim she was a strong voice against the Japanese who considered her an impediment against their plans for overseas expansion.