itchy feet cravings

Autumn in Seoul [Part 1: palace-hopping]

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.

The throne inside Geunjeong-jeon and vicinity
architecture inside Geunjeong-jeon

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.

the view from Gyeongbokgung Palace

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.

the ceremonial changing of the Palace guards
Gyeonghoe-ru pavilion where the king used to entertain foreign envoys or hold large-scale banquets for his ministers
Hyangwon-jeong, where kings and queens find time to relax

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.

Geoncheong-gung where Queen Min was said to be assassinated by the Japanese agents
traditional Korean jars
the intricate design of the ceiling of Gwanghwamun gate

On the other hand, Changdeokgung Palace stood to be the beloved residence of later Joseon monarchs. We visited Changdeok on our third day in Seoul because it was just a five-minute walk from the Guesthouse. Based on the booklet handed to us, the buildings inside Changdeok are laid out freely to conform with the hilly scenery.

view of the entrance to Changdeokgong Palace

It was a favorite place of the royal family probably because it was  closer to nature and the rear garden inside, nestled among hills, is considered the largest and most beautiful of all Joseon palace compounds. It is called one of the “eastern palaces;  built primarily to support the main Gyeongbokgung compound.

Like any other palaces in Seoul, Changdeokgung was heavily damaged during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The son of the murdered Empress Myeongseong, Emperor Sunjong, lived here until his death together with his wife, Empress Sunjeong.

Empress Sunjeong was said to have stayed in Changdeok palace during the Korean War. The palace was invaded by forces from the North but she was able to drive them out. She eventually moved to Busan when the war became serious, with other members of the Imperial family.

But once inside the compound we spent the time touring the Rear Garden (Biwon) which showcased the Joseon-era landscaping. This area is truly impressive and was the spot were kings and queens strolled.

Juham-ru place that embodies King Jeongjo's ideals and aspirations

pond-size gazebo at the Biwon garden
a gazebo where one can spend a leisure time reading and having a quiet time...

According to the map, the rear garden was meant as a venue for kings and the royal family to unwind but it was also a favorite venue for outdoor exercises such as archery contests. Queen dowagers also organize banquets here together with prominent relatives of the king and high-ranking ministers. Some kings tried planting here, while queens would engage in sericulture. There’s also a traditional mansion that hosts separate buildings of the men and women called Yeongyeong-dang. Though they are plainly adorned buildings, they add a special touch to atmosphere of the garden.

inside Yeongyeong-dang
these stones were used to aid people riding horses
grand trees inside Changdeokgung
Ongnyucheon, a stream where people back then enjoyed wine and writing poetry

When it was restored to its original form, Changdeok Palace’s beauty and grandeur was revived and made evident. Enough so, it was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Going here, one can take Subway Line 3 and get off at Anguk Station or at Jongno-3 (sam) -ga Station which I think would be a 10-minute walk to Changdeok.

taking a rest during the hiking
going down the hill

I thought I would tire of Korean palaces easily after seeing two of Seoul’s famous palaces. Unfortunately, it only left me hankering to see more. I’m keeping my fingers crossed so that in my next trip to Seoul, I could complete touring three other major palaces which I’ve seen in Korean saeguk dramas.

But then who knows, it might just happen sooner than I expect. 🙂

Additional sources of information: Wikipedia and Koreana: A Quarterly on Korean Art and Culture.

5 thoughts on “Autumn in Seoul [Part 1: palace-hopping]

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