We packed a little less activity into day two of our brief sightseeing trip to Seoul, Korea than day one of our visit. The Seoul City Bus doesn’t run on Mondays so we relied on the Seoul Metro for transportation. It’s possible that we lost an hour of our day simply standing on escalators as we were lowered or lifted up from the subterranean stops!
We started our day with a visit to Gyeongbokgung, otherwise known as the “Palace of Shining Happiness.”
First, a brief history lesson. The palace was constructed by King Taejo in 1394, two years after he selected Seoul as his first capital. It was an auspicious beginning: The Joseon dynasty he founded would continue to lead Korea for another roughly 500 years, until 1910. In that year, King Sunjong’s rule ended when Japan annexed Korea. The palace didn’t really survive all those years — it was in ruins for 300 years after it was burnt during the Japanese invasion in 1592. Rebuilt in the 1860s, it was again almost entirely destroyed during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945). In 1989, major reconstruction began yet again. Let us hope that this version survives.
We started our visit with a couple of family pictures. Liam had his moments but, overall, he proved himself yet again to be a good traveler, humoring his parents as we dragged him from one historical site to the next.
The main gate is the backdrop for hourly changing of the guard ceremonies. We were lucky enough to be nearby when one started.
The Heungnyemun gate in the front courtyard swoops gracefully against the backdrop of sky and mountains.
After we passed through the gate, I was impressed by the size of the courtyard leading to Geunjeongjeon Hall, which served as the palace’s throne room. I can imagine being quite intimidated as a courtier approaching the king’s throne.
There were 12 stone markers, each of which had a court official’s rank written on it. (They were in pairs, but you can’t see the other row in this picture.) When the king was on the throne for a special event, his officials lined up by their markers.
This dog statue is fierce!
You couldn’t enter the hall, but you could walk up on the porch and gaze inside. The throne sits grandly in the middle of the hall’s back wall. I loved how brightly and vividly the surrounding woodwork had been painted.
Here’s a view of the throne room from the side:
The edge of the courtyard had a covered walkway. It reminded me of the cloisters we saw at churches and colleges in England.
Just as we had at Changgyeonggung Palace, we enjoyed strolling the palace grounds and peeking into the buildings that were open for view, including halls which would have served as bed chambers for the kings and queens. In some cases, the interiors were quite austere, although lovely.
Liam was the only one who didn’t have to duck to pass through this doorway:
This trio of young ladies looked so sweet in their traditional hanbok dresses that I got up the nerve to ask them for a picture. They readily agreed. (I love the middle girl’s pink hair!)
The Gyeonghoeru is a pavilion built in 1412 which sits in the middle of a man-made lake. Entry is only by invitation or a special tour. We had to content ourselves with admiring it from afar.
After the palace, we walked into the Insadong neighborhood, a district known for its art galleries, restaurants and charming vibe. We were indeed charmed. In Insadong, we continued our tradition of purchasing art while on vacation. We aren’t big on souvenirs, besides quirky fridge magnets, but we cherish all the prints that we’ve picked up over the years. The walls of our home are covered with memories. For this trip, we picked out a small square woodblock print from Jeon-Gak Gallery titled ‘Bong-hwang’s Auspicious Aura Gather Into the House.’ I like to think it will bring us good luck. (At least it will once I get it framed and on display!)
We had lunch at Gaesung Mandu – Koong, a Korean restaurant famous for its traditional dumplings. We ate a hearty, fulfilling, delicious lunch there. (You know they are fresh. A woman in the front window was making them as we entered.) The little bowls of kimchee to start were a pleasant surprise, as was just how good the side dish of potato pancakes tasted.
Next, we took the Metro to visit the Seoul Museum of History. Metro stations in Seoul also double as shelters in case of disaster. It was a sobering reminder of the constant threat of conflict with North Korea. These gas mask and supply stations were a common sight on subway platforms:
The Seoul Museum of History would probably have been a great experience. Alas, despite my guidebook assuring me it would be open on a Monday, it wasn’t. The grounds and surrounding neighborhood were pretty, though.
The museum’s closure, and the realization that most everything else we were hoping to see was either on the other side of the city or closed, took the wind out of our sales. We decided to head back toward Itawaeon so we’d be nearer our hotel for dinner.
In Itaewon, we grabbed beers and a ginger ale at the Thirsty Monk and enjoyed sitting and sipping for an hour. Not a bad view:
The downside to Itaewon? As an expat enclave, the restaurant choices are incredibly diverse and foreign. Fancy Korean food? Not impossible, but not as easy as we expected. We had a great dinner. A great Chinese dinner.
The shuttle bus that took us back and forth to Incheon International Airport whisked us past numerous, massive, apartment buildings. They were clearly grouped into complexes and usually had giant numbers on the side. It made me curious, since it was unlike the housing we’ve seen anywhere in the world. Not that apartment buildings are odd – there’s tons of them in Tokyo, of course – but the style of grouping them was unusual. This Japan Times article cleared up some of the mystery for me. The apartments may look sparse on the outside, but apparently they are often quite nice inside.
Needless to say, we didn’t — and won’t — see the interior of a Korean home. Our trip was too brief, too touristy. One of the fascinating aspects of travel, though, is the insights you gain into the lives of people who do live in the cities you pass through. In London, they love pubs. In Seoul, coffee shops are everywhere. At castles in Germany, we spotted no one in a dirndl who wasn’t an employee. But in Korea, numerous young women strolled the grounds in floaty handbooks. In Tokyo, outdoor markets are few and far between. In Seoul, entire malls are arranged around flea market-style booths. I wouldn’t claim to understand Japanese culture, even after living here for two years, so I’m not about to make broad generalizations about Korea after two days. It’s good, though, to see a little more, know a little more, care a little more, about Korea than I would have before I boarded a plane and set foot on its soil with my own two feet.