South Korea: In love with palaces

21 June 2012

Gwanghwamun Square is a must.

SONY DSCIt overlooks Gyeongbokgung, a place that has served as the main palace for more than 500 years. Mt Bugaksan is to its rear and the main entrance faces the square as well as modern Seoul. It really is a nice blend of traditional and contemporary Korea. It was reduced to ashes by the Japanese invasion in 1592 then rebuilt in 1867 with over 500 buildings,  palace walls, different courts, residence quarters and gardens. During the Japanese occupation (yet again) in the early 1900’s, this symbol of national sovereignty was demolished and land was transferred to the then Japanese official. More than 90% of the palace buildings were torn down and restoration of Gyeongbokgung back to its former glory has been ongoing since 1990.

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I arrived just in time for the Ceremony of  Gate Guard Change.  The Palace Gate Guards from the Joseon period guards the gates of the city and the palace where the royal families resided. There is a strict procedure and ceremony involved in the opening and closing of the gates.

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This special event which allow visitors a glimpse into the ancient Dynasty happens everyday (except Tuesday) and for 6 times a day ( every hour from 10 am to 3pm -lasting for 15 minutes). Of course, if you want to have a Royal Dress experience, there are places for that too ( www.sumunjang.or.kr).

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The 5 m high walls that extends for over 2404 meters protects many of the throne halls, buildings and structures inside the palace.

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After the main gate, I arrived at Geunjeongjeon vicinity which is the main throne hall of the palace. This is where the king conducts his affairs and have meetings as well as hold receipts for foreign envoys. It is also an important place for the coronation ceremony.

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Yeongjegyo bridge with Seosu (imaginary creature) was restored in 2001.

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Behind the main throne hall, are the residence of the King, Queen, Crown Prince, Concubines, Inner Courts and other more throne halls.

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Right in the middle of Gyeongbokgung Palace is one of the few structures that is surrounded by water. The Gyeonghoeru Pavilion was where the king threw formal banquets for foreign envoys. Although closed to the public, a sweeping view of the palace and Mount Inwangsan could be seen from Gyeonghoeru. It was burnt down by the Japanese and rebuilt in 1867.

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It is said to have been built according to the principles of        I Ching (Book of Changes)

It was under the shades of the oak tree that I met Mr Kim, a retiree in his 60s. He mixed the paint in an experienced fashion and took great care with every brush stroke. His painting is a realistic and romanticised version of the pavilion and it was so wonderful to see him enjoying life.

“An Nyeong (Hi) Sir”

He smiled and started to speak to me in broken English.

“This is my paint. Nice day. Now I can paint, before no. You no look like Korean haha. My wife is home, I am here, my childs is away and I am here.”SONY DSC

I’ve watched him for a good ten minutes, admiring his work and his current lifestyle. He knew I was watching and wasn’t at all creeped out. I know that my presence can be somewhat uncomfortable at times but I can’t stop myself from chatting with locals.

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Towards the back of the palace is the garden. There are plenty of empty grounds that offers a nice view of the Mountain in the distance. Behind the rear of the concubines’ quarters lies one of my favourite spots in the palace.

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Unlike the rather masculine structure of the pavilion, this second structure surrounded by a body of water is more Ying or feminine, gentle and green. The square pond, Hyangwonji where a pavilion lies in the centre of the islet is the King’s palace within a palace.

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Quiet Geoncheonggung

In fact, this is the only place in Gyeongbokgung to be named a ‘gung’ (palace).  It has a separate living quarter for both the king and queen as well as a study room. Unfortunately, the queen was assassinated here as she refused Japanese dominance in Joseon’s domestic affairs and as a result of her turning to Russia for support, she was stabbed to death and later burnt on the hillside of Noksan. China had an influence and supported Joseon but after the defeat of the  Sino-Japanese War,  China was left in tatters hence why the Japanese started to become more aggressive. The King was smuggled out to the Russian legation on 11 February, 1896….and that was it. Shame on Japan for always invading their Asian neighbours, starting wars and destroying cultural sites.

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I ended the day at Insadong -a modern maze of alleys, stores, galleries and nice restaurants. I thought about the story behind Gyeongbokgung and how the king and queen must have felt…that sense of helplessness and that pain of watching your country fall into the hands of invaders.

22 June 2012

Markets and super malls intimidates me. My last day in Seoul was spent at two more ‘gungs’ (palaces).  To the east of Gyeongbukgung is Changdeokgung (UNESCO WHL), the residence for many kings and also a main palace for about 270 years. Constructed at the base of a mountain, it is the only palace that is laid out in harmony with the topography. Like the other palaces, it was destroyed during the Japanese occupation. Restoration started in 1991 and still continues today.

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Throne room where major state affairs are conducted

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Out of the various halls, living quarters, offices, pavilions, shrines and gardens, the building with the blue tiles stands out the most. It shows that this was where the king conducts his state affairs. SONY DSC

You can only see the secret garden (the secluded rear garden of the palace) through guided tours. It served several purposes-an archery range, venue for banquets and place to relax. The royal family also used the garden for farming and raising silkworms.

The last palace before leaving Seoul is the Changgyeong Palace. It was the third palace compound built in Joseon.  It was intended for residential use thus its inner halls are bigger than the outer halls (administrative). The main gate and throne hall faces east, unlike the norm, which is south.

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Queen’s residence

Out of all the palaces, this is perhaps the one with the most amount of garden space. Constructed after 98 palaces were destroyed in the Japanese invasion in 1592, it took several revolts, rebellions and fire to destroy this palace. Of course, what we see today is only a replica/restoration.

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Great Greenhouse

The palace originally had no garden. The Japanese established a zoo and park. The greenhouse , built in 1909, is Korea’s first modern conservatory.

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Dominated by modern Seoul

I’m off to Daegu tomorrow to see an old friend and as I strolled around the busy evening streets, I can’t help but feel a bit sad that Korean tradition is being consumed by the modern world.

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