Now, where was I?
Oh yes, Seoul!
As we all know, I am enamored with history. The older the better, really! And while I did visit some modern-day sites in Seoul, we cannot forget why I truly went.
Wait, that wasn’t right…
On one of the tours, I had the opportunity to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace.
By no means was this the only palace located in Seoul – one of many, in fact. However, this is the largest of the palaces remaining today and was considered the ‘main palace’ during the Joseon dynasty (roughly 139 to 1894). Don’t get me wrong – the palace itself was burned down more than a few times throughout the centuries! Afterall, it was the primary residence of the emperors (and family), so it had a great big target right there, but it was always restored at the same site.
In fact, during World War I, when Japan occupied Korea (lots of Not Good ™ stuff there), they not only demolished several buildings in the complex, but they also built the Japanese General Government Building on the same spot, in order to symbolically ‘conquer’ the land as well. Ah, that didn’t work so much. Once the Koreans had ousted the Japanese, they not only tore down the Government Building but rebuilt their palace. Our tour guide brought pictures!
While only one or two buildings remain for many of the other Palaces throughout Seoul (and there are quite a few of them, my friends), this one was a full complex. Not as large as the Forbidden City in Beijing (I’ll get to THAT post in a few weeks!), but certainly massive! I could have stayed the entire day, but, alas, tour-group…
Pause here a moment. In Seoul, for several of the palaces, if you’ll dress up in hanboks – traditional Korean garb from the Joseon period – you can get through the gates free of charge. It’s a way to encourage folks to dress up and enjoy their surroundings. Around those palaces which do this, there are a number of costume shops who cater to just such a thing, even for foreigners like myself so OF COURSE I leapt at the opportunity to do this!!
It wasn’t just me!! Everyone in my tour group dressed up, even a couple of them who were hesitant at first. Once we got to the shops, everyone got excited about playing dress up.
As we were heading into the Palace, I made a comment about how THIS was how you could tell the tourists from the locals – we were the ones in the pretty gowns. But, ah, nope! It was everyone! Ok, not everyone-everyone, but there was a pretty large percentage of people wandering the grounds all dressed appropriately, young and old alike!
I loved the coloring for my hanbok. Need to figure out how to get my hands on this material and have something made for myself….
Now, back to the tour…
Whenever there was a large-scale event, the people (read: officials and nobles – often the same) would stand in the courtyard. They would line up neatly, according to rank. These stone markers were left over from the time – this is how they knew where to stand. Highest ranking officials would stand in the very front, closest to the Emperor, and so on. The building in the background there? That would be the throne room. We’ll get to that in a moment.
As you’ve likely noticed, besides the courtyard stones and the dais on which the main palace was built, everything else is wood. And yes, the Palace burned down quite a few times (I’m sure revolutions had something to do with many of those). At regular intervals, large metal bowls were placed about the outside of the main building. These were kept full of water, but, let’s face it, that’s a rather small container compared to the huge complex as a whole, especially since they were only located in this one area (and likely scattered throughout when actually in use). This wasn’t designed to put out said fires, not exactly, but instead intended to ward off fire spirits with water spirits.
In addition to the water barrels keeping fire spirits at bay, well, let’s do this – did you notice any small gritters in the above pics? They are scattered throughout courtyard surrounding the throne room – stone statues which represent the twelve animals of the zodiac.
And dragons. Can’t forget the dragons. Part of the Chinese zodiac, but the Dragon also represents the Emperor himself. You could find dragons on the roofs of many of the buildings.
And a phoenix. I’ve seen where the throne at Gyeonbokgung has also been called the “Phoenix Throne” because of the heredity – the rulership carrying on through each new line.
I seemed to remember the tour guide mentioning the only creature missing was the pig. Why? Because the Emperor at the time did not trust one of his officials who was born in the year of the pig. I couldn’t find anything to collaborate this story online when I was nosing about so please take this story with a grain of salt.
Now, the throne room itself was huge!! We weren’t allowed to go in (not here or into any of the buildings… but makes sense), but the doors were flung wide so we could at least SEE it. I gotta say, I love the colors that were used. These bright shades can be seen at all the different palaces, and even on the outside of many of the buildings, but looking at the throne… I deserve a cookie for not going in there.
The complex was sprawling, taking over a couple of city blocks. They even have their very own man-made lake to one side. It’s very easy to forget when you are…
In the background, you have a fine view of the mountains which surround Seoul itself, atop which is the Seoul city wall. You can’t see the city wall from here during the day, but at night, it’s all lit up, like a line in the sky all around the city. Even during the day, however, the mountains made a breathtaking backdrop to the Palace.
Not all the courtyards were this wide open – only on the outskirts. As you moved deeper into the complex, the buildings were more tightly built together as well as the additional walls dividing the sections.
Towards the middle of the complex would be the Queen’s quarters. Once the Emperor was married, his wife was not to leave the compound. In fact, she wasn’t supposed to leave the small area she was relegated to! Don’t get me wrong. Her quarters were lovely, spacious for the time even… (again, please take this with a grain of salt – this is what the tour guide was telling us)
She even had a garden just for her and her Ladies in waiting! How nice… Not exactly a large courtyard compared to the rest, but still, small and private.
Sure, there’s this wall around the whole area, and of course, additional walls around the Palace itself, but this space was specifically for the Queen.
Pretty sure I couldn’t handle that…
There were more gardens than just those in the Queen’s courtyard. Honestly, it the palace complex was large enough, I could have spent the entire day there simply nosing around and investigating the details, and not gotten enough of it.
Don’t forget, this little slice of history is smack dab in the middle of Seoul. Seeing everyone in their hanboks and walking through the many courtyards, it was easy to forget, but then you turn a corner and bam! Skyscrapers.
Like in London, they still hold the Changing of the Guard ceremony (along with others) at Gyeongbokgung Palace. Usually, this takes place at 11am each day, and my tour would have taken place during this time, however, the ceremony was cancelled, and instead we got to watch a new guard be sworn in – which they do each year. All very symbolic and beautiful. I’m very glad we got to see it.
Please notice how I didn’t actually lick anything here.
…. Yeah, I was disappointed in myself when I realized this as well… Just means I gotta go back and rectify this! I want to see more of the palaces anyway, and there is so much more in Seoul – nah, in South Korea as a whole – that I still want to see.
Don’t get me wrong! I was still unrepentantly ME… I don’t know how to be any other way!