30th April 2017
Discovering the Soul of Seoul in South Korea
South Korea has emerged from the tragic Korean War like a butterfly from a chrysalis – colourful and beautiful. And Seoul is its flagship, bursting with history and traditions. I was lucky to have a Korean guide who gave me a good insight into the Korean way of life. Ellison was born and raised in a village not far from Busan but now lives in Seoul. Guiding is not an easy job but Ellison had just the right mix of information, humour and companionship – the whole experience was interesting and fun.
My tour started at Changdeokgung Palace one of five great palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty or Chosŏn dynasty. It replaced their first palace, Gyeongbokgung Palace built in 1405 as the principal palace for many kings of the Joseon Dynasty. Changdeokgung Palace is the best preserved of the five remaining royal Joseon palaces but this is not the original building. That was burned down by angry citizens in 1592 when the royal family left Seoul during the Japanese invasion of Korea. It was thanks to Gwanghaegun, the fifteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty, that the palace was restored in 1611. Soon after entering the palace I noticed a lot of fine mesh around the roofs of the buildings. When I mentioned this Ellison told me that it was to prevent birds nesting in the nooks and crannies and the fledglings maybe getting stuck up there and dying. Traditionally the king was the only person who could die in the palace. Therefore, should a visitor or an employee collapse in the palace they will be removed as quickly as possible – just in case.
Today the palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to a number of cultural treasures including the Injeongjeon Hall, Daejojeon Hall, Seonjeongjeon Hall. We spent some time in front of the Injeongjeon Hall which was used for formal occasions. Ellison told me that originally the stones on the path leading up this hall were very rough and uneven. This meant that visitors had to look down to see where they should place their feet which had the effect of bowing in front of the king. She also showed me the iron hooks where a canopy was attached ensuring the king and his courtiers were in the shade while the commoners had to stand in the sun.
In the grounds of the palace there is a public area, royal family residences and a garden. The architecture and black and white colouring of the residences is more the style of commoners than royalty but this was built as a summer palace which would explain the colouring. The family residences are elevated as they had underground heating. The family slept on the floor on thin mattresses to be as close as possible to the source of the heat. Some of the buildings have high sills at the entrance so that passers-by could not see family members sleeping on the floor. Sleeping on the floor is still a common practice in South Korea and Ellison has always slept on the floor (except when staying in a hotel that does not cater for this custom). When they get too old to get down on the floor they sleep on heated blocks of marble on a thin mattress which has the same effect as sleeping on the floor. Through a doorway in one of these residences I could see a part of the garden. This palace is also famous for its Secret Garden, a place where the royal family could relax. However, it was also the venue for a variety of events including military exercises and archery competitions.
As we left the palace a large group of students arrived – all in traditional costume known as the hanbok. It is only one hundred years ago that the hanbok ceased being the daily dress of South Koreans. Some Koreans keep a hanbok for special occasions such as a wedding but mostly they now hire them for example, students will hire them to go on a school outing. The graceful shape and vibrant colours of the hanbok have influenced modern fashion and many designers have produced a hanbok suitable for everyday wear in the twenty-first century.
Another very colourful tradition in Seoul is the changing of the guards ceremony at Deoksu Palace This ceremony was re-introduced in 1996 after being researched by leading historians to exactly replicate the original tradition. It is held three times daily (except Monday) in front of the Daehanmun Gate. We arrived just as the eleven o’clock ceremony began. The ceremony lasts for thirty minutes during which traditional instruments are played including the beating of a huge drum, passwords are exchanged and the new guard replaces the old guard. After the ceremony visitors are invited to take photographs with the guards. It was a great experience.
Seoul is a fusion of modern and traditional and features an area packed with traditional one-storey houses called Hanok that date back to the Joseon Dynasty. Bukchon Hanok Village comprises several streets lined with traditional houses. This quaint village is almost six hundred years old and occupies a hilly area of the north of the Cheonggyecheon Stream that runs through the centre of Seoul. Visitors to this area can enjoy views of some of the historic buildings of Seoul – Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace and Jongmyo shrine that surround it. During the Joseon Dynasty, royal families, aristocrats, wealthy citizens, and government officials lived in many of the hanok residences in the village. Today the village remains relatively unchanged as many of the buildings have been restored using traditional methods and materials. Restaurants, tea houses, museums and cultural centres such as the Bukchon Traditional Culture Centre offer visitors a traditional Korean experience. But notices on doors requesting visitors to be quiet are a reminder that this is still a popular residential area.
Although I am not a shopper, even for souvenirs and postcards, I did agree to visit Insadong Antique Alley, located in the heart of the city. This a shopping street where a wide variety of goods can be bought in the small shops that line a pedestrian street. It defies the tradition of concentrating the same products in the same street but that is because this street has always been the focal point of Korean traditional culture and crafts. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) it was a centre for artists. Today it retains this tradition and has become a unique place for folk crafts and also the host for art events and festivals. Products available include traditional paper, traditional teas, pottery, calligraphy materials, antique furniture and folk crafts. Despite the huge variety of beautiful goods on display I was not tempted.
But I was tempted to try a traditional South Korean dish in a local restaurant in this area. Bibimbap, the word means mixed rice, is served in a bowl of warm white rice. Piled on top of this rice is namul (sautéed and seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (chili pepper paste), soy sauce, or doenjang (a fermented soybean paste). A raw or fried egg and sliced meat (usually beef) are common additions. I had beef with a raw egg. The egg cooks when the components are mixed together. I was also given several little plates containing a variety of things like kimchi, and pickled radish. A good accompaniment to this meal is a glass of the local beer – Kloud.
Our next stop was Gwangjang market, the nation’s first market. A visit to Gwangjang Market is a must for Korean couples planning their wedding and setting up their new home. Couples can purchase everything they need under one roof at good prices: home furnishings, bedding, yedan (wedding presents given by the bride to the groom’s family), hanbok (traditional Korean attire). In South Korea a marriage represents the joining of two families and not just the joining of two people. A plethora of traditions and customs are associated with a South Korean wedding. Whereas inhabitants of the main cities may no longer follow all the prescribed practices they are still popular in rural areas. Some of the traditions are simply too expensive for young couples for example the tradition of buying the in-laws a whole new set of bedding and an expensive present for the mother-in-law. The market features vibrant displays of colourful bedding
A large section of this market features food and street food. The latter is a strong tradition in South Korea and many of the stalls are surrounded by benches or stools so people could sit and eat at them.
My final stop in Seoul was the Namson Seoul Tower, on the summit of Namson Hill From the viewing platform at the top I had a panoramic view of the city of Seoul below me. I could also see some dancers warming up in the courtyard at the bottom of the tower and made my way down again to watch the shower. Performances of Korean traditional Martial Arts and Music are a regular feature here and it was a good note on which to end my day.
It was a great day out – thanks Ellison.
If my article has inspired you to visit South Korea check this list of twenty unusual things you might like to try while you are there.
I visited Seoul during a trip to South Korea organised by Solos Holidays. We flew to Seoul with Korean Air and then toured the country in a bus. Our tour took place during the first two weeks of April when the cherry blossom was in full bloom across the country.