Seoul: Gyeongbokgung Palace
What I love with South Korea is that, they cared much on their historical structures which shaped up the Korean nation. Everything that was destroyed during the colonial era and the Korean War is slowly being rebuilt, employing traditional building methods as much as possible. Their investment is now being paid off, not only instilling Korean pride but also becoming lucrative tourist attractions.
One of the most famous Joseon-era tourist attractions in Seoul is the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Located at the heart of Hanyang (now Seoul), with Mount Bugaksan as its backdrop, it serves as the main palace of the Joseon royal family. Basically, it is the seat of government of the Korean kingdom.
When the Japanese finally fulfilled their centuries-old ambition of colonializing Korea in 1910, they demolished virtually the entire complex, effectively obliterating the very symbol of Korean sovereignty. The colonizers built the Government-General building directly behind the Gwanghwamun Gate to further deliberately deface the already razed Joseon-era palace.
Now the Japanese has long been expelled, the Government-General building, which served as a painful memory of Japanese imperialism, was demolished in 1995. What’s left behind this Japanese-era building is a vast, empty ground, with barely any remains of the building remaining. Since then, until now, the Korean government is still undergoing restoration efforts in the palace complex. When we visited the place, we saw couple of areas that were closed off to public, with signs saying that archaeological efforts are being undertaken there. Much of Gyeongbokgung are rebuilt and restored to their original specifications, employing traditional construction methods as much as possible. Roughly half of the entire palace complex has already been restored.
During our visit in an early March, the weather is cold. One of our flocks lent us complete winter gear which provided us warmth. Fellow sheep Tristan brought a coil thermometer and this gives an idea on how cold it can be in Korea.
(Hangul: 광화문, Hanja: 光化門) This serves as the main gate leading to the palace, directly at the northern end of Sejong Daero. It is an important landmark in Seoul and served as a symbol of the city as the capital of Korea since the Joseon dynasty.
The gate was one of those restored: its original was deliberately moved somewhere by the Japanese colonizers and has also been a casualty of the Korean War. The structure was restored with meticulous attention to historical detail, even to the point of using the same materials the original is also made of. The restoration efforts commenced in 2006 and were finished in August 2010.
You noticed the Chinese character sign at the top of the gate? You may noticed that the characters are arranged from right to left. Traditional Chinese writing are written top to bottom, columns arranging from right to left. In the case of this signages (as well as other ancient signages scattered in Korea, Japan and China), a single column contains only a single character. During the restoration of this gate, it was debated whether the sign be written in Hangul or in Hanja, but eventually it is settled that the signage will be made as the original.
Guards dressed in traditional dresses are positioned in front of the gate. You can take photos in front of the guards and even pose with them.
Upon entrance by the gate is a large open field. On this place is where the Changing of the Royal Guards Ceremony is being performed, which, being famous to tourists, must not be missed. As the guards in front of the Gwanghwamun Gate are being transferred of their (ceremonial) duties, ceremonial performances are being held at the field behind the structure, complete with traditional music. These ceremonies are being held every day from 10 am to 3 pm. As the ceremony is about to begin, visitors scattered throughout the field are being alerted by marshals and through loudspeakers, and certain parts of the field are being cordoned off. Additionally, loudspeakers speaking in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese give visitors a short information on the part of the ceremony being performed.
At the west of the field is the National Palace Museum of Korea, where artifacts of the Korean royalty on display. At the east is where information booths and ticket booths are located.
There is an entrance fee to access the main palace grounds, with entrance at the Hyeungnyemun Gate, but surprisingly, ticket prices to traditional landmarks in Korea, if any, are much cheaper compared to its counterparts in other progressive countries. Adult tickets to the Gyeongbokgung Palace cost 3,000 won, or about PhP120.
MAIN PALACE GROUNDS
Upon entrance to the Hyeungnyemun Gate (aka the “pay area” J), you are now at the main palace grounds.
Maybe you have watched Korean historic dramas like Jewel in the Palace (대장금, Dae Jang Geum) and Dong Yi (동이). A large part of their story shows the life within the Joseon royal palaces. Being personally inside the royal palace is somewhat surreal. Maybe you can imagine if your favorite Joseon King, Dong Yi or Jang Geum ever walked within the palace grounds during their lives. Sometimes we’re so preoccupied with being inside Gyeongbokgung that one of our flocks call each other “Ye Mama”, deriving from one famous lines from historical dramas when a character talks to a royal.
The Geunjeongjeon (Hangul: 근정전, Hanja: 勤政殿), or the Throne Hall. This is where the King granted audiences to his ministers, greets foreign envoys and gives important national declarations.
The Gyeonghoeru Pavilion (Hangul: 경회루, Hanja: 慶會樓), used to hold important and special state banquets. It is located at the middle of the pond and is connected to the surrounding land by a bridge. Perhaps having dinner at the middle of the pond gives a special ambiance.
The Gangnyeongjeon (Hangul: 강녕전; hanja: 康寧殿), used as the King’s main residing quarters. The Great King Sejong also used this as his official office during the latter days of his reign for health reasons.
Behind the Gangnyeongjeon is the Gyeotaejeon (Hangul: 교태전; hanja: 交泰殿), the main residing quarters of the Queen.
This is the Yeolsangjinwon Spring. According to the marker beside the spring, it has already been there since Gyeongbokgung’s construction in 1395. Its water was used for drinking because it’s “clean and cold”.
At the middle of the pond is the Hyangwonjeong (Hangul: 향원정; hanja: 香遠亭), originally built in 1873 by King Gojong. It is connected to the main land by a wooden bridge named Chwihyanggyo. In Korean, Hyangwonjeong means “Pavilion of Far-Reaching Fragrance” while Chwihyanggyo means “Bridge Intoxicated With Fragrance”.
NATIONAL FOLK MUSEUM OF KOREA
At the north east part of the Palace is the National Folk Museum of Korea. The building’s design, based on the traditional Korean building architectures, blends well with the rest of the palace complex. It is crowned with a pagoda-like structure.
Just outside the museum are twelve animal statues, each one representbing an animal in the Chinese zodiac, arranged in circles.
The museum gives insight to the long history of Korea. It also contains historical relics of Korean history, including important tools as well as books and documents. It also contains life-size galleries of a typical Korean home during the colonial era as well as the early days of the Republic. Visitors especially Koreans who are immersed with latest technological conveniences at home can have an idea what is like living during those times.
NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM
The museum, located at the southwest part of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, contains relics (and replicas of relics) of the Joseon royal families. It also gives story on the life, customs and traditions of the Joseon royalty.
Among the relics are two early-era automobiles, one of which was used by Emperor Sunjong, the last king of the Joseon dynasty before Japanese colonialization.
There is also a large aerial drawing of Gyeongbokgung.
- Gyeongbokgung Palace (beyond Hyeungnyemun Gate) – 3,000 won (PhP150)
- National Folk Museum of Korea – FREE
- National Palace Museum of Korea – FREE
- Seoul Subway Line 3, Gyeongbokgung Station. Exit 5 directly leads to the vicinity of National Folk Museum of Korea.
- Seoul Subway Line 5, Gwanghwamun Station. Exit 9 directly leads to Gwanghwamun Plaza, and walk straight towards Gwanghwamun Gate.
- There are several Korean dramas which are set during the Joseon dynasty and whose plot revolves in the royal household, among which are Jewel in the Palace and Dongyi.
- Cheongwadae, the current official office and residence of the Republic of Korea, is situated in the ground which was once the back garden of the Gyeongbokgung Palace.
- The Cheongwadae Information Booth is located at the southeast part of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. From this place, a bus fetches the tourists to Cheongwadae grounds. But remember, prior reservation must be made at their website (see here).
- There are a couple of food and coffee shops within the Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds, as well as restrooms. Don’t worry, they’re not Starbucks nor McDonald’s.