Gyeongbokgung, the Largest Palace in Seoul

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After visiting Jongmyo, I ate lunch in Insa-dong, and then walked to Gwanghwamun Square to the entrance of the only other palace which is open on Mondays, Gyeongbokgung.

Gyeongbokgung is in Seoul's Jongno district.

Gyeongbokgung is in Seoul’s Jongno district.

Gyeongbokgung is between downtown Seoul and the ‘Blue House’ – i.e. the residence of South Korea’s president. In other words, it is in one of the most powerful neighborhoods in all of South Korea.

On Sejong Road, looking at Gwanghwa Gate and Bukaksan looming behind it.

On Sejong Road, looking at Gwanghwa Gate and Bukaksan looming behind it.

Gyeongbokgung was once the principal palace of the Joseon royal family. It fell into disrepair after the Japanese invasion in the late 16th century, and another palace (Changdeokgung) became the principal palace. However, it was completely restored during the reign of King Gojong in the 19th century.

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However, after Japan colonized Korea, they destroyed all but 10 of the over 300 buildings in the palace, and built the General Government Building on the grounds to cover up Korea’s Joseon heritage. Further damage happened during the June 25th war (a.k.a. the Korean War), while Seoul was conquered by North Korea, retaken by South Korea, conquered by the communists a second time, and then retaken by South Korea again.

In the staircase, you can see the motif of the double phoenix, which was the symbol of the Joseon royal family

In the staircase, you can see the motif of the double phoenix, which was the symbol of the Joseon royal family

The South Korean government restored Gwanghwamun in the 1960s, and then started a 40 year restoration plan in 1989, with the goal of restoring/rebuilding the palace to look just as it did during the reign of King Gojong. Work is ongoing, and the areas where construction/restoration is currently in progress are closed to the public.

Geunjeongjeon, the largest building in the palace, and one of the buildings which survived both colonization by Japan and the war

Geunjeongjeon, the largest building in the palace, and one of the buildings which survived both colonization by Japan and the war

Even though one may wander around the palace alone, I decided to take another guided tour, and once again, the Mandarin-language tour was happening at a more convenient time than the English-language tour, so I got two Mandarin-language tours in one day.

The throne room inside Geunjeongjeon

The throne room inside Geunjeongjeon

Whereas the guide at Jongmyo spoke Mandarin with a very noticeable Korean accent, the guide at Gyeongbokgung spoke with a thick Beijing accent. Since I mostly learned Mandarin in Taiwan, and the Beijing accent is very different from Taiwanese accents (at least as big as the difference between New Zealand and American accents), I actually found this second guide harder to understand.

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Nonetheless, I learned many details about Gyeongbokgung from the guide. For example, she pointed out where the stream used to flow through the palace, and asked us why they felt they had to put a stream in that place. ‘風水’ (Feng shui) I said, and I was right, though I didn’t know the specific fengshui principle – the mountain north of the palace (Bukaksan) sends good energy south, and the former stream (which flowed through the south side of the palace) traps the good energy so it stays inside the palace.

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The guide also pointed out large basins outside some of the buildings, which were used to store water in case of fire. I am sure that, when fires broke out, have large basins of water sitting around had great practical value, but the rationale for preventing fire is a little different. The people who designed the palace believed that fires were caused by demons, and that these demons looked incredible ugly. Therefore, if the fire demons pass by the basin, and saw their reflection in the water, they would be so horrified that they were leave immediately and not start any fires.

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Even though it was a bright and sunny day, it was also terribly windy, and thus very cold. All of us could feel just how nippy the air was, and we were all wearing very thick clothing. Our guide told us that, without the wind, it would be much warmer, and that we should all touch the wood of Geunjeongjeon to feel how warm the sunshine is. We all did so, and found that, in spite of how cold the air was, the surface of the wood was warm.

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Even though I am a nerd (as I am sure is obvious if you have read much of this blog), I found the beauty of the palace even more impressive that the trivia about the Joseon royal court. I think I was there in perfect weather (for visuals, not for physical comfort), and the contrast between the palace and Bukaksan in the background looks fantastic.

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And of course, the gingko trees around the palace were decked out in totally yellow leaves.

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There is, of course, yet another lovely site within the palace…

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And that lovely site is the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, another building which survived the Japanese colonization and the war.

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While we were at the palace, we saw a rare thing – a ceremony being performed inside Gyeongheoru Pavilion. The Joseon royal court would perform ceremonies there when people of very high rank came to visit, and so the South Korean government continues to use the pavilion to honor guests who the Joseon royal court would have considered to be people of high rank – in other words, members of royal families. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Kingdom of the Netherlands just happened to be visiting Seoul at the same time I was, and so the traditional royal court ceremony I saw being held at Gyeongheoru Pavilion was to honor their visit.

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I love the combination of the traditional Korean architecture, Bukaksan in the background, the willows, and the reflections in the water.

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The compound of Gyeongbokgung has two museums – the National Folk Museum and the National Palace Museum (which I had to visit on another day). The National Folk Museum offers a history of Korea with particular emphasis on lifestyles. A lot of it was things I already knew from travelling all over South Korea, but some things were new, particularly the information about Goguryeo and Balhae (I had travelled through former Silla and Baekje, but not former Goguryeo and Balhae).

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The Palace Museum focuses on artifacts from the Joseon royal court – I thought the section about Joseon science (specifically, the scientific endeavours of Joseon kings) was particularly interesting.

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On a different day, I returned to Gwanghwamun (hey, it’s in the commercial heart of Seoul) in time to see the popular changing of the guards ceremony. You can find many videos of the ceremony on Youtube.

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Visiting Jongmyo and then Gyeongbokgung on my very first full day was an excellent way to start my stay in Seoul.

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13 Responses to Gyeongbokgung, the Largest Palace in Seoul

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