Thursday, June 13, 2013

Travels to Seoul, Korea

Seoul, the capital and largest city in South Korea, is often described as a historical city of contrasts primarily due to the abundance of ancient palaces juxtaposed with modern skyscrapers. Located on the Han River in the center of the Korean Peninsula, the city was settled in 18 B.C. and has grown into a prominent global city with influence in business, international trade, politics, technology, education and entertainment.

We visited Seoul in mid-late May and were fortunate to arrive on the last night of the annual Lotus Lantern Festival in celebration of Buddha's birthday. The festival is preceded by hanging of lotus-shaped lanterns across Seoul for several weeks, and officially kicks off with lighting of the Jangeumdang, a large lantern that symbolizes Buddhism and Buddha's Birthday, at the Seoul Plaza. The celebration continues with a wide array of Buddhist programs and activities, before ending with an impressive lantern parade in the heart of Seoul.  It was quite a festive event with beautiful colors illuminating the city.  After dinner at Si Wha Dam, here are just a couple of the amazing pictures we took that night:

The next morning we were ready for a full day of historical tours.  Jongno-gu is the Joseon-era historical core of the city and is home to most of the palaces and government offices. The area also houses several premier attractions like Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace and the National Folk Museum of Korea, to name a few.  The Gyeongbokgung Palace is the former seat of power and is Korea's most famous royal palace. It's tough to miss given its location at the northern end of Seoul's main boulevard, Sejongro, a stone's throw from the Blue House (the President's residence) and the U.S. Embassy. Built in 1395, the palace has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times. English tours are available about three times daily for visitors to learn more about Korea's architectural traditions and court customs. Give yourself at least an hour to stroll around the pavilions and halls within the palace's spacious walled grounds.  After touring this amazing palace we were ready for lunch and enjoyed dumplings and noodles at Ho Dong Oak.
Gyeungbokgung Palace entrance
Next door to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, is the National Folk Museum of Korea. The building's design is based on various historical buildings around South Korea and houses replicas of historical objects to illustrate the history of traditional life of the Korean people. The museum has three main exhibition halls, with over 98,000 artifacts: History of Korean People features materials of everyday life in Korea from prehistoric times to the end of the Joseon Dynasty in 1910; Korean Way of Life, which illustrates Korean villagers in ancient times; and Life Cycle of the Koreans, which depicts the deep roots of Confucianism in Korean culture and how this ideology gave rise to most of the culture's customs. The museum also features open-air exhibits, such as replicas of spirit posts where villagers used to pray, stone piles for worship, grinding mills, rice storage shelters and pits for kimchi pots.

National Folk Museum with view of mountains.
Painted roof with view of mountain.
Changdeokgung Palace was established in 1405 and is the second palace after Gyeongbokgung. It is another one of the "Five Grand Palaces" built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897).  The name literally means "Prospering Virtue Palace".  It was burnt down during the Japanese invasion of 1592 and rebuilt and then burnt down again many times over the years.  Korea's last Emperor, Sunjung, lived in the palace until his death in 1926.  Yet, we were impressed with the restoration of the paint on the wooden roofs and other architectural details that were kept authentic.

Behind the palace lies the 78-acre rear garden, known today as Biwon or "Secret Garden".  The garden just reopened to the public in September 2012 after extensive renovation, but is only open during limited times so plan accordingly.  (We, unfortunately, missed it.)  Afterwards, we had another traditional Korean dinner with fermented delicacies from Southeastern Korea at Jaella-Do.

The main throne room of Changdeokgung Palace.
Siru: pots to make rice cake
Jongno-gu is also the address for Insadong, which is a popular street to find souvenirs and within walking distance to many of Seoul's historic cultural landmarks.  Insadong began 500 years ago as an area of residence for government officials and was originally two towns whose names ended in the syllables "In" and "Sa". They were divided by a stream which ran along Insadong's current main street.  Among other snacks you can find sold by the street vendors, I saw old ladies making dduk (Korean rice cake).   Dduk is a type of Korean rice cakes made with glutinous rice flour (also known as sweet rice or chapssal), by steaming.  In order to make steamed dduk, the rice flour is soaked in water for a while, then ground. The prepared rice flour is put in a siru and steamed.  It was neat to see them make it this old fashioned way.  After walking around and picking up a few souvenirs, we grabbed lunch at Ssambabgip.

Jyongmyo Royal Shrine is a Confucian shrine dedicated to the memorial services for the deceased kings and queens of the Korean Joseon Dynasty.  It is the oldest royal Confucian shrine preserved and the ritual ceremonies continue a tradition established since the 14th century. When it was built in 1394 by order of King Taejo, it was thought to be one of the longest buildings in Asia, if not the longest with each room reserved for a king and his queen.  Like many of the the other historical sights of Korea, Japanese invaders burned down the original shrine and a new complex was constructed in 1601.  The original memorial tablets of the kings were saved in the invasion by hiding them in the house of a commoner and also survive to this day.  There are 19 memorial tablets of kings and 30 of their queens, placed in 19 chambers. Each room is very simple and plain in design. Only two kings' memorial tablets are not enshrined here. In addition to the tablet, there is a wooden panel listing the king's accomplishments.  We were fascinated by the various ponds that lead up to the shrine area featuring Japanese pine and Chinese juniper trees.

Jidang: square pond with a round islet, which symbolizes the belief that heaven is round and earth is flat.
If you missed out buying souvenirs in Insadong, the Namdaemun Market is seemingly open round-the-clock (though a few retailers close on Sunday) and is a fantastic place to pick up inexpensive clothing, housewares, fabrics, jewelry, accessories, toys, food, flowers, stationery and appliances. But it's easy to get turned around here, as there are thousands of shops located in the 30 or so multistory buildings, not to mention an endless sprawl of street-vendor stalls. This market is seriously crowded, so be prepared to get bumped around. If you feel peckish, take the opportunity to graze at the dozens of food stalls.

Jars of ginseng - good for men's health.
Namsan Tower, also known simply as Seoul Tower, is a communication and observation tower located on Namsan Mountain in central Seoul. It measures 777 feet in height (from the base) and tops out at 1,574 feet above sea level and marks the highest point in Seoul.  Built in 1969, and at a cost of approximately $2.5 million, it was opened to the public in 1980. Since then, the tower has been a landmark of Seoul.  Many visitors ride the Namsan cable car up the mountain, and then walk to the tower. Visitors may go up the tower for a fee. There are four observation decks (the 4th observation deck, which is the revolving restaurant, rotates at a rate of one revolution every 48 minutes), as well as gift shops and two restaurants. Most of the city of Seoul can be seen from the top. A favorite activity is to hang named padlocks on the Tower fence as a symbol of love.

Another item of note I want to point out is the ritzy town of Gangnam.  Made famous by PSY with his pop song that took You Tube by storm, we visited the area and had a royal lunch at O Jung Sam Mi.

Time capsule with view of Namsan Tower
Next, we went to visit the Namsangol Hanok Village, a Korean village located in the central district of Seoul, where hanok (Korean traditional houses) have been restored to preserve the original atmosphere of the area.  The location of the village was originally the site of a well known Joseon-era summer resort called Jeonghakdong.  The area boasted such superb scenery that it was called "the land of the fairies" and was considered one of the five most beautiful parts of Seoul.  Within the village lies the Seoul Millennium Time Capsule.  To celebrate the 600-year anniversary of the appointment of Seoul as the capital city of South Korea, 600 items representing Seoul and the lives of its citizens were buried in a capsule.  It is scheduled to be opened on the 1000-year anniversary on November 29, 2394.

Other cultural events are often held in the exhibition area of the village.  While there, we witnessed an amazing display of athleticism with a Tae Kwon Do demonstration.  It was a cool break from the history lessons, to sit and watch the martial arts display.

We also took a detour trip about an hour south of Seoul to the city of Yongin and visited the Korean Folk Village.  The park has a traditional street market, restaurants, and showcases of traditional woodworking and metalworking techniques. There are performances of traditional dances, equestrian skills, marriage ceremonies, and recreational activities.  Known as a "living museum," there are some actors that dress in traditional clothes and play folk characters that work in the village such as field workers, town beggars, and even higher royalty.  It reminded me of a Korean-style Renaissance Festival.   One of the most interesting parts I saw there included a historical explanation of soy sauce-making. Soy sauce is a condiment made from a fermented paste of boiled soybeans, roasted grain, brine, and Aspergillus oryzae or Aspergillus sojae molds.  After fermentation in big clay pots, the paste is pressed, producing a liquid, which is the soy sauce, and a solid byproduct, which is often used as animal feed.  It was interesting to walk around this folk village to learn more about the history of Korean life.  Afterwards, we had another traditional-sit-on-the-floor-without-shoes-on dinner at Woo Mi Jae.

Clay pots fermenting soy sauce.
Lastly,  I wanted to share a funny picture I snapped in a parking garage.  Apparently, this is quite common to have special reserved parking spots for women.  I have seen reserved parking spots for expecting mothers at a doctor's office or hospital, but none for "females only" such as this. It was funny and I had to snap a pic:

Seoul was such a cultural city and I was fascinated to see how it was protected on all sides by the mountains.  It reminded me of the hilly layout of San Francisco and was a trip to cross off my bucket list.  We were able to maneuver during our trip quite well despite not speaking Korean, as many of the locals spoke English well.  The U.S. Army Garrison of Yongsan is smack in the middle of the city, so I think the American presence has merged well within the city.  Have you visited Seoul before? What are some of your favorites things to do and places to eat? Please share in the comments below!

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