Seoul has been South Korea’s political, cultural and economic capital for centuries, so it only seemed natural that a first-time visitor, like myself, would want to pack in as much sightseeing as possible — even if that meant 12-hour days on foot. While I only scratched the surface, visits to two of the city’s royal palaces provided a sufficient glimpse into the ancient and modern history of this persevering corner of the world.
The Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace // (C) 2009 Korea Tourism Organization
Despite the fact that Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace was originally constructed in 1405, destroyed by the Japanese invasion in 1592 and has been rebuilt several times since 1607, it is credited for being the best preserved palace in Seoul as well as being the only UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in Korea.
On its 110 acres of land, visitors will find the Injeongcheon throne hall, one of the few royal buildings in South Korea to survive the Japanese occupation. Initially a base for major state affairs, including the coronation of a new king, the throne hall became the playground for lavish parties thrown by members of the Japanese military who took advantage of the hall’s expansive stone courtyard and high, well-adorned ceilings.
But the best part about touring Changdeokgung was a stroll through its Secret Garden, which was traditionally off limits to everyone but the king. While hiking up a maple tree-lined hill, we traced the footsteps of royalty and listened to the serenade of magpies. We continued toward a small pond and pavilion where, over the buzzing of locusts, our guide translated an inscription on one of the gates.
“It means ‘never get old,’ because people had a sense of security knowing that the ruling king would live a long life,” said our guide, Won Jeong Won. “These serene surroundings were good for the king’s health. By sitting in the pavilion and gazing at the reflections in the pond, he could feel like an owner of nature.”
With a history that traces back more than 500 years, nearby Deoksugung Palace lies on the corner of one of Seoul’s busiest intersections amid office buildings, shops and restaurants. The juxtaposition of modernity and tradition is most striking at the main gate where globalization is almost too conspicuous to ignore. There, travelers will spot a Dunkin’ Donuts and a 7-11 convenience store flanking stone walls and 20-foot-tall, cast-iron doors. This does anything but hinder the experience — if anything, it serves as a sort of metaphor for what can be found inside the palace gates.
Emperor Gojong, the last Korean ruler to reside at Deoksugung, embraced Western culture and pushed for modernization. Physical evidence of his radical break from tradition can be found throughout Deoksugung Palace, particularly when visitors arrive at Gojong’s neoclassical mansion, Seokjojeon, and the surrounding area. Designed by a British architect, the Ionian-columned mansion housed both the emperor’s sleeping quarters and a reception hall — very controversial for early 20th-century Korea.
In 1938, during the Japanese occupation, Seokjojeon was expanded and a Western-style garden with a fountain was added in front. Today, Seokjojeon contains South Korea’s Annex of National Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring modern art in various forms, including oil paintings and sculpture.
Another Deoksugung Palace highlight is the thrice-daily (except Mondays) changing of the guards ceremony, showcasing dozens of royal guards, fully clad in bright costumes, as they heed commands, exchange “passwords” to verify each other’s identity and march to the drumming of a live band.
While my feet are no longer throbbing from all the walking I did in Seoul, I have a feeling that the eye-opening experiences I had at the Changdeokgung and Deoksugung palaces will be with me for years to come.