Insadong is a vibrant area in the heart of Seoul, where it’s possible to experience some of the traditional Korean culture without going out into the countryside. There are art galleries, antique dealers, craft stores, traditional tea-houses and restaurants, some on small narrow streets with traditional architecture. I’m sure every visitor to Seoul goes to Insadong, and we were no exception.
However, there’s more to this area than shops. There’s Tapgol Park, and Jogyesa Temple, both of which I’ll talk about later. And there’s Unhyeongung Royal Residence, which is well worth a visit. It’s interesting that some of the city’s great historical sights are right in the middle of the modern business districts.
We visited Unhyeongung the first time we came to Korea in 2009, and again on our last visit this year. “Unhyeongung”
means “Cloud Hanging Over the Valley” Palace. No-one can really tell me where that name came from, but it’s a lovely place.
Often described unofficially as Seoul’s 6th palace, its charming wooden buildings are delightful to wander around and it’s far less crowded than the other big palaces. It was officially denied the title of “palace” as it was never actually occupied by a king. But, considering its size, formality and ground plan, it is more similar to an inner palace than the house of a high-ranking official; for example, the solid wooden structures, triple-fold windows, and sunscreen eaves. It was in fact the private residence of a king-to-be and his father.
Though not as striking or as colorful as the other five, it still gives an idea of life at that time and has a tranquil atmosphere. It’s a lovely little oasis in the city as, once you enter through the gates, the hustle and bustle of the city recedes, even though city buildings are very evident beyond the walls.
King Gojung (1852-1919), the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, was born and raised here until 1863 when he ascended the throne aged 12, with his father acting as regent. The modest and plain natural-wood design of this minor palace reflects the austere tastes of Regent Heungseon Daewongun (1820-98), King Gojong’s stern and conservative father. The Regent’s policies included massacring Korean Catholics, excluding foreigners from Korea and thereby closing the doors of the kingdom to foreigners, shutting down Confucian schools, and rebuilding Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace.
As is common in the design of many Korean palaces, various buildings are arranged around different inter-leading courtyards, the whole enclosed by an outer wall that used to have four entrance gates. At Unhyeongung, each building has an information board in Korean, English and Chinese, so we can begin to understand what the function of each was.
In 1864 (1st year of King Gojong’s rule), Norakdang Hall and Noandang Hall were built, and in 1869 Irodang and Yeongnodang.
Noandang, the men’s quarters, was where Heungseon Daewongun discussed state affairs and received his guests.
Norakdang was the central place in Unhyeongung and larger than Noandang with nine rooms along the corridor. Here King Gojong and his wife Queen Myeongseong held their wedding ceremony in 1866 and important events like 60th birthdays took place. It was considered women’s quarters, and the calligraphy and other decorations are especially fine.
Irodang Hall was also used as the inner quarters, probably of Regent Heungseon and his wife.
Many of the rooms facing the different courtyards are furnished and mannequins display the dress styles of various stations of life of the times, giving some idea of how people here used to live. As was the custom, women were hidden away in their own separate quarters on different sides of the courtyard.
When Heungseon Daewongun died, the house was inherited by his eldest son and then by his grandson. After the Korean War, a considerable part of the house was sold, so the size was much reduced. In 1993, the descendants sold it to the government and it was renovated and re-opened in 1996.
Allow at least an hour to wander around, passing through the packed-sand courtyards linked by walkways with trees and bushes. One of the walkways has a number of special stones, all different shapes and sizes. I think they are called “Suseok”, or “viewing stones” and are similar to the Chinese “Scholars’ Stones.”
Besides the main halls, notice the patterned outer walls and the chimneys. A small section of the palace is now an exhibition hall, with items such as a scale model of the residence, writing tools, traditional wedding outfits. The visitors’ office is in a room on the outer wall, as are two small rooms used for special exhibits. A small coffee shop and restrooms are also here, plus a hanbok (traditional Korean dress) rental stand. Many people like to rent a hanbok and have their pictures taken here (and in the other palaces). I’ll post some pictures of that later.
To get to Unhyeongung:
Subway Line 3 to Anguk, take exit 4. Palace is free.
Closed on Mondays. Open 9-7 April-Oct, and 9-6 Nov-March.
Just for interest, the five main palaces are:
First, Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was the royal family’s residence during the Joseon Dynasty;
Second, Deoksugung Palace, which was first used as a palace during the reign of King Seonjo between 1552 and 1608, but has housed a number of kings since then;
Third, Gyeonghuigung Palace, which was built in the late Joseon Dynasty as a backup in case of emergency. It’s in the west of the city and is often called the West Palace;
Fourth, Changgyeonggung Palace, which was built in 1483 in the reign of King Seongjong to house the Dowager Queen Sohye. The grounds of this palace connect to Changdeokgung Palace, creating an independent palace compound.
Fifth, Changdeokgung Palace was built in 1405 as a second royal residence for King Taejong, and at times in history served as the main royal palace. This palace has the Biwon, or Secret Garden.