Notes On South Korea

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Guards leave Deoksugung Palace, Seoul
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Traditional drum in Gyeongbokgung Palace

What is South Korea? How to capture its essence?

These are some of my notes and thoughts after our fist visit to Korea. I never did get to putting them on the blog, but will do so now, as the sentiments have not changed after our subsequent visits.

South Korea is a small country that would fit into Illinois. And yet, it’s a land of great contrasts, an extraordinary mix that goes into making the country what it is. The provinces outside of Seoul are very varied: with rivers and rice paddies; shrines and mountain scenery; timeless temples; mushrooming modern apartment cities; neon and bamboo; a blend of old and new, modern and traditional.

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Traditional and modern, Bongeunsa Temple, Seoul
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The Old and New City Halls, Seoul

It has a long convoluted coastline with many islands on three sides; coastal plains devoted largely to agriculture (rice, barley, ginseng, multiple vegetables in tunnels, huge cattle barns); and mountains, lots of mountains—about 70% of the country is mountainous. That doesn’t leave much land for human habitation, so high-rise cities pop up in open spaces. You’ll emerge from a tunnel on the highway and suddenly in front of you there’ll be a forest of tall apartment buildings. Many are relatively new cities, we’re told, and many are satellite cities for other mega cities, like Seoul or Busan.

It’s a mix of old and ultra-modern—small shops with curving tiles roofs just down the street from tall curving steel creations, likely the HQ of one of the mega companies that tend to have a monopoly here. Wonderful palace complexes, built hundreds of years ago, open up behind their walls right in the center of the city, and you’ll likely find old stone pagodas preserved in a more modern park. You can find colorfully decorated temples both high in remote mountain areas and right in the middle of a bustling town or city, perhaps opposite a huge new conference center.

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An ultra-modern building in Gangnam
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New and old close to the National Folk Museum, Seoul
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Tiled roofs in Bukchon Hanok Village

The public transport system in the large cities is great, and well-used, and yet the traffic jams can be horrendous, as Koreans also love their cars. Koreans are very polite people generally, but this often disappears on the roads, with pushy, impatient drivers. The highway system around the country is amazing, engineered over valleys, and through and around mountains. On some of the highways heading south there are so many tunnels that we lost count and we also marveled at how long many of them are. The Highway Service Areas can be enormous, like shopping complexes in their own right with huge varied food courts.

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Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

 

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Statue of Admiral Yi in Gwanghwamun Square
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Traditional dancers on Gwanghwamun Square

The country is very aware of the green movement, trying to save energy, and to recycle etc. and yet the cities are awash in a sea of brightly colored, flashing neon at night.

Koreans are very patriotic and very proud of their long, complicated history, with strong influences from China and Japan. Some of the people who hosted us were able to tell stories of previous dynasties and kings, even giving dates of various battles. They tell us proudly about King Sejeong, who developed Hangul, the system for writing the Korean language, which freed them from using Chinese characters; and about Admiral Yi, who helped fend off Japanese invaders hundreds of years ago.

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Old and New City Halls, Seoul
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Old and new near Gyeongbokgung Palace
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Jongno Tower from Tapgol Park

And yet, many (most) Koreans still also have a Chinese character as part of their name—the character gives a meaning. These days, Korea has embraced the concept of learning English as a necessity in our global world, and almost all schools teach English to kids from an early age. There are also private English academies and schools and I saw signs, even in relatively small towns. Younger people are usually quite keen to practice their English but older folk are more reserved and hesitant. Many signs and directions are in English as well as Korean, especially in the cities, so it’s possible as a foreigner to get around on one’s own—notably in the Seoul subway system.

Even though English is widely taught, for us as a foreigner the Korean language can be a problem, especially outside of the Seoul metropolitan area. We picked up a few words orally but the written language remains a mystery—it looks like no other western language we’ve either learned or had contact with. It looks pretty and I’m told it’s relatively easy to learn as it was scientifically developed. But sadly, so far, I haven’t found time to try and learn it.

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The Handbag Museum in Sinsa-dong

Korea has a long history of drinking green tea, and yet recently has embraced coffee in a big way, and you’ll find a coffee shop or two on virtually every block. But strangely, coffee is not usually available in restaurants.

Modern fashion is a thriving industry and most Koreans are very elegantly dressed, especially for work. And yet, for special occasions they favor the traditional clothes: we see women dressed in hanboks to visit the temple, or to dance an old traditional dance, and most of the palaces have changing of the guards ceremonies, with the guards all in the old-style costume.

We loved learning about this country and its culture. The following is just a few of the other things that we noted, in no particular order.

Metal chopsticks and a metal spoon are the standard cutlery. More hygienic I believe, but actually harder for us to use than wooden ones!

Beds, or rather roll-up mattresses, are often on the floor. Most westerners are not familiar with sleeping on the floor any more (not unless camping perhaps, when that’s often associated with discomfort!). In fact, in many Korean houses and many restaurants, people sit on the floor too, so long-legged folk like my husband can have problems. Shoes are always taken off in Korean houses and special restaurants, probably because the tradition is to sit, eat and sleep on the floor.

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Old stone pagodas in Yongsan Park at the National Museum of Korea
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Part of Deoksugung Palace

There is excellent public toilet accessibility everywhere, generally. Look for the red (female) and blue (male) signs. For women, also look for the sign for a sitting toilet, not the traditional squatting type (the sign is usually marked on the door of each stall). In some hotels and many homes they have the fancy toilets with all kinds of buttons. Even if they have symbols or an English word I still haven’t really figured them out! And if in Korean, it’s rather daunting as who knows what that button means! A few times I even had trouble finding the flush.

Water is offered almost everywhere, either in jugs on the table or in a large dispenser

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Traditional dance at N. Seoul Tower on Namsan Mt

that patrons can use. In some public places, like museums, we discovered a very interesting water system: a large water dispenser with small paper cups in a cone shape. We saw very few drinking fountains anywhere as we know them.

There are many convenience stores everywhere—-and they sure are convenient. Many are 24/7.

We noticed lots of noise, people, traffic and neon lights. I can now better understand why some of my Asian students tell me that they sometimes feel lonely here in Champaign-Urbana! They are so used to having crowds of people around them in their lives.

Lots of tourist/historic places have a sign saying “Photo Point”, for the best spot for a picture.

We hope that we can return soon, to learn more about this fascinating country.

 

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Jogyesa Temple, Seoul

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Great Hall

monksJogyesa Temple

The temple complex is busy, teeming with people, noise and chatting, but green with lovely lotus leaves and colorful with flowers, and still somehow peaceful too, so one gets the feeling of a special place. It felt like a bright and cheerful place to us, and people were very relaxed about being there, bowing, chatting, chanting. We saw a couple of monks, with cell phones and taking photos of the lotus flowers—modern technology is everywhere!

We’ve been here twice, once on our own when we just wandered around, and once with a Korean friend and her young daughter. I’d love to go again and spend a bit more time, just sitting and absorbing the atmosphere.

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lotusUnlike most Buddhist temples in Korea that are nestled in the mountains, Jogyesa is located in the city center, not too far from Insadong or the Gyeongbokgung Palace complex. It is one of Korea’s most famous temples, Seoul’s most prominent temple and the headquarters of the Jogye order, Korea’s primary Buddhist sect.

The temple compound is surrounded by modern buildings, some fairly high-rise, and traffic noise is never far away. There is no garden per se as the surrounds of the Great Hall are concrete. But, they have managed to create the feeling of a garden with a couple of big trees; multiple flower pots, mainly with lotus plants, grouped together creating a sea of green; a number of small bricked ponds with lotus plants; and many smaller flower pots. When we were there the lotus plants were flowering profusely, and the flowers were gorgeous.

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hallbannersIn the grounds of this temple compound is Daeungjeon, the largest Buddhist shrine in Seoul. It was built in 1938 but the design followed the late-Joseon-dynasty style. The main hall is a fantastic example of the country’s colorful and immaculately patterned temple decorations. Typical Buddhist banners are strung outside, creating a kind of canopy-roof. When we were there, lots were decorated with colorful fish, large and small, plus a shoal of tiny white fish. The grounds also have a stone pagoda, and other stone sculptures, including some lions and elephants on the verandah surrounding the main hall. Our friend’s daughter climbed on one of these and no-one was worried or upset at all!

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Sophia

3BuddhasMurals of scenes from Buddha’s life, and the carved floral lattice-work doors are two of the attractive features. Inside are three giant Buddha statues. On the left is Amitabha, Buddha of the Western Paradise; in the center is the historical Buddha who lived in India and achieved enlightenment; on the right is the Bhaisaiya or Medicine Buddha with a bowl in his hand. There’s a small 15th century Buddha in a glass case that was the main Buddha statue before it was replaced by the larger ones in 2006. On the right-hand side is a guardian altar with lots of fierce-looking guardians in the painting behind; on the left is the altar used for memorial services (white is the funeral color).

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forkidsBelievers who enter the temple bow three times, touching their forehead to the ground—once for the Buddha, once for the dharma (teacher) and once for the sangha (monks), 20 of whom serve in this temple. Outside there are candles (like Buddha, they light up the world, dispelling darkness and ignorance) and incense sticks (the smoke sends wishes up to heaven). We are not Buddhist, so we just looked at what we could from the outside—which is quite a lot, as the big doors are open.

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A temple guardian

pagodaBehind the main shrine is the modern Amitabha Buddha Hall, where funeral services are held. The statues are the 10 judges who pass judgement, 49 days after someone’s death, to decide if they go to heaven or hell. The belfry houses a drum to summon earthbound animals, a wooden fish-shaped gong to call aquatic beings, a metal cloud-shaped gong to call birds, and a large bronze bell to summon underground creatures. They are banged 28 times at 4am and 33 times at 6pm.

The new Central Buddhist Museum has three galleries of antique woodblocks, symbol-filled paintings and other Buddhist artefacts. In one corner is a tearoom, and in another corner the Information Center for Foreigners, open 1am-5pm and staffed by English-speaking Buddhist guides. You can try making lanterns and prayer beads, doing woodblock printing, painting, and drinking green tea. It’s free but donations are welcome. You can also ask about having a meditation lesson and a four-bowl Buddhist monk meal. We didn’t actually have time to go in there, so we never did any of this.

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Viv and Rod with Sophia
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The hooked cross, a sacred symbol for Buddhism and other Asian religions, means good fortune or well-being (later taken by the Nazis and called a swastika)

On Buddha’s birthday, the Lotus Lantern festival is held in the Jongno and Insadong areas and the temple is the starting point of the parade.

Jogyesa offers temple life and temple stay programs to foreigners, but we don’t know anyone who has done that, so am not sure how it would work out.

The best way to get here is on Metro Line 3, Anguk station or Gyeongbokgung station, and walk 10-15 minutes.

 

Daehangno District: Outdoor Statues

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Front of Arko Art Center

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buildinggardenPart 3 in the Daehangno District: Statues in Gardens of Arts Council of Korea

To one side of the park is The Arts Council of Korea (ARKO), housed in Arko Art Center (architecture by Kim Swoo-geun, 1977). 
Arko Art Center, which has become an important landmark in the Daehangno area, is one of the most representative works by Kim Swoo-geun, who wanted the building to be a “poem written with light and bricks”.

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The building has exhibition spaces inside, where local artists of all kinds can have their works exhibited. There’s also a café, but I didn’t go into that.

An attractive garden surrounds two sides of the building and I found some fascinating outdoor sculptures in the garden, done by local artists. Here are two, as examples.

The first is called “Ecology Cycle”, 2005, by Lee Sangho (see below)

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The second is “Outflowing Strength”, 1978, by Noh Jae Seung (see below)

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Daehangno District in Seoul: Part 1

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A street in Daehangno
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The theater district stretches out from the edge of Marronnier Park

Daehangno District in Seoul

Get there on Metro Line 4, Hyehwa Station, exit 2.

Part 1: Introduction and Daehangno Street

Our Korean hosts at Seoul National University told us that the campus at Gwanak is relatively new and that it used to be located in Seoul city center. So, one day I decided to explore and find the original location. I did, and it turns out that this is a really interesting part of Seoul today—the center of performance culture, with a lovely park, and colorful murals.

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One of the theaters
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 ….If  you need to park your car

Daehangno Street is the center of performance culture in Seoul, with over 150 small theaters. This area is called the “Play Mecca”, “Theater Mecca”, or “Young Street” as well. This is where you an enjoy theater and impromptu performances by young artists. Daehangno area bustles with people who come to enjoy plays or musicals or just to stroll along the streets and soak up the ambience, especially on car-free weekends. Not many performances are in English, but attending one can still be an enjoyable spectacle. There are also many restaurants, bars and movie theaters.

At first this district was popular with mainly the twenty-something crowd but now it attracts diverse age groups as well. Young people still dominate the scene, but more families with children and middle-aged couples are coming, due to the variety and abundance of attractions offered.

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Replica of original Seoul National University campus here

But the area was not originally planned as a theater district. Keijo Imperial University was located here, during the first half of the 20th century, when Korea was under Japanese occupation (Keijo, or Gyeongseong in Korean, was the colonial-era name of Seoul). When Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Seoul National University opened in its place. In 1975, the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and College of Law moved to its current Gwanak campus south of the Han River, and many of the school buildings were demolished.

But, the modern red brick building that had housed the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was spared, plus three horse chestnut trees (marronnier) that are still reminders of the former university site. A park was created at this site, which people began to call Marronnier Park.

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Part of Marronnier Park

arkoartsMore red brick buildings were built around the park, to complement the previous university building. These include Munye Theater (current Arko Arts Theater), which opened in 1981. In the 1980s, many theater groups started moving to Daehangno. At the same time, movie theaters, live-cafes, regular cafes and pubs sprung up and the area developed into a cultural and entertainment center.

When the Seoul Metropolitan Government officially adopted the name Daehangno in 1985, it hoped to create a global cultural destination like Montmartre in Paris, once the world’s mecca of modern art; or Tokyo’s fashion hotspot Harajuku; or London’s Piccadilly Circus. Daehangno has become a theater district widely known among performing artists around the world, so maybe the city’s ambitions did come true!

Seoul’s New City Hall

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The setting for Seoul City Hall (s)
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Seoul Plaza with old and new City Halls
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Old City Hall (with clock) and new City Hall directly behind

Our guide books on Seoul all mentioned the new City Hall in glowing words and especially mentioned the living wall. As one put it, “Seoul’s newest landmark is an eco-friendly building with the world’s largest indoor green wall.”

The Seoul Plaza in front of it is also touted as a special open space in the city, the symbolic center of the city, apparently able to handle gatherings of up to 100,000 people. One such gathering was during World Cup 2002, when thousands in Red Devil T-shirts gathered to cheer on the national team.buildingdesign

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Front of new City Hall
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The curved glass shape is very clear

After reading that, how could we not go to see this new marvel?

So, one day we did, combining it with a visit to the Deoksugung Palace complex on the opposite side of the road.

The new City Hall is a very modern-looking building from the outside, a long rectangular shape with glass walls curved upwards and out. It rises like a wave suspended above the Seoul Plaza, in this distorted shape to accommodate the stocky historic old City Hall which is directly in front of it, now rather dwarfed by the sleek newcomer.

The old City Hall was built in 1926 under Japanese rule and was the administrative center from 1945 (after Korea was liberated from Japanese rule) until 2008. It has now been converted into the Seoul Metropolitan Library. The two city halls are connected by an elevated bridge, a symbol of the link between the city’s history and its future.

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Living wall, and glass

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Rod and part of the living wall

The Seoul Plaza is pretty with green lawns, flower beds and a fountain, but didn’t seem as large as we expected. Security in the new City Hall is tight and only people with security clearance can get beyond the front lobby, except on a very organized visiting loop. Visitors can enter the lobby and go up to the 8th floor for a view down and out, accessed via a special elevator. You can do this freely, and enjoy the art exhibition(s) up there too.

The Seoul City Hall is a government building in charge of the administrative affairs of the city. Yoo Keri of iArc won the design competition for the new building. Construction took 4 years and the new building opened in August 2012. The 13-story building is almost entirely covered with glazing and the sides are really interesting with angled “leaves” interspersed with curvaceous glass bubbles. Many say that the architects wanted to project an image of “future architecture”. In addition to office space, the multi-purpose building includes a number of cultural facilities, a rooftop garden terrace and a library.

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Looking down from the gallery level
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Walking the gallery level

The lush multi-story green wall acts as an enormous air filter and is a symbol of the city’s intention to adhere to sustainable development. The living wall is indeed huge and amazing, and we enjoyed the art exhibition on the 8th and 9th floors.

We thought the new city hall was really interesting, as a sleek modern contrast to some of the old buildings nearby. However, some of my Korean students, two of whom are urban planners, tell me that many Koreans do not like the design of the new building and that there has been a lot of controversy over it. I guess that’s the way of most new things.

Anyway, it’s still worth a look, and the Green Wall is impressive.

Seoul’s Unhyeongung Royal Residence

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One of the grander buildings at Unhyeongung
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Fine woodwork
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Pretty peaceful gardens in the Royal Residence

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.

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Modern Seoul is just on the other side of the palace walls
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Beautiful brickwork on the outer walls

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.

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Noandang, the men’s quarters
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One of the men’s rooms
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Brick chimney in one of the courtyards

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.

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Sleeping room—-note the bedding piled up
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Norakdang, the women’s quarters

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.

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A room in Norakdang
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Queen Myeongseoqng visited with the crown prince to celebrate the birthday of King Gojung’s mothe

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.

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Notice the special stone through the gate

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:

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In the small museum

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.

 

 

Baekje Museum, Seoul

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View of park and fortress from museum roof
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Rod at museum entrance
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Maps of the old kingdoms

Baekje Museum, Seoul

This is well worth a half-day’s visit, combined with a visit to the Monchontoseong Fortress and Olympic Park. The park has cafes and coffee shops, and the museum has a café and restaurant on the top floor (we had lunch up there).

Seoul Baekje Museum, which is dedicated to the ancient history and culture of the old capital city of the Baekje Kingdom, is a fairly new museum in Seoul. It is located inside Olympic Park, overlooking Monchontoseong Fortress, and has pretty lawns and gardens in front of it.

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Baekje armor
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Timeline wall

As I wrote about earlier, in the area of Songpa, south of the Han River in Seoul, are remains of the Baekje Kingdom and many relics from excavations there. These discoveries led researchers to believe that this area was a base for Baekje culture for a long period.

Seoul, the capital and heart of Korea today, was also for hundreds of years the capital of this ancient kingdom of Baekje. The Baekje Kingdom survived 678 years (18BC-660AD), and the capital was here for 493 years (18BC-475AD). Baekje moved its capital south to Gongju City in 475.

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Neolithic milling stone
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Bronze Age mirror
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Baekje brick with landscape pattern

Many large settlements were already established in the Neolithic Age and their traces still can be found in the numerous areas including Poongnap Fortress, Mongchon Fortress and Seokchon-dong tomb complex. Since ancient times the Han River, running through Seoul City, has been an essential transport route and helped to create fertile farmlands along its banks. This allowed Seoul to become the industrial hub that was the stage for several wars during the Three Kingdom period (Baekje, Shilla and Goguryeo). 

In recent years, tens of thousands of Baekje-era relics were excavated from the Poongnap Fortress telling the hidden historic stories beneath them.

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Baekje gilt-bronze incense burner
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Baekje gilt-bronze crown
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Baekje Museum—note the ramp on the right leading up to the roof garden

To systemically preserve those relics, to review the 2000-year history of Seoul, to lead research on further excavations and to act as an educational resource, the city established the Seoul Baekje Museum on a site overlooking the Mongchon Fortress in the Olympic Park. Construction started in 2004 and was completed in Oct 2010, but the museum only opened officially in April 2012. It’s an impressive museum, not only for what it showcases but also for the building itself, now a landmark in the park that has won numerous architecture awards.

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Part of roof garden
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Viv sits in a model of a cow-cart on the roof
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Model of a Baekje boat, called a Baekjaebang

The exterior of Seoul Baekje Museum resembles the outline of Mongchon earthen fortress, partly designed in the shape of a vessel to evoke the importance of the Baekje kingdom as a maritime powerhouse. They were skilled ship builders, crafting boats with a flat bottom and one sail (although some say there may have been two sails). The slanting feature of the building on one side represents a vessel in the ocean. Baekje developed its national power mainly by trading with China and Japan through the Hangang River and Yellow Sea. It is also designed to harmonize with the surroundings, thus the brown color and the grassed slope leading up to the roof garden.

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Plan of a Baekje boat
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Baekje toilet bowl for men

The Seoul Baekje Museum showcases the long history of the region since the Paleolithic period, focusing on the Hanseong period of Baekje (18BC-475AD) in particular because this was the time when the area of present-day Seoul became the Baekje capital city. With its capital established along the Hangang (river) the Baekje flourished in this area, a fact that had powerful influences on neighboring countries.

There is lots of information in English alongside an engaging display of maps, models, artifacts and replicas, making the era come alive. The main point that emerges is that the Baekje culture was very advanced culturally.

 The vast Lobby has a cross-section of the Pungnap Earthen Fortress, which is three-

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Fortress wall in the Lobby

floors high. A thin layer was taken from the 43-meter wide and 9-11-meter high fortress wall for this wall exhibit, and it’s displayed with a full-scale model of workers constructing an earth rampart.

Exhibition Hall 1 focuses on Prehistoric Civilization in the Seoul area and the Dawn of Baekje. This tells the story of Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and early Iron Age civilization in Seoul area, especially in the riparian area of the Hangang (river).

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Baekje loom

Exhibition Hall 2: Here the history of Baekje is displayed from its founding in this area and its growth over 495 years. Besides showing the life of the people at that time, it also describes how Baekje became a bigger power and interacted with China and Japan. One interesting exhibit is on how their tombs changed, from stone mound tombs to stone chamber tombs.

Exhibition Hall 3 shows the confrontation between the Three Kingdoms—Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla—and the history of the Baekje after the fall of its capital in Hanseoung and move to Gongju.

The museum is free and open daily 9am-7pm except Mondays and January 1st. The mayor of Seoul may also decide to close it periodically for special days.

You can get a self-guided audio tour for smart phones.

 

Hunting Down History: The Baekje Kingdom

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Viv stands on steps up onto fortress wall

promenadesignMongchontoseong Fortress, in Olympic Park in Seoul

In the area of Songpa, south of the Han River in Seoul, are remains of the Baekje Kingdom, notably two earth-wall fortresses and many relics from excavations there.

Mongchontoseong Fortress is inside the Olympic Park, a very large green park with wilderness areas, lakes and other interesting features, the main one being the Fortress.

Take the subway to the station of the same name on Line 8 and follow signs to World Peace Gate. Once inside the park there are big boards with maps and information to guide you round.

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Part of fortress wall

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Walking the walls

The Korean people have lived through a history of division and then unity, followed by more division and then unity. In the past, the peninsula was divided into smaller states and then was re-united by whoever was in power.

As a very brief summary, the major kingdoms of the past were the Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla, which were then united into the United Silla Kingdom. This was later followed by the Goryeo Dynasty, and then the Joseon Dynasty. The Joseon Dynasty lasted around 500 years and was the last unified kingdom before the Japanese invasion in the early 1900s.

We wandered around the park and along the fortress walls, reading the information boards, and later went into the new Seoul Baekje Museum. As we did this we began to get an idea, a picture in our minds, of what this ancient place was.

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Some of the excavations in the fortress

In the Three Kingdom Period on the Korean peninsula, the Baekje Kingdom was centered around this area of the peninsula, along the Hanggang River, as it was called then. Its main city/town was known as Hangseong. Archaeological excavations and research from Samguksagi (the Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms) are proving that Baekje had two capital earthen fortresses (sometimes called castles). The first, Pungnaptoseoung to the north, was built in the early Baekje Kingdom before the 3rd century, and was an important center of marine transportation. The second, Mongchontoseong a little south of the first one, is thought to have been built under the reign of King Geunchogo after the 4th century and served as a high fortress overlooking the entire area in case of a war. It was built at the end of a natural slope extending from Namhansan Mountain, and the natural landscape of the Hanggang River was used as part of the wall. So, it was here that Baekje was able to lay its foundation as a powerful kingdom.

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?an old tomb stone
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View of modern Seoul and World Peace Gate from the fortress

We didn’t actually go to the Pungnaptpseong Fortress, but learned that this was where 30,000 troops of Goguryeo (one of the other Kingdoms) under King Jangsu attacked Hanseong, Baekje in 475. It is said that the castle surrendered after the 7-day attack and that Baekje King Gaero (reigned 455-475), who was in the southern section of the castle, tried to escape to the west, but was killed.

But, we spent quite a while rambling around what’s left of the Mongchontoseong Earthen Fortress. The place attracts many visitors, as it is a significant historical site and is pretty with fields of canola flowers, barley and grass. There are many walking paths, and we saw numerous working Koreans taking advantage of this space to walk during their lunch break.

As you walk along the top of the now-grass-covered earth walls you get a good view out over the park and to modern Seoul and huge groups of apartment buildings. In this park, too, we saw a number of squirrels and pheasants, and heard many other birds.

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Gommal Bridge

The fortress/castle is a 2.3 km-long earth fortress wall (about 1.4 miles), in a roughly circular shape, the walls ranging between 6-40 m (about 20-131 feet) high. The area inside the castle walls is 216,000 square meters (about 54 acres). Songnaecheon Stream flows along the walls and serves as a moat. A pretty bridge crosses at one point. This is the Gommal Bridge (Gommal-Dari). “Gommal” means a bridge found in a dream village. “Gommal”, derived from the archaic “Ggummaul”, is an old Korean word for “Mongchon”. The information board explains that “this classical and beautiful Korean word was given to this bridge in March 1986.”

Laid outside the castle wall are wooden barricades. Houses and other buildings have been

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View of modern Seoul and World Peace Gate

found here, along with storage pits and a pond. Thousands of pieces of earthenware, Chinese-made porcelain, bone, armor, and such, have all been unearthed here.

At one spot in the center of the fortress enclosure you find an ancient site of dug-out huts and some old tombs remaining, with stone chambers and soil mounds typical of the early Baekje period (200-475 AD). They are closed off, so you cannot actually get into them, but you can see where and how they were situated. Also found in the area was a hearth proving pre-historic habitation, as well as stone tables, fragments of stone swords and Baekje earthenware. These discoveries led researchers to believe that this area was a base for Baekje culture for a long period.

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Seoul Baekje Museum

The small Mongchon Museum of History on the north side has historical relics discovered during the excavation of Mongchontoseong Fortress and Pungnaptoseong Fortress. Notable are some precious golden relics of the Baekje kings, a seven-pronged sword called Chiljido (that testifies to the outstanding iron-smelting skills of the time), and many pots. The history of human settlement here goes way back. The museum is free and open daily, except Monday.

There is much more to see in the Seoul Baekje Museum, also in the Olympic Park. More on that later.

 

 

Seoul Olympic Park and World Peace Gate

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Peace Plaza and Flag Plaza from higher in the Olympic Park
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A small section of the Olympic Park

In 1988, twenty eight years ago, Seoul hosted the summer Olympics, a first for South Korea. Right now, Rio de Janeiro is hosting the summer Olympics, a first for Brazil (and South America).

Every Olympic city-host constructs stadiums, parks and other buildings for the games, for all the competitors and all the visitors. Seoul was no exception, as they were really proud hosts.

The Seoul Olympic Park was created in preparation for the 1988 Games, although large parts of it existed already, and many sports and music festivals are still held in the 6 stadiums dotted around the edge of the park. Many Seoul residents come here to relax and unwind regularly, and on the day we were there we saw many groups of city workers walking during their lunch break.

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The vast Flag Plaza with the flags of all countries that competed in 1988

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Part of the earth fortress wall

The Olympic Park, in the area of Songpa, south of the Han River, is a very large, green park with wilderness areas, lakes, a musical fountain, trails, bridges, wild flower garden, rose garden, and museums (Mongchon, SOMA Museum of Art, Baekje Museum, Olympic Museum). A massive 1.6-mile Baekje-dynasty earth fortification, called Mongchontoseong, built in the 3rd century AD, runs through the north part of the park and the Mongchon Museum has artifacts from the Baekje kings (more on all those later). On the east and south east side are attractions built for the Olympics: a swimming pool, tennis courts, three gymnasiums, and the velodrome. Outside the park is the enormous Olympic apartment complex.

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World Peace Gate
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World Peace Gate , with pillar masks

2flagplazacloserThe main entrance to the park is across an expansive plaza, called Peace Square, which leads to the World Peace Gate, which definitely qualifies as one of the Olympic statues/sculptures/structures. Beyond the World Peace Gate is the Flag Plaza, still flying the flags of the nations that attended the 1988 Olympics (South Africa was not one of them due to sanctions in place because of Apartheid). The plaza is ringed with fast food outlets, coffee shops, a convenience store, kiosks to rent bikes etc.

 

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Trikes for rent
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A few of the many sculptures

Over 200 sculptures are scattered on the sprawling lawns in the south part of the park, close to the SOMA Museum and Baekje Museum. They were designed and made by sculptors from around the world, and are a great way of showcasing many different ideas. It’s fun to just stroll, looking at the sculptures, admiring some and being perplexed about others. Many people also like to have a picnic near the sculptures. This also became a popular location for movie and commercial TV filming.

To get there: Take subway Line 2 (green) to Jamsil, and change to Line 8 (pink) and go to Mongchontoseong. Follow the exit 1 to Mongchontoseong Fortress/Peace Gate. The park is open 6am-10pm daily.

peacegatefront2About the sculptures and special structures:

Here I will talk about the World Peace Gate and the pillar masks.

First, the stunning colorful World Peace Gate, started on December 31, 1986 and completed on August 31, 1988. This is the work of architect Kim Chung-up, who designed it to celebrate the spirit of the Seoul Olympic Games—peace and harmony—and also to symbolize the ability of the Korean people. This was the last work of the famous Korean architect (1922-May 1988). The steel-reinforced concrete structure beckons as soon as you exit the subway station—the pillars stand with “wings” that look like bird wings or outstretched arms, welcoming.

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A pillar mask
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Pillar mask with double head
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A fierce mask—eagle-tiger, perhaps?

On the edge of the plaza, leading to the Gate, are 30 line pillar masks made by sculptor Seung-Taek Lee, a famous Korean interdisciplinary artist, born 1932. The bronze masks are mounted on stone pillars 3m/9ft 10inches high, which are also lamp posts, and are also meant to welcome people to the Gate. Most of them are interesting double-faces, some looking almost like the totem poles I spoke of earlier (see here https://vivskoreanadventures.wordpress.com/2016/08/07/totem-poles-in-korea/ )

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Part of the mural. and a pillar mask

The mural on the underside of the roof wings of the World Peace Gate is called “A Painting of Four Spirits”. Blue and red are used to symbolize Um and Yang, which is an oriental symbol of the universe and creativity.

Four spirits guard the gate. A red phoenix guards the south, a black turtle guards the north, a white tiger guards the west, and a blue dragon guards the east. The spirits are depicted as ascending towards heaven and signify the strength of Koreans and their freedom.

An eternal flame is underneath the gate, as well as a declaration of peace calling for world

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Rod and the Eternal Flame

harmony and happiness for all citizens of the world, regardless of ideology, race, or religion. The Korean people are very proud of this gate. And quite rightly so.

In the following post I will showcase some of the other sculptures.