The Magic of Falling Petals

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Cherry blossoms en masse look like white-pink clouds, just below the campus of Seoul National University
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A pond on SNU campus
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Cherry blossom petals like snow on the sidewalk

The Magic of Falling Petals (here, in Korea)

Cherry blossoms are beloved around the world, but especially in Japan, China and Korea, where they have special meaning and significance, besides being beautiful and attracting visitors.

Cherry trees seem like clouds as they bloom en masse, and look like a canopy of soft color when one walks under them. Soft and velvety petals cascade from the swaying trees, drifting down slowly, like the first soft snow flakes of winter.

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Petals caught on rocks in a stream
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On the sidewalk
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Cherry blossom and forsythia petals in the stream

The significance of the cherry blossom tree in Japanese culture goes back hundreds of years. For the Japanese, the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It’s a reminder that life is beautiful but that it is also tragically short. When the cherry blossom trees bloom for a short time each year, they are a visual reminder of how precious and how precarious life is. So, when Japanese people come together to view the cherry blossom trees and marvel at their beauty, they aren’t just thinking about the flowers themselves, but also about the larger meaning and deep cultural tradition of the cherry blossom tree. I will write more about cherry blossoms in Japan and post pictures at a later date.

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So beautiful caught on the rocks

The cherry blossom is the most prominent spring blossom in Korea, but is not as central to the culture as it is in Japan. However, the Korean people do also love to view the cherry blossoms and there are a number of cherry blossom festivals. In fact, in Korea sakura, used as a loanword, is the most common way to refer to the flower (the Korean word is beot-kkot), and the activity of blossom viewing also uses the loanword hanami (the Korean word is kkot-gugyeong).

Above and here are a few fun photos of cherry blossom petals, and other petals, that have driftedstream4into a small stream on the campus of Seoul National University. They look beautiful, but are also a reminder of the fragility and short life of these wonderful spring flowers.

I found a very nice blog post about cherry blossoms in Seoul, if you are interested https://ourmaninkorea.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/cherry-blossoms-in-seoul/

 

Spring in Seoul

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campus2Part 1: On the campus of Seoul National University

Spring in Seoul (and no doubt other parts of South Korea) is a delightful time, especially for lovers of flowers and nature. It’s an explosion of colors, a riot of gorgeous blossoms of many kinds. We love spring in our town in Illinois, but somehow the flowering trees and the blooming shrubs in Seoul seemed to stand out more—perhaps because it’s a huge urban area, with so much concrete and many closely-clustered apartment blocks; while our town is less densely-populated and has many tree-lined avenues, so the contrast in spring in Seoul is much more obvious.

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A sea, or billowing cloud, of cherry blossoms, looking out the lab

We were living on the campus of Seoul National University, south of the Han River. The campus was really gorgeous in April. Really noticeable were many cherry trees—white or very make pink— all across campus, and even more in the valley below—so many that looking down on them was like seeing a white cloud of blossoms below.

On campus and all across the city we also marveled at the bright azalea bushes, sometimes grouped in a single color but sometimes bushes of multiple colors all mixed together into a colorful whole.

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Cherry blossom petals caught on rocks in a small stream. Stunning!

Add yellow forsythia bushes, huge peonies, mixed flower beds and we get a floral paradise.

Here are just a few photos from our spring in Seoul—we took so many it was hard to choose! But, they give an idea of the gorgeous blooms and why we were so excited.

This first selection is on the campus of Seoul National University and many shots are of the prolific cherry trees.

 

Daehangno District: Murals

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Street in Ihwa Village
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Map of Iowa area
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One of the streets with murals

(Please note, I will be away in Paris for a week or so and may not be able to post on here for a couple of weeks. My apologies)

Part 4: Murals

Behind Maronnier Park many narrow streets lead uphill to much larger Naksan Park, passing through Ihwa Village.

Ihwa Village, still very much inhabited by locals, is known for its murals, created by “Art in the City” project. The murals began to appear in 2006 as the city ministry launched a project to develop the poor neighborhood as a tourist landmark with a unique atmosphere.

 

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The first mural I saw

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murals2I visited some of the lower streets and the murals are really colorful and interesting. However, I also heard that many of the local residents are not at all happy with all the tourists who troop by, taking photos and making a lot of noise.

I guess that must always be a problem if public art is located in a somewhat private area.

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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. Part 2, Marronnier Park

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A large modern sculpture greets you at the entrance to Marronnier Park
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A pretty urban park
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Replica of Seoul National University campus that was on this site

Part 2 in Daehangno District, Seoul; Maronnier Park

Located on the former site of Seoul National University, Marronnier Park was opened in 1975 after the campus relocated to a new location in Gwanak and the area was redeveloped. I found a miniature replica of the university near the center of the park, which gives visitors an idea of what the area looked like before the university was moved.

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From one corner of the park the Daehangno Theater and Entertainment area begins
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Coffee shop and street market

Marronnier Park is named after many horse chestnut trees (marronniers) growing in the park (maronniers originated from the Mediterranean). The horse chestnut tree tradition began with three trees that were left when Seoul National University moved and most of the buildings were demolished.

This small park has become the center of Daehangno. It has pretty fountains, a large children’s playground and an open-air performance stage, used by street artists and young musicians or dancers. Every week, there are various different performances, both traditional and more modern. Many restaurants, galleries, museums and theaters cluster around the park and famous Daehangno Street starts from one corner of the park.

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A thriving shoes market
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Bikes for rent

In the park is a coffee shop (where I stopped and it was very pleasant) and along the main street you’re very likely to see impromptu street stalls—the day I visited the park area, there was a large stall selling shoes, hundreds of shoes of all kinds, and many people were trying on shoes and buying.

You can also rent bicycles here (similar concept to the Vel’ibs in Paris), but I have to admit I would be way too afraid to try and ride in this traffic!

 

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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 Kyobo Bookstore

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Many levels in this huge bookstore

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Kids section

Last time we were in Seoul, I met up with our Korean friend, JiHye and her daughter Sophia. We’ve known them for ages, since her husband did a Phd here with Rod. Sophia was born here in Urbana, and I’m her “unofficial American grandma”. We’ve kept in touch and see them whenever we go to Korea.

First we went to the Simone Handbag Museum (see here https://vivskoreanadventures.wordpress.com/2016/10/28/a-most-unusual-museum-to-handbags/ )

After lunch, Jihye wanted to take me to her favorite bookstore, a huge place called Kyobo Bookstore. It’s in Sinnonhyeon, in Gangnam, not far from the Gangnam Station. Gangnam is an upscale Seoul area just south of the Han River that runs through the city.

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JiHye reading to Sophia

It was fascinating to wander around this enormous multi-storied bookstore, with every imaginable type of book and magazine, plus gift items. It was pretty crowded, so is obviously very popular and JiHye told me that books are still relatively cheap in Korea—in fact many other Korean students have told me the same thing.

 

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Me reading to Sophia 
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TOEFL books

We read to Sophia and she picked out a couple of books to buy, then I perused the section with books to learn English. The Korean people in general believe that it’s really important for them to learn English and put a lot of time, effort and money into doing that. English language institutes abound, and special schools and after-schools for children, even as young as pre-schoolers nowadays (they tell me these schools are really expensive).

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TOEIC is another test Koreans often take
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“Hot Book” section

There were not that many English or other language books per se, but interestingly all the sections in the store are marked in both Korean and English.

A fun afternoon.

 

 

Tapgol Park in Seoul

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Entrance to Tapgol Park
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Sidewalk outside the park entrance leads to busy modern buildings

Tapgol Park

This small walled park of about 5 acres, on the edge of Insadong (probably Seoul’s most popular tourist district), is a useful place to sit and relax if you’re in the area for shopping, or visiting Jogyesa Temple or Unhyeongung Palalce. It’s also very popular with retired folk, especially men, who seem to gather there to chat and perhaps play a board game while listening to music on their radios. We’ve been into this park numerous times and it’s fun to sit and people watch. In spring, the leafy greenness is made even more beautiful with beds of bright flowering azaleas.

Besides being a tranquil pretty green oasis in the midst of busy Seoul, Tapgol also has a fair bit of history attached to it, some very old and some relatively recent and certainly not peaceful.

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Old and new—Tapgol Park looking to Jongno Tower
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The protected Pagoda

Opened in 1897, Tapgol Park was Seoul’s first western-style park, designed by King Gojong’s financial advisor, an Irishman called John McLeavy Brown.

At first it was known as Pagoda Park or Tapdong Park, named after a 15th-century relic—a 1467 stone pagoda from the Wongaksa Buddhist Temple once located here. Tap in Korean means pagoda. The Temple was destroyed in 1504 on the orders of a Confucian king. The 10-tier, 12-meter-high pagoda is a treasure of Buddhist art, but it’s a little hard to see the wonderful carvings through the glass cage around it (but definitely better to preserve it).

 

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Pagoda detail

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Pavilion in the park—where the Resistance Movement started

Another monument in the park is the tortoise stele Monument of Wongaksa (see above) built in 1471 to commemorate the founding of Wongaksa Temple in 1465. On the front and back are calligraphy and inscriptions recording the story. The turtle-shaped base is granite and the body is marble. Two intricately carved intertwined dragons, rising toward the sky holding a Buddhist gem, top the monument.

The park is also a symbol of Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule. Historical note: Korea became a Japanese Protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910. Korea was liberated in 1945 after the surrender of the Japanese forces to the Allies. Korea never took well to Japanese colonial rule and by all accounts Japan tried hard to suppress all that was typically Korean. Hence the resistance.

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This pagoda is part of Korean history
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Statue of Son Byeong-hui
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Murals telling the Resistance story

On March 1, 1919, Euiam Son Byeong-hui (leader of Donghak church, and educator) and 32 others signed and read aloud a Declaration of Independence under the 8-sided Palgakjeong Pavilion (see above). This was the first public display of resistance to the Japanese and sparked the March 1st Movement. They were all arrested and sent to the infamous Seodaemum Prison (which we visited on our last trip. More on that later). Many people throughout Korea protested against this, but the samil (March 1) movement was ruthlessly suppressed and hundreds of independence fighters were killed and thousands arrested in the park. Ten bronze bas-relief murals in stone frames around one edge of the park depict the heroic, but unsuccessful, struggle. They are well done and very evocative of what happened then. I took photos of most of the panels, so you can tell they made a big impression.

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These murals tell a very graphic story
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Heroic people indeed

 

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(See more murals at end)
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Memorial at edge of entrance plaza

Every March 1st, a memorial service is held here. You can read an English copy of the Declaration on the Memorial Plaque near the entrance to the park. Just inside the entrance is a large paved plaza, with the Memorial on the right. It has the Declaration and statues of two of the heroes. Just to the side is a bronze statue of Son Byeong-hui.

Park is open daily 6am-8pm and is free. Vendors outside sell souvenirs, flags, and snacks. There are clean public restrooms in the park.

Subway: Lines 1,3, or 5 to Jongno 3-ga Station and take exit 1.

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Reading the Declaration of Independence

 

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.