The charming brick-faced area around Myeongdong Cathedral may have had a strong European flavour, but my next stop featured some splendid examples of unmistakably Korean art and architecture.
After Mass, I hopped onto Seoul’s metro network and made my way to Gyeongbokgung Station, on subway line 3. Emerging from exit 5, one of the first things that greeted me was the sight of beautiful tiled roofs peeking up from behind stone walls.
Passing through a side entrance, I looked across a broad snow-covered courtyard and beheld a splendid gateway painted in riotous colours.
This is just one of the many gates in Gyeongbokgung, the largest of Seoul’s so-called Five Grand Palaces. Originally constructed in the late 14th century, the palace complex was destroyed and rebuilt more than once during its long history, the most recent round of demolition taking place in the 20th century when Japan was the occupying power on the Korean peninsula. Reconstruction work has gathered apace in recent years, with the number of buildings rebuilt (or surviving as originals) now approaching half of everything that once stood in Gyeongbokgung’s vast precincts.
Looking to my right, I saw the inner side of Gwanghwamun, the palace’s newly restored main gate.
Passing through to the other side, outside the palace walls, I saw a group of sentries standing guard in all their traditional finery.
Luckily enough, my timing was just right for the regular changing of the guard: a grand ceremony now performed mainly for the benefit of tourists, but still quite authentic as it’s based on the results of detailed historical research.
Now for a closer look at Gwanghwamun itself.
Back into the courtyard now, and through the inner gate we saw earlier.
Another courtyard, this one featuring a stone-walled canal running through the middle.
Another richly decorated gateway . . .
. . . beyond which stands Geunjeongjeon, the Joseon king’s grand throne hall.
Behind the throne hall, more roofs shyly beckon from the palace’s inner precincts. No worries, we’ll get there in due course.
Northwest of Geunjeongjeon, I came across a large square pond with an island off to one side. Standing within the island, perched on tall granite pillars, is the royal banqueting pavilion of Gyeonghoeru.
Wandering through the palace’s inner precincts was like walking through a living picture-book of Korean architecture, with each hidden courtyard and building revealing delightful little surprises.
Gyotaejeon, the queen’s private quarters (not surprisingly located just behind the king’s own chambers).
Behind Gyotaejeon is a lovely little terraced garden known as Amisan, which has a unique architectural feature: four hexagonal brick chimneys with decorated panels. The chimneys are likely part of the ondol system that provided underfloor heating to the queen’s quarters.
More aimless wandering, more architectural surprises.
Gangnyeongjeon, the king’s private quarters.
After a quick visit to the National Folk Museum of Korea – located in the northeastern quadrant of the Gyeongbokgung compound – I left the palace walls and made my way back south.
Standing in the palace complex’s southwestern corner is the National Palace Museum of Korea, which contains an enormous collection of artefacts that serves to highlight the achievements of the Joseon dynasty and illustrates what life was like for the former Korean court.
There are far too many exhibits here for me to enumerate, but some of the more interesting ones include a reproduction of the dishes consumed by the king . . .
. . . some fine examples of the splendid ceremonial robes and jewellery worn by the royal family . . .
. . . and even the automobiles used by the Emperor and Empress of Korea in the early 20th century.
There’s also a more traditional form of royal conveyance on display, complete with perfume packets hanging near the windows (perhaps to dispel the foul odours of the common folk as the king was borne through the city streets?).
But perhaps one of the most interesting exhibits of all is a working full-scale reproduction of the Jagyeokru: a massive self-striking water clock built in 1434 on the orders of King Sejong. And when I say working, I mean working – there’s even a timetable posted nearby that announces when each of the clock’s different chimes will sound.
Coming up: a visit to Changdeokgung and its splendid “secret garden”.