On my second day in Seoul, I visited Gyeongbokgung Palace, the central royal palace of Joseon (Korea’s longest-running dynasty), first constructed in the 14th century. The palace, like most historical buildings in Korea, has been partially destroyed and rebuilt several times. The palace is arranged geometrically, with a series of courtyards aligned in straight succession after the first gate. The palace seems to keep on going and going, courtyard after courtyard, with interesting architecture at every turn. The emptiness of the place is striking, however. In its prime, Gyeongbokgung would have hosted hundreds if not thousands of officials and diplomats, engaged in the daily affairs of the kingdom. It certainly has space enough for them.
At Gyeongbokgung, I was able to witness the changing of the guard, which happens regularly throughout the day. It is quite a neat thing to see, with all of the guards dressed in colorful uniforms, marching to music and carrying banners.
Gyeongbokgung was burned in the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 16th century and abandoned for three centuries. During this time, the royal court was moved to Changdeokgung Palace, located just next door. I visited Changdeokgung next. Rather than being constructed geometrically like Gyeongbokgung, this palace was built to be in perfect harmony with its environment. The architectural style of Changdeokgung overall is simple and understated, reflecting a Confucian ideology, which by that time had become fully ingrained in the Korean consciousness.
At Changdeokgung Palace I was able to go on a tour of Huwon, the secret garden behind the palace that was built for the private use of the king and royal family. For many years not even high officials were allowed to enter so it was neat to be able to see this “forbidden” place. The garden has a sublime, understated beauty and is the site of many small buildings that were built to stand in perfect harmony with their natural surroundings.
After touring these palaces, it was time to return to Busan. Between Jeju and Seoul, I had had a wonderful week of vacation!