Though we live in Korea now, we in no way think that we are above being tourists. We plan to treat our time here more as a overlong vacation, not just life as usual. We may have to partake in mundane, everyday life responsibilities, but we are going to make the most of our time here as we can.
We decided to start our tourist exploring with a palace. Disney taught me to believe in the magic of palaces and castles. I want to visit them wherever we travel. The Alhambra and Palacio Real in Spain, St. Georges Castle in Portugal, and even Biltmore estate in North Carolina, all left me in awe of their history and splendor. With stars in my eyes, we set off for Gyeongbokgung Palace in the center of Seoul.
It’s a little redundant to call it Gyeongbokgung Palace, even though that’s how it is labeled in all the English tour guides and brochures. “Gyeongbok” means “the new dynasty will be greatly blessed and prosperous” and “gung” means “palace.” So, adding the English word “palace” is a little repetitive. I guess I just have to accept that though.
The palace was built in 1395, soon after the Joseon Dynasty was founded. (I am always reminded of how young the USA is whenever I learned about another country’s history!) The Joseon Dynasty lasted for around five centuries, finally ending in 1897. Gyeongbokgung was one of five palaces to serve the dynasty, but generally acted as the main palace. The palace thrived for about 200 years until the Japanese invasion in 1592. The complex was burned to the ground and then abandoned until 1867. At that time Prince Regent Heungseon Daewongun spent a lot of time and money to bring back the former glory. The extensive renovation was comprised of over 500 buildings and several gardens. Unfortunately, the Japanese struck again. In 1895, the Korean Queen Min was brutally assassinated in the gardens of Gyeongbokgung because she was seen as inhibiting Japanese expansion. The Joseon Dynasty soon ended, and the The Japanese occupation of Korea, 1910-1945, began soon after. In 1911, the Japanese took over Gyeongbokgung Palace for government space, but by the end of the occupation Gyeongbokgung had been completely torn down. Korea began restoring the buildings and gardens of the palace in 1990, and projects to renew its grand buildings continue to this day.
Therefore, when we ventured on to the grounds, I did not see an ancient palace full of history. Gyeongbokgung’s turbulent history has left nothing but replicas of the original architecture. Our tour guide (free tours in English offered everyday!), did a great job explaining the importance of the palace and describing what life there would have been like. However, I was a little disappointed. Knowing that the structures were not originals, took some of the romance away. The buildings were still gorgeous. They were are so colorful and the roof lines curve to match the mountains in the distance. However, you cannot enter any of the buildings, and each structure was the same style as the previous one, so it became a little repetitive. Beautiful, but repetitive.
However, our tour was spiced up with an unexpected parade! The weekend we went to Gyeonbokgun was during Jongmyo Daeje, a special event celebrating Joseon royals. Though we didn’t go on the main day of the celebrations, we still enjoyed free entry onto the grounds and were able to witness a Taejang parade. The Joseon royals, along with other ancient Koreans, greatly esteemed “tae,” also known as the umbilical cord and placenta. They respected the tae as being the root of life and believed it should be treated with care. When a royal baby was born, the tae would be collected and placed in a special jar, and then the jar would be taken to a special location and buried. “Jang” means a ceremony to bury something; therefore, “taejang” just means the tae burial. Locations for the burial were carefully chosen and considered holy; a proper tae burial spot meant a lucky life for the infant. There are several areas around Korea whose name includes “tae;” these were holy burial grounds.
Our tour guide told us that the parade we witnessed was a reenactment of the Taejang, with the jar leaving the palace on its way to be buried. The parade was fairly short, and it only took about three or four minutes to pass by. It consisted of approximately 50 fifty people in traditional dress. There were flag bearers, musicians, and many others to escort the tae. The outfits were very bright, vivid yellows and reds; this made the parade seem like a much happier event than the participants’ solemn faces conveyed. I was very excited to see the parade, and we owe it to just lucky timing. We did not know that the parade would be happening and just happened to be standing in a perfect location.
After our the parade and our tour, Jared and I were sitting down looking through our guide book to try and determine where we should go next. A Korean lady, probably in her 30s, stopped at the bottom of the steps and stared up at us. As my Korean language skills are still lacking, I tried my most reliant form of communication: a smile. I smiled, and she returned by greeting us in English. She asked where we were from, but “United States” wasn’t a good enough answer for her. I tried to explain Tennessee and mountains, but I’m not sure it got through. She knew some basic English, but not enough for us to communicate very well. She was able to inform us that her President was on her way to meet with our President. Mostly, she seemed very happy to just stare at us, and the two of us just smiled back and forth. It was getting a little awkward, when she finally ended the exchange. She gave me a candy sucker and brokenly explained that she had already eaten hers, so she didn’t have one for Jared. Then she said, “I’m Korean,” and left. It was a funny few minutes. I’m not positive if she was just a nice person, or was not quite all there, or perhaps a little of both. However, I could tell that she very much wanted to be welcoming and friendly; which was comforting.
All in all, it was a nice tourist experience. I probably wouldn’t have been as disappointed in the reconstruction aspect if I had actually researched it more before going. The other palaces in Seoul, Changdeokgung and Deoksugung, also suffered during the Japanese occupation. Each of those palaces have only a third of their original structures remaining. However, I will not let that keep me from visiting!
PS: Lady visitors beware: the only facilities that I found at Gyeonbokgung palace have the traditional squat toilets. An experience that was not as exciting as the parade.