Notes from the Land of the Morning Calm – Seoul

Seoul, South Korea, Oct ’06

We spent 5 days in Seoul – hardly enough time to scratch the surface of a city of that size. Like many rapidly growing cities, Seoul is sprawling, bustling metropolis full of the contradictions of a modern city built on an ancient city site. Highrise buildings with gigantic TV screens flashing ads are only a short distance from ancient palaces with serene gardens. City gates evocative of quieter times are islands surrounded by 4 lanes of busy traffic.

Seoul is also where my in-laws grew up, so naturally there were many, many relatives to visit while we were there. We went out to dinner several times with relatives, all of whom were happy to see us and treated us very well. We met both with my father-in-law’s relatives (including his 97 year old sister, who came to Seoul specifically to visit with my father-in-law and family) and my mother-in-law’s relatives. We smiled a lot, bowed a lot, and ate a lot.

The first day or two we wandered around the city a bit to get our bearings – Nandae-mun (South Gate), a remnant of the ancient wall that once surrounded Seoul, was nearby, so in the afternoon Dawn, Grace, and I walked over to check it out and wander around the nearby market, packed with people, mopeds, and outdoor stalls selling everything from shoes to fresh fruit. Nam-san – South Mountain – a green oasis in the middle of the city (kind of like the Central Park of Seoul) was right outside our hotel windows, so from one direction the view looked more like a small town than a major city. Seoul Station, the downtown central train station, was also close by, which was handy since we were planning on taking the train from Seoul to Gyeongju.

Nam-san and Namdae-mun, Seoul

The next day, we took a city tour bus that circled around the city and dropped you off at certain sites, and stopped at the National Museum of Korea. The museum was full of interesting displays about life in historic Korea, examples of metal and porcelain craft, and artifacts from old printing presses – apparently, the Koreans had movable type well before Gutenberg.

Present-day Koreans also have a lot of kids or so it seemed – apparently fall is “field trip time” for many local schools, and the museum was simply overrun with little kids, many of whom took great delight in practicing their English on the obvious American in the room “Hello. How are you? Nice to meet you! Where you from?” I think that must be the script in the standard English textbook used in Korean schools. Could have been worse I guess – they were certainly friendly enough.

The National Museum of Korea

Seoul was the seat of the Joseon Dynasty, one of the last and longest lived kingdoms to rule the Korean Peninsula. Because of this, there are several well preserved palaces within the city limits. One of those is Gyeongbok-gung (“Palace of Shining Happiness”) which started construction in 1394. We arrived in the middle of the day, just in time for what appeared to be a changing of the guard ceremony. We spent an afternoon looking around the various buildings and out-buildings. Life probably wasn’t too bad in old Korea – if you were royalty.

Changing of the guard, Gyeongbok-gung

The Throne Room, Gyeongbok-gung

Gyeongbok-gung architecture

Also housed within the Gyeongbok-gung compound is the National Folk Museum of Korea, which also proved very popular with school-age children on field trips. Aside from the interior displays of rural life in Korea (and of the various kinds of Kim-Chi, and how to make it) there were some outside displays of interest – Dolharubang (Grandfather statues), which we’d be seeing many more of in Jeju, and a collection of carved wooden posts, called Jangseung, that were placed at the entrance to villages to act as guardians.

National Folk Museum of Korea

For me, one of the highlights of Seoul was another palace by the name of Changdeok-gung (Palace of Illustrious Virtue). Constructed from 1405 to 1412, destroyed during an invasion sometime after that, it was reconstructed in 1610. It was the home of the last King of Korea, and members of the Korean Royal Family continued to live there as late as the 1980’s. We were lucky in that 6 out 7 days of the week, you have to go with a tour group to see the buildings and the gardens. However, the day we were there was “free day,” and for the price of admission you could wander around by yourself, at your own pace – a much better way to experience all that a place has to offer.


What made Changdeok-gung so special was the garden, called Biwon (Secret Garden) on the back of the palace grounds. 78 acres in size, it was apparently a refuge for the royal family and thus off limits to the public up until relatively recently. Strolling through the peaceful wooded landscape, dotted with beautifully decorated buildings here and there, it was easy to forget you were in the middle of a busy city. At one particularly idyllic spot were two pavilions where the King could sit and read. While we were there, a Korean woman excitedly pointed out to us where a Maple leaf had fallen into a puddle of water – whether it had fallen just so as to align with the shadows, or had some help, I don’t know, but it did form an interesting image. Unfortunately, she only spoke Korean, and neither I, nor Grace, who was with me at the time, could figure out what else she was trying to say.

Changdeok-gung – Biwon

On one of our evenings in Seoul, a relative took us all for a drive, past the Seoul Worldcup Stadium, built for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, to a park called Haneul (Skyway) Park. There, in the dark, hundreds of people were walking up a mountain park, built on a reclaimed landfill, along a trail marked with red, white and blue lanterns. At the top, colored lights were waving over fields of silvery reeds – the significance of, I never really figured out. However, the views from the summit were worth the walk, including the Han River and the Worldcup stadium mentioned earlier. We continued around the trail, coming down the front face of the hill via a back and forth stairway, all lit up with the same red, white, and blue lanterns.

Haneul (Skyway) Park