Our first stop on our Korea tour.
We knew so little about Gyeongbokgung Palace that when we first got there we ended up entering the palace grounds through a subway side-entrance and our first view of Gwanghwamun Gate (a sight to see in and of itself) was from its backside.
Since I am ignorant of foreign culture in addition to being the world’s premiere travel photographer, I didn’t even realize this was Gate Gwanghwamun until after the fact and neglected to take any pictures of it. It was only by the grace of my darling wife that we even have the one above. I literally took pictures of everything but the gate itself.
The royal guards manning the gate face south upon Sejongno, a 16-lane boulevard more colloquially known as the Street of Six Ministries. This street runs alongside many municipal buildings and the U.S. Embassy, as well as the headquarters of a few major corporate interests.
Seated in the center of the boulevard is a statue of King Sejong the Great, and just past him stands Admiral Yi-Sun-sin, a naval commander revered as having been both a brilliant tactician and a gentleman, earning him the respect of his countrymen and enemies both. With no formal naval training, he remained undefeated against successive invasions by the Japanese despite being outmanned and outgunned in many of his battles. In the end he was mortally wounded by a single bullet.
Back to Gyeongbokgung though– like many other culture’s royal structures, Korean palaces are fortified by a series of concentric circles. Before reaching the throne hall, you pass through perimeter after perimeter, each with its own ornate gate.
The layered onion approach to fortification makes it much harder for invaders to storm the facility than a single moat, tall wall or other point of failure, but it did not appear the inner walls were designed to be manned– just the outermost one (circling Gwanghwamun).
Each gate and bridge technically has its own name (much like Gwanghwamun, which is most notable) but damned if I could remember the names of any of them despite being recited multiple times. For the sake of this journal entry I cheated and referred to Wikipedia.
Japan destroyed much of Gyeongbokgung during the time leading up to World War II and built their own concrete municipal building behind Gwanghwamun. What we see today is the result of a prolonged campaign of restoration and an concerted effort to scrub all traces of Japanese influence from the Korean mainland. The Japanese municipal building was destroyed in the late 1990s in order to restore the original Korean grounds…from what I understand, there wasn’t much of a debate concerning its fate.
Once inside the first “ring,” we stumbled right into what appeared to be a changing of the guard ceremony. The guards stand duty, unflinching, for two to three hours at a time. A more detailed schedule of the changing and performance ceremonies can be found here, but I’m not sure what exactly we witnessed (the time and date across each of our phones and cameras were completely out of sync– the world’s best travel photographer strikes again!).
There was traditional Korean music, taiko drums, horns, and many a colorful uniform as they paraded from Gwanghwamun through one of the auxiliary side-gates.
One thing that really caught our attention was how colorful everything here was without it being overbearing. The palace walls had an earthy tone to it, its primary-color scheme dulled by age and exposure to the elements which made it seem inauspicious while still granting it dignity through its sheer magnificence. Less-aged objects, such as the taiko on display, were painted with all manner of intricate designs and very brightly colored, as much so as the ceremonial clothing worn by the participants.
Approaching the second inner gate, Mount Bugak loomed in the background. From the ground, we thought we may have seen an observation deck, but this may or may not have been the case. Bugaksan Mountain is a tourist attraction, albeit one we missed entirely.
The bridge’s name is Yeongjegyo, and the gate itself Geunjeongmun.
Visible in the skyline from most of the grounds is a pagoda in the distance.
The pagoda crowns the National Folk Museum. Supposedly the admission is complimentary with purchase of tickets to tour Gyeongbokgung. We never managed to actually find the damn thing. I’m sure it’s not that difficult, but we were freezing and still a bit jetlagged so we moved on.
All in all Gyeongbokgung and Gwanghwamun were pretty impressive to see. Royalty in many cultures throughout history gilded everything in gold; it is always refreshing to see palaces be impressive in their own scale and splendor rather than as a token of wealth, but the less ostentatious design decisions were probably made easier by the fact that the Japanese kept rolling through and destroying everything. That it now stands in its original form to defy its tumultuous history just makes it all the more impressive.
We found ourselves craving gourmet Italian, our appetites demanding satisfaction in the form of exquisite culinary compositions that could only be fulfilled by the likes of traditional high-end establishments such as Macaroni Grill. Our prayers were answered as we roamed around Anguk station.