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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

How to spend a sunny afternoon in Seoul

By Deirdre Madden

Recently, due to my incredible inability to plan things in advance, I ended up with 9 hours to kill in Seoul before an international flight. As I had a rather enjoyable afternoon in the city, and had a chance to discover a palace I hadn’t yet been to, I thought I’d share the experience with others wondering what to do for an afternoon in Seoul.

Upon arriving at Seoul Station on the KTX, I headed down into the subway system, and hoped on Line 1 (dark blue) for a 6 minute trip up to Jongno 3(sam)ga Station (head in the Soyosan direction). Thankfully there were a bunch of open lockers in Jongno 3 for me to stash my luggage in, as there had been no available lockers in Seoul Station. I left the station out of exit 2 (1 is better, but at the time of writing was closed. 2 faces the wrong way, so turn back towards exit 1 once you’re outside, and you’ll be headed in the right direction), grabbed a cup of tea in a nearby coffee shop (you’ll pass all the main brands), and headed towards Insadong.

Along the way, you’ll pass Tapgol Park, which has a traditional gated entrance, and is often full of ajeoshis playing baduk (the game with black and white stones). Located on the site of a former Buddhist temple, it was the first modern park built in Seoul. It has some of the temple relics inside, along with statues of Korean Patriots from the 1919 “March 1st Movement” of Korean Independence against the Japanese occupation. It’s an interesting mix of Korean history, and a popular place to hold demonstrations due to it’s ties to the Independence Movement.

The "Tap" or Pagoda the park is named for. (Photo from WikiMedia Commons)

Insadong is a small neighbourhood in the Jong-no area that has become the go-to shopping area for tourists, that heads off at an angle, just up from the big intersection beside Tapgol Park (cross at the intersection in the direction you’ve been walking, and turn right. The main Insadong road forks off to the left, about 50m up the street). Lined with souvenir stores and side-walk carts selling everything from chopstick holders to impossibly intricate lamps, traditional clothing and fabric crafts, toys and jewelry, it’s often crowded and chaotic.

On Sundays, they close the main Insadong street to traffic, and there are often performances by traditional drummers and dancers. Don’t miss the “16,000 strings honey candy” makers – there are a few shops up and down the street. It’s amazing to watch them take a solid block of honey and turn it into finely spun threads. Of course you can buy the finished product, which is really delicious and surprisingly not overly sweet. There are also carts along the street selling yut, a toffee-like candy made from fruit sugars, and other Korean candy. My favourite is the hobak (pumpkin) yut. Superstition says students should eat yut while studying for an exam, so the knowledge sticks in their head. There’s also a clear, sticky toffee with chunks of ginger in it that is quite yummy – just don’t try to crunch it or you’ll lose a tooth.

Street treats - you could spend all day eating your way through Insadong

There are also art galleries with both traditional and modern works on display, and plenty of cafes, tea shops and traditional restaurants often tucked back on the side streets and alleyways. All of the traditional handicrafts, like quilting, hand-pressed paper and pottery can be found in various shops along the streets.

After spending some time wandering up the main Insadong street, I decided I needed a break from the crowd. At the top of Insadong, there are several palaces, so I headed for one of those. If you follow the big main road to the left, you’ll come to Gyeongbok Palace, which covers a huge area, and has lots to see. But I’d been there a few years ago with my father, so instead, I turned right along the main road, and headed for Changdeok Palace instead.

Donhwa-mun - the entrance

Changdeok Palace is one of the Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty, and like most historical Korean places, has been mostly reconstructed after being heavily damaged by the Japanese invasion in the 1590’s and again during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th Century. It stands on the same parklands as Changgyeong Palace, but I had neither the time nor energy to get that far that day. I was happy to explore the Changdeok grounds, and sit around in the cool shade pondering what court life must have been like in 18th Century Korea.

All of my knowledge of Korean Courtly Life comes from the TV Drama "Queen Seondeok", of which I only ever saw a few clips in passing. Everyone cried a lot, or yelled, and men wore fabulous hats, though this was the Silla Dynasty, so everything may have been different by Joseon.

After buying your ticket at the booth (3,000 won – 5,000 if you get the Secret Garden ticket), the Palace begins with a large entrance gate (Donhwa-mun), the second floor of which is where the king would stand to give speeches to the public. You pass through the gate into a courtyard, but rather than being more-or-less straight behind the entrance, the palace continues off on a right angle, after you cross a pretty little stream by walking on the oldest stone bridge remaining in Seoul.

The bridge was built in 1411

 

 

Changdoek is unique among East Asian palaces, as it was built with the natural topography in mind, and the buildings are meant to “harmonize with the natural environment”. Apparently, King Taejong decided to build Changdeok because the grounds at Gyeongbuk Palace didn’t have the best Pungsu-jiri-seol (Korean Feng Shui). Or at least that was the story put forth. According to the guidebook, he may have had “ulterior motives” as he had “seized the throne after having assassinated his half brothers and Jeong Do-jeon, the powerful Merit Subject. Afterward, he was very reluctant to live in Gyeongbokgung, the scene of the bloodbath.” Killing multiple people messes with the “Chi”, I guess.

Palace grounds - not quite so slanted in real life.

Like all Korean traditional buildings, the palace consists of many smaller buildings set apart from each other throughout the grounds. There is also a “Secret Garden”, but that was a separate ticket and you have to go on tours which sadly didn’t fit my schedule. Instead, I wandered around the multiple out-buildings, admiring the detailed paintings on the walls, and stopping at the cafe for juice, as it was a rather warm day. Of note would be Injeongjeon, the throne hall where grand events like greeting foreign dignitaries and coronating kings took place; Huijeongdang, the king’s residence, which became his main office where the daily work was done; Daejojeon, the queen’s residence, which is where the Joseon Dynasty’s final cabinet meeting was held, where they decided to sign over rule of Korea to the Japanese in 1910; and the Nakseonjae Complex, where a quieter king made his little get-away, without the bright paint and pomp of the official palace buildings. Lee Bangja, the wife of the last crown prince, lived here until 1989.

The King's Residence (Huijeongdang)

Part of the Crown Prince's residence

Overall, exploring the palace grounds made for a lovely afternoon, away from the hustle and bustle of modern Seoul. Unlike castles in Europe, the palaces in Korea are very open, and the grounds play almost as important a role as the buildings, so it’s more like wandering through a park than a palace.

So if you have a few hours to kill in Seoul, or are looking for a laid-back way to spend an afternoon, check out Insadong and Changdeok palace. There’s plenty to see and do.

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