Monday, November 22, 2010

Seoul – Palaces, a Market and Seoul Tower

Our final day in Seoul had two palaces, Insadong Market, and Seoul Tower on our itinerary. We started the day out with another cab ride – this one more sedate thank goodness, where we were delivered curbside to Deoksu Palace to view the changing of the guard ceremony.

The Royal Guards Changing Ceremony at Deoksu Palace
The main reason for our visit to Deoksu Palace was to see the changing of the guards, other palaces in Seoul have these ceremonies but this one is apparently considered the best. We arrived with enough time to make our way inside the grounds but were only a few steps inside before I spied a banner reading “2010 Book Festival.” My fellow traveler’s are aware of my passion for books – they are in one of the two book groups I belong to here in Yokosuka. But what they probably didn’t know was that I can not pass by bookstores, or anything about books without stopping to look. So with festival tents set up we strolled along taking a look at the books on display. One tent had a very cool display set up where you could ink up an early version of movable type and by placing a sheet of rice paper down and rubbing it you could get a sense of how labor intensive this process was. We all gave it a try and then moved along to see what else was there to see. I found a beautiful book on Korean flower arranging that I picked up, knowing I’d have to lug it around the entire day. No sooner had I made my purchase than I got a gentle nudge from my friends that time was running out and we needed to head back to the entrance to see the ceremony. As we started back we could hear the traditional band playing the music along with the sound of a steady drum beat … my pace quickened, I did not want to miss out on this, nor the chance to wiggle my way into position for some photo ops.

The elite Palace Guards who defended the palace and escorted the King were called Geum-gun (Soldiers Guarding the Forbidden Palace) and were responsible for opening and closing the palace gates as well as guarding and patrolling the area around the gate. Deoksu (meaning virtue and long life) Palace served as the king’s residence following the withdrawal of Japanese occupied forces in 1593. The palace was originally called Geum-gung (the Forbidden Palace) because it was off limits to ordinary citizens. In 1907, the Emperor Gojong moved into Deoksu after relinquishing his throne to his son, Emperor Sunjong.

The traditional Korean attire was very colorful – a contrast to the more subdued tones of Japan. The music played by the traditional Korean band was wonderful, the blowing of conch shells, the beating of the drums, the high-pitched wail of the flutes. It really was quite special and I’m so glad I had a chance to see this while in Seoul. For more information on the Royal Guards Ceremony go to:

With the ceremony over we were off to the next palace – Changdeok Palace. Taxi!

Changdeok Palace
This is a huge sprawling complex with many buildings and some lovely garden areas. At the information booth/ticket office you can rent a headset with a guided tour in English. I recommend this, however even for me, one who likes details, I hit information overload at one point and shut it off – TMI. I enjoyed looking at the architecture, Korean style architecture is much more colorful than traditional Japanese architecture. The brightly painted architectural details were beautiful.

Surrounding Geunjeongjeon Hall, in the palace complex, are twelve stone statues – one for each birth year – rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, lamb, monkey, rooster, dog and boar (see photo). We moved along to Yeonji pond and the Gyonghoeru pavilion which is a lovely spot to take a break. Further back in this expansive complex is Hyangwonjeong – an octagonal shaped pavilion. This is one of the most photographed areas in Korea and I could see why. It’s lovely.

With two more stops on our itinerary we moved along in search of Insadong Market. For more information on Gyeongbokgung go to:

Insadong Market
This was the market I was waiting for … I love seeing traditional crafts and had read that this market was THE place to go in Seoul to find celadon pottery and all sorts of other Korean crafts. I was not disappointed. The main street is closed to traffic on the weekends and you can wander in and out of shops looking at all the wares. I had read some great reviews on Ssamzie Market and stopped at the information booth to find out where it is located. Armed with my map we made our way down the street – and found the building, which is an architectural treat, along with art cases (see the photo of the zipper bags – sooo cool!) and some great stores with lots of eye candy. This was one of my favorite places we visited while in Seoul.

“But why can’t you take us there?”
I have mentioned the wild taxi rides but have not yet addressed just how difficult it is to get a taxi in the first place. After our trip to the DMZ we were told “just stand here a taxi will come along” after waiting and waiting and waiting some more MJ, our taxi maven, decided to take matters into her own hands and went to the security booth at the USO and asked that they call us a taxi. The next day we didn’t do much better … after leaving the Myeongdong shopping district we asked a policeman if there was a certain place to pick up a taxi as the cars seemed to be whizzing by at breakneck speed. He said “stand here and I’ll flag one down for you.” As we waited, we watched fashionista after fashionista dash down the road about 15 feet ahead to grab the next available taxi. We thanked the policeman and decided to join in the “I’m better than you at getting a taxi” game. Later that night after the Nanta show we tried for an HOUR to get a taxi with no luck, finally gave up and tried to take the subway system back to our hotel. We almost pulled it off, but ended up getting off at the wrong station and in the end still had to get a taxi – MJ out there taking control of “Mission Taxi.” So here we are, it’s our last evening and we’ve planned to go to Seoul Tower, this time we can find a taxi but no one will take us there. Finally, one signals for us to get in and after we all pile into the cab and our “taxi maven” shows him a map and information he motions to us to get out. This is when my friend Monika says with a tone of frustration in her voice “but why can’t you take us there?” and I start to laugh. “Monika, he can’t speak English and you want him to explain why he’s saying no?” She responds with a “but I just want to understand why he won’t take us there.” I get it. It’s one of the frustrating parts of traveling in another country and you cannot speak the language, sometimes you’re just not going to understand something. This is when you hope that the “random acts of kindness” fairy will swoop down and step in. As we all unload from the cab a young man who had just stepped out of the cab, looked back and saw the confusion taking place and came over to see if he could help. In impeccable English he asked where we were trying to go and then in rapid-fire Korean had an exchange with the driver, next thing we knew we were off on another “wild taxi ride” through the streets of Seoul, destination Seoul Tower.

Seoul Tower
I’m not sure I have a lot to say about this stop … we had wanted to grab a cocktail while we viewed the city but it turns out the restaurant at the top only will let you have dinner and we weren’t too interested in this option. We had hoped to get there right at dusk but didn’t quite make it after the long lines for the cable car and then another line for the ropeway. If it’s a pretty day and you have the time you can climb up the hill to the Seoul Tower but we were on a timeframe and decided to take the easier way out. It is what it is, a tourist trap, but it does afford a nice view of Seoul.

I had so many questions from friends about Korea when I returned. The Japanese and the Koreans have not exactly been the best of friends over the centuries. Mostly my Japanese friends were curious, what were the Koreans like? My American friends also wanted to know if the Koreans were rude – they have that unfortunate reputation. Aside from my encounter with the chargin’ grandma I didn’t find the Koreans rude. In fact, I sort of liked the hustle bustle of Seoul. It was much more like being in D.C. or NYC to me than Tokyo. The architecture was very western, there were trashcans (something you rarely find here in Japan and when you do you feel like you just won the lottery), there was chaos and disorder getting on the subway or waiting for a taxi which is soooo much more like the U.S. than here in Japan. Japan is an orderly nation, I’m sure this is a cultural thing, when you have this many people living in such a small area in order to survive the society needs structure – you pass by a bus stop here and everyone is lined up, a taxi stand – the same thing, the train platform – ditto. In Japan if you bump into someone as your walking down a crowded street or in a jam-packed train you’d say “sumimasen” – common courtesy – but there was none of that in Seoul. So for me, Seoul was more like a taste of the U.S. with a markedly Asian flare. I liked it and I’m hoping to return, next time with my family … shopping will not be on the list but there’s so much more to Seoul than that. Till next time, sayonara.

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