Airbnb Experience #4: Discover the History of Seoul

Discover the History of Seoul

   After choosing to tour and explore during the alleged cooler hours of the evening I ventured out this time to learn about the history of Seoul on a hot and humid Monday morning. Actually our tour guide, Ben, told us he had changed the time from 2:30pm to 9:30am due to the heat! Thank you Ben.

    The Airbnb description read as follows:

   I'm a licensed tour guide have been working over 6 years. I'm very passionate about the history of Seoul. My story telling concerning Palace architecture will be great helpful to understand unique Korean style and culture among east Asian countries such as China and Japan.

   I can assure you that Ben is a superb tour guide. He is chock-full of information and tidbits about Seoul, history, architecture, Feng shui, science, math and all about Korea on the whole. I can't possibly remember everything he told us but I really appreciated learning from Ben. I'll try to jog my memory with this description from the site (I've edited it a bit for the blog). You might also click on the links if you'd like to learn more from online sources:


   Discover Korea's No.1 Palace architecture Gyeongbokgung, the Primary palace in Seoul. Learn about Korean traditional architecture based on FengShue theory. Visit the National Folk Museum of Korea where you get 5,000 years Korean history, and the Bukchon Hanok Village -  the 100 year old traditional houses residential village. Learn how these beautiful designs are used in both Korean traditional palace and common houses as well. Learn more about how it has formed since 1920.

   On this walking tour we explore not only traditional architectures but also modern, neo-classic and contemporary building techniques in Seoul. Let me tell you about the cultural and political tendencies of the time, which ended the dynasty and made way for the Japanese regime to take power. I will show you the scars of war and the remains of the divided country after the war. 

   Be forewarned. This was a 3-hour walking tour in hot and humid Seoul! Oh my! Good thing I've spent the first week in Seoul walking the huge subway/Metro system!! Knowing how to get around by subway I was happy to meet at the City Hall Station Exit 1 outside · Namdaemun. I was one of three participants. The other two were a mother and her son from Sydney, Australia. 

   It was a bit of a walk to get to the palace but it was really special. From the station you can see the Blue House which is situated behind the palace and was apparently built on the site of the royal garden of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910). The Blue House is the Korean version of the American White House. I was actually thrilled to see these sites in person because I have seen many K-Dramas either about them or taking place in or at them. 

      The street to the palace is full of important sites including government offices, corporations, theaters - ahhhh, so this is where  Junsu also performs in musicals (sorry, but the song below really speaks to me personally) and check out the full performance of the musical Mozart!

   I digress. There's also a huge church (can't remember the name, sorry), and the American embassy among them. Apparently there had been a river on the way that the Japanese filled in and built over when they occupied Korea. Korea has restored it (see the photo of the waterfall). My apologies for the cockeyed photo arrangement below. I'm not as computer savvy as I ought to be!

Restored River

Restored river

On the way to the palace, the Blue House in the distance on the left.

The old and the new in harmony. 

The old and the new in harmony - kind of.

Sejong Center for the Performing Arts

Sejong Center for the Performing Arts

American Embassy

I don't know what this says but I hope it's positive! 

 The statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin is located at the Sejongno, Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul, South Korea. It is dedicated to the 16th-century Korean war hero, admiral Yi Sun-sin. (Wikipedia)

   My favorite king of all in Korean history is King Sejong the Great. He did so much for Korea (yes, I learned this from the dramas!). He ascended to the throne in 1418. I was thrilled to be in his presence so-to-speak. (Info below from Wikipedia):

   Sejong reinforced Confucian policies and executed major "legal amendments" (공법貢法). He also personally created and promulgated the Korean alphabet Hangul, encouraged advancements of scientific technology, and instituted many other efforts to stabilize and improve prosperity. He dispatched military campaigns to the north and instituted the Samin policy (사민정책徙民政策) to attract new settlers to the region. To the south, he subjugated Japanese pirates and captured Tsushima Island (also known as Daema Island in the Korean language).

   Our next stop was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty to see the changing of the guards ceremony and explore the life of the Royals. 

   Gyeongbokgung (Hangul경복궁Hanja景福宮), also known as Gyeongbokgung Palace or Gyeongbok Palace, was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. Built in 1395, it is located in northern SeoulSouth Korea. The largest of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon dynasty, Gyeongbokgung served as the home of Kings of the Joseon dynasty, the Kings' households, as well as the government of Joseon.
   Gyeongbokgung continued to serve as the main palace of the Joseon dynasty until the premises were destroyed by fire during the Imjin War and abandoned for two centuries. However, in the 19th century, all of the palace's 7,700 rooms were later restored under the leadership of Prince Regent Heungseon during the reign of King Gojong. Some 500 buildings were restored on a site of over 40 hectares. The architectural principles of ancient Korea were incorporated into the tradition and appearance of the Joseon royal court.
   In the early 20th century, much of the palace was systematically destroyed by Imperial Japan. Since then, the walled palace complex is gradually being restored to its original form. Today, the palace is arguably regarded as being the most beautiful and grandest of all five palaces. It also houses the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum within the premises of the complex. (ibid)

    Ben really knows the site inside and out. He pointed us in all the choice directions starting with the Royal Changing of the Guards ceremony. Having seen similar visuals in the dramas I truly appreciated getting this first-hand experience of Korean history. Yes, these people really did exist, had huge impact and are well honored in today's modern world. Fabulous!

   Ben explained the symbolism of the Korean flag  (all about balance and peace - details via the link), as well as the meaning of the symbols on the flags in the ceremony. I couldn't find a link to the meaning of the flags however I found a brief about the symbolism of the animals used in K-Pop videos!! There's also an interesting article about the meaning of the animals used in the Zodiac. Maybe some of these are relevant? So in brief: certain animals can be found on the flags in the ceremony that include the turtle, tiger, dragon and the phoenix. Each represents a direction; north, south, east and west.  I believe there is one for the king too. That's the best I can tell you. If I get a chance to contact Ben I will update this blog.

   As we walked through the palace Ben explained about the architecture, the consideration for Feng shuithe reasons why there were staggered stone court yards. This was so as not to cause the reflection of the sun to beam into the eyes of the king as he peered out from his abode, not to slip in the rain, and also so that the ministers would walk carefully in King's presence. If a minister would fall he would be banned from the court for a few months!

   We saw the fire pits under the floors which is the reason why the buildings sit on pillars, the brilliant way the heat would travel underneath the floors by way of a system of pipes (?) leading out eventually to beautifully decorated chimneys, the abodes of the King, the royal family, ministers and staff.... we saw the "conference rooms" and entertainment building, the kitchens, and the queen's garden (the queen was not allowed to roam outside the palace). Ben explained that many kings and royals led shortened lives due to the onset of diabetes. They were rarely allowed to walk by themselves, were always carried from place to place in a palaquin, and ate a mandatory five full meals a day so they gained weight and fell ill.

   We took a much needed break in the "royal kitchen" where we were served yummy tea and ice water by lovely staff all dressed in costume. In fact you can see lots of people wandering around in Korean dress of the era. There are tours specifically for this. You will dress and visit the sites in period costume. I would have loved that but I think I'll wait to do that someday in cooler weather!

   Enjoy the photos below. My phone/camera was full after this so there are very few additional photos. The Australian woman promised to send me a few more. If so, I will update! But read on after the photos. This 3-hour tour is only halfway finished!

The "Haetae" (or Hadj) is an imaginary animal from Korean mythology known as a guardian that fends off fire and disasters, prompting creative architects to erect a number of sculptures around the city. It judges right vs wrong.

Each flag has a different animal on it representing North, South, East & West...and the King. 

This guy is waiting to blow a horn at the end of the ceremony. 

This small section is the original staircase.

Here, and below, you can see the way the courtyard was designed.

The unique design of the roofs is meant to allow the wind to pass through in the summer, windows are closed in the winter, and to allow the rain to fall in a more beneficial manner. 

The dragon symbols exist over the throne and are not seen by regular people. 

The King's throne. WOW. It looks just like this in the dramas! 

Looking at the roof architecture from below. 

Reception hall. Ben pointed out how the building is reflected in the water. 

   Here's where my camera ended but the tour continued. While enjoying a refreshing drink in the "Royal Kitchen", Ben pointed out the beautiful Korean art work on the windows and walls. He explained that the windows are made from the paper of the Mulberry Tree (I saw a drama about this too!). Everything in the palace is made to match the environment and the natural flow of life. Paper windows allow for the wind to blow lightly into the heated room in the winter which helped distribute the heat properly. Windows are opened in the summer. The art work themes focus on nature; birds, flowers and such. The most important part of traditional Korean art is the white space. This is true in the art and in life. There should be space for the imagination to flourish and for contemplation and meditation.

   We continued to see more of the palace buildings that housed the royal family then Ben led us to the National Folk Museum of Korea. I am finding the museums very fascinating. I will add a blog about some of the ones I've visited. I only wish we had time to stay longer in this museum. However, Ben did a great job of giving us a grand overview of Korean history in a 20-minute walk-through of the museum. Then we headed over to the towards the Bukchon Folk Village.

   We were pretty hot and sweaty by now and Ben asked us if we minded taking a detour to see a "hidden gem" rather then visit the entire village. This is a separate tour that he also advertises. I'll try that one next time! We agreed. We walked toward the village and then up hills and down hills to see the hidden gem. Oy vey. These ups and downs  - - were they really easier then walking around the village? Anyway, Ben shot a few photos for me. The rest will hopefully come later as I mentioned already.

Okay, yes! I can climb this hill too!

   So believe it or not we are finally coming to the end of this tour. We took the bus back to the Insadong Market where Ben left us to explore on our own which I did. Insadong market is a very colorful street lined with vendors and stores where you can buy some very nice items (not all priced for tourists either!). I bought a few small items for y'all! Not telling what! 

   My next destination was to meet up with Gin, a Japanese traveler I met at the Chabad House on Shabbat. Gin is a really great guy who turns out to be a video editor. He is helping create a video version of a new release, Fan Letter: To Dylan from Israel. I traveled by subway back to Gangnam where we met at a nice air-conditioned cafe! More about that in another blog. Stay tuned.



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