21 September 2008

Downtown Seoul - Palace and Temple

My continuing tour of Seoul took me today to one of the city's five palaces, plus a key temple and a few other places, all in downtown. I have 44 photos to show for my exhausting, hot, muggy day.

The palace I picked was Changdeokgung, not the most important palace (that would be Gyeongbokgung to the west) but the best preserved and the most scenic. Changdeokgung did serve as Seoul's main palace for 13 of the 27 kings of Joseon, as Gyeongbokgung had lain in ruins for many years. It can be seen by self-guided audio tour on Thursdays, and with a tour guide on other days (except Mondays, when the palace is closed). Standard tours are in Korean every 30 minutes from mid-morning to sunset, in Japanese 4-5 times a day, in English 3 times a day, and in Mandarin Chinese twice a day. I had taken the standard tour before, so I decided on a special tour of the back garden, leaving only three times a day, not available in winter, and done only in Korean.

Donhwamun, the front gate for Changdeokgung. As attested by the Western woman in front, this palace is a popular foreign tourist destination.

Many of those tourists arrive by the Seoul City Tour buses, which stop right in front of the palace. I prefer to use mass transit like the natives; after all, I *am* a Seoul native.

Here's my guide for the two-hour special tour. Although my Korean was good enough to understand her, I lacked much of the detailed knowledge about Joseon's kings and history that the average Korean is required to learn in high school, so a few of the explanations escaped me.

Notice the 3-lane pathway, with the crowned middle portion. Only the king was allowed to walk the middle lane; violators were flogged.

A peek into the buildings. The building with the bright blue tiles was where the king held cabinet meetings with ministers. In front was a building formerly used by high-ranking ministers as they waited for the king, later converted to a garage for the king's horse carriages and motor vehicles.

The administrative buildings are covered by the standard tour. I took the special tour, which immediately continued on to the rear garden. The official name for the garden is Huwon, or Rear Garden, though Japanese-era name Biwon, or Secret Garden, is also commonly used. It is also known as Geumwon, or Forbidden Garden, as only the royal family and authorized guests were allowed there. Huwon was a working garden where the king would come to replenish his energy and meditate, though historical dramas also portray it as a place where the king would date concubines. Changdeokgung and Huwon are unique in that they use the natural contours of the terrain instead of a rectangular pattern seen in other Korean palaces.

A major pond in a square shape, with a circular island in the center. In Korean cosmology, the sky is circular, and the earth is square. (This is the same concept seen in South Korea's national flag.) The two-story pavilion in the back was a place for the king to consult with his advisors.

Entrance to that said pavilion. The gate is labeled "Gate of Fish and Water," standing for the king and his advisors being as inseparable as fish and water. All gate and pavilions have very carefully chosen names.

There is a souvenir shop nearby. On sale here for 20,000 won (USD $20): a set of 2007-issue South Korean coins. Clockwise from top left: 500 won, 100 won, 50 won, old-style 10 won (brass), new-style 10 won (copper, like US penny), 5 won, and 1 won. (Coins in italics are made only for this set, and no longer made for general circulation.) I love coins, but I'd rather buy them at the Bank of Korea Museum, which I will visit later.

This hall oversaw civil service examinations, the primary means of royal Korea hiring its government servants. Normal exams were open only to high-ranking nobility; however, unscheduled exams were held here at Huwon, in front of this building, and lower-ranking nobility were also eligible. It was one of the few ways for the lower-ranking nobility to go up the ranks in Korea's strict Confucian caste society, and passing this exam would've been akin to winning the lottery.

Note the lack of doors at some door frames; the doors are not missing, they are simply suspended at the ceiling, as a closer look will show.

A minor gate I photographed due to its interesting name. It reads: "Gate of Golden Horse."

A nearby gate, carved from one single piece of rock. Its name: Gate of No Aging. It was wishful thinking, as the average king of Joseon did not live to see his 44th birthday, according to the guide. And unlike today, when the Prime Minister would temporarily take over the government in case of the President's death, the royal government would grind to a halt with the king's death until a new king was inaugurated. Ensuring a long, prosperous life for the king was paramount to the well-being of the government and the nation.

Huwon's maple trees have a reputation for showing their autumn colors rather early. It's still late summer and over 30 degrees Celsius, but the leaves are turning red already. The guide said that it will be really beautiful to return to Huwon in about a month.

An unadorned traditional Korean house, used by the crown prince.

A bridge and a pavilion. Even though the tour was in Korean only, a few foreigners made it anyway - with their Korean friends, as evidenced by the Western man on the far right.

Dueling dragons inside the pagoda ceiling. Blue dragons are common in Korea, as the symbol of the king, but gold dragons are rare.

A fan-shaped pavilion on a pond. Very unusual shape.

Even the sign of the pavilion is unusual; it's green and leaf-shaped, as opposed to being a white or black rectangle.

The crown prince used these stones to perfect his royal walk. A Korean king always walked with his feet at an angle, stomach out to the front, and arms held back. In Korea, this walking style is called "Figure Eight Walk" because the feet, when standing still at an angle, make out the shape of the Chinese numeral eight (八) - the ankles at the top and the toes at the bottom.

A natural-shaped rock, placed strategically around Huwon following Taoist conventions, to break up the geometry of the artificial buildings and ponds, and to ensure plenty of energy and long, prosperous life for the king. But again, remember that the average Joseon king did not live to see his 44th birthday.

At the far end of the garden, Ongnyucheon (Creek As Clear As Jade) flows. The rock ahead has a poem written in Chinese, as well as three characters at the bottom that spell out Ongnyucheon.

The only thatched-roof building in the entire palace. Thatched roof is a hallmark of commoners' buildings, so seeing it in a royal setting is bizarre, even to Koreans.

In front is a rice paddy. The king personally cultivated and harvested rice here to set an example for the people; in reality, however, the servants did all the work. Similarly, the queen planted mulberry trees and harvested silk to set an example for the people. The rice leaves were used for the thatched roof.

King's well, with moss growing around it.

The artificial and the natural meet here. This circular depression creates a clockwise whirlpool in Ongnyucheon. Curious children are floating shells and leaves from nearby.

The U-shaped flow of the creek.

Now is the time to leave the palace. A private residence just outside the palace walls has some traditional Korean jars. These are normally used to store kimchi through the cold winters.

This Chinese juniper tree is 750 years old - older than the palace. It's the oldest tree at this palace, and is designated as a natural monument.

Some gargoyles on the roof of an administrative building.

As my two-hour tour ended, a standard English tour ended as well. To me, it's still a strange experience seeing Westerners in South Korea, a traditionally very homogeneous society, even though thanks to increasing tourist traffic and English-language instructors, Westerners are now a very common sight in South Korea.

Just as my tour and the English tour ended, a Chinese tour was beginning.

I started walking west toward Jogyesa, the head temple of Jogye Order, which controls 90% of South Korea's Buddhist temples and believers. On the way, I passed the headquarters of Hyundai Construction, where some protesters had put up signs alerting me to an apparent breach of contract.

As I neared Jogyesa, I passed this English-language Buddhist library.

Even closer to Jogyesa, I passed by the main drag of Insa-dong Antiques District. This table is asking for modest donations for North Korean children; according to the lady in the photo, 1,000 won (USD $1) will feed a child for ten days. Millions died in the famine of 1995, and millions more may die this year. My belief is that while this is a worthy cause, the more pressing problem is ensuring that North Korea will take care of its civilians better, and that the US and South Korea have a more sensible North Korean policy. The best I can do will be to ensure that Barack Obama will be the next US President, because he will talk first, and use force only as a last resort.

As I got even nearer to Jogyesa, I could see plenty of stores selling Buddhist goods. One store had this lovely Kwan Yin portrait. Although I didn't go into this store, I did go to a nearby store, and pick up a golden Kwan Yin statue, about 3 inches tall, for 20,000 won (USD $20). I made it clear that I was not a Buddhist, and interested only in the concept of Kwan Yin, but I got a nice friendly Buddhist bow from the storekeeper anyway.

Every Korean Buddhist temple has a main hall, named Daeungjeon (Hall of Great Hero). At Jogyesa's Daeungjeon, three giant Buddhas are housed. This is the middle, and the most important one - Sakyamuni. Not pictured: Amidabha on the left, Medicine Buddha on the right.

The current government, headed by Presbyterian President Lee Myung-bak, is causing great rift between Christians and non-Christians. This banner cites several examples of the government's pro-Christian bias, including the Christian denunciation of protests against American beef, the vow by the national police chief to spread the Gospel of Jesus through the police force, similar vows by the Secret Service chief, and deletion of Buddhist relics from the Ministry of National Territory and Waters databases.

Elsewhere at the temple were protests against the national police, for its alleged cover-up of an attempted murder of a Buddhist priest who had been instrumental in asking for better screening of American beef. There were harsh criticisms of the Lee Myung-bak government and its alleged persecution of Buddhists and other non-Christians, as well as a tent housing people on a hunger strike, on its 12th day today. Even a political party, the Democratic Labor Party, had a tent there in solidarity. The Democratic Labors have been very supportive of temp workers, foreigners, LGBTs, and other marginalized groups of the South Korean society, but its influence is limited, as it holds only 5 seats out of 299 in the National Assembly, while the ruling Grand Nationals hold over 150, with other right-wing parties accounting for about 30 more.

The Buddhist community has my full support in this matter, as attempted murder is always wrong, and I fully know the menace of Korean Christians, especially in American politics.

Further south from Jogyesa, I came to this bell pavilion, named Boshingak. On the lower level, three guards stand. On the upper level, it's hard to make out, but there is a bell, which used to ring every day to announce the opening and closing of city gates. Now, it only rings once a year - 33 times at midnight on New Year's Eve, to mark the new year. That makes this spot Seoul's answer to Times Square in New York.

Seoul's main street, Jongno (Bell Street), runs east-west in front of this bell. I went into a Lotteria restaurant on Jongno, next to the pavilion, for a quick lunch; I loved the bulgogi burger, and the ambient music, a mix of K-Pop and Mariah Carey, was to my liking too. For me, it's always a special experience listening to Mariah Carey in Seoul, due to her popularity here - and the fact that I was able to discuss that with none other than Mariah herself.

A block east of the bell pavilion and Lotteria, still on Jongno, the March First Gate leads to Tapgol Park, the former site of Buddhist temple Wongaksa, and noteworthy as the place where the March First Movement started. On March 1, 1919, during the Japanese rule, the Korean people, inspired by US President Woodrow Wilson's speech on self-determination, gathered peacefully at noon to declare the independence of Korea. They went on for months before being violently crushed by the Japanese.

The movement fizzled because Democratic President Wilson, and his Republican successors, were unwilling to back Wilson's rhetoric with action, especially in regards to Korea. Only when FDR became President, and America went to war against Japan, did the US concern itself with Korean independence. FDR, Winston Churchill of the UK, and Chiang Kai-shek of China declared that Korea was to be free upon Japanese defeat, later joined by Josef Stalin of the USSR.

A memorial at the park commemorates the Korean Independence Movement of 1919. Here is part of the memorial, with the English translation of the declaration of independence.

Entombed in this glass case is Wongaksa's 10-story pagoda. It is National Treasure No. 2.

National Treasure No. 1 is Seoul's south gate, Sungryemun, which was destroyed by arson last February, and is currently being rebuilt.

Overview of Tapgol Park. By day, it's a place where elderly men hang out and play a round of Go or chess (though no games were in progress today). Panhandlers and the homeless were also once common, but were not evident today. By night, it's rumored to be a cruising spot for gay men.

For some reason, I decided to photograph some automobiles sold in the South Korean market. This is something I drive at home - Honda Accord, the best-selling import this year. It's sporting the new European-sized license plate. Almost all South Korean Accords are V6-powered and emphasize luxury; more plain models with 4-cylinder power are no better than the domestic competitors, such as the Hyundai Sonata, while being much more expensive.

Wedged between two Hyundais is my former ride - a Ford Mondeo (sold as Ford Contour in North America). The Mondeo may be the best-selling Ford in most markets, but it's pretty rare in South Korea, outsold by bigger American models like the Five Hundred and the Explorer. It's sporting an older, American-sized license plate, which also shows the administrative region it's registered in (Seoul on this car). All South Korean noncommercial license plates since 2004 have been national, with no regional designations.

One thing South Korean automakers don't bother making is a convertible. Which means, imports pretty much own this niche market. The most common convertible in South Korea is the Peugeot 206, like this one. Other Peugeots commonly seen in South Korea are the 407 midsize sedan and the 507 luxury sedan (including one driven by the French ambassador). Other convertibles available in South Korea include the VW Eos, the Chrysler Sebring, and the Ford Mustang.

As I returned to my apartment on the subway, I spotted this poster. It warns against "overt displays of affection" and "inappropriate body contact." Although not as blatant as Latin machismo, machismo does exist in South Korea, a conservative society with repressive sex culture, and men will harass attractive women. The warning: intentional touching WILL result in criminal prosecution. I sincerely hope the Korean men get the message.

This is the end - all of the 44 photos.