6 August 2018
I found the prospect of planning my time in Seoul to be pretty daunting. At about 600 square kilometers, it’s a massive city, housing almost 10,000,000 people and having the 4th largest economy of any city worldwide. Add to these statistics a booming tourism industry, and you have an incredibly modern, worldly city with no shortage of diversions for tourists. While I wanted to experience the Seoul of today, I also wanted to dig a little deeper and see more than just K-pop and commerce, but I wasn’t quite sure how.
Lucky for me, I had an insider, my friend Sun-ah, who, after a childhood in the rural Korean countryside, spent the years of her young adulthood in Seoul. While Sun-ah has a complicated relationship with her homeland, it’s clear that she remains nostalgic for its special city, and advised a route that would allow me to experience Seoul’s “backbone, mainstream, and geeky minor tradition” (her words). I was hooked.
Gyeongbokgung Palace: The Backbone
While Seoul houses 5 palaces, the quintessential one to visit is Gyeongbokdung Palace. Besides being considered the biggest, grandest, and most beautiful of the five, this palace was also the seat of the Joseon dynasty, housing the government as well as the royal family and court. Koreans are an ancient people, and the Joseons were the last ruling dynasty before the country modernized, and many of the laws and practices implemented during that time continue to influence Korean culture and society, which is why Sun-ah refers to this place as the “backbone” of modern Korea.
Describing the palace as “impressive” may almost be an understatement. After passing through the front gate, guarded by severely-countenanced men dressed as imperial guards (“A fun experience to see what it was like in Joseon,” says Sun-ah), you enter a vast courtyard paved in gravel and lined with massive circular drums that would require several men to carry. A central path leads through a second gate, to an inner courtyard, where it continues straight to the main palace building, a riot of color and ornate decoration where the king would have looked out upon his court and subjects during important affairs of state. Clearly, this was the place to be during the Joseon dynasty, and its legacy continues, as it is a top tourist draw in Seoul.
A popular tourist pastime in Seoul, primarily among Chinese tourists, is to rent hanbok, traditional Korean clothing, to wear while visiting historical sites. Surrounding the palaces are numerous rental outfitters cashing in on this trend, and the palace grounds are filled with historically-dressed visitors posing for pictures. While this is certainly cheesy, it creates a surprisingly pleasant atmosphere, and gives a glimpse at to what the palace may have felt like during its heyday.
This nostalgic ambiance is also helped by the popular changing of the guard ceremony, occurring every hour on the hour. As the time drew near, I scurried out to the main gate and waited with the other tourists, poised with cameras in hand. We watched as the guards raised their flags and staffs, and marched away. We waited for the new guards to come take their place, but were met with silence. After about five minutes, it was clear that no new guards were coming, and the crowd disappointedly put their cameras away and dispersed. Fearing for the “guards” health in the scorching heat, the changing ceremonies had been cancelled for the rest of the day. Often when we travel, things do not go according to plan, especially when the weather is involved.
Gwanghamun Square: The Mainstream
Opposite of the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace lies long and wide Gwanghamun Square. According to Sun-ah, this plaza is home to “the modern social and political landscape. . . the place where you get to see what is the ongoing social issue in Korea.” It can be no accident in civic planning that the backbone and symbol of old Korea leads straight to the government of today. While waiting to cross the street and enter the square, I watched as a motorcade passed, the dark cars bearing blue European Union flags. This is the mainstream, the place where things are currently happening.
I strolled along the center median, passing government offices, the national TV station, newspaper headquarters, performance halls, and statutes of heroes of the past. I paused at a newer memorial, commemorating the Sewol Ferry Disaster of 2014, an incident in which 304 passengers and crew members died when their ferry sank, most of them students. The memorial shows photos of every victim of the disaster, and has a small shrine where passersby can pay their respects. During this incident, the Korean government was criticized for its response, and this still weighs heavily on the minds of many. As Sun-ah had stated, Gwanghamun Square is not only the home of the government, but the place where people go to make their voices heard in reaction to to its actions, and I saw plenty of police milling about, dressed in full riot gear. I nervously looked around, but could find no sign of a protest. On this hot day, the policemen’s main objective seemed to be finding patches of shade to stand in on the open square.
In addition to observing the current political and social hub of Seoul, Sun-ah recommended that I stop by Kyobo Books, a landmark bookstore that has been the “center of all bookstores in Korea for decades, and [which] continues to be so.” Kyobo Books is the biggest chain bookstore in Korea, but its original location is on Gwanghwamuhn Square, where it occupies the basement of the Kyobo building. A bored and tired-looking security guard pointed the way, and I descended the elevator to see what all the fuss was about.
The elevator doors opened onto what I can only describe as book Mecca, with a labryinth of bookshelves spreading out in all directions. Most of the sections are in Korean of course, but there is also a sizeable international section with probably the most extensive variety of titles that I’ve seen in any international bookstore in Asia. Sleek, modern, and impeccibly organized, Kyobo Books reminded me of the American chain bookstores of my youth that have since closed their doors because of competition from online retailers. I don’t think the same fate is in store for Kyobo Books, however. Every available seat, as well as most corners and many spots on the floor, was occupied by people reading- and this was early afternoon on a Monday. In addition to books, there’s also a stationary store, music store, character store, and a variety of cafes to choose from, and it’s easy to happily lose oneself amidst the throngs of shoppers. I came in just for a peek and ended up staying for a couple hours, before finally setting out for my real adventure of the day. . .
. . . which will be continued next time.