SEOUL, South Korea — I have seen the most exotic changing-of-the-guard ceremony ever — well, the most exotic in my experience.
It featured armed men in brightly colored and slightly feminine robes and broad-brimmed black hats. The guys with vicious-looking blades came escorted by others waving gorgeous flags or providing background sound effects with cymbals, horns and painted drums.
All of this is a daily occurrence at two of Seoul’s palaces. To be precise, this event occurs three times a day six days a week (not Tuesdays) at Gyeongbok Palace, or Gyeongbokgung (gung means palace).
Another palace, Deoksugung, has a similar ceremony three times a day six days a week (not Mondays) on similar terms.
These events, which are free, are canceled if the weather is wretched.
I watched the ceremony during a spring press trip hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization.
We entered the grounds at Gyeongbokgung, commonly called Northern Palace and one of five in the city, via the dramatic and grand Gwanghwamun, which
means Enlightenment Gate.
The palace grounds and buildings encompass several courtyards and roughly 1,000 rooms, but the palace once counted around 7,000 rooms. Built in the 1390s, it was burned in 1592, the year of a Japanese invasion. After reconstruction in 1867, it was largely destroyed again when the Japanese invaded in 1910 and toppled Korea’s monarchy. (Japan occupied Korea until 1945.)
What we see today is a mix of reconstructions and restored 19th century buildings.
Our tour led us in succession to the main reception hall, the king’s “office,” his bedchamber and lastly the queen’s sleeping quarters, with gates between each and walls around each.
We could only look into, but not enter, rooms. We focused in particular on the huge audience hall, with a throne at its center, surrounded by pillars and topped off with high and decoratively painted wood ceilings.
Although smaller, the palace is reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City in its architectural style, but not in colors. In Beijing, there is lots of red. Here the colors are black, white, blue, green, red and yellow, in other words, more varied but, with less red, less bright.
The grounds include gardens behind the queen’s quarters, which had quite a few flowers in bloom during our visit. This was a nice effect, as was the occasional view of a mountain in the background, one of the 37 mountains located in Seoul.
Our group visited a second of Seoul’s five surviving royal palaces, Changdeokgung, built in 1405. Scores of children were on site, too, apparently on school trips. My favorite little kid was wearing a New York Yankees cap.
Our guide said the king who built this palace did so because he had just murdered all his relatives and any other competitor for the throne and did not want to live in the previous palace with its bad memories. As our guide said, “he was human, too.”
The palace includes a public area, the royal family’s residential buildings and a garden at the rear, called the Secret Garden because only the royal family and anyone approved by the king could go there.
Another unique feature is the separate set of walled buildings that one king built in the 1840s for the concubine who was the love of his life and the woman he would have chosen as his queen. However, when it came to choosing a bride, he had to accept the choice of his grandmother, the family matriarch.
Our guide talked briefly about the paper used in shutters and sliding windows. He said the paper, from mulberry trees, absorbs the moisture when humidity is high and, as it is white, reflects the sun.
Angry citizens destroyed this palace (because the royals skipped town) during the Japanese invasion/occupation of 1592-1598; it was quickly rebuilt, in 1611.
Changdeokgung is the best preserved of Seoul’s palaces and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in large part because of the natural style of the garden at the back.
The garden is a separate attraction available to the public for 90-minute guided tours. I joined one such tour but soon left that quite large group to walk the garden paths at my own pace.
It’s remarkable to realize these quiet palace grounds are in the middle of a bustling capital city.
This is the first of a series of articles and photos on Korea by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.