Thus far, August has been all I’d hoped it would be but it’s actually been nice to get back into routine the past few days. Perhaps now I’ll finally have time to write about our trip to Korea!
We flew to Seoul on Saturday, August 9 and spent the next three days exploring that city. Though we didn’t know it until we arrived, that was a perfect time to be a foreign tourist in Seoul due to a promotion called the Seoul Grand Sale 2008 which provided us with free passes to several of the historical sites that we wanted to visit as well as free transit passes.
Our first full day in Seoul was especially memorable. After breakfast, we caught a bus to Changgyeong-gung, one of the three palace complexes that we visited. Though many of these historical buildings were destroyed by the Japanese at various times throughout history and have since been rebuilt, the throne hall at Changgyeong-gung escaped destruction and is said to be the oldest building of its kind in Korea. Much work has been done in recent years to restore the rest of the palace complex to its original state. The buildings were very similar in design to many that we have seen in Japan.
After touring the palace complex and walking through the peaceful grounds, we made our way to the nearby Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine where two long buildings house memorial tablets for many former kings, queens and other royal family members. Jongmyo is considered the most important shrine in Korea and one of its two main buildings is the longest traditional wooden building in the country. Once a year, in early May, a ritual Confucian ceremony is held here. During this six hour rite, special food and wine are offered to the spirits of each of the departed kings, ceremonial recitations are spoken and traditional musicians and dancers perform. A video presentation gave us a glimpse of that.
Next, we walked to Insa-dong. Full of antique stores, art galleries, handicraft shops and restaurants, this well-known shopping district was an intriguing place to poke around in. After much deliberation, we came home with a handmade lamp that we both fell in love with. We enjoyed lunch in a tiny, authentic Korean shop in Insa-dong. It was here that we first tried a popular Korean dish called bibimbap. Though we found much of the Korean food to be too hot for our liking, this dish was very tasty.
After leaving Insa-dong, we visited a small park that is somewhat of a shrine to Korea’s independence movement as it was from the park’s octagonal pagoda that the Declaration of Independence from Japan was read in 1919.
Late in the afternoon, we started to make our way back toward our motel on foot. That’s when the day really started to get interesting! First, as we enjoyed a Starbucks coffee break a group of high school students spotted us through the window and came in to ask if they could interview us for a project they were working on. A little later, quite by accident, we came across Cheonggyecheon, which I recognized only because I’d read about it the evening before in some of the tourist information that we’d picked up at the airport. This once badly polluted waterway had been covered over with cement after the Korean war to create more roadways and decrease traffic into the downtown area. In 2003, the mayor of Seoul initiated a major project to uncover and revitalize the stream. Completed in 2005 with waterfalls, fountains, stepping stones and historical bridges it is clearly an asset to the city and drew many people on this hot summer afternoon! We decided to walk along it as it led in the general direction that we needed to go. What an amazing experience that turned out to be. At one point, we heard drumming in the distance and soon came across a colourful group of street artists performing traditional music. We sat and listened for awhile before continuing on to the end of the waterway where we discovered that the Korean Olympic committee had set up a huge TV screen, a stage where a live band was performing and even a huge electronic Olympic flame! As darkness fell, we joined the large crowd that had gathered there and watched the Korean women’s archery team win the gold medal! What a moment that was, complete with fireworks! The square rocked with loud music and cheering. It was a wonderful privilege to share that moment of national pride with the local people gathered there. Eventually, we moved on, stopping for a quick supper along the way. A little later, we once again heard music in the distance and were drawn to Seoul Plaza, an open grassy space in front of city hall. There we caught the finale of an open air symphony concert complete with vocalists and dancers!
A few more blocks brought us back to our motel and the end of a wonderful day. Though most of it was relatively unplanned, we couldn’t have planned a more delightful day if we had tried. In my next post, I’ll try to give a summary of the remainder of our Korean holiday but this day was definitely one to remember and one that cried out for a more detailed description.