Recently I have found myself in Seoul at least once a year for work. Much destroyed during the first half of the 20th century, contemporary Seoul is a concrete jungle mostly indistinguishable from other East Asian metropolises and lacks appeal to anyone who isn’t a hardcore K-pop fan, gambler, shopaholic or prospective face job recipient.
Even after several visits I have yet to warm up to Seoul, but the one thing besides its eating scene I admire about the city is its frenetic energy, most visible at midnight in Dongdaemun when the entire district is abuzz with engrossed buyers trying to get some stock of the latest fast fashion. The fabled Korean work ethic is on full display here — most stalls are opened 10 am – 5 am, 365 days a year. Taking a walk here reveals a glimpse of the good and bad of modern Korea; the collective effort that drives the country into a global economic power in only a few decades’ time and the tremendously high social cost which follows.
Behind Seoul’s breakneck pace of modernization is a city that remains fiercely proud of its past and has painstakingly rebuilt some of its physical heritage that was razed during the Japanese occupation and Korean War. Today within day trip distance from the city are five World Heritage Sites, a majority of them from the Neo-Confucian Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897). Confucianism, one of the great ancient Chinese schools of thought and in Mao’s mind the leading cause of China’s decline, inexplicably finds a home in contemporary South Korea and manages to influence every trace of South Korean life. This traditional side of Seoul, a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism and folk culture, is easy to discover, even during a short visit.
Five palaces were built when the Joseon established Seoul as its capital in the late 14th century – Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung and Gyeonghuigung, all of which were recently rebuilt after suffering severe damages during the Japanese occupation. Gyeongbokgung, the main royal residence and the most important of all the palaces, also is the most popular tourist draw due to its daily changing of the guards ceremonies.
The 40-hectare complex houses some of South Korea’s most important buildings, including Geunjeongjeon (Imperial Throne Hall), Gyeonghoeru (Royal Banquet Hall), National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea.
The only of the five royal palaces bestowed with the honour of World Heritage Site, the 45-hectare Changdeokgung was long a favorite of Joseon princes and differentiated itself by, according to UNESCO, “integrated into and harmonized with the natural setting” and adapted “to the topography and retaining indigenous tree cover.” Heavily damaged in the last century, today only 30% of its current buildings precede the 20th century.
Housing notable buildings such as Donhwamun (Main Gate) and Injeongjeon (Throne Hall), the palace’s real highlight is its Huwon (Rear Garden), a 32-hectare garden reserved for the royal family and concubines. This area in particular expresses the blending of architecture with the natural topography.
After the wholesale calamity that was the Cultural Revolution which uprooted millennia of Chinese heritage, it is often said Confucianism is today best preserved in South Korea. One prime example is Jongmyo, located next to Changdeokgung and according to UNESCO is the oldest royal Confucian shrine and annual ritual ceremonies have continued since the 14th century.
I missed the annual Royal Shrine Ritual by a few days. Alas, I have a difficult time understanding how Jongmyo, even taken into account its status as one of the longest wooden shrines in the world, belongs on the WHS list. You will be hard-pressed to tell Jongmyo apart from thousands of temples and shrines all over East Asia. Beyond its Confucian heritage, also in full display at this park is one of the dark secrets of modern Korean society — elderly poverty.
If you are tired of shopping in Myeong-dong, Dongdaemun, Sinsa-dong or Sinchon-dong, try dropping by Insa-dong, a district famous for its traditional craft shops, bookstores, gallery, tea houses and flea markets. Like most of central Seoul this district is quickly gentrifying but you can still find some traditional elements that have already disappeared elsewhere.
Occasionally on weekends there are performances of Nongak, a form of folk dancing that revolves around drums.
Located an hour south by train in the city of Suwon, Hwaseong is a 18th century-built wall that completely surrounds the city centre. Long been obsolete, the wall is a rarity in modern Asia which prizes urban development space as a premium. Nowadays instead of the wall protecting its city, it is a sprawling mass of skyscrapers and low-rises that stretches out to the end of the horizon.
Slot five hours to reach and walk around this World Heritage Site.