Things one has to do once being in Seoul: visiting the palaces !
There are five grand palaces in Seoul, and you can buy a combination ticket to get into 4 of them with a shrine. We decided to visit the main royal palace that day: Gyeongbukgung – Palace greatly blessed by heaven. The first thing that caught our attention is the underground station leading to Gyeongbukgung. They decorated the way with various art objects, such as a mirror installation, stone seats, trees and especially a stone gate. It is said that once one goes through that gate, one won’t age. So hop hop we went through ;-).
Gyeongbokgung was built in 1395 by King Taejo, however it got destroyed during the Imjin war and was restored during the reign of King Gojong (1852-1919) by Heungseon Daewongun. Unfortunately, Japan invaded Gyeongbokgung again late 1800’s and sadly destroyed majority of the buildings. Between the fortress of the palaces one can feel the pain of Korea during the Japanese Invasion and the “hatred” that still reside till today. Being built between mountains to the north of Seoul, the main entrance to Gyeongbokgung is Gwanghwamun gate, which is literally translated as may the light of enlightment blanket the world. Constructed solely out of granite, Gwanghwamun’s center is an entrance that resembles a rainbow.
When we enter the palace we saw many many people wearing the traditional Korean clothing called Hanbok. Oh how I wish I would tolerate cold much better to wear those… but it was freaking cold and cloudy that day, we decided not to rent Hanbok to walk around the palace and just enjoying the sight of others. The palace was beautiful, the compound was huge and the old houses were very colourful and well restored after the war. Another thing I loved so much when visiting all the palaces was the isolation from the present. Maybe people dressing up in Hanboks helped, but the quietness was astonishing. Seoul’s streets can be very busy with cars and busses, but once one enter the palace, there is nothing of those one will hear; just birds chirping and an overwhelming feeling of calm. Luckily it was winter and therefore not many tourist were around. Can’t imagine how full it will be during the other seasons.
We also went into the folk Museum of Korea where the colour used in Korean culture was explained. Apparently they used mainly blue, red, yellow, black and white with each having its own meaning; for instance white represents integrity, purity whilst black is associated with mastery, darkness – the place beyond light. Red represents fire and the southern direction opposing blue, which is associated with wood and the eastern direction. They also use solely monochromes and the polychrome, that often presents a harmony and balance.
From Gyeongbokgung we walked to Samcheongdong, a pretty artsy district in Seoul with several galleries, to have lunch and then walked further to Bukchon Hanok Village, which is also a must-seen in Seoul. Bukchon does not only has beautiful Hanoks, but also a lot of atelier, workshops, cafes and restaurants. We went into some workshops displaying traditional knotting, Parfum laboratory, quilting, or printing. In one of the workshops for traditional gold printing the owner was really kind explaining us how traditional printing works and what are the meanings behind this culture. The procedure involves carving the symbol and/or desired pattern on wood, then painting fish glue on it and stamp on silk clothing. Real gold leaves are then put on top of the glued area and delicately removed using finger to get the design.
He mentioned that correctly gold printed silk was only used by royals and also only during special celebrations, unlike in the movies. Gold prints were not allowed to use by commoners. In his collections, he has a baby belt that is used during the celebration of 100 days. In the old times babys often don’t survive that long, so the 100. day is very important. Around the belt are 5 pouches, which are filled with 5 different grains symbolising 5 directions of heaven: North West East South and Center. This all meant to wish the baby a full filled live ahead.
He further showed us the traditional wedding hanbok with long arms and many layers. It is in the Korean culture not to show your hands, therefore long sleeves covering even the fingertips. Blue and red represent yin yang and are often used in wedding ceremonies to represent the harmony between the two family. They never use white because it’s the colour for funeral. Interestingly, japanese people use white during the wedding, with a quite deep meaning behind: death in one life and reborn in another life – life with a new family name; being a new person in that family. The cloth to wrap wedding present also has blue prints and form an octagon in front. All those shapes and colours purpose is to enhance the meaning of harmony in life.
Pouches are also one important accessory at that time, since traditional clothing does not have pockets. Though people were carrying around a pouch, the ones with gold stamps is use solely by kings and queens. Those special pouches usually carry scented incense or medicine and not money, as we would think. Royals never carry money because they think money is dirty based on Confucian. Every other job like teacher/scholar, farmer etc. were regarded as good because those help people. Merchants on the other handonly only work for their own benefit, hence were the lowest. Incense were very important to them; to make them smell good and clean thus emitting high social status.
After the interesting talk with some workshops owners, we then enjoyed korean traditional tea in one Hanok called Ganoe Hankyung Sung before walking further down the streets filled with little shops selling handcrafted goods.