First thing first, Mike Sobolak and I were reunited today after a 2-year hiatus. All day today was leading up to that moment. Seoul, you've been warned. More on that later...
I woke up this morning, had some breakfast and then packed up my stuff to move. I had intended on staying the first few days in Seoul by myself and then Mike was going to meet me and we were going to spend the weekend in Seoul. Without speaking to each other about it, we booked the same hostel for our stays. Out of the hundreds of hostels in Seoul, we picked the same one. I think that is an omen to how amazing this trip is going to be. So, because of this amazing detail, my moving day only involved moving my backpack to another room. With that out of the way, I was able to start my day.
At the advice of the some of the people here, I went to go visit a few Royal Palaces that are located within the city. I jumped on the subway and started heading in that direction. My ultimate goal was Gyeongbokgung Palace. I had about a twenty minute walk north out of the subway to get there. As I was walking, I turned a corner and walked right into a palace gate. It looked awesome. It was right across the street from modern day City Hall and I just had to take a look inside. I had never been to a palace before.
It turned out that I had stumbled across Deoksugung palace. It has been around since the fifteen hundreds. Not much of the original Palace is there today. Much of the architecture (as is true with all if the palaces in Seoul) are replicas. The Japanese either burned or sold off the palace buildings during the Japanese colonization of Korea. The Koreans are putting a constant effort into restoring these buildings.
I happened to arrive just as they were demonstrating how the changing of the guard ritual would have happened when the palace was occupied. It was very interesting to watch. The relief commander and his troops approach the standing guard, show their ID tag (which was a big golden medallion given to them by the king), recited the password to each other and then proceeded to change places. It was all very regimented and always involved very specific movements of both the troops coming and the troops leaving.
Once they were done with the ceremony, I headed inside the palace walls. It was unlike anything I had seen before. Each building had a specific purpose and were all about the king ruling over his subjects. I did a self guided tour that involved seeing the main throne room, the King's and Queen's quarters, the troop's quarters and the King's garden. It was amazing that all of this still remained while the hustle and bustle of downtown Korea was just outside the Palace Walls.
I left Deoksugung Palace and continued to head north. I ended up on a street called Sejong-ro. This is the main boulevard that most of the Korean Government buildings are located on. I passed two large statues as I got closer to Gyeongbokgung Palace. One was of Admiral Yi Sun-sin and the other was of King Sejong (see how they named the street after this guy?). From these statues I could see the southern gates of Gyeongbokgung Palace. I grabbed some lunch and headed inside to catch a tour.
I thought Deoksugung palace was impressive. I had no idea what I was in for heading into Gyeongbokgun Palace. Again, the Japanese had burned most of this palace down during the colonization. The Koreans have only been able to restore about 25% of the original structures. My tour guide was very knowledgable and told us a great deal about the daily life within the Palace, the daily lives of the Kings who reigned from there and how and why the Palace was constructed the way it was.
The palace was enourmous. It began with the main gates to the palace. From there, I walked down a path that led to an inner gate. Here, I was able to look past a parade field and see the main throne hall. It is the centerpiece of the whole villa. My tour guide explained a little bit about the construction and what kind of Kings ruled from here. After the throne room, we saw where the King and Queen would have lived, where the King would study everyday, and some other residential buildings.
About two thirds of the way back was the living quartes for the King's concubines. These women were very highly respected in the Korean Culture. The right girl, with the right skills, could be promoted up the level of prime minister. Their living quarters reflected how respected they were. They were very comfortable and pretty close to the King's living quarters.
Next the concubines' quarters was an extremely beautiful garden. This was used for the rest and relaxation of the King. It was a very nice oasis inside the palace walls.
I was able to see another changing of the guard ceremony here. It was much larger than the one at Deoksugung Palace and was really neat to see. The number of people involved was much greater and involved musicians if help coordinate the movements of all of the people.
After the ceremony was over, I jumped on the subway and headed the National Muesum of Korea, which is highly acclaimed and I was ready to get out of the sun for a bit before Mike arrived.