Secret Garden Fit for a King

Many kings, actually. Yesterday we visited Changdeokgung Palace, built in 1405 and — second to the Gyeongbokgung Palace — the palace from which many Joseon dynasty emperors ruled, including the last reigning one, Emperor Sunjong, who ruled until 1910. Like the Jongmyo Shrine, this palace is also a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the way its buildings and design are integrated with nature. It was Will’s first palace visit in Seoul.

The palace grounds are immense, 110 acres if I remember correctly. Many different areas and so many buildings — whether housing quarters for queens, concubines, princes, or staff, or meeting halls, ceremonial halls, horse stables, storage rooms, etc. — it’s easy to get lost looking around. We were there for hours and I still don’t think we saw everything. Once you pay admission into the palace, you can explore freely. If you want to visit the palace’s Secret Garden, however, you need to pay a separate admission fee and go in with a guided tour group. They give the tours in various languages, several times daily.

The Secret Garden (aka Rear Garden) is even larger than the main palace grounds, taking up almost 60 percent of the entire area of the Changdeokgung Palace. Its acres and acres are filled with ponds, streams, gazebos, pavilions and many beautiful walking paths. The garden was meant as a place for the kings and their royal family members to relax, but also used for military exercises, archery contests, banquets and growing certain grains. Since it is also located next to the Changgyeonggung Palace, it was used by members of both palaces.

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Dongdaemun is for Fashionistas

I took the train to Dongdaemun the other day on a mission: to finally, hopefully, find a laptop backpack I liked. See, Dongdaemun is yet another popular shopping area here in Seoul. In addition to the Doota mall, the Migliore and Hello apM buildings, and the Lotte Fitin mall, it’s also home to the Pyeonghwa Market — one of the oldest wholesale markets in the country — and the Gwangjang Market, another longstanding market known for its silks and traditional Korean clothing.

Dongdaemun is situated just south of the Cheonggyecheon Stream (remember the Lantern Festival? this stream runs for several miles). When you exit the subway station, you surface right at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park and are immediately drawn to the eye-capturing structure that marks this arts and culture facility, designed by a British architect and apparently just completed in 2013.  A must-see if you’re ever in Seoul. I unfortunately didn’t go inside the complex. I ran out of time! Too busy shopping for my backpack….

Which brings me to the shopping experience. The Doota and Lotte Fitin mall buildings are each eight floors or so of high-end shopping (surprise, surprise!). Unlike the other malls I’ve visited in Seoul so far, however, these are clearly tailored for fashionistas. The clothing designs range from classic, to funky, to flat-out stunning looks you might see on the runway. That goes for the shoes, sunglasses, handbags (oh my goodness, beautiful bags) and other accessories they sell as well. Of course, good taste is usually not cheap, so…. I’ll just let you imagine what the price tags were like.

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Souvenirs of Insa-dong, Beautiful Hanok Village

Well, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back home! It’s Thursday here, of course, though it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving at all, except for the fact that we’ll be having dinner with some fellow Americans tonight to celebrate the holiday. Looking forward to it. Plenty to be thankful for this year.

I’m a bit behind on blogs but let’s see if I can catch you up some.

After visiting the Jongmyo Shrine, I took a stroll through the adjacent Insa-dong neighborhood. On my way there I came across a small park, Tapgol Park, where I spotted numerous older Korean men hanging out (and a few of them arguing, it looked like), and zero women. Should I go in? Mmmm… I went in. I wanted to explore this cute park. It was alright, had some neat statues and whatnot, apparently the former site of a temple.

As I walked up Insa-dong Street, I immediately noticed a plethora of Korean souvenir shops. Most of them sell the same souvenirs, but it’s good to know that, when the time comes to get some items for friends and family back home, we’ll know where to go. Insa-dong Street also had a large cultural events center and a few other galleries and art spaces. I didn’t linger too long, I was mainly looking for a place to have lunch. A local vendor recommended a traditional bibimbap place across the street, so I decided to give it a try. Continue reading Souvenirs of Insa-dong, Beautiful Hanok Village

Indulging in Myeong-dong treats and visiting a Confucian shrine

Heading to Myeong-dong yesterday — a cold, cloudy day — was just right. We knew it was a popular area for shopping since you can find many major international brands there (Zara, H&M, etc.). People love their shopping here! And we’re not even past Thanksgiving yet. But I digress. There’s a main street, if you will, and it was packed with shoppers, tourists, and … street food vendors. YES! We warmed up at Hadongkwan restaurant with some gomtang, a traditional, rich beef soup with rice in it, which was served very simply with salt, pepper, green onions and kimchi, of course. Not bad. That triggered my sweet tooth, so I tracked down where all the people were getting their tall ice cream cones from, and we also indulged. My vote for best bang for your buck! Then we ventured into the Noon Square mall, eight levels of shopping with a food court and rooftop garden. Oh my gosh I forgot the cat cafe! You’ll just have to see the pics below. All in all, nice shopping area, plenty of restaurants, more variety of street food than I’ve seen in other areas, and there are also two movie theaters there. We both agreed we’d be back. It’s cleaner and less sketchy-feeling than other parts of town.

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Seoul Lantern Festival and Other Weekend Fun

There’s definitely plenty to do in Seoul on weekends. Friday night we were already thinking of checking out the pedestrian area along Cheonggyecheon Stream, which runs for about 5.8 km through the middle of a major busy avenue, and then I read in the latest issue of 10 Magazine that the annual Seoul Lantern Festival was currently taking place. Perfect! (Note: 10 Magazine is really great, with info on upcoming events, nightlife, restaurants, arts, culture and entertainment.) It was pretty crowded, but still fun to see so many colorful lanterns lighting up the night. It went on for miles, so we didn’t walk the whole thing, but here’s a glimpse (sorry some of these are dark, it’s tricky getting an iPhone camera to adjust just right). Oh yes, and it was FREE:

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A Day of Firsts

I guess every day here is bound to be a day of firsts.

Yesterday I revisited Namdaemun Market, but this time for an in-depth look. Not necessarily to buy anything, just to see what they had. I walked around for a couple hours, feeling at times like I was going in circles — it’s like a maze in there! You can either explore the shopping stalls outside, or go inside and explore multiple levels of stalls, or go underground and get lost in several more levels of shopping. It feels like it goes on forever. Truly amazing! More than 10,000 shops, most items selling for really cheap. Some of what I saw: lots of clothes, including coats, PJs, military clothing, socks, ladies’ undies/bras, fashionable scarves; shoes galore; miscellaneous souvenir-type items; food; electronic accessories; luggage/purses/backpacks; jewelry and accessories.

Personally, I wouldn’t really spend too much of my money there. Yes, things are cheap, but that’s just it, they’re cheap. As in cheaply made. At least that’s my impression. Maybe not everything, but a lot of it. I’ve been on the hunt for a nice backpack, and upon close inspection of some of the backpacks there, I saw they had broken zippers.

They have a huge jewelry area (where workers were assembling jewelry — real? fake? who knows), a huge fashion accessories area, and a big section for children’s clothing (dubbed “mama children’s wear”), among others. I discovered the jewelry area while looking for a bathroom, actually. Saw a sign that said “toilet” and followed the arrows. Through the jewels and into a small, sketchy looking bathroom. I’d been told about these bathrooms — where you have to grab your tissue before going in and you have a choice of using  a “foreigners” type toilet or the other kind (don’t ask, I didn’t open the stall doors to look!). Regardless. I grabbed my tissue, went in, and it was totally fine. Clean and not sketchy after all.

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History, Art & Books

I’ve been doing so much walking the past few days, that I’m kicking back and relaxing today. Not that sightseeing is SO tedious, but, you know, hurts the feet.

On Tuesday I went to see Deoksugung Palace, located right across Seoul City Hall. I knew they do changing of the royal guard ceremony several times a day at the main gate, and luckily I arrived just in time:

I bought a “combination ticket,” basically a small booklet with admission tickets for four nearby palaces (Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung) and the Jongmyo Shrine. It cost 10,000 won, or about $9. Pretty good deal. They don’t show on the price board that they even sell this combination ticket, but I’d read about it online and just asked at the ticket window.

The fall foliage really made this place extra lovely. The palace was originally built in the 15th century as the home of a prince. There are signs throughout the grounds explaining its history, though most tourists didn’t bother to read them. From what I’ve seen so far, most of these palace structures are similar in design — vibrant colors, ornate thrones — and have multiple large “gates.” The only downside is the many tourists. But hey, I had my first encounter with an Asian lady wanting to take her photo with me here! Then later, another older Asian man started talking to me in English and offered to take my photo. It’s begun! Either way, it was nice to stroll through the palace grounds. There’s also a museum inside the palace, an annex of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, but I didn’t go in because you had to have a prior reservation.

I’d read online that many people like to go for walks along the outside of the palace wall, so I ventured that way. There were various local artisans set up along the wall, selling things like stylish, patterned face masks (the kind people wear to avoid getting/giving the flu). It was starting to get pretty chilly, so when I came up on the Seoul Museum of Art, I decided to go inside and warm up a bit. Continue reading History, Art & Books