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. Little did I know, admission is free! I checked out an audio tour headset thingy and spent an hour or two seeing what Korean art is all about. I’ve never used one of those audio tour headsets in a museum, but I have to say it was helpful. For someone like me who doesn’t always “get” what the artwork is about just by looking at it. They had some pretty interesting pieces, from an exhibit about the abandoned, uninhabited man-made Hashima Island in Japan (appeared in recent James Bond film, “Skyfall”) to a documentary about a group of elderly Korean ladies trained in an ancient breathing technique that lets them dive deep in the ocean for pearls and seafood (see more in gallery below). Three floors of art and an enjoyable visit. I recommend it.

I finished my day with dinner at a random little hole-in-the-wall restaurant (I saw a lot of what appeared to be locals dining there, so I figured it must be good, and it was) and a visit to the Olive Young beauty shop. They’re everywhere, and I wanted to know what’s so special. In sum, a lot of free beauty product samplers and ALL kinds of masks and lotions and products to make you look either “tighter” or younger or whiter — no, really.

Yesterday, Wednesday, I headed over to the big kahuna of Seoul’s royal palaces, the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Gwanghwamun, built in 1395. It was burned down in the 1500s by the Japanese and wasn’t restored until almost 300 years later. Then torn down again, then restored again. You get the idea. As you walk up to the main gate, you see the mountains in the distance, including Mt. Bugaksan, just north of the Korean president’s house, aka the “blue house.” I’ve read that there are many great hiking trails along those mountains — adding that to our to-do list. They were just finishing their changing of the royal guard ceremony when I arrived. From the minute I stepped through the gate, I noticed way more tourists than the previous day at Deoksugung Palace. The palace was only open for another 1.5 hours, so I walked briskly to try to see as much as I could. The grounds are massive!

The palace is also home to the National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea. (They really like their museums, I guess! Just outside the palace, to the east, I passed a row of other museums like the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, and the Kumho Museum of Art.) I stepped into the National Folk Museum of Korea — also free admission, sweet. They had a big exhibit on the history of Korea, and a cool video contrasting 100-year-old black & white photographs of many of Seoul’s landmarks with photos of them today, among other exhibits. I love old photographs, really put things in perspective.

As the palace and museum closed, I headed back toward Gwanghwamun Square to explore the Kyobo Book Centre. It’s located underground, accessible through exit 3 of the Gwanghamun Station, and is apparently Korea’s largest bookstore. There are books for everyone, children and adults, Koreans or foreigners. I’d been meaning to buy a guidebook so I can better plan our sightseeing for the next six months, so I ended up buying “Seoul Selection Guides: Seoul,” written by a New Yorker who’s been living in Seoul for almost 20 years. So far, I like it. In addition to books, there’s a huge greeting card section, several other small shops (office supplies, designer home decor, jewelry, cell phone accessories), and a large Design Stationery store. Oh, my goodness. A ridiculous amount of cute stationery and notepads and adorable pencil cases and stickers and, simply, lots of cute stuff. Seriously? And it was a zoo. Girls (and guys) going crazy trying to decide what to buy. And then just buying it all. I was jealous. But who can afford it? I’d buy the whole store if I could. Anyway. I window shopped, ate at the small food court there, got some Baskin Robbins and headed home. Until the next adventure.

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