After I mentioned to my Korean colleagues about visiting the imperial castle, I was blown away to learn that there is another one! In fact, they have five! And this was even closer to where I was staying so I do not have to take a taxi. Which means there is zero chance of me running into Mr. YouNeedaKoreaMassage taxi driver again.
How these incredible buildings exist within a metropolis like Seoul is quite wonderful. I simply admire the Korean people for being able to preserve and protect their heritage and history like this. Of course, a number of them were rebuilt due to the wars but even so, it is great to keep them alive.
So, the very next evening after work, I hot trotted down to Deoksugung. This palace occupied a smaller area than Gyeongbokgung and was in fact originally a residence for the Prince (the Kings older brother). The size however is not exactly what it was as the area it occupied has been shrunk significantly over the centuries. It became the Kings residence when during the Imjin wars, the Kings own Palace was destroyed and he had to bunk in at his brothers pad. After some time, I guess he must have found it homely enough and it became a Grand Palace in its own right.
Daenhamun gate is the main entrance and and although I believe there is an entrance fee, it must be after hours when I arrived as the gates were all open. I also learned the changing of the guard occurs here as well but obviously not after hours. Wandering into the compound, it feels overwhelmingly serene with its luscious trees and park like ambience. But once again you are treated to the magnificent structures that are symbolic of the Grand palaces. You also will notice an old bridge (seen above) called Geumcheongyo Bridge just past the gate which is the oldest one in Seoul. (Circa 1411)
Without a map, I just followed the path which led me straight to Gwangmyeongmun Gate. Of course, it no longer functions as a gate and I had thought it was a structure built to house what looked like three very ancient looking relics.
The bronze bell is from 1462, the rocket cannon would frighten the pants off any invading horde but the third looked indecipherable. Like two giant rolling pins with engraving on the sides, it could have been anything. I learnt later that it was a water clock which was possibly the last thing I would have guessed. It would have been great to see it in action!
There were other structures like the main throne hall which are more modest looking than Gyeongbokgung but no less grandiose in its architecture.
Then turning left, I had to unscramble my mind when I came across what looked like “the White House”!! Sure, it is not exactly the same but it looked real close. And then, what is this doing in Deoksugung Palace? It looked completely out of place. My mind was going bananas. What is the story here?
And to add to that, there looked to be an event going on with lawn chairs, lights, ushers and a steadily growing crowd of locals. For half a moment, I expected to see the US presidential chopper land on the lawn and the POTUS step out cocooned by his army of secret service agents.
Once again, I had to ask around anyone who could speak a little English and eventually pieced together that there will be a “light show” tonight. It is free for all and if I wish to get a seat, I needed to get in line. What a bonus! Looking over to the queue, I see a row of elderly people waiting patiently for the limited number of seats and figured I could very well just stand by the side and watch.
Eventually the whole place filled out and overflowed as the crowd swelled in size. Then when the skies went dark, the show started with colourful projections and videos emblazoned across the face of the building accompanied by a musical score that was timed perfectly. It was wonderfully done and ended with enthusiastic applause from the appreciative audience.
There would be another show later that night but yet again due to my poor planning, I had not thought about getting something to eat. So, I spent the next hour checking out the rest of the palace which is always delightful when lit up at night but I wonder what I am missing if I came during the day.
One other structure which caught my eye was Jeonggwanheon Pavilion. This was the official dining room for VIP’s and once again did not look like the other buildings. As it turns out, it is by a Russian architect by the name of A.I. Sabatin. It was built around 1900 which was around the same era of the “White House.”
Which leads me back to why the “White House”? Well I did find out that the real name is Seokjojeon Hall. It was built in 1910 and reason for it is that King Gojong at the time was going through a modernization period for Korea. He apparently also enjoyed his coffee very much (a man, well ahead of his time!) So, under his auspices this building with its Greek style columns and triangular roof was build and is indeed very unique to Korea. Today, it functions as a museum and I am told is actually worth a visit. Alas, another thing on my list for next time when I am here for a longer visit.
Walking back out of Deoksugung that night, I marvel once again about South Korea and its citizens. Despite everything they have continued to progress and advance. Just look at their ubiquitous global brands like Samsung, LG and Hyundai to name a few. But they have not done it at the expense of their heritage and culture. They seem to have made every effort to do it hand in hand which is worth celebrating.