A Taste of Yesteryear at Gyeongbokgung Palace

The grandest of all of Seoul’s royal palaces is certainly Gyeongbokgung. Located fairly near to Samcheongdong district, it is a nice summer’s walk.

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Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty. Built in 1395, it is located in northern Seoul, South Korea. The largest of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty, Gyeongbokgung served as the home of the Kings of the Joseon Dynasty. Today, the palace is arguably regarded as being the most beautiful and grandest of all five palaces. It also houses the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum within the premises of the complex, as well as being situated close to other touristy areas such as Samcheongdong and Bukchon Hanok Village.

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With Mount Bugak as a backdrop and the Street of Six Ministries outside the Gwanghwamun Gate (which acted as the main entrance to the palace), Gyeongbokgung was situated in the heart of the Korean capital city. It was steadily expanded before being reduced to ashes by Japanese soldiers during the invasion of 1592. The palace grounds were left derelict until in 1867 restoration was completed on a grand scale, with 330 buildings crowded together in a labyrinthine configuration. Within the palace walls were the Outer Court (oejeon), offices for the king and state officials, and the Inner Court (naejeon), which included living quarters for the royal family, as well as gardens for leisure.

Owing to its status as the symbol of national sovereignty, Gyeongbokgung Palace was once again demolished during the Japanese occupation of the early 20th century. In 1911, ownership of land at the palace was transferred to the Japanese Governor-General. In 1915 it is said that more than 90% of the buildings were torn down. Restoration efforts have been ongoing since 1990. The Government-General Building was removed in 1996 and Heungnyemun Gate (2001) and Gwanghwamun Gate (2006-2010) were reconstructed in their original locations and forms. Reconstructions of the Inner Court and Crown Prince’s residence have also been completed.

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Geunjeongjeon Hall is the throne hall where the king formally granted audiences to his officials, gave declarations of national importance, and greeted foreign envoys and ambassadors during the Joseon Dynasty. The building was designated as one of Korea’s National Treasures in 1985. The name Geunjeongjeon, created by the minister Jeong Dojeon, I am told means “diligence helps governance.”

Constructed mainly of wood, Geunjeongjeon sits on the center of a large rectangular courtyard, on top of a two-tiered stone platform. This two-tiered platform is lined with detailed balustrades and is decorated with numerous sculptures depicting imaginary and real animals, such as dragons and phoenixes. The stone-paved courtyard is lined with two rows of rank stones, called ‘pumgyeseoks’, indicating where the court officials are to stand according to their ranks. The whole courtyard is fully enclosed by wooden cloisters.

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Hyangwonjeong Pavilion is a small, two-story hexagonal pavilion built around 1873. It was constructed on an artificial island named Hyangwonji, and a bridge named Chwihyanggyo connects it to the palace grounds. The name Hyangwonjeong loosely translates as “Pavilion of Far-Reaching Fragrance,” while Chwihyanggyo translates as “Bridge Intoxicated with Fragrance.”. The bridge Chwihyanggyo was originally located on the north side of the island and was the longest bridge constructed purely of wood during the Joseon Dynasty; however, it was destroyed during the Korean War. The bridge was reconstructed in its present form on the south side of the island in 1953.

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The Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace is one of the highlights of anybody’s tour here. Although most of the palaces in Seoul (including Deoksugung) have their own changing of the guard ceremonies, the one here at Gyeongbokgung is recognised as the main one that you should try to witness.

I have been lucky enough to visit Gyeongbokgung twice now in the past couple of years, and I always enjoy the walk from Myeongdong all the way to Gyeongbokgung via the Cheonggyecheon Stream, Insadong, and Samcheongdong. It is a lovely walk of around 30 minutes whatever the weather (although in snowstorms I would advise you to arrive at the Palace by the Seoul Metro).

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