Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul has a secret garden called “Huwon” which can only be explored with the help of an official guide.
Changdeokgung was the most favoured palace of many Joseon princes and retained many elements dating from the Three Kingdoms of Korea period that were not incorporated in the more contemporary Gyeongbokgung Palace. One such element is the fact that the buildings of Changdeokgung blend with the natural topography of the site instead of imposing themselves upon it. Like the other Five Grand Palaces in Seoul, Changdeokgung was burnt to the ground during the Japanese invasion in 1592. Yet in contrast Gyeongbokgung – whose main buildings are arranged in accurate architectural principle – buildings in Changdeokgung are spread around more evenly and more freely. I thought it was great to see all buildings in harmony with the environment surrounding them; I had never seen anything like this in Korea before.
Behind the palace lies the 78-acre Huwon (Rear garden) which was originally constructed for the use of the royal family and palace women. The garden incorporates a lotus pond, pavilions, and landscaped lawns, trees, and flowers. There are over a hundred different species of trees in the garden and some are over 300 years old. The garden for the private use of the king had been called ‘Geumwon’ (Forbidden garden) because even high officials were not allowed to enter without the king’s permission. Today, Koreans often call it ‘Biwon’ (Secret garden) which derived from the office of same name in the late 19th century. I absolutely loved this secret garden. I don’t know if it was just the amazing autumnal colours, or whether there really was an air of mystery about the place. Whatever, I was happy to experience such a private and secluded garden in the middle of South Korea’s bustling capital.
A variety of ceremonies host by the king were held in Huwon. In early period of Joseon dynasty, military inspections participated with king himself had been practiced many times. King Sejo had troops parade and array before him or commanded them by himself in the garden. In addition, giving feasts, playing archery games, or enjoy fireworks in Huwon. No such activities are permitted for the paying tourists nowadays, of course! Our guide was very knowledgeable and had a good grasp of English (good for me, because I am English!) as we walked around Huwon. Tours are also available in other languages, including Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Spanish, and Thai.
The Ongnyucheon (“Jade Stream”) area is of particular interest. It contains a U-shaped water channel carved apparently in the year 1636 for floating wine cups, with a small waterfall and incredibly there is a poem written on the boulder above these falls. The area also contains five small pavilions, which must be designed in traditional Korean ways, as I have seen them in this style at many places on my travels of Seoul.
It costs just 3,000 Won for admission to Changdeokgung Palace, and a further 5,000 Won per person for the guided tour of the Huwon secret garden. This is very good value, although your entrance to the palace itself should be covered by the 5 Palaces and Shrines combo ticket, which means that only the extra purchase of the garden tour would be necessary on the day.