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Friday, November 6, 2015

In the Forbidden Garden

Changdeokgung, the Palace of Prospering Virtue, is the most picturesque of Seoul's five palaces.  The traditional right angles are often eschewed in favor of aesthetic merit. There's plenty to appreciate in the palace itself, but the gem of the site is Huwon, the garden behind it.

Some architecture in Changdeokgung Palace.

"Huwon" literally means the "Rear Garden," but it is also called the Forbidden Garden, the Inner Garden, or the Secret Garden.  It takes its more dramatic names from the rule that no one could enter it without the king's permission.  Today the names are still somewhat applicable because of how hard it is to get tickets.  This was my first visit to the garden, and it wasn't for lack of trying on previous trips to Korea.

Getting here is easy.  Getting further is hard.

The garden itself sprawls across 78 acres.  Much of it is a pleasant walk through wooded landscapes, but the garden also holds a number of pavilions and structures.  One of the first points of interest is this two-story pavilion.  The first floor was the royal library and the second floor was a reading room.

Juhamnu Pavilion behind Eosumun Gate.

A little deeper into the garden is Bulromun Gate, a simple stone archway carved from a single rock.  It is said to confer longevity and health to anyone passing through.

Health and long life?  Yes, please.  But two days later I caught a cold.

There are many beautiful ponds and pools in Korea's palaces.  Traditionally they are square to represent the Earth, in line with the beliefs of their architects.  This pond takes a smaller view.  It is the shape of Korea.

A pond in the shape of what is now North Korea and South Korea.

Deep in this garden created for the royal family's relaxation and amusement is the most unlikely addition--a rice paddy and a pavilion with a thatched roof.  This was created for a yearly ceremony in which the king would personally harvest the rice and rethatch the roof. By the king doing the work himself, the royal family could understand the hard work of the people he ruled.  This was no publicity stunt.  It was hidden away in the most private grounds of the palace where no ordinary farmer could ever see it.

Cheongeuijeong and the king's rice paddy.

The ceremony is still performed to this day, but since Korea hasn't had a king in over a century, the ceremony is now a historical reenactment.  

On the way out of the gardens, I snapped this picture of one of the main palace buildings. This was where the king would perform formal ceremonies and meet with dignitaries. Day-to-day ruling happened elsewhere.  But I always thought the most interesting thing about it was that these buildings are constructed entirely without nails.  Nails were only used to hang something on a wall.  This entire structure was built by cleverly interlocking tight-fitting pieces of wood.

Building this would be challenging even with the aid of nails.

Like many traditional Korean buildings, the corners in Changdeokgung palace have clay figurines called japsang.  There can be anywhere from three to eleven of them, but they always appear in odd numbers.  They are decorations, but they also were intended to ward off evil spirits.

So, Joseon Dynasty ghostbusters?

Changdeokgung Palace is over 600 years old.  It was burnt down partially or completely no less than three times over the course of Korea's turbulent history, each time being rebuilt according to the original design.  It has seen generations of kings come and go. But the palace grounds hold a living thing that has survived all this and more.

When 750 years old you reach, look as good you will not.

This is a Chinese Juniper tree planted here before the palace was built.  Its wood was used to make incense for rituals at a nearby shrine.

Downtown Seoul is only a few steps away, and the thick of the modern world with it.  On some level it seems absurd that these ancient sights can exist in the same space as high speed trains, free WiFi and skinny vanilla lattes.  But that is Seoul--a city that has enthusiastically embraced modern technology while still being very proud of its 6000 year history.

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