Touch My Seoul and its Strength

Oddly, the official tourism sites for Seoul seem to be tepid and lack lots of dynamic photos for this great vibrant and historic city in South Korea. It’s only 20 km. away from DMZ, or demilitarized zone by North Korea.

Bronze sculpture of scholars. Art enroute to Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Seoul and South Korea – Not Same Romanticization as Japan
Maybe Seoul or indeed South Korea, haven’t yet amassed a wave of worldwide fans like those who love Japan and all things Japanese to gush and praise the country.  To me , it’s this striking difference in

Approaching Gyeongbokgong Palace. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

tourism marketing, while  I was researching on travel and things to do in Seoul and Japan.  Maybe it’s the recent cleavage between North and South Korea, that puts Korea in the “other” zone of psychological ambiguity for Westerners or there hasn’t been enough European-North American romanticization of Korean culture compared to Japanese culture.

Statue of King Sejong who ruled Korea in 1400’s. Gwanghwamun Square, enroute to the palace. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J. Becker

A Survivor,  Dynamic Self-Transformation in 21st Century
Seoul is a major Asian metropolis of 11 million people.  That’s over one-third of Canada’s national population.  It is a city of contrasts

New yet traditional mural art. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Rose metal sculpture near a national museum which was closed for the day. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J. Becker
Soaring sculpture installed around near Summer Olympics when hosted by Seoul. Photo 2018 by J.Chong

–soaring modern architecture, great public art, some massive historic plazas, well-preserved palaces, large temples, and neighbourhood jumble of small shops scrunched up against one another with a knot of ugly electrical cables overhead.  Meanwhile a few blocks away was a gentrified area of shops  with high end crafts and art, furnishings.

Retail store fascia finish on glass. Insadong, Seoul. South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Side street just 2 blocks from our hotel during monsoon rain. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

When there, one senses people scurrying about, working hard, bubbling with ideas, and pulling themselves forward smack into the 21st century from the Japanese occupation in the 1500’s, then again in  1910-1945 and followed  by the Korean war 1950-1953.  All things considering, Seoul is a remarkable urban and societal transformation.  No other North American city had suffered and arisen from foreign occupation and war for decades in the 20th century.

Police were engaged in training exercise. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Underground bomb shelter. Bukchon Hanok Village, an historic residential neighbourhood for the rich. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Bukchon Hanok Village, where people still live. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

One saw the city’s energy and innovative drive in architecture, outdoor art, fashion and whole city blocks devoted to 1 type of product..ie. fire extinguishers or sewing machines.  Perfect for comparison shopping.

A short block with several competing businesses for fire extinguishers. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

First Impressions
Being in Seoul felt abit less uptight, abit more relaxed than being in Japan.

Seating and metal sculptural garden at Seoul City Hall 2018. Photo by J. Becker
Seoul City Hall 2018. Photo by J.Becker
Metal flower sculpture. Seoul City Hall 2018. Photo by J. Becker

We went to Seoul at the start of monsoon season  –humid summer was kicking up and several hours of unrelenting rain.  It did limit some of our city explorations abit.

On expansive gounds of Jongmyo Confucian shrine, built in 1300’s. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

We gravitated to Jongmyo Shrine, there first only because it looked historic and enormous.  It’s a major Confucian shrine since the 1300’s, for several kings where it was also a place for rituals. Confucianism did overtake Buddhism at a certain point in history in Korea.

Walking alot on Jongmyo Shrine grounds. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Becker
Metal casting of roof eaves. Jongmyo Shrine. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J. Becker

Monsoon Rain Lock Out Cheonggyecheon Stream Path Exploration
At the same time, Jongmyo Shrine was built, King Taejo ordered construction of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest palace in Seoul.

Walking along Cheonggyecheon Stream, a rehabilitated water body formerly buried by a highway. Runs for 8 kms. where bike-pedestrian path is used during non-flood season. Ahead is colourful conch sculpture at Cheonggye Plaza. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J. Becker
Sculpture columns with Bukaksan mountain in background. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Becker

From our hotel downtown, we walked along Cheonggyecheon  Stream, a rehabilitated river that was unearthed after buried by a highway with now pedestrian-bike paths along with mini fountains and vegetation. Unfortunately, the high river water levels, meant the river flood gates locked out people during this time. Jack had wanted to celebrate his birthday by biking along the 8 km. river. We settled for matcha tea birthday cake from one of the gourmet bakeries.

Below is Cheongyyecheon Stream. During monsoon, area is closed off. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Becker
Heron bird down below in the stream walking-bike path area during monsoon rain. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Hero Statutes and Massive Palace Grounds
From the pink-purple conch-like artpiece at Cheonggye Plaza, we sauntered up through the wide Gwanghwamun Square, facing Bukaksan Mountain backdrop and in front, the sprawling ancient Gyeongbokgung Palace.  It’s an impressive vista as one walks towards the looming palace.

Mount Bukakasan while on palace grounds. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Along the way is the gold-bronze shiny statute of King Sejong, the Great who was the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty from 1418-1456.  There is also the statute of Admiral Yi Sushin who fought 23 battles with 12 warships.

Shrine on royal grounds at Gyeongbokgung Palace. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Clearly there must have been horse entourages and sedans to carry some royal family members from one end of the palace grounds to the other end.  Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds were massive with multiple sprawling buildings  across huge expanses of cobblestone to serve different daily living and official royal purposes.  I was struck here as well as at Jongmyo, how deep the palace steps were, intended for giants.  People in the 16th century would have been smaller than us nowadays.  Or they were just far more fit to scale such steps more frequently.

Underside of building roof eaves. Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul. South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Becker
People were short –even I was standing on a slight ramp. Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul. South Korea 2018.

Finding Heritage, Craftsmanship and Kitsch
Earlier we explored the heritage area and now for wealthy residents,  Bukchon Hanok Village near the centre of Seoul. It is a historic neighbourhood over 600 years old from the Joseon Dynasty with over 900 Korean traditional houses.  The houses are solid and well-maintained, originally for aristocrats at the time.

Heritage homes of Bukchon Hanok Village once place for aristrocrats for 600 yrs. Now still for wealthy residents with some cultural centres for visitors. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Historic demostration building. Bukchon Hanok Village. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Bukchon Hanok Village. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

Every day we ended stopping in or going through Insadong, an older area bustling with shops, art, crafts and restaurants for both locals and tourists.  A certain amount of our culinary adventures in this neighbourhood, are featured in an earlier blog post.  It is great for both  tourist kitschy collectibles as well as suave handmade sculpture and fashion.

Older area with shops, places to eat. Insadong, Seoul. South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong
New architecture blended with some traditional Korean building design. Insadong, Seoul. South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Perusing large dumplings at tiny restaurant. Insadong, Seoul. South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Becker

What was annoying to me, was the closure of some major museums on our final day in Seoul. I usually want to get a good sense of a foreign country’s history and culture by visiting a major museum. Instead we snapped photos of some great outdoor permanent art installations. There’s plenty of it in the core of Seoul.

Downtown Seoul near major art museum which was closed on Mondays. Well protected trees, regardless of their sidewalk location. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Garden tucked away in Bukchon Hanok Village. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

While we were on the train 40 km. to the Incheon Airport, it was striking to see lush green summer vegetation in the suburbs  and  well-maintained countryside, with its encroaching suburbs.

Suburban area on our way to Incheon Airport via commuter train 47 km. from Seoul. 2018 Photo by J.Chong
Modern clean and fast train to Incheon Airport, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

In North America, we may hear dimly about Seoul here and there.  It is a metropolis that wears its survival well by preserving its heritage sites yet drives modernity in its city pace, modern architecture and vitality of its people.

Press Arbitration Commission building. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J. Becker
Bukchan Hanok historic village area where wealthier people still live. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Lunch snack on 2 types of dumplings –kimchi and pork. Insadong area, Seoul 2018.
Gyeongbokgung Palace. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Becker

26 Comments Add yours

  1. Jane Fritz says:

    Thank you, Jean, for a thoughtful, thorough, and positive overview of your experiences in Seoul. South Korea needs more reviews like yours!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Hope there was something new for you, Jane. I really am a klutz about Korean history…I know so little.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mabel Kwong says:

    Looks like you had quite a good look around Seoul. It does seem every bit the modern city with a few olden days nooks and crannies here and there. I wonder if similar shops are side by side, and not just the fire extinguisher shops.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Like businesses aren’t necessarily like that all the time in 1 area. But yes, there is an area we passed through for sewing machines. I don’t know what else. It’s something we seldom see in North America. Some of the stuff looked secondhand. Not all.

      Like

      1. Mabel Kwong says:

        There’s always good use to secondhand stuff. Good to know people are trying to give secondhand stuff a home.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Mabel Kwong says:

    *continued. I mean, how do businesses thrive that way if competition is just next door. Looked like it was a bit wet while you were there 😁 The heritage homes look really well kept.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Hi Mabel, probably the heritage residential area which was a village, were and continues to be for wealthier locals. There are enough tourists wandering around in the neighbourhood which must be a headache at times, to those living there. The buildings look very solid.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. pmathews13 says:

    Lovely photos; thanks for sharing this Jean.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This post made me so nostalgic of my visit to Seoul two years ago. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Glad this gave you wonderful memories!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Marta says:

    Korea is actually becoming quite popular among young westerners, especially women, because of their cosmetics and their boy bands! Look up BTS, they fill stadiums in Europe!

    I’ve been in Seoul a couple of times and I love the city. Some places seem intimidating when you go there for the first time, but I think Seoul is the absolute opposite. Last year I suddenly felt like visiting again (and binging on Korean food!) but I will have to wait until next year at least as we already have all our vacations planned this year…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Yes, and with a little one in tow? Seoul, is easy for westerners to enjoy especially if they’ve lived or spent a lot of time in big cities. I felt we only saw 1/8 of its key highlights.

      Like

    2. Jean says:

      I should add also: yes, I heard about the cosmetics just before I went to Seoul. No, I didn’t look up anything. But was amazed when 2 Korean women on flight back to Vancouver, did their facial masks in their airplane seats next to me. Removed the stuff and applied their makeup to look fresh..when disembarking the plane in Canada. Ok…

      Like

      1. Marta says:

        Haha! I’ve never done it but I know for many women putting a mask on the plane is a must! To avoid dryness or something!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Jean says:

          This is new to me. I fly across Canada several times and haven’t seen women and facial masque use yet.

          Like

  7. raastha says:

    Very beautiful. Never thought of Seoul earlier. But you just made me fall in love with the place. Love from India.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A good friend of my son’s all through elementary and high school lives in Seoul with this Korean wife and their family. Perhaps we should plan to visit him…?? Loved this post Jean!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      It would be a fantastic opportunity, aginggrace. We just hear very little about Seoul itself in the West.

      Like

  9. Holistic Boy enjoyed these shots. Nice job on the informative post, Jean.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      The blog post reflects a North American simpleton since I barely know much about South Korea and the culture itself.

      Like

  10. Lani says:

    Korea is very popular in Thailand for its music and culture. It has definitely broken out from under the shadow of Japan recently with K-pop, top quality cinema, and food becoming more ‘mainstream’ around the world.

    I grew up with Japanese culture because Japan had cartoons and food everywhere in Hawaii. I think that’s where the earlier romance with the country started with many folks in Am. Korea, on the other hand, was in more economic development and only recently have we seen the how well they’ve come along.

    Korea has also been aggressively marketing for English and is strangely enough more open-minded towards it. Whereas the sense I get is Japan is more insulated despite the larger number of tourists – I can’t even be sure about expats at this point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      I find it interesting about Thai interest in Korean stuff. I see Thai culture quite different than Korean. Ah well, things are going so global in many ways. And things look superficial so much better from afar.

      I think Koreans have same work ethic as the Japanese, but I could relax abit better in Seoul compared to Tokyo. I can’t quite place my finger to it. Probably abit less formality.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Lani says:

        I was only in Seoul for a long layover, so I went on a day tour of the city, but the day was wet and cold. This probably colored my experience, so I didn’t care for it. However, I’d like to go again and give it another try.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Jean says:

          The culture of Korea may not necessarily as “warm” as Cambodia or Thailand. It’s just feel thing. It is quite impressive what Seoul has done given major historic events in 19th-20th centuries.

          Liked by 2 people

  11. You’ve outdone yourself on this one, Jean– some of your most striking photographs ever!! Loved the shot of King Sejong smiling down on you, tho– ahem!– I guess you didn’t take that photo yourself. Also enjoyed the punny title: Touch My Seoul– ha! Thanks for the tour!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Mark. We enjoyed Seoul a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

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