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