Seoul Day 4: Jongmyo Shrine, Changdeokgung Palace & the “Biwon” secret garden.

Posted on September 16, 2010

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(You can read about how I spent my other days in Seoul HERE)

This is going to be an epic post about Seoul, because on this particular day in Seoul I managed to visit 2 palaces and both can only be justifiably explained through big descriptions and photos! So make yourself a cuppa and be prepared to read!

Tip about palace tickets

Apparently as of May 2010, you could buy a 11,000 won ticket that would allow you access to 4 of the palaces in Seoul and thus saving you a few thousand won; in reality I found that the ticket the saving wouldn’t be that great because if you wanted to enter the “Biwon” secret garden in Changdeokgung palace, you couldn’t use this ticket to enter, either that or the ticket could only be used on certain days… things really got lost in translation when I tried to buy this multi ticket at the ticket office!

Today, would be a big walking day; why? Well, our hotel was just 10 minutes walk away from the first of four possible palaces we could visit in one day as part of a (self imposed) walking tour.. no air conditioned metro for us today!

Jongmyo Shrine – 1,000 won entry fee

Jongmyo Shrine Ticket

The main street of Jongno had been advertised as the ‘Jewellery’ district, but I hadn’t seen any hint of this, so far, since we stepped foot in Seoul- however, it was all because I hadn’t walked down the right side of the street,  which just so happened to be on the right hand side of our hotel.

The Jewellery district lines the whole street which leads up to Jongmyo Shrine; shop after shop had their golds and silvers on display in their glassed cabinets-surprisingly, at 10am, some shops already had numerous customers!

Jongmyo Shrine

Before I had visited Jongmyo Shrine, I would’ve always classed it as a palace, and whilst this is half true (because this is where King’s would reside) I soon found out during the English tour (which I recommend you take if you visit) that it’s more appropriate to call the palace a ‘shrine’ because this was the final place where diseased King’s would live out their last days; cut off from civilians (so the disease couldn’t spread), the Kings had time to contemplate about their lives and people in the buildings overlooking one of two ponds. It was also here where the King’s last (death) ceremonies would take place- that is their burial and the handing over of their title to their sons, the future kings.

I really enjoyed the tour because the well-spoken tour guide explained everything about the ceremonies, the buildings, and history of the compound; I found it even more interesting when i could find ties to the familiar Chinese, Confucious, Ying/Yang and Buddhist ideas I had grown up with.

To give you a bit of info on that; the shrine’s grounds were delibritely designed to have good feng shui/ ying & yang, with ponds used to balance out the Earth, Air, Fire and Water side of things. Also, the buildings were specifically set in their places (for example on the East or West side) to also fulfill a Feng Shui balance.

Symbolic Paths

More interestingly was the stone path you immediately see when you enter Jongmyo; this path leads straight to the main ceremonial hall where the final ceremonies (crowning of the new King etc) would take place. For superstitious reasons and out of respect we were told not to walk on the path as it is now for the ancestors. The middle path was always for the King (it is slightly raised), the path to the right is for the future king to walk down (like the Sun rising from the east) and the left path (I think) was for the governors to walk down. The above picture doesn’t show the main path leading to the ceremonial hall, instead it’s one of the other paths the Kings would walk down on a day to day basis, so we were allowed to walk on it- but just look at the picture to take note of how (exactly the same) the ceremonial path looked.

2 toned building where the King would sit, looking out at the pond, to think.

Clouds at the King's "Stairway to Heaven"

There were quite a few symbols representing the solemness of the King’s death and dying; as you can see from the pictures, the buildings in the ‘palace’ only had two colours to them (red and green) and not the usual colourful roofs as you might commonly see in all the other palaces in Seoul. Also, the ponds in the compounds were literally just empty ponds of water- no fishes and no lotus/lily pads are there, because they are all live things. And finally, the steps leading up to the main ceremonial hall have clouds carved into them- this is also, literally, a representation of the ‘stairway to heaven’ for the King. Similar, the doors in the shrine were also designed specifically for the King’s, Princes, Governors and others’ to use; with the King’s door always being the largest/central, the Prince’s always on the East side of the King’s and slightly smaller, whilst the governors door was always the smallest and to the West side of the King’s door.

Alter where food was offered to ancestors & Gods

Concrete slabs (just visible) where food was checked before offering

Not only were there symbols of death or dying around the area, but there were (of course) buildings in the vicinity specifically catered for these final moments; if you’re familiar with Buddhism, you may know that we offer food, drinks and like incense sticks on an alter to our ancestors and gods, here at the Shrine, they also had these alters. Furthermore, they even had a building where food had to be inspected before being cooked up and offered to the ancestors.

Main ceremonial hall

Finally- the main area of the shrine- the main ceremonial hall- was very big, I couldn’t take a picture of it’s full width, but hopefully the above picture will help you see the depth of how the far the hall spreads! And imagine, it’s an actual hall or, as I would describe, one room! Wow!

Definitely visit the shrine if you get a chance and definitely join the tour, because it makes the whole experience much more interesting when you hear about the history behind things! And y’know this is a really small compound (compared to the other palaces) and the tour only lasts about an hour, and at only 1,000 won- it’s a bargain!

Changdeokgung Palace- 3,000 Won entry fee

Changdeokgung Palace ticket (cool souvenir right?)

Looking at my Seoul map, there is a road right next to Jongmyo Shrine that leads straight up to the front gate of Changdeokgung palace and we could, quite easily, even pop into another palace (Changyeonggung) if we wanted to. In reality, this straight road to the palace felt very long (probably about 10 minutes walk) and Changyeonggung palace wasn’t easily accessible because you could only enter it after you had paid to enter Changdeokgung!

Also, it didn’t help that hunger had set in and there were no tourist friendly (ie English menu) places to eat along the road leading up to Changdeokgung! However we persevered and were comforted by the fact that the rain had stopped.

Changdeokgung Palace

The size of the palace was really cemented in our minds when we walked through the gated entrance, which was double the size of the doors found at Deoksugung and Jongmyo Shrine; also, if you look carefully at the gated entrance (once you’ve entered the palace grounds) you might even see the staircases that leads up either side of the gate to the lookout point at the top of the gate where I assume guards used to stand watch.

Over the small stone bridge to the "entrance" to the right of the palace grounds

Noticeably more colourful and large buildings in Changdeokgung Palace

Luckily touring the palace grounds was really easy as there is only really one route to follow- you just have to walk to your right, where you’ll be able to visit so many walled sub-buildings that make up the old palace life. The contrast in colour and size of this palace, compared to the 2 we had visited previously, was immediately noticeable.

There were so many walled buildings inside the palace that it’d be very hard for me to describe or even try and remember to describe! As it was a Thursday, I read from the guidebook, the palace grounds were free for us to roam around in, so no tours necessary- but given the size of the palace and numerous buildings, a tour might’ve provided better information. To be honest, the buildings were grand and great but after you’ve entered your 9th building you really get the jist of how it’s going to look. Buildings would be set above a concrete plinth and rooms would be segregated by the kind of paper walls and doors you might commonly associate or see in Japanese culture. Also, none of these rooms were accessible to tourists, obviously, because they are so ancient and prone to damage!

The King's Throne

One of the more memorable buildings has to be the large one where the king’s throne was; this building is the first one you’ll come across when you enter the inner palace walls on the right. Here the king’s throne is set in a large wooden ceremonial hall, this hall itself, is set on a high concrete plinth which can be accessed once you’ve walked down the ceremonial concrete path. The path will be lined with small concrete pillars (no higher than your knee) and evenly spaced apart; these pillars were used to mark where certain people from the royal circle (eg congressman, governors etc) would have to stand if a ceremony was taking place.

“Biwon” Secret Garden

"Biwon" secret garden ticket

The main reason why I wanted to visit Changdeokgung Palace was to take a tour of the Secret “Biwon” garden within the palace- and despite what the guidebook says, the garden is never open for you to freely wonder around yourself, you always have to take a tour to enter.

Next to the entrance for the Secret Garden is the entrance to another palace called Changyeonggung, which you can enter and look around for an extra fee of 1,000 won; my sister and I decided to pass on that because the tour for the secret garden would start in 20 minutes and that would just not be enough time to visit another palace.

Our feisty tour guide

So we paid an extra 5,000 won to join the English tour; our tour guide appeared quite scary to me at first, as you can see from the pic, because she was wearing a long (I guess) traditional dress, hat and gloves combo, and with her very white skin- she reminded me of a ghost! But she was good, and had an American accent when she spoke, in fact she was quite a feisty tour guide, as you will read in a moment, which made the whole experience more memorable!

Now I should point out that this tour of the garden is 2 hours long! Yeah, me and the 30 other tourists also groaned at this thought- but the tour guide explained that 20 minutes alone, had to be dedicated to walking back down to the entrance of the palace!! We were scared! Luckily it didn’t rain!

One of the first things the tour guide was keen to point out was the name of the garden which comes from the fact that only those who the King would allow could enter the garden, it was closed off to everyone else- not because of any kinky goings on there… apparently. And the garden is so big because each section had different aspects to them.

One of the first areas we entered, once we had navigated the dodgy, uneven, stone steps down a hill, was the (I think) servents quarters where the men and women would live segregated, except for the communal, living areas. It was explained to us that to understand how Seoulites used to live during that time, this would be the best place to see examples because of the gender segregated areas and the general size and height (or lack of) of the rooms. Tour guidess said that they must have been pretty short during those times since the doorways here were never taller than 5 ft 7; funnily at this moment she cracked a joke saying, “Look at how short the doorways were, think about how short the people must have been. And  now look at me, look how tall I am!” Ah, you had to be there…

Women's Quarters

Interestingly enough, it was as if we all had this segregation planted firmly in our minds because the women naturally started exploring the left (women’s quarters) side and the men vice versa. I also noted  how mute of colours this area was compared to the colourful side of the royal palace quarters.

Another part of the garden which I really liked was the area where the princes would take their exams and then relax. There was a study area to the right of a pond and then a building built over the pond where the princes could sit or practice their martial arts- this particular area was very beautiful.

Pond Area

Remember how I said our our tour guide was feisty? Well I’ll explain how here; whilst we were all sat around the study building, a large Korean tour group were lead to the area from the opposite side, their tour guide took over our calm surroundings by setting her mini mic to full blast and talking so loudly that we couldn’t hear our tour guide! This happened 3 times with 3 different tour groups all taking the route opposite us! HAHA, this is where our fab tour guide stepped in; she stopped her narration to speak over her mic and tell the other people to quieten down until we finished. I couldn’t understand most of her words but I did hear sprinklings of words such as “Wait a moment, please, thank you” etc, so she was feisty yet still polite to her seniors!

After this ‘incident’ she let us all take a loo break at the only toilets available in the whole garden- she said we should as there would be no way back! So, yes you should if you ever visit the garden.

Longevity stone doorway

Right next to this pond area was a special doorway which was cut from a single piece of stone; civilians made this doorway for the king, and hoped that it would bring him longevity- it being cut from one piece of stone, symbolized it’s continual. We were all encouraged to walk through the doorway, to see if it would bring us longevity, and so we could take pictures of another pond in the area.

Finally our tour was nearing it’s end; we had a final walk up the hill and then back down to a secluded area with 3 ancient and small pagodas. They had straw thatched roofs, a tradition that people still keep today by changing the roofs every so often with straw. In this area we took a final 10 minute break before we walked the epic 20 minutes back down and around the garden to the entrance of the palace. The tour guide wasn’t joking, the walk back really was 20 minutes long! But, she planned it well so it was a simple walk downhill, down a really wide path.

Overall, Changdeokgung is well worth the visit. I particularly enjoyed visiting the garden- although I can’t explain my whole visit in this blog post, because it’d be TOO LONG, I do recommend that you go there yourself to have a look. And don’t be daunted by the 2 hour tour- the time flies by 🙂

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Posted in: Seoul