Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sunday morning, Casey and I woke early to see the two most famous ancient palaces in Seoul, Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung. We got to the first at 9:30, and again it was a matter of simply not knowing. We had just missed the first English tour, and the next wasn`t until 11:30, and you couldn`t see the secret garden, the most famous part of the palace, without one.

“Well,” I said, “there`s supposed to be a folk village or cultural center around here. Let`s check that out.”

So we wandered for the next hour trying to find it, and when we finally did, it was nothing but a bunch of plaques in Korean depicting now non-existent buildings. And honestly, they all looked exactly like old Japanese houses.

“What, no performances, no displays of real ancient relics, nothing authentically Korean?” I asked.

Casey explained that most of South Korea`s unique cultural assets were destroyed during World War II, and those left over were demolished during the revolution, and most of the ancient artifacts and buildings that remain are in the Chinese/Japanese occupation styles. Pretty sad.

Here was one traditional wood shop along the road:

By then we didn`t have time for anything else, so we just went back to the palace. The gift shop had a few traditional items on display, like these dolls:

They are wearing the traditional female Hanbok, a lot like a European dress except without the corset. Very smart. I`ve worn one before, and they`re quite comfortable.

I`m reminded of the time my dad came home from the Airforce Reserves after spending some time in Korea. I was about four years old and he brought us all presents. Mine was a little white doll with blond curls and long blond eyelashes. I remember feeling very disapointed and telling him so, because I wanted a Korean doll. He told me that this was the doll all the little girls in Korea played with. At the time I didn`t believe him, but now I understand. Just like me, they wanted to play with the doll that looked different, not the same. Unfortunately, it goes a little deeper for them, but I`ll talk about that in a later post.

I also bought some traditional Korean rice cake sweets, but sadly they were not as good as the sticky, gooey Japanese versions I`m used to. If there`s one thing the Japanese do right when it comes to food, it`s sweets. It`s the tea culture! The best sweets in the world are from England, Scotland, France, India, Japan, China, and Tailand (though this last probably has more to do with the fresh coconut than tea).

We finally got on the tour, and that was amazing. Originally completed in 1412, Changdeokgung palace served as the primary residence of the Joseon Dynasty and seat of government until 1872, and the last Emperor died there in 1926. Unfortunately, most of it was destroyed in various Japanese invasions and fires, but large portions have been rebuilt. Here`s me standing in front of Donhwamun Gate, the main entrance to the palace grounds. You can see Chinese characters at the top. Even though Hangul, the unique Korean script of twenty-six letters, had already been invented by the great Emperor Sejong as a means of educating the common people, it was not yet in wide use, and was generally looked down upon by the nobles:

All the doorways and passages in the front part, used only by the officials, were very low. You had to stoop to get through them. This was to remind the nobles that they had to pay proper respect to the emperor. They have the same structures and reasoning in Japan`s Imperial palaces. The major difference is that in Japan, hardly anything is painted, let alone decorated. You`d hardly know you were in a castle or palace if not for the sign. That`s due to ancient Japan`s minimalist/ultra simplistic take on Buddhism. (And one reason why they destroyed anything fancy in their conquered territories; they thought it really gaudy and bad taste.) Don`t go to Japan expecting to see gorgeous sculpted buildings with lots of gold and artistry. Go to China, or better, India for that.

This is Injeongjeon Hall, where major ceremonies took place. I think it`s the most beautiful of all the buildings I saw in Korea:

Take a closer look at the slanted roof:

And an even closer look at the beautiful designs on the eaves. Very reminiscent of Chinese style. In fact, I would almost call it a miniature, less decorated version of the summer palace in Beijing.

Further in we saw this room, though I forget what it was called. Perhaps Huijeongdang Hall, official residence and office of the emperor. Anyway, it`s got a throne in the middle:

That about sums it up for the palace. After that, we went on a tour of the secret garden, so named because it was originally meant only for the royal family. At this point, I should probably note that the English tours were not mostly made up of Americans, Canadians, British and such. The vast majority looked to be other Asians who simply didn`t speak Korean: Indian, Chinese, even a few Japanese. These later mostly tagged behind with their own interpreter. Actually, I kept running into Japanese tourists all day; they seemed to follow us wherever we went, and I even played translator a few times between English (which the Koreans appear to generally be superior at) and Japanese. It`s interesting how English has become such an international language, since nearly every country teaches it as a second language now. I can get a job anywhere! I hung out with the Japanese for awhile, and I noticed their interpreter didn`t appear to be listening to the English at all. She was always one step ahead, as if she had memorized the facts beforehand, and really emphasized what I like to call “Japanese points,” things that the rest of the world doesn`t find too interesting, but the Japanese go bonkers over. Stuff like, “this glass window used to be made out of colored waxed paper. It was very cool in the summer time.” Yeah, and freezing in the winter, I bet. Why do the Japanese think paper is such a great insulator anyway? Most cultures have had the common sense to move on to things far superior to rice paper.

During the secret garden tour, we met a girl from Malaysia with very good English (like a native speaker), and she chatted with us throughout the tour. It`s quite fortunate we ran into her, because she was headed for Japan to live for a long time and didn`t know anything about the country or language. I gave her a crash course and some resources. You never know who you`ll meet in places like that. It`s a small world…in a really big way.

Here`s some pictures of the garden. A pretty path:

Casey and me in front of the koi pavilion:

The pavilion ceiling, notice the dragon:

And the old library (at the back of the picture). It used to hold all the books and government offices, but after only a few years it was too small so they had to build another one in the main palace area. They say the little gate leading to the old library/offices has a fish on it, to remind the Emperor and nobles that just like a fish without water, a lord can not rule without the support of his people.

All the red leaves you see are Japanese maples. I`ve only seen small ones in the U.S, but these were tall as oaks! Of course, they`re much older, perhaps by a good 400 years.

After the tour, we stopped in for lunch with the Malaysian girl at a Korean hot pot restaurant. I got to say, Korean hot pots are really lacking in comparison to the Chinese and Japanese hot pots. It`s just rice and chili pepper. I`m sure there was more stuff in there, but that`s all I could taste. If you don`t like your food on fire, be sure to ask for it mild. But the chijimi (pancakes with kimchi) were amazing!

We dawdled for a short Irish (of all things) concert near the restaurant, then headed on for Gyeongbokgung palace a couples miles away, the biggest and grandest of the five Seoul palaces. You can`t do it justice in two hours. You probably need a whole day. For starters, it`s got the Korean National Folk museum, which one could easily spend half a day in. We had about an hour. But what we saw was really amazing. We were just in time for the changing of the guards. Here they are:

Here`s a picture of the most famous building, Gyeonghoeru, used for special social events like feasts during the Joseon dynasty. I call it the “floating palace.” Though you can get there via a bridge, it was closed off to tourists:

There were twelve statues in front of the museum depicting the twelve Chinese zodiac signs. Here`s me beside mine, the tiger, obviously a modern statue.

I don`t think there is anything special or truthful about them anymore than the Greek zodiacs, though one of the first lessons in my Japanese/English textbook that I have to use is “what`s your sign” and teaches them about the Greek zodiac. It took me awhile to explain to the teachers that this was completely pointless information that the kids will NEVER use. Hardly anyone in America even knows their “sign.” So I just skipped that lesson and opted for a Christmas one instead. But on a side note, this is my year, the year of the tiger, the white tiger, to be exact. That`s particularly special for Korea, because their national animal is the white tiger. Why? Beats me. They certainly aren`t native to Korea.

The museum was very interesting too, with information in English about Korean history, art, and culture. Again, nearly everything was a replica, since so much was destroyed during the wars. No pictures allowed, of course.

After the museum, we headed for Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest church in the world with 750,000 members and five services every Sunday. It took us about two hours to get there, but upon arrival we discovered that English interpretation stopped all together at 2:00. There wasn`t a single English interpreter in the whole church, not even one who could sit next to us and whisper in our ears like they do at my church in Japan. And apparently the service started at 7:00, not 7:30 as the website said. We sat beside another terribly confused and misinformed foreigner for about fifteen minutes, then left. Casey`s Korean is pure survival phrases, so she couldn`t understand any better than I. We did manage to get an English bulletin from an earlier service, and it looked like the format was exactly the same as my Presbyterian church back in the states, though this was Assemblies of God.

I also got a sermon outline, and that was perhaps the most discouraging of all. It confirmed the fears spoken by my Japanese pastor that this might be a “health and wealth gospel” church, meaning that they claim that if you love Jesus, you will be showered with financial and physical blessings. The outline stated such terrible falsehoods as “people in poor countries praise God less” (anyone who`s ever been to an African or South American church knows this is simply not so; they tend to praise God MORE because they have fewer distractions), and that Jesus promises to bless us materially as well as spiritually, and that material blessings are a sign of God`s favor. While these things are sometimes true, they are not part of the “Christian package.” If anything, Jesus called us to a life of suffering, of giving sacrificially, and a deep, trusting faith that compels us to praise God even in the worst of times. Jesus was homeless, after all, and many of his disciples did and still do suffer greatly for their faith. It was a huge disappointment to see that the largest church in the world had only attracted so many people because of lies that trample on the true message of Jesus Christ.

I`m tempted to say that ruined the whole trip, as it was my main reason for going to Korea in the first place. But I think that in itself would be a foolish oversimplification. The night wasn`t over, and Casey and I went to 63 building, one of the tallest high rises in Asia. We got a view of all Seoul lit up, including the Han river, and saw a special art exhibit displaying much of Picasso’s pottery and print art. I`m definitely not a Picasso fan, but it`s nice to be able to say I`ve seen some of his original pieces. We also saw the aquarium, which offered a few species of fish I had never seen before, and the ever cute penguins. But I shall save my adorable animal pictures for tomorrow, because on Monday I went to Everland! That turned out to be a much, much better day, the highlight of the entire trip.

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