At Seoul National University, there is a program for international exchange students called “SNU Buddy”. The program matches groups of exchange students with Korean “buddies” who want to help foreigners adjust to life in Korea as well as introduce and explain aspects of Korean culture. This program has so far been extremely helpful and has given me the opportunity to explore Seoul with other students. The Group plans many activities and excursions into the city on weekends, so my calendar has been full since the day I arrived.
This past month, I visited Gyeongbokgung Palace with my Buddy Group. Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest of the five palaces in Seoul built during the Joseon Period in Korean history. The palace was originally constructed in 1395, but was rebuilt after a fire burned the site. Post-restoration, the palace endured damage once again during the Japanese Colonial Period in Korea in the 20th century. Since then, officials have worked to fully restore Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Entrance to the palace is free if visitors wear Korean Hanbok, the traditional attire associated with the Joseon Period. Prior to entering the palace, the Korean buddies took us to a hanbok rental shop where we picked could pick out our attire. The Hanbok ranged from linen material with simple lines, to elaborate skirts with gold detailing. In Korean history, the more simple hanbok was worn by peasants and common people while the more elaborate outfits were made for royalty and high ranking officials. Generally, longer sleeves denoted a higher social status as shorter sleeves were more suitable for the working-class.
After selecting our hanbok, we walked to the palace and entered the main gate towering over the cars on the busy street below. Unfortunately, we did not arrive early enough to catch the changing of the guard, but perhaps I will go again sometime just to experience that. As we entered the gates, the main palace buildings came into view and were hard to look away from. The sheer size of the structures was extremely impressive. The mountains in the background were hardly visible behind the massive sloping roofs and the ornate pillars which supported them.
I was particularly fascinated with the roofs and ceilings in the palace. After our visit, I learned that the entire palace was constructed without the use of metal nails. Instead, pieces of wood were carved to fit the adjacent pieces perfect, then the roof was assembled much like a jigsaw puzzle. The detailing on the roof and ceiling is then a very impressive feat and must have required a lot of skill to achieve.
Although we visited during late winter, the grounds were kept nicely and there was a beautiful pond nestled next to the twisting alleyways of the palace network. Exploring the grounds was fascinating and I really enjoyed the architecture, the gemstone colors, and taking photos with my group in our fashionable hanbok. I highly recommend anyone who goes to Seoul to visit the Gyeongbokgung Palace and spend a considerable amount of time appreciating the history of the site. I do advise that people go earlier in the day to avoid the crowds; and don’t forget to explore nearby Insadong to eat some delicious hotteok (my absolute favorite food in Korea).