A Bit of History (and Waffles)

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
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Trip End Dec 02, 2012


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Flag of Korea Rep.  , Seoul,
Thursday, July 4, 2013

Having seen probably the defining feature of modern Korea yesterday, today we went to visit some of Korea's historical landmarks. Our main stop was Jongmyo Shrine (종묘). Seoul became the capital of Korea during the Joseon dynasty. Not long after, in 1395, the Jongmyo Shrine was founded to enshrine the spirits of kings and queens according to Confucian customs. Unlike many of the other royal buildings, Jongmyo Shrine wasn't destroyed during either the Japanese colonial period or the Korean War and the current buildings date from 1608.

We arrived at the shrine around 9am, only to find out we couldn't enter without a guide except on Saturdays, which the Seoul guide published by the city failed to mention. Unfortunately, the first English tour wasn't until 10am so we just kicked around the area for about an hour before joining a handful of other tourists and entering the shrine.

The first feature our tour guide pointed out was a stone-paved path divided into three sections and running through the shrine. We were told the middle section of the path was for spirits so we shouldn't walk on it. Good to know. The right was for the king and the left for the crown prince. It was perfectly acceptable to walk on either of those paths.

While there were several buildings on the grounds, there were only two main halls for holding the tablets that housed the souls of the departed. All but two kings, who had been deposed, were enshrined at Jongmyo. Queens were also enshrined with their husbands. The final group of people to have tablets in one of the two main buildings were the ancestors of the first Joseon king. While most kings were in the Jeongjeon Hall, those that ruled for only a year or two, had no male children, or were otherwise considered lacking ended-up in the secondary Yeongnyeongjeon Hall.

So if the shrine was built four hundred years ago, you might ask how did they find enough room for all that royalty in just two buildings. They enlarged the shrine, of course. That's just common sense. As they added more tablets, they built wings onto the shrine, right? Wrong. Don't be silly, of course they disassembled the eastern portion of the shrine each time and added the extra space in the middle. I assume... because... umm... geomancy?

Jeongjeon was the first of the two main buildings constructed. Eventually they decided that hall was long enough and built Yeongnyeongjeon to house excess tablets. The cut-off was the size of the spirit house of China's Ming dynasty. Once the Jeongjeon would have exceeded it, the extra building was added. Today, only Korea maintains their royal shrine and continues to perform the rituals. Sorry Ming.

Although queens have tablets in the shrine, only males were allowed to visit under normal circumstances during the Joseon period. Queens could visit for their wedding (to be presented to the ancestors for approval) and then they couldn't return until after they had passed away and their spirit was inside of their tablet. In fact, if they died before their king, they had to wait for the king to pass away too before both tablets were moved to Jongmyo together.

After a morning of solemn history, it was time for a visit to the Hello Kitty Cafe in Hongdae. The cafe was just the same as the last time I'd been. For post-desert desert, I took my parents to the Thanks Nature Cafe to visit the sheep. The sheep were in, unlike the last time I'd stopped by back in April. Unfortunately, the strawberry waffles were seasonal, so we had to make due with a mixed fruit waffle topped with frozen strawberries.

When we finished snacking, we hopped back on the subway and headed over to City Hall station to check-out the changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace. I thought we would arrive too late for the 2pm ceremony and have to mill around the area until the next rotation, but in fact we arrived just after it started and were able to see basically everything.

There was a lot of marching in circles, military music, and photo ops. Really, it was one giant photo op with possibly more time spent allowing visitors to line up to have their picture taken with a performers than on the actual ceremony. That was nice I guess, but I'm not too into just having my picture taken with random people, even if they're wearing costumes.

Perhaps equally interesting, if not more so, was the line of maybe 20 real police apparently guarding a flower bed just beside the palace gate. At first, I though they were there for crowd control for the changing of the guard ceremony, but then I noticed a few people with signs that were clearly protesting something, so I'm sure the police were there for that. Doing a little internet research, there was an on-going dispute between the SsangYong Motor Company and union workers. I couldn't figure out the details from the scant English coverage, but the people outside of the palace were memorializing the deaths of 24 workers who committed suicide or otherwise passed away following layoffs.

With all of the picture taking, the changing of the guards took quite a while, but we still had plenty of time to get to a nearby theater and buy tickets for the 4pm showing of the show Miso. Miso was billed as a showcase for traditional Korean dance and music. Primarily a musical performance, it told the story of Chunhyangjeon, one of the few remaining traditional Korean musical tales. Korean traditional "opera", called pansori, features a single singer representing all of the parts in a story that lasts several hours. That would be a bit hard-core for the average tourist, so Miso just took the story and used it as a way to display some of the country's traditional performance arts. To through a little more art into our day, we tried to pass the time before the show by visiting the nearby Seoul Museum of Art, but the permanent collection was not on display.

Finally, it was time for the show to begin. I wondered who exactly would be at a show at 4pm on a Thursday and the answer was tour groups, lots of tour groups. My parents and I might have been the only unattached travelers in the audience. There were groups from neighboring countries, America, and even, I think, India. I felt a bit sorry for the ushers because there were a wide variety of theater manners across the various cultures in the audience. The ushers spent a lot of time running up and down the stairs to stop people from taking photos, turn off their phone ringers, and stop talking.

The show itself was very entertaining. It wasn't as traditional as I had imagined, but it managed to find time to feature a wide variety of traditional Korean musical instruments and genres without feeling either over-stuffed or patchwork. Among other things, there was a little farmer's music, a little pansori, a little sword dancing, a lot of drumming, and some juggling-type acts such as plate spinning.

For dinner, we went to Itaewon to eat at Zelen, a great Bulgarian restaurant. I didn't really know any good Korean restaurants in Seoul, because I could eat plenty of good Korean food in my town. When I went to eat in Seoul, it was always for foreign food, and Zelen was one of my favorite restaurants. Making up for our bad timing this morning, we got to the restaurant just seconds before it started pouring rain.

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