Day Two: National Museum, Seoul Tower, Books and New Friends

So there we are, waking up obscenely early in Hotel the Sun Bee (oy jetlag!). What to do on a first day in a new city? See it all, of course.

Seoul is the world’s sixth most densely populated city (New York is #114). The city has 10+ million people and the metro area has 23 million. It’s big. It’s also full of high rises (both business and apartment), and so cram-packed with stores, restaurants, galleries, and sights that it all got a little dizzying at first. We decided we’d try to get our bearings by taking the Seoul bus tour… a great hop-on, hop-off kind of thing that buzzes you around to all the main sights of central Seoul.

It was our first try of the subway system, and not only was it easy/clean/alotlikeLondon’stube, it had the added bonus of smelling like donuts. Of course we chased the scent down, and at a 7-11, a woman was cooking up delimanjoo, little corn-cob shaped cakes filled with warm custard. We got some delimanjoo, some 2% (a fruit-flavored drink), and we had our breakfast on the go.

Popping up out of the ground, we caught a glimpse of the statue of Admiral Lee Sun Sin and a few of the skyscrapers of central Seoul:

We were eager to get on the bus, so we didn’t spend much time looking around. Here’s the map (click to enlarge) of the tour. Of all the maps we had, this one was probably the best for helping us get our bearings those first few days (lots of big pictures of landmarks).:

The first possible stop on the tour was Gwanghwamun gate. We were just getting settled on the bus when we passed it, and I wished we had stopped. They were doing a changing of the guard, and it’s something I would have liked to see. Next time, I guess. We decided our first stop would be the National Museum of Korea. It’s a very impressive building and setting, with a garden and forest for walking as well as two enormous exhibition halls.

Inside we saw some gorgeous objects. I won’t put all of them up here, but I have to put at least a few (okay..more than a few). There were halls of early artifacts, Three Kingdoms artifacts, etc., but our favorites were the calligraphy, celadon, painting, and furniture galleries.
This was the main object in the central hall:

This ten-story pagoda was originally erected at the Gyeongcheonasa in the fourth year of King Chungmok [1348] of Goryeo. In the central part of the pagoda, which consists of ten stories, a number of groups of Buddhas and bodhisattvas are represented inside archtecturalsettings minutely carved with roofs, rafters, and balustrades. 1348!!

In the hall of Buddha images, this painting of Buddha was beautiful:

There were Buddhas of all sizes and shapes, some with very elaborate canopies (called baldachin, a celestial canopy, or datjib in Korean):

The large Korean temple/gate bells were also striking, and I liked the Buddhist gong surrounded by mythical beings on the back of a tortoise

Next was the celadon gallery. Korea is famous for celadon, and goes back to the 9th or 10th century in Korean history. It’s always been one of my favorite colors, so to see celadon masterpieces up close was exciting.

When you look at the individual pieces, each has a tag explaining what it is, when it was made, and also (if it’s considered a treasure), it has a ranking of its treasure-ness. That little incense burner up above? That’s national treasure number 95. It made me chuckle a little at first, but as I went through the museum I started to appreciate the rankings. When you’re looking at something historically important enough to be considered national treasure #35 or national treasure #1,268, it gives you idea of when and why certain objects are important to a culture. It also gave me some idea of why the February’s destruction (by arson) of Namdaemun gate, national treasure #1, was such a tragedy. It’d be like someone destroying the Statue of Liberty. Anyway…back to the tags:

There were celadon pillows, and celadon pitchers (with dragons…cool), but the classic inlay celadon looks something like this:

Wanna know how it’s done? It’s a series of several inlaid clays, with each step requiring the kind of precision that makes me dizzy (click to enlarge). Producing one kilnful of (modern) celedon takes about a month….I wonder how long it took to make the pieces in the museum.:

The next hall was the calligraphy hall. I love calligraphy, especially of the Korean alphabet (Hangul). Calligraphy was an art form practiced by kings and scholars, and their work was incredibly beautiful. I wasn’t able to take pictures of the historical scrolls without a flash, so you’ll have to imagine how lovely they were. I did get this, though…a description of the different kinds of script (cursive, running, clerical, and seal). I don’t know if you’ll find it as interesting as I did, but here’s some examples:

Next was the hall of portraits. Some of our favorites:

That’s a portrait of Yi Chae, done in ink and color on silk in 1802. (Treasure number 1483, if you’re curious). From the label: Yi Chae was a scholar who lived in late Joseon. This shows him at the age of 59. He is donning a black hat known as dongpagwan and a simui, a white scholar’s jacket. The white jacket has a collar in a contrasting black band. A large sash woven with threads in five colors, representing the four cardinal directions and the center, drapes down from the mid-chest level. The eyes staring straight ahead are meticulously depicted with great detail. As the eyes were increasingly regarded as the windows to the moral universe of the subject, they were a focal point of portraits from the late Joseon.


Another favorite was The Immortal on the Waves, done in the late 1600s.

This was painted by Jeong Seon, and is of a Taoist immortal (a founder of Zen Buddhism). I liked this sentence from the label: “The face of the immortal, turned back as though in search of the shimmering moonlight, is lit with a gentle expression of mirth, adding a lyrical touch to the painting.”


Next, the hall of landscape paintings. landscape paintings are an important part of the artistic tradition of Korea, and the paintings communicates the ideal of living in harmony with nature. Landscapes also have symbolic meanings, depending on what animals or plants are depicted. Gotta love symbolism! While I enjoyed the symbolism, D enjoyed looking at the different kinds of brushstrokes:

Mi dot, ax-cut, alum lumps, vertical, ox-tail, lotus leaf, hemp fiber, short fiber…all different kinds of texture strokes. Who knew?

As for symbolism, I’ll give you a little break down:
Pair of mandarin ducks = long and happy marriage
pair of fish = conjugal harmony
mynah birds = filial piety
peony = wealth, fame, and prosperity
cat = 70-year-old man
Chinese pink (a flower)= celebration of longevity
hawk = protection from fire, flood, typhoon
lotus = progeny, purity, passing of state exam
butterfly = 80-year-old man
duck, snowy heron= distinguished academic achievement
reed and wild goose = comfort for the aged
cockscomb, rooster = successful career in officialdom, fame
…and it goes on. I LOVE THIS STUFF!

A few of my favorite paintings were….Magpies and Ibises:

And this one, the five peaks painting:

We saw the five peaks painting everywhere in Seoul (on the money, in scroll/painting shops, at the palaces), so it was lovely to see a historical version close up.

From the label: Folding screens of this type, featuring the sun, moon and five peaks, were used as backdrops placed behind the king or his portrait. Of the five peaks, the middle is the tallest and the most prominent, and a red sun and white moon are placed to the right and left of the screen. Water mist rises from the falls at the valleys under the sun and moon, and four pine trees on the foreground are grouped into pairs of two in symmetric positions. The composition, mentioned in “Tianbao” (Heaven Protects), a poem in Shijing (Book of Poetry), praising the virtues of the king, this folding screen expresses wishes of well-being for the king and his dynasty. Given the moderate size of this screen, it is likely to have been placed behind the king, when he was seated on a floor cushion, rather than on a chair.

And finally, the painting with so much symbolism it’s actually called a “Ten Symbols” painting, the Ten Symbols of Longevity (click to enlarge):

This painting of the Ten Symbols of Longevity features the complete array of ten natural objects and living creatures making up this classical theme: the sun, cloud, water, rock, crane, deer, tortoise, pine tree, bamboo, and herb of eternal youth.

The Ten symbols of Longevity enjoyed an enduring popularity throughout two successive dynasties of Goryeo and Joseon as a favorite painting theme in the royal court and upper class. The ten symbols were a frequent decor fixture at royal wedding ceremonies or birthday banquets. Once into late Joseon, the theme entered popular art, becoming a favorite subject for folk paintings and serving as an ornament motif for a variety of crafts.

The hall of Joseon furniture was our last stop and we enjoyed it a lot (and we only spent a few hours at the museum…we could have been there for a whole day or more if we wanted to see everything). It had a full-scale reproduction of Joseon dynasty living quarters:

Furniture of that time was made for women’s quarter or men’s quarters, and the furniture for each gender reflected Confucian ideals. For example (from the museum info):, since Confucian ethics exhorted the elite class to cherish frugality, men’s furniture generally reflected the virtue of simplicity.
I liked the red lacquered furniture (favored by the court):

The black and red (like in this ancestral tablet chamber) was striking:

It was time to get back on the bus tour, so after a refreshing drink (in disposable envelopes, not cups), we left the museum.

Our next stop was at Namsan/Seoul Tower, a space-needle building set atop the mountain in the center of Seoul.

The ride up the mountain was beautiful…Seoul may be a mass of concrete and skyscrapers, but all of the mountains within the city (10 or so?) are forested and lush.

We saw dozens of hikers taking the steep climb up the mountain paths and roads, and lemme tell you something…South Koreans know how to hike. They seem to take it very seriously–even in a subway, you can tell who’s going hiking that day. Fancy black breathable hiking clothing, even fancier walking sticks (graphite, maybe?), hats, sunglasses, sleek backpacks (and if you’re a woman, a visor). When I think hiking, I think muddy boots and shorts…but the way these hikers dressed, it looked like they were going to some sort of REI formal wear event. Amazing. Another amazing thing about hikers…a lot of the people hiking trails I’d never even attempt are senior citizens. Koreans seem to be pretty fit/trim in general, but that seems especially true of the senior citizens we saw. If they’ve been hiking mountains their whole lives, I can see why.

When we got out of the bus, the climb up the hill was so steep it was funny. I asked D to lean back in an attempt to show the slope:

It doesn’t really do it justice.

At the top of the hill there was a plaza with a lovely octagonal pavilion and an open area where a demonstration of fighting techniques was taking place:

We watched for a while, then headed over to the lower observation deck at Seoul Tower. We wanted to wait for a clear night to ride the elevators up to the top of the tower ($7). Maybe someone can explain, but for some reason the wires around the lower observation deck are covered with padlocks.

They’re everywhere! Most of them have messages written on them, and some are even grouped into colorful patterns and words…and you can buy them at the nearest trinket stand, so they don’t seem to be discouraged. What’s the reason??

If you peek through the padlocks, you can see lovely views of Seoul. From the observation deck you can see south (and east I think?) toward the Han River:

And if you go back across the pavilion, climbing up on an old smoke signal tower, you can see north toward the palaces and central Seoul:

On the way back to our bus, we also caught our first glimpse of the sought-after Pororo, a penguin from a cartoon created in South Korea, and one of the favorite celebrities of our three-year old son back at home.

We got back on the Seoul city bus and headed back to the city center. We drove through the theater district, a couple of huge pubic markets (Dongdaemun and Namdaemun), past the two palaces we’d visit later in the trip, and back to Cheonggye Plaza where the bus tour starts/stops. On the way back to our hotel (taking the subway), we went through the Gwanghwamun station….and in the midst of the subway station is an e-nor-mous Kyobo bookstore (my heart beats a little faster just thinking about it).

Books and people everywhere–I’ve never seen such a busy bookstore before. There was a great section of English books on Korean culture/cooking/scenery, and (joy!) a huge section of children’s books.

I could have spent the rest of the day looking through the children’s section alone, but we had places to go. It made me really happy, though, to see all the moms and dads with their children at the bookstore. There was an area for children to sit and read, and it was packed with little groupings of parents and kids or grandparents and kids. There was even an area (no photo) for kids to take off their shoes and climb around on a soft indoor gym. I want a Kyobo in our city.

The reading area for kids:

Before we left, a man approached us and asked us for help with his English. He had a series of letters he was working to translate, and we went over sentence structure with him. He was the first of several people who approached us to work on English…we really enjoyed it.

Back on the subway. We were meeting a couple for dinner, and suddenly we were short on time. The subway is very easy to use, but on our first day of jetlagged touring, we got all turned around. We ended up going the wrong way in such a way that, had we walked back to our hotel, it probably would have taken half the time. Next time we’re in Seoul, I think we need to do more walking above ground. The subway is so easy, but we used it too much. After a few days I felt more like a prairie dog who popped up out of a tunnel, did something fun, then went back underground toward my next destination.

Still, there’s a lot to love about the subway. It’s fast, it’s incredibly (!) cheap, it’s really clean, and often it’s nicely air conditioned. Plus the people-watching opportunities are endless…it’s funny how many people sleep while on the subway, or how every 70-year old woman has a shiny new mobile phone with the newest hip-hop ring tone.

[A little silly to include this, I know, but this is a typical vending machine. Look how small all the drinks are! The whole week in Seoul we had/saw these small, healthy-sized portions of juice/water/tea/soda, then came home and the airport was full of vending machines with bucket-sized Mountain Dews and Diet Pepsis. It probably sounds trivial, but it was an odd moment of contrast.]

Back to the real story…

We ran back to the hotel, threw on some new clothes (the weather in June is lovely but a little steamy), and ran back out to meet P and J.

P has a blog called “Seoul City Daily Photo”, and I’d been visiting his site every day for months to get a better feel for where our daughter was living…when the trees blossomed, or when it snowed–I got to see it all because of P. (Thanks, P!) Several months ago I had emailed a couple of Seoul bloggers to see if I could locate photos of the day E was born, and P was nice enough to strike up a conversation. It all led to us meeting him and his wife (Hi J!) for dinner. Lucky us!

We went to this lovely restaurant, in an artsy little plaza off Insadong-gil (just behind our hotel).

I wish I could say I had photos of our meal (we had really yummy bibimbap and a couple of delicious seafood pancakes), but the truth is that I got a little camera-shy around another photo-taker. Plus the conversation was so much fun that I didn’t really think to take photos. That’s a rarity!

After our dinner, P and J were kind enough to help us explore our immediate neighborhood. We’d been so busy that day, we hadn’t thought to see what was just outside our hotel room. We walked down Insadong-gil (a street and series of alleyways known for galleries, print shops, tea shops, and crafts) toward Jogyesa, then back toward a restored downtown stream called Cheonggyecheon.

Jogyesa is the largest Buddhist shrine in Seoul, and the headquarters of the Jogye sect of Buddhism (the largest in Korea). According to our guidebook, they emphasize Zen-style (Seon) meditation and the study of Buddhist scriptures as the best way to achieve enlightenment.

I loved Jogyesa. It’s not very big, it’s surrounded by modern Seoul, but we first saw it at night and I thought it was magical. There was beautiful chanting coming from the main shrine (Daeungjeon), people were bowing in prayer, and gold light reflecting from three golden Buddhas was streaming out of the windows and doors. It was lovely.

We stayed for a little while and listened, then P and J walked with us to Cheonggyecheon, a stream that Seoul’s then-mayor (now President Lee Myung-Bak) restored from what was once a truck bypass. Now it’s this incredibly peaceful, and pretty, urban oasis. We didn’t walk along as much of it as we would have liked (note to self: next time), but what we did see was great. Crystal-clear water, lots of little fish, trees and grasses, public art, and little places for people to sit and be with nature, each other, and art. It was a lovely place to end our tour. P and J gave us some tips for the rest of our week in Seoul, wished us well, and then left for the evening. I can only hope we meet again someday!

Some pictures of Cheonggyecheon:

The stream starts at the center of Seoul, with a waterfall a miniature replica of the stream near the base of a shell sculpture:

It was late and time to walk home. The thing about walking in Seoul is that you can’t help but stumble on a little bit of history. This pavilion and bell, for example:

This is Bosingak on Jongno (Bell) street. From LP: Jongno was Seoul’s main street during he Joseon period, and this pavilion houses a modern version of the city bell, which was originally forged in 1468. The bell is rung only at New Year, when crowds gather here to celebrate. In Joseon times, the great bell was struck 28 times every night at 10pm to ask the heavens for a peaceful night and to signal the closure of the gates and the start of the nightly curfew, which was enforced by club-wielding watchmen. It was struck 33 times for the 33 Buddhist heavens at 4am, which signalled the start of the new day when the gates were reopened. It also sounded when fires broke out.

I also suspect it’s a gathering place for protests, which seem to happen often in Seoul. I can’t remember where, but somewhere I read that Seoul protests (often populated by students) are the most fun protests in the world. We saw several protests while we were in Seoul…all about the controversy about importing US beef (and how unpopular the current administration is because of that controversy). While walking around Cheonggyecheon, we heard loud chanting, drums, and rally cries… a few moments later, the street was flooded with candle-carrying protesters, trucks with loudspeakers, and people waving flags. As part of the beef-producing US, I didn’t want to get too caught up in the action, but here are a couple of pictures:

Again, for perspectives on the controversy over US beef imports in South Korea, see here, here, and here.

An older gentleman came up to D while we were sitting and watching, and kind of got in his face, but it was brief and I’m not sure if it even had to do with the protests. For the most part it was just a loud, peaceful, pretty (the candles and flags) protest. I thought we were lucky to have bumped into it…little did I know it would have been more of a challenge NOT to have bumped into a protest during our week.

Finally, on the way home, we went past some streets with signs and lights I thought were kinda cool…

I wish I could end on a prettier photo, or something more serious/meaningful, but I can’t. While we were there, the Sex In The City movie was being heavily advertised (posters/banners/billboards/etc.). ;P Sis, this is for you (and seriously, could Cynthia Nixon look less thrilled to be wearing that outfit?):

And that was the end of our day in Seoul.

 

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~ by themagpiesnest on June 22, 2008.

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