Two weeks ago I asked you all what your guilty pleasure travel destinations were. Your call outs included the New England coast, Australia, Alaska and Hawaii, British Columbia, France, Austria, Italy, and in an answer that cracked me up both August McLaughlin and Mark Petruska picked Minnesota! Cheers to the midwest! You both get brownie points from me!
I’ve always loved to travel. I don’t get as homesick as most people I’ve traveled with. It’s not that I didn’t miss my friends and family while overseas, but I get so excited to share with them the experiences I had abroad or buy unique presents to treat them with when I return. Still, if you’d have asked me if I was planning a trip to Asia anytime soon, I’d have said a confident NO. While the countries of the far east fascinate me, I’d never thought myself capable of overcoming the language barrier and finding my way around!
Doesn’t it amaze you that the things that usually scare us always end up being the most wonderful and impactful experiences of our lives? Visiting Seoul, South Korea was like that.
First off, a week in another country is far too little time! I deeply miss the bustle of Seoul’s streets filled with street food vendors, lots of lights, signs I didn’t know how to read and shoe stores everywhere! I even miss the subway announcements! “This stop is Samgakji. Samgakji…This stop is Hapjeong. Hapjeong. You can transfer to Line 4 here.”
I admit I barely touched the surface of this foreign world, but here are the highlights from what I did get to witness.
My first day in Seoul proved to be what Wisconsinites would call a “wintery mix” which means snow that turns into rain and rain that gets caught in the freezing winds and turned into snow again. I think my umbrella flipped inside out at least twice while walking around. In my head I envisioned the thousands of Koreans I encountered laughing to each other going “Who is this ridiculous white woman screaming in the street?!”
Since the weather was crazy that morning, my friend advised a Museum Day! My first stop was the Korean War Memorial, which was incredibly interesting.
I had heard that most Koreans were quite welcoming to Americans, and it made sense after learning more about the Korean War. If it’s possible, I was overcome with a great sense of pride and sorrow and hope while touring this museum. The Korean War lasted for three years, from 1950 to 1953, entailing of Communist forces against anti-Communists. North Korea was backed by China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics while South Korea was backed by the U.S. and United Nations.
One of my favorite things about this museum included the United Nations room. It was empowering to see the documents and film footage and stories of how the UN got involved.
I must say that this museum is very well put together. There are many different ways to learn here from plaques to videos to audio tours to books. And one section made a very strong impact on me. It was called the Ruined City and it depicted what life was like in the Refugee Camps. You actually can walk through a recreated refugee camp and see the houses made of cardboard and cans, the starving families, the members who had to hide in floorboards from the soldiers. No one ever dreams of having to survive something like this, and yet this happened not that long ago; I know it still happens today.
Pronounced Gee-young-buk-goong. One of the largest and most renowned palaces of Korea, Gyeongbokgung means Palace of Shining Happiness. Interestingly enough, all of what we tour today is a reconstruction, as the original 1394 construction was demolished by the Japanese in the 1500’s. But Gyeongbokgung was home to some of Korea’s most treasured and tyrannical kings. With three entrance gates, executive meeting lodgings, king’s quarters, queen’s quarters, a house for the concubines, spiritual pagodas, servant housing, kitchen area, and also a separate house for the king’s mother to live in (Hmm!), the grounds are quite extensive all set with the mountains behind them. Check out the wikipedia site to view all the buildings and their purpose here!
Fascinating side fact for you: Korean tourism is MUCH cheaper than U.S. tourism. Cost to enter the palace: $3,000 won, or $3 US dollars. And there are FREE English walking tours with guides! Most of the museums are completely free with English audio tours available at request.
The palace also encloses the Korean National Folk Museum inside its walls, which is another example of incredibly well done history. It’s another shining example of learning through different mediums. There are recreated scenes from everyday life, hundreds of artifacts from silk screen printings to jewelry to pottery, video footage of various ceremonies, and the special exhibit while I was there had entire walls of earphones to listen to a traditional type of Korean music called Arirang.
With the mortality rate being so high, a child’s first birthday was a grand celebration. The pinnacle of the day was a ceremony to foretell the future of the child wherein several items were placed on a table: money or grain, a book or writing brush, an arrow or bow, and a spool of thread or scissors. Depending what item the child picked up determined their path in life. A millionaire, a scholar, a general, or a seamstress. Foods like rice cake were served which represented long life.
A decorated coffin which would be used by a family to send their departed down river in ceremony. The bright colors and detail would reflect their wealth and good standing upon meeting the gods.
(Note: The current religions of Korea are primarily Christian and Buddhist, however there is rising Muslim faith as well as practicing Folk religions from the early days which you can learn about at the Folk Museum. These ceremonies are often led by a female Shaman and are called a ‘gut.’)
Jogyesa Buddhist Temple
I have few photos to show cause I didn’t want to be the gawking tourist in a temple full of worshipers. I mean it, the place was packed! There was barely a place outside to leave my shoes, but I managed to find a single open mat in the back of the mass of praying peoples. I guess I came close to Buddha’s birthday so many were out saying prayers and leaving offerings. Jogyesa was one of the most beautiful rooms I had ever seen. It is one of the largest single floor temples in Korea and home to three massive golden Buddha statues, the likenesses of Sakyamuni Buddha, Amitabha Buddha, and Bhaisaiya Buddha (who is the Buddha of Good Health – which those of you who know me, should know I paid particular attention to). The ceiling was covered with paper lanterns adorned with painted peonies and carp. Check out the Travel Adventures website for pictures of the temple inside and during holidays.
N Seoul Tower
It seems almost everywhere I go, there’s some kind of tower you have to check out! LOL But honestly, N Seoul Tower was pretty cool, if only for the fact that I couldn’t get enough of the mountains!
There are the highlights of Seoul, South Korea! I’ll have more to post on my tour of the Demilitarized Zone as well as Korean food in the next week! Sorry I didn’t update you guys regularly, but the overseas wi-fi turned out to be something non-existent from my phone. I’m excited to read through what you all have been up so please drop me a line in the comments section! I’m missed you all!Annyeonghi gyseyo! -Jess