Korea 2008 Day Twelve: Seodaemun & Changdeokgung

by Kara on October 19, 2008

This foreboding hallway provided Japanese guard with access to the many cells that housed Korean prisoners in Seodaemun Prison in Seoul, South Korea.

This foreboding hallway provided Japanese guard with access to the many cells that housed Korean prisoners in Seodaemun Prison in Seoul, South Korea.

Today was another free day for Stephen and I. Yay! Our aim was to get to Seodaemun Prison by 9:30 am when it opened, so we could get to Changdeok Palace in time for the English language tour at 11:30 am. We made it just after 9:30. This was the prison where the Japanese kept many of the independence fighters during the colonial period. It was even more depressing than the Independence Hall, because it solely dealt with incarceration and torture. You could actually go into the horrible little cells where they kept people. Again, they had animatronic scenes of torture. The self-guided tour also went through the execution building. Unfortunately, the prison also had very limited English signage. Also, a number of the buildings were closed for renovation. It is clear that Korea puts a great deal of effort into preserving its cultural heritage. There were a number of things we were unable to see or had a limited view of because of renovations. Despite all the money spent on renovations, signage and brochures (usually in 3-4 languages), the entrance fees are always extremely reasonable. We paid as little as about 75 cents to get into some places.

After the prison, we jumped back on the subway and headed to Changdeok Palace. This is the only palace in Seoul in which you cannot wander around by yourself. They have guided tours all day, but only three of them are in English. Even with a guided tour, admission was still less than $3 US. Our tour guide majored in English in university and studied in Oregon. I thought she did a great job, especially because we had a huge group. Most English language tours are quite crowded, because people from all over the world who speak languages that are not likely to be available on tours, have to go on the English language tours. We had a lot of Indians, Middle Easterners and people from various European countries, as well as a number of Americans. We probably saw more Americans that day than on the rest of our trip combined (except maybe in Itaewon).

A tour guide speaks to visitors at Changdeok Palace in Seoul, South Korea.

A tour guide speaks to visitors at Changdeok Palace in Seoul, South Korea.

By this time, we had already seen a number of palaces, so even with the tour, there wasn’t a lot that was new to us. We did learn that the king with the most concubines had 12 of them, and that their quarters were a long ways away from those of the queen.

After the tour, we just sort of looked at the map and wandered around to whatever looked like it might be interesting. First we stopped by Unhyungung, which wasn’t really a palace as such, but the father of one of the kings lived there, and because the king was only 12 when he ascended to the throne, his father acted as regent and held most of the power. It was fairly small, and there was a traditional Korean wedding going on that day. The groom was Caucasian and the bride was Korean. This was the place that cost us about 75 cents each to get into, so we figured that even if there wasn’t that much to see, we would risk the buck fifty to check it out.

Odeng guksu is a fish cake soup with noodles served in Korea.

Odeng guksu is a fish cake soup with noodles served in Korea.

By this time, we were starving, so we stopped in Insa-dong for lunch. We really wanted to find a place that didn’t require us to sit on the floor, and we found what turned out to be kind of a student hang out. It was very inexpensive (less than $10 for both of us) and the food was very good. Stephen got the ultra spicy tteok boki that he had been hankering for, and I got odeng guksu, which was a noodle soup with fish cakes. Mine was delicious. I tried a bite of Stephen’s, and it was also very good, but WAY too spicy for me. Stephen’s Dad can’t eat spicy foods either, so that has been lucky for me, but not so great for Stephen.

Next, we walked to Jogno-gu Bosingak, which is a bell pavilion, though we didn’t actually see the bell. However, they have guards there in traditional Joseon era uniforms, and they have a changing of the guard ceremony every half hour, so Stephen got lots of good pictures of that.

Our next stop was deterred by renovation fever. We walked over to see the statue of Yi Sun-sin, but it was covered up for renovations. It wasn’t one of the major sites, but I was disappointed not to be able to see it, as Yi Sun-sin is an extremely important Korean historical figure.

Stores selling shoes, scarves and clothes attract many shoppers at the Namdaemun Market in Seoul.

Stores selling shoes, scarves and clothes attract many shoppers at the Namdaemun Market in Seoul.

Next, we headed to Namdaemun Market. This was the market we sped through with Stephen’s Dad on our first day. We wanted a more leisurely walk so Stephen could take more pictures and I wanted to look for a hanbok for my niece. Hanbok is traditional Korean clothing. People use the word to describe a particular type of traditional dress, but it is actually an overall term for traditional clothing for either gender. But I was looking for a hanbok dress for my niece. I bought her a book about a little girl wearing her hanbok for the lunar New Year, and I wanted to get her a dress to go with it. Real hanboks are custom-made and cost a lot of money, but one from the market would do just fine for my niece. We had seen one I liked in Insa-dong a few days earlier, but it was 75,000 won (about $75). When I hesitated, the woman offered it to me for 67,000. But we decided to wait and see if we could get a better price and not buy the first one we saw. There were only a couple hanbok sellers in the clothing part of the market – we saw many hanbok makers ($$$) in Namdaemun Market a few days earlier. Luckily, the seller at the stall we chose could speak a tiny bit of English, but trying to figure out the size was a bit challenging, because we weren’t sure the sizes translated exactly. I gave him her age and tried to tell him she was tall, but I am not sure he got the tall part. We paid $40. I am sure we could have gotten it cheaper, but I hate to haggle. I am just keeping my fingers crossed that it fits her.

Finally, we headed back to the escalators of the Lotte Department store. We tried to find the garden terrace we sat in on our first day, but we never did. On one of our trips across a walkway between buildings, Stephen spied a place called Doughnut Plant across the street and decided he wanted a doughnut. We were able to find our way out of the store and went across the street for a doughnut. We had a little bit of trouble because they had Chilsung Cider in their drink display case and so we asked for that, but they kept saying they didn’t have it. Finally we figured out that it wasn’t for sale. Don’t ask me why. I had a caramel doughnut and Stephen had a banana pecan doughnut. They had an upstairs eating area, so we had a window seat and a nice view of the busy street below. I didn’t particularly like that two doughnuts and a drink cost us $10 though. But it is kind of a ritzy part of town.

We decided to skip dinner in a restaurant, and just headed home for fruit and yogurt.

Check out more of Stephen’s pictures of South Korea.

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