Return to the “Calm Morning” land

Last December, my family and myself went back to Korea. For me, it was a return to the “Calm Morning” land, for my family, it was their first trip.

If you remember, my first trip to Korea took place in early December 2017. This was the occasion of discovering some amazing places such as Busan and the wide variety of places in Seoul. Korea and Japan are often compared and contrasted, but, per se, the experience is quite different. Where Japan is a land very much imbued with animism and hence every inch of landscape is infused with spirituality, Korea is more of a familiar terrain for Westerners. Christianity permeated Korea and makes its people also more relatable in various manners. This was very clear when my family expressed a feeling of being welcomed into the country, compared to Japan – where you cannot shake off that feeling of being “gaijin”.

Landing in the “Calm Morning” land at dawn

For logistic reasons, we had to take red-eyes flights from Hong Kong to Seoul. My wife and daughter flew Cathay, while I flew with Korean Airlines. It was actually my very first experience flying with them.

View from terminal one at sunrise
The view from Terminal 1 at Incheon airport in Seoul.

As I flew Korean Air, I landed at terminal 2, whereas most airlines take off from terminal 1. I thus had to transfer terminal with my luggages, in the cold and furthermore, with two times more luggage as my wife had charged me with the gifts for our friends (Check photo below!).

Mitch and Maria-Sophia
Mitch and Maria-Sophia at the airport

Our plan had been of showering at the airport, dropping the bags at hotel and rushing off to make the most of our time in Seoul. Alas! What sounds great in theory is not always in practice. We ended leaving the airport only at… 11! The Limousine bus of KAL took us pretty near to our hotel, namely the Novotel Dongdaemun. It however took pretty much close to 45 minutes!

Dongdaemun, a lively area

Dongdaemun may be a bit far from the historical center of Seoul, yet it is an extremely lively place. It has quite a number of department stores (shopping is thus one of the most important activities over there), but it also has the very photogenic museum of design.

The design museum of Seoul
The design museum of Seoul

This museum is very interesting, not only for its photogenic aspect, but also because at some locations, you can find a piano made available for people to play on.

Piano at design museum
These piano are made available for anyone who wishes to play and offer a performance to the public.

We thus had the occasion of assisting to a four-hand performance by two young Koreans, playing Christmas carols (which I, of course, streamed live on Periscope).

Beyond the design museum, the Dongdaemun area has an extraordinary vibe.

A little photographer

This time around, Maria-Sophia was documenting our trip with her own camera, a small compact Nikon.

Me shot by MS
Maria-Sophia managed to shoot me, as I was photographing her and her mom…You can admire the blue sky behind!

Maria-Sophia also understood perfectly the concept of being close to the subject in her picture of the two pianists.

Design museum piano
A live performance of Christmas carols by the two Korean pianists at the design museum

Later, we moved on to the Gyeongbokgung palace, where Maria-Sophia insisted to take a few shots of Mitchy and me. I have to say she did a pretty good job of it.

And, of course, Maria-Sophia demonstrated her keen eye by catching a snapshot of a lady in hanbok inside the courtyard of the palace.

lady in hanbok
Maria-Sophia captures a dynamic pic of a lady in Hanbok inside gyeongbokgung palace

An unusual encounter

Sometimes around the world, you have some weird coincidences. Here, it was my encounter with a scooter sporting a… Monaco plate!

A surprising sight: a scooter with a Monaco plate in Seoul
A scooter with a Monaco plate in Seoul.

I could not find any explanation as to how such a scooter was allowed to ride in Korea, nor why it had a Monaco plate… But it was the interesting sight of the day.

The following days, we were to visit Nami island and then head to Busan.

Seoul: a walk through Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok

When in Seoul, an obligatory part of your visit as a first-timer, should be the traditional village of Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok, the old Korean Royal Palace. With the majestic background of the Bukhansan mountain, this palace is in a magnificent position. The Blue House, the presidential palace is also located in the same area, in what is considered as “auspicious” grounds. The position of the palaces is also favorable in Feng Shui terms (back to the mountain). Bukchon Hanok, by contrast is an area of Seoul which retained its traditional architecture houses and hence offers a glimpse into traditional Korea.

Bukchon Hanok, a place for selfies

With its traditional buildings still inhabited by locals and by local businesses, Bukchon Hanok is a perfect location for selfies. Inhabitants are kind, welcoming and gentle and take a great care of their environment.

Bukchon Hanok and flowers
A side street of Bukchon Hanok with lovely flowers

In fact, the area itself is absolutely lovely and can be the object of nice pictures across the board.

Bike in Bukchon Hanok
A bike rests against a wall in Bukchon Hanok

Riding the wave, a number of businesses rent out the Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress for tourists.

Obviously, it is only Asian tourists who give into this mania, Westerners would be far less credible… But still, some pretty Japanese girls love to dress up, a bit like foreigners do in Japan with kimonos.

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With its quiet areas and lovely settings, Bukchon Hanok is an ideal place for intemporal pictures. Some details betray the girls trying to play the game, though, like the shoes… Or posing next to a very modern plastic radish!

The Blue House

On one end, Gyeongbok heads towards a gigantic avenue of Seoul, Saejong-daero where is located the US embassy. On the other end, it faces the Korean presidential palace, the famous “Blue House”. With its back to the Bukhasan mountain, the setting is quite majestic and throws back to the former royal palace built on the same area.

Blue House in Seoul
The Korean “Blue House”, the presidential palace of the South Korean president.

Of course, security is tight in that area, as back in 1968, North Korean agents had attempted to kill the Korean President by infiltrating commandos at the Blue House. However, the touristic nature of the area and the sheer beauty of the surroundings is absolutely not comparable to the tension that can be felt in France, for example.

A rebuilt palace

Gyeongbok was built originally in 1395, under the Joseon dynasty. Abandoned a first time in the 1500s, after a fire, it was rebuilt in the XIXth century. On that occasion, it drew its inspiration from the traditional Korean architecture used in the original palace.

In the beginning of the XXth century, when the Japanese invaded Korea, they undertook the destruction of Gyeongbok, as it was a symbol of the independence of Korea.

As a consequence, the current Gyeongbok is a reconstruction of the original palace from its ruins. Despite this sad fact, the reconstruction did a good job of showcasing the traditional Korean architecture that you can already glimpse in the Bukchon Hanok area.

Hyojagak building
A building called “Hyojagak” and its gate, erected to protect a special stone for a son of a Korean King

The gardens are very peaceful, despite the huge number of tourists.

To the right, you can see the main 5-level pagoda before which many tourists have their picture taken.

Main pagoda
The main pagoda of Gyeongbok

A very complex and photogenic palace

As you delve into the various alleys of the palace, you realize that the sprawling complex was almost a small city in its own. A whole area is devoted to the royal harem (and the paradox is that many female tourists love to have their picture taken there).

Picture in the concubine area
A young Asian tourist in Hanbok has her picture taken in the concubine area.

The most interesting was to see the food storage area. Apparently, the builders of the palace used a natural slope to  move food from the jars in the storage area to the palace itself. This complexity and the intricacy of the development give you a small hint of how developed the Koreans were in their golden age.

Central throne hall
The central throne hall of Gyeongbok

A fusion of history and modernity

The view around Gyeongbok is mostly free, especially towards the mountain. When you turn towards Saejong-daero, however, the nature of the view changes. It is a moment where you realize that Korea is also a place where history and modernity are intimately linked. The modern buildings towering above the gates of Gyeongbok announce a return to the bustle of Seoul before you even set your foot outside.

Gyeongbok history and modernity
Gyeongbok gate seen on the side facing Saejong-daero

Another interesting shot on that side are the guards standing watch at the gate. However, the difficult part is managing to snap a shot without tourists standing by their side.

Guard Gyeongbok
The guards of Gyeongbok are a must shoot with their traditional costume, if you manage to catch a moment without tourist by their side.

When returning to modernity, I came across a memorial for the victims of the Saewol disaster, but I will talk about it in another post.

How to get there

When visiting the area Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok are easily combined. Most people start their tour through Gyeongbok as it is on the main Saejong-Daero avenue. My choice was rather to start walking through Bukchon Hanok, then moving to Gyeongbok. It is a lovely transition, especially if you go there in the morning. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to capture girls in Hanbok and relatively empty streets. It is difficult to give instructions on how to get there, but there is no train station or bus stop within Bukchon Hanok, so it will always involve a short walk to get there.