During my first full day in Seoul, I was able to delve into Korea’s ancient history by exploring Deoksugung Palace and the National Museum of Korea. Absorbing tales of Seoul’s rich and intriguing past allowed me to build up a fuller understanding and context of the city in olden times.
In stark contrast, I spent the remainder of the afternoon browsing Sinsa Dong’s Tree-Lined Street (Garosu–gil)– a funky, modern area full of trendy stores and swanky restaurants.
Although these experiences of old and new Seoul seemed disparate at first, it was natural to piece together the puzzle, and make connections of how modern Seoul living has been influenced by an intriguing and exuberant past.
For example, modern high rise buildings are pagoda-like in form and style, following a blueprint set out centuries earlier:
And although we may think of this iconic 10-tier pagoda (now displayed in its full glory in the National Museum) as a solely Korean treasure, I found out that it took influence from Chinese design using marble and stylised depictions, showing the early collaborative and insightful nature of Korean architecture.
This is also evident throughout Deoksugung Palace, where I discovered that Emperor Gojon became addicted to coffee after taking refuge in Russian legation. He adored the caffeinated beverage so much that he had a European-style coffee conservatory built (with Korean materials and traditional paint colours) within the palace. He also became a chronic insomniac! This early coffee-drinking trend is reflected in the popularity of coffee shops like the Caffe Bene chain.
More obviously, when looking at the buildings within the Deoksugung grounds, we see traditional wooden Korean constructs, and alongside these, Western-style white stone mansions complete with pillars and fountains.
The Seokjojeon building (shown below right) was completed in 1910 by a British designer, and was completely atypical for Seoul at the time, but symbolised development and modernity. Even in today’s architecture, Seoul is proud to seek influence from Asian and European design, whilst still retaining its inherent ‘Korean-ness’.
Another rather fun observation was pointed out to me in the form of Haechi, the symbol and mascot of Seoul. I thought cute Haechi was a cross between a squirrel an a lion, and was invented solely for the purpose of delighting today’s Seoulites and tourists.
Although the new brand was only launched in 2009, a haechi is actually a guarding creature that donned the front of emperor’s palaces in ancient times, as seen in Deoksugung and others. Therefore, this mascot’s connotations go a lot further than cuteness and cuddliness! Haechi is a protector, and an image that has survived centuries of occupation and war.
Can you spot the difference?
Maybe it’s the similarities of Seoul and London that make me love both cities so much: deep, strong histories that resonate in every one of today’s buildings, trends, meals, fashion statements and souvenirs.
Piecing together Seoul’s puzzle fragments does not stop here- there is still so much I don’t know, and yearn to discover. I’ll continue to search for stories that explain the way the bustling city operates, and look forward to revisiting the many layers of Seoul as soon as I can. For now, I will glimpse its essence when finding Korea in London.