북촌한옥마을 Family Fortresses

A short walk from the painted palace, Changdeokgung, we found the ancient neighbourhood of Bukchon, a preserved neighbourhood that dates back 600 years to the Joseon period of Korean history. Walking up the narrow sloped streets was like walking past mini castles; each house is completely enclosed with high walls and sheltered gates – there is no telling what is inside from the road aside from the occasional tree poking out. It felt like walking around a maze or some kind of film set – I could imagine a chase on foot across the densely packed roofs or through the many mysterious doors.

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These islands of privacy are called hanoks, and arose in the mid to late Joseon period (1392 – 1897) as a result of an increase in urbanisation; large tracts of land around Seoul were divided into smaller plots and families built their hanoks there. The placement of hanoks is very important as they follow the principle of baesanimsu  (배산임수 / 背山臨水). If you are able to read the characters 背山臨水 you will see that the principle of baesanimsu is to have the back of the house to a mountain ( – back – mountain) and to be facing water or a river ( – look to – water). Baesanimsu is part of the art of feng shui, which aims to achieve harmony with the surrounding environment. Bukchon village was considered one of the best plots in Seoul, facing the Hangang river and sitting on the slopes of the mountains.

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These houses were not occupied by your average peasant or urban worker, these were the homes of the yangban, the influential government officials and high class of Korean society in the Joseon period. Unlike many pre-modern societies where class was inherited from ones ancestors, the status of yangban was achieved through passing state exams and climbing through the ranks of government officials. In theory anyone could become yangban, though the reality was that peasant families could not afford to educate their sons to sit the exam nor could they spare them from the fields come harvest time, so wealth basically became a necessary prerequisite to become yangban. Families that achieved yangban rank generally retained it as their status became established within their community. Though meritocratic in theory, Confucian Joseon society remained a society divided by wealth and class like many others. Walking around, we noticed a lot of very expensive cars in Bukchon; it appears wealth is still necessary if you want to live in this prestigious neighbourhood.

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The hanok is traditionally either L or U shaped to create an inner courtyard surrounded by walls – the U shape tended to be used in the North of the country to conserve heat. Hanoks also contained an ancient heating system called ondol, which consists of a furnace directly heating thick masonary floors. The earliest example of an ondol-like heating system is 1000BC. The places closest to the furnace were reserved for elders and honoured guests. Seoul was very cold when we visited – the system would be very necessary in the winter to prevent illness or the death of older family members.


The streets were busy with tourists when we visited and there were signs everywhere encouraging tourists to be quiet when visiting – this neighbourhood is residential and the government has received increasing numbers of complaints as tourism to Bukchon increases. Hanoks are only recently protected in Seoul; in the late 20th century and into the early 2000s many were knocked down to create high rise buildings. 30 years ago there were over 80,000 hanoks in Seoul but today only about 12,000 remain. Thankfully now these beautiful houses are protected.


Up one of the two incredibly picturesque streets, past the man selling selfie-sticks, was a house that had opened its doors to the public as a museum. We passed through into a courtyard brightly lit by the afternoon sun, surrounded by a wood lattice. If you were willing to part with your shoes on such a cold day you could enter the house and explore the narrow corridors. They were showing an exhibition on traditional Korean funeral biers, showing small figurines called Kokdu that symbolised supernatural beings protecting the dead, as well as the ends of the bier which were traditionally dragons, a symbol of protection from evil powers as the soul travels from this world.


The small details of the architecture were good to spot – though all had steep walls and curving roofs, the doors varied greatly and we often saw the character  doubled up as an embellishment.  means ‘happy’ or ‘joy’ and is often used in China as a marker of celebration. The use of it in buildings would be in order to bring good luck or fortune upon those living there.

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Bukchon is actually a large area and one can walk around for a few hours. As it was approaching frostbite weather we elected to only go to the most famous area with the streets full of hanok. Though there are some very old hanok, the truth is that many were mass produced in the 1930s as urbanisation increased under Japanese colonial rule. The traditional style, regardless of when they were built, is still beautiful and well worth a visit if you want to experience old-style Korea.

창덕궁 Painting the Past

I am finally back from my travels to Hong Kong and Seoul, two great cities to visit with loads to do, and plenty of delicious food. I will write up my travels over the next few weeks or so, focussing first on the more touristy activities and then moving on to food and overall impressions, that way I shouldn’t miss anything out. So without further ado, let us take a trip around one of Seoul’s World Heritage Sites, Changdeokgung.


Changdeokgung is one of the 5 grand palaces of the Joseon dynasty, the Korean dynasty that lasted 5 centuries, from 1392 to 1897. This palace was also known as the East Palace. This palace was completed in 1412 and was the second palace to be built in Seoul. The original Chinese characters for Changdeokgung are 昌德宮, which means ‘prospering virtue palace’, though its founder’s virtue may be questionable.

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The need for two palaces arose when authority over the first palace built by the Joseon kings (Gyeongbokgung) deteriorated and King Jeongjong moved the capital to Gaegyong in 1399 (a city located in the South portion of modern North Korea) under the pretence of it being better suited geographically when it was really in order to get away from his brother, who had just staged a military coup and placed King Jeongjong on the throne in order to not appear ‘too rebellious’.

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Soon King Jeongjong grew fearful of his power-hungry brother who had meanwhile kept himself busy with killing his other brothers in order to be the only heir. This fear led to the King naming his brother crown prince and abdicating in 1400, crowning his brother King Taejong. Taejong, perhaps haunted by the fact that he had killed most of his brothers in the first palace, decided to construct Changdeokgung and move the capital back to Seoul.

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The palace has been battered by historical events since it’s construction, as have most historical landmarks of Korea. The Japanese invaded Korea in 1592 led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s great unifiers. It is suspected that Hideyoshi realised the danger of having idle samurai in Japan after a century of civil war and sought to both distract the military and legitimise his rule by invading Korea. The result was a stalemate ending in a Japanese withdrawal after Hideyoshi’s death, but the damage to Korean palaces was done. The first palace was abandoned for several centuries and Changdeokgung was restored in 1609, becoming the seat of government until the first palace was rebuilt in 1868.

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Changdeokgung was burned down a few more times due to rebellions and an invasion by the Manchu Qing dynasty. Unlike the first palace, some buildings (around 30%) survived the Japanese occupation in the 20th Century, and it housed the last Korean king, King Sunjong, who lived there until his death in 1926.

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Unlike other Korean palaces, Changdeokgung incorporates elements of Korea’s Three Kingdoms period architecture, with the palace fitting with the natural topography of the area rather than levelling it. Unlike Japanese palaces, castles and temples, the Korean palace was adorned by what our guide called ‘beautiful colouring paint’. It was indeed beautiful and this paint was everywhere except for a few buildings in the gardens which the princes used to study. The humble appearance of their studying houses was because a prince must learn to be humble in order to rule.

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There is also a rather nondescript bridge in the first courtyard of the palace which turns out to be Geumcheongyo bridge, the oldest bridge in Seoul, constructed in 1411.


In addition to looking around the palace itself we took a guided tour of the ‘secret garden’ (you can only take a tour, freely exploring is not allowed). It was very cold, to the point that my coat felt fairly useless and my feet (admittedly in thin shoes) were going numb, but we got round the tour without getting frostbite. Our guide seemed very eager to press on rather than dally too long at each spot. I did think that had we visited at any other time of year (spring, summer or autumn) the gardens would have been more beautiful, but they were still enjoyable. Notice how all water in these pictures is frozen – it was very cold.

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One was only allowed to enter the secret garden if given permission from the King, hence the name ‘secret garden’, and it contains a number of pavilions and houses used for reflection, study and fishing. The gardens contain 26,000 specimens of trees, some of which are centuries old.

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There was a building by one of the many ponds used as a policy making institute by the King, the gate one must pass through to reach the building, named Eosumun, was inscribed to mean that a fish cannot live out of water, reminding the King that a ruler must always consider his people. King Jeongjo (1752 – 1800) seemed rather keen that the people also consider him, writing in 1798 “all streams of the world have moons reflected on them, but there is only one moon in the sky. That moon in the sky is me, the king, and the streams are you, my subjects. It is the principle of the universe that the streams follow the moon”. 

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We were also shown the ‘jade stream’ a man made stream and waterfall around which the King would hold parties at which they would compose poetry and float wine cups upon the U shaped stream. There was also a thatched pavilion which would be re-thatched each year with that year’s harvest to remind the kings of the importance of farming.

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Changdeokgung was an enjoyable trip and I would certainly recommend a visit if you find yourself in Seoul, though I would suggest visiting any other season than winter – Seoul’s winter bites and does not lend itself to being outdoors for long periods of sightseeing.