With due thanks to the rising popularity of K-Pop, K-dramas and Korean cosmetics, people around the world now have their sights set on this tiny nation. Seoul is a megalopolis, where history and modernity coexist. Stepping into Seoul is like taking a trip back into the past as well as peeking into the future. Even through fleeting first glimpses of this sprawling city, the juxtaposition of the old and the new becomes starkly visible to the first-time visitor.
Cradling the past
The Gyeongbokgung Palace, the biggest of the five grand palaces of Seoul, is an imposing structure. While a huge chunk of it was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910, what remains today, stands as a testament to the rich cultural history of this country. Walking in through the main gate, you instantly feel like you’ve been teleported back to the ancient days and tourists wearing the Korean traditional dress, Hanbok (which gives you free entry into the palace), makes you feel that way, even more so. Once inside, make sure to watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony, with the guards dressed in traditional Korean attire. The palace grounds are also home to two museums — The National Folk Museum of Korea and The National Palace Museum of Korea, which are replete with interesting artefacts from the Joseon Dynasty.
We woke up every morning to a splendid view of the Changdeokgung Palace, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. With a stroke of luck, we visited it on the last Wednesday of the month, which is observed as a Culture Day at such tourist places. What made this palace special and beloved for the kings was the Secret Garden situated in the heart of the palace grounds.
On a bright sunny morning, we arrived at the Bukchon Hanok Village, a quaint, old winding lane, offering a slice of Korean history and culture right in the middle of the bustling city. It is lined on both sides by traditional wooden Korean houses, known as hanok. Being constantly inundated with tourists dusk, don’t be surprised to find Korean volunteers, usually old ladies, holding up placards asking visitors to maintain silence, since most of the hanoks are still home for many families. A lot of Buddhist temples in Korea can be found nestled in the mountains.
The Jogyesa Temple in Seoul, is an exception — being the only Buddhist temple located in an urban setting. Originally established in the year 1395, it was moved and reconstructed at its current location in 1936. The temple ground is home to a centuries-old tree and offers a sense of calm and peace, amid the hustle and bustle of a big city.
Food and Culture
Food is a serious business in South Korea. Most Koreans have their dinner before 7pm and it is a tradition for office colleagues to have team dinners and drinks on weekdays. In fact, drinking alcohol is common in South Korea, given that it’s cheap and a stress reliever, especially for Koreans, who clock in the longest working hours in the world. Even the subway carries the distinct smell of alcohol post sunset. A Korean restaurant will be unlike any other — you’ll see stoves set right out on the tables so you can have your stew piping hot. The chopsticks will not be wooden, but metal -- something that is needed unique.
Dining, like everything else in Korea, comes with its own set of unique etiquettes. Having food alone is a socially weird prospect, so you’re expected to have your food with some company. Similarly, you cannot pour a drink for yourself — it’s considered to be rude. It’s always the person accompanying you, who pours a drink for you and vice versa. And if you’re with a senior or an elder, you must turn your face away from the person while drinking alcohol. While all of these can seem quite stifling for outsiders, it’s something that the locals follow strictly.