Welcome to part 2 of our Chuseok holiday in Seoul (if you missed part 1 you can check it out here)! After our first few days visiting palaces, markets, and major shopping areas, you may wonder what else could be left to see. Well, wonder no more!
On day three, the actual day of Chuseok, we woke up and headed to Jongmyo Shrine. I was interested in visiting this shrine because of the beautiful pictures I had seen of an amazing red wooden building with dozens of columns reminiscent of the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. I haven’t been to the shrine in Japan, although I plan to visit in March, but Jongmyo certainly delivered with its simple and natural beauty.
Jongmyo is the supreme state shrine where the spirit tablets of deceased kings and queens are enshrined. Sacrifical rites continue to be performed at this shrine, earning it a place on the UNSECO World Heritage List as it is the only shrine in existence that still performs such royal ancestral rites.
The Shrine is located in a beautiful area at the base of a mountain, and from here we decided to walk through a few neighborhoods to Namsan Park (remember ‘san’ means mountain).
Since this was the actual Chuseok holiday, many of the streets were deserted. We randomly ran into the FabLab Seoul and stopped in to say a quick hello. This entire area was filled with design/maker labs with really interesting items. Brad even made a giant robot friend!
We continued on our journey, crossing over the Cheonggyecheon, a stream redeveloped in 2005 for pedestrian use, on our way toward Namsan. We stopped to walk along the stream for a bit. The stream is situated below street level and is surrounded by trees such that you can barely hear the traffic above. This is a great place to walk and escape the city, if only for a moment.
We continued to make our way through the empty streets, seeing the city in a way not often seen, without its bustling markets, shops, and restaurants. We even ducked into a covered alley that obviously was normally brimming with activity, but today was completely empty. It was really awesome to experience the city like this.
Finally, we arrived at Namsan Park. When we did, we found out where all the Koreans in Seoul go on Chuseok! There was a huge festival going on and it was packed. There were dozens of stalls set up where you could try your hand at traditional Korean arts and crafts. There were also traditional performances, and carts selling all types of delicious Korean snacks.
Namsan is also home to a restored village of traditional Korean houses (Hanok). See my post entitled Wandering through Insadong, Samcheongdong, and Namdaemun, for details on the traditional Hanok village we visited in Samcheongdong. The village in Namsan is great to get a taste of the traditional architecture, and you can even explore inside the houses.
From here, we were pressed for time so instead of hiking up and down the mountain we hopped on the train to meet some new friends in Itaewon for dinner. We met a couple from the Czech Republic who are in Korea working for Greenpeace. We had great conversations about renewable energy, and then wandered around Itaewon exploring its many sights and sounds. Buddha’s Belly is one of my favorite restaurants in Itaewon, serving delicious and beautiful Thai dishes. We even found a great little ice cream ‘pop’ shop that had non-dairy ice cream Brad could eat (and amazing decorations for the ice cream pops).
The next day we met some friends from Chadwick to partake in Korea’s unofficial national pastime: hiking. We met in the morning to hike up Gwanaksan, a mountain in southern Seoul near where Brad plays baseball every weekend. Just before the path up the mountain was a typical street lined with shops and restaurants for hikers to stop in either before or after their hike to buy snacks and refreshments. We bought a little pack of mini cucumbers, a popular hiking snack (no need to slice it up, just eat it whole)! Cucumbers are actually an ideal hiking snack. Being made mostly of water they are quite refreshing (and who doesn’t love that cucumber crunch)!
Hiking is beloved in Korea. Every weekend you will see people jammed onto the trains in full out hiking gear: the clothes, the backpacks, the walking sticks, everything. It is particularly popular with older generations, which made comparing my hiking skills to those of the others on the trail that much more hilarious. Let’s just say I won’t be winning any hiking awards any time soon. There were ninety-year-old grandmas zooming past me up the hill. Let me tell you, hiking is no walk in the (flat) park. I’m used to walking for miles and miles, no problem. Before I moved here I was walking an hour to work every morning, and then making the same walk home every night. But climbing is quite a different beast. It was a tough two-hour trek up to the temple at the top of the mountain, especially since it started raining about halfway up, but we made it!
Most mountains in Korea have a temple at the top, which makes for a nice resting spot once you reach your destination. You can rest a bit and refuel for the fortunately easier hike back down. The top of this particular mountain was about ten minutes beyond the temple, and boasts spectacular views of the Seoul, but with the heavy rain we decided against it (visibility was low). Plus, we had more plans for the day!
The trip back down the mountain only took one hour, but the grandmas were still speeding past me going full speed down the slick trail. The rain had passed by the time we got to the bottom, and after a stop at the hotel for a quick shower we headed out to visit the National Museum of Korea.
The National Museum is an amazing three-story building full of Asian art. The galleries are so big we only managed to visit the first floor, which is made up of ancient to medieval to early modern Korean art (quite the range, I know). I first became fascinated with Asian art in college when I studied the art history of India and Southeast Asia, and China, Korea, and Japan. Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain sculptures, ceramics, and carvings are some of my favorite, and the National Museum has many great pieces to view.
After a long day of hiking and museum exploration, a relaxing stop at a cafe was on the menu. On this trip we found quite a few amazing cafes. Korean cafes are so great because while they certainly do have big chains in Korea, Starbucks and the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf included, you can also always find an amazing independent cafe. And these cafes are always amazing. I think that is perhaps why these independent shops fare better against the big chains than similar shops in the U.S. The themes and decorations of these independent shops have all the charm that the big chains lack, and they use it to their advantage! There are some great cafes out there, and if you are a fan of coffee, tea, pastries, or just relaxing in a nice atmosphere, I highly recommend just walking around and stopping in the first one you see!
We had an amazing time on our Chuseok holiday in Seoul. Does anything catch your eye or inspire your mind? Post any questions or comments below!