The other three highlights of the trip were the next day, the day after Christmas. To be honest, I was in a pretty foul mood through the whole day. It all culminated with me crying in the bathroom instead of getting ready to watch The Nutcracker ballet.
For those of you who believe travel is wonderful, exciting, and without any bad experiences, please allow me to set you straight. The day after Christmas, for me, was awful. Because of a myriad of factors it was disheartening, but especially because I was sick. I had a bad cold and should have stayed in bed all day long. Seriously, looking back, that would’ve been the smartest option. But, I reasoned, it was Seoul, and I didn’t want to waste any time in the city. But it was bitterly cold, everything inside me hurt, and I felt emotionally drained from some other experiences in the day, and really just didn’t handle anything well. In the morning, I kept things up and going as we toured Deoksugung Palace and the Seoul city museum, but eventually I lost my stoic resolve and just ended up complaining and grumbling and crying. Jordan admirably put up with me throughout the whole day-long event, but I pretty much lost it right after I ate a disgusting-yet-overpriced sandwich at the Seoul Universal Arts Center while watching vendors try to sell wind-up nutcrackers in the lobby. Yes, it was a rough day.
I share this just to let people know that real life (with it’s downs as well as ups) continues, no matter where you are in the world. But now that that lovely PSA message is over, let’s move on to something more interesting.
Deoksugung Palace lies in the center of Seoul, at the City Hall metro stop just across from an outdoor ice skating rink. While the compound was built around 1454, though it wasn’t officially considered a palace until later in 1611. It became an royal residence when King Sonjo moved in after the Japanese had burned all other palaces in the Imjin War (1592-ish). Eventually all the buildings eventually cropped up to house the growing population.
What exists today, as a museum, is smaller than the compound in its height of glory. Walls changed, the city shifted, and much of the palace was burned to the ground in 1904 during a Japanese invasion. There’s a longer history on the English tourism page (linked above), so I don’t want to repeat old information.
We arrived in the morning to see the changing of the Guard, which was a loud, colorful affair full of flashing uniforms, music, and gongs. We shivered in the cold, watching the reenactors march and gesture with their weapons, then clapped as the music faded away.
One building in the palace complex didn’t look like the rest. Seokjojeon, the Greek-styled building behind me, was designed by a British man and began construction in 1901. In 1905 the Japanese took the property rights, as with the rest of the palace, and completed it as a public art gallery. After the Declaration of Korean Independence, the building continued to house art and now as a palace treasure exhibition.
Jordan stands beside an outbuilding with Seogeodang Hall behind him, one of the foundational palace buildings. It is either the king’s private chambers or the receiving hall with the thrones (I can’t remember which, unfortunately, but I’m leaning toward private chambers).
After looking over the beautiful woodwork and inventive ondol floors of medieval times, we walked about half a mile to the Seoul Museum of History. It’s right next to Gyeong-hui-gung Palace, so if anyone wanted to do both in one day, it’s completely doable. We didn’t feel like walking around in the cold anymore, so we went to the museum instead.
It was a great museum with lots of signs in Korean. The museum is free, but they offer audio guides in English, Chinese, and Japanese (and maybe more) for roughly 3,000 won each. I learned a lot about Korean culture, especially the more recent late 1800s until WWII. I knew that many Koreans have a deep-seated distrust and dislike of Japan, and knew some of it had to do with WWII. But between learning about the Imjin Ward of 1592-1599ish, the Japanese control of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and the colonial practices, I have a much better understanding of why.
Another nice image we got on our way to the ballet was Heungijnijimun Gate.
One of the remaining parts of the old fortress wall, the gate (one of eight) was originally built in 1398 as the East gate. This gate was rebuilt in 1869 and is one of the largest of the eight. It is a two-story guardhouse as well as a gate, and could be a command post in an emergency. It now sits, not on the edge of the city, but in the middle of an upscale shopping district. The city walls climb the hills, toward Namsan Mountain, and the gate is lit as a memorial to times past.
And then the ballet!
We chose the Universal Ballet because tickets were a little cheaper. Like most large cities, Seoul has two or three ballet companies that all perform The Nutcracker at Christmas. Universal is cheaper AND it offers 20% discounts to expats/immigrants and their Korean friends. We paid about $120 to see the ballet, but we thought, that’s still a really good price comparing it to New York or London prices.
We had box seats with a good view of the stage. Jordan said this was the first time he’d ever really seen The Nutcracker, besides flashes of advertisements or cartoons. I was raised on the Mikhail Baryshnikov 1977 film. I think my mom rented the tape from Blockbuster when I was around three years old. I wouldn’t stop watching it, so she eventually bought it and I watched it three times a day during the Christmas Season for years. I even made my siblings dance with me to my favorite songs when they came on (One of the perks of being the eldest).
I had, by this point, stopped crying and settled into my seat. Jordan and I loved the performance. It was shortened a little, cutting one of my favorite pieces, but besides that it was perfect. A great way to end Christmas and lighten spirits.
The next morning we saw Star Wars in 4D (I’ll let Jordan explain that at a later time) and headed home to CEV. Seoul was exhausting and huge and cold, but we’re glad we went. Maybe next time I’ll be healthier and we can roam around more.