Saturday 1 May 2010. I am fated never to see the Secret Garden. On the previous two occasions when I have tried, it has been closed. Until recently, I think it has only been possible to visit the Changdeokgung as part of a guided tour, but it is now possible to go in unguided and straight to the garden. Except that the numbers are strictly controlled, and today being a Saturday it is full to capacity. Another excuse for me to come back another day.
So instead, I have some unexpected free time to check emails and maybe do a few Tweets (my hotel’s internet connection and my netbook are far too underpowered to attempt any serious blogging). And Morgan has casually dropped it into conversation that it’s her birthday in a few days’ time, when she’s on the road with me down south. Shopping in Insadong is always a pleasure, and always dangerous for the credit card. But this time I have a focused remit. I thought it might be a challenge to try to find a gift not geared towards the foreign tourist, but a nice silver necklace was easily found in one of the arcades.
Before I know it, it’s time to head to Oksu where I am having dinner at the apartment of some Korean friends from London. They were the first Koreans to invite me to their home in New Malden (where the London Koreans tend to live), and are the first to do so in Seoul, so I am doubly privileged. I go armed with a packet of Earl Grey tea from my local tea shop in Barnes, SW London, not knowing what would be appropriate to take. Fortunately, my gamble is spot on, as that’s the one English speciality that they’ve been missing since their return to Seoul.
Their teenage son is more interested in making his Gundam robot toy than socialising with a foreigner. I was half expecting to be pressed in to service to give some quick English language coaching, but that’s fine with me. I am learning not to assume that everyone fits some stereotypical view. And possibly one stereotypical view we have of Korean youngsters is of their total dedication to study, their non-stop focus on ensuring they get the best grades so that they get to the university of their choice. But this young lad has different ideas.
“Why to I have to work so hard?” he complains to his long-suffering mother. “Well, son, you see all these buildings around you, the bridges, the cars, the technology? Sixty years ago this country had nothing. We’ve had to build our country from scratch with nothing but our grit, determination and energy to see us through. That’s why we have to work hard.”
“So, isn’t it time we had a rest now?” There’s a certain logic to that response.
I tell Mrs Park about my plans for the next day: the Jongmyo rituals. Mrs Park is an alumna of the traditional music high school that provides the dancers for the rituals. She performed in the rites for three years running, and trained the dancers in subsequent years, so I was hoping for some authoritative, insider’s insights. No. She adds her voice to the many that have already told me not to expect too much excitement from the occasion. “It’s really boring,” she tells me.
After dinner, we stroll along the banks of the Han river to the subway station. Where in London there would be teenage skateboarders there were pensioners taking their exercise. And where in London there would be graffiti, under the arches some public-spirited artist had painted a mural of Kim Yu-na skating. It’s a quiet, peaceful and unthreatening walk, which would not be possible in London.
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Sunday 2 May 2010. I still haven’t adjusted to the time zone. I’m awake at 5:30am and think it unlikely that I will get back to sleep, so I get up. It’s a beautiful clear day, and I decide to catch a view of Seoul’s streets while they are deserted. Although the streets are indeed largely deserted in the Gwanghwamun area, there’s still a strong police guard outside the US embassy. The new plaza in front of the great gate is empty apart from one or two early risers, and the statue of King Sejong, which is new since I last visited Seoul, has few visitors. Both Sejong and, further away, Admiral Yi Sun-shin, are gazing southwards, and both seem to have their own personalised giant TV screens conveniently located on buildings within their field of vision.
When the Japanese occupied Korea in the first half of the 20th Century, one of the more subtle things they did to break the Korean spirit was to plonk the monolithic Government General building in the middle of the Gyeongbukgung Palace. The flow of Ki energy from Bukhan mountain, through the palace and out of the Gwanghwamun gate into downtown Seoul was thus blocked. In a further subtle twist, the Japanese building was constructed 6 degrees out of orientation with the palace, thus disrupting the powerful pungsu of the place even more. In 1928, the Japanese found the Gate an inconvenience and moved it. It was burned down in the Korean War. Park Chung-hee had it rebuilt in 1965 in front of the Japanese government building, but with the memory of the right geomancy now lost, the gate was positioned to align with the new building. In 1995 the Japanese building was demolished, thus eradicating one of the more obvious colonial legacies which dominated Seoul’s skyline. But that left the problem of the gate now being out of orientation with the palace it serves.
The Gate is currently being reconstructed and realigned, in a two-year project using Korea’s finest craftsmen. The story has caught the imagination of the Prince of Wales, always a keen supporter of world heritage, who has organised funding for a documentary about the project. A lot of effort has been invested in the environment of this part of Seoul, and it seems to have paid off. Next time I come, the Gwanghwamun will be fully restored.