Seoul, Wednesday 3 May 2017, 7pm. The beginning of May is a busy time in Seoul’s royal palaces. The UNESCO listed ceremony, the Jongmyo rituals in honour of the Royal Ancestors, always takes place the first Sunday in May. Children’s Day also falls around that time, and this year, Buddha’s Birthday and in the days before that colourful and majestic event there are various events to encourage tourists to visit the royal palaces. The Seoul tourism authorities brand the week Royal Palaces Week, and lay on special events, including concerts, at the various ancient venues.
For the night-time openings of the palace, 500 tickets are available to foreigners on a first-come, first served basis. Following advice from some of my well-wishers (who in previous years had insisted that I take regular vitamins to ward off MERS, and who would later insist that I get myself a face mask to protect my lungs from yellow dust) I took plenty of layers to wear. That was very good advice. Having got there reasonably early, I took a seat at the edge of the square pond from where there was a reasonable view of the Gyeonghoeru pavilion, and I was grateful for the warmth of my fleece as the temperature dropped.
It somehow felt odd when a full symphony orchestra filled the ground floor of the pavilion and launched into a familiar piece of western classical music. It was pleasant, but somehow I had been expecting something more traditional. I relinquished my seat and chose instead to stroll around the palace buildings, mingling with the crowds as the dusk turned to darkness.
When visiting the Royal Palaces at night, you are strongly advised to take a decent camera with a tripod to take atmospheric shots of the very photogenic scenes that present themselves. The palace buildings of course provide much interest in their own right, but equally appealing are the hundreds of young tourists dressed in hanbok. I must say that I felt slightly sleazy as I watched all the young Asian girls taking photos of each other wearing their colourful dresses. Later in the week I was chatting over dinner with a Korean friend of my own age about how I felt like a dirty old man as I enjoyed the views that evening; I was comforted when she said that in Korea it’s OK for middle-aged men to appreciate the beauty in young women (how else would K-pop girl bands find their popularity, I guess?). I was also comforted by the words of Ko Hyeong-ryeol in his poem Human Flower:
Even though people say peony flowers are lovely,
They are not as lovely as the human flower, a young maid.
Everyone, turn into old men and look,
Is there anything as lovely as a human flower?
from Human Flower, by Ko Hyeong-ryeol, tr Br Anthony of Taizé and Lee Hyung-jin
p27 in the collection Grasshoppers’ Eyes, Parlor Press, 2017
The sounds of Elgar’s Enigma Variations started wafting over the palace rooftops and I returned to the pavilion to enjoy this unusual Anglo-Korean experience spanning the centuries and continents. It was the perfect, extremely peaceful end to a very long day as I walked back to the Jogyesa area in contemplative mood. The next morning my dear friends would be coming to pick me up for a drive to Jeonju.