My time in Korea was the happiest of my life for multiple reasons but mainly because I finally got to immerse myself in the culture. I had been studying Korean for years and had always been fascinated by ancient Korean history. So, at Yonsei University where I was studying, I decided to take a Korean Studies class. It was amazing because when we learned about Korean dynasties and monuments that still stand today I was able to go visit them right after class. There are scores of ancient buildings that still stand in Korea but perhaps the most famous are the four remaining palaces that are located in Seoul. I visited all of them and each experience was unique and moving for me in its own way.
The first palace I visited was the largest, Gyeongbokgung, located in the cultural center of Seoul. This palace was build during the height of the Joseon dynasty in Korea and contains the largest compound of the four, including lakes, gardens, and pavilions. One of my Korean friends told me that all of the palaces best display the unique craftsmanship of ancient Korean architects as they are constructed of Korean red pine trees. These trees very seldom grow straight, meaning it took a great deal of dedication on the part of the palace builders to find trees straight enough to make the dozens of giant beam and columns that provided structural support. I was fascinated by this as they could have used different building materials but the red pine trees are sacred in Korea and this was more important to the ancient Koreans than the extra work.
I visited two of the other palaces, Changgeonggung and Changdeokgung, on the same day. These palaces were special to me because of how peaceful they were compared to Gyeongbokgung. Each contained beautiful natural landscaping as well as gardens; combined with their overall smaller sizes, it made the two palaces seem cozier by comparison. I was also impressed because Changdeokgung had been burned to the ground in the 1500s but they managed to rebuild it and it still stands today.
Perhaps the most personally meaningful visit was my trip to the final palace in Seoul, Deoksugung. I went to this palace with Korean friends that I had met while studying abroad and throughout the entire visit they happily answered all my questions and explained the history of the palace. this palace was built during the Joseon dynasty but it is unique because within the compound, the leader of the Korean Empire commissioned the building of a massive 19th century western style mansion. This was around the time that Korea opened its ports to foreign trade and the cultural exchange of this time was reflected in the mix of architectures located within the palace compound. Visiting this place with my friends and being able to literally step into recent history was one of the best experiences I had in Seoul and I’m truly thankful I was given that chance.