One of my favorite experiences on my recent trip to Korea was a visit to Changdeokgung, otherwise known as the Palace of Prospering Virtue. Changdeok is one of the five grand palaces in Korea, the others being Gyeongbokgung, Deoksugung, Changguyunggung, and Gyeonghuigung.
I had actually been to Changdeokgung many years ago, but that was a rain-plagued visit, so I was looking forward to a more thorough visit.
If you’re looking for big and expansive, then I highly recommend heading up the road to Gyeongbokgung. However, in my opinion, what Changdeokgung offers is a more intimate and romantic experience. The fee is only 3,000 won (less than three US dollars).
Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Changdeokgung was originally built in the 1400s by King Taejong, during the Joseon dynasty. It was the site where rulers and ministers hammered out affairs of state, and where the royal family lived. Changdeokgung was burnt down, like all palaces in Seoul, during the Japanese invasion of 1592, but was rebuilt in the 1600s.
Changdeokgung features a “secret garden” tour, so we booked spots for the first English version tour of the day, which was around 10:30 am. We arrived in advance of that to do some exploring of the rest of the grounds and that was definitely the right decision; there were hardly any visitors at the palace, which gave us beautiful views, uninterrupted by the hordes of people you usually find at tourist sites.
You’ll know this anyway if you visit Korea in the summer, but definitely make sure you buy a bottle (or two) from the onsite store before you embark on the Secret Garden tour. You’ll need it!
An impressive main gate
This is Donhwamun Gate, the main palace gate. It’s a two-story structure and is the largest of all palace gates in Korea. It once houses a giant bell and drum. The gate was destroyed in the 16th-century Japanese invasion.
Below, are pictures of the main courtyard and Injeongjeon, the main hall. As I mentioned above, the courtyard was mostly empty and we were treated to one of those awe-inspiring moments where you can slip into your imagination and wonder what it might have been like to tread these stones in a bygone era.
You can also get photo-bombed by your own wife!
So many doorways
As my friends and students know, I love doors and details—and there’s no shortage of them to be found at Changdeokgung.
An ornate access panel to a chimney:
Decorate roof tile:
I loved coming across doorway views like this during my maundering:
Traditional (and weathered) door:
Happy tiger sculpture:
The traditional Korean buildings were heated from underneath. This opening shows where servants would have placed fuel below the floor, accessed from the outside of the quarters:
I adored the many shapes, patterns, and colors that could be found as we explored the labyrinthian network of buildings:
I never tire of the swooping rooflines you see at the Korean palaces:
Doorway with sign written in traditional Chinese characters above (can you see the sweat dripping off of me?):
Stunning detail and color on the roof beams:
Not that secret garden
After exploring the main grounds, we headed to the starting point of our tour of the Secret Garden. Obviously, it is a very evocative name, reminiscent of the famous children’s book, but the true explanation of why the garden has that name is far less magical. As our tour guide explained, the name in Korean is “Biwon” and comes from the office of the same name that existed in the 1800s.
The garden has actually had many names, but during the Joseon period, was mostly called “Huwon.” The garden was originally developed for use by the royal family. It offers stunning views, featuring a lotus pond, pavilions, and meandering pathways.
The Lotus Pond
The first place we arrived at on the tour was the gorgeous Lotus Pond. You can see the gate on the far side of the pond. The main doorway is for the king; the two flanking it are for his ministers. These doors are lower, forcing the ministers to crouch (bow) as they enter, emphasizing their servitude to the king.
I loved this face peering over the water. The last time I visited the garden, water was streaming out of its mouth.
While I was off taking photos of the pond, my friend Stacey was at the other end and got to see an animal I’ve never heard of: a raccoon dog. Here’s her photo:
The tour guide told her that the animal is “not cute” and that she preferred cats. She also warned Stacey to keep her distance; the raccoon dog is wild and could have rabies. It seems to resemble a fox more than a dog, but gets its name from the distinctive mask.
Nature by design
The rest of the tour took us through different portions of the garden, though some areas were closed. Along the way, we were treated to many scenic views, all purposely designed.
And I thought I was old
The tour ended with a stop by the Hyangnamu (aromatic) tree, which is believed to be over 700 years old. As you can see in the photo, it is propped up in places, but you certainly can’t blame it. Many visitors see different shapes and creatures in the curving branches of the tree, the most common being an elephant.
As I mentioned off the top, Changdeokgung is well worth the visit. It may hover in the shadow of Gyeokbokgung, but you can easily see both palaces, as they are within walking distance of each other.