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Collaboration of Tradition and Modernity: Seoul, Jongno District

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

Seoul, the dynamic capital city of South Korea, has a history of more than 600 years dating back to 1394 when the Joseon dynasty rulers decided to relocate the capital here.

Originally named Hanyang, the city gradually became the nation’s center of politics, economy and culture. And with the passage of time, the Jongno district emerged as the capital’s center. Today, this bustling area of modern-day Seoul not only carries a huge historical significance but also symbolizes the center of Korean cultural tourism.

Royal Palaces of Joseon Dynasty

Jongno district is known as Korea’s cultural repository. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of all foreign tourists who visit Korea visit the area. One reason for this is that four of the five major historical palaces from the Joseon dynasty are still located within its boundries.

Changdeok palace, which stands as the most beloved palace from the Joseon era, represents the Korean cultural history of glory and pain. The palace is famous for its beauty of perfect harmony and is the most well-preserved from its original structure and condition among the five existing palaces. It was for these reasons that Changdeok palace was designated by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site.

Gyeongbok palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty, was completed in 1395. The government ministry districts and main buildings of Geongbok palace formed the heart of the capital city of Seoul and represented the sovereignty of the Joseon reign. Even though a major part of the palace was razed by the Japanese during the colonial occupation period, many successful efforts have been made to restore Gyeongbok palace to its original state.

Changgyeong palace was the third palace compound built during the Joseon era. It served primarily as a residence and thus this compound is the subject of many stories about the life of royal family members. The fourth Jongno palace was also constructed as an imperial residence of royal family members. Named Deoksu palace, it is famous for its mixture of Korean traditional and Western styles of architecture. Within its compound walls, visitors can view the Joseon dynasty structural heritage while strolling amongst Korea’s first Western-style garden.

Other Cultural Heritage Sites of Joseon Dynasty

Apart from the major palaces and gates, more than 300 cultural heritages sites are located with the Jongno district.

As with other traditional Asian cultures, Korea also considers rites and rituals as highly important, in that they serve to act as mechanisms of maintaining basic social order. And the most significant of these forms of rites are found in Jongmyo and Sajik Shrines, which are both located in the Jongno District.

At Jongmyo Shrine, memorial services were once performed for deceased kings, while Sajik Shrine served as a place of ritual dedicated to the Gods of Earth and Crops. Due to its historical significance, not only Jongmyo Shrine itself but also the memorial ceremony and its music were given UNESCO World Heritage distinction in 1995.

Within the Jongno district also lies Tapgol Park, formerly known as Pagoda Park. The park has a long history dating back to the Joseon dynasty when it was created as the foundation of Wongak Temple. Within the park, visitors can still see a twelve meter high pagoda along with a large turtle-shaped monument. The pagoda was designated as the second national treasure of Korea, due to the fact that it is one of the few remaining pagodas from the Joseon period, and is considered by art historians to be one of the finest examples of art from that period.

In the early 1900s Tapgol Park played an important role in the Korean independence movement. It was there that the March 1st movement was ignited and it was the first location for the reading of the Declaration of Independence. These days Tapgol Park remains a popular place for various types of social demonstrations.

Natural Tourist Attractions

One of the main reasons behind the original relocation of the capital to Hanyang (Seoul) was that this area provided a natural fortress of physical barriers for defense. To every side of Seoul are mountains which are still partially connected by the fortress wall that once encircled Seoul; Inwangsan Mountain to the west, Naksan Mountain to the east, Namsan Mountain to the south and Bugaksan Mountain to the north. Currently Jongno District is running a tourism program called ‘Seoul Fortress Stamp tour,’ in which people can walk along the Seoul Fortress wall passing the four mountains mentioned as well as the four major gates of Seoul for a total distance estimated to be 18.7 kilometers long.

At the heart of the Jongno district flows Cheonggye Stream. Its origins date back to the Joseon dynasty when the stream was first constructed as a drainage system. Throughout its history, it had also provided a place for people to relax, until it was eventually covered up with concrete for reasons of industrialization and modernization. However, in recent years there has been a major investment related to restoration not only of the stream itself but also the history and the culture of the surrounding area. As a result, Cheonggye Stream has now become a modern public recreation space for Seoul citizens. Recently it has become so popular with foreign tourists that some even visit Korea only to see its waters flowing in their splendor. It is now considered by people across the world as a one of a kind stream.

Today’s Financial and Cultural Center

While walking along the Jongno district, one can also come across various prominent financial and cultural sites. The Seoul Finance Center is located here, and it attracts business and financial experts from all over the world. The Jongno district also happens to have Korea’s largest bookshops which include Kyobo and Youngpoong bookstores. There is also Insadong, Korea’s most famous cultural street, where tourists are attracted by its traditional surroundings that include galleries, souvenir shops and restaurants. At the very end of the Jongno district lies one of Asia’s biggest retail markets called Dongdaemun (East Gate) market. Traders from faraway places such as Moscow, Delhi, Lahore, Bangkok, and Tokyo can often be seen visiting the market to buy merchandise at bargain prices.

Modern Attractions

One of the most popular areas for fashion and sight-seeing to both young people and tourist is Myeongdong. This locale contains a myriad of retail stores and varieties of international flagship stores, as well as major department stores including Lotte, Shinsegae and Migliore.

One of the most popular areas for enjoying views of Seoul’s skyline is atop Namsan Mountain. Situated to the South of Jongno district as part of the Seoul Fortress, Namsan Mountain offers visitors panoramic views from the tower located on its peak, and it also offers various recreation activities, including hiking, public parks, a botanical garden and a cable car tour.

Just as Tiananmen Square symbolizes China and Red Square symbolizes Russia, Korea too has Gwanghwamun Square. Also located in Jongno District, this square contains direct historical symbols in that its 130 meter length acts as a symbolic axis connecting the heart of Seoul from Bukhansan Mountain to Gyeongbok palace, then to the regal General Lee Soon-shin statue and on to the other major districts of Seoul. Gwangwhamun Square was recently reconstructed by modernizing its design, while adding the King Sejong Memorial and an underground museum in its locality.

Indeed, the Jongno district in Seoul can be considered the heart and soul of Korean cultural heritage.

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