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The Hermit Kingdom

September 7, 2011

When the need arose to travel to Korea, I’d approached it with a bit of apprehension.  Why?  Well…to be honest, we as Westerners know very little about Korea other than a few episodes of M*A*S*H, which like all things TV related, provide a peep hole for a window on the world.

In the case of Korea, however, this dearth of knowledge is intentional.  It has been known as the Hermit Kingdom, a world unto itself until only recently.  It took a Japanese occupation, a World War and a war of ideologies and subsequent need for survival to allow the outside world to enter at least the southern half of the Kingdom.

To be honest, (and to my admittedly limited view) Seoul’s cultural identity appears to be much more intact than that of say, Tokyo.  Relics of an age gone by are preserved with near-religious fervor.

The color palette of Seoul is at once more vibrant and more reserved than that of Tokyo; ancient items are colorful, while the modern age is uniformly black, silver or white.

Dresses are hanbok, or traditional Korean high-waisted garb.  Yellow is the color of royalty.

Orange and blue denote rank within traditional military.

Ceremony and tradition abound, carried into modern culture by virtue of remaining civilized albeit apart from the rest of the known world for at least six centuries – perhaps more.

If this appears medieval, well…it is.  Medieval life persisted in the Hermit Kingdom up until the early 1900’s.  When one is stable and self-sufficient with a language and the written word (Koreans developed their own alphabet over 600 years ago; something they’re quite proud of), one does not need to reinvent the wheel every few years to feed the deities of consumerism.

What’s truly surprising about Seoul, however, is the amount of truly historic structures intact and upright amongst modern skyscrapers.  This is the center of Buddhism in Korea, a 400 year old temple if memory serves.  There was more evidence of historic Asian culture in Seoul than in Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong combined.  If you want to see the equivalent of China’s Forbidden Palace but want to go somewhere clean, safe and orderly – well…

This is it.  Perhaps most amazing of all is every photo taken in this essay is reachable on foot from a downtown Seoul hotel room.

In hindsight, Seoul was the most Asian of the cities we’ve been to.  I’d fully expected to put it at the bottom of the list as the newest and least interesting, but quite honestly, it needs to be at the top of the “must tour” list for anyone planning an Asian trip.  The only city more interesting is Singapore, but this has mostly to do with weather.  If the weather is good in Seoul – it’s tops in our book.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2011 10:23 am

    You did a nice job arranging the photos for the essay. Brings back “chilly” memories…maybe a spring visit next time….


    • dangerboyandpixie permalink*
      September 8, 2011 12:19 am

      Cherry Blossom Festival time is peak – sometime in April. Spring in a place as Seoul is a wonder to behold, especially on foot.

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