Upbeat economic export data suggests an economic spring may be coming to Seoul. Photo: Tom Coyner

English comedian Tom Allen once noted, “Winter forms our character and brings out our best.” 

Seoul’s winter best is arguably on view at Huwon (also known as Biwon), the “Secret Garden” set within the grounds of Changdeokgung Palace – a fairytale medieval complex lies just a few minutes’ taxi ride from the capital’s central business district.

Seoul became the royal capital of Joseon, Korea’s last ruling dynasty in 1392. The city grew up around the landmark Gyeongbokgung Palace which – back-dropped by the dominant Mount Bugak – offered superb feng shui. (That feng shui was more latterly appropriated by the presidential mansion, the Blue House, which lies directly behind the palace’s back gate.)

Changdeokgung was built as a secondary palace in 1405. Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung were both totally burnt down during the Japanese invasion of 1592.

However, after the war, in 1610, only Changdeokgung was rebuilt in 1610.  It would serve as the main royal palace for the next 258 years until Gyeongbokgung was belatedly restored in the late 19th century.

It did not remain in use for long. The sun would set on Joseon – one of the world’s longest royal dynasties – in 1910, when Japan colonized the peninsula.  

Following the post-war establishment of South Korea as a republic, Changdeokgung would quietly house the last remnants of Korea’s royal family, who whiled away their hours within its walls. Today they are gone. In 21st century Seoul, the palace and its garden serves – along with Gyeongbokgung – as a prime national heritage sites and tourist attractions.

Both palaces have undergone significant 20th century restorations. Changdeokgung has had a massive influence on Korean architecture as well as garden layout and landscape planning.  The Secret Garden in the palace grounds – which can be visited by tour groups – is highly regarded for its sophisticated architectural values that harmonize with the natural surroundings of trees and ponds.

For those unable to journey to Seoul this season, join Asia Times on a photographic tour of this sublime heritage site – in its glorious winter livery. 

Palace and pines. Photo: Tom Coyner
Even palace paths need to be cleared of snow. Photo: Tom Coyner
21st century attire in a 14th century location. Photo: Tom Coyner
Where royals once strode: This path leads to the Secret Garden entrance. In the background is Injeong-jeon – the throne room. To the right is Seongjeong-gak, the Hall of Administering Governance. The complex was where the king met with high-ranking officials to discuss the affairs of the kingdom. Photo: Tom Coyner
The inner world. Changedok Palace was not just a place where royals resided: the palace staff was vast, including warriors, eunuchs, concubines and slaves. Today, the palace compound still includes the living quarters of palace staff. Photo: Tom Coyner
Behold! The palace hall. Photo: Tom Coyner
Shadows on snow in Changdeokgung Palace. Photo: Tom Coyner
Water features are a key element of Secret Garden aesthetics. Photo; Tom Coyner
Cheongui-jeong (“Clean Water Gazebo”), where the kings of Joseon would watch the latest rice planting techniques – and hope for bountiful harvest. Photo: Tom Coyner
Secret serenity. Photo: Tom Coyner
Grey skies over the cold water of a Secret Garden pond. Photo: Tom Coyner
After your visit to the Joseon Kingdom, welcome back to today’s Republic of Korea. Photo: Tom Coyner