Koreans attired in traditional costume and very untraditional masks stroll through the gates of yore over the Lunar New Year holiday. Photo: Tom Coyner

Gyeongbokgung – or Gyeongbok Palace – is arguably the most iconic site in Seoul, if not the Korean peninsula. As one of East Asia’s standout clusters of historic architecture, it is an appropriate site to welcome in the Lunar New Year.

The “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven” was the compound of dedicated royal architecture around which the city of Seoul rose in 1395 as the capital of the last of the Korean royal dynasties, Joseon. The rise of Joseon, and Seoul, spelled the decline of the previous Goryeo Dynasty, from which, incidentally, today’s Korea takes its name, and its capital Kaesong – now in North Korea.

Topographically, the palace was built within a near-perfect frame of Fengshui, or geomancy. It is back-dropped by the forested Mount Bugak and foregrounded by the running water of Cheonggye Stream and the more distant Han River.

The palace’s gardens, pavilions, halls and corridors were trodden by kings and queens, ministers and warriors, eunuchs and concubines. On occasions, even tigers and assassins infiltrated its walled-in grounds.  

Historically, this prestigious site has suffered amid the tumult of Korean history. Always vulnerable to fire, the palace’s largely wooden structures were devastated by flames when slaves revolted during the Japanese invasion of the 1590s.

The palace would not recover its former prestige until a massive reconstruction in the 1860s. Then, it boasted some 500 buildings on its grounds – but did not stand long in that state.

The kingdom of Joseon fell to Imperial Japan in 1910, and the palace suffered a dual indignity. Many of its structures were dismantled during the imperial rule, which lasted until 1945. And Japan’s imposing Capitol Building was raised directly in front of it in 1926, blocking off the city center’s views of Gyeongbokgung.

The massive concrete pile that was the Capital Building was demolished in 1995, restoring Gyeongbokgung’s visual glory. Its architectural glories have been undergoing a process of restoration and reconstruction in the years since.

Today, the palace compound is home to Joseon architecture as well as royal and folk museums. As such, it is a must-see for tourists. Beyond its walls, the areas bounding it on all four sides are noteworthy.

The palace’s superb location has been leveraged by South Korea’s post-royal leaders. To Gyeongbokgung’s immediate north stands the presidential Blue House. Hiking trails winding through the forest of Mount Bugak, behind and above the presidential manse, offer splendid views of Seoul.

To Gyeongbokgung’s immediate south is the almost-as-iconic Gwanghwamun Intersection. The downtown plaza there features giant statues of Joseon’s most famed figures – Sejong the Great, the sage king under whom the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, was created, and Admiral Yi Sun-shin, one of the greatest naval tacticians of all time, who won a series of against-all-odds victories against invading Japanese.

At the time of writing, Gwanghwamun Plaza is undergoing re-modeling, designed to make the space pedestrian-friendly.

Finally, the palace is flanked by two of Seoul’s prettiest districts. To its west lies the neighborhood of Seocheon, to its east sits Samcheongdong. Thanks to regulations forbidding skyscraper construction beside the palace, both neighborhoods are low-rise oases in predominantly high-rise Seoul. Their ambient alleys host cafes, restaurants, wine bars and pubs – many set in neo-hanok, or traditional Korean cottages.

Needless to say, the palace is an essential destination for photographers. Over the Lunar New Year weekend, long-term Seoul resident, expatriate American and Asia-trotting photographer extraordinaire Tom Coyner made his latest visit, camera poised.

The holiday proved an appropriate day to visit, given the attire – hanbok, or traditional Korean robes – were adopted by many visitors.

“In the past, the rental hanbok wearers were almost overwhelmingly Chinese students and tourists,” Coyner observed. “Today, almost all of the renters are Korean, for the obvious reasons.”

Tradition, inevitably, is not fully observed. “Few properly attire below the outer layers,” he noted. “Most people wear athletic shoes and perhaps the most common under attire for both genders are blue jeans.” 

Still, there are good reasons to robe up.

“Wearers of either genuine or faux hanbok are admitted free into the palace grounds,” Coyner explained. “Almost all carry smartphones for selfies recording being dressed up with traditional architecture backdrops. Extra points were self-awarded for doing this on a brilliant afternoon on Lunar New Year Day!”

Below, Asia Times presents Coyner’s collection, and wishes all readers a happy, healthy and prosperous Year of the Ox.

Water in the foreground, a mountain in the background. An ornamental pond and Mount Bugak show perfect geomancy in action. Photo: Tom Coyner
Reflections of the past, amid reflections on a new year. Photo: Tom Coyner
The pavilion of Gyeonghoeru, mirrored in its ornamental pond. Photo: Tom Coyner
Pavilions are reflected in the palace’s main water feature. Photo: Tom Coyner
Were it not for the smartphones this could – almost – be a scene from the royal centuries of yore. Photo: Tom Coyner
The palace’s main hall. Photo: Tom Coyner
Visitors in royal attire tread stones once trodden by the royals of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Photo: Tom Coyner
Gates framed within gates. Photo: Tom Coyner
Tranquility, personified. Photo: Tom Coyner
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is no respecter of traditional costumes. Photo: Tom Coyner
Modern Seoulites, attired in traditional costume, stroll through the central palace of the Joseon kingdom, while the 21st-century buildings of the Republic of Korea loom beyond. Photo: Tom Coyner
Stone statues of ‘haitai.’ These mythical, walrus-like beasties were meant to guard against fire in the predominantly wooden palace – with mixed success. Photo: Tom Coyner
Traditional wear, but not exactly traditional fare. Photo: Tom Coyner
Faux royal ‘hanbok’ robes can be rented in shops near the palace. Photo: Tom Coyner
Tom’s wife, Yeri, loads up on cotton candy from a street seller to the east of the palace. Photo: Tom Coyner