Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 11 – National Museum of Korea Day

The holiday soreness has really kicked in after over a week of doing of ridiculous amounts of walking and not much in the way of rest breaks. It’s the issue with wanting to see as much as possible in a limited time, but I guess it makes up for the lovely food I’m eating.

So today was the first day that we actually spent in Seoul and we decided that this would be the perfect day to go and explore the National Museum of Korea. It’s a truly massive and beautiful looking modern building and its situated in some gorgeous surroundings. This is one of the largest and most visited museums in all of Asia and over three floors contains a wealth of treasures from Korea and some assorted things from other Asian nations. Well, two and two-thirds floor as a significant portion of the third floor was undergoing renovations.

Even with a completed third floor, a visit to this museum isn’t an all day affair like The Louvre or the National Palace Museum, but like a bunch of other museums it’s free entry. Pretty great value given that we spent a good 4-5 hours looking around exhibits plus a lunch break. The only downside? Some of the worst behaved school groups I have encountered in a museum. Like, touching the exhibits and throwing gravel at each other on the escalators type of behaviour. It was a bit of a jarring experience after some of the friendly and otherwise fine groups we encountered at Gyeonju and, to be fair, the better groups who were also in the museum today.

Anyway, that unpleasantness out of the way, if you have even a passing interest in Korean history then the bottom floor of this museum is the place for you. Starting from Room 101 and going anti-clockwise, you see Korea going from the same pre-history beginnings that every civilisation seems to go through (axes, arrowheads, first general cutting tools) all the way to their annexation by Japan in the early 20th century.

The rooms do an excellent job at highlighting the strengths and differences between the original disparate Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje. The road to unification and the many wars and name changes that happened since. It put’s their greatest treasures, including another Sillan Golden Crown and beautiful pieces of bronzework into historical context extremely well. Sure, there aren’t many things on the first level that have a real wow factor, but you don’t need to be wowed to be engaged.

We stopped for lunch in the museum restaurant after completing the first floor, we were going to go to the cheaper food court… but it was full of school groups. We both had bibimbap here but, where the hub went for another beef one, I went for a rather lovely spicy octopus and flying fish roe bibimbap and lamented over how much I am going to miss Korean side dishes when I am back in the UK.

After lunch we went straight up to the third floor as part of some tactical school children avoidance. Like I said before, a large section of this floor was closed, but luckily that side of the floor still had an exhibition on about the treasures of a recovered Chinese shipwreck found off the coast of Korea. That was such an interesting few rooms where I was shocked to see so many intact ceramics had survived despite being dragged to the bottom of the sea. The exhibit doesn’t seem to posit a guess as to why they sank though, so I’ll just assume angry sea monster.

This is also the floor you come to if you want to see some beautiful examples of Buddhist sculpture and so many exceptional works made of celadon clay. There’s a lot of other examples of later pottery, but nothing matches the celadon works, which is the opposite compared to the ceramics that I saw on display in Taipei. I guess, Koreans were just especially skilled at celadon crafting.

We ended our visit on the second floor. This is a bit of a mixture where half of the galleries are themed after the donor who bequeathed their collections to the museum. This means a lot of roof tiles (as, in Korea, roof tile collecting appears to be a done thing by wealthy people). You also have some rooms with woodworking and, in a very out of place move, an Ancient Greek helmet donated by the Korean who win the Olympic marathon in 1936.

This floor also contains the big wow moment of the museum, an 11 metre tall and 7 metre wide (at least I think that’s what I heard during my eavesdropping) Buddhist painting. Apparently it would be unfurled outside the temple for mass worship and then be folded and stored in a wooden box between uses. It was a real marvel.

So that was the museum and we were left with some time to fill, which is how we ended up touring the beautiful gardens and taking a seat at the picturesque rainbow-producing Dragon Falls to then be approached by a quite old Korean man. It was quite a lively discussion we had (once he found out we were not from America, which made him all the more happier to talk to us) about Korean history, his visit to Europe and, of all things, Brexit. Looking back on it, this was a weirdly lovely moment to have in the museum gardens. I can’t think of another holiday where a stranger has approached me with friendly curiosity as has happened multiple times on this trip. It’s actually really nice.

We made our way from the gardens across town to Bonguensa station in Gangnam which, across the road from each other, has a temple complex and the worlds largest underground shopping mall. It’s a bit of a worlds colliding at the road crossing kind of thing. Given the time and that the sun looked like it wanted to set soon, we went for the temple first.

The notable thing about this temple is the Buddha statue just up the hill. This isn’t an ancient statue (or set of statues) by any means, but that doesn’t stop it from being a sight to behold. One of these days, I am going to go out and learn about the significance of the different figures and all the smaller figures in sculptures like these. I know I read the Buddha manga about the life of the Buddha, but that doesn’t cover a lot of the actual details of the religion.

As we were leaving, two of the monks from the complex started playing on the large drums and then proceeded to ring the large brass bell numerous times. I wish I knew if if here was a reason behind this and, if so, what, but one thing that’s clear is that the experience was quite moving and I feel so lucky to have come across something like this completely by chance. We did then roam through Coex Mall across the road, but there wasn’t really much for us there, so we left via some rush hour metros to get some dinner.

Gwangjang market was our destination, our first Korean market experience where the food was served at small sit down places rather than food to be eaten on the go. We were a bit daunted at first because of the slightly manic energy and all the choice on offer. So, we started simple and got an order of a mung bean and a kimchi pancake. Then, at another stall, we got miniature kimbap and (finally) my first order of japchae.

We left space in our appetites as we were going to also hit up the nearby Dongdaemun Market, but I’m guessing we were a bit late or something. So, instead we went back to the old faithful (and best night market ever) at Myeongdong for some final bites and some present hunting at Artbox for our newly born niece.

Tomorrow is going to be a big day of contrasts. In the morning we’re taking a trip up to the border with North Korea. Sadly our original tour got cancelled due to an outbreak of African Swine Fever, so I’m not sure what’s happening. Still though, should be interesting – especially as the late afternoon and evening is going to be spent at Lotte World.

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