Last Day in Seoul

On our last day in Seoul, my sister and I took a walk to Gwanghwamun Square. It was overcast and smoggy, but there was plenty to see on our walk toward Gyeongbokgung Palace. The palace and monuments leading up to it are impressively situated with the majestic Bugaksan Mountain as a backdrop.

We walked past the 40th Anniversary Monument of Gojong’s Enthronement. Gojong (1852-1919) was the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, and the first emperor of Korea.

For some reason I found myself drawn to these little figures on the gate…

They reminded me of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on…and then I remembered:

Admiral Yi (1545-1598) is one of Korea’s greatest heroes, a naval commander who never lost a single battle. He is famous for his victories over the Japanese navy and for improving upon a warship called the turtle ship or geobukseon:

My dad once told me long ago that we were related to Admiral Yi. Genealogy is a big deal in Korea. Many people have books listing all of their ancestors for generations among their most prized possessions. I know my family has one somewhere. Sure, there are a gazillion Kims, but are you the right kind of Kim? Certain Kim bloodlines have more cachet than others. This information is important when marriages are being considered. You wouldn’t want to marry a Kim from the same ancestral clan, for example. When I was in high school I had to do an oral presentation on our family history. When I asked my dad for some details, he casually told me that we were directly descended not only from the great Admiral Yi, but also from kings and queens of the Silla Dynasty. I was puffed with pride and my classmates were suitably impressed when I wove that fact into my presentation. It was only years later that I realized that EVERY Korean person is somehow related to some king, queen, (or illustrious admiral).

Still, I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that we were related to Admiral Yi as I walked past the exhibits on his life and accomplishments in the museum below street level, underneath his and King Sejong the Great’s statues.

The Admiral was as bad-ass as they come:

He was inventive, resourceful, and creative:

He was a poet…

And look! Great Grandpa Sun-sin loved keeping a diary – it was his most prized possession:

Later that day, with my head full of all the amazing things I had learned about my forebear, I asked my dad to remind me how exactly we were related to Admiral Yi. He told me he was his mother’s great x 17 grandfather. I waited for him to point out all of our ancestor’s excellent traits and qualities and to confirm all the connections I had made myself. Instead he said this would explain why my grandmother was “unusually large and husky” for a Korean woman.

This explains so much! 

You can just start calling me The Admiral from now on.

Just past the statue of Admiral Yi is the statue of King Sejong the Great (1397-1450), which was erected in 2009. King Sejong was an enlightened ruler, who is most famous for creating the simple, phonetic 28 letter Korean alphabet so that everyone could be literate. One of the most interesting features of this alphabet is that the shapes of the letters are meant to depict the shape of the mouth and tongue when making the sounds. Before the creation of Hangul, only the upper classes could read and write, because Korean at the time relied so heavily on the use of Chinese characters. Scholars and noblemen opposed the creation of the alphabet, fearing that it would sour relations with China and go against Confucian principles, but King Sejong persisted in working toward his vision of universal literacy:

The language of our people is different from that of Chinese and hence cannot be expressed properly in Chinese characters. That is why there are many simple-minded people who can not express themselves even if they have things to say. Taking pity on them, I have made twenty eight letters, only hoping that all our people learn them easily and use them comfortably every day.

I can attest to the ease of learning how to read and write Korean – my mother once taught this simple-minded person how to do it in an hour. Now if only I knew what I was reading and writing!

Past the statue of King Sejong is Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395 as the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty. It was destroyed by the Japanese in 1592 and after being rebuilt, it was destroyed again by the Japanese in 1915. Restoration to its original form began in 1990 and is ongoing.

On the extensive grounds of the palace are several museums, including the National Folk Museum.

Korean jangseung, or totems like these were often placed at village entrances, often in male and female pairs, to ward off evil spirits, protect against disease, and to ensure a good harvest. The inscriptions are identifiers. The male figure is “Great General Under Heaven” and the female figure is “Great General of the Underworld.” Now that has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?

There was an impressive collection of stone statues of civil servants. Statues such as these are often placed to stand guard at the graves of important people.

One area of the grounds has been designed to recreate a street in the 70s. My family moved to Korea for a couple years when I was a baby in the early 70s. I was too young to remember anything about it, but I thought it might bring back memories for my sister.

She once told me that all the kids had to bring candles to school. They would wax the floors with them on their hands and knees…

The 70s recreation did spark one memory for me…I was very excited to see this poster hanging on a wall. First, check out the Korean version of Audrey Hepburn:

For as long as I can remember, my dad’s been trying to convince me to cut my hair short. He always begins his pitch by talking about how when the movie Roman Holiday came out in Korea, all the women ran out to get their hair cut like Audrey Hepburn’s!


The next morning we headed to the airport…My mom especially wanted to make sure I got a picture of her with her brother and his hat! I love the fact that even in his seventies, he calls my mom noona, (big sister). He very solicitously made sure she didn’t have to wait in long lines like the rest of us schlubs!

I was touched to see that a whole party of people made the hour and a half drive to the airport to see my parents off:

One of the men told me that he had named his son after my grandfather and that his daughter has my mom’s name. He earned his doctorate in Systematic Theology, because my father first taught it to him. There was a lot of love for my parents in that airport. They may have never won any naval battles or sat on any thrones:

…(well, maybe just once), but they’ve lived their lives with integrity, and they’ve earned the respect and love of people on both sides of the globe. I’m proud to be their daughter.

This trip to Korea was an experience I will treasure for a lifetime, and I’m so grateful to have been able to share it with my parents and my sister.

The Great Admiral of the Underworld is signing off for now…Until next time!


I just got back from Knoxville, Tennessee where my daughter’s Destination Imagination team was competing at the Global Finals. I had meant to finish up my Korea posts while I was there, but limited bandwidth in the dorms we were staying in, a packed schedule, and sheer exhaustion delayed things a bit…Without further ado, here is my penultimate Korea post:

The Scoop on Poop

I didn’t know it was possible to be spoiled by a toilet. It is:

After ten days of sitting on a heated seat in the Westin Chosun, regular toilets seem so cold and primitive!

Sometimes the toilets were so high tech, I couldn’t even figure out how they flushed:

The toilets weren’t always so fancy:

I’m not the only one who couldn’t figure out how the toilets worked…Because of the existence of squatter toilets such as these, you sometimes see signs like this:

On our last day in Seoul, my sister and I walked to the National Folk Museum, which also has a Children’s Museum. This was the featured exhibit:

Food, glorious food

The Spam aisle in the Lotte Department Store Grocery:

The 12th and 13th floors have nothing but restaurants:

I was fascinated by the snacks…Mmmmmm, squid gristle!


The 9th floor of Lotte is Duty Free cosmetics. The place was full of people with gigantic suitcases, prepared to drop some serious change on face creams!

Exit through Star Avenue:

These pretty, pretty boys made me feel like a big ugly lumberjack every time I walked past:

Shinsegae Department Store is the grande dame of department stores:

We caught a sweet, temporary installation called Journey in a Dream on the top floor. The Australian installation artist Pip & Pop created depictions of paradise made of colored sugar and figurines she had collected in Korea:

Tomorrow: Last Day in Seoul


Cheong Gye Cheon Stream

The Cheong Gye Cheon Stream traverses central Seoul from West to East for about seven miles. For centuries, people gathered at the Cheong Gye Cheon to wash clothing by hand. From 1900 on shantytowns were erected along the stream. My dad recalls seeing North Korean refugees living in cardboard houses on either side during the Korean War. By 1958 the area had become such an eyesore and health hazard that the stream was covered over with concrete, and an elevated highway was eventually built over it. In 2003, a controversial $900 million, two-year restoration project was begun to remove the highway and concrete to uncover the stream once again. People complained bitterly about the disruption and the displacement of businesses caused by the construction, but today the stream is a treasured and popular landmark in Seoul.

For the month of May, it’s decorated for Buddha’s birthday:

Weekend Snapshots 23


We are staying at the beautiful Westin Chosun Seoul, which happens to be in my mother’s childhood neighborhood. From our window, we can see City Hall, the building in the foreground. My mom’s family used to live in a traditional Korean style house (hanok), right across the street.

The old house is long gone. City Hall and a few of the historical sites which survived bombings are the only buildings that are left from my mother’s childhood.

My father recalls catching a ride on a fishing boat and sailing to Inchon right after the Korean War. From there he hiked to the top of Namsan (South) Mountain to survey the city. He remembers seeing nothing but ashes and the stone walls and chimneys that didn’t get burned down the ground by the bombings.

It’s hard to imagine that scene now, when you see the bustling city:

The Westin Chosun is adjacent to the Hwangudan, or Altar, built in 1897 by Emperor Gojung (1852-1919). The American bombers deliberately made an effort to spare this and other historical sites. Seoul is full of these spots where the old and new are squeezed together:

We saw a group of schoolchildren cleaning the pagoda:

The Deoksugung Palace is right down the street:

Check out the cell phones…

We found a little restaurant across from the hotel. No menu, just this:

Right next door to the hotel is the Lotte Department Store. The Food Court is spectacular:

But where’s the potato salad?

How about fried squid on a stick instead?


Mother’s Day with my mama:

It was nice to see my dad behind the pulpit again…He was the minister of this university church for a few years:

At night we went to the Jogyesa Temple which is decorated for Buddha’s birthday with thousands of colorful lanterns:

At the entrance to the temple:

Parents Day

We made it to Seoul! Fittingly, it’s Parents Day in Korea today.

As per usual there was an entourage awaiting my parents at the gate…I counted at least eight to ten people there to welcome them back:

We’re staying at the beautiful Westin Chosun in Seoul. This is the view from our window:

Time to hit the hay!

Seoul Roundup

On our last marathon day in Seoul, my sister and I checked out another place that was right next door to our hotel in Gangnam. At the Seoul Center for Important Intangible Cultural Assets, we took silly pictures (see above)!, wandered through galleries, and checked out studios where master craftsmen produce things like norigae (decorative tassels) and calligraphy.

And then it was on to another part of the city to visit the university my grandfather founded. We saw this fantastic cart en route:

and stopped for lunch. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting!

The last time I was in this part of the city about five years ago, this stream area was still under construction:

After a lot of aimless wandering, we finally found our way to the university, where my grandfather, an uncle, and our own father were presidents, and where another uncle is currently the president:

We finally ended our last day in the Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a residential area in the center of Seoul, between the palaces of the Joseon Dynasty – Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. These traditional houses (“hanok”) were the residences of high-ranking government officials and aristocrats. They have been carefully preserved and are still used as private homes. Some have been converted into shops and restaurants.

There were so many other places I wanted to go, but didn’t have the time. It will have to wait until my next visit to Korea!

Busy days and nights in Seoul…

The next few days were busy from the crack of dawn to late nights with a reception, meetings at Seoul National University, and a conference…

In the evenings after work my sister and I roamed around the city together…

Once the conference was over, my sister and I had one more day to explore the city. It was a marathon!

Our hotel overlooked a group of Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty. There are 40 different Joseon Dynasty Royal Tombs scattered around various locations in Korea. Collectively, they have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Seonjeong-neung Park in Gangnam contains the tombs of King Seongjong (1469-94) and his wife Queen Jeonghyeon, as well as the tomb of King Jungjong (1506-44). On Friday morning we began our day by taking a walk around the park. The first stop was the jaesil, or “house of purification.” This was where officials would stay to purify themselves before presiding over the funeral rites.

Being here reminded my sister of visiting my paternal grandmother when we first moved back to Korea many years ago when she was six and I was a baby. Our grandmother lived in a house like this in the country. My sister remembers waking up in the middle of the night to see my mother compulsively glueing down edges of the waxed paper floor covering that had curled up:


Traditional Korean houses were heated by underfloor heating called ondol. Smoke from a furnace would travel through channels covered by the paper. The paper would be the only thing protecting everyone from the real peril of carbon monoxide poisoning.

This T-shaped shrine is typical of Joseon Dynasty burial sites:

A closeup view of some of the gargoyles perched along roof edges:

The tombs themselves are located in three different sections of the park. To reach them, you wind past copses of undulating pines:

More tomorrow…