“Welcome to those who have been invited by the king to visit Joseon.”
A tour guide, dressed in the traditional robes of a Joseon court lady, came out of the Heungnyemun Gate at Gyeongbokgung Palace at 7:40 p.m. on Aug. 30. She welcomed the visitors to the Gyeongbokgung Palace Starlight Tour, signaling the start of our time travel back to Joseon-era Korea.
Since 2016, the Cultural Heritage Administration and the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation have teamed up to organize the Gyeongbokgung Palace Starlight Tour. Visitors get to learn about stories from Joseon, while walking around the palace and enjoying traditional musical performances at night. Visitors can slip back in time for around two hours as they go walk across the palace grounds from the Donggung, to the Sojubang, to the Gyotaejeon Hall, the Jibgyeongdang Hall, the Hamhwadang Hall, to the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion and finally to the Geunjeongjeon Hall. The Cultural Heritage Administration invited journalists there on Aug. 30 to show them the tour in advance.
“The right side of the palace was the area for the crown prince, because the crown prince was regarded as the rising sun of the dynasty,” said the tour guide, as she showed the way to the Bihyeongak, the office of the crown prince that’s located in the Donggung area of the palace, the “East Palace.” Here and there throughout the tour, there were actors that were performing what Joseon life in the palace would look like. At the Bihyeongak, the actors vividly showed how Crown Prince Munjong would make a discussion with his advisors.
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The actual start of the Gyeongbokgung Palace Starlight Tour begins at the Sojubang, the main palace kitchen.
The dinner was a formal doseuksurasang (도슭수라상), a set meal served to Joseon kings and queens. The maid of honor led the tour group to the wooden floor, where the meal was all set out. On the blue porcelain plate, traditional food was served on four-layered brassware bowls, each with a chilled shrimp salad, abalone dumplings, tangpyeongchae (탕평채), mung bean jelly salad, and altang (알탕), a spicy fish roe soup. The maid of honor explained the meaning of the word “doseuksurasang.” “Doseuk refers to a small rice bowl, and the word dosirak, which means ‘lunch box,’ derives from the word doseuk. The latter part, surasang, refers to the 12 types of palace-styled side dishes that kings and queens would enjoy.”
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During the meal, the tour group listened to a traditional musical performance that lasted for around 20 minutes in the courtyard. Cheerful folk songs, such as “Cheonan Samgeori,” “Monggeumpo Taryeong,” “Hangangsu Taryeong,” “Milyang Arirang,” “Jindo Arirang” and “Gangwondo Arirang” brought about great exclamations from the audience. As the audience called out, “Eolsigu!” (얼씨구) or, “Jalhanda!” (잘한다), which means, “Yippee!” or, “Good job!” it made the music much more interactive between the musicians and the audience.
After the pleasant meal, the tour held up cheongsachorongs, traditional lanterns with red-and-blue silk shades, to continue its trek through the outer courtyards of Gyeongbokgung Palace. At the Gyotaejeon Hall, the queen’s residence, the group watched a sand-art animation that depicted the love story between King Sejong and Queen Soheon. They then took of their shoes to walk through the Jibgyeongdang Hall and the Hamhwadang Hall, where royal concubines and court ladies lived. Normally, the inside of Jibgyeongdang Hall and Hamhwadang Hall are closed to the public, but they were specially opened for the Gyeongbokgung Palace Starlight Tour.
Visitors were especially awed by the beautiful night view of the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, which was used as a banquet for foreign ambassadors and guests in Joseon. The lights around the pavilion lit up the outline of the building, and the reflection of it on the pond was, just as the tour guide said, “the highlight of the Gyeongbokgung Palace Starlight Tour.” The group was able to walk up to the pavilion without any prior reservation. The sound of a daegeum large bamboo flute fully immersed the participants into the atmosphere of Gyeongbokgung Palace. The kings and queens themselves could not have enjoyed it any better.
After walking around the palace for around two hours under the autumn moonlight, the tour group eventually reached its final destination, the grand Geunjeongjeon Hall.
In the second half of the year, the Gyeongbokgung Palace Starlight Tour will run a total 50 times, from Sept. 2 to 15 and from Oct. 6 to 20. Tickets are available at Interpark (http://ticket.interpark.com). Non-Koreans can make reservations by phone at +82-1566-1369. From Oct. 18 to 20, tours will be available in English, Japanese and Mandarin. The admission fee is KRW 50,000 per person, including dinner.