The Secret Garden and School Food
18th June 2013. Can you keep a secret? After I tell you why Seoul’s Secret Garden has had a profound impact on my flower preference?
The idea of taking something to the grave is beyond my powers, which is why I tell you that the best place to hide from Seoul’s hubbub is either at the Secret Garden or in one of the 600 year old palaces.
Despite the temptation of the world’s biggest indoor theme park in the city, we chose the outdoors. Right here, at the Secret Garden of Changdeokgung. Location: 99 Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul. Admission: 5,000 won. Tip: Buy the combination ticket for 10,000 won which includes all palaces, the shrine and garden.
Important. You can only access the Secret Garden with a guide! The tours are in Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese. You can take any tour but it makes sense to chose the language you understand. I am writing this as a reminder to myself – we arrived pretty late and trod along a Korean language tour. Here is the tour timetable, so you don’t miss out on English (or Japanese or Chinese):
Secret Garden does sound mysterious and if you have a blooming imagination, then this is the place that leaves a lot of room (and the tour a lot of time) to dream up palace conspiracies, stories of love blended into hierarchical tragedy. I do this. And it is fun to bring back royals to life and imagine what their lives were like.
This place brought me closer to the benefits of specific flora. Pond Aeryeon, meaning ‘loving the lotus flowers’. King Sukjong allegedly said: ‘I love the lotus because it blooms with clean flowers however dirty the water may be”. A practical man.
I never thought of flowers that way, but if negligence was not negatively impacting the lotus, I think I had just found my favourite plant.
BTW there stands my prince.
Walking around the Secret Garden gave me an understanding of the immense popularity of palace soap opera on Korean TV or similarly the DVD stands at markets and metros. The palaces are often filming locations for historical drama, presenting traditional food, medicine, rituals and a fascinating by-gone life. The world of palace intrigues, assassination plots and competing women in the palace harem.
This, the ‘modest study’ is where royals relaxed and read the time from the sun clock, to find out if that they had more time to relax.
The crown prince constructed this house in 1828 to celebrate his mum’s 40th birthday. What a party this must have been!
But there were dangers around every corner.
It was raining that day (magically started when we entered the Garden). Korean’s are a lot better in predicting weather. We were the only ones without umbrellas and somewhat stood out.
The servants’ quarters had a specific order, so explained a sign: ‘The inner gate that leads to the men’s quarters is a high gate, while the inner gate that leads to the women’s quarters is a low one. This reflected the Joseon era idea that men are superior to women.’ The truth is, men were simply taller!
Nature claiming its place. An impression, enough to bring back my memories of Angkor Wat.
King Jeongjo liked to emphasize his royal authority with poetry, in 1789:
‘The moon in the sky is me, the king, and the streams are you, my subjects. It is the principle of the universe that the streams follow the moon’. No inferiority complex in this individual.
The symbol of royal authority were dragons – painted at the centre of the pavilion’s ceiling.
Jondeokjeong, the hexagonal pavilion with a double layered roof, built in 1644.
The Japanese occupied Korea and adjusted the layout of the royal ponds according to their aesthetic gusto, joining three into one, connected by a picturesque bridge.
Another party site for the royals.
In 1636, this rock was used to create a waterfall. The sign explained that this was a popular entertainment point. The king and his followers composed poems and sent wine cups afloat on the water. I can see bathing fun, concubines and cocktail scenarios.
Today. Nothing but tranquillity and only a vague idea of what really was going on at the Secret Garden. It must be called secret for a reason.
The berries are no secret but were continuously falling (on my head and then) to the ground which was covered with little squashed droppings.
People were picking them up and, yes eating. The fruit is a cross between blackberries and raspberries, called bokbunja – ‘black raspberries’ in Korean. They are fermented into a sweet fruit wine and are said to have aphrodisiac qualities. There were plenty of them at the Secret Garden… coincidence?
That picture makes the Garden look even more secret.
The stairs to… disappointingly, the end of the tour.
This juniper is believed to be 750 years old. Used to make incense for royal rituals.
It was still raining after the Garden tour and we came across Daiso, the Japanese franchise of 100 yen shops. In Seoul, most items are 1,000 to 5,000 won. The umbrella was a 2,000 won deal. And I only left it at the restaurant late at night.
The next stop was Paris Baguette, the French sounding bakery that isn’t French, nor a real bakery, more a typically sweet and soft Korean pastry chain with the occasional savoury bun and soft slices of toast. The best is with walnuts or pumpkin-sesame. I recommend olive foccacia and blueberry tarte.
We took a walk through Seoul’s answer to Tokyo’s food basement at the luxurious Isetan department store. At Lotte Department Store. Location: 30 Eulji-ro, Jung-gu. You can find Korean and many western food products here.
And ‘Zen food’. Korean food might be Zen to some, to others it’s eating meat on a daily basis.
Fauchon stands out and looks more like a fashion boutique for pastry. The name just made me drool for Japanese vending machines that would provide the best hot milk tea with that exact French name. Colourful and expensive cakes here.
Fruits. 120,000 won for a fruit basket. Well, the Isetan fruit baskets weren’t any cheaper in Tokyo but fruits generally (good tasting, non imported and juicy) a lot more accessible in Japan.
Maybe a comparison isn’t fair. It just seems that South Korea is aiming very much in the direction of Japanese standards and we have just arrived from Japan.
There are things for example that I would miss in Japan. Convenience stores in Korea (no need to go all the way to Lotte), have these fresh juices in their drinks assortment and they are seriously addictive. The variety of berry juices tastes just like a fresh blend of straw- or blueberries and it looks like it is missing all the colour enhancers, too, which is great!
In the roof top passageway connecting Young Plaza and Lotte Department Store, we found… not sure but it was big. Definitely not over-dimensional breasts with wings or a dysfunctional stuffie face with ears – that would be just too weird.
There were so many.
Oh, well. The big things were in fact definitely detached teddy heads.
Giving Daltonists a hard time. And tourists a good time.
I just love Asia for its import of European baroque kitsch. And talking about breasts…
The roof was full of surprises. Gardening pants used in new contexts.
Korean salary man know how to spend their salary.
Korean women know what they want.
I think we found the age appropriate restaurant – School Food! A lot of locals were eating at this Korean chain and the menu had a few fish and veggie options. We found it near Young Plaza on Myeondong 7-ga-gil.
When ordering in Korea, you might get more side dishes than main dishes. This time kimchi and soup was served.
Korean’s do not use forks. You will get chopsticks and spoons. Don’t look so grim!
Ordering can be tricky, unless you know Hangul or staff knows English (unlikely scenarios). Therefore, we usually point to the pics to order. So I pointed to the right soup.
What I got was noodles swimming in shredded ice cubes, which looked nothing like the meal in the picture. Ordering In Korea is just like in Europe – back to ‘serving suggestion‘ menus.
Tomek went for gimbap rolls (sorta like Japanese sushi).
A favourite Korean sauce is mayonnaise which you will get with many main meals. The food was not spectacularly good but okay. And there was no meat in the gimbap! The price though was spectacularly cheap. 14,000 won for two dishes and starters.
Well, they didn’t lie – it is school food. And a lot better than at any school cafeteria!