Seoul Experiences: Touring Seokjojeon within Deoksugung (덕수궁 석조전)

This is my first post in my "Seoul Experiences" series, after Tongin Market's doshirak meals and Namdaemun Market's kalguksu and bibimbap alley, in which I take a look at some of Seoul's more overlooked and lesser known places to visit and experience that isn't a food spot.


As one of Seoul's main palaces, Deoksugung is especially known for its royal guards changing ceremony in front of its entrance. The palace was last used as the residence of Korea's last king, Gojong, before Korea's annexation and thus possesses a tinge of sadness to it. In fact, during the Japanese colonial era the palace grounds was converted into a public park and reduced to one third its original size while the buildings were reduced to one-tenth the original number.


Deoksugung is unique in that it has both Korean and western style buildings within it including the very western-style Seokjojeon which I'm introducing in this post. Construction on it began in 1900 after being designed by British architect John Reginald Harding but was finished in 1910 and, unfortunately, when Korea was annexed by Japan.

The building was an effort of the short-lived Daehan Empire to modernize and, once completed, was used as the residential quarter of King Gojong. And, I believe, is the only Korean palace building that's built from stone and not wood like traditional Korean building.

From the outside, the architecture stands out immediately as a building you'd see in Europe or the east coast in the States with its grand marble columns.




There's no separate admission charge for Seokjojeon but it's only accessible to the public by securing a spot on the guided tours that are offered throughout the day by the palace. For Koreans, they must reserve a spot online ahead of time through the Deoksugung Palace homepage. However for foreigners and those over the age of 65, a spot on the tour is on a first-come-first-serve basis for up to five individuals. Specific information about admission is listed at the end of the post.

On my visit, they weren't very stringent on qualifications as I didn't even have my passport but they allowed both me and my Korean friend to join the next tour group. But as word of the place has been spreading, I imagine they'll be verifying more closely.

Immediately upon entering, you are in the waiting room which is simply magnificent to say the least. The wooden floor, ornate gold decoration and style really makes you forget you're in Asia, let alone Korea, and more like you've entered some European lord's castle.


You can view historic rooms such as the audience hall where the king received important guests.


Some of the furniture pieces are either originals used by the royal family or painstakingly purchased






Offering a total intimate glimpse at how the last royal family lived, it's fascinating to imagine how the family entertained guests, slept, ate, and lived. There's also a tinge of sadness in the air that's probably further heightened by the excellent fact telling by the professional guides who spins some really good yarn about the last few years of the family and the Joseon Dynasty.



When you near the end of the tour, the view is all the more poignant as you stand within the grounds of where past, present, and future come together literally and figuratively.


If you've watched Downton Abbey before, Seokjojeon is probably the closest you'll get to feeling like a Crowley while you're in Korea. 



What a dining room. 


As mentioned before, the professional guide was excellent and really gave me a deeper insight into this somewhat mysterious period that's absorbed in so many emotions. The many, many pictures of the last royal family helps add to the stories the guide tells while walking within the rooms.





The stories of the final children of the royal family as the Imperialism Era drew the Joseon Dynasty to a close are especially engrossing as you hear about how they were sent away from their families, to live in Japan, forcibly married to the locals there, and kept from visiting their home countries.

Princess Deokhye who would be sent to Japan at a young age, have mental illness befall her after her mother died, was forced to marry a Japanese count to an unhappy marriage, would lose her only daughter to suicide, and had her mental condition deteriorate. When she finally did return to Korea years later in 1962, she was said to have cried at the sight of her motherland and recall all her courtly manners despite her mental state.


Prince Yi Wu below, wouldn't live to return as he would die by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima while serving as an officer in the Japanese army.


Yi Un, the last crown prince of Korea, who was also sent away, forced to marry a local, and serve in the Japanese army. Later he would be refused entry to return to Korea by President Rhee Syngman (probably fearing he would lose support) and only given permission by the time Yi Un was unconscious from cerebral thrombosis.



I'm not sure if it was the fact that Seokjojeon was such a personal and residential building but when you leave, there's a small, lingering sense of connection one feels with the history and the royal family. Perhaps I was the only one swept momentarily in the nostalgia but at the very least it does give you an appreciation for the history of the palace building, the family, and their story.

And if anything, the palace grounds and the surrounding Jeongdong neighborhood is just drop-dead gorgeous.


How to Visit Seokjojeon
Visitors for Seokjojeon are only accepted by securing a spot on the numerous scheduled group tours. However, how you secure a spot differs depending whether you're a local or a foreigner.

For locals, they must reserve a spot in advance online for the following times:
Weekday : 특별안내 09:30, 11:00, 11:30, 13:00, 13:30. 14:00, 14:30, 특별안내 15:00, 16:00, 17:00(10회)
 Weekend : 특별안내 09:30, 10:30 11:00, 11:30, 12:00, 12:30, 13:00, 13:30. 14:00, 14:30, 특별안내 15:00,
         16:00, 16:30, 17:00(14회)
 Holidays : 특별안내 09:30, 11:00, 13:00, 14:00, 특별안내 15:00, 16:00(6회)

The pink times are for the "Special tours" which are specially themed tours. Each group size is capped at 15 or 20. All group max size is 15 except for the 9:30AM and the 5PM tours which accept up to 20. Groups are welcome and locals can reserve all 15 or 20 spots for a large group.

For foreigners and senior citizens over 65, up to 5 individuals are given a spot on each timed tour on a first-come-first-serve basis. Ask at Seokjojeon's entrance. Guides are conducted in Korean, however audio guides in English, Japanese, and Chinese are available for rent at the information desk for free. All tours, except the special tours, are 45 minutes each. Bring your foreign ID in case!

Note that Deoksugung in its entirety is closed on Mondays. Also note that admission to the general Deoksugung grounds is free on the last Wednesday of every month and if you're wearing hanbok!