Earthly delights, and some precious time in the shade

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Earthly delights, and some precious time in the shade

Gardens the world over reflect the attitudes of their designers toward nature. Korean traditional gardens are well known for their natural beauty; Korean gardens stress both man's adaptation to and harmony with nature.

Though spring is the best time to visit the most beautiful gardens in and around Seoul, the crowds are thinner in summer, so it's a good time to go if you can stand the heat. This writer went to two traditional gardens: one is a modern compilation of various traditional styles and the other is a royal garden from Joseon Dynasty, called "the cream of Korean gardens."

The "Secret Garden" of Changdeok Palace

On a sunny morning in front of the main gate of Changdeok Palace in Jongno-gu, Seoul, people are waiting for a palace tour that begins every 30 minutes. The visitors include kindergarten pupils and teachers, and, strangely, a group of combat policemen standing in ranks.

After a few minutes, a guide in Korean traditional clothes appears and leads the visitors inside. The teachers lead the unruly tots while the captain of the police barks out orders to his men to move in ranks. The other visitors look somewhat unhappy. Here, visitors aren't allowed to part from their group and their guide while in the palace. But the palace's rear garden, or "Secret Garden," is worth the trouble.

The nickname Secret Garden sounds fascinating but its origins are far from romantic, says the guide, Yoon Sook. "In the last years of the Joseon Dynasty, Japanese envoys began to call the royal garden 'Secret Garden,' because officials of the two countries frequently held secret meetings there," she says.

The name still becomes the garden, even though no more secret meetings are held. About two-thirds of the garden's 297,000 square meters is off-limits to the public, to protect its old buildings and trees, so the tour follows a fixed course. "The fine views of areas you cannot enter but can see from a distance give the royal garden a mystic atmosphere," Ms. Yoon says.

After surveying some important buildings of the palace for more than 40 minutes, we come to a path of the rear garden surrounded by thick woods. After walking the path a few minutes, we face a wide square pond with a pavilion on its edge. The pond, Buyongji, is full of lotuses and has a small island in the center that has various trees. Across from the pavilion is the royal library, surrounded by dense trees.

You can rest at the fascinating pond, but only briefly. After a few, sublime moments, Ms. Yoon stands up to leave, and some visitors, who had been lazing in the abundant shade, start to complain. "We have no choice but to hurry up," the guide says. "The tour is limited to 90 minutes so we don't hold up the groups behind us." We go to another square pond, Aeryeonji, with a pavilion, and then to Yeongyeongdang, a house designed for kings to experience the commoners' life. The house has a charming, small garden with flower terraces and oddly shaped stones.

Returning to the main gate past some old trees shaped like twisting dragons, we're fatigued by the long walk in the hot weather, and Ms. Yoon's face is dripping sweat. "I'm sorry that you have to hurry and aren't able to fully enjoy the garden," she says. She explains that if a restoration of the palace planned for next year is finished, the tour would be expanded, and we could walk slowly.

Heewon of Hoam Art Gallery

This gallery is in Yongin, about an hour south of Seoul. You follow a winding road around the noisy theme park Everland and reach a most quiet and elegant place, the Hoam Art Museum and its 66,000-square-meter traditional style garden, Heewon. After walking 100 meters from the ticket office, you face a gate made of decorative gray and red bricks with a beautiful arch. It is Bohwamun, Heewon's main gate.

You enter the gate and follow a gently-curved path surrounded by the shade of a bamboo grove. The wind makes a magical sound. Among the bamboo stand small stone guardian figures with funny faces. "Many visitors try to touch their heads because of an old folk belief that the act brings you a son, but we forbid it," says Jinny Lee, an official at the museum.

From the shades of the bamboo grove you go to a bright Garden Walk lined with white flowers. Then you reach the Small Garden with a lotus pond and pavilion with its poles dipping in the pond. Near the pond are flower terraces, adorned with natural rocks. A bride and bridegroom are taking pictures in the pavilion.

Go through a space between two walls of the Small Garden and you see a wide square lotus pond. Here is the main garden, dotted with stone sculptures, pagodas and stone lanterns. A woman in her early 20s is taking pictures of the pond. "I'm a Heewon maniac," says the woman, a college student from Seoul. "I come here four times every season. Here I can see the various characteristics of traditional gardens at a glance."

The main garden harmonizes with the pine-covered mountains behind the museum and a lake and mountains to the south.

In the southeast of the main garden is a stream that leads to the lotus pond. A nice wind-up to a visit is to go north of the pond toward the museum, where you will face a beautiful circular gate that symbolizes the full moon.

by Moon So-young

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