Secret spot in Secret Garden to openAs king, Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty lived in solitude. His father, Crown Prince Sado, was killed by his grandfather, King Yeongjo, as a result of a political feud. In reaction to all the strife, King Jeongjo decided to stand on his own once he took the throne in 1777.
The young monarch presided over a golden age in Korea by eliminating political factions and doing away with old conventions. He also removed the caste system, initiated tax reform for his subjects and published a series of books after inventing new printing fonts.
Even though he was one of the most charismatic rulers of the dynasty, the king often spent time alone in Ongnyucheon, or the Stream of Jade-Clear Water, reserved only for kings in Changdeok Palace’s rear garden, known as the Secret Garden.
The garden has long been a tourist attraction, but since 1976, King Jeongjo’s Ongnyucheon was off-limits to the public. On Saturday, however, the spot will be open to all visitors, along with Jondeokjeong, the pavilion area near Ongnyucheon.
Designated as a World Cultural Property by UNESCO in 1997, Changdeok Palace, in Waryong-dong, central Seoul, was built in 1405 in the early Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), as a detached residence near Gyeongbok Palace.
After the 1592 Japanese invasion, however, most Korean palaces were burned. Changdeok was rebuilt starting in 1615, one of the first palaces to undergo restoration.
The palace first opened in 1954 to foreign tourists and in 1955 to Koreans, but suffered serious damage as a result because there were no limits on the number of visitors or where they could go on the palace grounds.
“The historic buildings almost looked like haunted houses,” said Kim Jong-soo, director of the Changdeok Palace office at the Cultural Properties Administration.
The government closed the palace in 1976, which was followed by three years of restoration work. The palace opened again in 1979, but parts of the rear garden were off-limits
After almost three decades of protection, the garden area’s nature and historic remains regained their beauty, according to Mr. Kim. After much debate about the pros and cons, the administration decided recently to open Ongnyucheon for the first time in 28 years.
Until the late Joseon Dynasty, Changdeok served as the official palace. The last residents were Masako Nashimotomiya, also known as Lee Bang-ja, the last crown princess of Joseon, and the princess Deok-hye, who lived in Nakseonjae inside Changdeok Palace until 1989.
Following the principles of palace architecture, Changdeok Palace is divided into four areas: buildings for court officials; the king’s offices, which were used for state affairs; the king’s and queen’s residences; and the rear garden.
Changdeok’s layout emphasizes harmony with nature. The rear garden carries significant meaning as the quintessence of the nature-friendly traditional Korean landscape architecture.
“Some foreign tourists ask me where the Secret Garden is, when they’re in the middle of it,” said Chung Hyun-sook, a veteran guide of the palace. “That’s because they don’t have the understanding of the aesthetics of Korean gardens.
“Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, Koreans consider harmony with nature the highest priority. Instead of making a separate garden, Koreans used to put small pavilions in the middle of landscape to pursue harmony. Nature, therefore, is the garden for Koreans.”
The garden, which is about 330 square kilometers, holds more than 160 kinds of trees ― some of them centuries old ― and 40 kinds of birds.
The rear garden starts with Buyongji, or the Lotus Pond, which kings used for official purposes, such as receiving foreign envoys or holding examinations for court officials.
Walking north from the pond, one arrives at Jondeokjeong Pavilion, where kings and princes studied and relaxed. Nearby is Gwannamjeong, another pavilion noted for its unusual architecture. Its roof is formed in the shape of a fan.
Farther north is the innermost area of the palace, Ongnyucheon, which was reserved only for kings.
The beauty of the private garden makes it worth the 28-year wait. After walking up a steep hill in a thick forest, a stone valley appears, adorned by three small yet graceful pavilions.
Kings used to rest here, writing poems and having drinks with officials close to them, as glasses of alcohol floated along the stream. It’s easy to see why royalty used this area as a refuge. The location of the garden insulates visitors from the noise outside ― in fact, even the air seems fresher and less polluted because of all the foliage.
Each of the three pavilions in Ongnyucheon has a distinctive style. One is covered with straw, a rarity in Korean traditional landscape architecture.
Another pavilion, called Taegeukjeong, symbolizes the state of perfect harmony, with yin and yang in balance.
The third pavilion, Cheonguijeong, symbolizes the harmony of mankind with its octagonal roof, the sky represented by the inner circle under the roof and the earth represented by the rectangular floor.
In the middle of the three pavilions, a stream flows through a stone valley. On the surface of the biggest rock in the valley, a poem by King Sukjong is engraved, which praises the area as the most beautiful on Earth.
Those wanting to experience what was once reserved for kings must be part of a tour. For the first month, only Korean guides will be available to visitors to Ongnyucheon, but foreign tourists and expatriates are welcome to visit.
Guides fluent in English, Japanese and Chinese are available for the regular tour of the palace. English-speaking guides for Ongnyucheon may be offered in the future if initial tours go smoothly.
Mr. Kim, the director, said, “Now that we’re giving extra attention to protecting the area, we’re watching the development of things. We hope we don’t have to close the area again.”
To take part in the special tour, reservations must be made at least three days in advance. To minimize wear and tear, the Cultural Properties Administration limits the number of visitors to the Ongnyucheon area to 50 for each tour, offered at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. daily, except for Mondays. Admission is 5,000 won ($4).
For more information and reservations, you can either call the administration at (02) 762-0648, 8262 and 9513, or visit the Web site at changdeok.ocp.go.kr.
Tours to Ongnyucheon begin Saturday, and the Cultural Properties Administration started taking reservations yesterday. Already, it has been fielding phone calls from interested Japanese tourists.
Changdeok Palace can be reached by a five-minute walk from Anguk station, subway line No. 3, or a 10-minute walk from Jongno 3-ga station, lines No. 1, 3 or 5.
by Chun Su-jin