Asia South Korea Travel Destinations

Korea, Seoul – Gyeongbokgung’s Hyangwonji Pond

Written by Duke Stewart

Hyangwonji Pond

The crowds are letting up around Gyeongbokgung and we’ve got one last stop before going back. Then it’s back to the main courtyard through the volleys of elbows and pushing all around. Oh my those tour groups will never cease to annoy me but for now, things quiet down at this spot where we’ve settled. The machinelike crowds threaten to appear at any moment so we have to snap some photos at this small pond (Hyangwonji) and accompanying bridge for a minute.

Something’s always missed when visiting palaces, castles, and museums scattered throughout the world’s cities. Everyone rushes to see the main attractions while neglecting those places tucked away and filed under “secondary.” That’s how Hyangwonji Pond feels when it comes into full view. Feelings of isolation, good ones, come to mind. But this retreat shares its location with a piece of Korean history that many resent and will never forget.

Hyangwonji Pond

Reflections

The accompanying pavilion (Hyangwonjeong) reflects on the water and at that moment, unbelievable thoughts appear. Not too far from this quiet and solemn setting, terrible acts were once committed. An eyewitness account notes Japanese soldiers furiously searching at night for someone important in the nearby royal quarters. Sounds brings me back to now.

Echoes in the distance suggest that the crowds are moving away from Gyeongbokgung’s main halls and are heading our way. Still enough time to stay but not much more. One of the final projects completed before the Joseon Dynasty’s collapse, seclusion was the plan for this garden when Hyangwonjeong and the pond were designed as an addition to the King and Queen’s residence (Geoncheonggung).

Hyangwonji and Hyangwonjeong at Gyeongbokgung

Quiet, Morbid

The sunshine is warm enough to suggest walking on but the calm breeze makes us want to stay at the pond a little bit longer. Water makes a place more inviting. Seems safer. Calm. But the moment is almost up as noisy tour groups emerge with flag-bearer at the front herding them all towards the exits. Get to the Bus!

Thoughts go back to that fateful night, over a century ago. Official accounts note that those “investigators” eventually captured their target – an important one – on that night in 1895. Sword-bearing “investigators” didn’t waste much time with the outspoken and fearsome Queen Min (Empress Myeongseong), killing and disposing of her burnt body in a nearby forest. With its most powerful voice silenced, the Joseon dynasty was brought to its knees and Korea was eventually annexed as part of the Japanese Empire fifteen years later.

Hyangwonjeong Reflection

Thinking back on those times, what happened then seems unfathomable. I walk to the foot of Hyangwonji, its bridge and pavilion with Mt. Bugak in the distance. How could a place as serene as the royal quarters host such a horrible event? But those thoughts will have to wait until the next visit though. The crowds have arrived, too close for comfort. It’s time to move on and back into the circus.

Want to read more about Korea? Click here.

Hyangwonjeong

About the author

Duke Stewart

I'm a writer and recovering American expat who shares my family's travels through life. Follow our adventures here and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

34 Comments

  • Beautiful pictures! Your writing is captivating. Often times I really wish I knew Korean so I could learn more about the history of the places I visit. I love this perspective of reflection. Great post!

  • This makes me want to visit Gyeongbuk Palace once more. I can truly understand those busloads of tourists ruining your quiet corner on the pond. They’re not just many, they’re also noisy!

    • Thanks Alphonse! They can be overwhelming. Just have to navigate them and wait for them to pass. The tour groups are on a strict time schedule so they’ll eventually move on to the next place.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Many days it seems so easy to get stuck in the hustle of the everyday, so easy to forget the turbulent history that many of these beautiful spots around the country embody… I have not yet visited Gyeongbokgung or the accompanying Hyangwonji Pond, but when I do, my experience will be enriched with the insight that you have shared here.

    • Thank you Lara. You’re right. There are some places in this country where I ask “Why did THAT have to happen here?” but it doesn’t ruin the visit. Still such a beautiful place so the history can be easy to forget.

  • Your photos are so beautiful, and I love the way this was written. I totally agree that those hidden tucked away places are little gems and so many overlook then when you have to see what you’re SUPPOSED to see. Thanks for the little history lesson too. In all the time I’ve been there, I actually didn’t know that went down there. Well now I do 🙂

    • Thank you Danielle. I really appreciate your comment. It’s so easy to follow the beaten bath and move past places like this. Good to know there are other people out there like you who appreciate the same things:) Take Care.

  • Enjoyed learning the history. Where do you do your research about these places? I haven’t really found many good resources over the years. I always enjoy your tidbits, it’d be nice to know where you get them from!

    • Thanks for the comment. I learn about these places either through whatever information is available at the info desk or if there’s a signboard nearby. If there’s nothing, then I do most searching online.

      Even though Wikipedia should be taken with a grain of salt, it’s a great starter and leads to the original source info on places. I hope that helps. Let me know if you need to know any more. I’d love to help!

  • Sometimes we return home after visiting a place and start researching information about it only to find that we missed out on some important history that we should have known about while we were there. We have visited Gyeongbokgung multiple times now and have never heard this story before. Thanks for the bit of history!

    Another interesting tidbit: Many people, even Koreans, think the mountain seen directly behind Gyeongbokgung is Bukhansan when in fact it is Bugaksan!

  • I really like the photos of this place. I showed these photos to my students for a writing assignment I gave them (to write about a place they think a foreign tourist should visit) and they all insisted it was anapji pond in Gyeongju (they look very similar).

    I agree with you on the “rushed moments” feeling. Tourists (and even me sometimes) just want to rush from famous place to next famous place but sometimes forget to stop and take it all in and just chill out. Your photos really show the calmness about a place like that, but to a busy tourist that pond and pavilion might seem insignificant.

    • Yeah, you’re right in so many ways. I’m happy that your students thought so highly of that pic! My wife would love that sentiment.

      Sightseeing is what you make of it, I guess. Getting in and out just never suited me. Had to get around and see as much as possible and at a relaxed pace. That’s what helps take me back.

      Thanks for such a kind and thoughtful comment, Rafiqua.

    • HI Nailah,

      I don’t research them thoroughly but do look into them via various travel guides that I’ve picked up and whatever information is available online.

      Thanks for the nice comment!

  • Gotta love the crowds in Korea! Nonetheless, you got some awesome photos.
    I am the same way, though. I try as best as I can to immerse myself either in the nature or history of a place (or both in this case). But the crowds make this difficult because most people don’t try to immerse themselves. All they want is the quick photo. So, they talk loudly without really looking.
    Glad you were able to get some quiet immersion here!

    • Thank you Matt. It is difficult, especially in Seoul. Such a madhouse, that is. Immersing myself in a place helps me get away and go back to a time before.

      I enjoy reading your comments. I hope you can keep coming back even after leaving Korea. Take Care.

  • Well written post! I’m always terrible at learning the history of places and I love that you frequently include it in your posts. I walk around like an idiot going “hey, that’s pretty!” but then learn nothing about it.

  • What a wonderful description of such a lovely place with a difficult past. I’m very happy to have found your interesting site and look forward to reading more of it 🙂

  • While I can’t speak for sights Korea your post did make me think of my recent visit to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. Since it was an all day drive and trip, I figured why not get the tickets to see both castles since they are right next to each other. Turns out a lot of visitors don’t bother with the “smaller” castle Ludwig grew up in. It’s a shame too. They’ve just installed new LED lights on the murals and the colors were fantastic. I need to get to Asia one of these days 😉

    • Lol, that’s a funny story. The LED lights especially. Asia is pretty rad, even if Korea’s a bit cut off on the land part. Getting around is easy from here though!

      Let me know if you stop by!

      Thanks again for leaving such a nice comment.

  • I really have to make a habit of returning to Seoul. Living in Daegu is nice and not as crowded, but I sure miss a whole lot of what Seoul has to offer.

    • I’ve only been to Daegu once but liked what I saw.

      Seoul has just about everything, it seems. I live in a small coastal city but thankfully only 3 hours away from that behemoth of a place.

      Thanks for stopping by. I hope you get to see Hyangwonji.

  • I’m so glad someone else found this pond as beautiful and simultaneously terrifying as I did. However, the last time I visited this area they were working on construction of the pavilion and it didn’t look nearly as gorgeous as your photos. When I went there, there were hard hat men yelling at each other while making repairs. Thank you for sharing, it’s inspired me to go back now that the repairs are done.

    • Yeah, i’m sure it’d be gorgeous now that the construction is over. I find that to happen quite often when I’m visiting something that I’ve been searching for. One example would be Osaka Castle. I’ve been twice but couldn’t get in thanks to construction!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hope you enjoyed:)

  • I like how you weaved in and out of your own thoughts and the history of the palace. I too found solace in that spot a couple of weeks ago. Even my boyfriend Chris, who was quite grumpy for dragging him around all day without feeding him, calmed down and was able to relax and bask in the beauty of this part of the palace for bit before the masses moved in.

  • I agree with Nathan, this is one of my favorite places, and easily my favorite inside the Palaces. Have shot here a couple times, and when the skies are clear, it is stunning. I am definitely surprised and excited to get that little tidbit. Makes it even more of a place to visit! Thanks for sharing.

  • Absolutely gorgeous pictures! This is one of my favorite spots in Seoul, such a tranquil place, provided the crowds aren’t overwhelming. I appreciated the reflections on the past, that was a tumultuous time for Korea. Hard to believe it happened in such a lovely place.

    Thanks for sharing!