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.
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).
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.
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.
This travel guide is part of our series on South Korea Travel and East Asia Travel. It was originally created on November 3, 2014. It has been maintained and updated (as of December 28, 2018) to reflect current viewpoints and travel trends.