Jongmyo Shrine
There are nineteen gates holding the spirits and tablets of the first nineteen Joseon monarchs.
There are nineteen gates in this particular building of the Jongmyo Shrine, holding the spirits of the first nineteen Joseon monarchs.

Location: Seoul, South Korea (Scroll down for a map)

Visited:  April, 2011; June, 2012; May 5th, 2013

Background and Opinion: I have been waiting to visit the Jongmyo Shrine one more time during the Jaerye Festival before I did a proper assessment. However, I have decided against awarding this site more points based on an event that happens only once a year since that doesn’t reflect what a typical person would experience any other day.

If you followed my series of top things to do in Seoul, you already know that I considered Jongmyo a must do. While that may be so, this UNESCO World Heritage Site series pins sites around the world against each other, making the competition stiffer and the scrutiny… more… scrutinizing. The actual description was as good as any in that article, so here it goes again:

[To truly appreciate the Jongmyo Shrine, you probably should understand a little about Korean tradition and history. Under the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted from 1392-1911, Korea followed Buddhism as a religion, but Confucianism  as an ideology. In Confucian beliefs, when someone dies, their body and spirit separate. So, while the bodies of Korean Kings and Queens, also a WHS, are scattered all over Korea, all of their spirits have found their way into the Jongmyo Shrine. If you just wander about in the Jongmyo Shrine without guidance, it is easy to view it as, albeit beautiful, just another Korean Palace. Because of this, most of the entries into the Shrine are with a guide only (English guides every two hours), which is highly recommended [exception: Saturdays are “free entry.” Don’t go then!]. In the shrine are tablets of every single king and queen of the Joseon Dynasty with the exception of two who are considered “terrible leaders.” The tablets describe all notable accomplishments of those kings and queens. However, only two sets of tablets are displayed to the public.

In addition, on the first Sunday of May every year, there is a ceremony known as Jongmyo Jaerye. It is the ritual to honor the kings and queens of years past. It has been done in Korea for the past 621 years, and is considered, according to UNESCO, the oldest and most complete performance of its kind. In addition to the Jongmyo Shrine being given WHS status, the Jongmyo Jaeyre was proclaimed an Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001]

I will be honest in saying that if you don’t go during the Jaerye Festival, it takes a deep love of Korean history and a lot of imagination to consider it world-class. However, it is still a lovely place, and a must if you are in Seoul.

Evaluation:

1) Completeness and Originality (11/15): The wooden tablets are all original and complete. However, this Shrine was burned down in the late 1500s, so the current one is from 1601 C.E. Considering what Korea has been through, it is surprising that the tablets survived at all. In addition, the Jaerye festival has been diluted from five times a year (during the Joseon Dynasty) to once a year during the new Korean Republic.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (4/15): There are really just two buildings to see. Furthermore, the doors to those buildings are only opened during Jaerye. This means that you can be done in about an hour and thirty minutes.

3) Cultural Significance (4/25): If you ever need to study true Confucianism, this is a good place to start.

4) Personal Impact (3/15): I really like Korean history, but compared to the feeling of seeing the Forbidden City (for example), this feels more like a nice thing to do on a slow Tuesday.

5) Logistics (7/10): Arriving by bus or subway isn’t too hard if you know what you are doing. Unfortunately, it is not one of the most traveled sites, so you can’t just “follow the crowd.” You can see some signs that say “종묘” ‘Jongmyo Shrine’ in Korean, followed by the UNESCO symbol, but it isn’t that obvious.

6) Uniqueness 5/20): It got a UNESCO nod because the ceremony of Jaerye is pretty unique. However, on any other day, it takes a lot of imagination to enjoy it. The buildings are just like any other Joseon Dynasty building in Korea.

 

Combined Score: 34/100

Is this a good score? Find out how it compares in our rankings.

 

Location of Jongmyo Shrine:


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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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