What the Heck, Seoul has City Wall Gates?
There are only eight gates that give you access to Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Early in the morning, when the bell near Jonggak Station (#16 thing to do in Seoul) rings, that is when the gates open. At night, when the bell rings again, Seoul is closed for business and all of the eight gates of the capital slam shut leaving this walled city safe from outsiders. If you and your caravan of horses arrived too late, you will miss your meeting with the king and have to wait outside until morning.
Of course, this was hundreds of years ago, and that custom of closing a city off with city walls is something you are only likely to see in a medieval movie or a book. But what happened to all of those gates that used to surround Seoul? Believe it or not, most of them still exist after 600 years. They are all still connected in many places by the Seoul Wall, the medieval fortress surrounding the city of Seoul. Some of them are main attractions, some are off in a corner with little fanfare, and one even requires checking in at a military checkpoint before proceeding.
One day when I was hiking in Bukaksan, I stumbled upon a pretty large and beautiful gate. I knew another one was very near my house and two are National Treasures, so I wondered: How many of these are there?! It turned out that I just had two more to go, so I finished my quest to see them all a few months ago. There are 4 “Great Gates / 대문” and 4 “Small Gates / 소문,” each of which has a traditional and a directional Korean name. Here is your complete guide to the eight gates of Seoul (built 1396-1398), an awesome must see for anyone who is interested in Korean history.
The Four “Great Gates / 대문” of Seoul
[All names are in this format:
“English Romanization / Directional name, English Romanization / Traditional Name, (Chinese Spelling)”]
1) Namdaemun / 남대문 , Sungnyemun / 숭례문, (崇禮門)
The largest, oldest, and most famous gate is the Namdaemun Gate. It was built in 1396 and was the main conduit into Seoul for hundreds of years. Currently, it is right next to one of the best markets in Korea, the Namdaemun market (#10 thing to do in Seoul), where you can get delicious sea food, browse for wonderful souvenirs, or be a bit adventurous and try some pig’s feet.
Unfortunately, in 2008, this gate was set on fire by an act of arson. My friend tells me that Korean people everywhere wept because it is such a strong symbol of Korean strength and one of the few remaining original Korean monuments that hasn’t been destroyed by the Japanese (keep reading). Nevertheless, it was restored and reopened in May of 2013 to huge celebrations all across Korea.
This gate, along with the market place, are things you can visit in the day time or at night. The marketplace is also a night market, and the gate lights up making it look even more beautiful at night. Namdaemun is located a short walk from Hoehyeon Station on subway Line 4 (sky blue). Here is a map.
2) Dongdaemun / 동대문, Heunginjimun / 흥인지문, (興仁之門)
The Dongdaemun Gate (#12 thing to do in Seoul) is also next to one of the best marketplaces in Seoul, the Dongdaemun Marketplace. It is the second largest gate and contains a sizable amount of the Seoul wall next to it which starts crossing the street to the east. The western side of the gate is what used to be a soccer stadium, but is now called the “Dongdaemun History and Culture Park.” From the outside, it looks like it is under construction, but I decided to finally check it out a few months ago. Apparently, never before seen sections of the Seoul Wall were uncovered a few years ago and there is currently a small “Seoul Wall” museum there. They should really change what it looks like since we were the only people there, on a busy weekend.
The entire Dongdaemun area is full of energy and perfect if you are looking for somewhere to eat or shop. Much like Namdaemun, this area is also open at night, and many of the shops here are known for being open 24 hours. Shopping is not really my thing, but if it is yours, you might cry at the selection of clothes and shoes (especially for women). Also, like Namdaemun, this wall lights up at night, making for a nice midnight stroll (although not the nicest of safest area*). Dongdaemun Gate is located right off the exit of Dongdaemun subway station (line 1 or 4). Here is a map.
[*”Unsafe” by Korean standards. I would still walk around with a roll of cash in my hand at midnight in this area and not be worried. Korea is simply one of the safest places in the world.]
3) Bukdaemun / 북대문 , Sukjeongmun / 숙정문, (肅靖門)
If you are a foreigner, don’t forget your passport, or an alien registration card. If you are Korean, bring your ID. This place, is not messing around with its security. The bukdaemun gate is within a military controlled area with strict* rules about entrance documentation, schedule, and where you are allowed to take pictures, lessons my girlfriend and I learned the hard way three times before finally visiting.
Why all the security? In 1968, North Koreans infiltrated the Blue House (#29 thing to do in Seoul) in an attempt to kill the South Korean president. It is said that they had detailed knowledge of the layout because they had viewed it from Bukdaemun, which was easily accessible at the time. From then until 2007, the whole area was closed off to the public. Now, you can go in, but you can’t take pictures south (towards the Blue House), along the wall within the military checkpoint, or of any South Korean soldiers.
Our first attempt at reaching Bukdaemun was hiking along the Seoul Wall. We reached one of the checkpoints where they informed us that we needed to get there before 3:30PM (Fall/winter) and that we were too late. In addition, neither of us brought the required documents (ID/passport), so there was no way they would let us in. Our second attempt came from the northern most entrance, by far the shortest and easiest hike to see the gate. My girlfriend forgot her ID so we were again rejected entry. The third try came when visiting one of the smaller Gates “Changuimun” where I thought we could hike along the wall after visiting the gate. I didn’t realize how far out the military checkpoint extended and we were turned away. Finally, I got to see the gate and it was pretty cool. I couldn’t even see the blue house from as far south as you are allowed to stand so I don’t really understand THAT picture-taking rule.
Bukdaemun is the smallest of the great gates that still exists today. To access it by public transportation isn’t very straight forward, so take a cab if you can’t figure it out. There are the three access points, all of which require SOME hiking. Here are maps: From the east, it is a 45min-1hr hike. From the north, it is a 10 min hike (best). And from the west, it is a 20-30 minute hike.
[*Strict – Also used in the Korean sense. If you accidentally take pictures, they will kindly ask you to stop, but no one will smash your camera and arrest you as you might expect.]
4) Seodaemun / 서대문 , Donuimun / 돈의문, (敦義門) [Destroyed]
Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan !!! I mean…. Jaaaaappppaaaaaan!!! You guessed it, Japan destroyed this gate during their brutal occupation (1910-1945) preceding WW2. Seodaemun used to be one of the large gates of Seoul but was torn down in 1915. In fact, this was the second time the Japanese destroyed this gate, as the first one was also trashed during the Japanese invasion of 1592-1598. It is said to have been torn down to make way for the building of a road, which is still in use today (and one of the busiest in Seoul.
There is good news. Although plans to rebuild the gate by 2013 failed, there are renewed plans to rebuild it by 2022. So who knows, maybe I’ll be writing a post about a “grand opening” nine years from now.
[No Picture: If you are outraged, you can thank the government of Japan for destroying it and denying any wrongdoing. Here is their official website.]
The Four “Small Gates / 소문” of Seoul
5) Dongsomun / 동소문, Hyehwamun / 혜화문, (惠化門)
The Hyehwa Gate is the most beautiful and well preserved of the smaller gates (bias alert, I live a 5 minute walk from here). Despite my bias, it is true that this gate is the most recently restored (aside from Namdaemun) so it looks new. The artwork inside the structure is very vivid and the surrounding area is calm enough to let you enjoy it.
Large parts of the Seoul Wall are connected to either side making this a perfect place to start a day hike along the wall. I have walked along the entire wall and must say that the section directly north of the Hyehwa gate is the best part. In the spring time, there are also cherry blossoms here to add to the allure.
Getting here is pretty easy. Head to Hansung University station on line 4 (sky blue) and take exit 5. U-turn upon exiting (to your left) and follow the road to the right without crossing any streets. You will see it up on a hill if you walk for about 5 minutes. Here is a map. By the way, it is also very near a lot of my favorite food places.
6) Buksomun / 북소문, Changuimun / 창의문, (彰義門)
Besides Bukdaemun, this has to be the most tucked away gate of them all. I’ll be honest and say that if it wasn’t for stumbling upon it on a hike of Bukaksan, there is no way I could have found it on my own, even on my motorcycle. However, this gate has the oldest gatehouse of all of the smaller gates. Although it was originally built in 1396, Japan destroyed the gatehouse in the war of 1592 (again) and it was rebuilt in 1740. One warning is that although you are allowed to go into the tower, an alarm goes off. The sign in Korean says “don’t let the alarm scare you,” or something like that. If in doubt, follow some Koreans.
Visiting this gate goes well with either a day hike of Bukaksan (not to be confused with Bukhansan National Park) or a hike of the Seoul Wall. A hike from Hyehwamun to Changuimun would take 3-4 hours and it is definitely worth it. Make sure to bring ID because you will have to pass through Bukdaemun first. Here is a map.
7) Namsomun / 남소문 , Gwanghuimun / 광희문, (光熙門)
The lest popular and most run down of all of the remaining gates is Namsomun. At least, that is what the Korean government thought, which is why it is getting a makeover. Currently, this gate has a huge metal fence surrounding it as it is under restoration to make this ugly duckling beautiful again. Few people know that this gate is actually located walking distance from Dongdaemun, but hardly gets any traffic. Hopefully that will change after it is reopened to the public in October 2013.
To get here, you take the subway to Dongdaemun History and Culture Park (Green line 2 or Sky Blue line 4) exit 3. Go straight about 10 meters and look to your right (and back a little). You should see it across a big street. Here is a map.
8) Seosomun / 서소문, Souimun / 소의문, (昭義門) [Destroyed]
KHHAAAAAA… okay, I already used that joke. This smaller gate was also destroyed during the Japanese colonial period in 1914.
[No Picture: And I know you didn’t click on the Japan Government website I linked to on #4. That’s okay, I like Japan and wouldn’t want to get on their shit list.]
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