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As invitations to dinner go, it is spectacular.

The massed ranks of men and women before me are dressed in purple and crimson robes and are drumming, chiming large bells and performing complex sequences of bows.

But then, it isn’t me they are welcoming to their feast, it is the ghosts of their royal ancestors. 

The Jongmyo Daeje ceremony at Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul has been performed this same way for 500 years, every May, earning it a Unesco listing. 

The hundreds of brightly robed royal descendants in the shrine’s courtyard switch to performing slow, solemn dances in lines to the sound of chanting.

Via the English commentary on my headset, I learn that the officials behind the performers are symbolically burning animal blood mixed with millet and pouring wine down a hole to the spirit chamber.

They then set out the feast itself on rows of golden tableware.

South Korean women in national dress

According to Confucianism, if suitably pleased with the spread, the spirits will grant blessings in return.

My guide Min tells me her family honours its own ancestors with simpler ceremonial meals at home.

“But what happens to the food?” I ask. “We believe they eat it,” she says.

My bemusement must show on my face because she adds: “We eat the meal after them; the spirits don’t exactly have teeth.”

When the Jongmyo ceremony ends, the participants retrieve mobile phones from the folds of their robes, relax and pose for pictures with peace-sign-flashing tourists.

This mix of ancient and modern typifies Seoul.

Hugely rebuilt after the Korean War, the capital now has skyscrapers and mega-malls cheek-by-jowl with ancient palaces.

The same young Seoulites dancing to K-pop likely follow time-honoured Confucian principles, such as respecting their elders and being sincere.

Bustling crowds in downtown Seoul

To get a feel for the heritage side of Seoul, at least one palace should be among first-timers’ sightseeing missions.

 I choose the 15th-century Changdeokgung (entry about £3), which is famous for its ‘secret’ garden, built for scholarly reflection.

It’s the roofs that impress me most, however, with wooden eaves painted in reds and greens and tiles topped with gargoyles.

The unearthly visitors anticipated here are less benevolent than the ones at Jongmyo – giant water jars are placed around the complex to protect the wooden buildings from fire spirits.

The idea is not to quench the mythical evil-doers’ thirst but to hope they are scared off when they see their own reflections. 

Between Changdeokgung and the other key royal palace of Gyeongbokgung sits the Bukchon heritage district.

This is a residential area filled with the traditional Hanok-style houses.

I pick up a map at the visitor centre and go for a wander.

Some of the dwellings date back to the 19th century and a few have been turned into craft shops and cafes.


Seoul searching: From ancient spiritual ceremonies to potent cocktails, we explore South Korea's capital city
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