In Seoul there is a park where old men gather in groups, as grey and numerous – and sometimes as shabby – as the pigeons that also gather there. The old men, in high trousers, baggy overcoats and caps, sometimes adorned with US flags, create a strange panoply of checks, stripes and beige tones as they sit on their newspapers and play a Korean version of checkers beneath the trees. Some games attract large knots of onlookers. There is not a man over fifty among them, and many much closer to ninety.
Old Korean music plays out of loudspeakers somewhere overhead, and there appears to be a rally of some sort – many of these old men, especially those who fought in the Korean War, are fiercely pro-US. I’m told that when old Korean men retire, their wives keep on cooking and cleaning and looking after them, but they have little to do. So they pass their days playing checkers, talking and arguing together. Someone is making loud, impassioned speeches through a cheap microphone nearby. But over all the noise the quiet, endless clack of checkers on wood can be heard. This is a strangely peaceful place.
This park is located at the entrance of Jongmyo, the large, forested shrine that houses the spirit tablets of some of the Joseon dynasty’s earliest kings. The shrine, built in the 14th century by the founder of Joseon, King Taejo, is not a tomb but a sacred site where the spirits of the royal dead were honoured in elaborate ceremonies. A spiritual, rather than an earthly site, Jongmyo is considered equally important as the palaces of Seoul, but is more solemn and quieter. That is, once you get past the old men out the front.
The only problem with a visit to Jongmyo, in my view, is the need to take a guided tour in English. The shrine is largely self-explanatory, and having to wait until the allocated time to join a group of random European tourists and a guide with questionable English, unfortunately detracted from the experience. The guide knew the basic facts and rattled them off well enough, but the inability to take your time and enjoy the wide, forested paths and the vast emptiness of the shrine halls in solitude – surely the best way to savour a place like Jongmyo – was frustrating. The guide also made the common and maddening historical exaggeration of claiming that ‘King Sejong invented Korean language’ when his actual role was to commission a group of scholars to create an easy to learn, native script to replace complicated Chinese characters. Bit of a difference.
Nevertheless the shrine is a peaceful, contemplative park that is much simpler and in some ways grander than the palaces. Jongmyo is a testament to the value Koreans place on honouring their ancestors, their parents, and the importance of family – building the shrine was one of the earliest acts that marked the founding of Joseon, and the shrine predates the palaces. If possible, a visit to Jongmyo on a Saturday or a public holiday is better, as you’re allowed to enter and enjoy the place without a guide. The old men in the park outside, however, can be viewed all day, everyday, and are just as interesting.