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Castle Hopping in Korea – Seoul Area, South Korea

Castle Hopping in Korea
Seoul Area, South Korea

Korea has a lot more than just castles to offer visitors, but for many people, castles embody much of Korea’s proud and turbulent history. Visit and let your imagination take you back to the days of yore.

Namhan Mountain Fortress, Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province
Namhan Mountain Fortress, Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province
Standing atop the fortified castle wall, you look down at the mist shrouded shapes of pine trees crowding the mountain slopes. You can easily imagine troops of armored soldiers marching their way up the steep trails towards the high stone walls.

This is not an image of Europe that we are describing, but one of South Korea. Korea is more than just the home of kimchi, the DMZ and red-shirted soccer enthusiasts. Korea has a rich, five thousand year history that is still easily accessible to travelers. One of the things many visitors enjoy experiencing are the castles that dot the Korean countryside. Although most castles lie in ruins these days, there are many fine examples, several of which can be found within a short distance of Seoul, the capital city and primary entry point to the Korean peninsula.

With a history of over 900 invasions, it is small wonder that the Korean people turned to building forts and castles to protect its people in times of trouble. The first fortifications are said to have been built in approximately 2BC and were rude affairs of mud and timber. Later, castles gained more sophistication and evolved as new building technology and weaponry became available.

Korean castles have a different style than their European counterparts. Most castles in Korea were built simply as high stone walls, without the multi-storied towers as seen in European examples. Another distinctly Korean modification are the circular-shaped entry passages to primary gates. Although Korea’s castles don’t necessarily have the vertical impressiveness European structures may enjoy, they make up for this in sheer size and for many, the natural beauty of their mountain top locations.

Hwaseong Castles West Gate, Suwon
Hwaseong Castles West Gate, Suwon
For any interested traveler heading to Seoul, there are 3 sites you should not miss. The first site is called Namhansanseong or the Namhan Mountain Fortress and is located just outside of Seoul. This site has been of major military importance since early times. Originally built as an earthen fortress about 2,000 years ago, Namhan Fortress was rebuilt many times before the current fortress was built in 1624. That latest rebuilding was prompted by the threat and eventual invasion by the Manchu army. From this fortress, King Injo and a few thousand soldiers and Buddhist warrior monks held off an invading force of 130,000 men for 45 days during the Manchu invasion of 1636. Part of the fortress was later burned by invading Japanese forces in 1907. In addition, pockmarks from Korean War era bullet holes can also be found in the fortress walls.

Another site well worth visiting is the Hwaseong Castle in Suwon. Suwon is just south of Seoul and, like Namhansanseong, is accessible via the Seoul Metropolitan Subway system. Hwaseong is considered to be one of the best preserved castles of Korea and was declared a UNESCO World Cultural site in 1998. Hwaseong was finished during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) in 1796. The fortress wall stretches for 5.74 kilometers and was built with both stone and brick. The castle was built to accommodate not only traditional weapons (ie. arrows and spears) but also guns and cannon. Hwaseong has also seen much chaos and war which culminated in much of the fortress being burnt during the Japanese invasion in the early 1900s and partial destruction during the Korean War. Most of the fortress has since been renovated.

Dongdaemun Gate, Seoul
Dongdaemun Gate, Seoul
The last castle can be found within Seoul itself. In 1394, the King Taejo of the Joseon dynasty moved his kingdom’s capital to Seoul. In the same year, he began a massive construction project involving two to three hundred thousand workers to build a wall around the new capital. Over the years, the walls changed and evolved. A series of striking gates were constructed to allow entry to the city. Although most of the city walls were destroyed during the Japanese Colonial Period, several of the gates still remain. In the heart of Seoul’s downtown shopping district, the massive Dongdaemun (or East) gate still remains. As can be seen in the other Korean castles, Dongdaemun has the semicircle wall that was used to entrap enemies who try to force open the gate. Reaching above the gate is the imposing, but colorful gate structure.

Korea has a lot more than just castles to offer visitors, but for many people, castles embody much of Korea’s proud and turbulent history. Visit and let your imagination take you back to the days of yore.

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