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Korea: A House Divided

Fifty years after the armistice, the two Koreas' legacy of conflict underlies a deepening crisis.

Like so many visitors to Seoul, which can only be described as an over-energized metropolis, I longed for a quiet interlude. Several restored medieval palaces in the city—each a complex of ornate buildings set on expansive grounds—seemed promising retreats. They also offer some of the few examples of traditional Korean architecture in a city whose past has been largely erased. Locals often say that if there is time to see only one palace, it should be Gyeongbokgung. Today’s 19thcentury structure, built on a site dating from 1395, has massive, multitiered roofs of tile and wood. Like other palaces, Gyeongbokgung is divided between buildings that once housed state activities and a residential area with quarters for the king and queen and their entourages.

 

Adjacent to Gyeongbokgung is the NationalMuseum, with its collection of 240,000 art objects from ancient times through the early 20th century. I’m particularly drawn to the many superb ceramics, among them seventh-century Paekche tiles, depicting supernatural guardians, that were embedded in the walls at palace entrances; early 12th-century celadon wares, beautifully glazed in subtle blue-greens and gray-greens; 14th-century porcelains decorated with bamboo, plum blossom, orchid and chrysanthemum motifs; and elegant white porcelain vases from the Choson dynasty (1392-1910).

 

But on two visits to the museum, I find myself sandwiched between columns of children on school outings, and solace eludes me. Nearby, the 79-acre Secret Garden of Changdeokgung, another royal palace, built in 1405, is more tranquil. But only group visits are permitted, and the tour guide, while informative, keeps us moving at too brisk a pace to really enjoy the pavilions and ginkgo groves.

 

Eventually, I repair to a teahouse called Dadamsun, on a narrow, curving street hard by Insadong, a district famous for art galleries and shops selling folkcraft. “Dadamsun” is a contraction of Chinese characters that mean, according to the owner, “Drinking tea encourages poetry and Zen.” Offering only a single room with a table looking out on a tiny garden, Dadamsun provides a perfect setting to enjoy a traditional tea service and quiet conversation—in this case with a friend, Robin Chon, who is an interior designer.

 

We sit cross-legged on the floor by our table. The paengju, or tea maker, dressed in a long silk robe, offers us a menu of more than 20 varieties of tea. I choose a Chinese tea whose leaves have been allowed to ferment naturally in a bamboo box for 30 years. From an intensely heated stone pot, the paengju ladles boiling water into a small ceramic tea vessel and then pours more steaming water over the outside of the vessel, to keep it near boiling as the tea brews. The first brew is tossed out because it contains dust and other detritus that clung to the tea leaves during the tea’s long fermentation. Over several subsequent brews, we savor the rich, earthy taste of the dark red tea. The heated floor, a tradition in Korean houses, keeps my legs from cramping and adds to the tea’s comforting effect.

 

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