Along with the palace of Gyeongbokgung, the construction of Jongmyo shrine (종묘) was on King Taejo’s manifesto as he kicked off the Joseon dynasty in 1392. He decreed that dead kings and queens would be honoured here in true Confucian style, with a series of ancestral rites. These ceremonies were performed five times a year, once each season, with an extra one on the winter solstice, when the ruling king would pay his respects to those who died before him by bowing profusely, and explaining pertinent national issues to their spirit tablets. These wooden blocks, in which deceased royalty were believed to reside, are still stored in large wooden buildings that were said to be the biggest in Asia at the time of their construction. Jeongjeon was the first, but such was the length of the Joseon dynasty that another building – Yeongnyeongjeon – had to be added. Though the courtyards are open – take the opportunity to walk on the raised paths that were once reserved for kings – the buildings themselves remain locked for most of the year. The one exception to this is on the first Sunday in May, which is the day of Jongmyo Daeje, a long, solemn ceremony (9am–3pm) followed by traditional court dances – an absolute must-see.
On exiting the shrine from the main entrance, you’ll find yourself in Jongmyo Park, one of the most atmospheric areas in Seoul – on warm days it’s full of old men selling calligraphy, drinking soju and playing baduk (a Korean board game similar to Go). Find a spot to sit, close your eyes and listen to the wooden clack of a thousand game pieces.