As the mountains in Korea hit their peak of autumn colors, for those of us who cannot make the time to go away to see these displays of vibrant splendor, we have to make do with what we can within the boundaries of the city. Thankfully, Korea is a nation full of mountains and hills, and it really isn’t difficult to immerse yourself in this beautiful colorful season.
Even downtown, the many trees that line the streets are shedding their summer colors to hues of red and gold. The gold are mostly ginkgo trees, whose beauty truly peaks in the fall season, although its unripe fruit creates the most unpleasant smell as it is crushed beneath the feet of busy city pedestrians. Those visiting Korea in the autumn may notice this weird smell without realizing the culprit. (Our towns usually don’t smell like this – blame it on the ginkgo.)
Despite the unpleasant odor, ginkgo trees are still the most popular species that line the busiest city streets in Korea, for their golden shade and unique leaf shape are simply quite charming. In Seoul, the ginkgo is omnipresent. From the beautifully lined Samcheong-dong alleys to wide 12 lane streets in Gangnam, you’d find the city bursting in gold.
I was swamped with work, and although I would have loved to make time to go see the autumn foliage of Mount Seorak, I decided to go to Namsan in central Seoul instead, to take in my fill of not only the ginkgo trees but many others. I’d like to add that I did not choose to go to any other mountain in the Seoul Metropolitan area because 1) I am not that fit to properly hike, and 2) there are so many things to do at Namsan besides hiking.
The leaves were just turning when I went. Autumn colors were a bit slow to coming to Seoul this year – either due to the city’s greenhouse effect or a complete misperception on my part – trees would have been completely red and gold by late October but this year it wasn’t. It was a slightly cloudy day with a hint of chill in the autumn breeze; perfect for walking and breathing in the smell of the woods.
The walk up to N Seoul Tower, familiarly known as Namsan Tower, is always a pleasant one. There are many footpaths in the woods from the bottom of the mountain should you decide to hike and it is not that strenuous. (I once walked up in a formal suit and high heels.) This time, however, I just took a bus to the Tower’s main bus stop and walked up from there.
The plaza in front of the Tower is always full of activity. This day, various traditional performances were going on: dance, martial arts, and music. The announcer was careful to explain every stage in multiple languages, due to the many buses of tourists who were there.
I ventured out to the terrace to see the view. It was the only time I wished it was a sunny day instead of a cloudy one. The Han River in the distance seemed to disappear in mist. I also wished I was a better photographer of landscapes because the contrast of the autumn colors of the mountain to the grey city was acute.
Since I had gone to Namsan for the purpose to immerse myself in nature, I did not opt to go into the Tower. After watching the performances a bit and sipping a coffee at an outdoor bench I made my way down to the National Theater of Korea.
I personally love the NTOK. Not only is it in the most beautiful location of Namsan, it hosts many special performances, not necessarily the highly marketed big names, but high caliber plays, musicals, dance, and music performances that may run less than a week at a time. As the NTOK is home to the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, the National Dance Company of Korea, and also the National Orchestra of Korea, you can see top notch Korean performers excel in their art through various productions.
There is a focus on traditional Korean performances, which I greatly appreciate. The productions are excellent. No middle-of-the-road performer is going to stand on that stage; you have to be at the highest standard. I truly lament the lack of interest for this genre from the general public, because the performances are that special.
The changgeuk (창극, a traditional Korean musical) “Lady Macbeth” was being performed that day. What I greatly appreciate about these new productions are the new interpretations. I’m familiar with Macbeth, and to see it played out on stage in a Korean era, with Korean traditional costumes, and traditional musical instruments making up the “orchestra” – it was a unique experience. Lady Macbeth herself crooned out chang melodies dripping with emotion.
Another thing I found a pity: although there were screens set up on either side of the stage, I was told that there are no subtitles available in foreign languages. For those who do not understand Korean, this is such a missed opportunity. To be exposed to this reinterpretation of the old and new, the Korean and non-Korean; it would be a memorable experience. I talked briefly with one of the producers about scripts and translations; hopefully there will be more productions with subtitles available in the future.
I headed in the direction to Namsan Public Library afterwards, looking at trees all the way. I particularly enjoy looking at the sky through the tree leaves. It’s a habit I got when I was a kid; being pretty good at climbing trees, I would set myself on a comfortable branch and look up to count the pieces of sky hidden among the leaves. Although I don’t count sky pieces anymore, just looking at trees this way is very comforting.
Another fun pastime while walking around in Namsan: catching glimpses of the Tower. The Tower is visible from mostly all around the mountain, and seeing it from different directions is quite amusing.
The clouds were getting ominous, so I took the bus and headed to the opposite direction. Ginkgo trees were everywhere, mostly lining the roads. Not all had turned gold, though. The huge, oldest ginkgo tree in the vicinity was still in a green mood, while the roads weren’t yet completely being showered with golden leaves.
Another thing about ginkgo trees: because the leaves have such a smooth surface devoid of water veins, they were very popular as bookmarks and methods of sending notes. Dried and pressed flat between the pages of a heavy book, they would last quite long before disintegrating. When lamination was introduced, laminated ginkgo leaves became the equivalent of love letters as people would write lines of poetry or personal notes on them. I gave it a go, for old time’s sake.
Rain started to fall. I did not want to slosh around in the rain and decided another visit to Namsan would be in order. I had my fill of nature and culture. While I headed elsewhere, I could not help but think that ginkgo leaves were pretty, even when washed flat by the rain.
If you can’t make it to the mountains, head for the nearest hill or a park. You’d find yourself taking many photos of the colors you see. If you plan on going to Namsan, there are many other places to visit – I just mentioned the places where I tend to go. The leaves would have turned fully golden by now.
Namsan Park: http://parks.seoul.go.kr/eng (Click Namsan Park on left)
N Seoul Tower: http://www.nseoultower.com
National Theater of Korea: http://www.ntok.go.kr
Namsan Public Library: http://nslib.sen.go.kr/nslib_index.jsp
Seoul Animation Center: http://www.ani.seoul.kr
Related posts on the Korea Blog
N Seoul Tower: http://blog.korea.net/?p=6175
Korea in the fall: http://blog.korea.net/?p=5854
The Seoul Animation Center and Cartoon Museum: http://blog.korea.net/?p=7241