Changdeokgung: The Huwon / Piwon (Secret Garden / Back Garden) Re-Visit

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon buildings

The above palace buildings are not in the “regular” part of Changdeokgung that you can visit as a tourist; they are in the “Huwon” or “Piwon” (names meaning “back garden” and “secret garden”). This area requires an additional (small) fee to enter, and entrance is only allowed for designated tours. The palace has English tours, but regardless of tour language, they are all about 90 minutes long. Fortunately, once admitted to the Back Garden, tourists are given permission to leave the tour if they wish. I did so, but the odd thing is that I went through no faster than the group I left.

My sole purpose in visiting the huwon on this trip was to see it I could learn anything about traditional Korean gardens from it. When I think of “Japanese gardens,” I have a definite picture in my mind. When I think of “Chinese gardens,” I have a different characteristic and vivid picture in my mind. Not so for Korean gardens.

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden gate and trees 2

This visit, like my last many years ago, nearly confirmed in me the idea that the vegetation constitutes more of a forest than a garden. At first glance, such does appear to be the case. On this visit, as in my earlier thinking, I nearly ended out coming to the conclusion that Koreans didn’t really do gardens, and for a while I even neared the dangerous conclusion that Korea and Koreans suffered from a serious lack of biophilia.

Fortunately, that conclusion is in error. There is a very serious “greening” of Seoul, nowadays, as a matter of public policy. But back to gardens. It’s not easy to visit traditional Korean gardens in Seoul. There are a few in the south of the country, and there is a garden in Seoul which is (temporarily?) closed–the Seongnagwon. The various tourist guides left me with just one option: the huwon in the UNESCO-designated World Heritage site at Changdeokgung. Fortunately, the huwon is supposed to be an outstanding example of a Korean garden.

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden gazebo and pond

There was one thing different about my trip to Korea this time, though.

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden trees and pond

What was different is that I now have a budding interest in–and a very, very basic understanding of–Taoism. The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that this garden–I know not enough to generalize to the level of “all Korean gardens”–embodies the Taoist principle of non-interference. That is to say, human interference in the landscape is minimal, or at least appears to be so. You have a forest, a beautiful forest. You throw in some paths, some stones, the odd gate, a few ponds, and a few small gazebo buildings, and voila: you have a small-“t” Taoist garden! It’s certainly very different from the more controlled settings of the Chinese and Japanese Zen gardens I’ve been to, but not without a sense of aesthetics and charm.

Speaking of gates, here’s another one…

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden gate and trees

…while here’s a pond:

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden pond

The gazebos really do add a wonderful touch to the garden. They are nice to look at and to look out from:

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden gazebo and pond 3

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon gazebo and pond in black and white

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden view from gazebo

And of course, there are trees. Beautiful, lovely trees…

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden tree

…and paths in trees…

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden wide path

Now the pond below is interesting because it, like another shown above in black and white, is surrounded by stonework walls that meet at right angles. That’s not a very “natural” thing to place in a nature garden, but the aesthetics of it somehow still work.

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon pond and trees

The following picture shows very natural-looking rocks that function as a staircase…

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon rock steps

In a way, this garden’s minimalist–in the sense of lack of interference, rather than in the reduction of the number and kinds of elements as in a Japanese Zen garden–remind me of this rather charmingly unkempt, Taoist-looking scene in an artwork in my in-laws’ house:

Artwork at my in-laws' house

But back to the huwon, with more trees and more gazebos…

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon trees

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden gazebo

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden gazebo black and white

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon view from gazebo

There are some nice smaller touches in the “secret”/”back” garden:

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon garden fallen leaves in water

The huwon was much larger than I remembered it as on my last visit. It’s possible to think the place is big, wandering from start to finish but missing some very large expanses in the middle. I saw it all this time with my long-suffering young Telemachus, and it was a joy to visit. The final picture shows a few trees that are not part of the garden, but the angle from which I have taken them here is only possible from the garden path as you exit it and return to the main part of the grounds of Changdeokgung.

Changdeokgung Huwon aka Piwon end of the garden