In a city as lively as Seoul, why would you want to visit the dead? A good question, yet nonetheless, it’s exactly what I find myself doing at Jongmyo Shrine one afternoon.
But the good question has a good answer. Because, as the guide for my tour of the site puts it, Jongmyo Shrine is “a symbol of the Korean people’s thought”.
At the most basic level, this is the shrine dedicated to the dead kings of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea for about 500 years in 1897. But what the guide is also saying is that the shrine shows you some of the foundational principles of Korean culture, particularly those around Confucian principles.
What you see here in a highly formalised and official form is reflected more casually in the way that Koreans live their lives today.
It’s an insight into a rich and complex country, all presented within calm and verdant parklands that surround the buildings housing the spirit tablets of some of Korea’s greatest leaders.
What is Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul?
Jongmyo Shrine is one of Seoul’s most important sites, where the spirit tablets of many of the country’s dead kings and queens are kept in buildings surrounded by tranquil parklands.
Why is Jongmyo Shrine important?
With the spirit tablets of 49 kings and queens, Jongmyo Shrine is one of the most significant sites of the Joseon Dynasty and still a focal point for royal ancestral rituals. It’s also internationally significant because South Korea is the only country that has preserved its royal shrine.
Can you visit Jongymo Shrine?
Jongmyo Shrine is open to the public and visiting it is one of the most interesting thing to do in Seoul. During the week you need to join a guided tour to visit Jongmyo Shrine but it’s open on the weekend to explore at your own pace.
When it comes to the best things to do in Seoul, I don’t think Jongmyo Shrine is one of the most visually spectacular. It’s certainly pleasant, in the way that a park is pleasant, but the buildings of the royal palaces are much more impressive in comparison.
However, the story of Jongmyo Shrine is fascinating and such an important part of Korean cultural history. It’s one of the reasons I think it is well worth visiting and why Jongmyo Shrine is one of South Korea’s World Heritage Sites.
Knowing a bit of this story before you go will help you prepare for a visit to Jongmyo Shrine, so that’s what I want to talk about now.
The story of Jongmyo Shrine
To understand what Jongmyo Shrine is, we need to first look quickly at Confucianism (very quickly, I promise!).
Confucianism, based on the teachings of Confucius in the 6th century BC, can be described in many different ways – for example, as a philosophy, a moral code, or even a religion.
During the 500 years that the Joseon Dynasty ruled Korea, from 1392 to 1897, there was no official religion in the country and Buddhism, which had a strong following previously, was suppressed.
So, what took the place of any official religion was a new Korean version of Confucianism, called Neo-Confucianism, which the ruling elites used to help guide the population with ethical principles and moral rules on how to live, such as respect for elders and the importance of familial relationships.
So what does the Jongmyo Shrine have to do with Confucianism?
Well, one of the Confucian beliefs is that your body and your spirit separate when you die. With the Joseon kings, their bodies were buried in tombs at various places around Seoul – But the shrine was the central place for their spirits.
The Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty is yet another World Heritage Site in Seoul that you may be interested in visiting.
Unlike bodies, which have a very definite location, spirits are more amorphous. Which is why part of the tradition at the shrine involves a ‘spirit tablet’, which is used to represent the spirit of the king. Made of wood, it creates a physical focus for worshippers to pay respect, and for the spirit to come.
Having a physical location is important because another key aspect of Neo-Confucianism is ‘ancestor veneration’, which basically means that dead relatives are thought to still exist within the family and are able to influence its fate. So Korean tradition is to hold regular ceremonies to honour their ancestors.
When it came to the Joseon kings, it was ancestor veneration at the highest level. Not just because they were the rulers of the country but, as my guide puts it, because “back in the day we considered the king was our father, so that’s why the shrine is so important to Korean people and Korean society”.
Things to see at Jongmyo Shrine
As I mentioned earlier, Jongmyo Shrine is the least visually impressive of the royal sites in central Seoul. This, of course, is intentional.
The shrine is a dedication to the dead, and that’s a sombre affair. Ostentatious decorations would be inappropriate, disrespectful even!
On top of that, the most important elements of the shrine – the spirit chambers that hold the spirit tablets – are hidden away in darkness, and can’t be seen by visitors.
So, what can you see at Jongmyo Shrine? Well, other than the lovely landscaped gardens that change colours and contours with the seasons, there are a few key locations within the shrine’s complex.
Jeongjeon (Main Hall)
The main hall of Jongmyo Shrine, called Jeongjeon, is in the middle of the park. The long thin building is divided internally into 19 spirit chambers, each containing the spirit tablet of a Joseon king. Some of the chambers also include the spirit tablet of their queens, so there are a total of 49 tablets in the building.
When the Jeongjeon was built in 1395 by King Taejo, it was considered one of the longest buildings in Asia. It was burnt down by Japanese invaders at the end of the 1500s, but the tablets were saved and it was reconstructed in 1601.
The design of the building has red walls and columns supporting a magnificent tiled roof that seems to float over the rough stone yard in front of it.
However, you won’t be able to see this right at the moment. The Jeongjeon is being renovated between 2020 and 2025 because it’s become unstable.
The 19 most important Joseon kings have their tablets at the Jeongjeon, but there were 27 monarchs during the Joseon Dynasty (plus some crown princes who died before taking the thrown but were posthumously honoured as kings). To create space for all of them, a slightly smaller building called Yeongnyeongjeon was built near the main hall.
Yeongnyeongjeon contains 16 chambers, housing 16 kings and 18 queens. Its design is very similar to Jeongjeon, with a wall surrounding a large stone courtyard and a long thing building. From the outside, it’s impossible to see to the hall’s interior.
The Hyangdaecheong was the building that was used as storage for ritual utensils and is located away from the main hall, close to the southern entrance gate.
What’s interesting about it these days is that one of the rooms has been turned into a replica of what a spirit chamber looks like, which lets you get a sense of what it’s like inside the main halls.
The spirit chamber has the tablets within wooden boxes at the back of the room, sitting on top of a platform. A chest is used to store important books, while another contained has the royal seals.
There is also a display of the type of offerings that are presented to the chambers during the ceremonies that still take place here each year.
The other main sight that you can see at Jongmyo Shrine is the Jaegung, which is a small complex of three buildings enclosed by a wall, located close to the main Jeongjeon hall.
This area was used by the ruling king and his party as a waiting area when he came to the shrine to take part in any rituals and other official ceremonies.
These days it looks relatively bland, especially compared to some of the other royal pavilions at the palaces. But, as I’ve already said, this is intentional because this is supposed to be a serious and sombre affair where the ancestors, not the king, are the focus.
Visiting Jongmyo Shrine
There are about a dozen people on the English tour of Jongmyo Shrine that I join in the afternoon, including four young American guys who had arrived just as it was starting.
It’s only about 15 minutes into the tour that I overhear them talking and realise they hadn’t meant to come here. They thought this was the nearby Changdeokgung Palace and, in the rush to not miss the tour, hadn’t checked exactly where they were!
But what I found really heartening was listening to them talk about how they were glad they’d made the mistake, because they probably wouldn’t have visited Jongmyo Shrine otherwise, but they were finding it all really interesting.
Jongmyo Shrine is less about the spectacle of what you see, and more about its importance. You’re getting access to one of the most sacred and significant places in all of the Korean Peninsula.
On the weekend, you’re able to just wander through the site and explore at your own pace.
On weekdays (except Tuesday, when it’s closed) you have to join a guided tour at a set time. The tour takes about an hour.
There are benefits and downsides to both. The tours on the weekdays are really interesting and I learned a lot from the guide. However, it meant I had to plan my day around being at the shrine at one of the designated times.
If you’ve got some flexibility with your Seoul itinerary, you may like to think whether its better to visit Jongmyo Shrine on a weekday or weekend and plan accordingly.
Where is Jongmyo Shrine?
Jongmyo Shrine is in the northern part of central Seoul, next to Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung palaces. The entrance is at the southern end of the shrine.
The official address is 157 Jong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Jongmyo Shrine?
If you’re coming by public transport, the closest subway station is Jongno 3-ga, which is just a few minutes’ walk away.
There are also more than 15 bus routes that go to the shrine’s entrance at the Jongno 4-ga bus stop.
When is Jongmyo Shrine open?
During the week, you can only visit Jongmyo Shrine with one of its official guided tours (included in the entry price).
The English tours are offered at 10:00, 12:00, 14:00, and 16:00. (There are also tours in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.)
Note: Jongmyo Shrine is closed on Tuesdays.
On the weekend, there are no tours and you can visit at your own pace, within these opening hours:
Feb – May and Sep – Oct: 09:00 – 18:00
Jun – Aug: 0900 – 18:30
Nov – Jan: 0900 – 17:30
How much does it cost to visit Jongmyo Shrine?
An entry ticket for Jongmyo Shrine costs 1,000 won (US$0.75) for adults, 500 won (US$0.38) for children aged 7 – 18, and it’s free for under 7’s and seniors aged 65 or over.
I would also recommend buying the Royal Palace Pass which gives you access to the shrine and four palaces for 10,000 won (US$7.50) for an adult and 5,000 won (US$3.80) for a child.
Are there tours of Jongmyo Shrine?
If you visit on a weekday, you’ll get a free guided tour of the shrine as part of your entrance ticket.
For a tour that will pick you up at your accommodation, there’s this interesting option that will take you to two of Seoul’s World Heritage Sites, including Jongmyo Shrine.
If you only have time for one palace, I would recommend visiting Changdeokgong Palace, which has been designated as another of the World Heritage Sites in South Korea (separately to Jongmyo Shrine, which is also a World Heritage Site in its own right).
You can wander through the main palace at your own leisure, but you need to join a guided tour to see its Secret Garden (which I definitely recommend doing).
I would also suggest buying the Royal Palace Pass, which is excellent value, even if you’re not planning to visit all the palaces in Seoul.
Just doing Jongmyo Shrine and the two palaces next to it costs 10,000 won (US$7.50) for an adult and 5,000 won (US$3.80) for a child – the same price as the pass (which then lets you visit two more palaces).
Ultimately, there are lots of things to do in Seoul and you likely don’t want to spend your entire time going to the royal heritage sites from the Joseon Dynasty. But it was such an important period for Korea and the remaining landmarks do paint an enthralling picture of the era.
Yes, these kings and queens may be dead, but visiting them brings their stories to life – one of the reasons I love to travel.