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Seokbulsa Temple

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We’ve heard people claim that Seokbulsa is not just the best Buddhist temple in Busan, but the most lovely in all South Korea. Although we’re in no position to judge, Jürgen and I are in agreement that Seokbulsa is the most amazing temple we’ve seen during our three months here.

Seokbulsa-Temple

Found high up Mt. Geumjeongsan, Seokbulsa (석굴암) is difficult to reach, but well worth the effort. We began our journey by returning to the cable car we’d ridden during our first ascent up the mountain, on one of our very first excursions in Busan. Back then, we had been visiting the Geumjeongsanseong Fortress, but this time we headed off in the opposite direction. An easy, downhill path led us through South Gate Village and then followed a stream for a couple kilometers. It was a beautiful walk through the woods, fairly crowded with other hikers.

Eventually, the path ended at a T, and we immediately knew that we’d have to take a right to reach the temple. No, we’re not master navigators, nor did we have a map — there just happened to be a gray-clothed Buddhist monk sitting on a stone, up towards the right, bald head buried deep in a book. When you’re searching for a temple, a monk in the woods is a good sign you’re on the right track.

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The final twenty minutes of our journey was steeply uphill, and very difficult. But the sight that awaited us made up for the sweat. Seokbulsa is a small temple lodged unforgettably into the side of a mountain. There are a number of buildings and cave altars to explore and, probably because of how hard it is to reach, not many other people around to detract from the experience. In fact, we were completely alone during our visit.

The altar buildings are impressive, and from the courtyard you have a superb view over Busan, but the highlights of Seokbulsa are the massive, 30-foot Buddhist figures carved out of the mountain rock. I don’t know who any of them were, Bodhisattvas of some sort, but my ignorance didn’t make them any less incredible. Past the figures, you can visit a small altar and squeeze through a narrow opening in the rocks to another cave where candles have been set.

Our trip to Seokbulsa was the only time we’ve experienced that sense of adventure that went hand-in-hand with exploring the ancient Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka. Not only is the temple itself worth the effort of hunting down, but the beautiful hike and entertaining cable car ride combine to make this one of the most rewarding excursions in Busan.

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July 26, 2012 at 12:59 am Comments (7)

Yangdong Folk Village

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Occupying a gorgeous swath of forested hill country about eight kilometers outside Gyeongju, the Yangdong Folk Village preserves the buildings and customs of Korean life during the Joseon Dynasty. In 2010, this historic village was named a UNESCO world heritage site.

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Yangdong was founded at the beginning of the 15th century by a member of the Joseon nobility, who selected the site based on the Korean practice of pungsu — a superstitious reading of the earth which identifies geologically significant areas: those featuring patterns in natural formations such as hill shapes or river paths. The modern day village, with around 150 tiled- and thatched-roofed houses, still looks almost exactly as it did centuries ago.

Our visit began at Yangdong’s only restaurant, where we enjoyed a bowl of Kongguksu (wheat noodles in a cool soy milk broth) and had the chance to shake hands with the village chief. The other guests, who generously shared their rice wine with us, were listening attentively to the chief’s stories and there seemed to be an unspoken expectation that we do the same. Of course, we didn’t understand a word but stayed respectfully quiet and followed the group’s lead with an occasional chuckle or “ahhhh”.

Yangdong is surprisingly large and feels more alive, less like a museum, than I figured it would. Reconstruction and preservation efforts were underway all over, and we took a random, looping path through the hills. The Joseon Dynasty practiced Confucianism, which placed a strong emphasis on class distinction, and Yangdong’s layout reflects this; the aristocrats lived in the larger houses with tiled roofs, set on top of the hills. Commoners had houses with thatched roofs, found lower down.

With its rural forest setting, the nearby river and roads which follow the natural slopes of the hills, Yangdong Village is unquestionably beautiful. Our visit here was one the highlights of our trip to Gyeongju.

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July 11, 2012 at 9:59 am Comments (3)

Beomeosa Temple

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Established in the year 678, Beomeosa is probably the most important Buddhist temple in Busan. And with its location in the foothills of Mt. Geumjeongsan, it’s certainly among the most beautiful. Entering the complex is like stepping into another world, one more sacred and peaceful.

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A famous monk by the name of Uisang founded Beomeosa during the Silla Dynasty, and in its apex during the Goryeo period (918–1392) the temple was home to over a thousand brothers. The name Beomeosa means something like “Nirvana Fish Temple”; a legend states that near this spot, a golden fish had descended from heaven on a five-colored cloud.

Throughout its history, Beomeosa has been famed for its fighting monks, who helped fend off Japanese invaders in the 1500s. Fleeing in defeat, the Japanese managed to destroy the temple, but Beomeosa was eventually rebuilt and would become a center for monkish resistance during the 35-year Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). The fighting monks practiced a secret martial arts style based on Zen called Seonmudo; the LA Times profiled a Beomeosan monk who’s ruffled a few feathers by trying to popularize the style outside of the temple walls.

Our visit to Beomeosa started with a quick tour through the temple museum. With old portraits, scrolls and ancient printing blocks, the Seongdo Museum has an interesting collection of relics, but we were eager to get into the temple itself, and only spent a few minutes looking around.

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Beomeosa has a rich history, but is a living place of worship — a fact underlined as much by the pristine state of its buildings, as by the number of people filling its prayer halls. Everything was freshly painted or undergoing renovation, and we were astounded to be in a 1300-year-old temple which, from a few angles, might have been built a few months ago.

My favorite hall was San Ryoung Gak (the Hall of the Mountain Spirit) dedicated to the god who protects Mt. Geumjeongsan. It looks older and is set higher on the hill than the other halls, and is distinguished by the fact that it has nothing to do with Buddhism, but is a nod to local pagan beliefs. Inside, there’s a painting of the god alongside a tiger.

The various halls and structures, such as a three-story pagoda, stone lantern and bell tower, are impressive. But the best of Beomeosa is its gorgeous mountain scenery and the views over the valley below. It’s no surprise that the temple has won fame as a center for foreign students. A huge section of Beomeosa is dedicated to “Temple Stays”, which allow tourists and the curious to experience what life at a Buddhist temple is all about.

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June 7, 2012 at 7:04 am Comment (1)
Seokbulsa Temple We've heard people claim that Seokbulsa is not just the best Buddhist temple in Busan, but the most lovely in all South Korea. Although we're in no position to judge, Jrgen and I are in agreement that Seokbulsa is the most amazing temple we've seen during our three months here.
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