It’s pretty common to hear a foreigner living in Korea use the phrase “If you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all”. There’s a good reason for this. During the Korean War the majority of Korea’s ancient and beautiful temples were razed to the ground by the invading North Koreans, and most of what people see these days were rebuilt in a post war rush to restore the country’s proud history. While this meant that these sacred sites were not completely lost – it also meant that most of them are quite similar to one another.
Daewonsa on the outskirts of Gwangju is one of the temples that has some unique characteristics, and over the Solnal (Chinese New Year) vacation I discovered that Yonggungsa Temple here in Busan is uniquely beautiful as well.
Busan was one of the few cities in South Korea not to fall to the initial North Korean surge, so it stands to reason that its own temple fared considerably better in the war than its northern compatriots. But what really makes Yonggungsa stand out is its coastal location. The vast majority of Buddhist temples in Korea are nestled away in mountains, yet Yonggungsa proudly stares out over the grey waters of the Sea of Japan (or the East Sea as Koreans insist on calling it) from its rocky perch.
I’d originally intended for Thursday (the second of five days off) to be spent in bed watching movies and doing little else. But with my friend Heather in town from Pohang and eager to check it out for herself, I opted to tag along. Busan had turned on a beautiful day for us – shrugging of its perpetual mantle of oppressive skies and icy winds and favoring us with a bright, still day. My neck of Busan just happens to be about as far as possible from almost everything in the city – although Dongdaeshindong does boast a decent nearby beach and is close to Jagalchi Fish Markets if I’m ever feeling a hankering for some live sea cucumber or still moving octopus.
The subway system in Busan is a joy to ride, and while it’s often so crowded that you can’t find a seat, the trains are regular and you can get to the majority of important sites without too much fuss. At just 1200 won (approximately $1.20) for a one way ticket, it’s a much cheaper option than taking a cab and only marginally more expensive than the bus network. From Dongdaeshindong we had to change trains at Seomyeon Station. I don’t think I’ve ever done the change from Line #1 to Line #2 without encountering Koreans frantically sprinting as if the next train to depart for Haeundae (Busan’s trendy beachside suburb) would be the last of its kind.
All told it’s about a fifty minute ride from my part of Busan. Most tourists into Busan will probably end up staying in foreigner friendly Haeundae though – so there’s no train ride necessary for them. From there you can either save some money and take the bus (181 will get you there) or you can do what we did and just spring the few extra dollars for a taxi. From Haeundae it came out at 4000 won ($4).
Our taxi deposited us in a rather packed car park, but we shouldn’t have been surprised. Many Korean holidays involve paying respects to Buddha or to one’s ancestors, so it stands to reason that on the first day of the Year of the Rabbit we’d not be alone in visiting the temple. A press of people stood between us and the entrance to the temple proper, but a rash of food and souvenir stalls at least made the jostling interesting. The souvenirs ranged from miniature Buddhas to all manner of ceramics and even a few children’s toys that had no real reason to be there.
The stink of bondeggi (boiled silkworm larvae) mixed with the far more appetizing scents of tapbokki (chili rice cakes) and odeng (processed fish cake) in what is a pretty common scene in Korea. Hell, my walk to and from work every day takes me down a narrow street choked with fruit vendors, street food peddlers, women selling live fish out of tiny tubs, and everything in between. It’s just part of the perpetual market bazaar that is Korea.
Once inside the temple the crowd began to disperse, although it quickly became a problem again whenever we had to make our way down stairs or through a narrow tunnel. I’d imagine the place is absolutely serene on a normal day. The ominously dark waters beat against the grey cliffs and all around pine and other hardy trees cling tenuously to their purchase on the rock. The buildings themselves either blend into this dour display or they defy it with bright oranges and reds. A massive golden Buddha stands as pride of place at the heart of the temple, while quieter shrines are up in the hills surrounding the main area.
In such a spiritual place it might seem odd to pass a bank of vending machines or a small tent restaurant serving fried food and soda, but that’s Korea for you. It’s a country of convenience and enterprise – and that extends all the way to this temple. In fairness to Korea, I’ve not encountered anything quite like that at another temple. It may well have just been to cater for the large number of visitors for the holiday.
And I’m Spent
While there was plenty to admire at the temple, without the quiet to actually soak it in, it couldn’t hold my interest for long. I remember spending a peaceful two hours exploring Sumiyoshi at the heart of Fukuoaka, and Fallon and I (along with Cody and Dez) spent even longer photographing and exploring sun-soaked Daewonsa in August of 2009. It may be that a repeat visit to Yonggungsa will prove necessary, but I enjoyed what little time I did get to spend there.