Gakwonsa Temple and Mt. Taejo

It’s not all work work work here in Korea for Tara and me.  Today we had an adventure of another sort, a little old-fashioned sightseeing.  To get a look at Korea’s spiritual heritage, we decided to visit the Gakwonsa Temple, home of a certain spectacular giant statue of the Buddha.

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A small shrine near the temple complex. This is not the giant Buddha.

We took two buses to get there, for a journey that was probably about an hour and a half in duration.  The temple is nestled up against some mountains, in a village area that has the feel of a skiing town.  There didn’t seem to be a huge permanent population, but it was definitely primed for tourists.

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Tourists who clearly know how to have a good time.

Korea is a mostly mountainous country, so it comes as no surprise that most of its holy places are associated with mountains.  It’s a very natural and appealing setting for a sanctuary.  It also entails a great deal of climbing.  We ascended an incredible series of stairs and had to pass a lovely island of trees before we finally caught a glimpse of Gakwonsa’s star attraction.

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Behold the stairway, destroyer of legs.

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This is the giant Buddha.

The giant Buddha of Gakwonsa is about 15 meters tall.  As you can see from this long-distance shot, 15 is quite a lot of meters.  It translates to about 50 feet, if you like your units traditional, and along from being very very big, it’s quite beautiful.  The craftsmanship needed to create a work like this should be applauded forever.

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A closer look at the Buddha, the second largest in South Korea.

To the Buddha’s left lies the temple complex itself, brightly painted  and chiming with bells in the brisk wind.  We came as tourists, but it is a very spiritual place, and we saw many people going about the act of worship.  There were places where one could write prayers (for the price of a donation), either on paper or on larger, shingle-like tiles.  And of course, many people would go inside the various temple buildings for prayer or meditation.

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No large crowds, thankfully.

Tara and I proceeded cautiously, wishing to respect the temple and the people to whom it belongs.  But we did go inside one briefly, to look at the golden statues inside and do a little quiet sitting.  We took no pictures of the interior, of course, but to anyone willing to make the trip, I’d highly recommend a look.  There are wonderful paintings of Buddhist history and myth, and the chamber is very peaceful.

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The swastika seen on the side of the main building here is a very ancient symbol associated with many cultures, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism. It represents eternity, as well as being a traditional sign of good fortune.

There’s a hiking trail behind the temples, which we decided to try out.  Without really meaning to, we found ourselves climbing very near to the summit of Mt. Taejo.  We were pretty high up the mountain to begin with, and our path was only about 800 meters to the rest spot just below the peak.  But it was a steep trail, and somewhat perilous with ice and loose rock.  We each managed to slip and fall once, though I probably had the more hilarious landing.

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Glad we wore some decent shoes.

The path split in three directions, two of which appeared to go in an upwards direction (though we were clearly near the top).  Tired from the rugged climb, we decided to come back another day, perhaps when camp had made us a little fitter, and explore for more shrines or spots of significance.

It was cold and cloudy, but still a beautiful day.  I’m glad we took this opportunity look upon something exceptional, exhausting as it may have been.  We’re both looking forward to coming back, and seeing more such wonderful places.

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Love the Buddha’s dance moves.

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Candles at the site of the Buddha, bearing images and writing in both Hangul and Hanja (Chinese characters).

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I found myself wondering how many of the Koreans who visit these temples are still literate in the Hanja characters that adorn many of the sculptures and buildings here.

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