South Korea has imposed Level 2 social distancing across the country. Please avoid nonessential travel and check for local government updates before planning a trip. Some tourist sights and places of worship might be closed to contain the spread of the virus. Always wear a mask and don’t forget to wash your hands. Stay at home now and travel later.
We had spent the earlier day walking along Haeundae’s long sandy coastline. This summer was one of the wettest we’ve seen so far and it was quite an experience to watch fog rise over the sea. On the next morning, the sun was out, and we walked around Dongbaek Island (next post). After an early lunch, we skipped the crowded beach (many weren’t wearing masks and maintaining social distancing), and opted to visit Haedong Yonggungsa Temple instead. We caught Bus 181 from the main road (a stone’s throw away from the Haeundae Station, on subway Line 2, Exit 7.) and got off well before Haedong Yonggungsa Temple Bus Stop. We had to take a taxi to reach the temple. There are many street food stalls and souvenir shops on the way to the gates of the temple.
The pathway to the main entrance gates is lined with interesting statutes and sculptures. It’s hard to miss the twelve life-size zodiac figures that find their origins in ancient Chinese philosophy and have now become an integral part of Korean culture. Each figure/deity is believed to ward off evil spirits and can grant good fortune if prayed to.
Many Korean tourists took pictures with their zodiac character. Basil’s Chinese zodiac figure is the Monkey and mine is the Rooster(Chicken). Although, it feels like we’re living in the year of the dentist.
A stone carved pagoda towered above every other sculpture in sight. The thick foliage offered some respite from the afternoon sun.
We love visiting Buddhist temples because they’re always situated in the midst of nature. Basil made friends with a six-legged critter. The gorgeous insect was well camouflaged on Basil’s T-Shirt and required a gentle push to fly away.
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple was constructed in 1376 by the founding Buddhist teacher, Naong, in the Goryeo period. The main sanctuary got a facelift in 1970 and more attention was given to recreating the original colours.
The pathway from the entrance gate continues downhill and passes through a closed cave kind of structure. It gets incredibly narrow from this point and joins the series of 108 steps. We never counted the steps, but it is quite something.
Somewhere in the middle, there’s a small detour that leads to this statue of Buddha and splendid views of the coast.
Most Buddhist temples are built on mountain tops and offer spectacular views of lofty peaks and low lying clouds. This temple is markedly different because it’s built along the rocky coastline of north-eastern Busan. There were many opportunities to admire the grey coastline and the traditional temple construction built along the jagged rocks.
It can be quite tiring to travel with a mask. The heat doesn’t really help the experience. But we were lucky to have a panoramic view of the temple and the sea. Occasionally, a whiff of cool breeze would blow on our face and made the effort worth it. It was quite remarkable to see almost every tourist, pilgrim, and visitor follow distancing rules and also keep their mask on — despite the heat.
This lookout point leads to the outer perimeter of the Fisheries Science Centre. There are a couple of stone stupas here and they look pretty spectacular up close.
The water was a brilliant shade of blue and reflected the sky above. It is truly soothing to watch the waves crash on the rocks and fade away.
We walked back to the path of narrow stairs. The path is spilt into two sections: one for going up and the other for going down. Everyone stuck to their section of the staircase. The stairs join a small curved bridge that overlooks a collection of statues of Buddha. Some visitors had thrown coins — possibly for good luck. Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is believed to be the ‘Most Beautiful Temple in Korea’. However, I’d have to disagree. We’ve explored so many stunning temples in Korea and it’s hard to pick which one’s the most beautiful of them all.
The stairs finally open into the main temple complex. There are multiple prayer halls here and some pilgrims were offering prostrations to the presiding deity. Please be mindful of local cultural practices whilst entering the main prayer halls and try to be respectful of the sancticty of the place. Some local tourists were clicking pictures in wild abandon — disturbing the silence of the pilgrims.
The views kept getting better from above and each level had hidden gems waiting to be found. This temple is truly beautiful.
Paintings from Buddhist scriptures decorated the outer walls of each prayer hall. We didn’t enter every hall.
In June, clusters of hydrangeas filled the gardens of the temple complex. The gardens also doubled as backdrops for most visitors. I wouldn’t blame them because these flowers look so pretty in the afternoon sun.
From this point, the narrow steps literally turn into slabs of stone and I was worried because it had rained on the earlier day. It’s a short climb up and it wasn’t as slippery as I thought it would be. Fewer people ventured this far because of the heat and narrow pathway.
The topmost level of the temple complex offers a bird’s-eye view of the entire temple complex. The narrow pathways below were clogged with two-way traffic of feet. Over here, it was serene and peaceful. The mix of the rugged coastline and corrugated rooftops was a sight for sore eyes.
The towering statue of the ‘Goddess of Mercy’ triumphs over the thick foliage and stands guard over the temple complex. This statue can be seen from the farthest end of the temple complex.
There’s another trail to go down and this one was easier than the one to climb up. We spotted temple rooftops peeking from green trees.
Statues like these are quite common in Korean temples. These statues were tucked in a crevice in the wall of the courtyard.
Since we had already explored the other side of the courtyard on our way up, we decided to focus on the other sights that we’d skipped. The statue of the dragon was quite stunning and I was surprised that we had missed it on our way up. However, I’m not sure of the cultural or religious significance of this statue. I don’t remember seeing such statues in other Korean temples. My best guess would be that it’s built to ward off evil spirits.
Along the pathway of 108 steps, there are different statues of Buddha and each statue is believed to grant a wish.
There’s also a underground cave that has a unique design of Buddha. Prayer candles lit up the dark cave and created an eerie atmosphere.
I know we must be silent observers as travellers. We aren’t visiting to create a change and we must keep the place we visit — as untouched as possible — to recreate the original experience for the next traveller. I also understand that Korea has come a long way in the past decade. I’ve seen so many young couples with daughters and many more who would like to have daughters. I know (for a fact) that the women’s movement against sexism, gender violence, stalking, hidden cameras, and general bias has been gaining momentum. Women (the younger generation) aren’t just reduced to the stereotypes of being pretty and having incredible skin (drives the K-beauty industry). I have seen the change in just four years. Personally, I’m fortunate to have parents who gave me an education and the freedom to think and speak without fear. I’m fortunate to be ‘wanted’ and encouraged to ‘think’. Many don’t have a choice in either. That’s why, when I read the lines on this statue, it broke my heart. We’re in 2020. When will ‘we’ be as wanted as a son?
We had some more time and I wanted to visit another pretty temple: Haeun-Jeongsa. We took a cab from Haedong Yonggungsa to Haeun-Jeongsa. But, if you want to take the subway, Haeundae Station (line2) is the nearest to the temple. We were staying opposite Haeundae Beach and Haeun-Jeongsa was just walking distance back to the hotel.
Haeun-Jeongsa was literally deserted in the afternoon. We walked towards the statue of Buddha (in the centre) and great masters on either side. There wasn’t any material or board to explain the significance of these statues. A believer had left a bag of rice as an offering and pigeons pecked on it.
The outer courtyard was peaceful and serene. It was quiet — just the way I prefer it. There’s something about quiet places that are believed to be sacred. My own faith is indecisive and I prefer nature to scripture. However, places like these have a soothing influence on me and take away every worry on my mind.
The main courtyard offered a stellar view of Busan’s skyrises. And like most of Korea, it wasn’t hard to see how tradition and modernism always found a way to coexist in the present.
Haeun-Jeongsa was founded by Zen Master Jinje in 1971 and follows the Zen doctrine of Buddhism. The Three-story Stone Pagoda (not in pictures) was made a tangible cultural property (No.212) of Busan this May.
The angular rooftops of the prayer halls were painted in traditional colours of green, blue, and red. We greeted a nun and she greeted us warmly. We entered the main prayer hall and sat in silence. Two other believers prayed fervently and offered Buddhist prostrations. The silence was a truly rewarding experience.
The garden was adorned with pretty roses and flowers I didn’t know names of. I almost didn’t want to leave this temple.
Haeun Jeongsa is a gem tucked away in a sleepy village. We walked bach to our hotel and explored quaint lanes and quiet neighbourhoods. It took about 10 minutes to walk back to Haeundae Beach.