BUSAN, South Korea –“This had better be the best temple I’ve ever seen,” my friend Cheryl declared after about two hours of hiking as we trudged up the last stretch of an intense incline. She had walked ahead, on a mission to find out if our trek to Seokbulsa (Stone Buddha Temple) would be as memorable as we had all hoped. At a turtle’s pace, the other four of us walked through the main entrance, greeted by the usual colorful wooden structures that characterize Korea’s Buddhist temples.
Cheryl was looking past these structures at something that the rest of us had yet to see “This is incredible! You have to see this,” she urged us to walk faster, closer to the side of the mountain. “Just don’t look at the stairs,” she added when we were close. A sense of defeat hit me, and I thought that my legs might give out if I climbed another step. I banished the flights of stone stairs from my mind, and that feeling was quickly replaced by awe. Here, the mountain-side that I had been cursing for the last hour transformed into the most inviting, most serene and most interesting site I had seen in Busan yet.
Craning my neck to take in the entire scene, I was struck by the wonderful sound of nothing. After 10 months of living in this busy city, I’ve grown to accept the blaring of car horns, bellowing of street vendors and chattering of intoxicated laughter as the soundtrack of my life in Korea. Arriving at Seokbulsa (???), also known as Byeongpung-am (Folding Screen Hermitage), the peacefulness is distinctive, like entering an air-conditioned room after roasting in the sweltering heat – calm and contentment just envelope you.
Don’t be misled by the name – Seokbulsa is not a temple made of stone, unceremoniously perched on the mountain ledge. It is the mountain – embedded on the side of Geumjeongsan, cradled in the strong rock’s clutch. A massive Buddhist figure stands in front of a polished stone prayer platform. The three sides of the temple are mountain rock transposed into towering walls, 40 meters tall, adorned with intricate carvings of six Buddhist figures. Numerous religious designs are etched directly into the mountain side, staring down at you from tremendous heights. Two small caverns house modest shrines where prayers and offerings can be made. The cave walls are cool and damp, and the darkness is cut only by flickering candles and the sunlight pouring through the entrance.
I had visited other Buddhist temples in Busan, surprised by the large groups of people and busy vendors littering the grounds, surrounding what I had naively assumed would be a place to escape the everyday bustle of the busy city. After visiting Beomeosa and Haedong Younggangsa, I felt that few other temples could really pique my interest. Then, I came across a small write-up on Seokbulsa in a travel guide. In my search to find more information about how to get to this elusive temple, I discovered that Lonely Planet lists Seokbulsa #1 on their list of 68 “things to do” in Busan and #24 out of 6197 “sights in Asia”. How had I not heard anything about this temple before?
Despite the lack of in-depth information on the Stone Buddha Temple, one fact I found repeatedly was that finding the temple is a challenge. So, armed with directions from numerous travel blogs and Lonely Planet, I set out with four friends on a Saturday afternoon, starting at Geumgang Park heading for Geumjeongsan Fortress’ South Gate, onward for an hour hike down (and up) the side of Geumjeongsan.
The cable car leading up to the top of Geumjeong mountain (Photo by Micro Ryan)
Before we could make our way to the cable car that would take us up the mountain, closer to our destination, we were stopped by a volunteer from the Korean Cultural and Tourism Institute, Wayne Kim. Kim gave us a brief history lesson on Buddhism and provided us with simplified directions to the temple, pointing out the best route on the maps that he gave us. Kim’s directions were simple — too simple for the trek we were about to embark on. Kim failed to mention the endless forks in the road and, while guessing worked out well for us in some instances, asking locals for directions proved the most helpful. In typical Korean fashion, if they were unable to give us direction, the people we approached would simply walk along with us until we found our way.
Hopping across small streams; deciding which paths to take when our options exceeded one
(or even two); walking down steep stair-like structures made of stone, dirt and tree roots – we had an adventurous hike. At times, I felt like a kid running down a hill – with no control or ability to brake. However, I don’t recall having to dodge large boulders or trees in every direction when I was young. The terrain was taxing in some places, where even a hiker equipped with the latest Korean hiking fashions and poles managed to take a tumble on the steep incline.
The uphill hump, the last leg of the our trek, proved to be the point of no return – among the inexperienced, only the most determined hikers would manage to make it up the interminable last 600 meters of steep road. Bending forward slightly would have allowed me to crawl the rest of the way up, and I was definitely tempted to do so. Reaching the last plateau before the final incline approaching the temple, it was time to take a break. Two of us star-fished on the ground, sweaty and exhausted, savoring the last bit of water we had brought.
Reaching the heart of Seokbulsa, I felt ridiculous for questioning whether or not the hike would be worth it. The Stone Buddha Temple is without a doubt unlike any other temple in Busan. The act of reaching the temple itself makes the experience meaningful. Climb the stone steps of the upper section of the temple, turn around and relish the view of the now-tiny city below you. A noisy city, crammed tightly with buildings and people doesn’t create the most beautiful imagery, but from these heights, Busan becomes an abstract piece of artwork, mounted on a matting of lush mountains.
The five of us sat in silence, too enthralled with our surroundings to talk. I felt that this was what a visit to a spiritual refuge was supposed to be like. There were no large families chattering away, taking photos; no food or sewage smells to distract our senses; no crowds to aggressively push through just to get a good glimpse of the temple shrines. There was only us and the Buddhist temple, tucked away in the side of a mountain. I fantasized about escaping to this place every time the hurried life of Busan was too much for me. Reluctantly, I snapped back to reality, thinking about the two-hike and I reminded myself that this would probably be the only time I’d visit Seokbulsa. If the sun hadn’t begun to disappear and the dark clouds threatening rain weren’t moving so quickly toward us, we would have stayed there for hours.
To make the trip up to Seokbulsa a little less challenging, here are some tips (especially for inexperienced hikers like myself):
Bring lots of water!
Take the cable car up from the bottom of the mountain to save yourself about 45 minutes and conserve your energy for the more demanding terrain closer to the temple grounds.
Ask for directions! Even if you think you may be on the right track, don’t hesitate to ask a local where the temple is. There aren’t many signs pointing the way, and if you’ve lived in South Korea for a while, you are probably aware of how reliable those things are, anyway.
Keep in mind that this will be one of the coolest things you may see or do while in Busan, so ignore the pain in your legs, ignore the sweat dripping down your back and don’t think about your hike BACK to the beginning until after you’ve seen Seokbulsa with your own eyes.
Start early! You may find other sights along the way that will distract you from your mission. Our group sat in Namman Village to watch a game of soccer-volleyball being played by some Korean hikers. We also took a breather sitting on large rocks in a beautiful streambed fed by a small cascade of water. By the time we left Seokbulsa, we feared that it would get dark before we made it back and that the impending rain clouds would douse the mountain sooner than we would like.
—Take the subway to Oncheonjang Station (#127 on Line No.1 – Orange) and grab a cab to Geumgang Park.
— Enter the park grounds and follow the signs to the cable car (you can buy your tickets at the window before boarding the car)
— After the cable car ride up the mountain, follow the signs to the South Gate of Geumjeongsanseong Fortress
— From the South Gate, walk away from the fortress down the path on the left (the one you didn’t take to get there). You’ll arrive in Namman Village, where there are restaurants and soccer/volleyball courts.
—Walk to the end of the village until you can’t walk straight anymore and turn right onto a narrow
dirt path. Follow this path until you reach another restaurant ahead of you and turn left on to a larger dirt path leading to a small wooded bridge traversing a small stream.
— You will end up on a major path, where you’ll likely see a number of other hikers. Follow this through the trees, down a large dirt stair-case and down another set of stairs next to a stream.
Continue down the stairs until you reach a large paved road. Turn right onto this road.
— The paved road will lead you all the way up to Seokbulsa. Look out! It gets quite steep toward the end.
— On your return, you can go back the way you came or follow the paved road all the way down the mountain. The nearest subway stop, Mandeok Station on subway line #3, isn’t far from the bottom of the mountain after you hike down.
Photos by Edvencher (Flickr)