SOUL SEARCHINGIn the midst of Seoul's speeding taxis and rushing people, the city has three special religious sites where one can meditate or stroll about in spiritual silence. A flank of graceful trees surround Gilsangsa temple in Seongbuk-dong. Near the heart of frantic Itaewon, an exotic Islamic mosque rises up in stately tranquility. A breathtaking Anglican cathedral graces Jeong-dong. Regardless of whether one is an adherent to the faith or not, a visitor can still be a fall pilgrim and visit places that inspire true contemplation.
When you want to quietly reflect, what better place to do it than at a Buddhist shrine? Gilsangsa is one of the best spots in Seoul to relax and free the mind.
Located at the foot of Mount Bugak, near the residential area of Seongbuk-dong, the temple used to be a luxurious Korean restaurant called Daewongak. The fashionable restaurant was changed into a temple complex in 1997 after the owner of the restaurant donated the estate, which was worth more than 100 billion won (about $76 million), to a Buddhist priest named Beopjeong.
On the grounds of the temple stands Chimmuk-ui Jip (House of Silence), which is open to anyone who needs a quite place to pray or to meditate. To the left of the main gate sits a teahouse called Nanuneun Gippeum (Joy of Sharing), where you can taste a cup of delicious green tea, jujube tea or apricot tea for 2,000 won. Both the temple and the teahouse are open between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Simujang, a small Korean house where Han Yong-un, a well-known poet and monk, spent his later years, can also be found in the neighborhood. Mr. Han was one of 33 people who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1919 in defiance of Japanese colonial rule. Simujang is the repository of relics belonging to the patriotic poet, as well as some of his writings. For more information, call 02-3672-5945.
The Seoul Central Masjid
This Islamic mosque in Itaewon features a striking exterior that is highlighted by a round roof with observation towers that rise 20 meters. On the front of the temple are the Arabic words Allahu Akbar, for "Allah is Great." Police have guarded the mosque since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. No incidents have been reported, but visitors need to bring identification before visiting the mosque.
Upon entering the mosque's courtyard a sudden change in the atmosphere is readily apparent. Quite contrary to bustling street life outside the gate, the mosque complex is steeped in silence. During a service, a visitor can find anywhere from a handful to hundreds of Moslems. There are typically several Koreans on hand as well. In fact, about 35,000 Koreans across the peninsula practice Islam. The most important service each week is held Fridays at 1 p.m., and generally more than 700 Moslems attend. Non-Islamic visitors are prohibited from entering the chapel but are allowed to stand outside and watch the service through the windows.
There are some Islamic restaurants in the area that serve Turkish, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Egyptian dishes. Menu prices near the mosque are much more reasonable than most of the Middle Eastern and South Asian restaurants in other parts of Seoul. For more information, call 02-793-6908.
Seoul Anglican Cathedral
Lated in Jeong-dong, this edifice of the Anglican Church of Korea is a popular tourist attraction. The Anglican faith was introduced to Korea by English missionaries in 1890, and the Seoul cathedral constructed in 1926 is said to be the first Romanesque building in East Asia. Most noticeable about the cathedral are the arches on all sides, typical of Romanesque architecture.
At the front of the church are mosaics of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. At sunset, the nave of the cathedral stands out due to the colorful stained-glass windows.
In the basement lies a small crypt with a brass plate at the center, dedicated to the memory of Mark Trollope, the third bishop of Korea's Anglican Church and founder of the cathedral. There is also a columbarium which houses the ashes of 1,500 members of the church.
Close by is Cecil Theater, which was built in the honor of Cecil Cooper, the fourth bishop of the Seoul Anglican Cathedral. The theater includes a restaurant, which is a popular gathering place among prominent political figures.
Visitors with an interest in British culture might want to check out the British Council, located just behind the cathedral. There one can use the Council's information center, which has various newspapers, journals and multimedia materials, all day for just 2,000 won. On Fridays at 3:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. a British film is shown in the Council auditorium. For more information, call 02-730-6611~2
by Kim Sun-ha