Overlooked temple nestled by wailing trees and waterfallsTo some people, it may seem odd that temples could serve as a tourist destination. After all, aren’t they sacred shrines of worship and meditation? But for a growing number of Koreans, temples are becoming a popular weekend travel destination, not for their spiritual meaning, but because temples are situated in prime locations high in the mountains, surrounded by beautiful scenery.
Along with a breathtaking natural setting, you can enjoy substantial exercise by hiking into the mountains. Throw in a rich historic backdrop of Buddhist lore, and you have a nice trip for your body and soul.
A great place to start is Yeongguksa Temple, located in Yeongdong county, North Chungcheong province. Perched on the side of Mount Cheontae, the temple is considered humble in size, as temples go.
The hike to Yeongguksa is beautiful, although somewhat steep towards the end, and would discourage people with rheumatism in the knees. At the base of the mountain there is a wide tree-lined walkway, but about five minutes from the parking lot this gives way to a narrow, stony path.
The winding path is scenic but steep. Luckily, the most difficult areas are equipped with wooden steps. Stained a rich dark color, they blend in with the rest of the mountain so well that they appear to have grown there themselves.
Going up to the temple, you will come across two waterfalls. According to local forest officials, these are usually only a trickle, but gush heavily during the summer rains. Queer rock formations, twisting paths, and dribbling creeks create a fantasy-like atmosphere ― one half expects wood nymphs to be peeking out from behind large moss-covered rocks. In fact, the hiking trail would be a perfect setting for an Asian version of the “Lord of the Rings.”
Also, there are relatively fewer tourists hiking to Yeongguksa Temple since the temple itself isn’t much of an attraction compared to other famous temples. This means you can enjoy the quiet of the forest without being jostled by pompous hikers passing by at full speed when all you want to do is listen to water gurgling over stones.
The hike takes about one hour, although this varies depending on one’s physical condition and shoes (high heels and flip flops are strongly discouraged). You have almost arrived when you reach a flat area of land, where monks have planted various vegetables. Past this sits the temple.
Each temple has its points of interest, and at Yeongguksa Temple, there is some historical significance. Although it is small and humble in terms of architectural style, the temple houses several important national monuments, including a three-story pagoda and budo, a round stone pagoda that contains the sarira, or remains of a famous monk.
Also, in front of the temple is a 1,300-year old gingko tree, which has been designated as a natural monument. The tree is about 12 meters in diameter and 35 meters tall. Interestingly, trunk is split down the middle, and a gingko seed evidently blew into the crack, from which a new tree sprouted.
There are many local superstitions regarding this tree. One is that it "wails" in times of great grief such as national disasters. People argue about what actually causes the sound, which may simply be the sound of wind moving through the leaves. Locals claim that the most recent wailing incident occurred last year, at the time of the subway fire in Daegu.
For mountain climbing enthusiasts, Mount Cheontae also offers four hiking course ― one of which includes the path to Yeongguksa Temple. Another is a 75-meter rock-climbing course.
Yeongguksa Temple and Mount Cheontae don’t appear on the top ten list of places to go in tour books on Korea, but if you are in the country for a long period of time, this is a peaceful place to check out. That way, next time someone asks you about temples in Korea, you’ll be able to talk about something other than Bulguksa, the UNESCO World Heritage site near Gyeongju.
by Wohn Dong-hee
Getting there: From Yeongdong train station, buses depart six times a day to the base of Mount Cheontae. By car, get off at the Okcheon I.C. on the Gyeongbu Expressway and take national highway No. 4, then local road 501 to Yangsan. There are signs for Mount Cheontae. For more information, call the Yeongdong county office at 043-740-3211.