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Published: February 17th 2012
There are those relatively rare periods of travel that leave you breathless with wonder and excitement. As I settled into the bus heading to the southern part of Korea, I was not to know that the next few days would be one such period.
My predilection for religious sites always finds me gravitating to churches, mosques, temples and other sites of divine significance. My visit to South Korea would be no different, and the Haeinsa Temple was the first of such places on this sojourn. Situated amongst the glorious mountain scenery that dominates the peninsula, its fame derives from its housing of the Tripitaka Koreana
, a 13th
century collection of 81,258 wooden blocks inscribed with over 52 million Korean characters of Buddhist scripture. Not being favoured of a temple stay (thus missing the early 3am start and 108 prayer bows) the nearby city of Daegu is the obvious base.
Daegu’s early morning bus rode along damp and winding roads until it deposited its passengers at the trail to the Temple at the foot of Mount Gayasan. The timing of my Korean visit was partly to view autumn in full bloom, and it appeared that despite some beautiful colours in
the foliage, I had missed the season’s best at this locale. A fog hung across distant mountains and I traversed the moderately inclined path until I arrived at the Temple. Haeinsa Temple means “Temple of Reflection on a Smooth Sea” even though no ocean was within many kilometres, but what was revealed by the lifting fog was a beautiful panorama of variegated mountains.
An extensive exploration of the Temple was curtailed as much of the complex is not accessible to day visitors. The undoubted highlight is the Tripitaka Koreana
, locked within a series of wooden buildings, and the number of blocks is remarkable, it was a pity that photography is forbidden. Upon leaving, a constantly smiling venerable monk took great pleasure in showing me a large photograph of the Tripitaka and took equal pleasure in offering to pose for my camera.
I coincided my arrival with the morning prayer session, but due to the amount of external noise, found this not to be as soothing as it otherwise should. After completing my perambulations, I rested against one of the buildings to admire the main quadrangle when my ears were alerted to the sound of drums. I fondly remember
attending a world drum festival during the World Expo in Brisbane more than two decades ago, and the undoubted highlight were the Korean performers. I hastened to where the sound emanated from to espy a modest crowd watching three monks alternating positions to beat a thunderous drum and rattle the wooden frame with a mastery that had me grinning in approval.
As I was leaving the Temple by strolling through a landscaped area, a strong gust of wind filled the air with leaves shed from their branches. People around me gasped in awe as hundreds of red, orange and yellow leaves speckled the air. The dampness on some of the leaves glistened in the sunlight, and their luminance appeared as if the hues of a sunset had gently evaporated from upon high, and the embers from its warm colours had gentled floated to earth.
After this beguiling conclusion to my Haeinsa Temple visit, the following day I journeyed towards Gyeong-ju, but at the train station, my camera bag slipped from my hand and gently plopped onto the pavement. After boarding the train, I pulled the camera from my bag to review some photographs, but froze upon clearly hearing
the sound of broken glass. The fall seemed innocuous, but something more sinister was afoot. My heart anxiously raced as I removed the lens cap to espy shards of broken glass – my body weakened. I extracted the largest piece to discover that only the filter had smashed and the lens appeared unaffected. I carefully removed all of the glass and with difficulty unscrewed the now glassless impacted filter, and immediately performed some test photographs, which on analysis showed that my lens had suffered no damage – what an enormous relief!
Arriving in Gyeong-ju, I needed to find accommodation, but visiting the tourist office was disappointing for they neglected to advise me of the plethora of love hotels which I knew were nearby. Perhaps embarrassment prevented their mention, so I explored regardless and within 20 minutes stumbled across a fine looking example with a pseudo-Italian facade and discreet entrances to avoid the prying eyes of outsiders. Like their Japanese counterparts the receptionist was hidden from view so one could be ensured of absolute privacy. Upon entering my room, I laughed aloud at my fortune for a travel themed abode awaited me, complete with a red circular ceiling light, which
gave the whole room a feeling reminiscent of certain infamous streets in Amsterdam. Love Hotels in Korea are not as ostentatious as their Japanese equivalents, but they still represent excellent value if one can ignore the connotations often linked to them.
Due to it being a miserable leaden and rainy day, I proceeded to the major indoor attraction of the town, the Gyeong-ju National Museum. Not only did it house some very fine pieces but the gift shop allowed me to increase my cufflink collection. Later, I visited the thousand year old Daereungwon Tomb Complex from the Shilla Kingdom era. The tombs lie within large artificial hills, and I had seen similar tombs in North Korea but these were larger, more numerous, and (due to autumn) more colourful. The evening was spent wandering the small shopping area that contained some excellent eating options, including a sensational tasting Japanese Donburi. Even though Gyeong-ju is small in size, it still possessed an energy typical of many Asian cities.
The following morning realised my primary reason for visiting Gyeong-ju, travelling to arguably the finest Temple in all of Korea. Bulguksa Temple has been a place of worship for 1500 years, but
the current buildings date from the early 17th century. The inclement weather of the previous day had continued and that, coupled with my early arrival, meant very few visitors at this hour. My initial impression was not the grandeur of the temple, but the colours of the trees, for a huge palette of vivid colour encircled the largely empty prayer halls, pagodas, stairways and gates. I was later informed that the autumn leaves were now at their best, thus what was missed in Haeinsa, was found at Bulguksa.
I occupied the hours by viewing a prayer session in the Museoljeon
(No Word Hall) and due to the quieter surrounds, it was easier to absorb its ambience than Haeinsa. Another area saw prayers being invoked by placing stones on top of already placed stones, thus transforming the place into a garden of miniature towers. Much time was passed just sitting and observing the activity around this glorious complex; groups of monks fashioned in grey were intermingled with Korean tripod-wielding camera enthusiasts, who appeared to love their tripods as much as their cameras.
As the morning continued, the crowds thickened, so I took my leave and boarded another bus that
snaked its way up Mount Tohamsan to the Seokgurum Grotto. Dating, from 741 CE, the small entrance belies a capacious enclosure with beautiful granite statues of Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Disciples; the finery of the carvings was of the highest order. The sights around the Grotto were limited, so I decided that my descent from the mountain should not be by bus, but walking trail instead.
A mist swirled and danced as I commenced my gentle hike by kicking my way through the chromatic carpet of leaves. Spectacular scenery abounded, brightly hued trees lay on every side and gathered thickly overhead to form a coloured canopy, the shades of autumn eventually fading in the dense fog. The walking track held few others, and most of this journey was in blissful solitude. Wanting to prolong this experience I slowed my stride and eventually paused, carefully placed my bag and camera on a rock, and rested my hands against a cool, damp wooden rail. Gazing across a small gully I slowly and deeply inhaled the crisp air, stilled my breathing, and silently let the vibrant beauty of nature infuse me with its magic.
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