The first view of the entire Tapsa Temple (Photo by Chihon Kim)

The first view of the entire Tapsa Temple (Photo by Chihon Kim) ()

When it comes to mountains, height isn’t always everything. At a mere 685 meters, Maisan Mountain, located in Jianan-gun, Jeollabuk-do, may not be very tall, but it offers a great view of neighboring peaks and unique topography. From its peak, the view of Tapsa Temple, with its mysterious 80-stone pagodas, is worth the leisurely climb alone.

A 2-hour drive from Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base, Maisan is a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city that offers some great hiking.

Many visitors to the mountain visit multiple times a year as its scenery changes with the season and, to match, so does its name.

Maisan means “horse ear mountain,” since its peaks resembles a horse’s ear. In the spring, it is called “Dotdaebong” meaning “mast peaks,” because it seems like the mast of a boat floating on the ocean as the spring mist rises. Its summer name is “Yonggakbong,” meaning “dragon horn peaks,” because the peaks standing out against the sky and the green wood around it are very much like a dragon and its horn. In fall, it’s called “Maibong,” or “horse ear,” because in the glow of the autumn leaves, the peaks look like horse ears. Finally, “Munpilbong,” its winter name, means “ink brush peaks,” since the peaks poking through the snow are shaped like brushes dipped in black ink.

There are many hiking trails on the mountain, but for a trail with moderate difficulty, try a 3-hour detour around the Tapsa Temple (2000KRW, or $1.73, for admission to the temple and the hiking trail) with easy access to the temple.

Most tourists visit this area for the temple, so starting from the trail head near the south parking lot (2000KRW, or $1.73 for parking), is an easy walk and gives direct access. Expecting a more difficult trail, I brought trekking poles, which I didn’t need at all.

Before you get to the ticket office for Tapsa Temple, stop for a look at Geumdangsa Temple, which has no admission charge. At this temple, visitors can take a peek at a 300-year-old portrait of Buddha.

Once past the ticket gate, the path is lined for about two kilometers with cherry blossom trees offering nice shade and, in the spring, a great place for viewing the pale pink flowers.

The landscape of Tapsa is so different from anything I’ve ever seen at other temples in Korea. When you reach the main temple area, it will feel like you entered a different world. There are numerous pagodas to catch your eye along with Ammaibong Peak, which provides a beautiful background. Although it is said that there were over 120 hand-built stone pagodas of all shapes and sizes at one time, today, only 80 remain. These 80 pagodas still manage to give the temple an aura of mystery.

According to local history, the towers were erected in the early 1900s by layman Lee Gap Yong, who lived from 1860 to 1957. Lee spent several decades there developing his mind and praying for the redemption of the non-believers as he built the stone pagodas.

Although the story that he alone built the structures is still told to this day, adding to the mysterious atmosphere of this temple, current belief is that he had a helper. These pagodas built from native rocks look fragile to the eye, but they’ve lasted over 100 years and have even survived numerous typhoons over the years.

The highest twin pagodas, called “Cheonjitap,” are behind the temple and many believers and tourists bow at these because they are believed to hold supernatural power.

If the initial hike to the temple doesn’t tire you out, make your way up the trail with access to the top of the Ammaibong Peak. There you will see a third temple, Eunsusa, at the foot of the mountain. The hike up to the top is a little steep, but there are steel guardrails to assist hikers. This stone peak has a distinct surface due to the “taponi,” a topographic phenomenon that makes the stone look almost like a honeycomb.

Visit Maisain Mountain multiple times to take in the changing landscape. This is a great spot for a relaxing stroll into Korean history.

Things to know Address: 30, Maisan-ro, Jinan-eup, Jinan-gun, Jeollabuk-do Hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Mar - Oct), 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. (Nov - Feb) Admission Fees: 1000 to 3000 KRW Parking Fees: 2000 to 3000 KRW

Do you like mountain hiking? Deung-san joahaeyo?

Where is the trail? Deung-san-loneun eodie innayo?

Bug repellent Sal-chung-je

Let’s go camping next weekend! Da-eum ju-mare kaemping-gayo!

Where can I buy camping equipment? Kaemping jangbi-neun eodiseo sal su isseoyo?

There is a sporting goods store I like in Seoul. Seoul-e naega joh-a-ha-neun yong-pum-jeom-i isseoyo.

Which supplies do I need? You will need a tent, a sleeping bag, a backpack, hiking boots, a flashlight, and a warm jacket. Eotteon junbimuri piryohalkkayo? Tenteu, chimnang, baenang, deungsanhwa, sonjeondeung, ttatteutan jakesi piryohal geoeyo.

How long is it to climb to the top? Jeongsangkkaji ol-la-ga-neun-de eol-ma-na geol-lyeo-yo? The scenery is so beautiful! Punggyeongi neomu yeppeoyo!

Will we have a picnic? Yes, let’s buy lunch and snacks at the grocery store to eat on the trail. Uri so-pung ganeun geoyeyo? Ne, super-e-seo deung-san-gaseo meogeul jeomsim-irang gansik jom gachi sayo.

Re-energize with region’s wild vegetable bibimbap, deep-fried ginseng

After the hike to Tapsa Temple, I strolled the restaurant alley on the way down to the parking lot to appease my hunger for the local specialty. Many traditional Korean restaurants specializing in vegetable and wild herb dishes were lined up along the path leading to the temple entrance. I thought I should try my luck by just walking into the first restaurant that caught my eye.

As I made my way into Chogajeongdam, I noticed the impressive ink-and-wash paintings of Mt. Maisan hanging on the walls. The dining room was clean and spacious, but I chose a spot on the terrace to cool off in the mountain breeze.

Chogajeongdam serves mainly wild vegetable bibimbap and various Korean traditional dishes. I chose the basic wild herb bibimbap accompanied by a refreshing soybean paste soup sprinkled with dried shrimp.

Unlike standard bibimbap, white rice topped with vegetables and gochujang (chili pepper paste, soy sauce), the bibimbap here came with all the ingredients in a separate dish. Another difference was the lack of colorful ingredients. Instead, eight different ingredients - groundsel, mulberry leaves, acanthopanax, thistle, bracken, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms and black mushrooms - and a variety of textures provided a combination of savory and delicate flavors, making it the best delicacy in the mountains.

Each bite provided a mouthful of bursting flavors and the seasoning was perfect. It was not salty at all, nor was it too spicy. Even the Kimchi that comes with the bibimbap was not too salty, making it easy to enjoy the flavors.

Root of the matter

Ginseng, a root of plants in the genus Panax, is a specialty of this area. Try the deep-fried ginseng (2500KRW, or $2.16 each) at a small eatery near the Chogajeongdam. Although the eatery has no name, you can easily find it, just keep an eye out for the signboard with a ginseng root illustration. The lovely golden colored fried-roots are displayed outside of the restaurant as well.

Basically, ginseng has a bitter taste, but the fried ginseng I bit into had a different flavor than I ever had before! The restaurant owner said when the ginseng is fried with vegetables like onions and carrots, it becomes a delicacy. It was really a good way to recover my strength after a hike.

Things to know

Address: 60-1, Dongchon-ri, Maryeong-myeon, Jinan-gun, Jeollabuk-do Contact: 063-432-2469 Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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