Visiting 3 terrific Korean temples in one weekend

Photos by Kyle Haney
Photos by Kyle Haney

Visiting 3 terrific Korean temples in one weekend

by Kyle Haney

It’s extremely easy to Google “temples near me” while living in South Korea and end up in a tranquil place within minutes–even without a car! But, with so many temples to choose from, you can quickly become inundated by the sheer amount that are available for visiting on the Korean peninsula.

That’s where this guide aims to help–I’ve discovered 3 temples within a day-trip’s length of Osan Air Base that all offer distinct differences and unique experiences when compared. And the best part: you can see all three in a single weekend–read on!

Mangisa Buddhist Temple

Mangisa Temple

It’s hard to believe this peaceful place exists so close to the hustle and bustle of Osan, Pyeongtaek, and Osan Air Base, but this place is relaxation personified. Only 20 minutes from Osan Air Base lies the Iron Seated Buddha in the hills of Jinwi-myeon, making it an easy half-day trip if you’re in need of decompressing and destressing.

Stone bridge over the coy fish pond, The Jonggo (bell tower)

Though I visited this masterpiece in the summer, the Mangisa Temple grounds have been referred to as “chun-magok-chu-gapsa” which translates to a temple of spring and autumn given its impeccable color transformations during those seasons. I can only imagine the serenity of this place as autumn leaves drape the outskirts or as flower blooms explode throughout the grounds in the spring!

As you enter Mangisa, you must first pass through the Gate of the Four Heavenly Kings situated in the underworld of the Imperial Palace (inscribed in Chinese above the door). This is custom of Korean Temples and each will have a unique craftsmanship associated with the Kings; some large, some small, some colorful, some not. As you pass through, you’ll be welcomed by four, massive statues that stand on either side of the temple’s doors, carefully watching over the four cardinal directions of the world and the four seasons of the earth.

The Jonggo and a Pagoda at Mangisa

Of the four kings, one of them is playing a bipa (or lute), a popular instrument played by warriors in ancient central Asia, and another is firmly holding a sword parallel with the ground as if to almost have it aimed for you neck. That’s King Dhrtarastra and King Virudhaka respectively. King Vaisravana, the leader, is holding an umbrella to represent protection and King Virupaksa is holding a snake and a pearl to represent change and homogeneity.

What struck me the most about these Kings were the vibrant colors that donned their warrior ensembles, creating a very grandiose sight for the visitor. The size and postures of the Kinds are also something that caught my attention as I passed them. As I walked by, I couldn’t tell it I was soon to be protected by them, or if I was the one they were protecting the grounds from.

Once through the gate, you’ll climb up another set of stairs and find yourself in awe as your eyes are drawn immediately to the main hall situated atop the grounds. Pause here and listen to the dozens of bells ringing in the breeze as the warm winds remind you that you’re in a place of worship and peace. To your right is a small coy fish pond with a stone bridge that leads to one of the many halls on site. Watch carefully as you pass by; they will follow you!

As you enter the main hall, you’ll be eye-to-eye with the Iron Seated Nyorai dating all the way back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 AD). The left hand is palm up and the right facing the ground, symbolic of when Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became Shakyamuni. Notice the thick gold coverings of the Nyorai and the dragons circling just above his head.

It’s incredible to bear witness to such history while spending time in contemplation or relaxation here, definitely give it a shot some weekend!

Doksanseong Fortress

Doksanseong Fortress at sunset

Doksanseong Fortress is just outside of Osan and is unique in that it seems remote yet it overlooks a city. Additionally, it was originally built as a lookout and defense location from invading armies! The fortress, which was built during the Baekje period (sometime between 57 BC to 668 AD), has a 1,095m-long wall surrounding the temple and pagodas and was placed in a strategic location given the elevated, 360-degree views of the area. General Gwon Yul credits victory to this spot during the Japanese invasion as this location was key to defending present-day Seoul from attacks.

View of Osan from Doksanseong Fortress

As you approach this Fortress, you’ll have the option to drive all the way to the top parking lot and tour the temple grounds only or, you can park just below the road leading to the summit; I recommend the latter. If you park there, you’ll be at the beginning of a trailhead that leads down into some gorgeous hiking trails that run through the Korean forests. Additionally, you’ll have some amazing views of Osan and the surrounding countryside many kilometers away!

Back up the road, the entrance to the Doksanseong Fortress is through the East Gate which is a small, 6-foot tall walkway through the fortress wall that leads you up into the temple grounds. As you rise over the small hill after passing through the East Gate, the temple appears majestically to your right with an ancient Command Post hovering in the background over the Main Hall’s shoulder. It’s easy to stop here and rest your eyes gaze on the delicacy of the temple’s architecture and the craftsmanship of the wall–find one of the many benches and do just that! Take your time and admire these historic artifacts, there’s no rush.

Doksanseong Fortress

I thought about going directly up to the Main Hall and peering in to see what relics lay inside but decided to tour the fortress boundary instead. I was rewarded with magnificent 360-degree views of Osan and the countryside thanks to the pollution being less than unbearable that day and a relatively cloudless sky.

For miles, I could stop and look out to the horizon and let my eyes wander across the hilly Korean countryside. As my eyes bounced around, I pondered if I’d ever end up hiking any of the areas and what it must have been like to spot the enemy coming across the various ranges. After my daydreaming had ended, I then stumbled up to the Command Post where one can sit and rest on the benches for the best views on the mountain. I highly suggest you do the same!

Cityscape views from the Doksanseong Fortress Command Post

Continuing on, I started back down the hill as the sun was starting to set and the temple fell into an evening shadow that magnified the zen energy more than I had anticipated experiencing. I came around, back in front of the main hall, and chose to go to what I learned was the medicinal Buddha to the right of the main hall. There, I discovered a mediation mat that was somehow calling my name.

An outdoor meditation mat overlooking Osan at Doksanseong Fortress

I promptly removed my shoes, sat cross-legged, closed my eyes, and began to focus on my breathing. Not knowing if this was how meditation was supposed to be done here, I must have guessed correctly because I could feel a sense of peace wash over me as my shoulders dropped and my stress all but faded away. The birds whistled in the nearby pines and the bugs buzzed past my shoulders as they hurried to finish their daily tasks before nightfall. Faintly, I could hear the wind rustling the leaves on the nearby trees as if the earth took one final breath before succeeding to the evening.

The Main Hall at the Doksanseong Fortress

My eyes opened slowly and I took in my surroundings. I couldn’t help but feel a massive smile spread across my face as I realized that I had just produced an organic moment consisting of meditating in a Korean temple as the sunset cast blurry shadows across the Korean countryside I was in; How. Freaking. Surreal lol.

I put my shoes back on, took a peak inside the main temple, then went about the rest of my day, walking on air.

Donghwasa Temple

Buddha Statue at Donghwasa Temple

Now, this temple is a bit of a distance from Osan Air Base in that it’s much closer to Camp Walker in Daegu but, I promise I saved this one for last because it is the best! Donghwasa was truly the best temple of the weekend thanks to the monk prayer session I stumbled upon, the waterfalls I listened to, and the grounding I experienced as I meditated in the river flowing through the grounds.

To get to Donghwasa from Osan, park at the Jije SRT station and buy a ticket for Daegu. When you get off the SRT at Daegu, head towards exit five in the terminal, go down the stairs, and under the bridge is a bus stop (Dongdaegu Station Underpass 2 to be exact) where you’ll catch the red express bus for 19 stops before arriving at Donghwasa Temple–it’s that easy to get here!

The Bus route from Dongdaegu Station to Donghwasa Temple

As you exit the bus, begin the march up the rather steep hill to the massive One Pillar Gate. The One Pillar Gate is common in Korean Buddhist temples and it establishes the sacred area from the secular one. Here, you’ll encounter the Four Heavenly Kings again, but in much, much larger forms than the Mangisa Temple’s. As you sneak past them (and after you pay an entrance fee of a few thousand Won), you’ll begin down a large tunnel that will spit you out in front of this amazing oasis fed by mountain stream water.

Heavenly Kings

 Entering the Donghwasa Temple grounds

A mountain stream-fed pond at Donghwasa

I encourage you to walk around to the north end of this pond where the water feeds it. Pause at the bridge over the inlet and rest in the shade for a moment. Listen to the brook and let it hypnotize you into a state of relaxation. The walk along the boardwalk around the perimeter definitely helped me shake off some of the tension from the train and the bus ride and I think it would do the exact same for you.

Continuing on, you can either hike into the national forest to the north, or continue on to Donghwasa Temple–the choice is yours! Being that I was there on a Sunday, a day of rest, I chose to relax and take my time admiring the temple rather than bagging a mountain hike.

The Jonggo and some Pagodas at Donghwasa

The first thing one notices upon entering the grounds is the amazing scenery in which this temple is situated. If you pause here, pay attention to the the mountains and valleys all around you that harness the gentle breezes coursing through the air. Listen closely and you can hear the sound of running water just beyond the pagodas in front of you. You’ll eventually get to cross over the river on your way to the temple even! Take your time in this part of the campus though, admiring the beautiful colors adorning the facades of the pagodas and the main hall.

Pagodas at Donghwasa

When you’re done wandering this portion of Donghwasa, follow your ears and make your way towards the sound of falling water. As you do, you’ll step down towards a road that leads along a beautiful river full of waterfalls–simply incredible! Feel free to stop at each one and let your gaze go long as you focus on the sound of each waterfall, there’s no rush after all!

When you’re ready, continue along the road until you see the sign pointing in the direction of the Main Hall. As you follow it, you’ll go up about 2 or 3 flights of stairs until you reach the pinnacle of the Donghwasa and why you made the journey out here in the first place: the massive Main Hall and the Buddha statue.

The Main Hall and the Buddha Statue at Donghwasa

I was extremely lucky when I visited Donghwasa as it was a Sunday and the monks were leading prayer for some 200 people. The sounds of monks chanting sacred prayers into the wind that was rolling off of the green mountainside in the presence of a massive Buddhist statue is something I’ll never forget, and it’s a moment I’ll always be thankful for.

Waterfalls at Donghwasa

Feeling as if I needed to “do as the Romans do” and join in on the meditation, I chose to continue back on the road along the river, searching for a rock to rest on for some solitude. Within a few hundred feet, I found a small, flat rock just beyond a small drop in the middle of the river that looked perfect for a spot to rest.

I took off my shoes (and sweaty socks), waded into the cold water, and promptly sat down in utter awe of my experience. I was grounded, and I was appreciative. I couldn’t believe I was experiencing what I had and I couldn’t help but grow a massive grin on my face as I realized just how blessed I truely am.

Grounding in the river at Donghwasa
If you choose to go inside any of the halls to pray, remember to pay your respects by taking off your shoes off and respecting the purpose of the temple: a place to worship. Have fun exploring and if you find any other temples worth visiting, please comment below and let me know! Thanks for reading!

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