The search for Seokbulsa…

Since arriving in Korea and setting my feet on its mountainous land I have always been aware of Seokbulsa (석불사) temple. It is often alluded to in expat blogs and is high on the Lonely Planet’s guide of things to see in Korea. After moving to Busan in June last year it had become an even greater priority on my list of things to do and due to various excuses taken me fully nine months to find the time and opportunity to discover it. For months I have had the detailed directions to find this hidden Buddhist Temple anonymously catching dust on the roof of my fridge, sheepishly desiring my attention amongst forgotten bills and half-finished books.

I awoke last Saturday morning nurturing a recent rising in adrenalin that comes with the first signs of spring. For four months I have mainly shied away from exploration in Korea enforced by the bitter seasonal chill of winter that unremorsefully bit at my bones. After toying briefly with the idea of logging on and paying those omnipresent bills I chanced upon the instructions for the hike to Seokbulsa. With my priority in looking for excuses rapidly changing inside my heart from adventure avoidance to bill avoidance I jumped in the shower, grabbed my most suitable hiking clothes and headed to the subway.

Fifty minutes later I arrived in Oncheonjang 온천장, exited the subway, stocked up on Powerade and cereal bars and looked for the cable car up the mountain. Before you accuse me of laziness the cable car only served as a landmark to ensure I was hiking in the correct direction. Spying the red cable cars in the distance I walked out in the open to a blaze of sunshine and what can only be described as a wind tunnel. After digging out my extra jacket, that would spend the rest  of the day being put on and taken off at all to regular intervals and spending one minute trying to put it on and thirty seconds chasing it down the street as it blew away, I finally succeeded in dressing myself appropriately and set off through Oncheonjang to the forested mountain heights in front of me.

The hike began in Geumjang Park and as I left civilization behind the path deteriorated gradually as nature took hold on the mountain. Half way up the hike I encountered a pre-cursor to the wonders of Seokbulsa; a small cave in the rock face marked by some crafted steps and a rock carved Buddhist figure. Ten metres deep into the entrance was a small shrine and the threat of several hundred tonnes of rock face collapsing on you.

My hike continued up the mountain; carefully keeping an eye on the ground for the poisonous snakes that tried to kill me on my last mission on this mountain. Thankfully, this time I encountered none of the scaly serpents. As the wind subsided I shed my wooly hat, gloves, jacket and sweatshirt and rolled my sleeves up as the steepness intensified. As I neared the summit I chanced upon many other hikers exchanging the odd Korean greeting and nod of existence with most. One gentleman, on spying me as he rounded a rocky outcrop, exploded with joy when he saw me. Shouting excitedly in Korean he bounded down the slope to talk to me and shake my hand. I understood a little. We both agreed hiking was good (좋네요) and I managed to understand him explaining that nature, sun and earth was good for us. Beyond that I struggled and politely nodded my head until his conversational exuberance and lack of input on my part forced us both to say goodbye and continue on our ways.

As I hit the summit I followed signs to the south gate of Geumjeongsan mountain fortress. I had previously visited the northern gate in autumn last year and easily found the fortress wall and followed it to the south gate.

From the south gate I turned back on my tracks briefly, encountering some appreciative middle-aged women. At first one of them made the glottal sound that I have grown to understand means displeasure or disbelief. Thankfully,  it turned out to be more of disbelief as a few seconds after walking past them she shouted out hello handsome man and they all waved! I was heading down the mountain now looking for my next landmark, Nammun남문 village.

Nammun 남문 lirterally translates as ‘South Gate” so it seemed like a fitting name. The village was essentially a tented village of mountainside restaurants serving the hiking community. The only other prominent feature of this village was the presence of football tennis courts. Families and hiking groups seemed to enjoy plentiful bottles of soju and a good game of football soccer to break-up the mountain hike. I tried to watch a game but there seemed to be more soju action as the ball frequently exited the netted court and bounded off into the undergrowth and occasionally down the slopes or into the stream. My journey continued.

I followed the stream down until I came across the concrete road documented in my notes. I then set up this steep, winding driveway to what would hopefully be the temple I was in search of, Seokbulsa.

Arriving at Seokbulsa is a little underwhelming. After all the exertion I expected a majestic temple to emerge from the trees and blow me away. The entrance is unassuming and if it was not for the elaborate wrought iron bell that dominates all Buddhist temples overhanging the mountainside your average hiker would dismiss it as unspectacular and probably walk-on.

The real treat of Seokbulsa is hidden between two ordinary temple houses that mark the entrance to this fabulous, spiritual location. As I completed my disappointing entrance to the temple grounds I walked through the gap between the prayer rooms and walked up the steps to the true hidden beauty of Seokbulsa. Carved into the rock face are 30 feet tall idols that overlook a small prayer square. When I arrived I sat down and took in the spectacle. A Buddhist monk was crouched over deep in prayer, occasionally bursting out into song/chant and drumming his prayer drum. (It kind of looked like a large nutshell of some description). As I sat there observing him and taking in the landscape it was easy to absorb the sense of calm that can precipitate from feeling one with nature and yourself. It didn’t feel spiritual for me, more blissful.

As a few other visitors arrived I took to climbing up the rock face steps. The shrines mounted outside were simple but precarious. The ultimate shrine of faith was located through a narrow gap between two giant chunks of rock. The outer rock having gradually split through thousands of years of freeze and thaw. I’m sure someday this rock will crash down upon the temple below. As I squeezed through, fearing for earthquakes, I ultimately came out the other side. A small lonesome gap in the cliff face providing a perfect moment of reflection on the fragility of the world we live in as I looked out on Busan below me.

My journey ended with a reflective and fulfilled walk down to Dongnae subway. Enjoying the views from the mountain roadside that I eventually discovered through the tree lined slopes. On my walk down I saw a woodpecker tapping away at an evergreen tree trunk, he seemed  to be enjoying his spring day as much as I had mine.

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