On a day of August heat and humidity, we went to find Gyeongju’s famous temple, Bulguk-sa. A short bus ride out of town and we arrived at the site of the ancient temple. The temple was originally built in the 6th century, during the the Shilla Dynasty, and it remained intact for over 1000 years. Bulguk-sa was burned to the ground in the late 16th century. The temple served as a stronghold and meeting place for Korean fighters during an eight-year Japanese occupation of Korea. Since 1608, the temple complex at Bulguk-sa has been meticulously reconstructed and stands today as a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site and a stunningly beautiful and peaceful place to be, despite the swarms of Korean and foreign tourists.
The temple complex is remarkable for its classical architecture and all the beauty that comes with simplicity. The humble layout and style of the complex is also reflected in the Buddha statues and peace they inherently emanate.
Brittany’s favorite teaching was that of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who opts to be reborn until all sentient beings reach enlightenment.
During our wanderings, we came to a beautiful path just to the side of the main fare wand walked up it a ways. It’s desolation in the midst of the hundreds of visitors made us think we missed some sort of keep out sign, but the whimsical call of untrodden fallen leaves was too tempting, and we were drawn to walk along a beautiful old stone drainage, and we managed a few moments of silence before returning to the main path.
Definitely among the most striking features of Bulguk-sa was the Pavilion of Rock Cairns (so dubbed by us). The pictures show it better, but I will say that there was something very magical about this place. Cairns were everywhere, along the roof tiles, on doors, and covering the grounds. We decided quickly to have cairns throughout our one day garden.
After leaving the temple complex, we took a two mile hike up the mountain to another national treasure, Seokguram Grotto, which was built in the 8th century and is made of huge granite stones which had to be carried many miles on mountain paths for the construction.
Of course, at this point, lunch was necessary, so we snacked on gas station PB&J’s (though what was inside them was more like mildly peanut flavored whipped cream than our idea of peanut butter) and some famous Gyeongjubbang (Gyeongju bread), small pastries filled with a sweet red bean paste.
As most people decided to drive or bus to the site, we had the mountain path pretty much to ourselves, and we were ever drawn onward by the mysterious sound of a gong ringing through the forest (at the top we discovered that you could pay 1000 won to give the gong a whack). The trail was also adorned every now and then with signs showing the tragic death of a friendly bear protecting his child from falling rocks.
The Grotto was even more crowded and we were pushed through the small site, but the view from the mountainside was most excellent, as we could gaze out to several peaks on the horizon. And it is to that southern horizon that we travel next.
And just like that, Gyeongju fades behind as we travel on…