How many temples can one person visit? (Just wait until I post about Japan…) It’s a thought that has often whispered its way into my brain. Living in Asia, temples are a dime a dozen, and at first there is a strong inclination to see and photograph every temple encountered. Eventually, much like overdosing on paintings at an art gallery or driving past waterfalls in a tropical location, all the temples with the delicate hanging lanterns and golden Buddhas that you once found so charming, so unique, all sort of bleed into one another. You become immune to what you once found so grand. It all starts to look the same.
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple was different, at least judging from the photos that I encountered while researching sights to see while in Busan. Along the coastline and hugging a curvy wave-battered cliff, an arched stone bridge led the way towards a uniquely situtated Buddhist temple.
To reach the temple we walked through an unexpectedly touristic outdoor market that evoked more of a festival vibe over a place to buy chintzy souvenirs (though one certainly could find those as well). Beyond a few small vendors and a small gift shop or two selling prayer beads and paintings of Buddha, we have rarely encountered any type of retail establishment outside of a Korean temple, much less a full-blown market.
Our post-temple plans involved a trip to seaside restaurant to eat (supposedly) massive prawns grilled table side, but unable to resist all the wonderful market food smells, we gave in to purchasing street food. We ordered a chewy squid snack, previously cured and then reheated, pressed, and snipped into bite-sized morsels before being scooped into a white paper bag, which we ate while walking through the madness on our way to Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.
Compared to Japan, visiting a temple in Korea is a somewhat stress-free experience. Even when it’s crowded, it’s not unbearably so, and most of the tourists are Korean instead of foreigners. I mention the latter because I feel like there’s a certain level of reverence in visiting a landmark that is representative of one’s own country, something that I think is either lacking or lost in translation once groups of foreign tour buses descend upon a “tourist attraction.”
There were a good amount of tourists at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, some with very questionable choices in hiking shoes. (Namely, heels. It never ceases to confuse me how many Asian women manage to hike while wearing heels.) Once through the market and past a row of Chinese zodiac statues, we descended down the seaside cliffs via a dark, steep, narrow, uneven, staircase consisting of 108 steps, representative of 108 earthly desires. At the end of 108 steps, we emerged from the pine forest and crossed a gracefully arched stone bridge.
In front of us a brightly colored temple watched over an even more brilliantly colored sea.
I like pigs
Gulbeop Buddhist Sanctum, located in a small underground cave
dragon motifs can be found throughout the temple
Most Buddhist temples are found near or in the mountains which makes this temple’s seaside location rather unique. According to Buddhist teachings, the sea is a place that represents both calm and fury, and is where the Goddess of Mercy resides, appearing most often on the back of a dragon. The harmony between the Goddess of Mercy, the sea, and a dragon is embodied by Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. It is said that “At least one of your wishes will be answered here through your heartful prayers.”
Haesu Gwaneum Daebul or Seawater Great Goddess Buddha sits on a hill overlooking the ocean
Nearly a third of Koreans identify as Christian, however, Buddhism still plays a strong part in Korean culture and beliefs.
Unrelated: please note the shoes use to hike down and across rocky cliffs as mentioned above. Granted, it was a short, reasonably easy, hike, but still…
We spent the afternoon exploring the temple and scrabbling about on rocks to gain the best vantage point. True enough, much of the Buddhist iconography was present at Haedong Yonggung temple, but in many ways that was the least interesting part. For me, what made this temple such a spiritual place was undoubtedly its rugged, wind-ravaged, sea-battered location. It’s a place that I would love to experience on a day with “bad” weather, perhaps bundled up head to toe, shivering on a rock, with a steaming hot thermos of coffee.
Haedong Yonggung Temple | COST: Free to enter temple, about 3,000KRW for parking. | LOCATION: Close(ish) to Haeundae Beach – approximately 45min – 1hr by bus. We drove from Songdo Beach and it probably took us about as long. | DESCRIPTION: Haedong Yonggung Temple’s coastal setting is a rarity in Korea as most Buddhist temples are located near mountains. The temple complex itself is not as grand as Bulguksa, but what it lacks in scale it more than makes up for in location. From the parking lot, a steep but short stairwell (approximately a 15 minute hike downhill) leads down to the temple complex. Before reaching the Half Moon Bridge, veer left and take the small cliff-side trail for some of the best views of the temple (and the ocean). Stick around for sunrise or sunset, both popular times of the day to visit. | FACILITIES: Bathrooms, vending machines, weekend market and parking. Restrooms and small gift shops can also be found at the temple. | VERDICT: It’s a bit touristic but still worth a visit for location alone. Don’t be deterred by bad weather as I imagine that the worse the weather, the more photogenic the temple. Recommended.