For some reason Sunday has become our hiking day. It really makes no sense. Most of our friends are too busy or hungover to come. Fortunately, we don’t let that slow us down, which is why we found ourselves arriving at Usquare at 8:20 AM this Sunday, ready to catch a bus to our next hike. We were heading for Jogyesan Provincial Park which is somewhat South and East of Gwangju.
Jogyesan is most well-known for the two temples that sit on either side of the mountain. These were established well over 1,000 years ago, although they have undergone several reconstructions since. It seems that temples are always destroyed during invasions or war. Songgwangsa is the temple on the western side of the park and is considered one of the three most important Buddhist temples in Korea. This temple has produced 16 national masters and continues to serve as one of the main Buddhist training centres in Korea. It is still an active temple even though it is continues to undergo renovations and reconstructions after its total destruction during the Korean war.
The second temple on the east side of the park is Sonamsa Temple. This is a smaller temple complex and is in some way affiliated with Songgwangsa. One person told Blake that it is sort of a hermitage to Songgwangsa, where the monks can study with fewer interruptions. Sonamsa’s main entrance gate is unassuming compared to the pavilion bridge entrance to Songgwangsa, but the smaller temple complex still contains a multitude of national treasures and plays an important role in the lives of local Buddhists.
We caught a direct bus to Songgwangsa Temple on the western side of the park where we would begin our hike. After a very visually appealing roller coaster ride (a.k.a. bus trip) through some windy country roads, we were dropped off in a small parking lot in a distinctly rural area. We wandered our way up a rather pretty path, following the other walkers, and eventually stumbled our way into the Songgwangsa complex. It was certainly an impressive complex. Unfortunately it was still being renovated so there were several areas that were completely off limits to visitors.
Looking at the visitor map we discovered that the hike would be significantly longer than we had thought, so we were quite a bit more rushed than we had hoped to be, heading through the temple complex. As we were leaving, we bumped into a monk who has lived at that temple for over forty years. He is 83 years old and is one of the higher ranks among Buddhist monks. We did not fully catch the details, but it was pretty neat to talk with him. He welcomed us to his temple, wished us well, and gave us business cards. It was a really nice send off.
The first section of the trail winds along a gorgeous creek that is really one long series of small waterfalls and pools. The trail criss-crosses the stream on bridges of stepping stones and is surrounded with newly-budded leaves and foliage. Very pretty. We had lunch on a rock by a secluded little pool.
Tamara looking patient.
There were bridges of all shapes and sizes over the creek.
Sadly, we broke through the ‘leaf line’ before we hit the first ridge and spent most of the hike in areas where the trees were still bare.
There was a bit of climbing to the first ridge.
Parts of it were a bit steep.
On this first ridge we were presented with a choice: head for the highest peak in the park, or skirt the peak and head past a barley restaurant and straight down to Seonamsa Temple. We opted for the peak. As it turned out, we hit the second highest peak, Yeonsanbong (851 meters), first and then went way out and along the ridge to summit Jaggunbong at 884 meters. Basically, we walked over 4 km to get to the peak that was likely less than a km away in a straight shot. Granted, we saved ourselves descending into the main valley and climbing again, but we did a ton of up and down on the ridge anyway.
A cherry tree in bloom is a stark contrast with its barren surroundings.
At one point along the ridge, we suddenly heard the sound of classical music blaring from up ahead. For those who live here, it is the exact same music that they play in the subway when the train is arriving at the platform. It was baffling as we were able to see the ridgeline ahead of us and there were no other hikers in our vicinity. (We had originally thought it would be a Korean hiker playing music through their phone – a common practice). On the last hilltop before the summit we came across this little device.
Random music maker in the woods.
We tripped the motion sensor (at least that’s what we assume happened) and all of a sudden it starts blaring music. Partway through, a woman’s voice cuts in speaking Korean and the entire thing continues for the better part of two minutes. No idea what she was saying. And why on the secondary hill and not the peak? Why a speaker at all? Very odd.
We summited Jaggunbong and had a brief snack on top. One thing to by said for Jogyesan is that it seems to be largely free of the Korean hiking hordes we have encountered elsewhere. There was only one family up there with us. They were even kind enough to snap a few pictures.
Pile of wishing rocks at the summit.
Unfortunately, the views were not spectacular. The sides of the trail are, for the most part heavily treed, restricting the opportunities for looking out over the valleys to the occasional gap. Combine this with a cloudy, hazy day and scenery pictures were bound to have some issues.
Looking across from Jaggunbong at the ridge we hiked between peaks.
View from Jaggunbong
View of the built-up area below Sonamsa.
From the peak it was a relatively short hike down to Sonamsa temple. This is one of the steeper parts of the trail that we encountered, but is still not a big effort.
Descent from Jaggunbong
We passed by the ruins of Hyangnoam Monastery which were not that impressive. There appears to be very little information about this location and only a few stones to show that there was anything there at all.
Remains of Hyangnoam. She looks so happy doesn’t she?
A spring near Hyangnoam.
Just before we hit the main temple complex we encountered a Buddha carved into the rock wall. They don’t know the exact date of carving, but they are guessing that it was in the Goryeo dynasty. Sonamsa Temple was really gorgeous. Not as large or complex as Songgwangsa, but definitely prettier. It is nestled in between the mountains and has a ton of cherry trees and other blossoming plants all over the place. When we arrived the trees were in full bloom.
Gate to private quarters.
Gotta love the cherry trees.
There were several gardens within the complex. Most of them were full of people, but this one was around the back.
At every temple we have been to there is some sort of decorative water supply. This is one of the cooler ones.
This is the “reclining pine tree” that was planted over 600 years ago and is cared for by the monks.
Seunseongyo is an ancient stone bridge just below Sonamsa. This dates back over 300 years and has a dragon’s head in the upper arch above the water. Dragons seem to be a bit of a theme in these two temples and their surrounds. The bridge’s base is natural stone from the creekside and the rest is made of granite. Apparently, if you arrive at Seunseongyo when the sun is out, the reflection of the arch in the pool creates a full circle appearance.
Seunseongyo from downstream
Seunseongyo from upstream
When we were just leaving the temple to start looking for the bus that would take us to Suncheon (a lady that worked there had told us that there were no more running that day, so we were getting concerned about getting home) when we bumped into one of Tamara’s colleagues. She was taking a couple of students on a trip to several temples to look at the weathering on some National Treasures made of stone (on her own time) and immediately offered us a ride home. We gratefully accepted (although we later figured out where to take the bus and that it would have taken at least two hours) and then lounged until they were finished. The ride back was nice and fast as well as entertaining with the two little fourth grade boys to keep us laughing. It was a reminder about how kind Korean people are. No hesitation, we are going back to Gwangju too, obviously you will ride with us.
For those wanting to visit
There are several ways to go about visiting Jogyesan. From Gwangju there are buses directly to Songgwangsa every hour or so. There is also a single bus from Usquare to Sonamsa that runs early in the morning. Other options include taking a bus to Suncheon and then catching local buses to either of the temples. Apparently, these run about every hour and there is even a way to catch a local bus from one temple to another in the event you don’t feel like hiking between the two. The park has an extensive network of trails and the route we took is only one option. You can actually hike between temples without climbing the peak. This trail also takes you past a restaurant serving a local barley dish that is supposed to be delicious. We can’t really say the mountain views are worth the hike, but the temples are certainly worth taking the time to visit. If you do decide to hike, it seems that going from Sonamsa to Songgwangsa would be a better trail. The steep part is going up and the last part of the hike will be along a nice refreshing creek.