We’ve been to dozens, if not hundreds, of Buddhist temples across this peninsula, and we’ve finally found the most unique temple in all of South Korea! There are beautiful temples with varied architecture in different corners of this country, but Guinsa stands head and shoulders above the rest for many reasons. Tucked back in the Sobaek Mountains, this sleepy temple comes to life the further you investigate. Guinsa might not be the most accessible, but it is undoubtedly the most jaw dropping, unique temple we’ve yet to discover.
The first thing you’ll notice about Guin Temple is its height. Where most temple buildings are one or two stories tall, Guinsa has a building with six towering floors. From top to bottom, the valley that houses Guinsa stuns visitors with its scale as well as its redefining architectural elements. What we once thought we understood about temple design was completely upended the moment we started walking the hill at the entrance. Within minutes of reaching the first structure, we knew that we’d not allowed enough time to fully explore and appreciate this masterpiece of design.
“You’ve Seen One Temple, You’ve Seen Them All”
One of the most common phrases heard by foreigners in Korea is the complaint about how all temples look the same. While hearing “You’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen ’em all” might be frustrating, there’s a bit of truth in the statement. While I might forever be smitten by beautiful paintings and symbolic architectural elements, there are many commonalities that make most temples in South Korea look, at the bare minimum, similar. It has been without surprise and often to our chagrin that we rarely find willing travel companions that are excited to see new temples. However, there’s one temple that defied our every expectation and redefined our basic notion of temples in this country with spectacular individuality. Guinsa is the most beautiful temple, hands down, that we’ve found in South Korea. While this masterpiece of Buddhist construction is also currently the most astounding and gorgeous we’ve found worldwide, we’re willing to hold off on calling it the most beautiful in the world in hopes that we can find another temple someday that tops Guinsa’s majesty.
The first thing worth mentioning about Guinsa is its location. Instead of having all of the buildings be built on one or two levels like most temples in Korea, Guinsa is on a perpetual incline climbing a narrow gully between two ridges. Long after you hike the 15-20 minute introductory incline, the main gate welcomes visitors. From the ornately painted first gate to the golden Main Hall at the top of the incline, the desire to continue onward never fades. Even after reaching the top, seeing it all in reverse becomes an exciting prospect as wonderful as the initial walk through. Each step of this “hike” promises new and spectacular views of a truly unique temple design. Many temples boast large courtyards and open spaces intending to contemplate the reality of our perception, but Guinsa merely forces the contemplation of your reasoning for continuing onward. The hills and paths are steep, but so is the reward.
Don’t Leave Without
While Guinsa’s beauty is reason enough for the journey, no trip to this remote temple would be complete without a visit to one or two of the restaurants. The community of restaurants located around the parking lot are the perfect place to reflect on your experience while replenishing the calories burned. Like most restaurants that serve temple-goers, Jeon and Dongdongju are the most common items on the menu. We ate some delicious green onion pancakes (Pajeon) and washed it down with some delicious local rice wine (Dongdongju, the more traditional version of Makgeolli) that is famously made in the Sobaek Mountains. Beware, however, the affects of alcohol and when you choose to consume it. Drinking before entering this unique temple will absolutely make the aforementioned hill seem somewhat impossible (or at least increase complaints). Conversely, drinking after your hike is a great way to unwind after the trek and reflect on Guinsa’s beauty, but driving becomes a serious concern (did we mention this is a very remote location?).
In the Area
Located near Guin Temple are many other sights and activities to round out a full weekend in this beautiful area. Here are our top recommendations for people staying in the area for more than the day:
- Danyang – This small town is ever bustling and full of energy. Surrounded by rivers and natural beauty, Danyang is the perfect place to stay while exploring Guinsa and the surrounding area. While lacking in the night-life department, all other modern conveniences can be found in this mountain town.
- Fishing – According to many reports and information found online, the western slope of Sobaeksan National Park is teeming with fish-filled rivers. We saw many fishermen and fisherwomen on the river, and deeply regret not packing our fishing gear.
- Fortresses and Caves – Ondal Fortress is a mere few kilometers from Guinsa and has a 450 million year old cave (Ondal Cave) on the property. The fortress and cave are beautiful and worth an afternoon exploring at the least, but there are several other caves in the area if you want to see even more.
Like many remote areas, Guinsa is most easily reached by personal car. It is quite easy, however, to take a bus to Danyang, then transfer to a local bus bound for this amazing temple.
From the Korean Tourism website:
From Dong Seoul Bus Terminal, take an intercity bus to Guinsa Temple.
Bus Schedule: 06:59-18:00, 1 hour intervals
From Danyang Bus Terminal, take an intercity bus to Guinsa Temple.
Bus Schedule: 09:20-20:20 (1 hour intervals), 20:50
It is possible to reach Danyang by train as well, but this would require several transfers and we don’t recommend using the rail system for people unfamiliar with Korea’s transportation system.
So, what do you think? Do all Korean temples look the same or are you as big of a temple buff as we are?