A UNESCO World Heritage site, Seonamsa Temple, home to the Korean Jogyesan Buddhist order, is tucked into the mountains a 45min rural bus ride away from Suncheon in Jeollanam-do, South Korea.
This place has been on my Korean bucket list since I knew I was moving to Jeollanamdo, but in my year and a half in the country, I still needed to make it there. Needing to get out of my small town but being absolutely broke, a friend and I decided Suncheon was the perfect chef getaway for our three-day weekend. She had yet to be to Nagang-eupsong, my favorite traditional folk village in South Korea, so this seemed like the perfect low-key getaway.
Waking up early to get to these out-of-the-way places across Korea is always challenging. The buses often come once an hour or more, and the bus out to Seonamsa temple was the same. With anxiety and Mcdonalds filled stomach, we got to the bus around, caught a bus around 9:10 am, and started the long journey to the temple. Thinking I would see a few extra zzz’s on the ride, I closed my eyes. I attempted to fall asleep, only to be jostled back and forth by the bumpy road and awoken by the bus driver’s horn. Somedays, you put your life in your bus driver’s hands, and this was one of them. Mad at first, I quickly forgot about being exhausted as I looked out the window into the countryside. There was a quiet beauty about the small towns and farms surrounded by forest and mountains that led up to the temple. The peaceful landscape eased my morning anxiety, making the ride go by fast.
The bus pulled right into the temple’s parking lot for tourists and hikers looking to use the surrounding mountain. We tried to figure out where the entrance was, but with no luck, my friend and I followed the crowd walking on a big track along a river and through the forest, which we hoped would lead to the temple. The path to the temple was longer than I suspected but absolutely beautiful, with surprises along the way like a traditional tea center and carved Korean Shaman statues of the mountain guardians.
I was really excited to see Shaman practices here. Many Shamanistic practices are still prevalent in everyday Korean life, but it is rarely discussed by Koreans. Many restaurants will have Shaman luck talismans on the walls, and every mountain has wishing stone mounds; many Koreans believe that their facial features are linked to success which is part of the reason why some get plastic surgery (to change their fate). In the first few weeks of dating someone, it is still common to go to a fortune teller or a shaman to see if you are compatible. Seeing the statues alone made the trip out here worth it for me; however, the temple had way more treaters to find.
Past the guardians and through the woods, we came upon a beautiful half-moon bridge leading to the temple. You can not ask for a more magical entrance to a temple setting the tone for the peaceful atmosphere on the inside.
Walking through the temple gate, you can feel the ancient age of the temple. Each building is surrounded by gardens and flowering trees, making it feel like this temple is as much a part of the mountain as the stone it was built from. We wandered from building to building amongst the flowers, surprised by the unique look of hummingbird moths and the lovely juicy floral scent in the air.
We assumed this delectable floral, peachy, and apricot sent we were smelling was incense being burned in the temples, but as we continued to walk around, we could not figure out for the life of us what was making the sent. If you had spotted us amongst the monks, the worshipers and tourists, you would have thought we were crazy. We were walking around with our noses in the air sniffing leaves, flowers, and bark trying to figure out where this new unique scent was coming from. I have to give all the credit to my friend who figured it out. She was the first to notice it the previous day at Nagong-eupsong and to mention that it smelt like a Kakao store. After an hour of wandering the grounds, she concluded that it must be a tree with orange buds. After downloading a plant identifier app, we learned that this fall-blooming orange-budded tea was the Olive Tea tree. And now I have a new sent tied to be my favorite sent next to the smell of the Sonoran desert after a monsoon rain (part cats and par mesquite with a rich of earth). I am still looking for this sent bottled up in perfume form. If you, too, want to smell this tree from the gods, I recommend going to Seonamsa Temple in August or September when the tree is in bloom.
The lushes sent distracted us for a bit but as we walked the grounds, we started to notice that every temple (there are 4) was unique, seeming to tell part of the story of religious traditions in Korea.
Seonamsa was founded in 527 during the Unified Silla Dynasty, which was the Last Kingdom to convert to Buddhism. You can see Shamanistic influences in writing above the entrance and on some of the temples. These characters are unlike the Hanja (Chinese) or the hangul you’ll see in other temples in Korea and were used by Shamans. This writing was used in many rituals to create wards, evoke luck, and even ward off sickness. In another, you can see images of important monks and figures from my understanding of translating the paintings. I don’t know where this tradition comes from; it may be a combination of influences, including Taoist (do), Confucian, and Buddhist traditions. I wish I had known more about Korean history to understand what I saw. Knowing that this temple was carefully rebuilt and maintained through fires and wars that destroyed it at various points throughout its history adds to its historical importance. Sometimes, the mystery is not knowing some of the magic of traveling. Even without knowing the full story of a place, you can still grasp the spirit of a place and its important position in the development of a country.
After several hours of walking around, we took the long scenic walk back to the bus and then to the Bay gardens to finish our day. Before I left, I knew this was a temple I would have to visit again. Not only did I miss exploring the tea center and the trails up the mountain, but Seonsama temple is the perfect place to spend a relaxing day. If you are ever in Suncheon Jeollanamdo, check out Seonsama temple, a place of beauty and peace where you are sure to feel rejuvenated after wandering around.
Seonsama Temple – 3,000 KRW– 450, Seonamsa-gil, Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do –
전라남도 순천시 승주읍 선암사길 450
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