Destination: Dongguk-sa – the last Japanese-style Buddha temple in Korea (Gunsan-si, Jeollabuk-do)
THE city of Gunsan doesn’t get much attention from tourists, unless they’re stationed there or visiting Jeollabuk-do. That’s a bit of a shame, since it’s in the smaller towns where you’ll find the more unusual sights that have fortunately been preserved.
After the Gunsan port was turned into an international trading center in 1899, the city turned into an important place for Koreans to export their rice to Japan. A number of Japanese settled in the area, and to this day there are still quite a few Japanese-style houses standing. You’ll pass by some of them on your way to the temple, although for the most part they’re not much to look at. In any case, the temple was founded in 1913 and run by Japanese monks of the Soto Zen sect; after World War II, Korean monks took over. Today, it’s considered a part of the Jogye order. Connected to the main building, but not pictured, are the monks living quarters – together, these two buildings comprise most of what there is to see here.
The first thing you’ll notice is how plain the temple is. If you’ve visited a Korean Buddist temple (any of them), you’re aware of how colorful they are, much to your camera’s delight. Contrast that with the plain white paint and the dark brown imported Japanese cedar – on first impression, it’s quite soothing on the eyes. I’m admittedly less familiar with Japanese dynasties, but I have it on good authority that the style comes from the Edo Period.
The surrounding neighborhood is quiet as well, and even though the area immediately in front of the main building serves as a parking lot, it’s still fairly quiet on the grounds.
A peek inside – just like the outside, there’s a minimum of decoration.
The Japanese bell, inscribed with an eulogy for the Japanese emperor by the head Japanese monk. Not pictured behind the main building is a bamboo grove and an inquisitive dog – a couple of fellow tourists were being overly cutesy with it, causing us to walk the other way.
One of the few modern touches to the temple – and a Korean one at that.
As a monument to history, Dongguk-sa remains an excellent example of Japanese architecture. The Japanese houses around the area can’t really say the same, and the immediate area is fairly dilapidated. The Marmot himself covered a house in the area, although we didn’t spend any time looking for it ourselves. Overall, it’s the main site in Gunsan that’s worth a visit, and a good part of any trip to Jeollabuk-do.
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Address: Jeollabuk-do Gunsan-si Geumgwang-dong 135-1
Korean address: 전라북도 군산시 금광동 135-1
Directions: It’s easiest from either of Gunsan’s bus terminal – the express and intercity terminals are right next to each other. Exit, turn left, and walk 200 meters to the main road. Turn right, walk 50 meters to the bus stop and take bus 38 or 53. Ride for about 15 minutes and get off at the 명산사거리 (Myeong-san sa-geo-ri, or Myeong-san intersection) bus stop. Walk 150 meters and turn right down the side street. Follow the road around to the right and you’ll see the temple on your left. A taxi from the bus terminal is about 3,000 won, and will be faster than a bus every time.
If taking the train, head to Gunsan station. Walk to the big road a couple hundred meters away and look for the bus stop on your side of the street. Take bus 71, ride for about 35 minutes and get off at the 명산사거리 (Myeong-san sa-geo-ri, or Myeong-san intersection) bus stop. Walk 150 meters and turn right down the side street. Follow the road around to the right and you’ll see the temple on your left.