Gilsangam Hermitage – 길상암 (Nearby Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do)

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A view of the main hall from the mountainside Gilsangam Hermitage near Haeinsa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

I had long since wanted to visit this hermitage, that’s in associate with Haeinsa Temple, ever since I first visited Gaya-san National Park back in 2004. This hermitage is the first that you see as you near Haeinsa Temple. And this time, while visiting Haeinsa Temple, I took the time to visit this unique hermitage.

When you first approach Gilsangam Hermitage (길상암) from the parking lot, you’ll first notice a stone courtyard with two tall statues and a pagoda. It’s only after a second glance that you’ll actually notice the hermitage spread out over the face of the neighbouring mountainside. The first ten metre tall stone statue is Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). He is surrounded by a semi-circle of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas including Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). Up a small set of stairs to the right is the next ten metre tall stone Buddha. This Buddha looks to be Yaksayorae-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) as he’s holding a jar in his left hand. Again, Yaksayorae-bul is surrounded by another semi-circle of larger stone statues of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And the far right side of this imposing stone courtyard is a five-tier stone pagoda. Next to this massive structure is a gentle statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).

Left of this stone courtyard of statues and a pagoda are the brown stairs that lead up to the clinging hermitage buildings and grounds. Halfway up the first set of stairs, both to the right and left, are the monks’ facilities, which include the dorms and kitchen. These are strictly off-limits. As you ascend the rest of the first set of stairs, you’ll be greeted by the hermitage’s main hall. The exterior of the hall is largely unadorned. Believing the neighbouring shrine hall on the right, perched above the main hall on the next mountain terrace, to be that of either a Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall or the San shin-gak Mountain spirit hall, I decided to hold off on entering the main hall.

The shrine hall perched slightly above the main hall to the right isn’t in fact a shaman shrine hall; but instead, it’s an odd little building. Again, the exterior of this hall, much like the main hall, is unadorned with any paintings; however, the interior is quite different. The triad sitting on the main altar is centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). Now, that isn’t the strange part about the hall. What is strange is that the triad is surrounded by a hall of stone statues both big and small. These statues are almost always the Nahan (The disciples of the Historical Buddha). But these stone statues certainly didn’t look like the Nahan. Instead, they simply seemed to be decorative statues. But upon closer inspection, these atypical statues that almost have Buddha-like features, were in fact the Nahan. Confusing, but true.

In front of this hall is a beautifully ornate seven-tier stone pagoda with tiny bells on each angle. And it was out in front of the this Nahan-jeon that I noticed a rock staircase to the right of the shrine hall that led further up the mountain’s face. I must have taken about five minutes just eye-balling the mountainside to see if these stairs were nothing more than a hiking trail, or in fact an extension of Gilsangam Hermitage.

Chancing it, I decided to see where the stairs led me. If I thought that the first flight of stairs were steep and plentiful that led me up to the main hall, this second set of stairs put the first to shame. Halfway up the set of stairs, I came to a watering hole. I guess even the people that built the stone staircase realized it was quite a climb. But it’s from this vantage point that you finally realize there is actually a shrine hall further up the mountain. Another amazing thing at this watering hole is a sign marker written in Chinese characters that translates as “Big Awakening Spring.” The title of the stone marker is self-explanatory inside the hermitage grounds.

Climbing the second half of the steep second set of stairs, and near the peak of the granite mountain, you’ll finally arrive at the crowning shrine hall at Gilsangam Hermitage. Sitting outside this hall is a compact bronze bell. And again, the exterior of this hall is unadorned. But inside this hall weren’t the shaman deities, like I expected; but instead, there was a triad of foreign looking Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on the main altar. The central Buddha was adorned with a golden cape. And without being able to see his mudra, it’s impossible to indentify which Buddha he is meant to represent. Surrounding this main altar are more traditional looking miniature figures on each of the three walls of the hall.

A bit disappointed that there wasn’t a shaman shrine hall, I descended down the steep set of stairs on rubbery legs. Remembering I had yet to visit the interior of the main hall, I decided to catch the rest of my breath before descending the second set of equally numerous stairs. To my surprise, I found the set of three shaman deities on the left wall. The first painting is of San shin (The Mountain Spirit). Next to San shin is Dokseong (The Recluse), and Chilseong (The Seven Stars) is on the far right. All three paintings are old and in rough shape. Sitting on the main altar, in the centre of the triad, appears to be Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). There are two additional unknown Bodhisattvas on either side of this triad. Behind each of these two statues are sixteen Nahan paintings that look to be just as old as the three shaman paintings.  And on the far right side of the altar is a uniquely designed, and multi-armed, Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).

HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Gilsangam Hermitage, you’ll first have to get to Haeinsa Temple. And to get to Haeinsa Temple from Busan, you’ll first have to get to Seobu Bus Terminal. The easiest way to get to Seobu is from Sasang subway stop, which is #227 on the second line. Once you get to the Hapcheon Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll have to get on another bus for Haeinsa Temple, which is about 4,000 Won. From where the bus lets you off, you’ll have to backtrack down the road for about 500 metres until you get to Gilsangam Hermitage. Don’t worry, you’ll see the hermitage to your left when you first enter the park from the large stone Buddhas and pagoda across a brigde.

View 길상암 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 7/10. The continually unfolding depth of buildings and structures at this hermitage was a nice surprise. It has a lot of hidden treasures, both inside the main hall with the gorgeous and old shaman deity paintings, as well as the shrine hall hidden near the summit of the mountain peak. Added to this secrecy is the ornate stone courtyard of statues and pagodas that not only welcome to you Gilsangam Hermitage, but also welcome you to Gaya-san National Park. This hermitage, much like what it hides on its mountainside grounds, is a nice little hidden gem near Haeinsa Temple.

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The stone courtyard with two large statues and a pagoda that welcome you to Gilsangam Hermitage.
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The frozen stream you have to cross to get closer to the hermitage grounds.
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The large statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) on the left and Yaksayore-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) on the right.
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The large five tier pagoda in the stone courtyard.
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A look up at the main hermitage courtyard from the first set of long stairs.
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The Nahan-jeon shrine hall to the right rear of the main hall.
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The uniquely designed seven tier pagoda that sits out in front of the Nahan-jeon shrine hall.
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A look at the main altar with Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) in the centre. He’s flanked by hundreds of atypical Nahan stone statues.
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The second set of long stairs that lead up to the mountainside shrine hall.
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A look down from the midway point of the second set of steep stairs.
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Continuing up the second set. Yep, still more stairs.
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The spring with the stone marker that reads “Big Awakening Spring.”
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The third and final set of stairs that leads up to the shrine hall that neighbours with the peak of the mountain.
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A look up at the mountainside shrine hall, which is the one that I thought was either the San shin-gak or the Samseong-gak shaman shrine halls.
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A look over at the granite peak.
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A look in at the foreign looking main altar.
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The bell pavilion next to the main hall on the first terrace of the hermitage.
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A look in at the wonderfully old artwork inside the main hall.
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A unique statue of the multi-armed and faced Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).
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A look to the left inside the main hall at the shaman and Nahan paintings.
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One of the individual Nahan paintings.
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And a look at the mold-laden San shin painting at Gilsangam Hermitage.
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Finally, the impressive and old Chilseong (The Seven Stars) painting.

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