Gapsa Temple – 갑사 (Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do)

Picture 333The eerie waters that flow under a bridge that leads you to Gapsa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do.

 Hello Again Everyone!!

Like Donghaksa Temple in Gongju, I had long wanted to revisit Gapsa Temple. And much like Donghaksa Temple, it was raining torrential rain. But I guess that should be expected from this summer. However, Gapsa Temple was just as beautiful as I remembered it, even though it was raining.

Gapsa Temple is located on the west side of Gyeryong-san National Park, and it’s one of the oldest temples in all of Korea. It dates back to 420 A.D. when monk Ado, who helped introduce Buddhism to the Silla Dynasty. Gapsa Temple was later expanded in 556 A.D. by monk Hyemyeong. It was after this time that the temple became one of the top ten temples in the Hwaeom Buddhist Order as ordered by monk Eusang in 679. Then the temple was expanded one more time in 887 by the monk Muyeom. Unfortunately, like most important temples in Korea, all the temple buildings at Gapsa Temple were burnt to the ground during the Imjin War in 1592 to 1597. Luckily for us, the temple was rebuilt in 1604. It was further expanded in 1654. Originally, the temple was called Gyerong Gapsa during the early Joseon Period; but it was subsequently shortened to its present name: Gapsa Temple.

Initially, the trail will quickly fork to the left and right next to the parking lot. The path to the right leads through a gauntlet of Korean restaurants. If you want to avoid this, take the trail that leads left. You’ll walk for about 500 metres before coming to the temple’s ticket booth and the stately Iljumun Gate. Not long after this gate, you’ll cross over a bridge that allows you to cross over the cascading water below you. There is an older looking Chinese character graffiti littered amongst the rocks. Continuing your climb up the ascending hillside towards the temple, you’ll next come to the beautiful Cheonwangmun Gate that houses the Four Heavenly Kings. These fierce looking Kings are trampling equally fierce demons under their feet.  After making the one kilometre hike up the trail, you’ll come to a bend in the road, this is the surest sign that you’ve arrived at Gapsa Temple, that and the fact that you’ll finally be able to see the temple buildings.

When you first arrive at the temple grounds the first building you’ll see on the elevated hillside is the hall called Gangdang, which was formally a lecture hall. This hall is now dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). Inside this hall, as you’ll later see when you climb the stairs to the main courtyard, is an altar with a taller seated Jijang-bosal. Behind him, in this cavernously lit hall, is a wall of smaller sized Jijang-bosal statues around the altar. To the right of the altar is a beautiful black painting depicting Jijang-bosal and his assistants.  To the rear of the hall is a unique structure with handles on it. This elaborately coloured wooden top that stands about two and a half metres in height is meant to be spun around by an individual. It’s said that whoever spins this top will have their bad karma dissolved. Still in the lower courtyard, you’ll also see a little pavilion. Inside this little pavilion is the temple’s bronze bell. This bell was cast in 1584 and stands a stout one metre in height.

Climbing the stairs, the Jijang-bosal hall will be to your immediate left. Stepping forward, you’ll be greeted by a lush and grassy green courtyard, which is somewhat atypical of a Korean courtyard that is usually just made of dirt. To the far right is the lecture hall and administrative centre, which is off limits. To the far left are the monk dorms. Immediately ahead of you is the main hall, Daeung-jeon Hall. Inside this large hall are seven altar pieces: three seated Buddhas and four standing Bodhisattvas.  On either wall of this elaborately decorated interior are guardian paintings. Atypically, the main hall has no paintings decorating this main hall that dates back to 1604. To the back, and to the right, is the newly built Three Spirits Hall. The exterior of this hall is decorated with paintings representing the three Shaman gods housed inside this hall. The inside of the hall has three beautifully rendered paintings of the Shaman gods.

There were a few things that we were unable to see while at Gapsa Temple, but they are things I would like to talk about just in case someone out there might want to see them. One of the things we didn’t see was the Daejeok-jeon hall. This hall is just down the hill in a clearing. It’s where the original temple was situated. Inside this hall are housed Seokgamoni-bul, Amita-bul, and Birojana-bul who is in the centre of this triad. Next to this hall is a stupa that is highly unique. The base has swirling dragons and lotus buds. The body of the stupa is decorated with the Heavenly Kings, while the top is capped with a tile roof. Another part of the temple we didn’t see was the hall, Pyochungwon, which houses a portrait of Yeonggyu-daesa. He was the warrior monk that helped lead during the wars of the 1590’s against the Japanese. This hall was built in 1738 to commemorate Yeonggyu-daesa and two other monks. And finally, there is a standing figure of Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha) that is housed in a small trailside grotto 100 metres from the temple courtyard. So unlike us, don’t miss them!

HOW TO GET THERE: The easiest way to get to Gapsa Temple is from the city of Gongju. You can take the frequent buses that leave from the Gongju bus terminal. Take bus number 2, and the ride will take you about 30 minutes. Or you can take bus number 2 from the neighbouring city of Yuseong. The travel time of this bus is about 50 minutes.

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OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10. There’s a lot to see and do at one of the oldest temples in all of Korea. The beautiful main hall at Gapsa Temple is adorned with beautiful paintings and Buddha and Bodhisattva statues. The newly renovated Jijang-jeon is beautifully adorned with a wall of smaller sized, but eerily lit, Jijang-bosal statues. To the rear of the hall is a Buddhist top for dispelling bad karma. Finally, if you have the time, you can explore some of the things that aren’t housed in the main courtyard at Gapsa Temple like Daejeok-jeon hall, the uniquely designed stupa, the hall for housing a portrait of a warrior monk, or the rock grotto dedicated to Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha).

Iljumun Gate
The fiercely adorned Iljumun Gate at Gapsa Temple.
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A look along the bridge that spans a roaring stream.
A look up at the Cheonwangmun Gate that houses some really interesting statues.
Like these two, of the four, Heavenly Kings that reside inside this second gate at Gapsa Temple.
And under one of the Kings’ feet is this foaming and crying demon with his tongue out.
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A look up the trail as you near the temple.
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This is the lower courtyard at the temple with the bell pavilion straight ahead and the Jijang-jeon Hall that is situated on the upper courtyard of the temple.
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The bricked gated opening that leads up to the monk’s living quarters.
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A look up at the main hall at the temple with the almost surreal looking green grass in the courtyard. (And this is how it actually photographed without any photoshop!)
A better look at the Jijang-jeon Hall that houses Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
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A look inside darkly lit Jijang-jeon with a shaded Jijang-bosal on the altar accompanied by a few hundred tiny statues of himself.
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This uniquely built walking wheel is there to dispel bad karma.
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This beautiful black mural of Jijang-bosal sits to the right of the main altar of the Jijang-jeon Hall.
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A better look at Jijang-bosal.
monk dorm
A look at some of the study halls at the temple.
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A better look up at the main hall with the rain falling all around it.
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A look at another one of the off-limit living quarters at the temple. To the right is a unique guarding painting.
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A look across the front of the main hall at Gapsa Temple.
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The seven statues that make up the main hall altar.
guardian painting
The unbelievably beautiful guardian painting inside the main hall at Gapsa Temple.
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A look up at the Samseong-gak Hall to the right of the main hall. Usually, these shrine halls are to the left of the main hall.
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Just one of the beautiful paintings that adorns the exterior walls at the Samseong-gak Hall.
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And another. This time it’s a tiger, which is symbolic of San shin (The Mountain god).
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A look inside the Samseong-gak Hall with Chilseong (The Seven Stars) in the centre and San shin to the right, and Dokseong (The Recluse) to the left.

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