Unjusa Temple – 운주사 (Hwasun, Jeollanam-do)


 The valley of stone pagodas and Buddha sculptures that greets you at Unjusa Temple in Hwasun, Jeollnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Unjusa Temple was first founded in 827 by the monk Doseon. Unjusa Temple has one of the more unique feels to it with some 21 stone pagodas and 94 stone Buddha sculptures. According to legend, and the theory of geomancy, the Korean peninsula was thought to be unbalanced because there are fewer mountains on the west coast than there are on the east. So it was thought that the west side of the peninsula would go under water from the sheer weight of the east coast mountains. To prevent this disaster from taking place, Doseon called stone masons down from heaven to build a thousand Buddha statues and pagodas at Unjusa Temple. However, before the very last Buddha statue could be completed, the cock crowed in the morning, which recalled all of the stonemasons to heaven. As a result, two statues were left lying unfinished on the ground. These two unfinished statues, which you can see at the top of a neighbouring mountain, are called Wabul in Korea, or the Stone Statues of the Lying Buddha. In more practical terms, Unjunsa Temple was probably created as a school for stonemasons; but the creation story seems so much more dramatic in style.

You first approach the Unjusa Temple grounds through the rather wide two pillared Iljumun Gate. A couple hundred metres up the road and you’ll pass by a collection of stone Buddhas to your left in an open field. Continue going straight, and you’ll finally come to an opening where the bulk of the temple’s pagodas are situated. The first to greet you is the nine-story stone pagoda that is National Treasure #796. Just behind this simplistically designed pagoda is a collection of smashed stone Buddha bodies and heads. To the far right, and at the base of the mountain, is another collection of intact Buddhas. Hovering over top like a sentry is five-tier stone pagoda. Just beyond this area are a pair of seven-story pagodas. They’re simply known as Chilcheung Seoktap (or Seven Story Stone Pagoda). Just behind these two pagodas is a row of stone Buddha sculptures. As I said, this place is loaded with stone masonry. Perhaps the two most unique stone structures lie behind this row of stone Buddha sculptures. The first is the large sized Hwasun Stone Shrine. I have yet to see anything like this in Korea. Originally, it was constructed as an outdoor shrine, which is made apparent by the two simple Buddha images housed inside the stone shrine. It’s believed to date back to the Goryeo Dynasty, and it’s National Treasure #797. It’s only one of two in Korea. Just behind this shrine is the Hwasun Unjusa Multi-Stored Pagoda. The uniqueness of this pagoda is its circular design. Most Korean pagodas, especially from the Goryeo Dynasty, are square or rectangular in shape. But this 5.8 metre tall pagoda bucks that trend. Also, it’s National Treasure #798. Most of the pagodas and sculptures in this valley date back to the Goryeo or early Unified-Silla period in Korean History.

The actual temple complex lies at the end of the valley. You pass through a pavilion with some fierce guardians adorning its doors to gain entry to the temple courtyard. Straight ahead lays yet another stone pagoda that is slightly damaged that also dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty. As for the main hall itself, there are various images of the Buddha adorning the exterior walls to the main hall. Inside, and lining the walls, are various images of a white-clad Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). Sitting all alone on a stone base is a Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). Just to the right of the main hall is the Myeongbu-jeon. The exterior walls are decorated with various images of the Underworld. Inside this hall is a golden-haired statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Underworld). He’s joined by smaller sized figurines of himself on all sides.

Just behind the main hall, and slightly up the hill, you’ll come to two halls. The first one to the left is the Sanshin-gak, which houses a red painting of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). Just to the right is a newly constructed hall that houses one of the better kept stone sculptures of the Buddha. Just behind these halls is another row of Buddha sculptures, including a near faceless seated image of the Buddha. It’s also in this area that you get a great view of the pagodas, sculptures and halls in the valley below.

The final area you can explore, and to the left of the valley that you first entered, is a neighbouring mountain that stands at a reasonable 200 metres in height. You know you’re getting closer to the top of this mountain when you see a pair of seven-story pagodas, as well as Buddha sculptures just below them. On top of this mountain lies the pair of 12 metre long stone sculptures of the Buddha from the creation myth story. This type of image is one of only two in all of Korea. Well preserved, you can get a good look at them from the observation deck.

Admission to the temple is 2,500 won.

HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Unjusa Temple, you’ll first need to get to Gwangcheon Bus Terminal. Probably the easiest way to do this is from the Gwangju Bus Terminal. From the Gwangcheon Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take city bus #318, which takes about an hour and twenty minutes to get to the temple. You can take this bus or city bus #218, which takes about an hour and thirty minutes. Just be sure, with either one, that the bus has an Unjusa Temple sign on it; either that or simply ask the bus driver, “Unjusa?”

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OVERALL RATING: 9/10. There is just so much to see at Unjusa Temple. Of the initial 1,000 pagodas and 1,000 Buddhist sculptures that were purportedly constructed through the ages, a selection of a 115 still remain. Amazingly, these historic artifacts can be found almost everywhere at the temple and in the least likely of places. The highlights to this temple, besides the sheer volume of stone masonry, are the 12 metre long images of Buddhas on top of the mountain, the rounded pagoda, as well as the massive outdoor stone shrine. If you don’t enjoy yourself at this temple, you simply don’t enjoy Korean temples.


 The Iljumun Gate that first greets you at Unjusa Temple.


 The field of pagodas at Unjusa Temple.


 Just one of the broken statues dedicated to the Buddha.


 A closer look at the nine-tier pagoda that’s designated National Treasure #796.


 Just one of the randomly placed pagodas on the neighbouring hillside.


 Some more of the stone monuments at Unjusa Temple.


 A closer look at an intact Buddha statue.


 The Chilcheung Seoktap (or Seven Story Stone Pagoda).


 The extremely unique Hwasun Stone Shrine. It’s believed to date back to the Goryeo Dynasty, and it’s National Treasure #797.


 A look inside one of the two openings of the Hwasun Stone Shrine.


 The front facade that welcomes you to the temple courtyard.


 One of the temple’s guardians that adorns the front gate.


 A look at the main hall at Unjunsa Temple.


 A look inside the main hall. Sitting all alone on the altar is a large sized statue of Seokgamoni-bul. The interior is lined with paintings of a white-clad Gwanseeum-bosal.


 To the right of the main hall is the Myeongbu-jeon.


 A look inside the Myeongbu-jeon at all of the statues of Jijang-bosal.


 The view behind the main hall at two shrine halls and an atypical pagoda.


 The painting of Sanshin inside the Sanshin-gak.


 And inside the hall to the right of the Sanshin-gak is this well preserved relief of the Buddha.


 A near faceless statue of the seated Buddha behind the Sanshin-gak.


 The view of the temple courtyard and the valley of statues and pagodas.


 To the left of the temple grounds lies a 200 metre tall mountain. Like the rest of the temple grounds, it’s dotted with pagodas and images of the Buddha.


 At the top of the mountain is this image of the Buddha that measures 12 metres in length.


The artistry that greets you along the descent.