Colonial Korea: Ssangbongsa Temple – 쌍봉사 (Hwasun, Jeollanam-do)

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The amazing Daeung-jeon Hall from 1933 at Ssangbongsa Temple in Hwasun, Jeollanam-do before it was tragically destroyed by fire in 1983.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Ssangbongsa Temple is located in southern Hwasun, Jeollanam-do. The name of the temple means “Twin Peaks Temple,” in English, and it gets this name from the twin peaks that frame Ssangbongsa Temple.

Ssangbongsa Temple was first established some time before 839 A.D. There isn’t a specific date attached to this temple, but the stupa for the monk Hyecheol-guksa at Taeansa Temple states that he spent a summer at Ssangbongsa Temple after returning from Tang China in the first year of King Shinmu (r. 839). So it appears as though Ssangbongsa Temple was already built some time before 839.

Throughout the years, Ssangbongsa Temple has be expanded and reconstructed; and then, in 1597, the temple was partially destroyed by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-98). Of all the buildings, both the Geukrak-jeon Hall and the Daeung-jeon three story wooden pagoda survived. Throughout its long history, both of war and peace, the Daeung-jeon Hall remained unharmed. However, in 1983, the wooden pagoda was completely destroyed by fire when a devotee tripped and knocked over a candle during Buddha’s birthday. This national treasure was restored, as a  replica, in 1986.

In total, Ssangbongsa Temple houses one National Treasure and three additional Treasures. Of the group, it’s National Treasure #57, the stone stupa of Master Cheolgam during the Unified Silla Dynasty that stands out from the group with its sheer beauty.

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The Ssangbongsa Temple grounds in 1933.

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A closer look at Ssangbongsa Temple in 1933.

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The amazing Daeung-jeon main hall in 1933.

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The uniquely designed Hoseong-jeon Hall.

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Now the oldest shrine hall at Ssangbongsa Temple: the Geukrak-jeon Hall in 1933.

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The Ssangbongsa Temple grounds in 2014.

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The Daeung-jeon main hall replica from 1986.

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Another look at the Daeung-jeon three story wooden pagoda.

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A look at the Hoseong-jeon Hall in 2014.

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As well as the temple’s Geukrak-jeon Hall.

Ssangbongsa Temple – 쌍봉사 (Hwasun, Jeollanam-do)

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The beautiful Ssangbongsa Temple grounds in Hwasun, Jeollanam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Ssangbongsa Temple, which is located in Hwasun Jeollanam-do, was first established in 868 A.D. by Cheolgam-seonsa. Cheonlgam-seonsa built the temple after he returned to Korea from China, where he had been studying. Ssangbongsa Temple means Twin Peaks Temple, in English, and it gets its name from the pair of twin peaks on the mountains behind the temple.

From the temple parking lot, which is situated in a bend in the neighbouring road, you’ll see the stately Iljumun Gate to your right. Between this gate and the Cheongwangmung Gate is a frozen pond with an island in the centre of it. As for the Cheonwangmun Gate, there are four eye-popping, and rather large in size, Heavenly Kings. Just to the left, as you emerge on the other side of this gate, is the temple’s bell pavilion.

Towering over the Cheonwangmun Gate, and even before you exit this gate, you’ll be able to see the three story Daeungjeon pagoda, which also acts as the temple’s main hall. This pagoda is an exact replica of a mid-Joseon Dynasty structure that burnt down in 1984. It was destroyed after a devotee accidentally burnt the pagoda down after tripping over a candle as she celebrated Buddha’s Birthday. In 1986, the present pagoda was rebuilt as an exact replica of the historic structure. And much like the ancient structure, the present one is gorgeous as the multitude of colours stretch into the sky. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, sits a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). He’s joined on either side by Anan-jonja and Gaseop-jonja, which were two Historical Disciples of the Buddha.

Directly behind the three story Daeung-jeon pagoda, and up the embankment, is the Geukrak-jeon, which is dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). The Shimu-do, Ox-Herding, murals adorn the exterior walls to this hall, while a large seated statue of Amita-bul sits in the centre of the main altar. He’s joined on either side by two standing statues of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul). To the left of the Geukrak-jeon is the Jijang-jeon. The exterior is decorated with some highly elaborate, and scary, depictions of both the Ten Kings of the Underworld and the part of the underworld they rule over. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, sits a green-haired statue of Jijang-bosal. Jijang-bosal is surrounded on both sides by statues of the Ten Kings of the Underworld that date back to the Joseon Dynasty. While their paint is fading, the craftsmanship behind their design still resonates.

To the right of the Geukrak-jeon sit two more halls. To the immediate right sits the Nahan-jeon. The exterior is painted with various depictions of the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha), while the interior have the Nahan; but this time, in statue form. In front of the Nahan-jeon lies the Hoseong-jeon Hall, which was off-limits to people when I visited the temple; however, there are some beautiful paintings and designs that adorn this atypical hall.

As for the rest of the grounds, the stupa of the founding monk, Cheolgam-seonsa lies in back of the main temple grounds in a sectioned off area. This ornate stupa is really something to enjoy. Also, when you exit the temple grounds, and as you make your way to the temple parking lot, you’ll notice an area for stupas for prominent monks at Ssangbongsa Temple.

HOW TO GET THERE: You’ll need to get to the Intercity Bus Terminal in the city of Hwasun. From this terminal, you’ll need to take Bus #218 to get to Ssangbongsa Temple.


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OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10. Unfortunately, the historic three story main hall pagoda no longer stands; instead, a beautiful new Daeung-jeon stands in its place. So while not the best of situations, at least we get an exact replica of Korea’s craftsmanship. In addition to this beautiful, and rare, main hall, you get the beautiful stupa that houses the earthly remains of Cheolgam-seonsa, as well as the atypical Hoseong-jeon Hall, and the historic and horrific sculptures and paintings of the Ten Kings of the Underworld.

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The temple parking lot and Iljumun Gate.

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The first view of the beautiful Ssangbongsa Temple.

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The frozen pond outside the temple grounds.

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The grounds that house the historic stupas at Ssangbongsa Temple.

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The amazing view as you pass through the Cheonwangmun Gate.

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A look from the outside in at a couple of the Four Heavenly Kings.

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The bell pavilion to the left of the Cheonwangmun Gate.

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A look up at the amazing Daeung-jeon pagoda replica at Ssangbongsa Temple.

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The pagoda main hall before it burned to the ground in 1984.

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The Geukrak-jeon behind the three story main hall.

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The compact Nahan-jeon.

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A monk praying inside the Nahan-jeon.

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The unique looking Hoseong-jeon.

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A closer look at the beautiful artwork adorning the Hoseong-jeon.

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The Jijang-jeon to the left of the Geukrak-jeon.

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One of the amazing, yet disturbing, paintings adorning the exterior walls on the Jijang-jeon.

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The beautiful view from the Jijang-jeon.

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One last look up at the stunning three story main hall.

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And then it was time to go.

Unjusa Temple – 운주사 (Hwasun, Jeollanam-do)

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 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.

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 The Iljumun Gate that first greets you at Unjusa Temple.

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 The field of pagodas at Unjusa Temple.

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 Just one of the broken statues dedicated to the Buddha.

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

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

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 Some more of the stone monuments at Unjusa Temple.

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 A closer look at an intact Buddha statue.

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 The Chilcheung Seoktap (or Seven Story Stone Pagoda).

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

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

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 The front facade that welcomes you to the temple courtyard.

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

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 A look at the main hall at Unjunsa Temple.

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 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.

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

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

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

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 The painting of Sanshin inside the Sanshin-gak.

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

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

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

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 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.

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

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The artistry that greets you along the descent.