Colonial Korea: Singyesa Temple – 신계사 (Kosong, Kangwon-do)

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Singyesa Temple in Kosong, Kangwon-do, North Korea in 2007.

Hello Again Everyone!!

This is the first article that photographically highlights Korean Buddhist temples from the period of the Japanese colonization of Korea that lasted from 1910 to 1945. In these pictures from the colonial period in Korea’s history, you’ll get a unique look into Korea’s religious and cultural past. Also of note, you’ll get to see pictures of temples from both north and south of the DMZ before the Korean peninsula was divided by the Korean War (1950-53).

In this first article, I thought I would focus on North Korea’s Singyesa Temple in Kosong, Kangwon-do. (It should be noted that I’ll be using the North Korean style of writing Korean words in English when it comes to the North Korean temples). I was fortunate enough to visit Singyesa Temple back in March, 2007. So with my personal biased in mind, here’s a little more on the history of Singyesa Temple.

Singyesa Temple was first founded in 519 A.D. during the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.E – 935 A.D.). The temple is beautifully located in the picturesque Mt. Kumgang, and it eventually became one of the four major temples on Mt. Kumgang. During Japanese colonization, Singyesa Temple became known as Sinkei-ji Temple. And it was a popular tourist destination.

Unfortunately, the entire temple complex, and the buildings housed on its grounds, were completely destroyed in 1951 by U.S. fighter planes. It was believed that soldiers from the North Korean Army were taking up residence at Singyesa Temple. Some fifty-three years later, in 2004, and with the financial support of the Jogye Order and the Korean Buddhist Association, Singyesa Temple was reconstructed. Construction would be completed in 2006.

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Singyesa Temple framed by the neighbouring Mt. Kumgang. This picture dates back to 1932.

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A better look at the main hall from 1932.

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The intricate latticework that adorned the main hall in 1932.

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And an interior look inside the main hall from 1932.

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A picture of the Silla-era three tier pagoda from 1916.

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A closer look at the sword bearing guardian that adorns the pagoda. This picture, as well, dates back to 1916.

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The Manse-ru Pavilion at the entry of Singyesa Temple in 2007.

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The Daeung-jeon main hall in 2007.

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The intricate latticework that accompanied the 2004 re-build.

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The only thing to remain from the 1951 U.S. bombing. The pagoda dates back to the Silla Dynasty.

Now and Then: The City of Gyeongju

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Anapji, in Gyeongju, during the 1950s.

Hello Again Everyone!!

The city of Gyeongju, in Gyeongsangbuk-do, has a long and storied past that is closely tied to the Silla Kingdom. From 57 B.C. to 935 A.D., for nearly a thousand years of history, Gyeongju was the capital city of the Silla Kingdom. Formerly, Gyeongju was known as Seorabeol and Gyerim. It wasn’t until 935 A.D. that the town became known as Gyeongju. During the 992 years that the Silla Kingdom reigned, it was the longest period of rule by a single dynasty in Korean history. During this period in Korean history, the Silla Kingdom would rise from a small tribal nation to unify the entire Korean peninsula.

Dotted throughout the Gyeongju cityscape are some thirty-five national treasures and a countless amount of treasures. When Buddhism came to the Silla Kingdom in the early 6th century, it reached its zenith with the establishment of Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Hermitage in the late 8th century. In addition to these internationally famed sites, there are a countless amount of lesser known sites spread throughout the entire city including Anapji and Cheonseongdae. Additionally, there’s Chilbulam Hermitage, Sambulsa Temple, Samneung-gol Valley, and Bucheobawi on Mt. Namsan. There’s also Baeknyulsa Temple and Gulbulsa-ji on Mt. Sogeumgangsan that visitors can see when enjoying Gyeongju. There really are an amazing amount of sites to experience when visiting the thousand year old capital of the Silla Kingdom.

More recently, Gyeongju is the second largest city by area in all of Gyeongsangbuk-do Province next to Andong. And as of 2008, it had a population of nearly 270,000 people whose major source of income revolves around the tourist trade. So by promoting their past, people of today can prosper from nearly a thousand years of history.

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Anapji in the early 1970s.

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Anapji during the 1975 excavation.

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Cheonseongdae Observatory

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Bucheobawi from Mt. Namsan in Gyeongju.

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Another image of Bucheobawi.

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The amazing Seven Buddhas statue at Chilbulam Hermitage.

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The three Buddhas from Sambulsa Temple on the western side of Mt. Namsan.

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Yep, that’s someone standing on the shoulders of the Large Seated Statue of Mireuk-bul in Samneung Valley on Mt. Namsan.

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The turtle-based stele dedicated to King Taejong on Mt. Seondosan.

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An older image of the stone sculpture from Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site on Mt. Sogeumgangsan.

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The stark landscape from Mt. Sogeumgangsan, and a look towards Baeknyulsa Temple.

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Anapji as it appears today.

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An up close of Bucheobawi.

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The three Buddhas at Sambulsa Temple. Now, they’re sheltered under a wooden pavilion.

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The seven stone Buddhas at Chilbulam Hermitage.

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The Large Seated Statue of Mireuk-bul as it appears today.

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The better protected Taejong stele from Mt. Seondosan.

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A more recent picture from Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site.

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And a look over top the main hall at Baeknyulsa Temple.

Bulgoksa Temple – 불곡사 (Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do)

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The temple courtyard at Bulgoksa Temple in Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Located in the heart of Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do, Bulgoksa Temple is a compact temple that is undergoing a bit of a renovation.

When you first approach the temple up a steep road that is located next to terrace upon terrace of parked cars, you’ll first encounter one of the most unique Iljumun Gates in all of Korea (and that’s not hyperbole, either). Looking up at the roof, you’ll notice the bodies of wooden snakes as they lay intertwined with the gate. On one end of the gate is a large turtle, and at the other is a grinning tiger that looks down on you.

Just a little further up the path, and you’ll see one of the smaller sized Boje-ru pavilions straight ahead. To get to the compact temple courtyard, you’ll have to pass under this pavilion; but before you do, have a look to your right at the ancient, and uniquely designed, pagoda.

Having passed through the pavilion, you’ll emerge on the other side to see a handful of halls. The one that lies straight ahead is the smaller sized main hall. The exterior walls are adorned with a beautiful set of Palsang-do murals. As for inside this hall, the statue inside is truly the highlight of the entire temple. Housed inside this hall is a statue of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy) that dates back to the Unified Silla Dynasty, around 850 to 900 A.D. Birojana-bul is seated and he holds his hand in the Diamond Fist mudra. He has a serene looking smile, and he’s seated on a lotus pedestal. This statue is Treasure #436. The rest of the main hall is filled with a guardian murals and an all white-clad mural of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).

To the right of the main hall is the Myeongbu-jeon hall. The exterior walls are painted with Judgment murals and an intricate Dragon Ship of Wisdom mural. As for the contents of this hall, a golden statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) is backed by a fiery nimbus. On both sides, Jijang-bosal is joined on the altar by a painting of all ten Kings of the Underworld. And between the Myeongbu-jeon and the main hall is a bell pavilion with herbs and flowers growing in a make-shift garden.

The final two halls at Bulgoksa Temple lie to the left of the main hall. The longer of the two is the Gwaneeum-jeon with an extremely elaborate 1,000 armed statue of Gwanseeum-bosal inside. Joining this statue inside the hall are a pair of guardian murals; also, they were sprucing up the hall by painting the exterior walls. Tucked in between the main hall and the Gwaneeum-jeon is the Samseong-gak. One of the exterior walls is adorned with a realistic orange mural of a tiger just as you’re about to enter this shaman hall. Inside this hall are three rather traditional paintings of the three most popular deities in Korean shamanism: Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), and Dokseong (The Recluse).

HOW TO GET THERE: From the Changwon Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take bus #801. After five stops, you’ll need to get off at the 사파 동성 아파트 (가음정공원) Stop. Walk along the road towards the south and the Bulgoksa Temple intersection for about 5 minutes. At the intersection, turn right and walk for another 5 minutes. Eventually, you’ll see the temple’s parking lot to your right.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10. The two highlights of this temple that really stand out are the Iljumun Gate that’s adorned with elaborate wooden carvings and the historic stone statue of Birojana-bul. Besides these two highlights, the elaborate golden statues of Jijang-bosal and Gwanseeum-bosal stand out. And with its central location in Changwon, it can make for a pretty relaxing, and beautiful break from the daily grind.

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The colourful, yet highly original, Iljumun Gate at Bulgoksa Temple.

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The grinning tiger to the left on the Iljumun Gate.

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And the blue dragon just to the tiger’s right.

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A good look at the compact Boje-ru Pavilion.

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To its right is this uniquely designed pagoda that looks like it might have once been a stupa.

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The Myeongbu-jeon hall to the right of the main hall.

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The Dragon Ship of Wisdom that’s painted on its exterior wall.

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Inside is this fiery statue of Jijang-bosal.

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Joining Jijang-bosal are wall-to-wall paintings of the Ten Kings of the Underworld.

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Between the main hall and the Myeongbu-jeon is the diminutive bell pavilion.

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The golden latticework of the main hall.

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Just one of the Palsang-do murals that adorns the exterior walls of the main hall.

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The ancient statue of Birojana-bul that sits inside the main hall.

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To the left of the main hall is the Gwaneeum-jeon and the smaller sized Samseong-gak.

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The painting of the life-like tiger on the exterior walls of the Samseong-gak  just as you are about to enter it.

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 The extremely elaborate and ornate statue of Gwanseeum-bosal inside the Gwaneeum-jeon.