South Korea // Jeolla //

Jogyesan Provincial Park

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The small but pretty JOGYESAN PROVINCIAL PARK is flanked by two splendid temples, Seonamsa and Songgwangsa. If you get up early enough, it’s possible to see both temples in a single day, taking either the hiking trail that runs between them or one of the buses that heads the long way around the park. The park and its temples are accessible by bus from SUNCHEON (순천), an otherwise uninteresting city that’s easy to get to by bus, and occasionally train, from Yeosu.

Seonamsa

Seonamsa (서남사), on the park’s eastern side, is the closer temple of the two to Suncheon. On the way in from the ticket booth you’ll pass Seungsongyo, an old rock bridge; its semicircular lower arch makes a full disc when reflected in the river below: slide down to the water to get the best view. There has been a temple here since 861 – the dawn of the Unified Silla period – but having fallen victim to fire several times, the present buildings are considerably more modern. Its entrance gate is ageing gracefully, though the dragon heads are a more recent addition – the original smaller, stealthier-looking ones can be found in the small museum inside. Notably, the temple eschews the usual four heavenly guardians at the entrance, relying instead on the surrounding mountains for protection, which look especially imposing on a rainy day. Around the complex are a number of small paths, one leading to a pair of majestic stone turtles; the one on the right-hand side is crowned by an almost Moorish clutch of twisting dragons. Another path fires west across the park to Songgwangsa, a four-hour walk, more if you scale Janggunbong (885m), the main peak, on the way.

Songgwangsa

To the west of the park is Songgwangsa (송광사), viewed by Koreans as one of the most important temples in the country, and is one of the “Three Jewels” of Korean Buddhism – the others are Tongdosa and Haeinsa. Large, well maintained and often full of devotees, it may disappoint those who’ve already appreciated the earthier delights of Seonamsa. The temple is accessed on a peculiar bridge-cum-pavilion, beyond which can be found the four guardians that were conspicuously absent at Seonamsa. Within the complex is Seungbojeon, a hall filled with 1250 individually sculpted figurines, the painstaking attention to detail echoed in the paintwork of the main hall; colourful and highly intricate patterns spread like a rash down the pillars, surrounding a trio of Buddha statues representing the past, present and future. Unfortunately, the Hall of National Teachers is closed to the public – perhaps to protect its gold-fringed ceiling.