Throughout our 14 days of quarantine at Camp Humphreys, the singular thought that kept us going was the idea of travel. Adventure. Exploring. We knew that moving to Korea would be an experience, to say the least, and we were determined to make the most of it. We finally got out of quarantine on Thursday of last week, put a deposit on an apartment on Friday, and went on our first true Korean adventure on Saturday, visiting Gakwonsa Temple on Cheonan. There is so much culture and history in this incredible country, and I have a feeling this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Gakwonsa Temple in Cheonan
Cheonan is about 45 minutes from Camp Humphreys and offers a truly different take on South Korean landscape than Pyeongtaek and its surrounding areas. Cheonan’s downtown area is significantly older than that of Sosabul or Pyeongtaek, and it’s a little bit like stepping (or driving, as it were) back in time. There are two entrances to Gakwonsa temple. The first is a lake hiking area and trails, which lead directly to Gakwonsa Temple. The second features an upper and lower parking area below the temples.
Gakwonsa Temple’s main attraction is Amita-bul, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. It’s actually Korea’s largest Buddha statue, crafted from 60 tons of bronze and rising over 15 meters high. Surrounding Amita-bul are several areas where one can pray or light incense, hang prayer lanterns, or even purchase candles or informational books.
What to Do at Gakwonsa Temple
Since we parked at the lower lot by Gakwonsa Temple, we had direct access to six different temple buildings at Gakwonsa. Each building was intricately designed, painted, and adorned with bells and chimes, so when the warm breeze blew through, the bells chimed offering a bit of an ethereal vibe to the entire temple grounds. The temple buildings have different functions. While some are for prayer and worship, others are living and office quarters for the monks. We made our way up the many steps to the worship temple in time to watch a prayerful service take place.
We were pretty pleased that the kids were calm and reverent while people prayed, and we had the honor of watching the monks lead part of the worship’s prayers and music before exiting. We made to clear out of the parishioner’s paths, but the elderly Korean people welcomed us readily, and gave us an introduction to the warmth of Korean culture. Sweet little old Korean women greeted the children, while our littles did their best to say “anneyeong haseyo!” (hello). They then pressed 20,000 Won into their hands ($20), showing them where to place it as offerings. They even gave Spencer, Porter, and Mieke fermented goods to take home.
Can You Take Photos at Gakwonsa Temple?
I was a little worried about bringing my camera to Gakwonsa Temple because I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but even with the language barrier, they carefully emphasized that we were welcome to take pictures, so long as we were quiet and respectful. We took off our shoes and made our way into the main temple area where the three large golden buddhas are flanked by prayer mats, prayer lanterns, candles, and the most colorful artwork we’ve ever seen. It truly felt like a holy place, and we felt so blessed to visit and experience such a warm welcome on our first adventure.
What to Know When Visiting Gakwonsa Temple
Cost: It is free to visit Gakwonsa Temple, but it is customary when entering to provide an offering of Won. We didn’t know this, but the wonderful people there gave the children money to offer (though we did some of our own, as well).
Accessibility: You need to be able to ascend and descend steep stairs comfortably to visit Gakwonsa Temple. From both entrances there are multiple stairs to reach the entrance of the temples and the base of Amita-bul. While there is a ramp from the lower parking lot to the base of the worship temple, you will need to climb stairs to enter. There is a hike here (4.6 miles), so we wore hiking shoes just in case, but we only did about 1 miles, as we aren’t acclimated to the heat.
Dress & Behavior: Because this is a place of worship and a holy site, it’s recommended to dress more modestly than one might in the US. For example, no thin-strapped tank tops or short shorts. In terms of behavior, children should be able to be quiet and as reverent as possible when within the temple in order to show respect.
How to Get to Gakwonsa Temple: Using Waze or Naver, this is the address to Gakwonsa Temple in Cheonan: 245, Gagwonsa-gil, Dongnam-gu, Cheonan-si, Chungcheongnam-do 충청남도 천안시 동남구 각원사길 245 (안서동)