“Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.”
A couple weeks ago I decided to get out of Seoul — I had seen enough of the major attractions of the city and I was just exhausted from staying in major cities the last eight months. I had noticed a few mentions on Korean tourism sites about temple stays — locals and tourists are offered an experience to stay at various temples around the country for at least two days (in some cases, up to a month).
Choosing a temple stay
When I visited Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul, I picked up a booklet on the various temple stays and decided that I should try getting to Woljeongsa Temple. It looked like the most interesting temple outside of the city that was easily accessible for a weekend. It wasn’t easy finding my way to the temple, but my coworker helped out (even she was unsure why there wasn’t a bus schedule).
Getting to Woljeongsa
Despite some uncertainty of reaching my destination, I made the attempt. Buying the bus ticket in Seoul was much easier than expected. Fortunately, the bus driver prevented me from getting off the bus a stop early (I had no idea how many stops there were on the way to the town of Jinbu). The temple website claimed the bus ride was a little over two hours, but it turned out to be about three hours. I was confused.
Rather than risk arriving at the temple late by waiting for the local bus, for which I had no idea where the stop was, I took a taxi. I would’ve had plenty of time had I waited for the bus. I was greeted with a brief introduction, shown to my little private room, which happens to be larger than my apartment in Seoul, and told to go wander about on my own for the next two and a half hours.
I walked around, looking for the subtle differences between the Korean Buddhist temple and the Chinese and Japanese temples I’ve visited. I watched the crowds roam past and listened to their languages, noting that the majority were Korean but with plenty of Chinese and a few Europeans. There were quite a few people that seemed surprised to see a foreigner wandering about the temple.
History of Woljeongsa
Woljeongsa is one of the oldest temples in Korea — the original temple dates back almost 1400 years. Of course, it was destroyed a few times by Japanese invasion in the early 20th century and during the Korean War. The oldest surviving relic is the nine-storey pagoda outside the main temple hall. The temple is surrounded by Odaesan National Park, and there are a few other temples throughout the park.
Activities during the temple stay
There wasn’t as much Buddhist education included in the temple stay as I had expected. We began with an introduction to the history of the temple, a lesson on temple etiquette, and stringing together 108 prayer beads.
After dinner, everyone was given the chance to ring the temple bell to call everyone to the main hall for the evening prayer. We were then told that we were free to do what we wanted, but encouraged to watch the sunset and the lights turn on around the pagoda.
The food at Woljeongsa was amazing. I didn’t expect to be fed so much or to have it taste so good. There was plenty of rice and kimchi, but there was also some vegetable curry for dinner. There were various other cooked vegetables for breakfast and lunch as well as some spicy soups. This was a great surprise considering I expected some bland tofu dishes.
Going to bed early was a great decision. Sleeping on the mats on the floor wasn’t quite as comfortable as I had hoped. It also got extremely cold. When we woke up at 3:50 am to prepare for the morning prayer service, the temperature reached about 50 degrees.
We were then fed breakfast and told to walk about some more — the walk through the fir trees along the river was peaceful before the tourists arrived. I also went to check out a nearby temple down the road. There was another one, but I wasn’t sure how far up the mountain it was and I wasn’t sure if I had enough time to get there and back before lunch (turns out it’s about 9 km, so I probably wouldn’t have made it back).
I departed shortly after lunch as I wasn’t sure when the next bus would arrive — they’re rather infrequent. Also, I was going with another visitor from my small temple stay group who knew where to go.
Temple stays in Korea can be booked online, but payment is accepted in cash upon arrival. I’m not sure about other temples, but Woljeongsa was KRW 80,000 for Saturday to Sunday. If you travel in a group, you get to share a room, but I’m not sure if that reduces the overall cost. And yes, the rooms do have private bathrooms.