I’ll admit, whenever I visit another country, I always seem drawn to places of religious significance. Buildings that exude a sense of the unknown, a subliminal space that is ‘Other’. Regardless of spiritual calling: atheist, agnostic, or otherwise, religious sites can have a profound impact on a person’s outlook and frame of mind, whether temporary or lasting.

Offerings at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
Buddhist statues at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

In South Korea, from a survey conducted in 2005 (which was sent to individual families around the country), around a quarter of the country identified as Buddhist. A more recent survey, conducted in 2015, showed it had reduced to 15%. However, the 2015 survey relied heavily on the internet and so some of the population without, or unfamiliar with, the internet may have been unable to take part.

A beautiful Buddhist statue at Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

Regardless of the technicalities, Buddhism was, and still is, a leading religion in the country. There are plenty of Buddhist temples all across the country, and visiting these has become something of a hobby of mine.

I have compiled a list of my all-time favourite Buddhist temples in Korea for you to take a look at! 

1. Jogyesa Temple (조계사), Seoul

The colourful stretch at Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
Beautiful day and night, Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea

Built in the 14th Century, Jogyesa, like many historical buildings in Korea, was once burnt completely to the ground before being rebuilt in 1910 under a new name, Gackhwangsa Temple. In 1936, it became the head temple of Korea’s Buddhism, known as Tegosa Temple. The year 1954 saw the temple purified from Japanese influence and given the name known to us today, Jogyesa Temple.

It is the main temple of the Jogye Order in Seoul and is host to many ceremonies, lectures, and other events each year. Open 365 days a year, this place remains a focal point for Buddhism in Korea.

Daytime at Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
Nighttime at Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
So much to see, so little time at Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea

Jogyesa was one of the first temples I ever visited in Korea, and so it will always hold a special place in my heart. Located close to Insadong’s shopping district and with the presence of modern Seoul (literally and figuratively) pressing in on each side, Jogyesa looks deceptively modest and small on the street front.

Taking the first flight of stairs, you arrive on a small platform decorated with life-size statues and hanging from above, various paper lanterns of alternating shapes, sizes, and colour.

Engraved life-size statue at Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
Various lanterns at Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
I wonder how long it takes to hang all of these? Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea

Beyond, a solitary tree stands in the middle of the main temple grounds. Lanterns wrap themselves around the tree, following the weaving shape of the multiple branches. 

Lantern-decorated branches, Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
A sea of lanterns at Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea

Depending on the type of year, the outer decorations can drastically change. In May, the month of the Buddha’s birthday, intricate lanterns will be at the main entrance of the temple and an amazing ceiling of multi-coloured lanterns will overhang the temple itself.

Paper lanterns in May, Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
Fish-shaped paper lanterns at Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea

In August, beautiful water lilies fill the grounds in tall baskets which you can walk around. 

August, Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
Blooming water lilies at Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
Close-up flower shot at Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea
Look at the sheer amount of water lilies! Jogyesa Temple, Seoul (서울), South Korea

2. Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (해동 용궁사), Busan

If you want to visit a temple with the ‘wow’ factor, Haedong Yonggungsa is a must-see!

A temple with a view, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

This temple is particularly famous for its placement by the shore line, offering visitors a beautiful view of Busan’s coast. With traditional temple structures, a cave, and a stunning white bridge built on the rocky shore line terrain, it’s not hard to see why people find Haedong Yonggungsa irresistible.

Look at this guy! Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
Although the lighting isn’t perfect, I love looking at this photo of the beautiful flower-shaped lanterns at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
A pathway of statues at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

This temple was originally built in 1376, and with some reconstruction work done in 1970, it stands proud today, a striking figure welcoming thousands of tourists each year.  

Hitching a ride at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
Golden Buddha at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

The contrast between the precise edges of the temple, with its intricately colourful paint work, the rugged and sharp outlines of the grey terrain, and the soft luscious blue of the sea makes for a powerful combination! Seeing the temple from afar, with the sea batting its waves against the rocks, makes me feel incredibly tranquil.

It still sends chills down my spine seeing this symbol to this day, which of course represents Buddhism here, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
The rocky terrain at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

As a lover of Korean architecture, particularly Buddhist temples, and someone who also enjoys the ocean and the sound of water, Haedong Yonggungsa is one of those special places I never tire of visiting.

Ocean blues at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
By the coast at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

There are multiple levels to the temple, with pathways leading underneath the main temple to the Buddhist Sanctum, down a stairwell which brings you out onto the rocky cliffs which offer an amazing view of the temple, and throughout the main temple buildings themselves.

The stunning views at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
I love taking pictures like this, with trees overhanging. Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

One day, I will see this temple during the Buddha’s birthday celebrations! Watch this space.

3. Samgwangsa Temple (삼광사), Busan

If you are looking for a temple with a big presence, look no further than Samgwangsa Temple.

The beautiful presence of Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
Summertime at Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

Built in 1986, Samgwangsa temple sits in the hillside of Baekyang mountain. And like Jogyesa Temple in Seoul, Samgwangsa Temple in Busan is open 24/7 every day of the year.

Glass sculptures at Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
Temple art at Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

My first trip to Samgwangsa Temple was in August 2017. I was showing my parents around Korea and we decided to spend a few days in Busan to explore the beaches, food, and cultural attractions. Given the humidity, we opted to take a taxi to the temple from Buam station. I remember the taxi ride vividly, thinking ‘how far up is this temple?’ and ‘thank goodness we didn’t walk!’ as we continued to ascend the steep hill to the temple.

Lanterns leading the way to Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
The entrance to Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

At the entrance, a tall flight of stone stairs leads to the main temple area, the sides of which are engraved with images of water, flowers, and animals. That’s right – after traversing (by foot or car or flying carpet, whatever your preference) the hill to reach the temple, the hard work doesn’t end there! Taking these stairs will bring you to the main area of the temple. And believe me, it’s completely worth it.

Engravings at Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
The details! Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

Reaching the top of the stairs, the soft sound of music can be heard, urging visitors to continue on wards. The temple grounds are beautiful and open, with a wide courtyard situated between the main buildings, and a steep pathway leading to another building. Given the location, the sound of birdsong is more prevalent here than in the city centre, and that mixed with the sound of meditation music, leaves visitors feeling incredibly refreshed.

When the sun is working with you, Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
The main temple area at Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

The reason I love this temple so much is that it feels completely separate from the busy city of Busan laying just below it. Compared to the crowded Haedong Yonggungsa, Samgwangsa is very peaceful and quiet.

Lanterns in May, Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
Yes, these are all handmade! Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
Colourful lanterns, sad to see them taken down! Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

Again, as with the other temples, the decorations adorning Samgwangsa temple change depending on the month. In August 2017, I was able to view the mass water lilies covering the temple grounds, and in the latter part of May 2018, I was able to see the remaining lanterns from the Buddha’s Birthday celebrations before they were taken down. 

Buddha’s Birthday at Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
So cute! Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
The sheer size of this thing! Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

The lanterns were beautiful and hung from every corner of the temple grounds! I arrived quite late, so most of the lanterns had already been taken down, and in the photos you will be able to see the metal frameworks from where the lanterns used to hang.

I loved this particular lantern, with the center which rotated in the wind. Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
A perfect day to take pictures! Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
Close-up: check! Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea
A place for Buddhists to meditate and worship, Samgwangsa Temple, Busan (부산), South Korea

Nevertheless, the remaining lanterns were beautiful. In all shapes, sizes, and colours, it was incredibly fun to wander around and admire them all!

4. Haeinsa Temple (해인사), Hapcheon

Astonishingly, Haeinsa Temple was founded in 802! It feels incredibly fulfilling wandering around historic buildings, and imagining the countless footsteps made by people who have long since passed, and the important figures who have also walked along these paths, and seen the same sights.

Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea
Colour gives me LIFE! Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea
Experimenting with the light, Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea

The temple became a cultural heritage site in December 1995 and houses many national treasures, including the Tripitaka Koreana (a collection of Buddhist scriptures carved onto over 80,000 wooden blocks).

We’re coming for you, Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea
Having good luck so far with the weather while exploring, Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea

Haeinsa Temple in Hapcheon was the very first temple I visited in Korea. Located close to my town, I come here every year and reminisce about my early days in Korea, and the wonderful memories I have created here since.

Ornamental wind chimes for sale, Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea
Souvenir store at Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea
Turtle carved from stone, Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea

I can remember feeling overwhelmed at the beautiful colours lining the walls, the carvings etched into the roofs and stone, the sound of chimes striking in the wind, and the sight and sound of birds flying overhead. I had experienced nothing like it before.

I could listen to these wind chimes all day, Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea
Hiking groups placing their ‘we were here’ ribbons at Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea
The wooden fish percussion instrument, which is used to hit the Dharma Bell, Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea

I would like to do a temple stay here before I eventually leave Korea (Haeinsa Temple offers temple stays only at the weekend, for a one-night or two-night stay on Saturdays and/or Sundays).

Architecture, Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea
Temple building at Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon (합천), South Korea

Pretty amazing places, right? If you’ve ever visited these temples or have any other temples you’d like to recommend to me, leave a comment!

For more info, do check out the VisitKorea website: @jogyesatemple@haedongyonggungsatemple@samgwangsatemple, and @haeinsatemple.

Post Author: CharlotteM

I'm Charlotte. Expat ✈️ Bookworm ? Wanderer ? Foodie ? Working to find a cure for my endless amount of restlessness ?❤️

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