“Is this the #1 temple in Korea?” a foreign visitor with whiting grey hair asked his Korean guide as he walked into the Haedong Yonggungsa temple.
“No,” the Korean man said.
“Why does it say that?”
Over the gate to the temple stood a sign that says “the most beautiful temple in Korea.”
Location: The end of Yonggung-gil (용궁길), off Gijanghaean-ro (기장해안로)
Transportation: From Jangsan station (the final subway stop on the green line), a taxi costs about 6000 won, or you can take bus no. 100
Tips: Get there early (before 10 am). When it gets crowded starting in late morning, it is loud and difficult to move around.
It may be the most heavily-self-promoted temple in Korean (and honestly, it is pretty damn beautiful). Many a tourist putting up some quick photos to social media takes the title (“called the…”) and uses it. Now if you Google the phrase, you’ll find a YouTube video, a Lonely Planet tour entry, and multiple TripAdvisor reviews (it is the #7 highest rated attraction in Busan).
The path into the temple takes you past a line of restaurants, shops, and street food stalls; even Ediya Coffee, one of the largest chains in Korea, has a location there! Since long ago, markets have organically developed around temples to provide worshipers with necessities like incense and food, but the way the market street was situated leading into Yonggungsa reminded me more of the placement of a gift shop at a Disneyland ride. Or the market streets leading into AAAAA Chinese tourist attractions. I’m not complaining; I bought a grilled octopus there and some instant coffee from Ediya. But if they had put up a sign calling it “the most commercialized temple in Korea,” I wouldn’t question it.
Make no mistake, Haedong Yonggungsa offers numerous feasts for the eyes. A line of zodiac animals greets you when you get past the tempting snack stalls. As you walk down the steps into the main body of the temple, bamboo forests to each side, the finely-painted buildings come into view alongside the cliffs and the sea. (Those steps become single-file when it is too crowded.)
The dancheong-painted (red and blue-green decorative coloring, 단청) eaves of the main building include a dragon’s face carved into the wood. There are two opportunities to toss coins for good luck. From the bridge, you can try to hit the shot into a bucket held by a young girl sitting on a lotus in the water below. Yonggungsa is a real working temple. As I was sitting, watching, and feeling, a family came inside, laid out prayer mats, and offered two bags of rice to the bodhisattvas.
By the time I had seen all of the buildings, it was past 11 am, and it was getting more and more crowded. The tourist buses had rolled into the parking lot. I bought myself some fried squid from the market and would have headed back if I had not noticed a trail leading into the woods of the hill behind the temple.
So I bought some squid and took it with me in its convenient bag to the trail.
Hiking Along the Coast
The 3.5 kilometer (2.1 mi) trail follows the coastline, next to open views of the sea for the first half, shrouded by pine trees for the second half.
When I got out on the other side, I came into an intersection beside the parking lot and a road to a construction site where the DoDo J mobile cafe truck was parked. Enjoying an iced coffee, I chatted with some Korean women on vacation from Seoul.
When they left, a group of men in suits came over from the direction of the construction. Mr. Heo showed me a video of a condo complex that will be going up. “It looks beautiful,” I said.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, USA Today, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.