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Want to get the full picture? Before reading this why not start with my article on Maisan Mountain.
April 2019. I thought I’d seen it all when it came to temples. But deep in the heart of rural southwestern Korea sits a frankly staggering temple unlike any other. It’s called Tapsa Temple and it had been quite a journey to get here. It began with a bus to Jinan from Jeonju then a hike up to Maisan Mountain Provincial Park, followed by a further expedition through the steep winding trails of Maisan Mountain itself. But at last here we were, gazing out over a unique complex born from the singular vision of just one man.
April 2019. Located beneath the horse ear peaks of Maisan Mountain, a 25-year-old man called Yi Gap Yong arrived at Tapsa in 1885 and setup camp as a place to meditate. Over time he became an ordained monk and slowly but surely established the temple. But it’s Tapsa’s collection of stone pagodas that make this place so special, especially when you see that there are around a hundred of the things and when you know that each and every one was handmade by Yong himself over a period of thirty years!
Yong spent days and even weeks at a time building the pagodas of Tapsa Temple by hand. And he did so without the use of tools or mortar. It was amazing to be there just taking it all in and trying to imagine what was going through his mind.
The rocks are believed to have come from the mountain itself and its surrounding forests and streams. Crane your head upwards and you’ll even see baby pagodas constructed in crevices cut into the side of the mountain. I mean, how the hell did he even get up there?
It was busy at Tapsa Temple that day and our general wonderment of the place was curbed somewhat by some highly annoying tourists. But I tried to stay patient, waited for the passing swarms to clear and resisted the urge to snap at those who blatantly stood right in front of me as I was lining up a shot.
Gradually we made our way up to the temple itself, perched dramatically atop a rocky mound and accessed via a stone staircase adorned with colourful lanterns. At the top a narrow balcony provides entrance to the tiny temple interior and excellent views back over the grounds we’d come through.
Yi Gap Yong’s greatest achievement stands right at the very top of the Tapsa Temple complex, a further staircase up from the main altar. Here you’ll find two pagoda beasts known as the Chun Ji Towers, which translates as heaven and earth. I don’t know how long it took him to build these but my god I imagine it was quite a while.
Yi Gap Yong was around one hundred years old when he died at Tapsa Temple in 1957. Today you can come and see his incredible legacy at Maisan Mountain. While the mountain park itself is free to enter, you do have to pay a small fee to get into Tapsa. Just go and see the utterly charmless man in the wooden hut and hand over your hard earned Korean Won. He won’t thank you for it.
For more on what to see and do in this hugely underrated city, check out my travel reports from Daegu.
Like this? Take a look at more of my articles from around South Korea.
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