I spent Wednesday at Gyeongju’s Yangdong Village, recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, working on a story. The ancient capital of the Silla kingdom, Gyeongju is a wonderful place to visit as the town is virtually a big outdoor museum. You could probably spend months there and not see everything.
Returning downtown from Yangdong Village, I had some time to kill before heading back to Seoul, so I popped by one of Gyeongju’s lesser known historical sites, the old Japanese Buddhist temple of Seogyeongsa, and then tested put my tripod to good use photographing the famous Anapji Pond, one of Korea’s most scenic locations.
Former Seogyeongsa Temple
This is probably NOT what you think of when you envision Gyeongju.
Hidden in a residential neighborhood behind Daegu Bank, the former Seogyeongsa Temple was built in 1934 as a missionary station for the Japanese Soto school of Zen. According to the signboard, most of its temple-goers were Japanese residing in Gyeongju. While relatively many Japanese-built Western-style buildings still remain in Korea, examples of Japanese traditional architecture such as this are rare. Japanese Buddhist temples remain in Gunsan and Mokpo, too, although of these, only Gunsan’s Dongguksa Temple still serves as a Buddhist house of worship. Seogyeongsa, meanwhile, was used as a Rural Development Center, Erosion Control Center and Marine Corps Veterans Office before it and the surrounding area was fixed up and turned into a neighborhood park. When I visited, an elderly woman was in there teaching Korean traditional singing. The building was recently registered as a cultural property.
In fact, I’d visited the site three years ago, when reconstruction had just gotten underway. Back then, a lot of folk seemed to think it was formerly a Shinto shrine. Well, turns out it wasn’t. Sherwin at Gyeongju Blog has posted an old photo of the temple back from “the day”; he also discusses the history of the place. Most interestingly, he points out that the Soto school of Zen has apologized for its role in supporting Japanese imperialism, noting specifically about Korea:
Especially in Korea and the Korean peninsula, Japan first committed the outrage of assassinating the Korean queen, then forced the Korea of the Lee Dynasty into dependency status, and finally through the annexation of Korea, obliterated a people and a nation. Our sect acted as an advance guard in this, contriving to assimilate the Korean people into this country and promoting the policy of turning Koreans into loyal Imperial subjects.
Getting There: Just take a cab to Daegu Bank and explore the neighborhood behind it — you can’t miss something this distinctive.
Anapji Pond at night belongs on anyone’s list of Korea’s top scenic spots. Construction of the pond began in 674 AD at the order of King Munmu of Silla. It was originally part of a detached palace complex built for the crown prince. The pond was designed according to Taoist principles — from KoreanCulture.org:
Anapji has curved embankments on the northern and eastern sides, somewhat resembling the shoreline of a river. The southern end is perfectly straight while the western side is angular. All of the four sides are lined with dressed stones. In the middle of the pond are three small islands alluding to Taoist sanctuaries. In an entry dated A.D. 674, the Samguksagi records that” a pond was made with mountain-islands, flowering plants were grown, and rare birds and strange animals were raised in the palace.” It is believed that plants such as orchids, peonies, lotus and azaleas, and birds and animals like swans, peacocks and deer were kept in the palace. On the shore and around the islands are simulated beaches made of rocks.
When Anapji was drained and excavated in 1975, many relics dating from the Unified Silla period (668-935) were found. They included a wooden frame which is believed to have been designed to grow lotus in a limited area in the pond. The entire floor of the pond was covered with pebbles to keep the water clear. On the whole, Anapji and the surrounding garden were designed in a microcosmic style to symbolize the dwellings of Taoist fairies. The entire area was so arranged as to create the effect of a landscape painting.
The best time to come here is right before sundown, when the sky turns purple and the pond-side pavilions are lit up, producing some wonderful reflections.
Hours: 9am to 10pm
Admission: 1,000 won
Getting There: Take bus 11 or 601~609 from in front of the Korea Industrial Bank near Gyeongju Station. Take it to Gyeongju National Museum and get off there. The pond is a short walk from the museum.
While you’re in Gyeongju, you’ll be tripping over places selling Gyeongju Bread, a local specialty first baked up by Choe Yeong-hwa in 1939. Filled with red bean paste, the treat — also known as Hwangnam Bread (after Gyeongju’s Hwangnam-dong district, where the bread was first made) — is now famous nationwide.
MAP: Gyeongju’s Former Seogyeongsa Temple and Anapji Pond
View Anapji and Seogyeongsa in a larger map