there are more temples here in busan than i could ever muster enough interest to visit in my year-long stint here. most people just hit the big ones, yonggungsa and beomeosa and rave about the particular beauty of the beach temple. any visit to either of these places, you can expect to see a lot of other people, hear a lot of chanting and smell a lot of incense. they’re immersive cultural experiences, to be sure, but lonely planet had it right when they named seokbulsa, the stone buddha temple, as their #1 place to visit in busan. yesterday, i hiked with a few friends from school up a mountain in oncheonjang to see it for ourselves.
we started out on the cable car, which saved us an hour or more of hiking. thank goodness we did, too, because after we made it to the temple, i felt like i couldn’t even walk back down the mountain. if we’d hiked that extra hour on the way up, i don’t know if i would have given up before we reached the top.
the hike from the cable car to our first landmark, the south gate of an old fortress wall, was a breeze. and the mountain was so beautifully green and devoid of sewage smells, i thought about building a treehouse and staying for a while.
from the south gate, we hiked back down a ways, to what was (maybe) namman village. there were lots of korean folks eating lunch at restaurants there and playing a game that was some kind of mix of volleyball and soccer.
after a few wrong turns, some playing on the ajumas’ sports equipment and discovering that there is a bird living in the mountains of busan that sounds exactly like a cuckoo clock, we wound our way up a very steep 600 meters or so of road to find ourselves finally at the temple. i was expecting a temple carved into the stone. but what we found was something rather different — six giant buddhas carved into the sides of a small canyon at the top of the mountain. there were no monks, no chanting, no overpowering incense smells, no crowds. it was awe-inspiring in a way i can’t quite describe. away from the gift shops and the endless cell phones and the snack carts of the other temples, it was like finding the one place on earth that’s truly free of commerce or globalization or ego or self-awareness, something that was beautiful for the sake of itself. or something like that. i had to fight back tears.
after we marveled at the place for a while, it was starting to look like rain, and at least one of us felt like her legs might turn to jelly if she had to walk all the way back down the mountain. so we asked for a ride from a man who was listening to some bumpin’ buddhist chanting on his van stereo while doing calisthenics. he took us part-way down the mountain and treated us to the traditional treats for mountain-climbers, pajeon and mekkeoli. he didn’t speak a lick of english, but we somehow got by and managed to crack each other up. why he was up on that mountain doing calisthenics and listening to his car stereo, i guess we’ll never know. in the end, he dropped us off at the subway with his business card and instructions to call him for a second hang-out friday.