Another Day, Another Day Trip

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
Trip End Dec 02, 2012

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Flag of Korea Rep.  , South Chungcheong,
Saturday, November 3, 2012

Since last weekend's trip/camera testing in the Oeam Folk Village was such a success, I decided to plan another quick day trip to continue enjoying the fall. I remembered a temple in the Gongju area we'd run out of time to see when I visited with my friend back in the spring. My guidebook said the temple was next to a mountain with decent hiking opportunities, so I chose Magok-sa (마곡사) for today's trip.

The headquarters of the Jogyejong sect, Magok-sa was founded in the 7th century and reconstructed in the 12th. Like many rural Korean temples, it was set on the side of a mountain with a small cluster of shops around the base.

Although Magok-sa was relatively easy to reach from Gongju without a car, there was no intercity bus from my town to Gongju, so I went to the temple via Yugu. From Yugu, there were only three buses a day to the temple, and none were convenient for me. Luckily, taxis were cheap in Korea, so I just grabbed a cab for around 12,000W. I was surprised to find there were no taxis waiting at the bus station. I asked the woman selling bus tickets where to find a taxi, and she kindly called one for me. After the car came, I found myself at the temple entrance gate in no time. I made sure to grab the driver's business card so I could get a ride back to town when I was finished as taxis seemed even rarer in the tiny village by the temple.

Because the bus timings worked out better than I had expected, I was able to make it to the temple just after 9am. The air was still fairly cold, and I wondered if I had enough insulation for a hike up into the hills, but the morning was clear, the fall colors were bright, and there were only a few people around.

I saw a banner advertising some sort of special temple stay weekend, and I'd say roughly half the people I saw when I first arrived were temple stay participants. This deduction was based on the hideously-colored and ill-fitting clothing they were wearing, standard temple stay issue in my experience from my own temple stay. Most of the other half of the visitors were hikers, also based on what they were wearing as Koreans generally take their hiking gear seriously.

I milled around the temple a bit, taking advantage of the sparse attendance to get some good shots of the buildings without mobs of tourists impeding the views, before heading off on the hike. The temple grounds were smaller than I expected for such an important sounding temple, especially given that my guidebook stated it had survived the years mostly undamaged by war. The buildings were lovely though, especially with the vibrant fall colors of the trees scattered around the buildings.

Unfortunately, those trees all appeared to be landscaping, rather than native to the area. On the hike up into the hills, I found that most of the local trees went straight from green to brown. Apart from the disappointing lack of fall color, the hike itself was quite enjoyable. There was the typical-Korean climb straight up to a peak followed by paths along the ridge lines. The weather was perfect despite the early chill, and the trails were pleasant.

There were three suggested hiking routes, but I had trouble finding the signs for the one I wanted to take, so I ended up doing a mixture of all three. Although the hike turned out nicely, at one point I did consider taking the short trail back down the mountain and ending my hike early because I hit a section of trail covered with boisterous picnickers. Nothing against them, it just made that part of the hike less than serene. Also, I had once again started a hike without bringing lunch, although I at least had plenty of liquid this time.

I found an empty bench a bit past the picnickers and waited for a couple of large groups to pass while deciding whether to continue. I had basically decided to head down early, but two Koreans stopped at my bench to eat lunch and offered me some of their food. (A sweet rice cake that I took to be polite, luckily it wasn't filled with bean paste, and an apple. Score.) That recharged me, although when they sat down I knew they would feel compelled to offer me food, so I decided to move on as quickly as would be polite so I didn't take too much advantage.

Extending my hike was the right decision. Most of the large groups and picnickers had apparently taken the cut-off for the short route, so the second half of my hike was relatively peaceful. I only ran into a significant group on the last leg when I headed back down. One of them spoke English well and offered me assistance in deciding which of the two final trails to take. He'd been to the mountain fairly often and knew which was the more scenic. So I ended-up walking with his group and chatting for a while before I excused myself to take pictures while they continued on.

So I had a good trip, even though I didn't get the vibrant fall forest hike I was hoping for. And there wasn't too much to do at the temple itself, although I believe they host temple stays for foreigners too. The mountain next to the temple was a decent day hike in the Gongju area and was a nice way to enjoy the fall for me without having to travel far. If I were just visiting temples in the Gongju area, though, and didn't have time for a hike, I think I'd still choose Seonggok-sa over Magok-sa for my temple visit. Although if you were more interested in traditional temple life and architecture, Magok-sa would be the better choice.

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