The words “Seoul” and “beautiful” aren’t commonly associated with one another. “Fast-paced”, “hazy” or “exciting” are some of the more usual buzzwords batted around when describing the giant, urban metropolis.
Yet when I finally moved to Seoul, after two years in nearby Suwon, I’m sure I managed to move to the most beautiful part of the city — an area that is representative of the Far East’s charms in general. That is, natural, mountainous beauty containing traditional and thriving Buddhist culture.
My neighborhood is Yeonhui-dong, which is within walking distance of the respective dining and nightlife meccas of Sinchon and Hongdae. The overlooking mountain is called Ansan, and the temple complex located there is named Bongwonsa.
Ansan has a boardwalk that circulates it’s entirety; a wooden belt fastened tight enough to provide walkers with an easy but scenic weekend stroll. One of the highlights of this is the area on the south side, which is referred to as the forest stage.
When inside Ansan’s forest, it’s hard to believe you’re not in a rural province. The natural environment here is all consuming.
Over on the northern side is a stunning view of the shamanic Inwangsan, and on a clear day the view of Ansan, Inwangsan and the looming and impressive Bukhansan National Park are a breathtaking sight to behold. The fortress running along Inwangsan’s spine is reminiscent to the Great Wall, albeit on an obviously smaller scale.
The short hike to the top of Inwangsan is a feat even a novice hiker can accomplish, and the views are a greater reward than you would expect. Even when the smog is blowing in from China, the panoramic sunset never fails to satisfy the decision to traverse this land mass.
If you are rambling down the south side looking to exit you may come across a series of rock piles, hear some chanting, and eventually descend onto what I believe to be Seoul’s greatest temple complex, Bongwonsa.
The complex was founded in 889 but moved to this location in 1748. Some of the temples here are delightfully historical-looking with a rustic, well-preserved aesthetic.
The impressively imposing main hall contains 3,000 buddhas. It’s a sight to behold day or night, in any season, but as the sun is going down and the visible buddhas begin to shine, it is especially spellbinding, not least if there is chanting emanating from within.
There are 50 monks living in the complex here, and just like the typical Korean resident anywhere on the peninsula, with a little courage, effort and a smile, they are just as approachable as any stranger. The man in the picture below was stern mannered but wholly welcoming, ushering me to the radiator, talking to me through my Korean friend about his travels to over 100 countries and sitting me down for a front row seat for a traditional dance performance that happened to be on at the time.
The female dancer I was lucky enough to witness performing had an exquisite style. Dressed in lightweight, ceremonial attire, she flailed her long sleeves in every direction to accompanying music and a crowd of monks elderly local buddhists. I was not only privileged enough to take a front row seat, but encouraged to take pictures.
Directions to Mount Ahn: Mount Ahn can be easily accessed from the neighborhood’s of Sinchon, Hongje or Yeonhui all in the Seodaemun district.
By bus: Sinchon Station on Line 2, Exit 3. Then, take bus No. 7024 directly to Bongwonsa.
From the back gate of Ewha Womans University: Simply walk north alongside the main road until you reach an intersection underneath the freeway. From there, go up the hill 500 meters.
Words and photographs copyright of Simon Slater. Check out more images from his travels on the blog The Secret Map.