Gongju, renowned for its cultural sophistication and devout
Buddhist culture, was the capital of the proud Baekje Kingdom
from AD 475 to AD 528.
Today the city remains as a small provincial town in rural
Chungcheongnam-do, but the splendor of the once past Baekje
Kingom still lives on through the history rich Baekje-era
If museums and tombs are not your thing, the city is also
home to two of Korea’s most enchanting Buddhist monasteries,
Gapsa and Magoksa temples.
Korea, the first centuries of the Common Era were defined by
the epic struggles between the rival kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje
and Silla for dominance over the Korean Peninsula.
The kingdom of Baekje, which dominated southwestern Korea, developed
a sophisticated culture thanks to its ties with China and adoption
of Buddhism as the state religion.
Baekje’s profound regional influence played the leading role
in transmitting Buddhism and Chinese culture to Japan.
AD 475, the Baekje capital located near Seoul fell to Goguryeo.
The kingdom established its new capital on the banks of the
Geumgang River, naming it Ungjin, or “Bear Port” (see box).
For 63 years, Ungjin (current day Gongju) was the center of
the thriving kingdom, complete with grand palaces and spectacular
temples. It was at this time that Buddhism was declared Baekje’s
For internal political reasons, the kingdom moved its capital
to nearby Buyeo in 538. Nevertheless, the city thrived until
the destruction of Baekje by a Chinese-Silla invasion in 660.
|◆ Tale of the She-Bear
One day, a female bear, lonely after years of watching humans
go about their business, kidnapped a local fisherman to make
him her husband. At first, the fisherman was afraid and refused,
so the bear trapped him in her cave by blocking its entrance
with a large bolder. She took good care of him, and after a
couple of years, some degree of affection developed between
the two. The couple even had two cubs. Figuring she could trust
her husband not to leave, the bear left the cave unblocked as
she left to gather food. The husband bolted from the cave after
sensing freedom for the first time in years. When she discovered
that her husband fled, the bear, overcome with sadness, jumped
into the river with her two cubs and drowned.
of the Geumgang River grew rough after the bear’s death. To
ease the resentment of the dead bear’s spirit and calm the
waves, local fishermen built a shrine for the bear. It is
from this shrine that Gongju’s classic name, Bear Port(Ungjin),
comes from this shrine.
| On the Way to Gapsa Temple
the western reaches of Gongju, on the western slopes of the
Gyeryongsan Mountains, resides Gapsa Temple. Founded in the
first year of the reign of Baekju king Guisin (420 AD) by the
Goguryeo monk Ado, Gapsa is one of Korea’s most historic temple
and a magical place to spend time in. Amidst the lush forests
and cool running streams, this is the perfect place to immerse
oneself in a perfect blend of spiritual energy and nature’s
During the Unified Silla era, Gapsa was one of the
10 greatest temples of the Avatamsaka school of Buddhism,
which emphasized the teachings of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Today,
the temple is home to many handsome old structures and stone
monuments. One of the more impressive sites is a stone stupa
located a short walk from the main compound. Fashioned in
the Goryeo era, the stupa’s intricate carvings are still vivid
with details from past eras; Korean Buddhist art at its most
Hikers will want to use Gapsa Temple as their starting point
for a hike on the Gyeryongsan
Mountains. A well-worn path will take you from Gapsa to the
Buddhist nunnery of Donghaksa Temple on the eastern slopes
of the mountain. On the way you will pass the “Brother and
Sister Pagodas,” or Nammaetap, which are associated with a
very beautiful legend (see box).
|◆ Legend of the Brother and
After the fall of the Baekje kingdom, a young man from the royal
family retreated from the world to live as a monk in a cave
high in the Gyeryongsan Mountains. One day, a tiger approached
the cave. The tiger threatened the monk, but the monk noticed
the tiger had a bone stuck in his throat. Mercifully, the monk
removed the bone from the tiger’s throat. The grateful tiger
left the monk in peace, but soon returned with a gift, a young
woman he had stolen from a wedding party below. Being winter,
she had no choice but to stay the season in the cave before
She fell in love with the monk, but the monk turned down
her proposal, proposing instead to live together as brother
and sister. The two spent the rest of their days living together
as Buddhist monks. When they died their remains were buried
on the spot, the brother’s under the seven-story pagoda, and
the sister’s under the five-story pagoda.
|To get to Gapsa, take the local bus #2 from downtown
Gongju. The trip takes about 30 minutes.
| Magoksa Temple
|Even from only an architectural perspective, Magoksa Temple
is one of the most beautiful Buddhist monasteries in the country.
The complex is a cornucopia of protected cultural properties,
including five designated treasures. As if this weren’t enough,
the temple is surrounded by verdant green hillsides as far as
the eye can see. Isolated deep in Gongju’s northern mountains,
the temple gets far fewer visitors than you’d expect at a temple
of its size.
Depending on which founding legend you believe,
the temple was built in either AD 642 or 847. Located in the
middle of nowhere, the monastery has served as a place of
refuge throughout Korea’s turbulent past. The temple survived
the Japanese invasion of 1592 (when most of Korea was burnt
to the ground), and has sheltered even the legendary Korean
independence fighter Kim Gu who hid at the temple after escaping
from prison in 1898.
Much of the temple was rebuilt in 1651, and it is during
this reconstruction that the magnificent Yeongsanjeon, Daeungbojeon
and Daegwangbojeon halls were built. The most impressive hall
is the Daeungbojeon, a massive two-story hall sitting on a
terrace overlooking the rest of the monastery. The simple
Yeongsanjeon Hall, located at the front of the complex, contains
1,000 Buddha statues, all of which are slightly different.
A wide stream passes in front of the temple complex, crossed
by a large stone bridge.
To get to Magoksa, take the local bus #7 from New Gongju City
Bus Terminal. The trip takes about 40 minutes.
| Gongsanseong Fortress
with a commanding view of the Geumgang River, was originally
built during the Baekje era, although the current walls and
pavilions are of much later vintage. The fortress makes for
a pleasant walk, and it‘s not too far from the royal burial
tombs of Songsan-ri (see below).
| Royal Tombs of Songsan-ri
a hillside near the Geumgang River is one of Gongju’s most visited
attractions — seven royal tombs from when Gongju was the capital
of the Baekje kingdom. Some of the tombs were discovered in
the early 20th century, although the most famous of the tombs,
the Tomb of King Muryeong, was accidentally discovered while
performing maintenance on the other tombs in 1971. The discovery
proved to be one of the biggest finds in the history of Korean
archeology. The tomb contained some 2,906 artifacts, 12 of which
were designated National Treasures.
It used to be that you could enter the tombs to take in their
unusual wall murals, but the tombs have recently been closed
to protect these invaluable sites. On a positive note, there
is an exhibit at the foot of the hill with re-creations of
the tombs that visitors are encouraged to enter and play in.
Many of the artifacts discovered inside the tombs are now
kept at the Gongju National Museum.
Gongju National Museum
Gongju National Museum found its final home when an impressive
cutting-edge facility was opened in 2004. Thanks to its fine
collection of Baekje-era artifacts, many of them from the Tomb
of King Muryeong, the museum is one of Korea’s finest and well
worth a visit.
The museum has three exhibition halls — a special exhibit
hall, a hall dedicated to the artifacts removed from the Tomb
of King Muryeong, and another for artifacts from Gongju’s
stint as the royal capital. Among the most impressive artifacts
are gold ornaments from the crowns of King Muryeong and his
queen (National Treasure No. 154), a stone statue of a legendary
animal that guarded the tomb (National Treasure No. 162),
and a Buddhist stele with breathtaking carvings and inscriptions
(National Treasure No. 108).
The only problem with the museum is that it is somewhat out
of the way, making the trip there and back a bit problematic.
In theory, bus #8 from Gongju Intercity Bus Terminal will
take you to the museum, but depending on the time of day you
may have to take a taxi to get back to town. On the bright
side, since May 1 admission is free. The museum is closed
Mondays. For more information, call (041) 850- 6300.
|◆ Getting There and Accommodations
Getting to Gongju isn’t particularly difficult.
There are frequent direct buses to the city from Seoul’s Express
Bus Terminal and Nambu Terminal. The trip takes about 1 hour
and 30 minutes.
Likewise, you can take the KTX to Daejeon (takes about 40 minutes)
and take a one-hour bus ride from Daejeon’s West Bus Terminal.
As a small provincial town, Gongju doesn’t have much to offer
in terms of luxury accommodation — if you absolutely must
stay at the Ritz, you’re best off sleeping in Daejeon. If
you set your sights a tad lower, however, Gongju has plenty
of small motels and yeogwan — the bus terminals are good places
to start your search. There are motels near Magoksa and Gapsa
→Accommodation search, click
Written and photographed by Robert Koehler
The article courtesy of Seoul magazine