|A Historical Journey to Seosan: From Temples to Holy Ground|
Seosan is a city in Chungcheongnam-do characterized by a blend of picturesque mountains such as Gayasan Mountain and Palbongsan Mountain and the coastal sea and the bordering mud flats of Cheonsuman and Garimnoman. The city was a gateway for trade with China during the Baekje Period (18 B.C. – A.D. 660) and a strategically significant place for national defense during the Joseon Period (1392-1910) as the military barracks for the commanding army of Chungcheong-do were located there.
Seosan is home to nine scenic sites known as “Seosan Gugyeong,” a combination of “gu” meaning the number nine and “gugyeong” meaning “to sightsee” in Korean. The nine attractions include the time-honored Haemieupseong Fortress preserving the tragic history of Catholic persecution, “The Smile of the Baekje,” which is a triad Buddha (National Treasure No. 84) carved into a rock face in Yonghyeon-ri, Seosan, the small hermitage Ganwolam on Ganwoldo Island, Gaesimsa Temple famous for the natural beauty of its architecture, Seosan Hanu (Korean Cattle) Ranch’s pastoral scenery, Samgilpohang Harbor, and Gayasan, Hwanggeumsan, and Palbongsan, the top mountains of Seosan. These nine tourist destinations not only offer historical insight to the city, but also an opportunity to enjoy the gorgeous landscape of Seosan.
Haemieupseong Fortress, where Pope Francis will visit
Haemieupseong Fortress was built during the Joseon Period. The Korean word “eupseong” is used to describe a fortress where the townspeople live but is also used for defense purposes in times of crisis. The construction of the fortress was completed in 1491 during King Seongjong’s reign. From the time the military barracks for the commanding army of Chungcheong-do were transferred to this city during King Taejong’s (1367-1433, 3rd King of Joseon) reign until moving the barracks to Cheongju in 1651 during King Hyojong’s reign, Seosan continued to grow as a military stronghold and a big city.
[Jinnammun, the main gate of Haemieupseong Fortress]
As you enter Jinnammun, the main gate at Haemieupseong Fortress, the beauty of the fortress unfolds before you, taking you back to the Joseon Dynasty. It is recommended to first explore within the fortress walls to see the government office and the guesthouse buildings and then climb up the fortress wall to take a look around. The center buildings of the fortress include the oksa (prison), naea (living quarters), dongheon (magistrate’s office), and gaeksa (guesthouse). Donheon was where the county magistrate conducted affairs and naea was the official residence for the magistrate’s family. Aside from providing accommodation for visiting officials, the gaeksa building housed a wooden plate symbolizing the king, which was visited twice a month.
[Hoya Tree, which became a symbol of Catholic persecution/
Standing tall in front of the prison building is an 18 meter-high tree, 600 year old locust tree called the Hoya Tree. The tree was used for hanging and torturing Catholics at the time of Catholic persecution in Korea. Over a thousand Catholics lost their lives at Haemieupseong Fortress alone, making the fortress a holy ground among Catholics. In August 2014, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the fortress along with the nearby Haemi Martyrdom Holy Ground.
Walking along the fortress walls will allow visitors to fully appreciate the fortress and its views. The 1.8-kilometer course that leads from Jinnammun Gate, passes the western gate Jiseongnu and the eastern gate Jamyangnu and circles back to Jinnammun Gate, the main gate, taking no more than an hour to walk. In particular, the trail between the western gate and the northern gate offers a fine view of the neighboring dense pine forest.
[Pine forest at Haemieupseong Fortress and tourists walking along the fortress walls]
Haemi Martyrdom Holy Ground (Yeosutgol), a Catholic martyr site
Located about 1 kilometer away from Haemieupseong Fortress is the Haemi Martyrdom Holy Ground, which has been called “Yeosutgol” from the time of the Catholic persecution in Korea when people who watched Catholics cry out “Jesus, Maria!” while being dragged away mistakenly understood it as “yeosu (a dialect for yeou or fox) meori,” meaning “fox head” in Korean. As a result Yeosutgol (“gol” referring to head) was what the locals called this place. Lying outside the western gate of Haemieupseong Fortress, Haemi Martyrdom Holy Ground preserves the traces of persecution in its place names. Jindumbeong is where Catholics were drowned after being bound and pushed into a dumbeong (Cheongcheong-do dialect for a puddle) and Supjeongi is where many Catholics were buried alive in the dense forest (“sup” in Korean).
[Haemi Martyrdom Holy Ground]
Once you enter Haemi Martyrdom Holy Ground, it is a good idea to first look around the memorial hall as sculptures depicting the persecuted Catholics being taken away line the walls. Exhibited items like the knives presumed to have been used at the time of persecution, pieces of the locust tree at Haemieupseong Fortress where Catholics were tortured and hanged, and the remains, including teeth, of the martyrs make for an overall solemn atmosphere.
[Jarigaedol (stone once used as an execution place) at Haemi Martyrdom Holy Ground/
Rock-carved Triad Buddha, the smile of the Baekje
The triad Buddha carved into a rock face at Yonghyeon-ri, Seosan is nestled deep within Yonghyeon Valley at the foot of Gayasan Mountain. Walking from Unsan-myeon along the serene Gopung Reservoir, you will get to the entrance of Yonghyeon Valley. Continue along the valley and cross the bridge to find a steep flight of stairs leading to the Buddhist triad. Climb up the stairs and enter a small gate called Bulimun and walk up some more stairs to reach the statues carved into a large rock cliff.
[Bulimun, the entrance to the rock-carved triad Buddha/
The rock-carved triad Buddha in Seosan is a set of three Buddha statues carved into the rock cliff. It is commonly known as “the smile of the Baekje,” because smiles spread naturally across the faces of the Buddha statues with the light from the rising and setting sun. The smiles of the morning sun are said to be especially beautiful. The triad Buddha shows the great craftsmanship of the stonemason who sculpted this masterpiece. The merchants of the Baekje Period are known to have prayed at this site for a safe journey to and back from China. After Baekje Kingdom lost the Hangang River basin area, the people of Baekje started travelling to China across the sea as it became too difficult to travel by land. The nearest points to get to China were Seosan, the neighboring Dangjin, and the coast of Taean. This resulted in many Baekje people visiting this Buddhist statue before they got on the ship leaving for China.
[Five-story stone pagoda at Bowonsaji/Flagpole supports of Bowonsaji]
Continuing through the valley after visiting the rock-carved triad Buddha, you will reach Bowonsaji, a temple site where only the ruins of the once grand Bowonsa Temple remain. The wooden temple building no longer exists, but you are offered a glimpse of the temple’s previous grandeur from the stone pagoda, dangganjiju (flag pole supports), and seokjo (stonework) that remain intact. Seokjo is a kind of stone bowl that Buddhist monks used for holding water and dangganjiju are stone pillars that supported flag poles when performing rituals on the temple grounds. The Stupa of State Preceptor Beopin, a Buddhist monk who widely propagated the reputation of Bowonsa Temple, enshrines the relics of the late monk and there is also a stone monument inscribed with his great deeds.
Arame-gil (a trekking trail combining the Korean native words for ocean (ara) and mountain (me)) begins at Bowonsaji and stretches across Sangwangsan Mountain to Gaesimsa Temple. Hikers visiting Bowonsa Temple Site can travel along the 2.5 kilometer-long trekking trail to reach Gaesimsa Temple.
Gaesimsa Temple, a picturesque mountain temple
[Daeungbojeon Hall of Gaesimsa Temple]
Local Road No. 647 in Seosan stretching from the towns of Unsan-myeon and Haemi-eup connects the major tourist sites located between the rock-carved triad Buddha in Yonghyeon-ri, Seosan and Haemieupseong Fortress. Gaesimsa Temple is a traditional Korean Buddhist temple situated at the foot of Sangwangsan Mountain, which stands halfway between Unsan-myeon and Haemi-eup. This mountain temple nestled peacefully among nature is an attractive tourist destination that sets one’s mind at ease. Moreover, the name “Gaesimsa” means “a temple that opens minds,” so take your time in savoring the tranquility of this picturesque temple.
Walking past Iljumun (One Pillar Gate) you will be greeted with a colony of pine trees stretching out over the roadside. At the entry to the mountain trail is a signpost written “Saesimdong,” referring to a place to open and clean your mind before going to the mountain temple. It is around a five-minute walk up the mountain trail to reach Gaesimsa Temple. The first thing one sees is a rectangular-shaped pond with a quaint wooden bridge. Once you walk past the pond, a series of temple buildings such as Anyangnu Pavilion, Haetalmun Gate, Daeungjeon Hall, Simgeomdang Hall, Muryangsujeon Hall, Myeongbujeon Hall stand one after the other. Although Gaesimsa Temple stands on a small mountainside lot, the temple buildings huddled closely together present a welcoming scene.
[Lush pine forest at the entrance of Gaesimsa Temple/
One unique aspect of Gaesimsa Temple is its architecture. Simgeomdang Hall and Muryangsugak Hall to the left and right sides of Daeungbojeon Hall, the main building of the temple, are great example of this. Korea’s traditional architecture commonly features wooden structures with circular or rectangular columns of carved wood. However, the entrance to the kitchen of Simgeomdang Hall and the columns of Muryangsugak Hall use warped wood in its natural form, highlighting the natural beauty of the wood. Many people come to visit Gaesimsa Temple just to see these unique columns. Gaesimsa Temple is not a big temple, but a charming place to enjoy the pleasant atmosphere and the surrounding natural beauty.
[Ganwolam Hemitage at rising tide]
There is a small island called Ganwoldo in front of Cheonsuman Bay in the southernmost region of Seosan and on this small island is a small hermitage called Ganwolam. It turns into an islet at high tide and connects to the mainland at low tide. Ganwolam Hermitage offers breathtaking views of the rising moon, as well as the sun coming up and setting over the mainland. In particular, the evening sun going down over Anmyeondo Island to the west colors the mud flat and ocean with a red glow. It is advised to check the tide times with the hermitage prior to visiting, because access to Ganwolam is limited to just twice a day due to the ebb and flow of the tide.
The festival taking place at Haemieupseong Fortress has been selected as a 2014 “Up-and-Coming Cultural Tourism Festival” by the Ministry of Culture, Sports & Tourism. The festival offers a variety of historical and cultural programs that will make you feel as if you have traveled back to the Joseon Period. Visitors can take part in various hands-on events that will offer a glance into the life and culture of the Seosan people during older times and enjoy traditional performances and activities such as folk games, traditional crafts, and Korean music.
Regional Specialties of Seosan
Ureokjeotguk and Gaetgukji
Ureokjeotguk is a local dish of Seosan made by simmering rock fish dried by the sea breeze and adding pickled shrimps with a variety of seasoning. This soup is rich and heartening. Gaetgukji, also known as Gaegukji in Chungcheong-do dialect, is a traditional dish made by cutting and salting radish or cabbage and fermenting it with crabs and pickled fish before simmering it in an earthen pot. The clean and savory taste of the soup is widely enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
Seosan 9-gyeong Stamp Tour
The city of Seosan has organized a stamp tour where those who visit and collect stamps from all nine attractions of Seosan can receive a souvenir gift. The stamp collecting leaflets are available at the tourist information centers located by Haemieupseong Fortress, Palbongsan Mountain, and Samgilpo and you can participate in the event by collecting each of the stamps in person from the respective tourist sites. At places that do not have an information center like Gayasan Mountain, Hwanggeumsan Mountain, and Seosan Hanu Ranch, visitors can take pictures of the respective attractions and present the photos at other information centers to receive the souvenir gift.