People’s first image of Korea’s southern tip are of the famous beaches of its coastal city Busan. However, the south has so much to offer it’s kept me busy and away from Seoul for months on end. A secret treasure chest tucked away along the south coast is the maritime town of Tongyeong. Known for the famous sea victory of Admiral Lee over the Japanese invasion some 400 years ago, Tongyeong has more to offer than just historical nostalgia and can easily occupy an entire weekend.
This city first came to prominence as mentioned when a Japanese invading fleet was victoriously defeating using Admiral Lee’s innovative and distinct Turtle Warships. Although much of the heritage is based on this historic victory the city has been diversifying its attractions to have more to draw visitors to this touristic coastal town.
Tongyeong is on the southern tip of the mainland and the land bridge to the adjacent island of Geoje. It is easily accessible by intercity buses from Busan, Daegu, Masan, and as far away as Seoul. Nestled around a harbour the town is scenically bordered by mountains which are home to some stunning temples and scenic views of the coastline.
A stunning feature of the city is the Chungmugyo bridge connecting downtown to the nearby Hallyeosudo island. The western end of this bridge is also home to equally striking Seogwangsa Temple sitting on a hill overlooking the harbour.
While not known as a tourist attraction it is worth checking out due to its close proximity to downtown, stunning interior, and fantastic city views from its rooftop. The temple is tucked away behind a public school and is awe inspiring in its architecture
The main Prayer Hall is located on the third floor consisting of a vast meditation hall. However, its worth continuing up to the rooftop for the hidden treasures.
The stairwell is remarkably painted on all sides along the walls and stair undersides. There are many detailed scenes of religious imagery in each depiction.
Reaching the rooftop there is an outdoor terrace with stunning city views of downtown and the harbour. The roof also is also home to the jewel of the temple in a rooftop shrine.
The smaller rooftop shrine will dazzle you with an assortment of giant sized pure gold figures and relief artwork. It is well worth the hike all the way up the stairs for the amazing sights of both the city and of the rooftop gold shrines.
A 15 min walk further west along Hallyeosudo island will bring you to Mt Mireuksan. A short 500m hike in from the base of the mountain will bring you to the scenic Yonghwasa Temple. Home to a Templestay Program it is easily reached from downtown on foot or by bus which will bring you to the base of the mountain.
There are also further hiking trails which will bring you to more remote temples or to the summit of the mountain.
For those not interested in hiking and with a head for heights a modern addition to the city is the Hallyeosudo cable car. Due to its popularity, wait times can be quite long. However the mountain top viewing platform can provide some breathtaking landscape views of the coastline. You can use this spot as a short cut to continue your hike to the summit or hike all the way back down to the base.
Returning back to the Chungmugyo bridge linking Hallyeosudo island to downtown, hidden below the surface of the water lies another secret treasure. The Undersea Tunnel was built during the Japanese occupation almost a century ago to link the island to the mainland.
Possibly the worlds first undersea tunnel and decades before Europe’s Channel Tunnel this is an engineering marvel for its time and provides a welcome relief from the summer humidity. Its natural cooling affect is similar to standing in an ice box.
The tunnel houses a photo gallery of its history and construction, along with displays of the city’s other tourist attractions.
Yun-I Sang Museum
Yun-I Sang was a famous local musician who immigrated to Germany during the 60s-70s and rose to great fame playing in European orchestras. The museum is a tribute to his heritage and also displays personal affects, exhibits from his European career, and time in Germany.
Adjacent to the museum is a German style replica home with garage. The garage houses his original BMW complete with German licence plates.
Turtle Ships & Jungang Live Fish Market
Back in the town centre the harbourfront Culture Plaza has been designed around four replica Turtle Ships which are a central focal point celebrating the city’s historical legacy.
These battleships were used in the victorious battle of Admiral Lee against the invading Japanese armada. Visitors can explore the interior where lifelike mannequins are used to recreate daily life on board the vessels. The ships have Captains room, kitchens, ship doctors cabin, along with tiny canons and a crawlspace on the upper deck to fire arrows.
Around the Aug 15th Holiday each year there is a large re-enactment where the ships are set out to sea for an epic battle culminating in a giant fireworks display.
Across from the Culture Plaza Jungang Live Fish Market highlights the maritime activity of this coastal town. You can see an assortment of live catch in many shapes and sizes.
Dongpirang Wall Painting Village
Another modern addition to the town is a wall painting village among the terraces of hilltop houses overlooking the harbour. A phenomena that has been replicated in other such narrow communities, the terrace alleyways thru the houses reaching to the hilltop have been decorated with a variety of street art. Some celebrate the historic legacy of Admiral Lee while others have more pop culture and quirky themes
Folk History Museum and Sebyeongwan Hall
A few blocks in from the Jungang Live Fish Market, Tongyeong’s Folk History Museum is a collection of exhibits highlighting the historic heritage of this city. Themed around Admiral Lee’s battle items include artwork, stamps, coins, and other memorabilia over the years to celebrate the victorious battle.
Adjacently Sebyeongwan Hall has the original viewing terrace used to overlook the harbour and plan the attack.
A few blocks further in from the Folk History Museum Chungyeolsa Shrine houses another memorial hall to Admiral Lee. Set in landscaped grounds with traditional architecture it is an idyllic garden setting to remember the local hero.
A special exhibition room also in the grounds display various gifts presented by Chinese Kings over the years. As if you hadnt explored and seen enough already, there is the Jeongdang pair of ancient wells and large cistern across the road
To visit the final resting place of Admiral Lee involves a short boat ride from the harbour to one of the outer islands. Set in a beautiful tropical landscape the island has unique fauna as well as the Admiral’s Memorial Hall
The island houses a terrace used by archers to attack the advancing Japanese ships and Jeseungdang Shrine used by Admiral Lee to plan the attack. It now houses some of the best European style paintings in Korea illustrating the epic battle with incredible detail.
Tongyeong has more than enough to occupy an entire weekend or return trip. Often overlooked in favour of nearby Busan or Geoje Island there is more than enough to keep any enthusiast occupied on a variety of levels. It is a very tourist friendly town with many tourist info booths in prominent locations and tourist friendly bus stops