Tapsa Temple – 탑사 (Jinan, Jeollabuk-do)

Written by on February 5, 2014 in Travel

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 The amazing Tapsa Temple in Jinan, Jeollabuk-do Province.

Hello Again Everyone!!

The story of Tapsa Temple, which means Pagoda Temple, in English, begins with the enigmatic layman Lee Gap Yong (1860-1957). Lee Gap Yong first came to Mt. Maisan (Horse Ear Mountain) at the age of 25. For the next thirty years, Lee Gap Yong not only spent time meditating and enlightening himself, he single-handedly constructed some 108 spherical stone pagodas. He gathered the majority of rocks from the falling debris from the neighbouring mountain. Of this herculean task, some 80 pagodas still stand at Tapsa Temple. Much later in life, Lee Gap Yong became an ordained monk and the grounds became a temple.

You first approach the temple up a 1.5 kilometre road that skirts the beautiful peaks of Mt. Maisan. Unfortunately, a fair bit of the road that leads up to the temple is occupied by gaudy tourist trappings of restaurants and knick-knack stores. When you finally do arrive at Tapsa Temple, it’s like you enter into another world. The landscape of Tapsa Temple is almost like you’ve landed on the moon. Small and large spires stick out from the stony landscape. These pagodas look fragile in design; and yet, they’ve lasted over 100 years.

Standing in front of this bizarre landscape, you’ll notice a bronze statue of Lee Gap Yong inside an artificial cave. To the far right is the temple’s bell pavilion. As you make your way up the mountainous trail, heading towards the main hall, you’ll get an amazing view of the surrealistic landscape. Perched above the pagoda laden landscape is the diminutive main hall. All but unadorned on the exterior, the colorful interior of the main hall more than makes up for this deficiency. Sitting on the main altar sits a triad of statues centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). Flanking this statue, both to the left and right, are Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) and Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). To the left of the main altar is a Chilseong (The Seven Stars) mural. And on the far left wall is a picture of Lee Gap Yong and Gwanseeum-bosal. To the right of the main altar is a guardian mural.

Behind the main hall, and perhaps one of the most original interiors in all of Korea, is the Sanshin-gak. Sitting to the centre right is a statue of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). To the centre left is a life-size statue of Lee Gap Yong in older age. The painting of Sanshin inside this hall has a triad of images. In the centre is the standard image of Sanshin, while to the right is a female representation of Sanshin. And amazingly, to the left is Lee Gap Yong with a set of stone pagodas at Tapsa Temple.

Above both of these halls are perhaps two of Tapsa Temple’s most famous collection of pagodas: Cheonji-tap and Obong-tap. To the left of the main hall, and down the side of the mountain trail, are two statues. The first is a beautiful granite statue of Gwanseeum-bosal, while the second is a stoic-looking Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha).

The final hall inside the temple grounds is the Yeongshin-gak hall. Inside this smaller sized hall sit three statues and paintings on the main altar. The first that sits in the centre is a crossed-eyed Seokgamoni-bul. To the right sits Gwanseeum-bosal with what looks to be Lee Gap Yong inside the painting that backs this statue. The final statue that sits on the altar, and to the far left, is Jijang-bosal. Backing this statue is an equally original painting of the Tapsa Temple grounds.

The entire temple grounds are really something so different from anything I’ve ever seen at a Korean temple. This temple goes a long way in counteracting all those arguments that say all Korean temples look the same. At every angle, you’ll see an all new pagoda or statue buried in the pock-marked landscape of Maisan Provincial Park.

Admission to the temple is 2,000 won. And if you bring a car, the parking fee is 2,000 won, as well.

You can now order Dale Quarrington’s all new book here.

HOW TO GET THERE: First, you’ll need to get to Jinan Bus Terminal from wherever it is you live in Korea. From the bus terminal, you’ll need to take a bus bound for Maisan Provincial Park. These buses leave every 40 minutes and start at 7:30 in morning and run until 18:00. Once you’re dropped off at the entry to Maisan Provincial Park, you’ll need to walk up the 1.5 kilometre road to Tapsa Temple. The 15 to 20 minute walk is a beautiful hike with the peaks of Mt. Maisan off in the distance.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10. While the road that leads up to the temple is poorly managed with over-commercialized restaurants, stores, and what-nots, the temple itself more than makes up for any short-comings. The other-worldly landscape is adorned with 80 stone pagodas and beautiful temple buildings. This temple is truly an original. And any visitor to Korea should make their way out to Jeollabuk-do Province to have a look at the amazing Tapsa Temple.

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The beautiful view of Mt. Maisan.

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The pock-marked peaks of Mt. Maisan.

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The first view of the entire Tapsa Temple grounds.

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The bizarre landscape at Tapsa Temple with some of the 80 pagodas that dot it.

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The main hall with the pair of Cheonji-tap pagodas above it.

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Inside the main hall with the altar statues to the right and the pictures of Lee Gap Yong to the left.

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The Sanshin-gak behind the main hall.

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The altar pieces and painting inside the Sanshin-gak.

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The Yeongshin-gak, which is the third temple hall, at Tapsa Temple.

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The statue of Jijang-bosal with a painting of Tapsa Temple behind him.

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A statue of Lee Gap Yong with the moon-like landscape all around him.

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 One last look up at one of the most original temples in all of Korea.

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About the Author

Dale Quarrington

Dale Quarrington has lived in the Busan and Gyeongsangnam-do Province area ever since arriving in Korea in 2003. He’s visited all of the Korean provinces, exploring both the known and unknown temples and hermitages around the Korean peninsula. While he’s not traveling, he enjoys reading books and learning about Korean history.