Baekje and Buddhas

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
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Trip End Dec 02, 2012


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Flag of Korea Rep.  , Chungcheongnam-do,
Saturday, May 12, 2012

Today I took a day trip with a friend to Gongju (공주). A few hours by bus from Seoul (and with no train service), Gongju was the capital of the ancient Baekje kingdom. One of the three major kingdoms existing on the Korean peninsula starting from around 0 BC and lasting for five or six centuries, during the period known as the Three Kingdoms of Korea period. The Baekje were noted seafarers and are credited with being the conduit that brought Chinese and Korean culture and technology to Japan as the latter country began to coalesce from a collection of clans to an imperial system.

Despite Baekje's international connections, the largest of the three kingdoms by far was Goguryeo to the north, but most of that kingdom now lies within North Korea and Manchuria. Baekje and the third kingdom, Silla, were of similar size, with Baekje in the west of South Korea and Silla in the east.

There was a fourth kingdom, called Gaya, which I didn't even know about until I moved to South Korea (I know right, who would believe it?). That kingdom wasn't much smaller than either Baekje or Silla and lasted about as long, I'm not sure why it doesn't make the list as one of the "Four Kingdoms". Perhaps this is because it wasn't actually a kingdom, but a confederacy of smaller groups. I suppose the "Three Kingdoms and a Confederacy Period" doesn't sound as good. I wonder if it also might have something to do with the fact that whoever named the period thought it sounded more grandiose if it echoed the name of the famous Chinese Three Kingdoms period.

But anyway, I went to Gongju, which was the capital of the Baekje kingdom starting in 475AD when the Baekje were kicked out of their old capital Hanseong (near modern day Seoul) as part of the kingdom's long decline under pressure from Goguryeo, although it would be Silla that would ultimately defeat Baekje. After 63 years, the Baekje rulers were forced to leave Gongju and head farther south to Buyeo. I planed to visit Buyeo as well someday, but Gongju was closer and had a better review from my guidebook, so I started there.

Gongju's main attraction in modern times was Gongsan-seong Fortress (공산성). An almost three kilometer long wall circling a hill next to the Geum-gang River. The wall marked the defensive perimeter of the Baekje palace. While to my knowledge there were no remaining buildings from the original palace, and the wall itself was a reconstruction from the 17th century, it still made a good setting for light hike. And lets face it, the 17th century was still a long time ago. (Only from the 17th century? It's not historical unless it's as old as the pyramids. *insert snooty nose raise here*)

We entered from the main gate and began looking around for a good place to start exploring. In order to try to bring visitors a bit of Baekje spirit, the fortress staged a changing of the guards ceremony at the main gate several times a day. There were also a series of "martial" games just inside of the entrance. My friend and I decided to give the archery a try.

While our 10am arrival wasn't particularly early, we did seem to be there before the fortress really got going. So when we approached the archery booth, there were no other tourists there and no staff manning the range. There were also no English instructions. Since no one was there, and the archery at the Hyeonchungsa had been free, and for whatever reason I was feeling particularly impulsive this morning, I decided to just grab a bow and start shooting.

I gave my friend, who had never fired a bow before, a quick lesson and got off maybe two or three shots before one of the fortress staff wandered into the area and saw us. She explained to us via Korean and hand signal-ese that we needed to pay 2000 won for five arrows and we had to pay at a booth near the gate. I probably wouldn't have paid that much (about $2) for only five shots, but since we'd started shooting, I though it was rude not to pay.

We went to the payment booth and discovered that visitors were supposed to buy tokens to play the games. It was one token for, that's right, 2000 won. My friend and I each got a token and went back for some shooting. The woman now manning the archery booth kindly counted out five fresh arrows for each of us, and I impressed the six year old boy who was with her by actually hitting the target with all of my arrows. Of course, the target was probably only 20 feet away, so it would have been far more impressive to miss it with all of my shots than to hit it. And I actually only hit the wolf at the center of the target once, in one of his front paws. Hopefully that will be enough to keep him from attacking my paper sheep...

After archery, we took a stroll around the wall. The views were pretty good, especially on the river side, and the weather was nice. We even saw our first Korean squirrel. It looked like a punk-rock squirrel because it had spiky ears and dark hair.

After finishing with the fortress, we decided to check-out the Songsan-ni Gobungun (송산리고분군), the site of several Baekje royal tombs featuring the tomb of King Muryeong. My guidebook (Moon: South Korea) rated it as one of the top three things to see in Gongju, along with the Gongju National Museum (which we didn't see) and the fortress. Moreover, while I maintain the fortress was the city's main attraction, my guidebook awarded that title to the tombs.

When we arrived at the tombs, a short walk from the fortress, I found the complex to be less than spectacular. I'm not sure why my guidebook gave it a recommendation. The tombs themselves were just a smattering of small, rounded mounds on top of a similarly round hill. There was a likewise small museum set next to the tombs, but it just contained a bunch of reconstructions and copies of both artifacts from the tombs and the tombs themselves. There was a decent amount of English explanation, but I never get excited to see copies of things. I'd rather see the real things.

In order to preserve the tombs, you couldn't see the actual tombs. You had to settle for visiting copies in the museum. While I'm on-board with the idea of preserving archeological sites, I don't see why Korea couldn't have done like Hungary did in Pecs and enclose the tombs behind glass (or plastic) while still allowing visitors a peak at the actual thing.

Note to the museums of the world: if you're going to have fake tombs, go ahead and make the fake entrances just normal hallways, please. For some reason, I guess to provide an authentic experience, the museum recreated the small hallways that accessed the tombs, so you had to duck-walk or crawl just to get into a fake tomb. Also, the fake tombs smelled like sweating kids because we were following a group of school children into the rooms. Please install ventilation in your fake tombs.

Outside of the museum, there were some hiking paths through the tomb park so we did just a bit more hiking, back to the river, then grabbed some lunch and discussed how best to fill the roughly three hours we had left in the afternoon.

My friend's guidebook had a positive review of Magok-sa temple, but implied the place needed a good half-day at least all to itself. So instead, we decided to visit Seonggok-sa temple (성곡사), which had a less than glowing review in my guidebook, but I thought looked interesting anyway in the Gongju tourist brochure. The temple didn't seem to be very far away on the cartoon tourist map, but the map wasn't reliable for navigating, so we grabbed a cab instead of trying to walk.

It turned out the map was extremely misleading. Seonggok-sa was not particularly close to Gongju. It was a good 10km from town. It was also many kilometers from a main road, along a narrow and winding drive up what was either a large hill or small mountain. As our taxi drove further from civilization, I began to worry about how we would get back to town as there would be no flagging down a cab and I saw no signs of bus stops. In fact, as I started to wonder, I happened to glance at my guidebook and noticed for the first time the description of how to get to the temple included a 4km hike from the nearest bus stop. Of course, none of these thoughts would have occurred to me if this same friend and I hadn't had problems getting back from Donghwa-sa in Daegu. So I guess it was lucky for us now that we were unlucky then because I had the forethought this time to get a number from the cab driver so we could call a taxi when we wanted to go back.

So anyway, my guidebook's dissing of the temple combined with the increasing difficulty of getting back to Gongju had me very worried about this decision. But as we rode the final stretch up to the temple, an enormous Buddha head peaked over a line of trees at us and removed my doubts.

Seonggok-sa Temple was officially awesome. I guess the author of my guidebook was haunted by Buddha statues in a former life because I don't see how you couldn't like it otherwise. (Or maybe he's a super minimalist, which would explained why he enjoyed the piles of dirt with tombs under them...) At any rate, Seonggok-sa was covered with Buddha and Bodhisattva statues ranging from several large Buddhas, like the one that greeted us on our way up the hill, to thousands of tiny sculptures that could fit in your hand. On top of that, the statues were grouped in several areas dotting the wooded hillside, which made for a pleasant if sometimes briefly strenuous, hike around the temple complex.

So why all the Buddhas? In 1984, the head priest of the temple decided to populate the temple with an incredible number of statues. While there wasn't a giant scoreboard keeping count of the statues at the temple, my guidebook said the collection currently numbered in the 300,000 range. Or it did the last time that entry of my guidebook was updated. The collection was scheduled to be completed sometime in 2014, so it should have been getting close to whatever its target number was. While my guidebook felt the collective effect of the statues was a bit tacky, I didn't get that impression at all. It was fun going from clearing to clearing anticipating what types of statues you might see next.

For my friend and I, Seonggok-sa was the highlight of the day. We didn't even have trouble getting the cab back to the city. There was a kind Korean man selling devotional objects that was willing to call the cab number for us, although I don't know if he knew I was going to recruit him. My friend and I were discussing how to pronounce the temple name so I could call the cab when he helpfully provided it for us. I took that opening to give him my cellphone and ask him to call. Hah, hah! He fell right into my trap! Although, I did end-up buying some incense after that, which I hate and promptly gave away, so maybe I fell into his trap instead...

So it was another nice day. There were a few pleasant strolls, and while most of Gongju was interesting enough but not particularly amazing, Seonggok-sa was. I suspect my friend and I will come back some time to visit Magok-sa. I think we may even have missed a few Buddhas at Seonggok-sa, so I might have to go back there some day as well...
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