For those who may be reading this and are dealing with the "temple fatigue" just hear me out. This place is so different! For us, this will be one of the most memorable days here in Korea. Which, I wondered if I should say, because something like that is so personalized. There was just such an aesthetic about this place. Ive been at odds wanting to travel to all these interesting destinations around Korea, but not wanting to make the day trip with the kids. There is sooooo much work and planning that goes into it. I finally decided to just dive in again. I woke up on this particular Saturday in April and decided it was time to cross one off our list.
It took me a bit to narrow it down, but I finally decided on Mount Mai and the surrounding temples. It seemed so different from anything we had seen. In some ways, I was right. Some say, “If you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen ‘em all.” But I argue that it just isn’t true. There is always a history to learn, a story to hear, a feeling to chase.
Mount Mai looks like two alert horse ears. As you arrive into the area they are hard to miss. The translation of "Mai-san" means "Horse Ear Mountain." It is known as the only ”married” mountain in the world. The smaller peak to the east is known as the "husband" and the larger peak to the west is known as the "wife." This was definitely a huge part of the trail theme and the surrounding area. There are two peaks that look like something from southern Utah - to a point. Their peaks are bare and the rock is so different from the other mountains. It almost looks alien in a sense.
We parked in a gravel area near a park. There were restrooms and a playground and a few restaurants
and cafe's. It seems like this place may be busy on a weekend or a holiday. We were there on an odd day and in the afternoon, so it was a little quieter for us.
We chose to hike up the base of the mountain instead of taking the tram. We followed the tram trail, however, which was better than the other trail for us. The trail a little further up the park (just up the way a bit from the playground opposite the entrance and past the pond) has more stairs, which is helpful, but those little legs get tired so quickly. There were also statues and places to sit along the way as well as plenty of shade. It ended up for our gain because aside from the occasionally passing tram we had the entire trail to ourselves. The cherry blossoms didn’t pop for another week, which bummed us a little, but there was so much else to see.
At the top of that road where the trail meets the tram stop there is a statue of King Taejo on a horse. He was the first king of the Joseon Dynasty that I've mentioned in my post about Jeonju Hanok Village. He joined the army and slowly worked up the ranks until he eventually overthrew the Goryeo Dynasty. King Taejo came to this mountain to pray for 100 days and is said to have been visited by a mountain god who gave him a golden figure and where he received the answer that he should bring forth the founding of the Joseon Dynasty. If you say a wish or a prayer and touch this statue the legend goes that your wish or prayer will come to pass.
At the base between the peaks there is a nice area to rest and recharge with water fountains and places to sit. The peaks also provide nice shade which is greatly appreciated in these warmer months. You can head to the left (if you're facing the direction of Eunsusa Temple) and up some stone steps to Hwaeomgul cave which houses a small natural spring. Women used to come drink from this spring as it supposedly can bless them with fertility; specifically a son. It only takes a few minutes to go up, see the water and come back down. It is small, but the kids thought it was "so cool. The climb was a bit steep and made me a little nervous with A on my back, but we handled it just fine.
After our little cave adventure we went down the steps toward Eunsusa Temple. I was originally looking forward to the Tapsa Temple and didn't think Eunsusa would be anything particularly special in comparison. In some ways, this was true. Maisan Tapsa is much more original. But Eunsusa is where I got the chills. Maybe it's just me. The Babe said he felt the same, though. So I do think there is something to it.
At the bottom of the steps is a small shop with some trinkets, drinks and snacks. We purchased a few things and The Babe took the kids to sit on the small wall in front of the temple. I got a kick out of seeing that. The normal act of eating ice cream held such a stark contrast to such a historical and foreign place. It gave me the "I'm really here" feeling. I suddenly felt so small and insignificant and so connected all at once. The sound of the chanting or praying (not sure which) over the loud speakers and the mountain wind in my hair, I happily wandered the grounds on my own. It was so peaceful and such a beautiful place.
We each took a turn hitting the big drum three times. Each time means something different. Once leaving the drum and there is a large pear tree. King Taejo planted that tree from a seed. It is said to be around 640 years old. He planted it there to give thanks to the mountain god for answering his prayer.
As we headed down the path toward Tampsa Temple our anticipation grew. We were already thoroughly enjoying ourselves and knew we were about to see something interesting. The first signs of the temple through the trees got us more excited. Settled between the cliffs and up on the slope is this temple with 80 or so stone pagodas all around. Some were even situated in the natural cavities on the cliff face. The stone pagodas and temple were built by a man named Lee Gap Yong. He came to this area in the year 1885 at the age of 25 and practiced meditating as well as building what would end up being 108 stone pagodas over the course of 30 years. He was later ordained a monk and then Tapsa was officially a temple. "Tapsa" literally means "Pagoda Temple."
I'm not sure how Lee Gap Yong had the patience to spend all those years piling stones and meditating, but I'm glad he did because this place even wowed my kids. It almost seems maze-like from the bottom until you work your way up. Some of the different pagodas have names and meanings. There is a male and female at the bottom and toward the top layers of the temple grounds there are two that represent heaven and earth. He brought stones here from all over the country in order to create a harmony of sorts. (see slider below)
The kids loved all the different guardians around the grounds as well as all the statues of Lee Gap Yong. There are statues of him everywhere intermixed with Buddha and other dieties. It left a different feeling. Almost a reminder of the hard work and perseverance it takes to build a relationship and connection with God or that "other." I feel like every way I looked as we walked around my eyes never stopped roaming. There was so much to see here between the cliffs.
Of course at the bottom there are trinket shops and some food. Korea seems to be good at providing these things nearly everywhere you go. Even on the tops of mountains or on mountain paths.
As we hiked back to the car The Babe and I agreed this was one of the most memorable days we've had since moving here in the summer of 2020. There is so much to see in Korea. I feel like we could live here our whole lives and never see it all. It's days like these, in the warm sun in the mountains, surrounded by beauty and creativity and meaning, that I don't mind. Because we've seen and done so much. It's hard traveling with kids. It's a lot of work and can take a lot of planning just to go on a day trip a few hours away. The kids did so well, though. G hiked the whole way with a bounce in his step (most of the time). He even did all the stairs on his own. We play games or do tricks to take his mind off it. We also take a lot of snack and water breaks and go at his pace. "A" just hung with me a little over half the time in her Tula or walking with the rest of us.
I left Maisan feeling tired, of course, there are so many stairs (sooo many!), but also refreshed and more enthusiastic to go and find and do the next thing. Because this day was random, but it turned out to be amazing. I feel like sometimes those are the best days. The ones where you don't think about it too much. You just get in the car and . . . go.