Yakcheon Temple, Jeju, South Korea
The imposing keep of Yakcheon Temple looms over Jeju’s southern coastline, attended to by a cluster of palm and orange trees as it looks commandingly to the sea. It’s said to have been built over a mystical, medicinal stream, from which the name “Yak” (medicine) “Ch’eon” (stream) “sa” (temple) is derived. Local authorities built it on a massive scale, perhaps as much to draw throngs of tourists as hordes of worshippers. At 37,000 p’yong, (122,100 sq meters) Yakcheonsa is the second largest temple complex on the island. Its enormous size and stunning, unique artwork makes it one of Southern Jeju’s most awe inspiring attractions.
The main prayer hall stands a towering 28 meters, or nearly eight stories, in height. As you enter the hall, you’re greeted by the soaring image of the Buddha of Cosmic Light (Biro-bul). He’s flanked on his left by the original Buddha and on his right by the Teaching Buddha of the Western Paradise. The Buddhas stand behind two enormous pillars, with long, mustachioed dragons coiled around them. The dominant presence of these dragons is said to be unique to Korean temple architecture. It’s a remarkable sight, and was recently used as a backdrop for the Korean action film, “D-War.” The prayer hall is 4 stories tall, 3 of which are open to the public. On the second floor is a beautifully lit prayer room with red lanterns strung with prayers hanging from the ceiling. As you make your way around, be sure to take some time to admire the artwork found along the walls. A work of particular interest on the second floor depicts an overzealous monk trying to gain favour with Dalma, the father of Korean Buddhism. Dalma said he would never accept the monk as a disciple unless he could turn the snows red. The painting shows the young adherent slicing his hand off, his blood pouring into a lotus blossom on the snows before Dalma’s cave.
Just behind the main prayer hall is an artificial cave known as Gulbupdang. It contains a modest shrine, giving the faithful a small haven of solitude from the often bustling temple grounds. As you exit the cave to your right, you’ll pass along the outer edge of the prayer hall to a fountain where the famed medicinal waters, or ‘yak-su’ flow. As you continue down the hill and past the temple’s enormous drum, you’ll find Sam-song-gak and the Nahan Jeon. Sam-seong-gak (“Three-Saints-Shrine”) is the outwardly unimpressive building which houses a fascinating shrine to the Buddhist saints Yong Wang, Dok Seong and San Shin. Further down the hill is the Nahan-jeong, or “Hall of the Buddha’s Disciples.” Though it lacks the brazen scale of the prayer hall, it remains perhaps the most charming part of any visit to the temple. The hall contains hundreds of sculptures dedicated to the lives of Buddha’s various followers. Each wooden statue attempts to capture the unique teachings and character of the subject. Some are powerful, many are humorous, but all will give pause to think about the men behind them and their extraordinary lives.
Entrance to the temple is free. It’s located roughly 2 miles east of Jungmun and can be accessed via the Seobu Tourism Road. All buses between Jungmun and Seogwipo pass before the temple entrance. However, bus drivers tend to skip the stop, so be sure to let them know you’re going to Yakcheonsa as you board.