Visiting South Korea Temples and Shrines: A Spiritual Journey
South Korea has an extremely rich culture of various religious, spiritual, and philosophical beliefs. The diversity of these beliefs is evident in how harmoniously traditional, native Shamanism coexists with religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, and the philosophy of Confucianism.
If you’re looking to embark on a spiritual journey by visiting South Korea temples and shrines, you may be wondering where to begin. My guide will help you explore all there is to South Korea’s spiritual side to help you map out your journey!
How Spirituality Is Experienced in Korea
Traditional Korean spirituality primarily focuses on ethics and rituals. Actions are more important than beliefs and the family or village is a core priority.
The fundamental outlook towards Korean spirituality is that powerful forces exist among us. Interacting with them can add meaning to our lives and make them more pleasant. It is also believed that these interactions can make us better versions of ourselves.
Based on this philosophy, Korean spirituality, particularly Shamanism, aims to bridge the gap between the spirit and the Earthly world.
Korean society has no dominant religion, but it does have a prevalent spirituality. This is why the meaning of spirituality may differ across religions:
- Christianity: it includes the transcendence of materialism. The main essence of Christian spirituality is a person can attain wholeness with God, one’s community, and the environment
- Buddhism: the Buddhist tenet of spirituality is based on generosity and compassion towards others, and achieving inner peace by renouncing earthly pleasures and materialistic desires
Interestingly, accepting these differing outlooks on religion and their individual perspectives on spirituality is another aspect of Korean culture and spirituality.
This respect for diversity enables Korean spirituality to be more accessible to foreigners. Even if you aren’t from Korea and don’t have an inherent understanding of their spirituality, it’s possible to immerse yourself in spiritual tourism which is continuously growing in the country.
Of course, one of the best and most popular ways to get to know the country’s local spirituality is to visit its many temples and shrines.
The Difference Between Temples and Shrines in Korea
In Korea, a shrine and a temple are two distinct types of religious sites, each with its own unique characteristics.
A shrine, or “myo” in Korean, is a place of worship for ancestral spirits, deities, or other religious figures. These sites are often smaller and simpler than temples, with a focus on the veneration of particular ancestors or deities. In general, shrines in Korea are associated with shamanism or other indigenous religious practices.
A temple, or “sa” in Korean, is a complex of buildings and structures designed for Buddhist religious practices. Temples are usually larger and more elaborate than shrines, with multiple halls and pagodas, courtyards, and other features. They may be associated with particular sects of Buddhism or have a more general focus.
While there is some overlap between the two types of sites in terms of the religious practices and beliefs they embody, shrines and temples in Korea are generally distinct from one another in terms of their architecture, purpose, and associated religious traditions.
Most Visited South Korea Temples
South Korea is a land of diverse cultures and religions. As such, it boasts many temples and shrines that have existed for centuries. These temples and shrines are not only places of worship for the locals but also serve as tourist attractions for visitors from all over the world.
So, if you’re looking to get in touch with your spiritual side, South Korea temples offer ideal settings for your journey.
Here are some of the most popular South Korean temples that you can visit:
Home to the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of over 80,000 Buddhist texts engraved in woodblocks, the Haeinsa Temple is situated in Gayasan National Park in South Gyeongsang Province. One of the Three Jewels Temples, you can book a reservation for a pilgrimage and see the Palman Daejanggyeong (collection of Buddhist scriptures). If you’re interested, check out my blog post about my templestay at Haeinsa Temple.
Found in the province of Jeollanam-do, this temple/hermitage was originally known as “Osanam” before its name was changed to Saseongam. Literally translated, its current name means “Hermitage of the Four Saints” which pays homage to four high priests who lived there.
Towards the front of the temple, you’ll find two halls that were built against a steep granite cliff.
Since this temple is located by the foothill of Jiri Mountain, you can also enjoy sweeping views of the valley while visiting.
Located on the Bonghwasan Mountain, the Buseoksa Temple dates back to 676 and was built by the Buddhist monk Uisang. Home to several treasures such as the Stone Lantern, Jsadang Shrine, clay seated Buddha Statue, mural paintings, pagoda, and woodblocks, this temple is surely worth a visit.
One of the most important Buddhist temples in Korea, the Jogyesa Temple was built in the late 14th century and was rebuilt in 1910. It is the head temple of the Jogye Order and serves as the primary venue for rituals, ceremonies, lectures, and other Buddhist events. Visiting Jogyesa is an enriching experience for anyone curious about Buddhist culture and heritage.
The Golgulsa Temple is the only cave temple in all of Korea. It also houses the oldest Buddhist ruins, the Gameunsa Temple ruins, and King Munmu’s underwater tomb. You can opt for a temple stay if you want to fully experience the wonders of this historical temple.
Among the most popular temples in Korea, the Hwaeomsa Temple is a “treasure house” that holds cultural relics that are considered national treasures by the Korean government. Located in the foothills of Mt. Jirisan, this temple has preserved Buddha’s teachings along with Korea’s culture, history, and traditions.
Beomeosa Temple is a very popular destination due to its stunning valley and mesmerizing mountains. Drawing crowds throughout the year, you can immerse yourself in nature, religion, and history from this beautiful haven that houses stone artifacts, pagodas, and a wisteria habitat, among other wonders.
The Bongeunsa Temple dates back to 794. As Seoul’s most famous and oldest temple, its main attraction is the tall statue of Maitreya. Standing at 28 meters, it’s one of the tallest stone statues in the country.
The in-house library features the Flower Garland Sutra woodblock carvings and important Buddhist scriptures. The temple blends traditional and modern Seoul, giving visitors a delightful experience that unites past and present.
The Daeheungsa Temple is set against the stunning backdrop of the Duryungsan Mountains. It features a three-story stone pagoda, a rock carving of a seated Buddha, a stupa, articles of the Great Monk Seosan, a bronze statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, and other marvels in Korean history.
Taeansa Temple was built in 742 and includes Neungpagak, Hyecheolguksa Sari Pagoda, and Gwangjaseonsa Pagoda. Despite being severely damaged during the Korean War, the temple remains open to visitors who seek solace in its beautiful complex.
Manggyeongsa Temple is further proof that mountains, spirituality, and solitude go well together. Located in Taebaek Mountain and over 1,400 meters high, locals believe that a Bodhisattva of wisdom appeared as a stone statue onsite. Near its entrance, you’ll find the highest spring in the country which is referred to as “Dragon Spring.”
Bulguksa temple is a magnificent Buddhist temple located in the city of Gyeongju, South Korea. It was built during the Silla dynasty and was originally known as “Hwaeom Bulguksa Temple”. The name “Bulguksa” means “Temple of the Buddha Land” and reflects the temple’s significance in Korean Buddhism.
The temple is home to many important cultural treasures, including several stone pagodas and statues of the Buddha. Visitors to the temple can also marvel at the two magnificent halls, which were built against a steep granite cliff. Additionally, the temple’s location at the foothill of Tohamsan Mountain provides breathtaking views of the surrounding valley. Bulguksa temple is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in experiencing the rich cultural heritage of South Korea.
Naejangsa Temple is situated in the Naejangsan National Park and was built during the Baekje Dynasty. Though it was destroyed during the Second Japanese Invasion and the Korean War, it has since been restored. It houses the iconic Ijo-dongjong Bell. Nature lovers looking to experience spirituality amid mountains flock to this beautiful temple throughout the year.
Daejeonsa Temple is home to the Bogwang-jeon Hall and is located in the Juwangsan National Park. The temple was first built in 672 AD but was destroyed during the Imjin War. It was later rebuilt in 1672 and is said to be named after the son of King Ju.
Surrounded by mesmerizing natural beauty, this temple offers a breathtaking environment for those looking to enhance their spirituality.
Haedong Yonggung Temple
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is a unique and picturesque temple located in Busan, South Korea. Unlike most other temples in Korea, which are typically nestled in the mountains, Haedong Yonggungsa is situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. It was first built in 1376 during the Goryeo Dynasty, but was later destroyed during the Japanese invasions of Korea in the late 16th century.
The current temple was rebuilt in 1970 by the Buddhist monk Naong during the tumultuous period of Korean history. The temple is renowned for its stunning ocean views and its impressive statue of the Buddha, which stands atop a large rock formation at the water’s edge. Haedong Yonggungsa is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, who come to experience the peace and tranquility of this unique and beautiful temple.
Cheongpyeong Temple is situated in the Obongsan Museum and was built in 973. Though a lot of the temple’s cultural heritage has been damaged from the Korean War and the passage of time, some of its remaining treasures include a stone pagoda, the Hoejeonmun Gate of Cheongpyeongsa Temple, and a wonderful pond that has been preserved in its original form.
A blend of history, religion, and nature, this temple offers spirituality and great wonders from Korean history.
Beopjusa Temple is located in the Songnisan Mountains. Founded in 553, the name of this temple translates to “temple where the Buddha Dharma stays.” The mountains where this temple is situated are among the most gorgeous landscapes. The temple’s location and history will charm you. It’s an ideal place for meditating and praying.
As this is one of my favorite temples and I visited numerous times, I have a comprehensive Beopjusa Temple Guide here.
Notable Korean Shrines to Visit
Unlike temples, which are usually larger and more elaborate, shrines are often smaller and simpler, with a focus on the veneration of particular ancestors or deities. Below are some of the most important and fascinating shrines in Korea.
Dongmyo Shrine in Seoul, also referred to as Seoul Donggwanwangmyo or Gwanwangmyo in the eastern part of Seoul, was a sacred site where offerings were made to honor the Chinese military leader Guan Yu, as part of ancestral worship.
Located on Mt. Inwangsan, the Guksadang Shrine holds a significant place in Korean shamanic traditions, and is considered almost legendary for its use in exorcisms. Shamanism, a religious practice that recognizes the existence of unseen gods, demons, and spirits, is closely associated with this sacred site. According to shamanic beliefs, the shrine is home to 12 deities, including the spirits of the mountain, dragon king, three monks, and seven stars.
The Jongmyo Shrine, constructed in the Confucian style by King Taejo in 1395, is considered the most revered shrine in the country. It is located in Seoul and serves as a sanctuary for the tablets of royal ancestors and is the site of solemn memorial services held in honor of the Joseon Dynasty’s kings and queens.
Seoul Munmyo is a revered shrine that pays homage to the great scholar Confucius, his followers, and other renowned intellectuals. Previously known as Munseonwangmyo, the shrine’s buildings were utilized as an educational institution during the Joseon Dynasty.
Hwangudan Altar (Wongudan Altar)
The Wongudan Altar was a place of sacrifice where the emperor would offer tribute to the heavens. Built in 1897, the altar was alternatively known as Hwangudan and Wondan. The complex was constructed under the patronage of Emperor Gojong and was designed by Sim Uiseok, a renowned royal architect of the time. It’s located right next to the Westin Josun Hotel in Seoul.
What To Consider Before Visiting South Korean Temples and Shrines
When visiting any place of worship, it’s important to plan properly, maintain decorum, and show respect for the people who are there.
Most South Korean temples and shrines have a strict dress code that visitors must adhere to. You may be required to remove your footwear, so wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Also, dress modestly and keep your knees and shoulders covered.
To show proper respect, it’s important to observe the right etiquette. Don’t speak loudly, don’t click photographs without permission, and avoid touching artifacts or statues. Also, remember to bow when entering or leaving a temple or shrine and avoid pointing your feet toward any Buddha statues when you sit.
Consider the weather when planning your trip as this may impact your overall comfort and enjoyment. Generally, the best time of year to visit South Korea is in spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) when days are usually sunny and dry.
Some shrines or temples might be on top of a hill or mountain. This can require a lot of walking or climbing so it’s important to think about your level of fitness and footwear.
South Korea has an abundance of temples and shrines that have been preserved for centuries. These sites not only offer glimpses into local religious practices but also serve as popular tourist attractions. My guide can help you select which temples to visit so you can plan your journey easily, and embark on a spiritual journey that you won’t forget!
Whenever you visit a temple, dress conservatively and comfortably. Since many of them are located near or on mountains, you may have some trekking to do before reaching one.
I wish you safe and happy travels!
Recommended Travel Guides for Korea
If you want to learn more about South Korea and have a handy travel guide in your pocket, check out these three options below:
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Seoul
This Top 10
Lonely Planet Korea
You really can’t go wrong with a lonely planet guide in your hand luggage! I’m a huge fan of Lonely Planet and own this guide myself. What I love is the brand-new pull-out, passport-size ‘Just Landed’ card with wi-fi, ATM and transport info – all you need for a smooth journey from airport to hotel! Buy this book.
South Korea: The Solo Girl’s Travel Guide
Calling all my solo female travel ladies out there – this guide is amazing! Part of the #1 Travel Guidebook Series for Women (and couples), this take on South Korea will help you avoid the scams, creeps, and tourist traps and skip ahead to the cities and adventures that are worth your time (and money)! Buy this book.
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