Thursday, 17 March 2011

Inwangsan: Tranquility in the heart of the city

After a long night of partying, my mind and body needed a moment of calm this weekend and I headed to Inwangsan, a mountain close to the centre of Seoul. Inwangsan is home to a glut of Buddhist temples and shamanist shrines, huddled together around the base of the mountain. Spend some time meandering among these sites, and the fascinating history of Inwangsan will start to reveal itself.

This mountain was once believed to be a roaming ground of the elusive white tiger, a creature deified in traditional Korean culture and treated with the same mysticism as dragons or phoenixes. Tigers are now extinct in the wild in Korea, but one can conjure the image of this great prowling beast, and imagine what it would be like to catch a glimpse of one.

Perhaps the most well-known sight at Inwangsan is Seonbawi, a natural rock formation said to resemble two robed monks. This historically revered rock has long been visited by women hoping for a child, and even today people come to worship at the rock.

Exploring the slightly ramshackle cluster of temple buildings, I felt a closeness to nature that is sadly often lacking in the urban landscape of modern Seoul. You can see Namsan from here, another mountain with a history of deification and worship.

As I clambered higher over the rocks, the hypnotic sound of Buddist prayer gave way to a euphony of birdsong. Inwangsan is a nice spot for bird watching, with many different species inhabiting the area.

Whilst not the flashiest of tourist attractions in Seoul, the spiritual atmosphere at Inwangsan genuinely inspired me. This place is a secret garden in the heart of the otherwise stressful city and well worth a visit.

Practical info: I went on a Sunday around 11am and it was very quiet with just a few people around - a nice alternative to many other walking destinations in the city that get packed on weekends. To get there, come out of exit 2 of Dongnimmun Station (line 3), and take the first sharp left. Keep following the brown signs towards 'Inwangsa (Temple)' and you will come to the entrance gate after about 5 minutes. The Inwangsa (Temple) entrance is not the best starting point if you want to hike further up the mountain, as there is not easy access from here - If a long hike is your plan, there are other routes up Inwangsan that I hope to visit and report back on soon.

Language lesson:

인 (in) 仁 benevolent
왕 (wang) 王 king
산 (san) 山 mountain

선 (seon) 禪 Zen
바위 (bawi) 岩 rock

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