Field Report: Bulguksa, Gyeongju, South Korea (02 February 2019)

There was a very large gap in my first visit to Gyeongju last year: a gap by the name of Bulguksa. On my second encounter with this historic corner of Korea, filling that gap ranked amongst my highest priorities.

Ahh, Gyeongju (경주) … my beloved Gyeongju. Former capital of Silla (57 B.C.–A.D. 935), the realm that governed much of the Korean peninsula during the Three Kingdoms period. The cultural legacy of this ancient empire lingers so heavily hereabouts that every step one takes feels like turning a page in a history book. I fell completely in love with Gyeongju on my first visit there a year ago – scroll down to the oldest posts on this tag page to learn more – and I’ve been dreaming of a return visit ever since.

On that previous occasion, I travelled all the way from Seoul and spent a night in Gyeongju itself, heading back to the capital the next day after a final round of sightseeing. This time, I was based in nearby Busan (well, “nearby” in comparison to Seoul anyway) and chose to commute to/from Gyeongju on the weekend I’d allotted for it.

For more information on how to travel between Busan and Gyeongju (via Singyeongju), please click here to access my detailed travel report.

At Busan Station, I hopped aboard an SRT service and rode it for about half an hour to Singyeongju Station.

This is as close to Gyeongju as Korea’s fast KTX and SRT trains can reach, since the small railway station at the heart of the city isn’t equipped for high-speed services. Buses supply the link between here and the historic centre, with Number 700 being particularly useful for the place we’re visiting today.

With time to kill until the next scheduled departure, I went on a leisurely stroll around the open area in front of the station building. It’s a mark of how rich the region is in archaeological treasures that even this boring railway stop has something on display…

…namely, a tomb mound with a stone-lined burial chamber dating from the Three Kingdoms period (painstakingly relocated here from its original site at Bangnae-ri).

Back to the shed now, and aboard the bus that will take us the rest of the way. There’s a timetable and route map in this separate post if you’d like to learn more.

Number 700 took about an hour to cover the distance between Singyeongju Station and the stop closest to my destination. I’ve embedded a route search on Google Maps below, though one should bear in mind that the results may change depending on your settings and other variables. (If the result is specifically for bus number 700, then it’ll probably be identical or at least similar to the route I was driven along.)

After a quick visit to the nearby tourist information office (where I collected a map and some travel advice)…

…I crossed a large parking lot and started walking uphill on a meandering, stone-paved pedestrian path lined with stalls.

The walk should give us enough time to learn more about what we’ve come all this way to see: the historic temple complex of Bulguksa (불국사).

Let’s have a peek at that brochure we picked up at the tourist information office.

Bulguksa Temple
Historic Site No. 502

Construction of Bulguksa Temple is said to have been started by Prime Minister Kim Daeseong under King Gyeongdeok of Silla in 751, and was completed by the government after his death. Most of the buildings were burned down during the Japanese invasions. The current temple was finished after years of excavations and renovations. The cultural properties in the precincts, Dabotap and Seokgatap pagodas, and Cheongungyo, Baegungyo, Yeonhwagyo, and Chilbogyo Bridges show the restorers’ excellent skills with stone structures.

Cheongungyo, Baegungyo, Yeonhwagyo, and Chilbogyo Bridges have been valued to be designated as National Treasures. The framed stone structure (constructed of granite material connected with joints like those seen in wooden architecture), also built in the middle of the 8th century with its aesthetic architecture having a unique technique, represents a high level of stone structure during the Shilla [sic] period.

Mm, short and sweet. Perhaps a little too short on detail, but there’s only so much space on a brochure. Here are links to the relevant Wikipedia and VisitKorea entries if you’d like to learn more.

Right, we’re here. After paying 5,000 won at the ticket booth, I passed through this richly ornamented gateway…

… and followed a long dirt road, parts of which had been transformed into a muddy morass due to melting snow and the incessant tramping of visitors. Thankfully, the walk was made more pleasant by the lovely scenes I enjoyed along the way.

The central compound of Bulguksa consists of several buildings surrounded by courtyards, with different elements resting on two large stone-faced terraces (one higher than the other). The lower ground level at the foot of both terraces is linked to courtyards on the upper levels by means of two stone staircases, constructed in the mid-8th century A.D. Each staircase has two sections poetically referred to as “bridges”.

On the left (if you’re facing the compound) is the first pair of “bridges”: Yeonhwagyo below, and Chilbogyo above. These were built to serve the Anyangmun gate, which opens into the courtyard around the Geugnakjeon hall.

A short distance away, standing where the lower terrace meets the higher, is the Beomyeongnu pavilion. Note the interesting shape of the carved stone pillars that support the pavilion’s floor, which projects a few metres over the edge of the upper terrace.

To the right of that is another pair of “bridges”, larger than the first. Baegungyo, the lower half, rises up to meet a landing laid atop a beautifully constructed stone arch. Above that is the second half, Cheongungyo, which continues on towards the Jahamun gate. This was built to serve as the main entrance of the courtyard surrounding Daeungjeon, Bulguksa’s main hall.

Both pairs of “bridges” are officially designated as National Treasures of Korea – number 22 and 23, respectively – and, with a view to ensuring their long-term preservation, are no longer used to access the inner compound. In order to get there, I had to follow a path towards the right of the second staircase…

…which led me towards the present-day entrance, built into the side of the upper courtyard.

From here, it’s possible to venture out of the Jahamun gate and view the larger staircase (Baegungyo and Cheongungyo) from above, though visitors aren’t allowed onto the steps themselves. One can also glance towards either side of the gate and appreciate the outer face of the upper terrace – including Beomyeongnu – from a different perspective.

Back to the courtyard now, and time to set our sights upon what might well be Bulguksa’s most prized treasures: the two stone pagodas in front of Daeungjeon hall.

On the right side – to a visitor facing the hall – is Dabotap, National Treasure no. 20, erected in the mid-8th century A.D. during the Later (Unified) Silla period. Its elaborate design is quite different from that of most other Korean stone pagodas I’ve seen, including its neighbour just a few steps away.

On the left is Seokgatap, National Treasure no. 21, dating from about the same time as Dabotap but with a much simpler, more conventional form.

Standing behind the pair is Daeungjeon, the main hall of Bulguksa. Although originally constructed during the same period as the pagodas in front of it, the hall’s present incarnation was built in 1765.

In the rear of the courtyard is Museoljeon, a lecture hall said to have been first built in the 10th regnal year of King Munmu of Silla (reigned A.D. 661–681). As with most of the Bulguksa compound, the present-day structure is probably a much later reconstruction.

Now for a few other pictures taken in the Daeungjeon courtyard.

Next, I descended into the lower courtyard surrounding the Geugnakjeon hall. This smaller building was also originally erected in the mid-700s A.D., with the structure we see today dating from 1750.

I walked to the edge of the platform just outside the Anyangmun gate and looked down upon Yeonhwagyo and Chilbogyo, which I’d seen earlier from below. Like the larger staircase nearby, the steps are strictly off-limits to visitors.

This slightly lower vantage point is also a good place from which to appreciate the uniquely styled stone columns holding up the Beomyeongnu pavilion.

Back in the courtyard, I spied a boar statue fashioned out of polished bronze or brass…

…with which this blog’s mascot-in-training, Angry Usagi, was eager to strike a pose.

Smile for the camera!

Sadly, Angry Usagi had to bid his new boar friend farewell as I left the courtyard and began making my way down a sloping road. This path runs alongside the retaining wall built to support the raised terrace on which Geugnakjeon stands. Take a moment to appreciate the complex arrangement of stone beams and columns that the ancient architects employed to reconcile the flat platform above and the angled ground underneath.

One more stop before we call it a day.

I turned off from the main path, following a paved walkway that rose gently towards a clearing in the forest…

…where I found the Bulguksa Temple Museum. This small but beautifully designed structure serves as a repository for some of the temple’s historic treasures.

Those with time and energy to spare might also choose to visit the famous Seokguram grotto, accessible by shuttle bus (or a long hike) from Bulguksa proper. I’ve embedded a Google Maps route search below purely for reference only; do bear in mind that the map’s appearance may change depending on your settings and other factors.

As for myself, I decided to save Seokguram for a future visit. Another excuse – on top of many others – to return to Gyeongju someday.

Off I went, following the main path down to the parking lot…

…and eventually back to Singyeongju Station (via bus 700) for my train to Busan.

Just bear in mind that we’re not quite finished with Gyeongju yet! I have enough material for one more post describing the following day’s visit, this time within the city’s historic centre.

Until then, cheerio.

One response to “Field Report: Bulguksa, Gyeongju, South Korea (02 February 2019)

  1. Pingback: Field Report:  Gyeongju, South Korea (03 February 2019) | Within striking distance·

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