The second largest temple in Korea, Gakwonsa is also home to one of the largest sitting Buddhas in Asia. Weighing in at 60 tons and (sitting) 50 feet tall, the Buddha statue is made totally of bronze. It was enshrined specifically to pray for the reunification of North and South Korea.
The temple is located in Cheonan (about an hour from Seoul), so you do have to go off the beaten path a little for this one. If you’re driving in Korea, download Waze to use maps in English. Otherwise, if you’re just visiting and don’t have a car, you can always take the KTX train from Seoul Station to Cheonan-Asan Station (only 35-40 min) and then catch a cab.
But back to the main event. Gakwonsa Temple is a great place to wander around for an hour. Parking is free (as far as we could tell both times we’ve been), and there’s no cost to get in. It’s a fairly small area so you can see everything without spending an entire day there. Make sure to pull all the way up to the top to park, and you won’t have to take the long set of stairs up to the big Buddha.
When you first get there, take some time to walk around the temples. They are all similar, but slightly different-if you go around the sides or to the back, you’ll see lots of interesting paintings on the outside walls. Take a quick peek inside if the doors are open and no one is praying. You’ll hear them from outside if they are! If you go mid-morning on a weekday (and especially if you go in the snow), chances are almost no one will be around.
In other news, don’t be disturbed if you notice what looks like a swastika symbol on all the buildings. It’s not, so no need for alarm. In my naivety, the first time I saw it I was in complete horror—nothing like a quick Google search to fix that. It’s actually a Buddhist symbol, so it won’t be the last time you see one!
After you’ve seen all there is to see, make your way up the short set of stairs to the big Buddha statue. When you arrive at the top, you’ll probably see people walking around the statue continuously in prayer. Supposedly, the ritual is that you walk around the Buddha clockwise three times to pay your respects. But don’t worry – there’s no pressure, and plenty of people come just for the novelty factor. Just try to be respectful when taking photos.
If you get your fill of the big Buddha and still have time to spare, right behind it is the path to the top of Mt. Taejosan. We didn’t take the hike up, but it looks fairly easy if you’re in decent enough shape.
But if you spend the day in Cheonan, there are plenty of coffee shops nearby (steps away) and if you really get desperate for something other than Korean food you can always stop into Mom’s Touch (Korea’s version of KFC). Otherwise, head over and check out Independence Hall while you’re in town for another free attraction.
All in all, Cheonan is an easy and interesting day trip if you’re up for exploring outside of Seoul! Regardless, make sure to hit up these must-see spots while you’re in Korea. Hope you guys enjoy!