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2016 travel diary 9: Busosanseong – the Baekje royal garden

Buyeo-gun, Chungcheongnam-do, 16 May 2016, 5:30pm.

Busosanseong collage

The Archaeological Site in Gwanbuk-ri

Sometimes, collecting UNESCO points is not as fulfilling as it might be. The item of heritage that has been registered might not be particularly exciting to look at, even though it is historically important. But if a site is historically important you may well find things nearby that stimulate your interest. Such is the case with the Archaeological Site in Gwanbuk-ri: fortunately there’s Busosanseong Fortress nearby which though not outstanding for the archaeological remains is well worth a visit for its stories and its scenery. And even though the Archaeological Site in Gwanbuk-ri (Historic Site # 428) itself will divert you probably for no more than thirty seconds before you wonder “was that it?”, when you read up about it afterwards (too rarely do I get a chance to read up about everything beforehand) maybe you regret as I did that you hadn’t devoted more time to looking at what there is to see.

My brain was overflowing with the things it had already experienced that day, from the emotionally draining exhibition of shaman photographs in Seoul to the history and soothing scenery in Gongju. The Gwanbuk-ri archaeological site therefore struggled to grab my attention. I vaguely remember poking my nose into a hole in the ground covered by a traditional pavilion – it was probably a storage facility of some sort. Other than that, there seemed to be some building foundations marked out, but I didn’t bother taking any photographs. Looking subsequently at the aerial photograph of the site in the Cultural Heritage Administration database, I actually find that we were looking at the least important part of the site, so it’s hardly surprising we didn’t see much.

The excavations which we so carelessly overlooked were the site of both the Sabi royal palace and a neighbouring temple. According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, we know with certainty the site of the royal palace for only one of the Three Kingdoms: Goguryo’s Anhakgung Palace. If Gwanbuk-ri is the site of the Baekje palace from the Sabi period, that makes two. Looking at the materials supporting the UNESCO listing the experts also seem to have a pretty accurate idea of where the Ungjin period palace was in Gongju, so I’m not quite sure what the CHA means here – maybe it’s simply that there’s more archaeological evidence for the Sabi palace in Gwanbuk-ri than there is for Gongju.

The (less interesting) part of the Archaeological Site in Gwanbuk-ri that we did manage to see
The (less interesting) part of the Archaeological Site in Gwanbuk-ri that we did manage to see

Near the palace, on the southwestern slope of Busosan Mountain, is the site of a temple which would have been used by the royal family. Unlike many Baekje temples (such as Jeongnimsa and Miresuksa) which were built on a flat area of land, this temple was built on the side of the hill. It had a wooden rather than a stone pagoda. So far, archaeological investigation has unearthed the site of the main gate, the pagoda and the prayer hall, as well as buildings either side of the prayer hall. No lecture hall has been found, thus potentially marking it out as unusual among Baekje temples, which were normally arranged with pagoda, prayer hall and lecture hall aligned on a north-south axis. Maybe the king had no need of lectures.


But we missed all of this, and instead walked straight through the archaeology and upwards onto the wooded slopes of Busosan in search of the scenery and stories of the fortress.

The location of the ancient city of Sabi
The location of the ancient city of Sabi (source: UNESCO submission)

Unlike Gongju, the royal palace at Sabi is outside the walls of its hill fortress. In fact Busosan served more as the palace back garden, though its rammed earth fortifications provided a last line of defence and deterred any potential attack from the river. But the city and palace was not defenceless. Unlike Gongju, Sabi also had a city wall which, along with the loop of the river Geumgang, protected the city from the outside.

The fine traditional-style building on the edge of the Gwanbuk-ri archaeological site
The fine traditional-style building on the edge of the Gwanbuk-ri archaeological site

The first thing you come across as you leave the archaeological site is a splendid traditional building whose raison d’etre I failed to record but which is perfectly located to catch the rays of the late afternoon sun. Beyond that building is a much more modern construction which houses the Buyeo National Cultural Heritage Research Institute. As you walk up the hill the behind the Institute you can be forgiven for not realising that this was once a fortified area. Instead, you can completely understand how members of the royal family might enjoy the space as recreation: you are in woodland, roaming around pleasant shaded paths. Never mind the defensive architecture – this is simply a lovely place to come for an afternoon stroll.

연리지 tree on Busosan
연리지 tree on Busosan

We proceeded on our walk without any particular route in mind. We followed the signposts to places which might be of interest, and came across a peculiar tree whose boughs had fused together. The Korean word for the phenomenon, 연리지 — which Google translates as “Now and Forever”, is well worth doing an image search on.

The information board beneath the 연리지 tree
The information board beneath the 연리지 tree


Busosan is a place where several legends have grown. First, there is tale of the 3,000 suicidal palace women, the flowers of Baekje, recorded in the Samguk Yusa. In the ongoing strife between Baekje and neighbouring Silla, the eastern kingdom allied themselves with the Tang Chinese – who perhaps were irritated that their erstwhile friends in Baekje had ignored their advice to start making friends with Silla and had stopped sending embassies. Under the command of Silla General Kim Yu-shin the Silla-Tang axis with 50,000 mainly Silla troops defeated the Baekje army of 5,000 under general Gyebaek at the Battle of Hwangsanbeol near modern Nonsan, just south-east of Buyeo.

Nakhwaam - the cliff where 3,000 Baekje palace women jumped to their deaths.
Nakhwaam – the cliff where 3,000 Baekje palace women jumped to their deaths. Between the jetty (bottom left) and the cliff you can see Goransa Temple. (Photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)

The Tang general Su Dingfang then attacked Sabi itself. King Uija and his crown prince fled north to Gongju. The Baekje palace women were in dismay. In order to avoid dishonour or worse – because the king, crown prince and over 12,000 Baekje citizens would later be taken back to China by the victors – the women leaped off the cliff overlooking the Geumgang river and cast themselves to their deaths.

Song Si-yeol
Click for feature on Song Si-yeol

This was not a fall of a couple of feet, such as that experienced by Nongae when she dragged the Japanese general to his watery death during a slow dance on a riverside rock in Jinju in 1593. This was a drop of about sixty metres, down a craggy cliff. Their colourful dresses billowed out as they fell to their deaths, so that they looked like blossoms falling to the ground. The cliff from which they leapt became known as “falling flower rock” – Nakhwaam (낙화암 | 落花岩). Somewhere on the cliff below, the scholar Song Si-yeol (1607 – 1689) inscribed the characters 落花岩 to commemorate these sad deaths.

A hexagonal pavilion called Baekhwajeong was erected in 1929 to mark the spot from where the mass suicide occurred. When we visited, access to the pavilion was roped off for safety reasons, but there are some lovely views of the river and surrounding landscape from a lookout on the cliff edge just below.


Goransa temple
Goransa temple

Ten minutes’ walk away, down on the banks of the river, is Goransa temple, supposedly named after the Gorancho medicinal herb (Crypsinus hastatus) that grows on the cliffs – or maybe it was the other way round. From there you can take a pleasure cruise past the cliff we had just visited. But we were there for other reasons. Chris had heard of the legend of the spring of Goranjeong, and had come with a water bottle to fill up and give to her grandparents. Baekje kings used to have water from the spring brought to them, with a leaf of gorancho floating in their cup to prove the authenticity of the water. Maybe they too had heard the legend – or indeed, maybe the legend was created by them. The story runs roughly as follows.

The story of Goransa and its spring
The story of Goransa and its spring

An aged husband and wife had reached their dotage and were childless. They would do anything for a child. One day they heard a legend of a spring of holy water. According to the legend, anyone who drank a cup of water drawn from the spring would overnight become three years younger.

The man tells his wife that he would go off, investigate and report back. Months passed, and he did not return. So his wife set off to find out what had happened. When she got to the spring, she found a baby boy there. She decided to adopt him.

Of course, the baby boy is her husband who had drunk more than he should have. Does that sound familiar? And does it sound familiar that a wife has to look after her husband as if he is a baby boy? Whatever, that’s the story of the spring of eternal youth. And the spring is to be found in the temple of Goransa in Busosanseong.

Wildlife at Goransa temple
Wildlife at Goransa temple

That’s where we headed next, as the sun was getting lower in the sky. It was a charming spot, the temple buildings cowering under a lofty cliff. A temple woman was looking after the souvenir stall and coffee shop. A small squirrel-like creature was nibbling on a sugar-lump on the cliff edge; a cat and a small dog were playing together like brother and sister – the temple woman told us that they had been living together since they were born.

Goransa's prayer hall seen from behind
Goransa’s prayer hall seen from behind

Behind the main temple building was the famous spring, where Chris the filial daughter filled her bottle. We each drank a cupful of sweet-tasting water from the spring.

The alter painting in Goransa's prayer hall
The alter painting in Goransa’s prayer hall

Did we feel younger the next day? Hand on heart, the only reason I might have had more of a spring to my step the next morning was the news, hot off the press via BBC iPlayer Radio, that Han Kang had just won the International Booker Prize for The Vegetarian. That, and the fact that for some reason Chris thought I might benefit from a metrosexual Korean facepack that evening back at the hotel. But I’m jumping ahead of myself.

Sajaru Pavilion

We got chatting to the temple woman, who was happy to befriend a foreigner and his Korean companion. We were given some iced coffee and a couple of free souvenirs, which was very generous. We were feeling very relaxed at the end of a very full day. The sun was sinking, as was the temperature. The light coming through the trees, the reflection of the sun on the river, the friendliness of the temple ajumma… all led to a feeling of well-being. But it was time to move on, and we walked back up the hill. We returned to Nakhwaam as it was such a lovely spot, and then went further up the hill to Sajaru, the lookout pavilion at the peak of Busosan known as Songwoldae. Until 1919 the pavilion had served as the main gate to the administrative centre of Imcheon-myeon, a part of Buyeo-gun well outside the walls of old Sabi City. But the pavilion fits well with its current location. We climbed up the steps and watched as the sun gradually sank further. No-one was around to disturb us, and our feeling of contentment broadened and deepened. It was the perfect end to a very full day.

The bits we missed

We had spent two hours at the site which, as I see from the guide book from the comfort of my desk in London, is the recommended amount of time to allocate to Busosanseong. But we had failed to see so much of it (and had also managed inadvertently to enter via the back door and thus avoided the 2,000 Won admission fee), and you could probably spend three to four hours in total if you are not in a hurry – particularly if you want to take the boat trip from Goransa temple.

The Sajaru pavilion where we finished our visit is located on the western peak of Busosan, and is known for its ideal location for watching the moon. At the easterly peak of Busosan is its perfect complement: Yeongillu Pavillion, the place where Baekje kings would sit to watch the sun rise from behind Mt Gyeryong. Elsewhere on Busosan you can walk along a path which follows the earthen fortress walls; see the remains of a Baekje military warehouse (the 군창지), the remains of a military pit house, the Samchungsa shrine of the Three Loyal Subjects (Seongchung, Heungsu, and Gyebaek) who defended Baekje, and the Gungnyeosa shrine that honours the palace women who committed suicide in 660. Rites are held at both shrines during the Baekje Cultural Festival held in October.

Dinner in Buyeo-eup
Dinner in Buyeo-eup

So if I am in the area again I shall definitely pay the site another visit. But for today we had dinner to come – a ssambap with hot stone bowl rice – and then our massive Lotte resort hotel to find. Our time at Busosanseong had run out.

The huge Lotte resort hotel in Buyeo
The huge Lotte resort hotel in Buyeo

Buseosanseong is Historic Site No. 5. The Archaeological Site in Gwanbuk-ri is Historic Site No. 428


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Song Si-yeol’s rock engraving of 落花岩

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