Sunday 5 May 2019. My leisurely weekend in Taean was coming to an end, but Chris and Eunok are always generous enough to take me the scenic route to Cheonan Asan station before I catch the KTX down south.
We had a relatively early start to the day: we wanted plenty of time to get to the KTX station. Today happened to be Children’s Day, and we were happy that we were heading out of Anmyeondo, because most people in the region seemed to be converging on the island for the day, to catch the last of the tulip festival and enjoy the beauty of its beaches and natural woodland.
The main attraction en route to the KTX station is Gaesimsa, Seosan-si’s most famous temple, but without really planning it our first coffee stop of the day is right outside the South gate of Haemi Eupseong.
This fortress dates back to the fifteenth century. Originally it was a base to protect the neighbouring coastal region from piratical raids by the Japanese. Yi Sun-shin was briefly stationed there in the late sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century it came to be used as a prison to contain dissident Christians. In 1866, amid escalating tensions with France over their raid on Ganghwa Island which was in retalation for the so-called Byeongin persecutions, 1,000 Catholics were executed there. According to the Seosan city website, Pope Francis held a mass in the fortress in 2014, at the site of the Haemi Martyrs’ Shrine.
The fortress is designated as Historic Site #116 by the Cultural Heritage Administration, and is the site of Seosan’s main annual festival in October, featuring plenty of traditional performances and entertainments. But, on this unplanned stop, we didn’t have time to explore its full extent.
We drove onwards to Gaesimsa, one of the four main temples of Chungcheongnam-do, dating back to 654, during the reign of Uija, the last King of Baekje. The temple was severely damaged in a forest fire in 1475, and was rebuilt in 1484, the 15th year of the reign of King Seongjong. For architectural historians it is the main worship hall, the Daeungjeon, which holds the chief attraction:
The Daeungjeon Hall at Gaesimsa is well known for its distinctive building technique. The struts which support the roof of the Daeungjeon Hall are not only placed on the columns but also in between the columns, which is typical of wooden structures of the early Joseon period. But at the same time, in some parts of the Daeungjeon Hall, the struts are placed on the columns only. Using the two different building styles harmoniously, Gaesimsa Daeungjeon Hall shows the high point of the art of building. (source: information board at the temple)
The hall is designated as Treasure #143 by the Cultural Heritage Administration, and contains what is considered to be one of the finest late Goryeo era statues (Treasure #1619). Elsewhere in the temple there are some fine paintings, also registered as items of national importance by the CHA.
But we were not here to research temple building techniques or Buddhist art history. We, along with the hundreds of other visitors, were there to see the cherry blossoms. And not just any cherry blossoms. For Gaesima is known for its “blue” cherry blossom tree (청벚꽃) – though actually the blossoms are more green than blue. The more conventional pink cherry blossoms are pretty impressive too.
The car park at the bottom of the hill leading to the temple was pretty much at capacity, but we got lucky as an early visitor was reversing out to go to the next destination on their Children’s Day tour. We joined the many visitors walking up the broad trail to the intimately sized temple area. As well as cherry-blossom viewers, a local camera club was taking pictures with a hired model, which provided additional entertainment for visitors.
The temple area is small and compact, laid out on terraces on the gentle slope of the hillside. The cherry trees are planted within the temple area itself. It is a week before Buddha’s Birthday celebrations, and already some of the courtyards are decorated with colourful lanterns.
While cherry-blossom season is undoubtedly the best time to visit Gaesimsa, it’s also worth a visit at quieter times when you can enjoy the peacefulness of the place and appreciate the incorporation of less-than-straight tree trunks into the buildings’ construction – for example in the Simgeomdang next to the Daeungjeon, or in the main pillars of the bell pavilion.
When I visited in 2019, the blue cherry blossom tree was past its best. I am grateful to Eunok for revisiting the temple in peak season in April 2020 and providing the above photos of the extraordinary green blossoms.
- Treasures at Gaesimsa on the Cultural Heritage Administration website: Daeungjeon Hall (Treasure #143) | Wooden Seated Amitabha Buddha (Treasure #1619) | Paintings: Vulture Peak Assembly hanging painting (Treasure #1264) | Obangojewido (Five Emperors of the Five Cardinal Directions) and Sajiksajado (Four Underworld Messengers) (Treasure #1765) | Indra, Brahma, Eight Vajras, and Four Bodhisattvas (Treasure #1766)
- Haemi Eupseong – one of the 9 scenic views of Seosan – on the Seosan City website