The next stage of my journey across Japan and Korea brought me to Busan and while I was there I did a day trip up to the town of Gyeongju, which is one of South Korea’s most popular destinations for Koreans and other people from Asia, though not so much for Westerners. Gyeongju was once the capital of the Sila Kingdom that ruled the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula and lasted for about 1,000 years.
My first stop in Gyeongju was the town’s most famous attraction, Bulguksa Temple. The temple is southeast of the main part of Gyeongju and in 1995 was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. From the area by Gyeongju’s bus terminal I caught a bus that dropped me off near Bulguksa’s parking lot. I then walked a short trail through a park before reaching the ticket booth.
After entering the temple grounds you’ll walk through a garden that has a pond in its center. It sort of looked like the Korean version of a Japanese landscape garden. Just beyond the garden is the gate that leads up to the main part of Bulguksa Temple. Colorful guardian statues are inside the gate, keeping watch over all who enter the temple grounds.
Beyond the gate you come to the actual temple complex and immediately you’ll see why Bulguksa is probably the most Instagram-friendly place in Gyeongju. Stone staircases lead up to large and colorful temple buildings that look particularly good when the sun is shinning brightly. The staircases themselves are closed to the public but on the plus side that means you can photograph them without any people standing on the stairs.
Since you can’t climb the stairs there’s a trail around the side that visitors take to enter the central part of Bulguksa. A pair of stone pagodas stand outside of the temple’s main hall and there were flowers placed all over the courtyard area when I was visiting the temple. From this area you can also step out onto the top of the stone staircases that you were at the bottom of just a couple minutes earlier.
Once I had checked out Bulguksa’s main hall I started wandering around the rest of the temple grounds. Some of the other temple buildings had rows of paper lanterns outside that complimented the flowers on display. Many of the Buddhist temples I saw in Japan and Korea had a fairly solemn feel to them but Bulguksa felt more like a celebration and an explosion of life.
Around the back of the temple I came across a rock garden, or I guess it would be more accurate to call it a cairn garden. Hundreds of small rock stacks had been set up, though I’m not sure if it was the monks or visitors who created them.
I slowly made my way back towards the main hall of Bulguksa Temple, exploring any new spots I could find. In one of the smaller courtyards there was a boar statue that you can rub for good luck. Some of the temple buildings allow photography inside them while others don’t, so before capturing any shots I made sure to take a quick look for any signs indicating that photos were prohibited.
In total I think I spent about 2.5 hours at Bulguksa Temple before leaving to see other things in Gyeongju. I’ve read online that Bulguksa Temple is considered one of the best Buddhist temples in Korea and I’m personally inclined to agree with that assessment. For me, the main competition for that title would be Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Busan, which I’ll be writing about within the next few weeks.