A walk around Hwasun’s Unjusa Temple gives me that all-important perspective into a temple lacking the fanfare surrounding Gyeongju and Korea’s other hotspots. The obscurity might be intentional but its history and legend are too interesting to leave out. Built during the Silla Dynasty and a once unified Korea, this particular temple furthers Jeolla’s “against the grain” attitude. Standing out among the rest with a collection too rare to find throughout Korea, Unjusa houses the most stone pagodas found within temples here.
Do you like Korean temples? We mentioned quite a few of them in our Spring Things to Do in South Korea.
Uncovering Unjusa Temple and its Legendary Origins
Getting to Unjusa Temple
Directions Courtesy of Korea Tourism
You get to Unjusa Temple by bus from Gwangju Bus Terminal via city bus No. 318 (1 hour, 20 min) or 218 (only take 218 buses with “Unjusa Temple” sign, 1 1/2 hours).
But that’s not all. Upon entering typical temples here, visitors usually pass through a Diamond Gate followed by another, which houses guardian gods. Quite important to those who construct temples here but for some reason, these two crucial pieces are missing from Unjusa. No explanation. Just not there. Tons of stone carvings make up for anything missing but open up more questions around Unjusa’s origins. Theories run amok as to how this all came to be but really, nobody knows. One monk’s name (Doseon) gets thrown around but still, there’s nothing exact.
Was it built to balance the Korean peninsula before it sank into the sea? This region is less mountainous than the southeast so adding more weight might’ve helped. Were the statues’ carvers sent from the heavens? Looking at the beautiful remains makes one think that experts were certainly involved, but gods. Maybe not but legends are more interesting than what actually happened. The most reliable story states that Unjusa served as a school for stonemasons, intent on chiseling beautiful pieces of art. Over 1,000 creations once lived here but all that remains are roughly 100 Buddhas and 23 pagodas. One thing is certain when visiting. It’s a beautiful walk around this mysterious temple.
Missing gates and unexplainable origins surround this palace of mystery. Why? Aren’t the best places those with unanswerable questions? Leaving Unjusa leads to one last look at statues smiling north and south. The pagodas. Finally, the line of Buddhas. Smiling on visitors. Keeping and eye out for those coming in and out. Over Unjusa. Wishing for a peaceful visit and safe return home. Will we ever learn of Unjusa’s true origins? Maybe. Maybe not. One answer is certain. This temple is continuing on a most interesting yet still unknown path.
This travel guide is part of our series on South Korea Travel and East Asia Travel. It was originally created on October 26, 2014. It has been maintained and updated (as of December 28, 2018) to reflect current viewpoints and travel trends.