Death Defying Winter Wonderland Trip to Koyasan, Japan

koyasan japan
While we were staying in Osaka, Japan we wanted to make the approximately 2 hour daytrip to Mount Koya (Koyasan). In 816 Mount Koya was settled by the monk Kukai in a 800 meter high valley among the 8 peaks of the mountain. The area is home to more than 100 temples and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We were mainly interested in seeing Okunoin Cemetery. We had seen atmospheric images of bright green, moss covered monuments in a large cedar forest. Stretching on for more than 2 kilometers, Okunoin is Japan’s largest cemetery and is home to the graves of more than 200,000 monks. In Okunoin there are no dead, only waiting spirits.

Snowy Weather

We had a two day window to visit Koyasan during our trip but the first day it snowed and we heard it was quite heavy in some regions. Some people said it was more than they had seen in 80 years so we stayed in Osaka for the day. The second day it was also snowing a little bit but in Osaka it was clear. We checked with our hotel before we headed out to see if we would be able to get to Koyasan. When we got to the train station we asked again. We were assured that everything would be fine.

The train trip was uneventful. We could see a few centimeters of snow in some towns we passed. In order to get to Koyasan you need to take a train from Namba Station in Osaka to Gokurakubashi Station at the bottom of the mountain. From there you take a large cable car up to the top. The cable car whisks you up the steep mountain in about 5 minutes. We were really excited about taking it!

Our train suddenly stopped a station before our final stop and a conductor hurriedly came in. He asked us how many of us were going to Koyasan. Considering that there really isn’t much of anything else at that train stop, it wasn’t surprising that all of us were. He looked concerned and got off the train. Then he came back. He told us that because of the heavy snow the cable car wasn’t working. Looking outside the window there was just a light covering of snow but on the other side of the mountain it was another story. Nearly 2 feet of snow had fallen in a short time. We didn’t know this at the time but nearly 40 passengers had been left stranded in the cable car for 90 minutes.

The conductor ran off and onto the train several times while my husband who speaks Japanese and one Japanese woman who spoke English tried to find out what was going on. They then did their best to translate what little information we got to the other passengers. The conductor told us that if we still wanted to go up the mountain they would provide taxis or buses for us. Would the cable care be running later that day? They didn’t know. Would we get a refund for the tickets we had already bought? They didn’t know. If we went up the mountain, how would we get back? They didn’t know. They did assure us though that at the top of the mountain everything was open and running. If the taxi driver ran into difficulty, he would turn back and take us back to the train station.

Taxi Ride from Hell

It seemed like it would be ok so we went and got into the taxi. There had been about 30-40 people on the train with us and half turned back. We didn’t know this though since we were in the first taxi. That was something we also didn’t realize! Right away the taxi was all over the road. Branches were on the road and trees were bent over. Every once and awhile the snow would loosen from the trees and suddenly drop onto the road in front of us. On one side of us was mountain. On the other side was a steep drop off with only a small barrier.

Immediately I asked to turn back. We were told it was just a little way further. The car slid across the road. I searched for my seatbelt and realized that while my husband and son had one, I didn't. The taxi driver insisted that I did. I didn't. He told us the road was too slippery for us to turn around. We saw other cars coming down the road and I insisted that he stop and let us go back down with them but he said that if he stopped he wouldn't be able to get going again. It ended up coming out that on a good day this drive takes about 20-30 minutes. We were not close at all. The taxi was sliding all over the place and I was screaming that he needed to stop. I am pretty sure he had never driven in snow or ice before and the drop off the mountain would surely kill us all. He insisted that the cable car was now running and if we just waited until we got to the top we would be able to come back down in the cable car instead of taking another taxi down. I held my son tight and continued to tell him to let us get out of the car.

The spirits of those 200,000 resting monks must have been looking out for us because when we got to a particularly steep and slippery section of road the taxi couldn’t keep going. The wheels spun on the ice and the back end of the car started to slide to the edge of the drop off. When he paused between revving the engine we grabbed our son and our bags and jumped out of the car. Behind us 3 other taxis carrying passengers from the train had caught up and were now also stuck behind him. He and his friend put newspapers under the tires and told us to get back into the taxi so there would be more weight for traction. They also asked us to help push but each time they tried to push the taxi was sliding backwards. Holding on to my son for dear life I refused to get anywhere near that taxi.

After a while a small private bus came along with 7 seats available. With chains on their tires the driver was able to take us and the passengers from 2 more taxis to the top of the mountain. The driver was listening to my husband’s favorite song by his favorite Japanese band. This was surely a sign that we had been saved! The driver of the bus told us that the cable car was not running. The taxi driver had lied about that as well. We wanted to turn back but the driver suggested we go to the top (which was truthfully close now) and relax a bit first. We made it to the top with no further problems. The final taxi was able to make it up the mountain somehow but the other 3, including ours ended up getting towed.

Okunoin Cemetery


Everything in Koyasan was covered in snow but most of the streets had been cleaned and the buses had chains around their tires so they were running smoothly. The workers at the train station were confident that the cable car would be running again soon. So much time had passed that we really didn’t have time for much sightseeing so we headed over to Okunoin Cemetery right away.


Nine of us from our train ended up at the cemetery: our family of 3, a Japanese couple, a couple from China, 1 student from Australia and a man from Taiwan. The man from Taiwan summed up our feelings very well when he shared that he was really excited about the snow (he had never seen any before) but at the same time he didn't want to die. We didn’t run into anyone else while we were there. We think we are the last group (maybe only group) that was sent up the mountain that day.


Instead of moss covered monuments we were greeted with a winter wonderland. Luckily we had brought our baby carrier with us “just in case”. Our son is 4 and really doesn’t need a carrier but the snow was past his knees in some places.


We didn’t see all the major sites of interest because not all of the pathways were cleared. One of the people we were with also pointed out that we needed to head back to the train station quickly. Once the sun started to go down everything would be getting even icier. We did a quick loop around the main path and headed back. Less than an hour after we had arrived we were leaving Koyasan.

Once we arrived at the cable car station we were informed that it would not be running for the rest of the day. They actually thought it might be out of service for several days and the only way back down was by taxi. Our second taxi driver was less of a macho ass and knowing just how long the trip was actually going to take this time helped our fear a lot. There was some sliding but nothing like before and we were driving into better conditions rather than into worse conditions. Our son though decided that this would be a perfect time to sing for the entire trip. Wanting the taxi driver to be able to pay full attention so we wouldn’t die, we tried everything we could to keep him quiet but he wouldn’t stop singing. Now it’s funny. Then it wasn’t.


Each of us who had made the trip up the mountain made it back down (except for a group of 3 tourists who were staying overnight). While we had chatted away nonstop earlier everyone sat in silence on the train ride back towards Osaka. No contact information was shared. As we pulled up to each of our stops we said our goodbyes and went on our way. Was it worth it? I’d have to say “no”. Koyasan is beautiful and spiritual but I truly feared for our lives. I’d love to go back there some day. Just not in the snow.

Mysterious Unjusa Temple of 1,000 Buddha and Pagodas

unjusa temple hwasun

View of Unjusa in the Spring on our first visit

The South Korean temple, Unjusa in Hwasun County is a bit of a mystery. No one is quite sure who the founder is but it is estimated to have been built sometime between 57 BC and 935 AD. Originally the temple had more than 1,000 Buddha statues and 1,000 pagodas but today only 91 stone statues and 21 pagodas of various sizes remain. They can be found around the temple grounds and in the surrounding fields and mountains.
child looking at buddha statue unjusa hwasun korea temple
small statue unjusa hwasun temple korea
pagoda in mountain at unjusa temple
Buddha statue under large stone hwasun unjusa south korea temple
multi cylindrical pagoda unjusa south korea hwasun
A few years ago when our son was only a few months old we took a trip to Unjusa. We hadn’t researched much before we went. We enjoyed our time but when we got home we found out that we had completely missed the giant statues of Buddha lying down. We knew we would need to return!
Painting on the temple roof
many little gold colored buddha
Temple door carvings and painting lotus

We have just returned to Unjusa and were pleasantly surprised! Since our last visit they have invested in creating beautiful trails and stairs to the main attractions in the mountains. The stone or wooden paths are steep in parts but are some of the best I have seen in my 11 years in Korea! When we visited before my husband and son had to wait at the bottom of the mountain as I climbed to get a good photo because the trail was rather slippery when wet. This is no longer a concern!

walkway at unjusa temple
Stairs going to the reclining buddha
This visit we were sure to get a pamphlet (in English!) and checked the maps so we knew where we were going. The paths are well labeled and there are signs at the major monuments in both Korean and English explaining the significance. We had missed the giant reclining Buddha statues the first visit because we had taken the trail up behind the temple rather than the trail to the left. It is clearly marked and was entirely our mistake.

We didn’t make the mistake again though! After you climb the stairs to the top of the hill there is no missing the reclining Buddha statues. Carved out of the stone in the ground, one is nearly 42 feet and the other around 34 feet. The carvings are rather crude but it is still impressive. I have never seen anything else like it in Korea.

Buddha lying down carving from rock
reclining buddha unjusa temple

The hikes around Unjusa are easy and not very crowded. It’s quite far from the city with few restaurants or other services around. It’s best to bring your own food! Some guided tour groups do make it out to the temple but with such a large area to explore it never felt busy. With so many treasures to search for it’s easy to discover something new each time you visit Unjusa which is why it’s one of our favorite temples in the region.

Cost

  • Adults 3,000 won / Teenagers 2,000 won / Children 1,000 won

Hours

  • Summer 08:00-18:00 / Winter 08:00-17:00

Transportation

  • From Gwangcheon Bus Terminal (USquare) in Gwangju take city bus number 318 or 218. The ride takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Confirm with the driver that the bus will stop at the temple (운주사). 

Photos of Songgwangsa Temple in Fall

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  • Website: http://songgwangsa.org/
  • Admission: Adults 3,000 won, students 2,000 won, seniors and children under 7 free
  • Address: 100 Songgwangsaan-gil, Songgwang-myeon, Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do
     
  • Travel Time: Car 45 min – an hour. Bus 1 hour and 30 min. The direct bus to Songgwangsa leaves from Gwangju Express Bus Terminal (U Square) every hour. 


All images © 2013-2016 Jessica Solomatenko

Imagine Your Korea! Beautiful Autumn Baegyangsa Temple

고불총림 백양사
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Website: http://www.baekyangsa.or.kr/
Admission: Adults 3,000 won, students 1,200 won, children 700 won, babies FREE

Address: 1239, Baegyang-ro, Bukha-myeon, Jangseong-gun, Jeollanam-do 전라남도 장성군 북하면 백양로 1239 (북하면)

Travel Time: Car 35 min, bus 1 hour. It is considerably longer during peak season! Take heavy traffic into consideration.

Bus: From Gwangju Express Bus Terminal (U Square) there is a direct bus to Baegyangsa which takes around an hour. During the peak season it is best to book your tickets in advance!

All images © 2013-2016 Jessica Solomatenko

Hampyeong’s Herptile Eco Park

hampyeong herptile eco park

Hampyeong which is about an hour away from Gwangju, Jeollanamdo, is well known across Korea for its annual Butterfly Festival. Few people, even locally it appears, know about Hampyeong Herptile Eco Park (함평파충류생태공원 ). It’s hard to miss though once you arrive into the area of the Eco Park as the building is shaped like a giant albino Burmese python (they have a live one inside!).

I have not been able to confirm this, but I believe the Herptile Park opened only a few years ago in 2013. The facilities are new, well maintained and clean. The temperature is closely monitored and so on a hot summer day it was lovely and cool inside! There is a collection of more than 600 local and foreign snakes, frogs, toads, turtles, tortoise, and lizards primarily housed on 2 floors of the main building. Inside the main building there is also a theater area but there was no information about shows when we went. There is a separate building outside for some anaconda as well and a nice petting zoo and park area in the back as well.

hampyeong herptile eco park

I am not a big fan of zoos but the animals in these habitats seemed to be well cared for and the workers professional. We arrived at Hampyeong Herptile Eco Park at 9:30am on a holiday Monday and were the only visitors there at the time. They were still setting up for the day and it happened to be feeding time for the pythons. Upon seeing our 3 year old son heading their way the workers discretely put away the bucket of dead mice until he had moved past. Had he been older I’m sure he might have been really interested but I appreciated that they were sensitive to his age.

hampyeong herptile eco park

hampyeong herptile eco park

In the downstairs area there is a small climbing wall, and play and activity area for children. There are also some animals for them to interact with:  couple of birds out on a tree, a horned lizard, some iguanas and a tub of frogs. The frogs were upsetting. I’m sure they were very stressed with the kids reaching in. There was also an area where children can use nets to catch goldfish in two tanks and then rerelease them. Poor fish! Several times a day the Burmese python is also brought out for people to take photos with and interact with. It’s a lovely snake and the handler is good but a lot of people coming to see the snake were acting like idiots, screaming and yelling. The caretakers really need to inforce more calm behavior so as not to stress the snake out! But other than those things, everything and everyone at the place seemed to be working towards making sure the animals were well cared for.

hampyeong herptile eco park

In the back of the building is a small petting zoo with sheep, goats, chickens, and rabbits. It was the cleanest petting zoo I have ever seen! It’s free to enter and for 1,000 won you can buy food to feed the animals. The rabbits seem to have figured out that parents tend to give the food to the children and so one rabbit in particular kept chasing after our son. He was completely thrilled about this rabbit who wanted to run races with him. On your mark, get set bunny. Go!

hampyeong herptile eco park

hampyeong herptile eco park


Hours

0:900 to 18:00 (Regular)

09:00 to 17:00 (November to February)

Closed

Every Monday, New Year Day, Seollal and Chuseok

* If a public holiday is on a Monday the park will be open but the next day (Tuesday) it will be closed


Price (Discounts for groups)  
Adults 3,000
Children 1,000
Kindergarten 1,000
Under Korean Age 4 Free

Website: http://ecopark.or.kr/hp_snake/ (Korean)

Address: 전라남도 함평군 신광면 가덕리 306-1번지


Bus Schedule

* This schedule is subject to change. Call the Hampyeong Bus Terminal at 061) 322-0660 to confirm.

Hampyeong Bus Terminal → Herptile Park Herptile Park →Hampyeong Bus Terminal
6:50 7:35
7:50 8:35
9:05 9:30
10:20 10:45
11:10 11:50
11:30 12:30
12:00 13:35
12:55 14:45
14:05 15:35
14:30 17:05
16:20 18:05
17:25 19:40
19:00  

 

Dolmeori Beach in Hampyeong South Korea

Only about an hour drive away from Gwangju, Dolmeori Beach in Hampyeong is one of the closest beaches to the city. We usually make it out to the beach a couple of times a year but like many beaches along Korea’s west coast extremes in the difference between high and low tide can make it difficult to catch a good day for swimming. When the tide goes out at Dolmeori beach it goes waaaaaaaaay out! You were left having to consult tide times and charts if you wanted to dip your toes in the ocean.

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I think I can maybe see the ocean out there somewhere…

Earlier this spring we went to the beach for a picnic and found that the beach was gone! There were heavy construction vehicles digging up the beach and a giant hole was in its place.  To the left side of the lookout tower is a rocky beach with a little sand and it was great for our picnic but we were left wondering what had happened to the main beach! This month we were told that they had built two pools and we headed out this past weekend to check it out.

DSC_5547

They have built 3 new pools along the beach area and they are free to use. There is a very small splash pool less than half a foot deep. When we went there was no water in it. Beside it they have built a larger children’s pool that is about a foot to two feet deep. There is a shade covering for parents watching close by. This pool is chlorinated fresh water. 20160807_092845

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In the past Dolmeori beach did have a bit of an enclosure that helped to keep some of the water close to the beach when the tides were going in and out but it only made a small difference. When we visited on Sunday the tide was completely out but this new ocean pool was still full of water! It is enclosed only on 3 sides with the 4th side being the actual beach. They have also made the far end of the pool quite deep so more experiences swimmers can go for a proper swim.
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The water isn’t clear. It’s a bit murky with kicked up sand but despite this, I’ve been told that the water at Dolmeori may actually be cleaner than some of the beaches in the area with more clear water. I’m not sure at this point how they are filling the pool but even when the tide was out we could feel cold water temperature changes in some areas so the water was moving and not just sitting still there in the tank.

20160807_095527It is possible to go camping at the beach and there is a small area with trees with limited space as well as additional spaces along the sand. To rent an elevated platform area for the day or night it is 20,000 won – 30,000 won. Small tents are currently free but you are required to purchase a garbage bag for 3,000 won from them which they will dispose of when you leave. Larger tents may be required to pay a fee but they didn’t tell us the exact price. I would guess it possibly depends on just how big your monster tent is!

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How to Get There: There is a bus at the Hampyeong Bus Terminal that heads to Dolmeori beach. It runs from 06:40-19:30 every 80 minuets. It takes about 20 min to get to the beach from the terminal.

Address: 616-10, Dolmeori-gil, Hampyeong-eup, Hampyeong-gun, Jeollanam-do 
전라남도 함평군 함평읍 주포로 614 (함평읍)

Phone Number: +82-61-322-0011

Gamami Beach – Great Beaches in South Korea!

*Update June 21, 2016* – Photos of the new water park added!

Nearly every weekend, especially once the snow is gone, we try to take a road trip locally. Traveling with a 3 year old who has a ridiculously early wake up time, we usually head out early, travel 1-2 hours from Gwangju and spend the morning at our destination. After lunch when it starts to get too hot and the crowds arrive, we head back to town as our son takes his afternoon nap in the car.

We spend a lot of time in the summer exploring local beaches and this past weekend we finally made it out to Gamami Beach. We had been in the area before to visit other sites but this was our first trip to this section of the coastline. I’ve been hesitant to write about it for fear that it might become too popular. Gamami Beach is by far our favourite family friendly beach close to Gawngju to date!

It is easy to make a trip to Gamami Beach an all-day affair. The drive to the beach takes you through Beoseong Port in Yeonggwang where the specialty is gulbi. The dried fish can be found hanging from ropes on either side of the street and restaurants abound. Either stop for a meal or grab some fish to bring with you to the beach!

Gulbi Jeongshik yeonggwang

Gulbi Jeongshik. A table full of Korean side dishes where gulbi is the feature.

Gulbi yeonggwang drying

Rows of drying gulbi

Also along the way is Beopseongpo (법성포) which is the birthplace of Baekje Buddhism.

Beopseongpo Baekje Buddhism

Beopseongpo, the birthplace of Baekje Buddhism

Gamami Beach has a pine tree camping and picnic area and a large sand beach. Kids can run freely, a game of volley ball or soccer can be played or just sunbathe on the beach without worrying much about getting in the way of others. Even when the tide is still out the water can be reached if you are willing to walk a bit. At low tide digging for clams is a popular pastime. We saw people quickly gathering full buckets of large clams to bring back to their camp. When the tide is in, the water near the shore is only 1-2 meters deep for quite a distance.

Gamami beach yeonggwang

Tide is still out. The rocks directly in front are covered when the tide comes in.

Gamami beach yeonggwang

Exploring the rocks

There is no amission fee to use the beach and during the off season camping is available for free on a first come, first served basis. Starting in July the fees for camping range from about 10,000 won – 50,000 won depending on the site you want to camp in and the size of your tent. During July and August making a reservation ahead of time is recommended.

Gamami beach yeonggwang

The site is also currently going through some renovations. One of the shower and toilet areas is being repaired and a new playground and waterpark are being built. It is expected that they will be completed by July.

Gamami beach yeonggwang water park
Gamami beach yeonggwang water park

Gamami Beach is around a 1 to 1.5 hour drive from Gwangju, Jellonamdo. Alternatively a bus can be taken from Gwangcheon Bus Terminal (U-Square) to Yeonggwang. From the Yeonggwang terminal a local bus can take you to Gamami Beach.

Address in Korean: 전라남도 영광군 홍농읍 가마미로 355
For more informaiton visit Yeonggwang-gun's English website here!

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Hwaeomsa Temple in South Korea for Buddha’s Birthday

buddha's birthday hwaeomsa temple lanterns

On the weekend of Buddha's birthday each spring, festivities are held at the temples all across South Korea. The temples around the country hold events for the entire family. There are performances, ceremonies, free food and lots and lots of colorful lanterns!

buddha's birthday hwaeomsa temple lanterns

Though all temples, big or small, will have some sort of event or lantern display, some are better than others. After recieving a recommendation from a friend, we made our way this year to Hwaeomsa Temple near Gurye, Jeollanamdo. It takes about an hour and a half to drive from Gwangju city to the temple.

buddha's birthday temple Hwaeomsa
buddha's birthday temple lanterns Hwaeomsa


The temple did not disappoint! Traditional music and chanting could be heard throughout the complex. Visitors offered prayers and lit incense but there were also vendors selling ice cream and popcorn as children ran and played. We were also incredibly lucky to catch a bell ringing ceremony which we had never witnessed before!​

buddha's birthday temple monk ringing bell korea
buddha's birthday temple lanterns koreaBub dancing to the chanting from the monks

buddha's birthday temple lanterns korea

hwaeomsa temple roof south korea
hwaeomsa temple buddha birthday lanterns korea

buddha's birthday temple monk ringing bell korea

Admission Fee

  • Adults 3,500 won 
  • Youth 1,800 won 
  • Kids 1,300 won

Transportation

From Gurye Bus Terminal take the bus headed to Hwaeomsa Temple. From the station the ride is about 10 to 20 minutes to the temple bus stop. It approximately another 20 minutes walk from the bus stop to the temple.

Free parking closer to the temple is available for people heading to the temple by car.