Yesterday, the Two Crabs and friends took a hiking trip to experience one of the most amazing sights in Seoul - the Golden Buddha of Bukhansan. Located in Bukhansan National Park just north of downtown Seoul, the Golden Buddha of Bukhansan is the largest sitting Buddha statue in East Asia.
We have been looking forward to experiencing this attraction since reading about it several expat blogs like this post. Dubbed the Golden Buddha by foreigners, the Korean name of the statue is 국녕대불 - The Grand Buddha of Guknyeong, named so because it is part of the larger 국녕사 (Guk-nyeong-Sa), or Guknyeong Temple.
Curiously, the Guknyeong Buddha is not mentioned in any of the usual English travel guides. We found the exact location only after scouring through detailed images of Bukhansan National Park on Google Earth.
The Guknyeong Buddha is located on the west side of the park, at 37°38'47.96" N, 126°57'46.80" E.
To get to the trailhead by public transportation, take Seoul metro Line 3 to Gupabal station, exit 1. Then look for the bus stop just outside the station. Take either the #34, #704 or #8772 northbound bus for about 10 minutes and disembark at "Bukhansanseong Information Center", one of the main entrances to Bukhansan National Park. The announcements on the bus are usually Korean-only, so if you're not sure, just follow all the other hikers when they get off!
We had the day off for the Hangul Day holiday. The weather could not have been more perfect for hiking, 72 degrees and sunny. Unfortunately, half of Seoul had the same idea, so we could not even get on a bus! So we ended up walking about 45 minutes from Gupabal station to the park entrance.
Here's some Bing maps of the route we took. The green line was our "uphill" route; the red route was the return downhill trip. In the first photo, the blue circle in the lower left is Gupabal metro station; the blue circle on the upper right Guknyeong Temple. If you take the bus, it would drop you off just past where the red and green lines meet. The trail head is approximately where the red and green lines diverge. Click on the images for the full-sized photo.
Here's a more detailed map of the actual hike. The blue circle is the temple & Buddha:
By foot from Gupabal station, we walked along the main road for a while until we saw English & Korean signs for the Bukhansanseong Information Center, one of the park's main ranger stations. That road led us down a residential road past some small shops and convenience stores, then onto the trail that parallels the main road. Follow the signs for Bukhansanseong Information Center.
After a short while, we arrived at the ranger station. The area was buzzing with activity. There is a large pay parking lot here too (I drove once here and vowed I would never do it again due to nightmare traffic). The neighborhood around the ranger station is a hiker's paradise, lined with outdoor supply stores (including The North Face), restaurants and cafes. At the ranger station, you can pick up a not-very-good map of the park (much better maps are available at Kyobo book store chains). Some of the rangers spoke English and were assisting the way-gooks (foreigners).
About 200 meters past the ranger station, you'll get to a fork in the road. Go right (the trails actually reconnect, but the right is easier and paved). The first mile or so of the trail is a steep but paved road, which is wheelchair and stroller accessible...sort of. You'll eventually reach Daeseomun, the Great West Gate of the old fortress that was located within the park.
After the gate, you'll pass a small temple on the right, then see a public restroom and a parking lot.
From here, the trail will fork. Take the RIGHT trail, marked by an English sign pointing towards "Daenammun (Castle Gate)" and "Bukhansan Shelter." A silver sign on the right of the intersection shows "국녕사", your destination.
Once you see the statue above, the pavement ends and the trail starts becoming quite steep! After about 20 minutes, you'll reach an intersection next to what looks like some old guy's shanty house. It's actually a small monastery/temple. The main trail and most hikers will continue straight. Don't follow them. Instead, turn right into the "shanty house" courtyard!
Above: The "shanty town". Go through the red arch! Do NOT follow the other hikers. (IMPORTANT UPDATE: An alert reader has informed me that as of May 2017, the red arch in this photo is GONE. Keep an eye out for this intersection and the house #266 blue sign, seen above on the stone wall).
Follow the sidewalk through and around the shanty house and you'll emerge onto the trail and Korean signs to Guknyeong temple (국녕사).
Just past the shanty house is this small temple:
The trail is very narrow and steep in some parts, but not super difficult. After hiking for about 40 minutes from the shanty house, you'll suddenly emerge from the woods right into the face of Buddha!
According to the signage, the temple dates back 1,000 years. The modern temple was built in 1711. It's unclear when the 24-meter tall (79 feet) Grand Buddha itself was built, but the signs note that the entire complex was renovated in 2004. The Grand Buddha is surrounded by glass trophy cases containing 10,000 (!!) smaller Buddha statues, ranging in size from just two inches to two feet tall.
In addition to the Buddha, you can spend some time exploring the Guknyeong Temple complex, which includs a restaurant where you can grab a spot of lunch. A set of stone stairs leads up to two smaller temples and the bell tower.
After some spiritual enlightenment and a quick lunch of packed sandwiches and fruit, we began the trek back to town. The return trailhead begins just to the right of the Grand Buddha. It's a short but steep climb to the mountain peak, providing a good opportunity to look back for a birds-eye view of the Buddha and temple complex.
After a short but VERY steep climb, we reached the peak, where you'll come across the old fortress wall and some fantastic views of Seoul below.
The hike back down was quite challenging, because he terrain is covered in roots and boulders. This requires a lot of dexterity and close attention to where you're stepping. Eventually the trail levels off across some flat rocky and exposed terrain.
The roundrip hike from Bukhansanseong Information Center (ranger station) to the Guknyeong temple and back only takes 2-3 hours, depending how much time you spend admiring the temple.
Back on the main road, we were finally able to board a Bus 704 back to Gupabal metro station. Bus 704 actually goes all the way to Seoul Station, but expect to spend an hour on the ride.
One last tip: If you go to the Grand Buddha, time your visit so you arrive before midday or after 2pm. We arrived about noon and the sun was directly behind and above the Buddha's head, so it made photography difficult.