Spiritual City: Seoul's Sacred Places
Tucked among downtown Seoul’s skyscrapers are many examples of religious and spiritual traditions, from Korea’s shamanist and Neo-Confucian shrines to Buddhist temples and Christian churches. This mix is possible because Korea has no history of religious warfare. In fact, a multi-faith coalition played an important role in Korea’s independence movement.
On this tour, we’ll learn about this history and visit some amazing houses of worship. So, put on your walking shoes and let’s explore Seoul’s spiritual heritage!
We’ve got a busy day of touring planned, but let’s start things off at a peaceful place – the Jongmyo Royal Shrine. From there, we’ll take a short walk to Daegaksa, a little-known Buddhist temple before making our way to the Central Temple of Cheondogyo and the popular Insa-dong neighborhood for lunch. Afterwards it’s onward to Seoul’s main Buddhist temple, Jogyesa. The second-half of our tour will concentrate on three beautiful Christian churches and Wongudan, where centuries of Korean kings performed the “rites of heaven.”
How’s that sound? Are you ready?! Let's Get Started!
 Take Seoul Metro Line 1, 3 or 5
to Jongno 3(sam)ga Station. Use
 Walk about 200 meters and
then turn left into the park. There
will probably be many older men
playing the board game paduk
(also known as “go” in Chinese).
 Next, walk 150 meters down the
path to reach Jongmyo’s front gate.
The ticket window is located
immediately to the left.
Each May, the Jongmyo Daeje or “great rite” is
performed at Jongmyo (Royal Shrine). The ancestral
rites were added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible
Cultural Heritage in 2001. The six-hour ceremony
is divided into 12 elaborate steps that welcome,
entertain and bid farewell to the royal ancestral
spirits. The enchanting rituals include unique
ceremonial music called Jongmyo Jeryeak. The
descendants of Korea’s last royal family manage
this annual event.
|Jongmyo: The Royal Shrine|
Living in a busy city like Seoul, it’s important to find peaceful places to escape the fast-paced, modern life. One of my favorite places to go on a Saturday morning is Jongmyo (Royal Shrine). It’s located in the heart of the city, but the thick forests make it feel far away.
It’s important that Jongmyo is a peaceful place because it enshrines the spirit tablets of the kings and queens from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Respect for one’s ancestors is very important in Korea and other Neo-Confucian cultures. Neo-Confucianism isn’t a religion, but a mix of several Asian philosophies and beliefs, including Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. At Jongmyo, the descendents of Korea’s last royal family and the nation’s citizens can pay their respects.
As you walk around the site, you’ll notice two main buildings. The largest, Jeongjeon, was once the longest building in Asia! The 49 kings and queens whose tablets are enshrined here in 19 rooms begin with the Joseon Dynasty’s first king, and end with its last. The building is quite amazing, but so is the stone terrace! Are you wondering why it’s so huge? Well, the bare, cream-colored stones are supposed to contrast with the trees to better channel the area’s spiritual energy!
Address: Seoul Jongno-gu, Hunjeong-dong 1-2; Hours of Operation: Self-guided tours are allowed on Saturdays only between 09:00~18:00 (March~September) and 09:00~17:30 October~February). Entry is allowed until one hour before close; Tours: English language tours are available four times daily, except Tuesdays; More information: www.jongmyo.net;
Can you feel it? The smaller annex is called Yeongnyeongjeon, or the “Shrine of the Everlasting Peace.”
Before we leave, here’s an interesting mystery for you. There’s a small shrine located to the east of Jeongjeon that honors King Gongmin. It’s quite unusual because he was a king from the previous dynasty, Goryeo. Although Gongmin was revered as a reformer and a talented artist, why would the first king of a new dynasty celebrate the last one?
Hmmm… I guess it’s just another one of history’s mysteries!
I hope you enjoyed the peaceful start to our tour. Up next, we’ll visit a special temple that you won’t find on most Seoul itineraries!
 Upon exiting Jongmyo’s main
gate, turn right and follow the
stone wall as it rounds the corner.
 Keep following the wall as
the road narrows (This is one of
favorite walking streets!).
 After about 200 meters
there’s a clearing to the left where
you'll see the three-story temple.
Now let’s visit a church and a religion that’s truly unique to Korea.
 The main street is directly in front
of Daegaksa's front gate. To reach it, go right from the gate and quickly left.
 At the end of the block, turn
left, then a quick right. Ahead is a
bar sign that reads, “sayyes.”
 On the main street, turn right.
At the end you can see Changdeokgung’s (Palace) gate.
| After about 100 meters, you’ll reach a small grocery store named Biwon Supermarket on your right. Cross the street and take a left onto Hyanggyo-gil.|| Along the way are many
traditional hanok homes on your
left. If you’d like, wander into the
alleys for a slice of old Seoul.
| Or, keep walking until you reach|
a large intersection. Turn right (away
from the Fraser Suites) and walk to a
crosswalk just before Unhyeongung
(Palace). Cross the street.
Central Temple of Cheondogyo
Have you ever heard of Cheondoism? If not, you’re not alone, because it’s a religion that’s unique to Korea. For some clues into this religion, look closely at the Central Temple of Cheondogyo. First, the beautiful brick and granite building (once considered among Seoul’s most beautiful) features a mix of styles. There’s a baroque roof and a Gothic front portal. I guess it makes sense since Cheondoism is a fusion faith of Korean shamanism, Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity. It’s often described as a “humanistic” religion.
Second, if you look closely you’ll see images of the Rose of Sharon. In Korea it’s called the “mugunghwa,” and it’s the national flower. The Cheondoists played a leading role in Korea’s democracy movement. In fact, many say the secret independence movement was funded in large part by money raised through Cheondoist temples. Today, it’s estimated that only about 1% of Koreans identify with the faith. However, in 1926 there were some two million Cheondoists. Compare that with the 200,000 Buddhists at the same time!
Learning about Korea’s religions makes me hungry! Let’s go to one of Seoul’s most popular neighborhoods for some sightseeing and lunch before we head to the city’s main Buddhist temple. How does that sound?
While you’re here, why not check out some of Insa-dong’s best sights?
Insa-dong is famous for its traditional tea houses. Two neighborhood favorites are the Old Tea House and Gwicheon. Or, you can visit Sanchon, which specializes in Korean Buddhist temple cuisine. For a fun shopping experience, visit Ssamzie-gil. The open-air, four-level shopping complex is part-mall, part-art gallery. Finally, on Insa-dong's southern side is Tapgol Park where Korea's modern independence movement began. If you have any questions about what to see, visit the Insa-dong Info Centre.
Did you enjoy exploring Insa-dong?
 When you’ve finished exploring Insa-dong, return to the street that brought us here.
Keep walking down it past the Insa-dong Info Centre. Soon, you’ll reach the main street with Jogyesa (Temple)
located on the other side.
One of Seoul’s most popular events for the foreign
community is the Lotus Lantern Festival, which
honors the birth of the Buddha. To celebrate the
occasion, over 100,000 brightly colored lanterns are
strung up around the city each spring. The big event
takes place in and around Jogyesa (Temple).
Onlookers enjoy street parades, stage performances
and experience events, including the opportunity to
wear traditional Korean hanbok clothing or you can make your own lantern!
More information: http://llf.or.kr/eng/
Now we’re going to visit the main temple of Korean Buddhism’s Jogye Order. Although Jogyesa’s original temple was established over 600 years ago, the modern temple was founded in 1910. At almost any time of day, you can find people praying inside the Daeungjeon Hall. To see the inside for yourself, don’t forget to take off your shoes. Once inside, check out the golden Buddha Triad and a wooden Sakyamuni Buddha that’s thought to be over 500 years old! By coincidence, the lacebark pine outside the hall is also about 500 years old!
Actually, there’s a lot of meaning in the various colors and symbols you’ll find on Korean traditional buildings. For example, why is a fish-shaped stick used to sound the bell? Well, the fish – which doesn’t close its eyes even when sleeping – represents diligence and self-discipline. So, like a fish, humans must enlightenment constantly! Another example are the curious little figurines that appear on the roof lines of temples and palaces. These examples of Korean folk art are supposed to ward away evil spirits.
One more suggestion before you leave! Outside the temple are a number of stores selling Buddhist clothing, religious items, incense and souvenirs. Also, located directly across from the temple is a building dedicated to Jogyesa’s popular Temple Stay program. Check it out if you want to experience Buddhist culture and lifestyle at one of dozens Korean temples around the nation.
At this point let’s visit some of downtown Seoul’s most beautiful Christian houses of worship.
 Walk to the back of Jogyesa (Temple) and turn left along the narrow road.
 When you come to the intersection with the red rose painted on the black wall, turn right.
 Walk past the Jongno-gu Office and the U.S. Embassy until you reach Gwanghwamun Square.
 Cross to the far end of the street and turn left.
 Walk all the way down the street until you reach the beginning of Deoksugung’s (Palace) stone wall.
 Just prior to the wall, turn right. Walk a few meters until you can see the cathedral to your right.
So far, our tour has focused mainly on Asian religious traditions, but Korea’s spiritual community is truly diverse. While Christianity has been on the peninsula for a relatively short period of time, it’s grown remarkably fast.
For example, Catholicism only took root in Korea in 1784 with the baptism of Yi Sung-hun (“Peter”) in China. It was 100 years later (101, actually), that the first Anglican mission arrived here.
Seoul Anglican Cathedral
Seoul’s Anglican Cathedral is among the most beautiful Christian churches in Seoul. The Romanesque-style building was designed by a British architect and sort-of completed in 1926, but due to money problems it wasn’t finished until 1996, when the building’s original plans were discovered in a rural church in England! The gorgeous finished product is a mix of red bricks and granite with Korean-style roof tiles. My favorite part of the church is the way the blue, pink and purple glass windows filter the sunlight. Isn’t it beautiful?
Before we wrap things up with a visit to two Christian churches, I think you’ll enjoy visiting a quick gem tucked away right next to Seoul Plaza!
 Returning to the main street, walk along Deoksugung’s (Palace) stone wall until you reach the Palace’s front gate.
 Wongudan is in front of you on the other side of the large lawn.
 To reach it, cross the street and walk diagonally across the grass.
 At the far side, cross the street, turn right and cross it again.
 If you walk forward about 100 meters, you’ll see a traditional gate on your left.
 Wongudan is located up the stairs on the grounds of the Westin Chosun Hotel.
Remember when we started this tour and I talked about finding quiet places in the city? Here’s another one, and it’s right next to busy Seoul Plaza!
Nestled between large hotels and high rises is the Wongudan altar. It was built in 1897 when King Gojong declared himself Emperor of the short-lived Great Han Empire. This promotion elevated him to the status of “Son of Heaven.” Gojong built the altar to perform the rite of heaven to ensure a bountiful harvest, but it was also Korea’s way of saying that the nation was fully autonomous from China.
Sadly, the main granite altar used for animal sacrifice, a water fountain and other features were destroyed by the Japanese colonial government in 1913 to build a hotel. Thankfully, the 8-sided, 3-level alter called Hwanggungu or the “Yellow Palace Shrine” is still there. And if you walk up close to it, you’ll see more than a dozen stone animals that look a lot like me! That’s because they, like me, are haetae, a mythical fire-eating beast that often adorn wooden buildings to protect them.
See, I’m famous!
We’ve got just two spots left… So, to conclude our “sacred places” tour, let’s walk to Seoul’s popular Myeong-dong neighborhood. That way, once we’re done, you can grab a bite to eat or do some shopping!
 From Wongudan altar’s upper level, take the staircase at the back down to the street level.
 Turn right at the Lotte Hotel and follow the sidewalk as it wraps around the block.
 Keep walking, this time you’ll pass Lotte Department Store.
 When you see the Myeongdong Shopping underpass (before Lotte Young Plaza), descend the steps.
 Turn left at the bottom and then walk back up the stairs to the right.
Welcome to Myeong-dong, one of Seoul’s most vibrant and exciting neighborhoods. We’ll follow the main street all the way to Myeong-dong Cathedral, but for now, why not take a look around? Here are some suggested places to visit.
For just 1,500 won you can get 32-centimeters of soft-serve ice cream in several flavors, including vanilla, chocolate, green tea or a mix!
A great place to try some savory Korean pancake or the very healthy (and delicious) dish, Buchu Bibimbap!
This new addition to the neighborhood is where you can catch the very popular performance, Miso!
Street Snack Vendors
Myeong-dong at night is one of the best places for delicious street food! Try the spiral potatoes or spicy tteokbokki, the sweet and chewy hoddeok or some delicious ddeok kalbi!
Official Iris Drama Area
Check out this special spot dedicated to fans of the hit drama series starring Korean Wave stars, Lee Byeong-heon and Kim Tae-hee!
 Keep walking along the main road through Myeong-dong until you see
Myeong-dong Cathedral on the hill to the right.
Myeong-dong Cathedral is the better-known name for the Cathedral Church of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception (that’s quite a mouthful!). As the main cathedral of Korea’s Roman Catholic community, it’s a pretty spectacular church, isn’t it?
Let’s go inside and check it out!
Constructed (and paid for) by French Catholics, the church was built in traditional Gothic style. The interior features a high, vaulted nave, dual aisles all in the shape of a cross, was completed. With an almost 47-meter tall steeple, the cathedral soared high above much of the city when it was built. Actually, the Myeong-dong neighborhood was where Korea’s very first Catholic church was built in 1784!
Youngnak Presbyterian Church
There’s another church across the street that doesn’t get half the attention of the cathedral. It’s the Youngnak (“Everlasting Joy”) Presbyterian Church. Founded in 1945, the church has a great story. It was started by refugees from Soviet-occupied Korea who sought religious freedom in what would become South Korea. Today, the church’s 60,000-strong congregation might be the world’s largest Presbyterian flock!
More Sacred Sites
It may be hard to believe, but even this full-day tour didn’t cover all of Seoul’s most important religious and spiritual destinations. Here’s a quick look at a few more places that might enhance your future tour:
Guksadang and Seonbawi (Rock):
Korean shamanism the only religion that’s truly indigenous to Korea. To see aspects of it for yourself, and possibly even view a shamanist ritual called “gut,” go to Inwangsan (Mt.). How to get there: Gyeongbokgung Station (Line 3), Exit 1.
Jeoldusan Martyrs’ Shrine:
An attractive park and monument to the victims of the Byeonin Persecution of 1866, where 8,000 Roman Catholics were martyred. How to get there: Hapjeong Station (Lines 2 and 6), Exit 7.
Seoul Grand Mosque:
Seoul’s small Muslim community gathers at the city’s only mosque, which is located in the international Itaewon neighborhood. How to get there: Itaewon Station (Line 6), Exit 3.
Yoido Full Gospel Church:
Designated the world’s largest church in terms of congregation size, this church claims over 800,000 members! How to get there: National Assembly Station (Line 9), Exit 1.
Well, that wraps up our tour! I don’t know about you but I’m exhausted!^^
I hope you enjoyed seeing some of Seoul’s sacred places with me. Thanks for coming along, and don’t forget to visit again for future tours!
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[2010-07-02 01:55 Input / 2013-11-22 09:55 Modify]
Article source: Seoul Metropolitan Government Tourism Division