With friends visiting for the New Year, we decided to make use of our new set of wheels and go exploring a bit. On New Year’s day we made the 45 min. trek over the mountains to Bonggil Beach (봉길해수욕장) on the East Sea, though were a bit too late to catch the sunrise, as is the custom for a lot of folks on New Year’s morning in Korea. It was sunny and warm (for January anyhow), so we had a lovely time bumming around on the beach by King Munmu’s tomb (문무대왕릉) .
Billed as the world’s only underwater tomb, King Munmu’s final resting place is actually a set of rocks just 200 meters out from the beach. It’s never been excavated, so archeologists are still unclear if King Munmu is actually buried here or if it’s just where his ashes were scattered. Still, if viewed from above, it’s obvious there’s a large underwater cap stone smack in the center of cross-shaped waterways in the rocks. Until it’s actually excavated, we won’t know if this is man-made or simply work of nature.
There’s a pretty cool legend behind why King Munmu was the only Shilla King to be buried at sea. It’s said he wanted to have his ashes scattered in the East Sea so his spirit could become a dragon to ward off Japanese pirates. These days I reckon he’s got his hands full protecting the nuclear waste disposal facilities near by.
In Asian mythology, dragons are considered powerful water spirits who can give help to or wreck havoc on humans. Dragon spirits have a high place in Korean Shamanism, which (as in the Shilla or 신라 dynasty) happily coexists with Korean Buddhism. This makes King Munu’s tomb a very sacred place for shamans, or “mudang” (무당) .
Particularly around the full moon, you’re bound to sea least one group of Shamans (usually women) drumming, chanting and making ritual offerings (known as a “gut” or 굿 in Korean) to King Munmu’s dragon spirit. Korean shamans are usually a reclusive lot, so it’s very unusual to see them in public. As such, they don’t take kindly to being interrupted by camera toting tourists, so a zoom lens comes in quite handy.
While you’re out at Bonggil Beach , don’t miss partaking in fresh sashimi at one of the dozen odd hoe jips (회집) along the beach. If raw fish isn’t your bag, definitely try some freshly dried squid jerky from one of the market stalls near by. They sell for about 1,000 won a squid and the ajumas heat them up for you right there on the spot. They’re a nice and warm chewy treat on a cold winter’s day.
Directions: If you’re driving, take National Road 4 East out of Gyeongju and you can following it straight to Bonggil Beach (봉길해수욕장). It’s about a 45 minute drive out past Bomun resort, then Deokdongho Lake, up over the mountain and then down through the market town of Yangbuk (양북). If you’re on foot, you can catch the bus from the Gyeongju Shiwae Bus Terminal (check with the Tourist Info kiosk outside for the bus numbers and times).
Bonggil Beach and King Munmu’s tomb make a great day trip combined with Gampo Port, Girimsa temple and Golguksa hermitage.
View King Munmu’s Tomb (문무대왕릉), Gyeongju in a larger map