I’ve been running this blog now for almost 3 months and it’s nearly criminal I’ve not said anything yet about Mt. Namsan (남산) as I think it’s one of the coolest things about Gyeongju. Mt. Namsan’s not nearly as tall as some of the mountains around here (just under 500 meters actually) but what makes it so special is that it’s covered with over 100 stone Buddha’s and other Shilla Dynasty relics dating back about 1,500 years. It’s also got some pretty gnarly rock formations and a fair share of Buddhist temples, which can make for some fun hikes.
One of the most famous of the ancient Shilla carvings on Mt. Namsan is Chilbulam (칠불암) or “Hermitage of the Seven Buddhas”. Just a 2 km in from the trail head, Chilbulam is one of the easier hiking routes on Namsan and makes for a good afternoon stroll. I’d been up a few times before, but the weather was good this last Sunday (good enough for January anyhow) and I went up again with a few friends.
If you’ve got the time, I’d suggest starting off at the parking lot for Tongiljeon (통일전) or “Unification Shrine,” hiking in past the scenic and legendary Seolchuji (서출지) pond (more on that soon) and through the farm village of Namsan-dong (남산둥). If you haven’t spent much time in the Korean countryside, Namsan-dong’s pretty cool. It’s home to dozens of rice and cattle farm along with a handful of temples (old and new), a few sculptures and potters and even an O-med hospital (in case you need some acupuncture after your hike).
The stroll through the village adds on another hour or so to your trek coming and going, so if you’re short on time, you can park at the trail head at the ancient Yeombulsa Temple site (염불사). From here the trail follows the stream for about an hour past some farm lands and then up through the increasingly narrow Bonghwa Valley. The walk to Chilbulam only really gets steep for the last 10 or 15 minutes. For the last 100 meters, from the spring house, you’ve got to trek up stone stairs winding up through a bamboo thicket.
When you finally clear the top of the bamboo, it’s all worth it. Chilbulam is one of the most impressive Shilla relics on Namsan, though little seems to be known about exactly who carved it or when (probably from the 7th or 8th cen. C.E.). The central Buddha is about 11 ft high and is thought to be Amitaba Buddha (아미타불) or Buddha of the Western Paradise. He’s flanked on the right by Guanyin (관슴보살 or the Bodhisattva of Mercy) and on the left by Mahasthamaprapta (대사지보살or the Bodhisattva of Power). This trinity is the same as at the Buddha Triad of Dudae-ri and is very significant to Pure Land sect of Buddhism. Less is known about the identities of the Buddhas carved on the four-sided stone, though scholars believe that the Buddha facing outward represents Yaksayeorae (약사여래or the Medicine Buddha).
It was a bit busy when we went up last Sunday, but not obnoxiously so for a weekend. We took the time to poke around back of the hermitage to check out the shrine to the Sanshin (산신) or mountain god. We also stuck our heads into the newly rebuilt hermitage for a minute and said “hi” to the abbotess. She spoke excellent English but she was in the middle of having tea with guests, so we didn’t want to keep her too long. It looked like some school groups had visited recently as somebody had done some pretty cool drawings on roof tiles to go on the hermitage.
If you look up at the top of the 50 foot cliff right behind the Chilbulam, you’ll see another carving peeking from the top of the rock face. Looking out over Chilbulam is Shilla-era carving of Gwanseum Bosal (관슴보살) or the Bodhisattva of Mercy, and it’s just another 10 or 15 minute hike up the ridge. There are some pretty awesome views from up here that make it worth it, but I’ll warn you: this part of the hike is NOT for people who are out of shape, afraid of heights or wearing bad shoes (I had the shoes covered at least). Seriously though, you’ve got to scramble up a few boulders and sake your way along unprotected cliff ledges to get to this Buddha, so do be careful.
Directions: To get to Namsan-dong take N.R. 7 south east out of town going towards Ulsan. After passing Gyeongju Nat. Museum on your right, take your 2nd major right (3rd light I believe) going towards Tongiljeon Unification shrine. Follow this road about 1.5 km across the Namcheon R., past the Arboretum and Hwarang Educational Institute until you come to a huge parking lot for Tongiljeon. You can either park here and hike in through Namsan-dong village, or you can drive another 1 km to the trail head.
If your coming by bus, take bus number 10 or 11 (check at the tourist kiosk for which one is shorter. One is 15 minutes and the other 45.) Get off at the stop for Tongiljeon (통일전) and cross the parking lot to snack shop and Seolchuji pond (서출지). But since the bus only goes every half hour, I’d serious consider taking a cab (about 10,000 won from downtown). If you’ve got 2 or more people with you, it’s almost the same price anyways.