I thought I’d seen it all when it came to temples. But deep in the heart of southwestern Korea sits a frankly staggering temple unlike any other. It’s called Tapsa Temple and it had been quite a journey to get here. It began with a bus to the rural outpost of Jinan from the city of Jeonju. From there we embarked on a hike up to Maisan Mountain Provincial Park, followed by a further expedition through the steep, winding trails of Maisan Mountain itself between the horse ear peaks. But at last here we were, gazing out over a unique temple complex born from the singular vision of just one man.
It was here that 25-year-old Yi Gap Yong arrived in 1885 to set up camp and meditate. Over time he became an ordained monk and slowly but surely established Tapsa Temple. Over a period of thirty years Yong carefully built over a hundred stone pagodas to decorate his home and he did everything alone by hand!
Yong spent days and even weeks at a time building each pagoda at Tapsa Temple. It was amazing to be there just taking it all in and trying to imagine what was going through his mind.
The rocks are believed to have come from Maisan Mountain itself and the surrounding forests and streams. Crane your head upwards and you’ll even see baby pagodas constructed in crevices cut into the side of the mountain. I mean, how the hell did he even get up there?
It was busy at Tapsa Temple that day and our general wonderment of the place was curbed somewhat by some highly annoying tourists. But I tried to stay patient and wait for the passing swarms to clear. In some cases, like the incredibly annoying Korean family pictured above, it was tough resisting the urge to snap as they blatantly stood right in front of me as I tried to get my shots and then proceeded to take roughly three thousand variations of the same photo. But hey this is Asia, I really should be used to this by now!
Gradually we made our way up to Tapsa Temple’s main hall, perched dramatically atop a rocky mound and accessed via a stone staircase adorned with colourful lanterns. At the top a narrow balcony provides entrance to the tiny interior, with excellent views back over the grounds we’d come through.
Yi Gap Yong’s greatest achievement stands right at the very top of the Tapsa Temple complex, a further staircase up from the main altar. Here you’ll find two beast pagodas known as the Chun Ji Towers, which translates as heaven and earth. I don’t know how long it took him to build these, but my god I imagine it was quite a while.
Yi Gap Yong was around one hundred years old when he died at Tapsa Temple in 1957. Today you can come and see his incredible legacy at Maisan Mountain. While the mountain park itself is free to enter, you do have to pay a small fee to get into Tapsa. Just go and see the utterly charmless man in the wooden hut and hand over your hard earned Korean Won. He won’t thank you for it.