CONTRIBUTED BY SHERRI B. LANTINGA
We like to take visitors to Daewonsa (대원사), a small Buddhist complex north of Pohang on the East Sea. We actually call it Dragon Temple: the public part of the complex is a museum in the shape of a dragon (it might actually be a naga, or cobra). Daewonsa is strangely missing from most English tourist info sites, but we love this unique place with no crowds (we’ve never seen any other visitors).
Walking through the dragon/museum is a journey through the life of the Buddha. To a Westerner, the link between this creature of fantasy and Buddhism seems strange. But Asian dragons have long represented good fortune and spiritual clarity (their loud voices clear away delusions); they are traditionally believed to have power over the sea, floods and storms. In Buddhism, dragons serve as the protectors of the Buddha and also guard the temple. (For a more detailed and readable overview, see this site).
Daewonsa is just outside Chilpo-ri, a fishing village on every Korean tourist map because of its large sandy beach. The entrance to the complex is a barely-marked gravel driveway off a small, river-side road leading out of town. Once there, the enormous blue dragon is easily visible and accessed across a foot bridge over a small pond. The entrance is literally through the permanently open mouth of the dragon. Normally, a large, red ball hangs just inside the dragon’s teeth, and visitors must push past this to enter the winding body. (I initially thought the ball would be an ancient, hand-carved orb of sacred wood, but it’s far more practical: a painted exercise ball.) Small signs and shelves of cloth slippers remind visitors to remove their shoes before proceeding.
The first (and only) room is dazzling. On one side are shelves with hundreds of small golden Buddha statues. Small Korean signs are neatly tacked under each one and we suspect these are the names of donors to Daewonsa or perhaps monks who have served there. On the other side is a beautiful room that overlooks the rest of the complex and neighboring mountains. Given the empty floor and stacks of cushions, this space appears to be for meditation or meetings. I love the contrast of the ancient architecture and artifacts with the practical touches of a fire extinguisher, sound system, and even silly slippers.
Leaving this room via a narrow staircase take visitors further up the mountain. Dozens of paper lotus lanterns hang from the ceiling along the narrow, gently-lit tunnel; statues and paintings about Buddha’s life line the walls. Visitors with no knowledge of Buddhism can understand the main events and ideas.
Occasional small windows offer a breeze on warm days and relieve a sense of claustrophobia. A few more staircases gradually bring visitors further up the mountain and end at the dragon’s tail. Here, a small alter is graced by a child-sized, seated golden Buddha; candles; and a donation box.
After exiting the dragon (retracing our steps back to the mouth) we enjoy taking the path up to the small temple itself. The rocks on the hillside hold numerous interesting statues of the Buddha and others, which are easier to see in the winter than amid the summer greenery. The path follows the dragon for many meters, and I enjoy the carefully painted “scales.” Once at the temple, the view of the lush river valley is stunning in all seasons, and the temple is meticulously painted in the traditional styles and colors. In the eaves, numerous carved dragon heads appear to be keeping watch.
This one-of-a-kind museum is an interesting (and crowd-free) place to spend an hour or two while visiting the beach, exploring the local petroglyphs, or driving along the coast. Our visitors have been uniformly delighted and awed with the mystery and education of the Dragon Temple.
Dragon (Daewonsa) Temple
Admission & Parking: free
Location: About 15km north of Pohang (route 20 along the East Sea)
Address: 608 Chilpo-ri, Buk-gu, Pohang, Gyeongsangbuk-do
GPS Coordinates: 36.147224, 129.393660
Directions: From Chilpo (Pine) Beach, head north to Chilpo-ri. Turn inland immediately after the bridge over the small river and drive about 200 meters. The entrance is on the right, marked by an upright rock.
There are two bus options from Pohang:
Take the 500 from the bus terminal and transfer at Heunghae to a bus to Chilpo (there are no bus numbers for these buses); Chilpo-bound buses leave at these time: 7:20, 8:55, 10:05, 11:15, 12:15, 13:35, 14:30, 15:10 and 16:35.
The 510 bus (bound for Chilpo) is reputed to change routes without notice and is not the best option.
An earlier version of this post was published on Sherri’s personal website on July 26, 2013; she has allowed us to republish is here with permission.