When I get off at the Dongnimmun subway station, wet snow is coming down from an intense grey sky. I walk inside a narrow street, leaving the busy main street behind me, and walk up steep stairs, passing some modern apartment blocks, until I reach a big painted gate. This is the entrance to Inwangsan, the Benevolent King mountain, a sacred place and the most prominent area for shamanism in South Korea. Stairs on the left are flanked by houses with brightly painted murals, depicting a tiger and several holy-looking heads. Walking up brings me to a cluster of older houses and temples. I walk the narrow winding streets, to find that all those little temples are locked. I walk to the back of one, thinking I will find a way in, and find myself at a locked passage. A barking dog approaches, so I retrace my steps. Close by, I find a large Buddha statue with what seem like three temples stacked on its head.
From here, I retrace my steps, and then go higher up. Walking up stairs takes me to Seonbawi Rock, or Zen rock, which is a naturally human-shaped volcanic rock. It is a sacred place, and the rocks are much worshipped. Some say they resemble a monk, or two monks, or a couple, or even Buddha. I stand in a corner, watching Koreans walk up the stairs with bulky backpacks which they depose on the painted wooden floor. Just as I wonder why they would carry these backpacks and what is inside them, they open the bags, and place the contents on the floor and next to what looks like an altar. There are big apples, candles, and other items. The visitors say prayers, bending their heads towards the rock, while pigeons come down to the food. From Seonbawi rock, I walk up the mountain, past another small temple, and over boulders and rocks, until I see the tree-covered mountain ahead of me, with vertical rock formations on top. The highest one is the Benevolent King.
There are small shrines, sometimes a candle in an opening in the rock, sometimes a small space with candles over a source. I hear murmuring, and see a couple in prayer in front of a small yong-wan shrine, dragon king over the waters, at one of the many water sources on the slopes of Inwangsan. Following a clear path, I get to an opening in the woods, where I see a woman frantically waving flags in both her hands. When I get closer, I get to another group of rock formations with a wide view over the landscape below. A thin layer of snow on the rocks gives the place a wintery feel. The woman sits down next to the other items the brought: small swords, a fan, a red-and-yellow cord, golden bells, a can of softdrink. She is immersed in a deep contemplation when I walk away. It is snowing constantly as I make my way up the wall that meanders over Inwangsan, and make it to the top of the mountain. The clouds are so thick, there are hardly any views, so I make my way down again. Even the big Seonam-sa temple turns out to be closed. A big bell stands right in front of it. The casual visitor is excluded, which only adds to the fascination of this sacred spot.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Inwangsan (South Korea). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Inwangsan. Read more about this site.