SONGNISAN NATIONAL PARK (속리산 국립 공원) is justly one of the most popular parks in Korea, partly owing to its position in the centre of the country, but also thanks to its temple and the visually arresting 33m-high bronze Buddha, the tallest such figure in the world. Songnisan’s myriad trails are a joy to hike, the paths winding uphill alongside gentle streams to heady 1000m-high peaks, but though the park’s name translates as “mountains far from the ordinary world”, the area between the bus terminal and the main park entrance couldn’t be more typical of a Korean tourist hotspot, with more souvenir shops, restaurants and karaoke rooms than you’d expect to find in the midst of such tranquil environs.
Inside the park, a short, shaded path leads to the park’s main draw – the glorious temple Beopjusa (법주사). Entirely surrounded by pine and peaks, its name means – somewhat tautologically – “the temple where Buddhist teachings reside”, and indeed it has been an active place of worship and religious study since built in 653. Standing with his back to the west (the direction of his death), the huge bronze Buddha statue stands atop an underground hall housing hundreds of figurines, including a rather splendid golden goddess of compassion. Back outside and facing the statue is Palsangjeon (팔상전), an unconventional five-storey building that, despite a rather squat appearance fostered by the shallow lattice windows, is also the tallest wooden structure in Korea. As with all Korean temple halls bearing this name, it contains eight painted murals depicting various stages from the life of the Buddha; however, this is likely to be the oldest such building in the land. Nearby are two elaborately decorated stone lanterns; two lions hold up the torch segment on one (though the flames have long been extinguished), while the other is adorned with four carved devas and a statue of a bodhisattva. This deity incarnate once held an incense burner until he was consumed by fire, presumably reaching nirvana during his show of determination.