Ganghwado is the island where, according to Korean myth, the country was founded way back in 2333 BC. So the area has a long history and there are cultural artefacts dotted around the island ranging from bronze age dolmen stone tombs to castle walls built to keep foreign invaders out during the Joseon period.
In the summer, many visitors simply come to stay by the sea for a weekend getaway from Seoul. But since it’s winter, we had two sight-seeing destinations in mind for our mini trip, first a look at famous Temple Jeondeungsa followed by a drive over to the biggest dolmen in Korea – what Mr. Kim described as the “Korean Stonehenge”.
Ganghwa Island is on the west coast and part of Incheon metropolitan city. It’s joined by bridge to Gimpo City and it took us an hour to get there by car. It’s also very near the North Korean border, so the military presence is noticeable.
SANGNANG-SEONG CASTLE 삼랑성
It feels very rural on Ganghwa Island, even though it’s so close to Seoul. There’s a lot of agricultural land and the area is famous for rice, turnips, yellow sweet potatoes, and ginseng.
But we noticed a lot of construction work going on there too – large areas of open land is being turned into apartment complexes. So our car navigation kept showing that we were driving off into the middle of nowhere as we were rerouted around construction sites! Mr Kim was not amused 😕 Anyway, first we stopped at Samnangseong Castle 삼랑성 where the temple is also located.
The castle is said to have first been built by Dangun, the founding father of Korea (then known as Old Joseon) and his three sons. Later the government built an archive here to store Royal chronicles. Then in the late Joseon period Ganghwado was an important military base to defend the capital from invaders. First came the French, followed by Americans and then by the Japanese when finally Joseon was pushed to sign the Treaty of Ganghwa and open the country’s doors to foreign trade in 1876.
So if you aren’t familiar with the legend of how the country was founded, here’s the story in a nutshell. The God Hwanung wanted to live on Earth, so he came down to Mount Taebaeksan (now the border of North Korea) and built a city named Shinshi, City of God. A tiger and a bear wanted to become human so they prayed to Hwanung who agreed to grant their wish if they stayed out of the sun for 100 days and lived on mugwort and 20 cloves of garlic.
So they stayed in a cave and tried to complete the task. But the tiger soon gave up. The bear managed to complete the 100 days and became human – a woman. But she couldn’t find a husband and wanted children, so Hwanung took her as his wife and they had a son – Dangun. Dangun founded Gojoseon (Ancient Joseon) in 2333 BC.
JEONDEUNGASA DAEUNGJEON Treasure No. 178
Past the castle walls we arrive in the temple complex. Although the temple site dates back to the year 372, the wooden buildings have had to be rebuilt several times. This building was rebuilt in 1621 during Gwanghaegun’s reign and looks older than the others. The paint is more faded. And the famous point here is a carving at the top of a column. (above)
This could be a carving of a monkey, carved for protection or good luck – since monkeys appear quite a bit in Buddhism. But legend has it that this is a naked woman – a carpenter is said to have made the carving of the woman who broke his heart. He wanted to make her suffer. I can’t help but ask …if this really is the case, is it appropriate for a temple?
I did like these little Buddhas by the drinking water. (above) And the heated carpet for the monks to sit on when they are chanting (below left) suggests that there’s no underfloor ondol heating in these buildings!
It’s not unusual to see ATM machines at temples. But I like how this ATM machine, soft drinks and coffee vending machine have been camouflaged in a temple-esque structure!
Ironically, my favourite part of the temple complex, with all its history, was the new contemporary temple that has been built in a very modern and simple style (designed, I believe, by a professor from Honik University). The outside (below) blends in with the environment and reminds me of castle walls.
But the inside is so fabulously modern. Anyone can take their shoes off and step up into the large open area, grab a cushion, and worship. I could have stayed here for ages just taking in the calm atmosphere – if it was nearer my house, I’d be here all the time. Temples can start to look a bit samey after you’ve been to a few, but this one was so different. I was taken by surprise. It was unusual in a good way and really worth a visit.
After the temple, it was off to see the Korean Stonehenge. We had to drive through the centre of town which is, well, pretty ugly. It’s just a long drag of low-key shops and overground electric cables on either side of a multi-lane road.
However, ginseng is famous in this area so as well as several ginseng outlets, there are stalls dotted along the street selling ginseng makkoli. (and large tubs of kimchi!) We stopped at a stall to get some -5,000 won per bottle. We didn’t even have to get out of the car as the stall keeper came right over when we stopped. As well as ginseng, other medicinal herbs such as wormwood are grown here – thanks to the granite soil and salty wind – and we passed several medicine centres along the way too.
DOLMEN 고인돌 goindol ‘supporting stone’
The dolmen (a portal tomb made of two supporting stones with one flatish one across the top) stands alone in a large closed-off piece of land next to Ganghwa museum. The walk from the car park to the dolmen is dotted with some cement replicas of other famous dolmens and rocks. There’s a replica of Stonehenge too. (below below)
Since it’s not known who made the dolmens, or when or why they were made, there’s not much information to read about them so all we could do was stand and marvel at it. As adults, that’s all we could do, anyway. But a couple of kids came charging up the path and, without stopping, leapt over the fence, straight through the gap between the supporting stones, without even lowering their heads or squatting, and out the other side before climbing over the fence on the opposite side and running off! It’s fun being a kid.
This dolmen is the biggest in South Korea. Apparently, the largest concentration of dolmens in the world is found in Korea. (according to wiki there are 35,000 here – 40% or the world’s total!) And Ganghwa is one of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (along with Gochang and Hwasun). There’s not loads to see here, but if you’re in the neighbourhood, it’s certainly worth a visit.