High above Seoul, nestled among the rocky crags of the city’s western mountain peak sits a shamanist shrine that remains off the typical tourist track of South Korea’s capital.
The Guksadang shrine and the surrounding complex on Mt. Inwang-san offers views of Seoul that are unsurpassed — if you are willing to be a little adventurous – HI Travel Tales’ mantra of course. Directions and information are sparse, and you better have on your walking shoes and climbing legs since the hike up the winding streets from the subway station and, finally, up the beyond-steep entry to the shrines will take your breath away. Yes, literally.
Guksadang: most famous shamanist shrine
This is Seoul’s most famous shamanist shrine, which was originally built in 1395 atop Mt. Namsan to the south where the Seoul Tower now is. It was demolished by the Japanese in 1925. But the Korean shamanists didn’t let a small thing like demolishment hold them back and off they went to the peak across the way, rebuilding there, just outside what was the old Seoul City Wall.
The Guksadang shrine complex indeed feels spiritual, with rustic altars here and there among the rocks above the building – where the spirits of King Taejo, who is the founder of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1920), are said to be housed. If you are lucky, you may hear chanting, the giant bell in a wood pavilion ringing, or you may simply have the beauty of silence in admiring the temple and the various sacred rock outcroppings. Hope the temple is open so you can peek in – but do NOT go in. The rocks include the “crouching tiger,” to the left when looking up the hill, and his seated master, the “Benevolent King,” to the right.
At Guksadang shrine, HI Travel Tales had the honor of bumping into one of the experts on this shrine, expat and professor David Mason who has written books on the topic and gives guided tours of area mountains and temples. Visit Mason’s website for even more detailed photos and descriptions. Click here for information on Inwang-san and the Guksadang shrine.
Access old Seoul City Wall from Guksadang shrine
Don’t stop at the buildings, however; like the locals do, continue up the trails winding among the rocks (good shoes please!) for some of the best views of Seoul. You can even continue up and access the old City Wall and walk along it, past guard stations. Be sure to have your passport … just in case … since there are indeed armed guards on the upper areas because of the omnipresent threat from North Korea not too far to the north.
Don’t relay on directions you find on one of the few official tourist sites that even mentions this area. Unfortunately, they are quite outdated. And you won’t find this northern area on most tourist maps in any kind of detail.
HI Travel Tales’ directions to Guksadang Shrine:
- Take Line 3 to the Dongminnun Station.
- Leave the station using Exit 2.
- Walk back in the travel direction of the subway and turn a sharp left at the first street. Believe us, please, although it looks more like an alley. You will feel as if you are walking back the way you came – which you are somewhat.
- Keep going UP.
- Soon you will see a larger street called “Tongil-ro” that you can access by going up a short flight of stairs or going around. At this point, you may see some signs on street poles (this is a pretty new area of town).
- Keep going UP to the end of Tongil-ro, which dead ends at the temple gate. At this point, it gets so steep you may wish for a rope tow.
- Feeling unsure? Ask anybody by simply pointing up and saying “Guksadang” or “Inwangsan.” They will likely smile and point.
Then just start exploring!