The remote Buddhist temples that dot South Korea's serene, mountainous landscape once served as bulwarks, manned by warrior monks, against incursions from outside the country's borders. Today's foreign visitors can explore their inner spheres, and less aggressive physical pursuits, at a selection of these historical monasteries, thanks to the Korea Tourism Organization's Templestay program.
Some 24 monasteries across South Korea participate, offering cultural, active and spiritual programs, coupled with stays of one or two nights, to visitors of all faiths or none.
The monasteries formally launched Templestay in cooperation with the KTO in 2002, on the heels of the country's joint co-hosting with Japan of the 2002 World Cup soccer championships.
Under the program, volunteers shepherd visitors through the rites and rhythms of temple life, Buddhist philosophy, vegetarian meals and nature-based activities. Many volunteers speak English fluently.
According to Deok Hyun Jo, director of the KTO's Chicago office, there is a wide variety of Templestay programs, ranging from relaxation-oriented visits to vigorous explorations of Buddhist and Korean culture and eco-sensitive, "green" temple stays.
"As most of the temples are located in mountainous areas with diverse ecological systems, people can go and explore their diverse [flora and fauna]," he said.
Jo expects the program to expand even further in size and scope in coming years. "Templestay has become very popular with Koreans themselves, and now it's becoming more popular with foreign tourists, particularly those from Europe," he said.
In the U.S., the KTO has focused its Templestay marketing efforts on student groups and practitioners of tae kwon do, a popular Korean martial art.
"There are also many [higher education} student groups, such as [people studying for] MBAs and EMBAs," he added. "The average size of the student groups is 20 to 50 people, and that's the perfect size for a temple stay."
The KTO is reaching out to U.S. travel retailers, as well, as growth in U.S. visitors slows. About 630,000 Americans are projected to visit South Korea in 2009, a 3% increase over 2008. "The growth had been 5% to 6% per year, but because of the economic situation, the increase will be less this year," said Jo.
Templestay day by day
My own recent Templestay visit at the Woljeongsa Temple, in Odaesan National Park near South Korea's eastern coast, included guided hikes, tea ceremonies, temple rites, yoga and meditation.
A complex of richly ornamented temples, shrines and antique monuments, Woljeongsa was founded in 645 by a Zen monk to house relics of the Buddha himself. Today, Woljeongsa serves as head temple of the Jogye Order of Buddhist monks and nuns. Its stone pagoda and statue of a bodhisattva (Buddhist saint) are considered national treasures.
The accommodations aren't half-bad, either. My sleeping quarters, complete with heated floor, sleeping mats and private shower and bath, were spartan but clean and cozy. Upon arrival, I was furnished with slippers and the quilted, saffron-colored uniform I would wear for the duration of my visit (fresh uniforms are furnished on request). The vegetarian meals proved tasty, if a bit repetitive.
On my first day, I was given the honor of helping a monk, or seunim, ring a huge temple bell. I also embarked on 45 minutes of "108 Bows for Harmonious Life" (as rigorous as it sounds) and chanted during evening rites in the Buddha Hall. Lights-out came at 9:30 p.m.
My second day at Woljeongsa dawned before sunrise, with a 4:30 a.m. ceremony back in the Buddha Hall, then an hour of yoga and meditation before a vegetarian breakfast at 6 a.m. After a two-hour, group nature walk, there was a post-hike break for green tea, fruits and cakes. My visit ended with a brief tour of the temple museum.