Jogyesa 조계사 and Jongmyo 종묘 – a spiritual side of Seoul

When it comes to religion, South Korea is largely Buddhist – I’d had enough of grand Joseon Dynasty palaces with Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, so I thought I’d see a more spiritual side of Seoul at the tail end of my trip by heading to Jogyesa Temple and Jongmyo Shrine.

I had planned to head out to Suwon to visit Hwaseong fortress, a UNESCO world cultural heritage site about an hour away from Seoul, but it was pretty rainy, so I decided to stay in the city instead. Also, I realised I knew very little about religion in Seoul, though I had spotted a Cathedral in Myeongdong and a Mosque in Itaewon.

Jogyesa Temple 조계사

Jogyesa is tone of the most important temples in Korean Buddhism, and is the head temple of the Jogye Order. It’s a little oasis of zen that sits right in the middle of downtown Seoul, in the Jongno district near the cultural area Insadong.

Seoul Jogyesa Praying
I didn’t want to take photos inside when everyone else was praying

It’s still a working temple, so I didn’t want to take pictures inside, but there weren’t that many tourists milling around when I was there. I headed into the little tourist office to pick up a brochure or 2 and encountered a pretty friendly tour guide, who took some time out to show me around the place on a one-on-one tour.

Seoul Jogyesa Latticework
Seoul Jogyesa Latticework

It’s home to some cultural treasures – look out for the giant Lacebark Pine tree and the Chinese Scholar tree, both over 500 years old, as well as the main dharma hall Daeungjeon which is the largest in Seoul. I loved the colourful lattices all over the temple.

What I didn’t get a chance to do that sounded like a great opportunity for immersion was to do a temple stay. I’m not religious at all, but it might be an interesting way to really understand Buddhism and the whole culture better. Jogyesa has a pretty good Temple Stay programme catered towards the English speaking crowd, so something worth exploring if you are keen.

Information

  • Hours: 24 hrs, but main hall is open from 4am – 9pm
  • Admission: Free!
  • Check out their official website here

Central Buddhism Museum

After that I headed to the Central Buddhism Museum which is right next door to the temple, and  encountered this wonderful Ajuma (little old lady), who spoke really good english and led a fascinating life as the wife of a diplomat that took her all over the world. The museum was pretty deserted that afternoon so we had the place mostly to ourselves as she brought be around to look at the exhibits.

It might have been boring if I was walking around on my own – I probably would have gotten through it in 10 mins or so, but having a guide sure made it a lot more engaging, even if some of our more interesting conversations were not about the exhibits. Some things I did take away though – the meaning of symbols in Buddhism (circle for the sky, square for the earth, triangle for people) and how Buddhism came about in the first place.

Seoul Jogyesa Buddhism Museum
Ok I hardly took pix because it was pretty dark

What I didn’t get a chance to do that sounded like a great opportunity for immersion was to do a temple stay. I suspect that given that I don’t eat vegetables that would be a real challenge, but it might have been a really interesting way to really understand Buddhism and the whole culture better.

Do check out the building opposite the main entrance across the road for more information! It’s a whole building dedicated to the Temple stay program.

Information

  • Hours: 9am – 5pm (dec – feb), 6pm (mar – nov)
  • Closed on Monday
  • Admission: 2,000 won
  • Check out their official website here

Jongmyo Shrine 종묘

Jongmyo Shrine was the main memorial site for dead ancient Kings and other royalty during the Joseon Dynasty, and while I didn’t get to Suwon, I did get my UNESCO Heritage fill here as it is known for the Joseon Jaerye, a traditional worship ritual that is still staged with music and dance every year.

Seoul Jongmyo Path
The raised central path for the spirits, and the side lanes for royalty

I took a guided tour of this royal ancestral shrine and the vibe here is definitely quite different from that of the palaces – a peaceful, almost austere air compared to the opulence and buzz of the palaces. I was intrigued by the pathways and doors, designated separately for the King, spirits and people. There is a lot of meaning into the facing of the buildings and the significance of each of the carvings.

Information

  • Hours: 9am – 5.30pm (nov – jan), 6pm (feb – oct)
  • Closed on Tuesday
  • Admission: 1,000 won
  • Check out their official website here

Read more of my posts on Seoul, or check out other parts of South Korea to visit.

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