Jirisan National Park (지리산국립공원) is South Korea’s first designated national park, established in 1967. It is one of the largest national parks in South Korea, spanning across three provinces. The site of ten Buddhist temples, it is also one of the largest tracks of virgin forest in the country, owing to the reverence of mountains in Buddhist culture. As a result, Jirisan is home to many plant and animal species that are not found elsewhere in South Korea, including the rare Asiatic black bear, more commonly called the “moon bear.”
For a park this size, there are numerous entrances to choose from. Melanie and I decided to take a bus to the city of Gurye (구례), where we would access Jirisan via the Hwaeomsa Temple (화엄사). Hwaeomsa is one of the ten most famous Buddhist temples in South Korea, and is home to eight national treasures of Korea. From Gwangju, take a bus from U+ Square Terminal to Gurye. Buses leave about every thirty or forty minutes, and a one-way ticket will cost around 7,000 won. The trip will take an hour and a half. Once in Gurye, there is a shuttle that leaves for Hwaeomsa Temple every twenty minutes. You can also get a taxi for about 9,000 won.
It was an overcast day, but there wouldn’t be any rain and temperatures would be a nice and cool 25°C (77°F). We arrived at the Hwaeomsa Temple, and were literally blown away. This was the first real Buddhist temple we had been to, with the exception of Haedong Yonggungsa in Busan (see that post here). Immediately I was struck by how quiet and reverent the place was. We had arrived at around 10:30am, but there were only a few dozen other people walking the grounds of the temple. We’re both used to hiking trails, temples, and virtually any other attraction being swamped with people by 10am, so this was a very nice surprise. The temple itself was built in 544 CE during the Shilla Dynasty, but was destroyed during the Seven Year War in the 1590s, and was rebuilt sometime thereafter. As a North American, it still gets me to see buildings and structures that have stood in one form or another for centuries longer than my own country has even existed.
There is an active monastery at the site, and we saw many Buddhist monks and visitors on “temple stays” walking through the grounds in traditional Buddhist robes. In two of the shrines, ceremonies were taking place and throughout the temple we could hear beautiful chanting. It was very serene, for lack of a better description. Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I’ll let them do the storytelling:
In addition to the chanting of Buddhist monks, I heard two Daurian redstarts calling out their territories on the grounds of the temple. Near the Iljumun Gate entrance, there was also an Indian cuckoo calling repeatedly. This would have been a lifer for Melanie had we been able to see it. We spent nearly forty minutes touring the temple grounds, so we decided to grab a quick bite to eat before beginning our hike up Mt. Jirisan. There is a small gift shop near the Hwaeomsa Temple entrance, where we bought some Ramen noodles. They also served a variety of coffees, but the last thing we needed before hiking a mountain was a hot drink. It was at this gift shop that I found a dead mukade, or Japanese giant centipede (Scolopendra subspinipes japonica). These enormous centipedes are not lethal, but can cause extremely painful stings requiring medical attention. Fortunately they are not very common in the cities of Korea, but can be found out in the countryside, especially during the rainy season. The dead mukade was not particularly large by mukade standards, only a few centimeters; I hope I never run into a full-grown mukade.
Our stomachs full, we began our ascent of Jirisan. We came across several singing eastern crowned leaf-warblers, and managed to pick a few out among the branches. These small birds were lifers for Melanie. Our trail followed a large stream coming down from the peaks, which was one of the reasons I had chosen to come to this particular part of Jirisan. It wasn’t long before we found what we had come all this way for. An opening in the trail revealed a tranquil view of the river, and hopping from rock to rock near the water was a brown dipper!
Brown dippers are unusual birds, and I had planned this trip to Jirisan for the sole purpose of finding one. They live and breed along rocky rivers and streams, especially in the mountains. They are also one of the few passerines capable of swimming. They appear to be about robin-sized, but with a short, stocky appearance. Occasionally they will cock their tails, giving them a wren-like silhouette. Our view was short, as the dipper flew further upstream once it realized we had spotted it, but there was no mistaking this bird.
As John “Hannibal” Smith from The A-Team would have said, “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Our prize bird found, we continued up the mountain. The dipper wouldn’t be the only lifer for the day, however, and shortly after finding the dipper we heard the distinct call of a lesser cuckoo somewhere in the forest. The bird was flying high over the canopy, calling out a large territory, and through the branches I managed to get the briefest of looks. Unfortunately Melanie was not so lucky, so she won’t be able to count this one. Along this same trail we also found a few more Daurian redstarts, a Japanese bush-warbler, two grey wagtails, a large-billed crow, and a plethora of chickadees, including coal tits, Japanese tits, and varied tits. After about an hour’s hike, with several breaks by the stream, we came to a fork in the trail, and one of the strangest sign posts I’ve yet to find in South Korea.
Well, if you’ve walked all this way and see a sign for a cafe, it would just be rude not to check it out. The cafe was surprisingly swanky for being located near a Buddhist hermitage. The menu was tailored towards beverages, with a selection of coffees and teas, both hot and cold. We opted for two sandwiches, which really hit the spot. Prices were a tad on the expensive side, with the average being 4,500 to 6,000 won for an item. Still, I’ve hiked a lot of trails and mountains, and it is a rare thing to find a full-service restaurant on the middle of a trail.
Further up the road from the cafe was the Yeongiam Hermitage (연기암). The Hermitage is home to the Manjusri, a 13m high statue commission by the Buddhist monk Manhae in 2008. The Manjusri is the chief Bodhisattva, and is one of the most worshipped Bodhisattva in Korea since the Three Kingdoms Period. The Hermitage rests in an opening in the forest, providing a beautiful view of the Hwaeomsa Valley and the surrounding mountains.
The Hermitage seemed to be a meeting place for cuckoos as well: we heard the calls of common, Indian, and lesser cuckoos all around the area. A pair of Japanese tits had put a nest under the awning of one of the buildings, and the chirps of small chicks could be heard whenever the adults arrived with freshly-caught insects. Continuing up the mountain from Yeongiam, we found a male blue-and-white flycatcher and an Asian stubtail. The stubtail is a member of the bush-warbler family Cettidae, and has a high pitched, insect-like call, that can easily be overlooked in the forest. We discovered that Melanie can’t really hear the stubtail’s call; at least, it is not as obvious to her as it is to me, even when the bird is close by or in view. I’ve heard of this before, where a bird’s call is simply out of the audible range of certain people. This can happen with North American species like blackpoll warbler and grasshopper sparrow.
We stopped one last time by the stream, while we debated the pros and cons of continuing up the mountain. It was a serendipitous rest stop, for we found a pair of brown dippers and a female grey wagtail nearby. Judging by their behavior, I imagine the dippers have a nest nearby, or may be building one. Certainly the site is perfect for them.
After enjoying watching the dippers, we decided to turn back and return to the Hwaeomsa Temple. The hike back down the mountain was uneventful, with no new species found along the way. All told we spent nearly eight hours hiking, and barely scratched the surface of Jirisan National Park. I was really impressed with the park, both for the beautiful temples and landscape, as well as the great hiking trails and small crowd sizes. If you can only make it to one national park in South Korea, make it Jirisan.