Exploring Guinsa Temple and Nirvana Palace, Danyang

Guinsa temple was high on my list of things to see on my trip to South Korea. The headquarters of the Cheontae Order of Korean Buddhism is one of the most striking temple complexes in Korea and after reading about it, I just had to check it out! Located near the small town of Danyang, it’s also a little off-the-beaten-path which definitely suited me!


Exploring Guinsa Temple and Nirvana Palace, Danyang

History of Guinsa temple

Despite its ornate buildings, I was surprised to learn that Guinsa was completed as recently as 1966! Its founder, Sangwol Wongak, was a monk who built the temple after receiving a revelation. This, in turn, led to the resurrection of the almost-forgotten Cheontae Order of Korean Buddhism. Sangwol Wongak became its leader and is celebrated throughout Guinsa to this day even after his death.

Living quarters - Guinsa
Some of the living quarters in Guinsa

Getting to Guinsa 

Guinsa is about 30 minutes from the town of Danyang which is about 150 kilometres from Seoul. There is a direct bus service that leaves  for the temple from Danyang Intercity Bus Terminal right in the centre of town. This is also how most visitors will arrive in Danyang with regular buses to and from Seoul and other major cities.  Inside the station building is a small tourist office and staff can help you with a map of the area and bus timetables for Guinsa and other sights in the area.

When the bus arrived, it had “Guinsa” written on a small board in English so you’ll definitely know when the right one comes along. You can grab snacks in one of the marts opposite the station as options at Guinsa are limited. The bus passes some beautiful scenery with mountains and lush forests coming into view zigzagging its way up Sobaeksan Mountain towards the temple.

Ticket - Guinsa
A ticket from Guinsa to Danyang
Scenery - Guinsa
Beautiful views on the journey to Guinsa

Guinsa temple gates

Once off the bus, I headed up the steep hill towards the temple itself. Before I even reached the temple buildings, there are two impressive gates to pass through. After going through the small Gate of Non-Duality, I arrived at an imposing looking Gate of the Four Heavenly Kings. I couldn’t tell why it was called that until I climbed the steps to the top. Inside were four huge (and intimidating) statues placed here to help ward off evil spirits.

Gate of Non-Duality - Guinsa
Gate of Non-Duality, Guinsa
Gate of the Four Heavenly Kings - Guinsa
Gate of the Four Heavenly Kings
Guardians - Guinsa
The colourful guardians

Temple grounds

As I continued up the hill, there was plenty to see. There were prayer halls, monk and nun dorms, a great bronze bell and a pagoda resting on the backs of three elephants. It’s said to house some remains of Buddha himself! The 50+ buildings of Guinsa are surrounded by lush vegetation and walking through the complex was a relaxing and tranquil experience. I saw monks meditating, praying and going about their business.

Temple Bell Pavilion - Guinsa
The temple bell pavilion at Guinsa
Stone pagoda - Guinsa
Stone pagoda with three elephants at the base – supposedly it houses some of Buddha’s remains!
Guinsa temple complex
A view of the buildings within Guinsa temple complex

Daebeopdang Hall (Main Hall)

Eventually I reached a wide set of steps leading up to a huge modern building. This was the main hall of Guinsa, Daebeopdang Hall. It’s a pretty imposing building even if not particularly pretty, reminding me more of a conference centre than a temple! It was built in 1980 and has accommodate up to 5000 people! It’s also the largest Buddhist sanctuary in the whole of Korea.

Main Hall - Guinsa
The Main Hall of Guinsa

Daejosa-jeon (Founders Hall)

The best was yet to come and after yet more stairs (Guinsa has a LOT of stairs) I found myself in a large open area. This is where you can see one Guinsa’s most beautiful buildings – the Daejosa-jeon or the Founders Hall. The three-storied hall is guarded by two huge warrior statues and for good reason. Inside the shrine sits a statue of Sangwol Wongak, the founder of Guinsa, himself! To the right of the hall is a huge stone monument with some of the Great Monk’s teachings.

I walked to the other end of the open area and was treated to incredible views of the valley in which Guinsa sits.

Daejosa-jeon (Founders Hall) - Guinsa
Daejosa-jeon (Founders Hall)
Statue and monument - Guinsa
Warrior statue and stone monument with Buddhist teachings

Valley - Guinsa
Views of the valley below

Hiking to Nirvana Palace

I was about to head back down the steps when I saw a small sign for Nirvana Palace alongside some wooden walking sticks. Intrigued, I decided to grab one and follow the arrows. It turned out to be a mini hike! There were loads of steps which zigzagged up the mountain side through the forest. The afternoon sun was breaking through the treetops and it was warm. There weren’t many other visitors making the ascent but I did see some of the volunteers staying at the temple. Visiting the Nirvana Palace is like a rite of passage for Cheontae Buddhists because it’s the final resting place of Great Monk Sangwol!

Hiking to Nirvana Palace - Guinsa
Hiking to Nirvana Palace
Steps - Guinsa
Steps, steps everywhere

Shrine at the top of the mountain

After more steps I finally got to a small clearing at the top of the mountain. I’ve made it to Nirvana Palace! There was a raised wooden platform with a shrine and various monuments on the grass hill beyond. Devotees were paying their respects and asking for blessings in quiet prayer. I sat down on a pew facing the shrine and just contemplated for a while. Nirvana Palace is incredibly peaceful and I just listened to the sound of the trees swaying in the wind and suddenly felt incredibly relaxed and content.

I could have probably sat there for hours but I eventually got up and started my way back down the mountain. Before I did though, I walked down a small path below Nirvana Palace to another clearing which offered stunning views of the other side of the valley.

Valley views - Guinsa
Amazing views from just behind Nirvana Palace

Heading down the mountain

I started walking back towards Guinsa but this time I took a more adventurous route. Once in a while there would be gaps in the railings which allowed for shortcuts down the wild and rocky mountainside. Luckily, I managed to survive the uneven terrain and made my way back to the Founders Hall as the sun was starting to set.

Nirvana Palace hike - Guinsa
Going off-road on the way down
Valley and temple views - Guinsa
Views of the temple complex and the valley
Gardens - Guinsa
Tranquil gardens at Guinsa

I took a different route down and saw more of Guinsa’s beautiful buildings before finding myself back at the Gate of Four Heavenly Kings. I bought a ticket back to Danyang (you can’t get return tickets to Guinsa) and looked back up towards the mountain where I just came from. Making the journey here felt like an adventure but it was worth every single minute of it.


Templestay

It’s possible to spend a longer period of time in Guinsa as part of the Templestay cultural program. Visitors can stay for two or three days and experience life of a Korean Buddhist. You don’t have to be religious or have done anything like this before – it’s designed in a way that everyone can get a taste for what life is like in a temple. You will take simple meals together with monks and other visitors, can try your hand at meditation and attend chanting services. For more information, visit the official Guinsa Templestay website

5 Tips for visiting Guinsa

#1 – All visitors to Guinsa can join in during mealtimes and take simple monastic meals in the cafeteria. Mealtimes are

#2 – Bring comfortable walking shoes – it’s a hilly ascent to the Founders Hall and there are loads of stairs. This is before you even start heading up to Nirvana Palace!

#3 – There is a small shop by the car park where buses drop off and pick up visitors – this is also where you get your tickets for the journey back to Danyang

#4 – Some parts of Guinsa are off-limits such as the dormitories – look out for signs and ask if in doubt

#5 – There is a reception office (building number 8 on the Guinsa map) which has plenty of useful information about the Templestay programme and the temple itself.


The Trip

What: Guinsa temple is the headquarters of the Cheontae Order of Korean Buddhism and is one of the most striking  temple complexes in the country.

Where: Near Danyang, North Chungcheong Province, South Korea.

Getting there: There are buses every hour from Danyang Intercity Bus Terminal to Guinsa – ask for a timetable at the tourist information office inside the station building. There are also direct buses from Seoul to Guinsa from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal (Gangbyeon station, line 2, exit 4). Guinsa is about 145 kilometres away from Seoul.

Accommodation: If the popular Templestay program is booked out or you would just prefer to stay in Danyang, check out Us On Earth guesthouse. The first floor of this converted house has three comfortable rooms, a spacious living area, fully stocked kitchen and modern bathroom. It also has a huge patio with amazing views of the town and the cliffs. It’s one of the highest rated properties I’ve stayed in (9.7/10 at the time of writing). Highly recommend!

If you liked this post, check out some of my other blogs on South Korea:

Korea Travel Guide: 11 Essential Tips for First Time Visitors

8 South Korea Hiking Trails You Don’t Want To Miss

15 Reasons You Should Visit South Korea

Korea Food Guide: 15 Things to Eat and Drink in South Korea 


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29 thoughts on “Exploring Guinsa Temple and Nirvana Palace, Danyang

  1. Shona says:

    It’s surprising Guinsa Temple is such a recent build. It really reminds me of the Summer Palace in Beijing. Especially the painted ceiling in the bell pagoda, it’s similar to the ceiling in the long corridor. A few nights stay would be a very rewarding experience I think. Pinned for later.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Shona – that’s really interesting. I have never been to China but I will definitely look out for the Summer Palace. And yes, I was surprised as well that it’s so new. If they said it was build 400 years ago, I would have believed them!

  2. Elaine Masters says:

    How I’d love to do a temple stay and spend days wandering this amazing complex. So glad you checked out the Nirvana Palace and those views. Just beautiful and pristine. is there a time of year when crowds arrive?

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Elaine – I visited in May which is meant to be one of the best months to visit South Korea because the weather is glorious without being too hot (like it can get in the summer). It’s hard to tell because a lot of Chinese tourists normally go to Korea on package tours, but due to a diplomatic dispute all tours were halted. So there were hardly ANY Chinese tourists in the country. It’s possible that this contributed to it being so quiet. However I would definitely recommend May as a great month to visit!

  3. Cheryl says:

    This is such a beautiful place! I really love all the colors. It’s surprising that it is relatively new. I love hiking and this one looks like a really great one. Hard work with a great payoff. I’d love to stay over a couple nights to really experience it. #WeekendWanderlust #FeetDoTravel #TheWeeklyPostcard
    Cheryl recently posted…The Best Things to Do in Myrtle Beach with KidsMy Profile

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Cheryl – agreed – I would have loved to have spent some time actually staying at the temple and experiencing Buddhist life and customs. Definitely will try and do it next time I am in Korea

  4. Neha says:

    I love how the temple is set amidst such green and serene surroundings. And isn’t it great that you spotted the sign for Nirvana Palace, because that view is just out of this world 🙂

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Neha, I had to plan my visit quite carefully because I was on quite a tight itinerary but it worked out great and I was really happy that I made the effort to visit the temple complex because it was definitely worth the trouble!

  5. Jenn | By Land and Sea says:

    What a great place to visit, and it isn’t crowded! I think I would have taken the more adventurous route down as well. It drives me crazy when people cut through the paths and trample on vegetation like some chose to do here!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Hi Jenn – yeah it was definitely a bit more adventurous and I had to watch where I am going. It’s a shame that people don’t take care of the environment – happens everywhere sadly!

  6. Anda says:

    You make South Korea look really appealing, Lexx. I never considered visiting it, but after seeing these beautiful pictures I feel really tempted. This is a great guide for visiting Guinsa temple. Thank you for sharing it. #TheWeeklhyPostcard

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Anda – I absolutely love South Korea – it’s a very easy country to travel around, the people are friendly, the food is amazing and there is just so much to see and do! Definitely put it on your bucket list!

  7. Angie (FeetDoTravel) says:

    I would thoroughly enjoy visiting Guinsa Temple for so many reasons. I find Buddhist Temples and the way of life fascinating, and to have a chance to stay here sounds so interesting! Have pinned for later #feetdotravel

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Angie, I definitely think you would enjoy it – was a fantastic place to visit and staying there and experiencing it once all the other visitors have left would be incredible!

  8. Tracy says:

    Looks like a fantastic place to visit! The more I read about South Korea the higher it moves up my bucket list! It is now third after New Zealand and Japan !

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Tracy – all great destinations and I hope you get to visit them all soon! You are in a great part of the world to hit all of them!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Cheryl – definitely perfect for someone in tune with their spiritual side. Everything about Guinsa helps you de-stress for sure!

  9. Sina says:

    I’ve never heard of this temple but would love to go if I make it to South Korea. It looks like the hike to Nirvana Palace was so worth it – the views are amazing and it just looks so peaceful. I would definitely have sat there for hours 🙂 Thanks for sharing, I’ll put this on my list!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Sina – yes, I wish I had more time to spend there as it was so relaxing and I just loved listening to the trees swaying. Definitely try and visit if you have an opportunity!

  10. Rob+Ann @TravelLatte(.net) says:

    Wow, Lexx, the temple buildings are just stunning! We love the idea of a temple stay, and will definitely check that out if we can work in a visit to South Korea. So much of what we know (and see) of the country is the cities – it’s great to see the natural areas and temples. Thanks for sharing!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks guys – definitely try and escape the cities as there is so much to see beyond the urban sprawls. You usually don’t even need to go that far!

  11. Vicky (Spud on the Run) says:

    South Korea has been on my list of ‘want to gos’ for years now, and this post just confirms it even more! As usual, your photos are beautiful and I stared at the view from Nirvana Place for some time! Thanks for sharing with us at #feetdotravel I’ve pinned for inspiration when I FINALLY get to South Korea!

    PS: I’m glad to hear you survived the crazy route on the way back down!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thank you – there is so much to do in the country and it’s places like this that I really enjoyed visiting – not many tourists and plenty to see!

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