Walking around the parameter of the former temple, it’s hard to see that this was a building built by Japanese people living in Korea. Upon closer inspection, we found this architectural detail. This is not something you would see built by Koreans.
Besides this detail, everything else around the building had been remodeled to look modern. We would find other clues that this was an old building as we made our way to the altar room. Me and Mr. Urbexpat had to step gingerly on the wooden entryway. I’d already fallen through decaying wooden structured before. I’ didn’t want to do that again.
Safely making it to the altar room, we found that it had been used as a Korean Buddhist temple until 2014. There was a stack of advertisements with a picture of the former residing monk. He was advertised as an expert in pungsu (풍수 風水 ) or what in the West, is known as feng shui or geomancy. Pungsu is the practice of arranging human-made structures to harmonize with the given environment. The auspicious location chosen will supposedly bring peace and prosperity to the resident. Even today, people consult “experts” to find the right spot to build their funeral mound, temple, or also home. While many Korean people with a modern outlook, write off traditional practices like pungsu and musok (shamanism 무속 巫俗) as “witchcraft” and “superstition,” there is still a demand for it. Shamans and pungsu experts can make a good living.
Inside the altar room, we found the space still decorated with hanging lotuses, banners were written with hanja (한자 漢字) and Sanskrit, and dancheong (단청 丹靑) wallpaper. Unfortunately, my knowledge of hanja is minimal, so I could not wholly translate, but the namu (南無) part means taking refuge. I can recognize when it invoking various buddhas, but couldn’t find any. Maybe they were taken down in the move?
I’m not an architecture expert by any means, but the altar room did not resemble a Korean building. Trust me, if you have been to Japan, you would see for yourself that it was Japanese in style. It was boxy and compartmentalized, like the buildings I have explored while living in Japan.
Despite efforts to modernize the old temple, this building shows it’s colonial roots. The previous residents tried their best to Koreanize the interior with dancheong and hangeul (한글) wallpaper and upgrade the exterior to look like a jutaek from the 1970’s or ’80s. I’m not going to theorize the people’s motives for renovation. Discussing Japanese colonialism is a sensitive subject, and I don’t think this is the time and place to do so. However, I know the Jeolla Provinces have a lot of colonial buildings still being occupied and used today. Nate Kornegay has a beautiful and informative website dedicated to the architecture of the era, check it out here.
In the meantime, I will leave you with pictures of the stupas (승탑) covered in dead vines.