Hyangiram Hermitage – 향일암 (Yeosu, Jeollanam-do)
The coastal temple of Hyangiram Hermitage is located on the very southern tip of Dolsan-do Island in Yeosu, Jeollanam-do. Hyangiram Hermitage is perched in and among the cracks, crags and crevices of Mt. Geumosan (320.8m), which means “Iron Turtle Mountain,” in English. The hermitage was first founded in 644 A.D. by the famed monk Wonhyo-daesa (617-686 A.D.). It was here, at Hyangiram Hermitage, that Wonhyo-daesa had a vision of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). Another interesting story pertaining to Wonhyo-daesa relates to a rock called Gyeongjeon-bawi, or “Buddhist Scripture Rock,” in English. This rock is precariously placed on top of other rocks to the rear of the Hyangiram Hermitage grounds. When Wonhyo-daesa was preparing to leave Hyangiram Hermitage after his ascetic practices were complete, he realized that he had just too many Buddhist scriptures to travel with. So Wonhyo-daesa threw the texts into the air, and they became Gyeongjeon-bawi. For safety reasons, the rock is now off-limits to travelers, but you can still see them from a safe distance.
Originally, the temple was called Wontongam Hermitage until the monk Yunpil changed the name of the hermitage to Geumoam Hermitage in 950 A.D. while studying here. In 1592, the entire hermitage was destroyed by fire by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-98). The hermitage was used as a base for the Righteous Army (warrior monks) that helped Admiral Yi Sun-sin fight against the Japanese. In 1715, the hermitage was rebuilt by the monk Inmuk-daesa. It was also at this time that the hermitage was renamed Hyangiram Hermitage, which means “Looking Out at the Sun Hermitage,” in English, after Inmuk-daesa was mesmerized by the sunrise. Tragically, Hyangiram Hermitage’s main hall and bell pavilion were completely destroyed by fire in 2009. Fortunately, the rest of the hermitage was spared from the flame, and the main hall and hermitage bell pavilion were rebuilt in more recent years. Hyangiram Hermitage, alongside three other hermitages like the neighbouring Boriam Hermitage in Namhae, Gyeongsangnam-do, Hongryeonam Temple at Naksansa Temple in Yangyang, Gangwon-do, and Bomunam Hermitage in Ganghwa-do in Incheon are four holy sites for the worship of Gwanseeum-bosal.
You first approach Hyangiram Hermitage past a large collection of stores and restaurants. About halfway up the mountain, you’ll come to the hermitage’s ticket booth. After paying your 2,000 won, you can either head left towards the elevated Iljumun Gate which stands upon a steep set of stone stairs, or you could head right up a road that the Hyangiram Hermitage monks use for their vehicles to get in and out of the hermitage. Personally, I picked the more scenic path that leads to the left.
So past the large turtle based stele, or “biseok,” in Korean, head up the zig-zagging trail until you reach the outskirts of the hermitage grounds. Just outside the hermitage grounds, you’ll have another choice to make. You can either head right towards the Samseong-gak Hall, or you can continue on your journey towards the left and towards the main hall.
You’ll now need to squeeze your way through the narrow openings in the Mt. Geumosan’s stony folds and up a flight of stairs carved from the mountain’s rocky surface. In total, there are seven caves or crevices at Hyangiram Hermitage. And it’s said that if you pass through all seven at the hermitage that at least one of your wishes will come true. It’s only after appearing on the other side of these naturally occurring obstacles that you get your first great view of the South Sea from the hermitage’s main courtyard. And it’s breath-taking. You also get a great view of the numerous tiny islands that dot the expansive horizon, as well as the neighbouring harbour.
Behind you, as you stare across the South Sea, is the newly rebuilt Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the main hall are adorned with a beautiful set of Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life) murals. They’re joined by a collection of phoenixes and Zodiac Generals that line the eaves of the shrine hall. Stepping inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll be greeted by a triad of statues that’s centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This statue is joined on either side by Gwanseeum-bosal and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
To the right of the main hall, and up a small set of stone stairs, is the Samseong-gak Hall. Again, from this elevated vantage point, you get an amazing view of the horizon and the South Sea. Inside this shaman shrine hall, you’ll find a pair of haunting murals. One is dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint) and the other is dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit).
To the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall, on the other hand, and past the newly rebuilt hermitage bell pavilion, are a set of stairs that lead you to the rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall. It’s through an opening in the mountain’s face, and up another set of stairs situated in the centre of a crevice, that you finally come to the Gwaneum-jeon Hall at Hyangiram Hermitage. Sitting all alone on the main altar, and backed by a simple black mural of herself, is a rather small and seated image of The Bodhisattva of Compassion. To the left of this hall stands a three metre tall stone statue dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal. Yet another great view of the sea awaits you from this vantage point. It’s also from these heights that you can see a rocky outcropping with the name of Wonhyo-daesa written on it in Korean. It’s called “Jwaseon-dae,” in Korean. It’s from here, purportedly, that Wonhyo-daesa also enjoyed the very same amazing view that you’re now enjoying. People also attempt to land coins on this rock with a throw so that their dreams can come true.
Admission to the hermitage is 2,000 won.
How To Get There
To get to Hyangiram Hermitage, you’ll first need to get to the city of Yeosu, where the hermitage is located. To get to Hyangiram Hermitage, it’ll take you the better part of the day to travel to this sacred Buddhist hermitage. From the Yeosu Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to cross the road and take Bus #111 or Bus #113 to get to the Impo Bus Stop (임포 향일암). To travel this distance, it takes about an hour and a half. From the bus stop, walk one hundred metres up the road with the sea to your left. At the GS25 convenience story, hang a right and start the ascent up the mountain. Eventually, you’ll come to the entry gate where you’ll need to pay to gain entry to Hyangiram Hermitage. After that, just follow the signs the rest of the way to the seaside hermitage.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
For the view alone, Hyangiram Hermitage is well worth the effort to visit it. But when you add into the mix the narrow cracks and crevices that you need to traverse to enter the main temple courtyard, the beautiful shaman artwork, and the statue of Gwanseeum-bosal, Hyangiram Hermitage is an absolute must for a temple adventurer.