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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Suwangsa – A Different Sort of Temple

Korea is filled with beautiful temples. Some are famous. Some are tucked away in quiet corners of the city. Some are extravagant and have expansive grounds. Some are humble. And some have rich histories. By and large, though, most temples have the same things in common, such as similar architecture, they are well-stocked with Korean monks or nuns, and to most foreigners, seem somewhat uninviting.

Chief Monk Klaus Kamps and his wife 김성희

Suwangsa, however, is different.  How can it be different you might ask? Aren’t all temples supposed to be relatively the same and sport the same decor and motif,  just as all churches must have a brightly lit neon cross atop its spire? Aren’t all monks and nuns supposed to be a little aloof and somewhat uncommunicative, even to the foreigner who speaks a little Korean? That has been my experience with temples thus far. Until we stumbled upon Suwanga, that is.

The most significant difference is that the temple is run and was built by  German national, Klaus Kamps.  Klaus originally came to Korea as a mechanical engineer working for a German company that builds boilers. But his real calling was Buddhism and the desire to build a temple. And quite a temple it is. Brilliantly colored paintings cover nearly every wall, ceiling and column of the buildings. Extensive gardens provide greenery and fragrant smells while water features tickle the ears with splashing of water and small fish. Klaus has been building the temple since 2007 and continues to build and improve the site. In fact, he was working outside on a new structure when we arrived but he and his wife were kind and hospitable enough to stop their work to welcome us

Upon entering the grounds one can see this is no ordinary temple. A bridge over a stream (usually flowing freely but rather slow due to rice planting season) is studded with guardian statues and leads to a small hillside hosting an army of baby Buddhas…wearing tuques. Klaus informed us that this was their summer garb. In winter, the baby Buddhas cap’s are grey but they also sport wool scarves. Klaus gave us a short guided tour of his temple and explained some of the more interesting articles. Two trees out front, for example, are 600 and 400 years old, respectively. The name of the temple, Suwangsa, means “water god.”  He pointed out the various artifacts of Buddhist teachings and seems to have all the required accoutrements – the Buddhist equivalent of the red neon church cross. On the outside the temple, more paintings depict the Zodiac signs of the twelve years.  Inside, we got a tour of the altar, offices and living areas and an even deeper philosophical discussion.

The most enjoyable portion of our visit was the hospitality of Herr Kamps and his wife, Kim SeongHee. We had barely walked inside the compound and we were offered coffee at his “smoking area.” Soon we were all gathered around a small table drinking coffee and eating fresh fruit that Mrs. Kim had prepared. And from there, our discussions ranged from religion, philosophy and, the bane of every non-Korean living in this land, immigration. Klaus’s English, though sprinkled with a German accent, is perfect. SeongHee’s English, is perfectly understandable, if not entirely grammatically perfect. Both are wonderfully friendly and open and asked us to tell everyone interested that guests are always welcome. Honestly, I have never felt more welcome at a temple than I have here and have made promises to myself to return for more hospitality and discourse.

Below are some pictures of Suwangsa. Click on a picture for a larger, more beautiful view.

A 600 year old tree

A 400 year old tree

A guardian on the stone bridge

A tiger also guards the bridge

An army of baby Buddhas sporting tuques. The leaders wear red.

A water god presides over a small fish pod filled with koi

Dragons swirl around the columns

Vivid colors, be it flowers, pillars, building, stone or fish, are everywhere

A mural from one of the walls of the temple showing rice processing

A deity adorns another mural on the temple wall

What no other temple in Korea has - a German Flag next to the Buddhist and Korean flags

Everything but the trim is adorning in brightly colored paintings

Facing the four directions

A lively discussion around coffee, fresh fruit and a friendly dauschund

A group of friends and I  happened to have been on a random motorbike ride around the northern portions of Ulsan when we found Suwangsa. We had reached the peak of a mountain on the northern edge of Daundong and were looking into the valley near Dudong in Ulju-gun. We spotted the “Relics of Park Jesang”, an historical shrine to a hero of an earlier time and decided to head into the valley.Had we not already made plans for our motorbike trip to end on the eastern end of Ulsan later in the day we might have stayed longer to enjoy to the company and beauty of Suwangsa.

Manwha-ri, in northern Ulgu-gun, Ulsan

The temple is not shown on any map.  But to get there, take bus 318 or bus 802 to the Park Jesang relics and walk up the road another 100 meters.

Photos by Dee Madden, Fin Madden and Martin Rehder